Ecclesiology, a study of the Church                                                           by Jack Kettler

This study on ecclesiology is an overview of differing views. Ecclesiology comes from the Greek words ecclesia (church or assembly) and ology (study of) and speaks of the study of the church. In addition, this overview will briefly look at church offices or officers and the types of church government or polity.


Ecclesiology can be defined as:

The study of the Christian church, its structure, order, practices, and hierarchy. **


Church Polity:

Ecclesiastical polity is the operational and governance structure of a church or of a Christian denomination. It also denotes the ministerial structure of a church and the authority relationships between churches. Polity relates closely to ecclesiology, the study of doctrine and theology relating to church organization. ***


Common Church Offices and word origins from Strong’s Concordance:



Strong's Concordance

diakonos: a servant, minister

Original Word: διάκονος, οῦ, ὁ, ἡ
Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine; Noun, Masculine
Transliteration: diakonos
Phonetic Spelling: (dee-ak'-on-os)
Definition: A deacon is one who executes the commands of another. For example, it could be a master, a minister. In addition, a deacon is someone assigned by the church, and cares for the poor and distributes the money collected for them.



Hebrew word for elder:

Strong's Concordance

zaqen: old

Original Word: זָקֵן
Part of Speech: Adjective
Transliteration: zaqen
Phonetic Spelling: (zaw-kane')
Definition: elders

New Testament

Strong's Concordance

presbuteros: elder

Original Word: πρεσβύτερος, α, ον
Part of Speech: Adjective
Transliteration: presbuteros
Phonetic Spelling: (pres-boo'-ter-os)
Definition: The main governing and teaching group in a church in the New Testament; also called pastors, overseers, bishops.


Strong's Concordance

episkopos: a superintendent, an overseer

Original Word: ἐπίσκοπος, ου, ὁ
Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine
Transliteration: episkopos
Phonetic Spelling: (ep-is'-kop-os)

Definition: (used as an official title in civil life), overseer, supervisor, ruler, especially used with reference to the supervising function exercised by an elder or presbyter of a church or congregation.



Strong's Concordance

episkopos: a superintendent, an overseer

Original Word: ἐπίσκοπος, ου, ὁ
Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine
Transliteration: episkopos
Phonetic Spelling: (ep-is'-kop-os)
Definition: (used as an official title in civil life), overseer, supervisor, ruler, especially used with reference to the supervising function exercised by an elder or presbyter of a church or congregation



Strong's Concordance

poimén: a shepherd

Original Word: ποιμήν, ένος, ὁ

Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine

Transliteration: poimén

Phonetic Spelling: (poy-mane')

Definition: a shepherd; hence met: of the feeder, protector, and ruler of a flock of men.


Types of Church governments:

Congregationalist polity, frequently known as congregationalism, is a structure of church authority in which every local church congregation is independent or you could say, ecclesiastically autonomous. Each autonomous congregation would be governed by pastors, elders and deacons. Individual churches are free to join a larger association, but the larger association would have no binding ecclesiastical authority over a participating autonomous member congregation. The following flow chart will be helpful.





Episcopal polity is a hierarchical form of church structure in which the principal local authorities are called bishops. Churches with an episcopal polity are governed by bishops, their authority is seen in the dioceses, conferences or synods. The local church is governed by a rector or parish priest. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, there are patriarchs and cardinals that are above the local bishops and priests. The next chart will illustrate the model.





Presbyterian (or presbyteral) polity is a method of church structure characterized by the rule of presbyters, or elders. Each local church is governed by a body of elected elders usually called the session or consistory. In Presbyterian polity there is a distinction between teaching elders (pastors) and ruling elders. In addition, in Presbyterian polity there are three church courts for settling theological disputes. They are the Local Church, the Presbytery (regional church) and the General Assembly (national church). The next chart will be useful in visualizing this.



Hierarchical polity: Some groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons describe their polity as hierarchical. In practice, such church polities are comparable to an episcopal polity, but often have a much more complex system of authority. They usually have titles like president or overseer and have less opportunity to question the authorities.


Old Testament verses that deal with rule by elders:


“Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt.” (Exodus 3:16)


“And the LORD said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee.” (Numbers 11:16)


“Then the elders of the congregation said, how shall we do for wives for them that remain, seeing the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?” (Judges 21:16)


“Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land, and said, Mark, I pray you, and see how this man seeketh mischief: for he sent unto me for my wives, and for my children, and for my silver, and for my gold; and I denied him not.” (1 Kings 20:7)


“Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.” (Proverbs 31:23)


The Pulpit Commentary on Numbers 11:16:


Verse 16. - And the Lord said unto Moses. The Divine dignity and goodness of this answer, if not an absolutely conclusive testimony, are at least a very strong one, to the genuineness of this record. Of what god, except the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was it ever witnessed, or could it have been ever imagined, that he should answer the passionate injustice of his servant with such forbearance and kindness? The one thing in Moses' prayer which was reasonable he allowed at once; the rest he passed over without answer or reproof, as though it had never been uttered. Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel. That the number seventy has a symbolic significance in Scripture will hardly be denied (cf. Exodus 1:5; Daniel 9:2, 24; Luke 10:1), although it is probably futile to affix any precise meaning to it. Perhaps the leading idea of seventy is fullness, as that of twelve is symmetry (see on Exodus 15:27). The later Jews believed that there were seventy nations in the world. There is no reason, except a reckless desire to confound the sacred narrative, to identify this appointment with that narrated in Exodus 18:21, sq. and Deuteronomy 1:9, sq. The circumstances and the purposes appear quite distinct: those were appointed to assist Moses in purely secular matters, to share his burden as a judge; these to assist him in religious matters, to support him as a mediator; those used the ordinary gifts of wisdom, discretion, and personal authority; these the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. It is more reasonable to suppose that these seventy were the same men that went up into Mount Sinai with Moses, and saw the God of Israel, and ate of the consecrated meal of the covenant, about a year before. Unless there was some decisive reason against it, an elder who had been chosen for that high religious privilege could hardly fail to be chosen on this occasion also; an interview with God himself, so mysteriously and awfully significant, must surely have left an ineffaceable stamp of sanctity on any soul at all worthy of it. It would be natural to suppose that while the present selection was made de novo, the individuals selected were personally the same. Compare note on chapter Numbers 1:5, and for “the elders of Israel” see on Exodus 3:16. Whom thou knowest to be elders of the people, and officers over them. On the officers (Hebrew, shoterim), an ancient order in the national organization of Israel, continued from the days of bondage, see Exodus 5:6. The Targ. Pal. paraphrases the word shoterim by "who were set over them in Mizraim." The Septuagint has here πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ γρυμματεῖς αὐτῶν, words so familiar to the reader of the Greek Gospels. The later Jews traced back their Sanhedrim, or grand council of seventy, to this appointment, and found their eiders and scribes in this verse. There was, however, no further historical connection between the two bodies than this - that when the monarchy failed and prophecy died out, the ecclesiastical leaders of the Jews modeled their institutions upon, and adapted their titles to, this Divinely-ordered original. (1)


New Testament verses that deal with rule by elders:

“And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.” (Acts 21:18)


“For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre.” (Titus 1:7)


“Therefore, an elder must be blameless, the husband of one wife, stable, sensible, respectable, hospitable to strangers, and teachable.” (1 Timothy 3:2, NIV)


“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:” (1 Peter 5:1)


“And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.” (Revelation 4:4)


Calvin on 1 Peter 5:1:


1. The elders by this name he designates pastors and all those who are appointed for the government of the Church. But they called them presbyters or elders for honor's sake, not because they were all old in age, but because they were principally chosen from the aged, for old age for the most part has more prudence, gravity, and experience. But as sometimes hoariness is not wisdom, according to a Greek proverb, and as young men are found more fit, such as Timothy, these were also usually called presbyters, after having been chosen into that order. Since Peter calls himself in like manner a presbyter, it appears that it was a common name, which is still more evident from many other passages. Moreover, by this title he secured for himself more authority, as though he had said that he had a right to admonish pastors, because he was one of themselves, for there ought to be mutual liberty between colleagues. But if he had the right of primacy he would have claimed it; and this would have been most suitable on the present occasion. But though he was an Apostle, he yet knew that authority was by no means delegated to him over his colleagues, but that on the contrary he was joined with the rest in the participation of the same office. (2)


The following article on Church Government will be supportive in understanding various distinctives in ecclesiology.


Church Government Briefly Considered Greg L. Bahnsen:


An Inescapable Issue


Questions about how the church ought to be governed are not hot topics of conversation in American Christianity. You don’t hear much about the subject or read of it in the latest religious magazines. Positions which people take on the issues which are in vogue, however, are often strongly influenced by their view of church government (whether they know it or not).


Everyone has some notion about how the church should be governed—about who should make decisions, what procedures should be followed, the kind of authority that characterizes those decisions or procedures, etc. Just suggest that things be done your way in the church, and you will find out soon enough that others have their own ideas too!


Who determines how the church’s contributions should be spent? When should we have a church dinner? Who should preach next Sunday? What should be expected in his (her?) preaching? How does the church pursue reconciliation between offended brothers? How are disputes between disagreeing parties resolved? Who should administer baptism? When? How? Who in particular makes sure the sick are visited or the needs of the elderly are met? Is there any voting involved in answering these questions? Who qualifies to vote on them? Practical questions like these and others cannot be avoided.

An Important Issue


You will hear people say, without much reflection, that the government of the church is a relatively trivial matter, not something over which loving Christians should worry or argue. But then on the other hand, if you take a hard look around you at what actually happens in various churches, you will notice that the most prevalent reason why people get upset and leave a congregation is not really because of doctrinal differences, but is tied in one fashion or another to the way that congregation was governed or disciplined (or not disciplined). People get fed up, disputes are not peacefully resolved, regular oversight and counseling are not pursued, congregations argue and divide—all because the biblical blueprint for government and discipline has been ignored.


Because many churches have not heeded the Scriptures with respect to government and discipline, the history of the Christian church reveals abuses and disappointments in the administration of church affairs— from despotic unity to democratic chaos.


The question of how the church should be governed, then, is indeed important, whether ignored by modern believers or not. Today’s indifference to issues of church government is at odds with the attitudes of the New Testament church. Just read its early history (Acts) and its correspondence (epistles). During the early history of the church, for example, Luke found it relevant to relate that the money contributed to the church was under the control of its overseers (Acts 4:35). Later in Acts 15, Luke records a significant account of how the early church resolved a doctrinal dispute by convening a general assembly of its elders—and then authoritatively publishing their decision for the whole church (vv. 22-29).


The author of Hebrews made an explicit point of exhorting believers to submit to the authority of their leaders as those who watch for their souls (13:17). Christ in Revelation 2:2 commended the Ephesian church for disciplining the congregation. John wrote that all churches should do likewise (2 John 10-11), especially with respect to false teaching.


If the church is to emulate the New Testament pattern, Christians simply cannot deny or ignore the importance of oversight in the life, activities, and affairs of the church.


Who, then, should have this oversight and leadership? Any biblical answer must begin by stating that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, its Lord and Savior (Eph. 1:22-24; 5:23-24: Col. 1:18). Ultimately, He is the one who governs and disciplines His church. All other authority in the church is delegated from Him and is, for that very reason, not to be ignored.


How does Christ direct and govern His church? After all, He is not bodily present to make decisions and give audible guidance. Moreover, special divine revelation is not provided every time we wish to visit the sick, resolve a dispute, determine questions of doctrine or buy a light bulb for the church office.


Three Patterns of Church Government

How does Jesus Christ, the supreme authority in the church, govern the day-to-day details of His body? Through the history of the church we have seen the development and constant reappearance of three basic patterns of church government: episcopalianism, congregationalism, and presbyterianism.

  1. Episcopalianism (or “prelacy”) is the rule of the church by monarchial bishops. That is, one man may govern those under him (whether members or other elders), and he need not be chosen by the people to be their leader, but can be appointed by a higher agency. Authority thus rests in the one human priest at the top (a pope or archbishop), is then communicated to his subordinates, and extends from there over all of the congregations.
  2. Congregationalism (or better: “independency”) is the rule of the church by every member and the independence of every congregation from all others. Authority now rests with the many at the bottom. Technically speaking, for any given decision which the church may make, every member within the congregation has the same authority as every other; ruling boards are simply an administrative convenience (whose decisions can by overthrown by the congregation as a whole). Moreover, no individual congregation is subject to external jurisdiction; associations of churches are voluntary and have no independent power over the internal affairs of their member churches.
  3. Presbyterianism is the rule of the church by multiple, elected elders—not the dictates of one man, nor those of the whole congregation. These elders must be chosen by the people from among themselves (men to whom they are willing to vow submission), but also examined and confirmed by the present governing board of elders in the congregation or regional body of elders (the presbytery).

All congregations are connected with each other under the jurisdiction of the presbytery, and all presbyteries are connected under the jurisdiction of the “general assembly” of elders from the entire church—thus allowing a system of graded courts for the purposes of appeal and redress of errors made in subordinate ruling bodies.

The Biblical Pattern

Christ directs his church through the Scriptures, His own self-revelation and authoritative guidance. Let me offer here a brief summary of the biblical material which I believe is relevant to determining how Christ would have His church governed. The Bible is not silent on this matter.

  1. There is no distinction between “elders” and “bishops” (Titus 1:5-7; Acts 20:17, 28); these represent the same office and order.
  2. Each congregation and center of leadership is to have a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1), not one-man rule.
  3. These elders have oversight of the church (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:2-3) and are thus responsible to rule the congregation (I Tim. 3:5; 5:17; I Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). They judge among the brothers (cf. I Cor. 6:5) and, in contrast to all the members, they do the rebuking (I Tim. 5:20). Christ calls them to use the “keys of the kingdom” to bind and loose (Matt.16: 19; 18: 18; John 20: 23)—these keys being the preaching of the gospel (I John I: 3), administering of the sacraments (Matt. 28:19-20; I Cor. 11: 23ff.), and the exercise of discipline (Matt. 18:17; I Cor. 5:1-5).
  4. The elders are assisted in their ministry by “deacons” who give attention to the ministry of mercy (Phil. 1:1; Acts 6:1-6; cf. I Tim. 3:8-13).
  5. The office-bearers in the church are nominated and elected by the members of the congregation (e.g. Acts 6:5-6), but must also be examined, confirmed and ordained by the present board of elders (Acts 6:6; 13: 1-3; I Tim. 4: 14).
  6. Members of the church have the right to appeal disputed matters in the congregation to their elders for resolution, and if the dispute is with those local elders, to appeal to the regional governing body (the presbytery) or beyond that, to the whole general assembly (Acts 15). The decisions of the wider governing bodies are authoritative in all the local congregations (Acts 15:22-23, 28, 30; 16:1-5).

In my opinion, the spectacular mega-churches of our day are rarely governed in the way mentioned in point 3 above. Points 1 and 2 do not comport with the practice of those churches with episcopalian patterns of rule (Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.). Points 5 and 6 are neglected by independent congregations (Baptists, Fundamentalist Bible churches, etc.). It is in the essentials of presbyterian government, found today in various Reformed churches that we find the above biblical points coming to their best expression. (3)

Dr. Bahnsen, before his death was scholar in residence at the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, is a member of the pastoral staff of Bayview Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Chula Vista, California. This article originally appeared in Antithesis, which has ceased publication.


In closing:


In addition to Dr. Bahnsen’s observations in his above article and in particular his section, “The Biblical Pattern,” and after looking at the above entries from the Strong’s Concordance, the reader will have noticed the same thing, i.e., the almost synonymous connection between elder and bishop. It can be said that the terms elder, bishop and pastor are commonly used interchangeably in the New Testament. And as the Apostle Peter said:


“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:” (1 Peter 5:1)


Although being as Apostle of Christ, Peter did not elevate himself above his fellow elders.


Also, below are links to the most excellent studies on the Biblical Qualifications for Elders and Deacons by Archibald Alexander Allison.

The goal of this study is to help us magnify the Lord God for his marvelous grace that made us children of God through no merit of our own. It is my prayer that this goal has been attained. 


“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)



1.      H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Numbers, Vol.2., (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 109.

2.      Greg Bahnsen, Church Government Briefly Considered, Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 1 (January 1995)

3.      John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries, Volume XXII, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House Reprinted 1979), p. 143- 144.

“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)


Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at:

For more study:


* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes:


** CARM theological dictionary


*** Church Polity:


Biblical Qualifications for Elders by Archibald Alexander Allison:


Biblical Qualifications for Deacons by Archibald Alexander Allison, Part one:


Part two


Part three