A Survey of Apostolic Church Government

By Robert I Holmes

There are many and varied opinions around today as to what form modern apostolic government should take. In the past century some men have had deferred on them the title of apostle, among them are William Carey "apostle to India", and Smith Wigglesworth, "apostle of faith". Others have worked hard to implement apostolic leadership under various theories and models.

Wyn Lewis, director of Elim Church Home Mission in the UK for example, believes that every local fellowship should have an apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher and evangelist. Arthur Wallis argued in 1972 for the restoration of 'covering apostolic leadership' in geographic regions. Bryn Jones, John Noble and others
formed an 'apostolic team' which came to be known as the 'magnificent seven' (Scotland). The roots of their leadership style may well have been fashioned after the Welsh Apostolic Church in Penygroes, who sought to set up 'apostles and prophets' working together to found churches. Other groups in America in the late 70's (most notably the 'Fort Lauderdale Five') including Derek Prince and Bob Mumford taught a pyramid sheparding style of leadership which very closely resembles Bryn Jones's model in all but titles.

Over the intervening decades there has been little progress made toward a truly Biblical apostolic leadership structure. With the excesses of the shepherding movement in the early eighties, and the split of many new groups from their original settings and structures we saw fragmentation in leadership styles. The greatest difficulty seems to have been maintaining balance between new structures, including apostolic leadership, and the rich heritage of teaching we already have. As one church leader put it, "the challenge before us, is to hold onto the vital truths or the proven 'ancient paths' of our orthodox heritage, while simultaneously reaching out to embrace 'present truths' given by the Holy Spirit which will lead us down the road of God's purposes in our generation" (Mira).

More recently, prophetic groups around the globe have hailed the coming day that God will restore to the church the office of apostle to it's biblical glory days. Some have even hailed 1996 as the year God would release the apostle on the earth (indicating a completion of the establishment period of the prophetic
movement). One recognised prophetic minister has even said "this year we will not say that the apostles are coming, for they have already come" (Cain).


Traditionally, there have been three main models of church government. Episcopal: with presiding bishop/ archbishop councils, Presbyterial: with oversight and authority in the hands of the elders, and Congregational: with the leadership in the democratic voting hands of the church members. To these basic
forms we are seeing a growing trend toward 'rule by the apostles'. Although what is meant by this differs from group to group (Scotland).

One of the main reasons for the diversity in modern church government is the fact that the Bible does not offer a single, definitive structure or model for church government. Among the things it does cover are: the offices of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher; the role of bishops and deacons; and the role of elders. It also offers a set of criteria by which we can measure leaders qualifications and character. We might also look to early church history for examples of church government, but these should not be taken as ideals.


One must be clear then, what is meant by the term 'apostle' when used outside the New Testament Canon. Clearly modern day apostles could not have the authority to write Scripture (Rev 22:18). The list of credentials to be apostles of Christ were: to have seen Jesus the Risen Lord (Acts 1:22), and to have been personally appointed by Him (Acts 9:5-6).

They were judges and rulers of God's people (Mt 19:28, Lk 22:29-30), layed the foundation of the heavenly city (Rev 21:14), wrote most of the New Testament Scripture. Yet not all of them wrote Scripture. We must think of Christ' s Apostles as the NT replacement for the OT prophet in terms of Scripture writing. Just as there were two kinds of OT prophet- ones who wrote Scripture (Micah, Haggai, Isaiah) and others who did not (Elijah, Elisah, their companies of prophets, Nathan and most of David's seers). Similarly there are two kinds of NT apostle, ones who wrote Scripture (Paul, James, John and others) and ones who did not (Timothy, Silas, Junias, Bartholemew and Judas Iscariot). Note also the presence of many non-Scripture writing prophets mentioned in the NT. There were prophets at Antioch. (Acts 13:1), a city to which prophets of Jerusalem came down, delivering a message of coming famine. (Acts 11:27) including Agabus.

So what of the NT apostle? Paul alludes to the continuance of the office after the Lord had risen saying, "He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers" (Eph 4:10,11).

Since the Canon is closed, and such people as Paul is refering to can not write Scripture. So the office of apostle in the NT must be more broadly defined. The grammar of the NT allows for a broader category of apostles, who may have neither written Scripture, nor even lived with Christ. Apostle (Gk: Apostolos)
means "someone who is sent" or "messenger". In Hellenistic times, this word was infrequently used to refer to military envoys, naval vessels and expeditions. The Lord may have coined this title to more broadly mean those He sent out in His name, as His envoys. I am not sure what measure you are using to judge your six so called apostles. By my reading, Paul probably took apostle simlply to mean those "sent out" one.


The apostles of the NT, taught from place to place establishing churches, played an important role among the elders, thereby laying the local foundations (Acts 15:13,19/ Acts 8:14/ 2 Cor 11:28). Paul applied this term to mean those who lay the foundation of churches with the prophets (Eph 2:20) and there is no other
foundation (or type of concrete) to lay that Christ (1 Cor 3:11). The original apostles of Christ did indeed lay down the unchanging Canon of Scripture, but Paul also alluded to a more localised founding ministry "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation." (Rom 15:20). He wanted to lay the foundation of Christ in a place, teaching the Scripture clearly.

This is the role of modern apostles. They lay the foundation of churches, in accordance with that already established in Scripture by Paul and the others (2 Thess 3:6). They labour as he did to found the right precepts in the church: "For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it." (1 Cor 3:10).


At this point it might well be worth asking, what happens in an 'apostolic church' to the current leadership structure? What happens to pastors, deacons (or arch deacons), bishops (or arch bishops) and to elders?

Pastor/ Teachers
Very briefly, the position of pastor/ teacher is outlined by Paul to be among the team of leaders in the church. They would work along side the apostles, prophets and evangelists "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." (Eph 4:12,13).

But over the intervening years since Paul wrote this, the 'office' of pastor has gravitated toward the centre of power in the local church. The average pastor seems to have taken on a job description encompassing almost all aspects of ministry, growing well beyond the proportions of New Testament ministry focus. It would seem a more appropriate system for churches (steered by pastors and elders) to seek a relationship with some senior, competent, tested minister who can care for and pastor the local church leadership. These men and women would play apostolic roles in covering churches and leaders under thier care.

Biblically, the word deacon, (Gk: Diakonos) means minister or servant. In Hellenistic times it meant table waiter, or man servant. The seven mentioned in Acts 6:2,3 were deacons in this manner. Paul refers to himself as a deacon of the gospel (Col 1:7, 23,25). Jesus used it of royal servants (Mt 22:13) and said of Himself "I came not to be served but to serve" (Lk 22:27).

Being a deacon is described as a gift, to be exercised like generosity or prophecy as distinguished from leadership or government: "If it be serving (diakonea) let him serve; if it is teaching let him teach....if it is leadership, let him govern diligently" (Rom 12:7). We must conclude that whatever we see today, or indeed in early church history, there was no office of deacon in the New testament church- except that implied by serving, it was and should now be seen as a ministry, under the guidance and headship of local church leaders in the Body.

The word translated bishop, (Gk: Episkopoi) meant overseer in a general and non-technical sense in the NT. In Hellenistic times it could be taken to mean magistrate, temple revenue administrator, philosopher, taskmaster or officer of the Roman state. This title was given to the leaders of a local congregation (Phil 1:1), to the apostles (Acts 1:20), and to Christ (1 Pet 2:25). The term bishop and the title presbyter seem synonymous (Acts 20:17, 28).

Some of the people in the NT labelled 'bishops' were elders in the church (by reference of 1 Pet 5:2, Tit 1:5). Christ and the apostles called themselves at times by these titles, though to say you were a bishop or deacon could not be taken conversely to mean you were an apostle. For example Peter calls himself a
"fellow elder" in 1 Peter 5:1, yet a council of elders was prevalent in Jerusalem, among whom were many who were not apostles of Christ (Acts 25: 12ff). There is no trace of a ruling class of bishops, nor indeed of government by a single bishop (or arch bishop or pope). Thus in the apostolic church, the position of bishop would only be that of overseer, or guardian rather than governmental overlord or legal head of the church.

Elders and councils
The term translated council, (Gk: symboulion, synedrion) could be used to indicate two main types of council in the New Testament: a council of the people (Mt 12:14); and a council of elders (Act 25:12). Church councils were formed in Phillipi (Phil 1:1), Thesselonica (1 Thess 5:12) and Jerusalem. The council
of Jerusalem resolved some of the most vexing issues facing Christianity at the time, the evangelisation of the Gentiles, the requirements of the Lord's supper and ruling on food offered to idols. There is no evidence that such a council existed in every church, or every city of the New Testament or even afterward, but we do know that Paul and Barnabus appointed elders for every church they established (Acts 14:23).


We see in the New Testament church and early church historysome evidence for the five fold leadership among the church government. There is some indication that apostles were part of the local church in at least four cities, having oversight in the church:

The leaders (presumably elders and deacons) at Antioch had among their number, prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1). It was to this group that the prophets from Jerusalem came to deliver the message of famine (Acts 11:27). Ignatious later became bishop in this city. In his own writings Ignatious shows that he thought
of himself as a prophet, though letters addressed to him referred to him as the apostle of the church.

Paul summoned the elders of Ephesus from Miletus (Acts 20:17). To these he declared his perception of the offices, that some were to be "apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers" (Eph 4:4,7,11-13). Apologist and teacher, Justin Martyr wrote several books in Ephesus, until his martyrdom in Rome in 165AD. Justin was refered to by some as a man of apostolic oversight in Ephesus (Eusebius).

Other areas
We also know, from the New Testament, that among the church leaders in Jerusalem there were apostles (Acts 15:1-6). Judea had apostles (Acts 11:1), and Phillip the evangelist (who was one of the apostles) dwelt in Caesarea, and no doubt took some leading role in church government as it was he who Paul stayed with (Acts 21:8).

From a historical perspective, the evidence for the office of an apostle after the second century AD is fragmentary and sketchy. Hermas referred to seventy two apostles (presumably the same seventy two Christ sent out). Catholic church history indicates that the apostles appointed bishops as their successors. Eusebius comments that, "among the shining lights of this period [ca 70-117AD] was Quadratus [bishop of Athens], who according to written evidence was, like Phillip's daughters, eminent of the prophetic gift. Apart from him, many others were well known at that time, belonging to the first stage of apostolic succession... very many of the disciples of the time, their hearts smitten by the word of God carried out the work of evangelists, ambitious to preach to those who had never heard our message of faith..." He goes on to say,
"Some others went forth in apostolic power... staying only to lay the foundations of faith in one foreign place or another, appointing elders and pastors, and entrusting to them the tending of those newly brought
in...even at this time, many miraculous powers of the divine Spirit worked through them".


As we look forward to God restoring apostolic government to the church, we would do well to learn from the New Testament and early church history, as well as some of the excesses of recent decades. The structures prevalent in today's churches, by and large, bear no resemblance to the NT pattern of church
government, especially dominated by pastor/ teachers. But church leadership is of critical importance, and deacons, overseers, presbytry, pastors, evangelists, prophets and elders all have a part to play. We would also do well to remember that Christ is the Head of His Body. He is the Senior Pastor. He is the Head
Apostle, He is the most learned Rabbi, and the over Shepperd. It is His rule in His church, and we are all servants of Him!

Greg Mira, Grace Ministries Report, Summer 1993
Eusebius, The History of the Church, pg 127.
Wayne Grudem, The gift of prophecy, Ch 4 & App A.
Paul Cain, Morning Star Prophetic Bulletin, January 1996. pg 4.
The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, IVP, Volume 1, pg 78/80/199/200/286/287/369/370.
Nigel Scotland, Charismatics and the next Millenium, Chapter 4
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