Church Governance in the Message

    From BelieveTheSign
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    William Branham had unique views and teaching on proper church structure and governance. This article will examine whether his views were scriptural.

    Related articles: Offices in the church, Are Christians required to tithe? and Financial accountability

    What did William Branham teach about church governance?

    William Branham believed and taught that:

    1. The local church was sovereign
    2. The elder was the highest office in the church
    3. When the New Testament refers to elders it is really referring to pastors
    4. The people should vote for the pastor
    5. All of the tithes goes to the pastor

    While William Branham's views on church governance were not entirely unscriptural, much of what he taught cannot be found in scripture and has created significant opportunities for the abuse of power and financial abuse within message churches.

    Biblical teaching on church governance

    While there is no precise biblical manual on church government, a survey and analysis of the biblical material reveals definite patterns and discernable guidelines on how the churches in the New Testament functioned. Here are a few things we can understand from scripture:

    1. Voting for elders/deacons is acceptable. The apostles had the church in Jerusalem elect people to serve the widows (Acts 6:3),
    2. There were two and only two offices within each congregation: pastors (elders or bishops) and deacons (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–13). The Scriptures never specify the required or precise number of either. There is no biblical office of trustee.
    3. Based on Matt. 18:15–17 the final court of appeal in the exercise of church discipline is the church and each member of the church is to abide by the corporate judgment. The assembly of those individual believers that comprise the local church has the final word on such matters.
    4. Senior leadership in the church should be comprised of a group of "elders" and not a sole pastor (see discussion below).

    In Acts 14:27, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch following the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1–14:28) and "when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done”. Their report was evidently not to the leadership only but to the entire congregation.

    Acts 15 records the crucial meeting of the Jerusalem conference that convened to determine the status of Gentiles in the church and issues related to salvation and the keeping of the Law. Important things to note:

    1. it was the local church at Antioch that sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Acts 15:2–3) and it was the local church at Jerusalem that received them along with the apostles and elders (Acts 15:4).
    2. the decision by the church at Antioch that sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders about the “Gentile question” arose from that church’s voluntary initiative. This important problem started from the bottom and moved up. It was not a top-down decision.
    3. though the apostles and elders appropriately convened and led the discussion, “all the multitude … listened” to the debate (Acts 15:12).
    4. verse 22 points out that “it pleased the apostles, and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company” to deliver Paul and Barnabas with the decision reached by the conference at Jerusalem.
    5. the letter that was sent came from “the apostles, the elders, and the brethren,” and it was directed to “the brethren” (the church as a whole) at Antioch (Acts 15:23).
    6. it was the church as a whole that received the letter (Acts 15:30) and rejoiced over its content (Acts 15:31). In all that took place congregational involvement and action was present at every turn.

    In 1 Corinthians 5, we read about a case of sexual immorality which had gone unchecked, and Paul was scandalized by the lax behavior and indifferent attitude of the church at Corinth. Paul addressed not the elders, but the congregation as a whole. In particular, he stated that appropriate discipline was to be exercised “when you are gathered together” (v. 4). The issue of church discipline is a matter to be handled by the entire congregation, not just those in leadership. Paul is upset with the whole church — not just the leaders — that they haven’t already taken action and had been tolerating such sin. Paul calls for nothing less than a “community action, carried out in the context of the Spirit. The whole community must carry out the action because the ‘leaven’ has affected them as a community.

    The Didache, a document from as early as the first century that discussed church governance, includes only two offices that are acknowledged for election: bishops and deacons. There is no third office. Second, it is the responsibility of the congregation to elect their officers. The congregation is to honor those who meet the scriptural qualifications for spiritual leadership. The congregation has a voice in who leads them, but once these leaders are chosen, the members of the congregation are obligated to honor and follow them unless they (the leadership) are disqualified through immoral, unethical, or unscriptural behavior.[1]

    Biblical teaching on the office of the elder/pastor

    The Bible teaches that the ministry of the Word, the exhortation of the saints, the maintenance of godly discipline, the refutation of false teaching — all these vital aspects of the life of the church are to be undertaken by a body of elders. Two primary Greek terms underlie the various English terms used to describe the elder, overseer, or bishop: presbuteros and episkopos. The term translated “pastor” or “shepherd” is poimen. As a result, the careful reading of the text reveals that two offices or positions exist in the New Testament church: the elder and the deacon. The elder may be referred to as an overseer or bishop as well.[2]

    When Luke describes the establishment of local churches by Paul, he is clear that there was not a single pastor/elder in each church:

    After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.[3]

    One of the vital aspects of Paul's ministry was to appoint elders in every church. So important was this that we discover it remained a central part of the apostolic mission until the very end: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 NASB).

    Both passages use the plural form, elders. This is not to be understood merely in the sense of one elder per church. Both passages contradict this. Acts 14:23 says “elders for them in every church,” and Titus 1:5 has “elders in every city.” In each instance we have a plural number of elders in a singular location or context. This is the apostolic pattern: plural elders in each church. This is part of the “setting in order” of the church.

    If it is suggested that the elder is something other than the highest office in the local church (such as one who would say a singular pastor would stand over a board of elders, the pastoral position being “other than” one of the elders, or that a “bishop” is something other than a “presbyter” or “elder” in office), we are left with no record of the apostolic establishment of these offices as part of their organization and equipping of the church! It should strike us as strange that entire offices of the church could be established without even so much as a notice in the inspired record.

    We must remember that Paul instructed Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). There is little reason to question, in light of Paul’s listing the ability to teach as one of the qualifications of the elder (1 Tim. 3:2), that Paul has elders in mind when exhorting Timothy to entrust the things he had heard from Paul to “faithful men.”

    One of the most compelling biblical examples of the plurality of elders is found in Acts 20:17: “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church”.

    When Paul wishes to meet with the leaders of the church, he does not call for a single pastor, but for the elders (plural) of the church. This means the church at Ephesus was identifiable, and so was the body of elders. The very same truth is found in Paul’s greeting to the church at Philippi: “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Here both the overseers (plural) and deacons are noted. Both of these churches were founded by Paul, and both had functioning elderships from the beginning. The elders of the church at Ephesus responded to Paul’s call, and in his farewell address to them, he refers to them as overseers (episkopoi) and shepherds of the flock of God:

    Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.[4]

    In speaking to these men, Paul makes direct reference to the source of their eldership: “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” The office of overseer/elder is divine in its origination and authority. The word “overseers” is in the plural, showing that all the elders were overseers and, through the use of the term flock, and the verb to shepherd, he relates the pastoral concept as well.

    In Tim 3:1-7, we see that the elder is a teacher, for one of the listed qualifications is the ability to teach . The elders are in charge of “taking care of the church of God.” The text does not say “assisting the pastor in taking care of the church of God.” The reason the elder must be in charge of his own household is that he is the head of that household. In the same way the elders lead the local church.

    In Titus 1:5-9, the elder/overseer is seen as “God’s steward,” one entrusted with a sacred task and office.

    Peter tells us in 1 Pet. 5:1–4:

    Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading ccrown of glory.

    it is far more consistent to see this as another reference to the plurality of elders within the local congregation, and the text bears this out. Peter exhorts the elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you.” One must have knowledge of the identity of the sheep to shepherd them properly, of course, and this only takes place within the context of the local assembly. The command “to shepherd” points us to the fact that elders are pastors. Though elders may take more or less openly “pastoral” roles, the fact that they provide leadership, direction, teaching, and example is part and parcel of what it means to lead or pastor the flock.

    Further, Peter speaks to the manner of their exercise of oversight, and we have found no evidence of a role for elders to exercise oversight over anything other than the local assembly. Peter speaks of “those allotted to your charge,” which limits the scope of the ministry of the elder. He commands elders to be an example to the flock, which requires observation of one’s life and character. All of these considerations fit perfectly within the model of the independent, elder-led local church.

    What of the phrase “pastors and teachers” at Ephesians 4:11? Instead of two separate and distinct concepts, the use of the article in the Greek suggests a composite whole, “pastors/teachers.” It is impossible to pastor the sheep without teaching, both overtly and by example, just as it is impossible to teach God’s truth aright without application and exhortation. We have already seen that teaching and exhortation in sound doctrine are the requisite abilities of the elder.

    Further testimony to the plurality of elders is found in James 5:14: “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”. It required no explanation on James’s part to speak of the elders (plural) of the church (singular). The sick did not have to wonder who these elders were or “which church” they would be contacting.

    The same kind of situation is found in the exhortation to the Hebrews: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). Again, the local churches, with a body of discernable elders, is clearly in view. The elders are the leaders, and believers are exhorted to submit to them. Keeping watch over their souls is directly parallel to the duties already enunciated by Paul and Peter in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5. Their responsibility as leaders to whom believers submit is clearly seen in the fact that they will give an account for the souls entrusted to them. Believers are given a duty to make the ministry of those leaders a joyous one, not a grievous one. Obviously, all of this assumes discernible leaders, a discernible fellowship that involves interaction and discipleship, etc.

    All of these passages collectively make clear that the church as founded by the apostles expressed itself in local assemblies that included the offices of elder/overseer and deacon. These offices are established by the apostles for the equipping of the body, and no other office is provided with lists of qualifications for its continuation in the church over the generations. It is natural and easy for the New Testament authors to refer to elders (plural) in the church (singular), and the readers of those documents evidently needed no extended explanation to understand since this was the form in which the apostles founded the local churches.

    Are all elders equal? Well, with reference to eldership, it would seem so. This is not to say, however, that there are no distinctions as to ministry and gifts. Each is, if truly called of God to the work, an elder by the will and direction of the Holy Spirit of God. A small fellowship, for example, may only be able to support a single man in full-time ministry. As a result, you may have one man who does the majority of the preaching, though accompanied in his work by elders who maintain secular employment, yet stand together with the fully supported elder as a unified group of elders. In such a situation it is natural for the one man to have a more public “face” than the other elders, not because he is a different kind of elder but merely in how his gifts are exercised in the fellowship.

    A plurality of elders provides a check against the “one man against the world” syndrome that has been seen so often in church history. Mutual submission within the eldership and respect for one’s fellow elders are wonderful antidotes to the “one man show” problem that almost everyone has seen in the church if they have ministered for any time at all. God did not gift any one man with all the gifts necessary to minister to the flock. It is wise in the extreme to recognize the plurality of elders as a gift from God whereby the full spectrum of needs of the flock can be met properly.

    The biblical evidence of the existence of a plurality of elders is undeniable.[5] As such, William Branham's teaching that each church has a single pastor is not in keeping with the witness of scripture.

    Quotes of William Branham

    The pastor is the head of the church:

    ...the pastor is the highest order in the Church. The elder is the highest thing in the apostolic Church, outside of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings His Message straight to the elder, and the elder gives It to the people.[6]

    ...And anything wrong in the church, God will make you answer for it. That’s right. That’s the way He runs His church. That’s the way it is in the Bible. That’s the order of the Bible. That’s the sovereignty of the local church. The pastor is the head. That’s right. Amen.[7]

    The local church is sovereign:

    It’s official, as long as the church. In our church, it’s the sovereignty of the church. The church moves, or puts in the trustee, the church moves the pastor, or puts in the pastor. Whatever it is, it is the church in all. That’s apostolic. That’s the way it was did in the Bible time. Therefore, we feel that no one person, then, is a dictator or something in the church. We don’t want that. Every man, every person, myself, in voting in anyone, and just got one vote, just like any other person of the church here, just one vote. Isn’t what I say; it’s what the church says, see, what the church says in the body. You like that? [Congregation says, “Amen.”—Ed.] Oh, I think that’s just Scriptural. That’s the way it should be.[8]
    You all voted a hundred percent on it, so we’ve held right to that, see. The church is sovereign. What the church says, that’s what. Trustees or nobody else…The trustees is just, each one, a vote. The pastor is just one vote. It’s the church, that it’s—it’s the democracy of the church, the sovereignty of the church. The church, in whole, speaks. That’s all. And we like that, because we have no bishops or hierarchies or overseers or so forth to tell us this, that, or the other. It’s the Holy Spirit in the church, does the speaking. I like that rule, and it’s very fine.[9]

    Tithes goes to the pastor:

    Well now, here—here’s a touchy little thing for the church now. No, correctly tithes is to go to the minister. That’s right! In the Bible they had a box they’d set at the door in the Old Testament when the—building. This box was a fund where the people put in there for the repairing…You’ve read it many times in the Old Testament. They kept up the buildings and things like that… All the repairs on the building was taken care out of that fund. But a tenth of that went—a tenth of the tithings—all the tithings went to their priests, their pastors. Yes, tithings are to go for nothing else.[10]
    Related articles: Are Christians required to tithe? and Financial accountability


    1. Daniel Akin et al., Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004), 26-39.
    2. Daniel Akin et al., Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004), 270.
    3. New American Standard Bible, 1995 Edition: Paragraph Version (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ac 14:21–23.
    4. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ac 20:28.
    5. Daniel Akin et al., Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004), 271–284.
    6. William Branham, 58-1007 - Church Order, para. 60
    7. William Branham, 57-0922E - Hebrews, Chapter Seven #2, para. 292
    8. William Branham, 59-1227E - A Super Sense, para. 6
    9. William Branham, 62-1007 - The Key To The Door, para. 8
    10. William Branham, 61-1015M - Questions And Answers, para. 176