How the Local Church Is Ruled

Rev. Jack J. Peterson

The Church of Jesus Christ is a unique institution. It is the most precious thing in the world in God’s sight—he gave his own Son to buy it for himself. What greater price was ever paid for anything? And if God thinks that way about his church, then surely that church should be most precious to us! It should be central in our lives and in our activities, for the church cannot be separated from Christ.

One of the great marvels of God’s administration in his church, is that he commits to men the rule of his church! He has chosen to run his church by manpower. God has equipped certain men in special ways so that they may rule his church in accordance with his will. And this is marvelous, and a mystery. Those men whom he has chosen to rule in his church are called elders in the New Testament.

God has given us in his Word the outline of how he wants his church ruled—a form of government for the church of Christ. And it is important. The church is not an anarchy—there must be government—there must be proper ways of carrying on the work of the church. And the way that the New Testament, and the Old as well, outlines for us is what we today call the presbyterian form of government. We shall be concerned primarily with this government as it applies to the local church, rather than as it is seen in the presbytery or the general assembly.

Rule by Elders

The word presbyterian is related to the Greek word presbuteros, which means elder—and therefore the presbyterian form of church government is a rule by elders. In a nut-shell that means that each congregation chooses men to rule over it—men who meet the qualifications of the constitution, the Word of God. These men who thus qualify and who are thus elected rule the church in accordance with that constitution.

There is a good bit of similarity between presbyterianism and our own form of government in this country. We elect representatives and senators and presidents, men who meet the qualifications of our constitution—and they rule us in accordance with that constitution. And so it is in the church, men who meet the specific qualifications of the Word, in such a passage as 1 Timothy 3, and who are elected by the congregation, together with the pastor, rule in accord with the constitution of the church: the Bible and our Confession of Faith, which expresses how we interpret the Bible.

Let us turn to the Word of God, and see how two things fit together—the rule of the church, and the edification of your soul. The passage which above all others expresses the unique relationship between the rule of the church and the edification of the saints is Acts 20:28. It tells of a costly church, of an overseeing office in the church, and of a tremendous task for that overseeing office.

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)


Many people today don’t care about the church, feeling that the church is something for everyone else. Indifference is the word that characterizes these. And this indifference is found in a good many church members too, even in churches where the gospel is preached. If it is convenient they may go to church—but if there are relatives or the slightest sickness or the most minute car trouble, well, church will have to wait—and God will have to wait too! This just shows that the church is way down on the list. Would you dare use any of those excuses on your boss, to keep you from work? “But,” the answer is, “I have to work”—and the implication is that I don’t have to go to church, though that is never said.

Another way in which the church is depreciated is to relegate the church to the realm of the invisible—to insist that the true church is invisible, and therefore the organized church is not so important. The persons who say this are quite numerous. Many of our fundamentalist brethren speak in these terms. Now, it is true that there are invisible qualities to the church—true faith is not seen, even our Lord is unseen—but the New Testament doesn’t describe invisible churches: the churches at Rome and Ephesus and Philippi were all visible, organized bodies of saints—not invisible, but very visible.


Paul in our passage is addressing the body of elders from the church at Ephesus—really an authentic presbytery meeting—the elders from the churches in the region of Ephesus. There were visible qualities to that church, and it is of that church, ruled by those elders, actually existing in that city of Ephesus and its suburbs, about which Paul now speaks. And he tells us that the church is a costly church.

Paul speaks in most glorious terms about this church. He calls it the FLOCK. The church is therefore made up of sheep. This is far from being a compliment—sheep are not very bright—and when the shepherd is gone they are helpless and lost. But if we look through the eyes of the Bible we do find that this is a most precious and wonderful term, for it is these sheep who say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And it is of these that Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” What more could be said?

Paul also calls this body THE CHURCH OF GOD. The church which belongs to God—it is his. Again we find how glorious an institution the church really is. The church belongs to no man, to no group of men—it is God’s—and it is God’s Word that is the rule-book of the church. Church officers rule for God, and when they over-step that line, they become the oppressors of the church. No, this church, our church, belongs to God—we are his possession.

Redemption’s Price

But there is another phrase in this text which far outshines the terms flock or church of God. And that is this tremendous fact, that the church has been PURCHASED WITH HIS OWN BLOOD. God has bought the church. And this is what it cost him—the death of his own Son! Could anything be more costly? What would be so dear to you that you would give your own flesh and blood for it? Well, God did. And this tells us that there is nothing in this world that is more precious or important to God than his church. It is his first love. Amazing, yet gloriously true.

What then should be more important to us? Don’t we have things all upside down? Oh beloved, love the church of God. He gave his Son for it.

One other thing in connection with the costly church, and that is this: the church is circumscribed by the death of Christ. It has been bought by that blood, and therefore it must demand that everyone who desires to be a member of that church must trust in that Christ who died. He must believe in the Son of God, that he purchased him as an individual in his church. And when that is done then that church has right and title to be called Christ’s Church. But if it is not done, if unbelievers may join, and if Christ’s death is not proclaimed, then that body is no longer a true church of Christ, but a counterfeit, a synagogue of Satan.


One of the great mysteries of the divine economy, that is, of God’s ways of doing things, is the fact that in building up his church, in guarding its gates from unbelievers, in proclaiming its message to all, God has been pleased to use men. God has outlined in his Word how men are to be used in the promotion of his church, and especially in our present text, to rule in his church. He has laid down specific requirements in his Word as to who should be elders and what is required of them.

Our text uses two terms to describe these men. The first is ELDER. Now that word isn’t used in verse 28 but it is to the elders that he speaks. Verse 17 says that he called for the elders of the church. The term in itself refers to maturity—not an elder in age necessarily, but one mature in the Christian faith, one who has been a Christian for a while and who therefore has attained a maturity and stability in faith and life.

The term also unites us with the church of the Old Testament, for the office of elder has its roots deeply in the Old Testament. The emphasis that is gained from the Old Testament is that of rule. The government of the church is vested not in the congregation but in the session, the body of elders, men specially equipped and chosen to rule in the church. Therefore there is a continual emphasis in the Bible on the fact that believers are to “obey them who have the rule over you.” But only in the Lord.

Elders as Bishops

The second term that Paul uses to describe this overseeing office is that of BISHOP. Yes, bishop. The word translated “overseers” is the Greek word episkopos, from which we get our word episcopal—and it means overseer or bishop. All elders are also bishops. And we may note that all ministers are elders and bishops. A minister is an elder who also teaches and preaches. But in the realm of rule there is identity between the ruling elder and the teaching elder. As bishops, elders watch over the souls in their charge. They are overseers and this therefore is an overseeing office. Elders look after and oversee the flock.

But why some men and not others? Some stumble over this. Not all men are qualified to rule in the church. In the same way, not all citizens are qualified to be president or governor or assemblyman. In the church God has been pleased to equip some men with certain gifts so that they may rule and teach in his church. And that is reflected in those words of our text, “the flock over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers.”

Read once more Ephesians 4:11-16 and I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to bear this out. There is no glory to the men involved, but rather a grave responsibility. And the elders of the church need your constant prayers and encouragements. Pray often for them. The Holy Spirit is the administrator in the church; he qualifies certain men for office by giving them gifts so that they may enforce the laws of the church found in the Bible, the Word of God. This is God’s way of doing things—let us recognize it as such.


We have seen in our text that there is a costly church—the cost, the blood of Christ. We have also seen that God has chosen to rule his church through an overseeing office, that of elder or bishop. And now we also see that the overseeing office in the costly church is called upon to perform a tremendous task.

The elder is to take heed to himself. He must watch over his own soul, that it is in communion with the Chief Shepherd. Here is a work unseen by men, and yet without it the office and its work cannot be accomplished. Therefore pray for the elders and pastor of your church that they may be kept in the hand of God, that they may be sharp and effective instruments in his hand.

But the elder must also take heed to all the flock. The whole church must be watched over for its spiritual good. This part of the work is summed up by Paul in the word to “feed” or “shepherd” the flock: to act as a shepherd to the sheep, under the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

To shepherd the flock the elder must LOVE the sheep. No matter how unlovely some of the sheep may appear to be, he must love them, because Christ loves them.

Loving Care and Nurture

To shepherd also means to PROTECT the church. Paul in the next verse tells of the wolves that will enter the flock to seek to devour it. The shepherd must protect the flock from such, must warn of the evil-doers and of the evil teachers. You must be shown not only the truth but also the errors of the ways of others. How often Christ warned of the evils of the Scribes and Pharisees and the false leaders of his day.

Protection must be also from within. There must be the faithful exercise of discipline, probably the most difficult work of the elders. Just as we discipline our children so must erring members of the church be disciplined, so that they will grow in their love for Christ. When you joined this church you agreed to submit to the government of the church and to heed its discipline. You are disciplined in a sense through the preached word, and through the personally spoken word. If your sin is aggravated, judicial discipline must not be shunned. And if one who has claimed Christ by mouth, yet shows by his life that he does not really know and love Christ, and persists in his impenitent ways, then he must be put out of the membership of the church, excommunicated, lest he rely on membership in the church for salvation, and lest the name of Christ be dishonored.

The shepherd loves and protects, and FEEDS the church. The feeding is done mainly through the teaching elder, the minister, but all the elders are responsible for what is preached! If the preacher is wrong, they must correct him. And they too must teach the Word and feed the flock of God.

Some of the men who read these words may have been equipped by the Holy Spirit to rule in his church. If so, desire the office of the elder (I Tim. 3:1) and prepare yourself for the high responsibilties of the office. Read and study the Word and pray for the spiritual life requisite for ruling in the church.

Oh, let us all glory in God’s church—to make it the most important thing in our lives, that we may grow in God’s grace, that we may be built up into strong mature believers, that we may all come to the perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!

Reprinted from the Presbyterian Guardian, Volume 31, No 3, March 1962. The OPC Committee for the Historian has made the archives of the Presbyterian Guardian available online!