The Visible Church & Its Leadership

The Visible Church & Its Leadership

What is the visible church? It is the theological language for the Church that exists in the present world. This may be compared with the invisible church which comprises those who have already gone to be in the presence of God. Each is often referred to as the church militant (the church as it still struggles in the present age) and the church triumphant (those who have gone on to eternal life.)

First, both are the same—one, holy catholic and apostolic church! Second, both are awaiting the coming Kingdom of God. Thirdly, both share fellowship in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit fills and communes with both one church under different circumstances; She is always and at one time, one single communion in constant communion, perceived or unperceived. The visible Church still contends against sin and physical hardship in the present evil age. The Church triumphant, no longer in the flesh and in the battle against sin, fight the fight of worship, prayer, and intercession in heaven on behalf of the Church militant. They suffer in the spirit over our hardship saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (KJV) 

So here is a critical question: Why do we need the Church? Is it even still relevant? Sometimes it does not seem so. But that is the perception of carnal eyes. The Church is there to help us along the way in this journey towards eternal life. The visible church is the family of God and our nurturing mother to support us along the way in our discipleship journey. This leads us to the discussion of Church polity—the leadership, organization, and government of the visible church.

Church Polity

What is Church polity? Church polity is the organization and government of the church. Any way you want to slice it, a local church is a group of people sharing in specific beliefs and values, especially moral values. In fact, we can speak of the Church having “Gospel values.” All social groups require what sociologists call “social controls.” This is the standards and practices they all agree upon to continue with the group. For the Church, it is the Gospel of Christ.

Gospel Values

Gospel values are the beliefs and values arising from the contents and implications of the Gospel. A few of the key ones would include belief in the one true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the justification of the ungodly, the forgiveness of God toward sinners, and obedience to God’s commands. 

The details of these commandments is where Gospel values become more granular. At the first level is of course the ten commandments, but they also have much deeper implications as well. The commandment “you shall not murder” also means you shall not abort the unborn, harbor hatred toward your brother in your heart, and so on. You get the point.

At the most fundamental level, having Gospel values means conducting one’s life and behavior by the word of God. Scripture—revelation, is the inspired and authoritative witness to the proclamation of the Gospel. It is the job of the Church collectively to preach, teach, and apply the Scriptures to the life of the Church and that is another way to say “govern the church.” It is especially the job of ordained leadership to foster this process.

As Christians, we are called to Gospel values—to Gospel-based decision making. But we don’t always to that well. We make mistakes, sin, have hidden agendas, and fears we don’t even detect in ourselves. We all constantly need to be pulled back in. It is the job of the whole Church. 

Church Government

The New Testament is what we call “occasional literature.” That simply means the writing of these documents was “occasioned” by certain situations and circumstances. The Bible was not written systematically like a textbook. But the Scriptures do give us everything we need for life and godliness so that “the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16–17)

The Church, of course, does not do this in isolation. God’s Spirit resides with her and guides her if she is humble, submissive, and listens. Ever the soft-spoken gentlemen, the Spirit will not fight to be heard. When God’s people soften their hearts, they find him an ever-present help to lead them into all truth. (John 16:13)

Structure of the Church

Interestingly, there no single ironclad Church polity that is passed on to us in the New Testament. As occasional literature, The New Testament does not spell this out in detail but rather takes many things for granted. 

What comes down to us in both the New Testament and other historical writings from the early Church and Judaism is a consistent set of principles that were adapted regionally according to the needs of the Church in that age and area. In both the New Testament and other documents we find bishops/presbyters and deacons, and these offices and ideas are adapted variously according to the demands of the moment.

These offices were basically borrowed from Judaism, especially the Synagogue which had already borrowed them from the tabernacle/Temple (high priest, priests, Levites). In the Synagogue there were deacons or assistants, presbyters (elders), and a lead elder called the president. At the time the New Testament was written “elder” and “bishop/overseer” were used mostly interchangeably and the lead presbyter was called the president. Eventually, the Church renamed the president of the council of elders as “overseer” or “bishop” who served as the primus inter pares— “first among equals.”

Officers, Scripture, and Tradition

Through revelation and his providence, God designed a matrix through which the Church is to function—one that has worked for ages. It is not stiff (or not meant to be anyways) but dynamic and adaptable. 

The officers of the local church are simply called to lead and govern the Church by the Scriptures. Scripture itself tells us:

2Tim. 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

Scripture is the first order canon law for the Church. All decisions are to be made, at least as much as possible through attention to Scripture’s principles and precepts. The job of church officers is to study “the word of truth” and apply it in the community of the faithful.

2Tim. 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Nevertheless, the Scripture itself testifies that all men are flawed and fallible; none of us can be fully trusted when left to ourselves. We are not to be an island or interpret the Scriptures in a bubble; we need accountability. It behooves us then to avail ourselves of the interpretation and practices of those who preceded us. This is where tradition comes in. It orients us like a road map and gives us a filter to help us interpret Scripture, not individually, but as the collective body of Christ. 


Healthy leadership in the Church occurs when the local leadership passionately interprets Scripture through the helping lens of the historic church and her tradition.

The Spirit of Truth

One last thing. God has not left us to ourselves and our own devices. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead the Church. This, of course, is dependent on the church remaining in a perpetually humbled state of repentance. We cannot hear God when we are proud. Ego shuts os off; blocks teachability and leaves us to suffer the consequences. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6 & 1 Pet. 5:5) God’s plan is the collective leadership of the church interpreting Scripture with the aid of the collective tradition of the ancient Church, and all that is done under the power of the Holy Spirit. That makes a healthy well-lead church.

One Comment

  1. john trafford

    In all structures it seems as the governing body if not listening to those governed may be looked upon as judgmental. There needs to be a balance of upward and downward flow of communication from those who allow the society to exists. Without the free unbridled flow of ideas, the church can become an overbearing parent and alienate those who they are to instruct and advise..

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.