Church Organization

In this lesson, Mike answers questions regarding the Biblical pattern for church organization and function, and how this is different from the structure of many churches in the modern era.
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In the previous chapter we reviewed the major religions in the world and examined their beliefs and teachings concerning salvation, heaven, paradise or the hereafter. One of the points made was that every religion has some teaching concerning the afterlife. Most people who seek out religion are usually interested in what it offers them concerning salvation. Here are some important points when comparing this area of belief among the major organized religions and philosophies of the world.

  1. Eleven of the twelve religious systems rely on law-based or works-oriented methods of achieving salvation, paradise or final peace.
  2. Christianity is the only religion where the burden for man's salvation rests with God, and is offered freely on a basis of faith.
  3. When compared, the nature of salvation in the Christian religion is far superior in value and experience than any of the other faiths.

Miscellaneous Questions

We've discussed many questions about church life and salvation. In this chapter, I'd like to describe certain questions that cover a wider range of topics.

What is meant by congregational autonomy?

I believe that part of this question has to do with why the Churches of Christ don't have a headquarters or regional supervisors. Many churches are organized based on various worldly models. For example,

  • Roman Catholic churches follow the empirical Roman model of government. There is a supreme leader, the Pope, just like in the Roman Empire there was a supreme leader, the Emperor. There is a college of advisers in the Catholic church, called Cardinals. The Roman Empire had the Senate and its senators. There were regional leaders (governors) in the Roman system just as there are regional leaders in Roman Catholicism called Archbishops. They oversee various territories, which are each led by lesser ranking clerics that are called bishops, who are responsible for several churches or the churches in one particular city. And then, like the Roman Centurion (who was responsible for 100 soldiers) the Catholic Church has the local parish priest who ministers to a single local congregation.
  • Protestants did away with the papal head. In other words, they eliminated the idea of the Pope in their church organization, but maintained the same top-down ranking system. They simply gave different names to the positions and invested more power in the regional groups of leaders, who served as a type of religious court. These Synods or other ruling bodies were responsible for governing the churches under their purview.
  • Evangelicals have a modified system based more on the American political system than the old European classical or ecclesiastic model. They have conventions with regional groups that vie for votes and influence pushing various agendas and candidates to sit on "boards" or "councils."
  • Sectarian groups (Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists etc.) have a more patriarchal approach, where a relative or hand-picked successor to the original founder wields great influence and power. These leaders have veto power over the various church and regional leaders and agendas.

In a previous chapter I explained that what made the Church of Christ different from all other Christian groups or churches was twofold:

  1. We believe that the entire Bible is inspired and therefore our authoritative guide in spiritual, moral and organizational matters.
  2. We also believe that the Bible teaches that we should consciously try to establish and operate the church according to the commands and the guidelines given to us in the New Testament.

Historically, the effort to use only the New Testament in the establishment and function of the church has been referred to as Restorationism. This effort tries to duplicate the first century model of the church in the 21st century. Therefore, when asked how to go about organizing the church on a local or an international level, we consult the New Testament to see what instructions Jesus and the Apostles have left us about this topic.

When we review the New Testament about church organization, we find many teachings and examples concerning the make up and normal function of the local church as well as inspired teaching concerning ministry, the qualification of leaders and other information to help the church grow spiritually as well as numerically. According to the New Testament, therefore, a Christian church was made up of the following groups:

  • Baptized Believers in Jesus Christ - Acts 2:47
  • There are several roles or offices of leadership in this organization - Ephesians 4:11; I Timothy 3; Acts 20
    • Apostles were the messengers of Christ, specifically the 12 in the upper room at Pentecost, and Paul the Apostle, later called to preach to the Gentiles.
    • Prophets were those who spoke the word directly given to them by God.
    • Elders/pastors/bishops/overseers/shepherds/presbyters are different terms that refer to the same person: an older or experienced Christian man, who is a spiritual leader and mentor in the congregation, and who serves primarily as a teacher.
    • Evangelists/preachers/ministers are different terms referring to one who ministers the Word of God to the church and proclaims the gospel to the lost. Evangelists are responsible for planting new churches as well as organizing the church along the pattern given in the New Testament.
    • Deacons are men who minister to the various needs of church members.
    • Teachers are those qualified and trained to teach the Word.
    • Saints are baptized believers. Every member of Christ's body is a saint, however, some saints, because of their skills, gifts, training or experience are appointed to serve in some particular role or other. All the saints serve Christ in one way or another, but some of those saints are given special responsibilities within the congregation.

Once the New Testament was completed ( this involved writing, circulation, compilation, authentication of inspired material) the present 27 books were officially recognized as the inspired canon (Council of Hippo - 393BC) the work of the Apostles and prophets was completed. From this time forward, the New Testament itself became the sole inspired guide for the Christian church.

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training, for righteousness.
- I Timothy 3:16

Any other roles or offices in the church other than the ones mentioned above are merely inventions of human beings because they do not have the authority of the New Testament for their establishment. Therefore, if a New Testament church in the first century did not have a Pope, a New Testament church in the 21st century should not have one either since the New Testament does not authorize this position in the Christian church.

Another feature that is quite remarkable when studying this question is what you do not see in the New Testament concerning church organization. You do not see any of the modern systems of church hierarchy that exist in these other groups that I mentioned before. In the New Testament church, each congregation was autonomous and led by its own local leaders. Yes, different churches asked for advice and received help from the Apostles in the first century (Acts 15) but this was because they did not yet possess the entire New Testament record. The Apostles were the source of scriptural authority at that time but today we have their record contained in the New Testament.

We also notice that every mention of congregational leadership in the Bible (Acts 20; Philippians 1:1) always referred to a group of elders or bishops or overseers. There were always more than one. In other words, the New Testament church had a plurality of elders in each congregation. Unlike today in most Protestant or Evangelical churches, there was no reference to only one who was the pastor of a single congregation, it was always a group of pastors, elders, or bishops and overseers.

When we put the pieces together concerning congregational organization, this is the picture that emerges from the New Testament.

  • Churches met mainly in homes or in a cluster of homes in each city, and sometimes they used public places when these were available (Acts 19:9; Romans).
  • Each congregation had a number of leaders depending on the size and the maturity of their congregation. These leaders included elders, teachers and deacons, who had specific responsibilities for different areas of church life.
  • As the Apostles died off, the recorded word replaced the need for prophets, and there were more evangelists. With time as these congregations grew, the preachers remained longer with individual congregations and served as missionaries to other nations.
  • These autonomous or congregational-style remained in place until it was replaced by the Catholic model in the second, third and fourth centuries.

If we want to practice New Testament Christianity, we need to renew the model of autonomous congregations with local leaders all held together by a common belief and commitment to follow God's pattern in the New Testament for church structure and organization.

Churches of Christ have over 25,000 congregations in the world with no headquarters, no leadership with authority beyond the local congregation, united only by our commitment to restore the practice of New Testament Christianity …and it works! Why?

  • Because the New Testament says that it does.
  • Because if you are committed to this Biblical principle, you will have unity and fellowship regardless of the culture or time.
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