By Roy E. Cogdill
The church of the New Testament is undenominational for the reason that it has no denominational or human creed, and no denominational or human organization. When the church anywhere departs from this New Testament pattern either by changing its name, creed (belief and teaching) or organization, it becomes a denomination. Such a departure can characterize either just one congregation or a whole group of churches under the same leadership and influence. Perhaps the reason God in His infinite wisdom gave the church no other organization than the local body or congregation and authorizes no sort of federation of these local churches of Christ was in order to prevent wholesale apostasy. When churches are federated, either in work or organization or by the pooling of their resources in some intercongregational project, it always means wholesale apostasy when a departure is made.
Organization of the Church
The simple pattern of New Testament church organization had as its salient features: (1) Christ as its only authority-“the head over all things to the church, which is His body” (Eph. 1:22-23); (2) Elders over every local church of Christ (Acts 14:23);(3) Deacons as special servants (Phil. 1:1). In the New Testament scriptures, no man can find anything smaller, larger, or other than this simple organization. In any community, saved people were added “together” to work together in Christian fellowship in accomplishing the mission God gave His church on this earth to perform. All that was accomplished in the New Testament day was done by Christians through and in this divine arrangement, unless it was purely individual action. When any other organization is formed, the church apostatizes and becomes a denominational or sectarian organization.
The church can be as truly apostate when it departs from the divine pattern of organization as when it corrupts the worship with human innovations, or its teaching and faith with the doctrines and commandments of men. In fact, Satan has always started the people of God on the road to apostasy by corrupting their government. It was true when Israel wanted a “king” that they might be like the nations around them. It was true when the churches of the New Testament yielded to the spirit of iniquity already at work in Paul’s day and departed from the principles of autonomy, independence, and equality of local churches of Christ. Out of this departure grew the “man of sin, the son of perdition,” the Roman Catholic Church. The same thing was true when in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, churches of Christ on this continent began to form themselves into “co-operatives,” later to merge these into the American Christian Missionary Society and finally to develop the Christian Church denomination.
God’s plan is elders, bishops, or pastors in every church. This means, as we have already pointed out, that each local church has its own elders or bishops to super-intend and direct its work and that no eldership has the oversight of more than one local church either in its worship, work, resources, discipline or membership. The extending of the authority of elders is one sure way to corrupt the government of the church and lead the church into apostasy.
It takes two things to make an elder in the church of the Lord. One is for a man to qualify or meet the divine standard required of elders and laid down by divine authority. These qualifications are found in 1 Timothy 3, and in Titus 1. No man perfectly possesses all of these qualifications, of course, but he must have all of them in a reasonable degree and there are none of them that can be cancelled out by the authority of anyone. The second thing required is appointment. The record says, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Other translations read “appointed.” The apostle Paul and those accompanying him acted “for” the church in this appointing. It is implied that the church had some voice or right which was thus respected in this matter. It would be difficult for a man to act as an elder when the church did not approve or regard him as fit and qualified.
The New Testament nowhere indicates that men just grew into and assumed this work of being an elder in the Lord’s church. This would leave the church at the mercy of a man who considered himself qualified when the church did not so consider. On the other hand the church might consider a man as an elder, thinking that he had sufficiently grown or matured into such, when he did not so consider himself, and would therefore be unwilling to serve. “Appointment” is therefore a part of the divine plan. Not the arbitrary appointment of one man’s judgment but one approved by the church over which he is to be a bishop or overseer. This appointment which is a part of the divine plan for the governing of the Lord’s church cannot be dispensed with by the authority of man any more than the qualifications set forth by the Lord.
When a church tries to operate without elders to oversee its work, it is disorganized, haphazard in its work and is like any other organization without anyone with fixed responsibility in which the business and responsibility of everyone belongs to no one. Only in their immaturity, and until they developed qualified men, did churches of the New Testament period carry on their work under such a handicap. How does a church operate without elders? God nowhere tells us. If he had, we would have an option or choice to carry on the work of the church either with or without elders. But God’s plan calls for elders in “every church” and this expression is as definite and mandatory as it can be made. Compare kata mian sabbaton, kata polin, and kata ecclesian. The first expression is found in the Greek New Testament in 1 Cor. 16:1. The second expression is found in Acts 14:23. The first means “every first day of the week.” The second means “every city” and the third means “every church.” Those preachers who try by every kind of sophistry and conniving that can be devised to get rid of the scriptural organization of “elders in every church” had just well get rid of the idea of contribution “every first day” for one goes as easily and rightly as the other.
It is as scriptural for one eldership to be over many churches as it is for a church :to set aside New Testament teaching and operate permanently without an eldership. Both represent a departure from the government ordained by the Lord for His church. In a district court trial, in a law suit concerning the elders and the preacher of a local church of Christ a number of years ago, when the preacher on the stand was questioned by the district judge and denied that the church either had any elders or needed any and was directly asked “who is in authority or has charge of the work of this organization?”, the preacher replied “No one.” Upon being given this answer the judge remarked, “This is the first thing that claims to be an organic body that I have ever heard of without any organization of without either head or tail to its organization.” Unscrupulous men of ambition are left free to promote and direct the affairs of the Lord’s church to their own satisfaction when there are no elders. Often-far too often-these unscrupulous men are preachers who simply do not want the restrictions of working under an eldership. Such men are anarchists and spiritual bolsheviks at heart no matter how sound they may be otherwise.
Truth Magazine XIX: 49, pp. 776-777
October 23, 1975