By Roy E. Cogdill
In last week’s article we set forth the simple pattern of New Testament church organization. 1. Christ is the head over all things to the church-the only head it has and his authority the only authority in it (Eph. 1:21-23). 2. Believers who were saved by their obedience to the Gospel in every community where it was preached were added together to constitute the “church of Christ” in that community (Acts 2:41-47; Acts 4:4, 32; Acts 5:14; Acts 6:7; Acts 9:31; Acts 11:19-26; Acts 14:21-23; Acts 16:4-5; Acts 15:41; Rom. 16:4; Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Cor. 8:1, 19, 23; 2 Cor. 11:8, 28; 2 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Rev. 3:6, 13, 22; Rev. 22:16).
In all of these above passages, the reference is to the community of saved believers who constituted the church in the particular locality or area mentioned. This means that repeatedly in the New Testament the arrangement made by divine wisdom for the church, as a body, unaffiliated with any other in any manner, except in a common faith, salvation, and relationship with deity, existed and carried on the work and worship of the Lord. This is all that is found in the way of an organic body in New Testament scriptures, that is, that can be identified with the church of our Lord.
We have learned, further, that each of these “churches of Christ” had the same organization: (1) elders, bishops, or pastors in every church (Acts 14:23); (2) that they were made up of Saints (Phil. 1:1. 1 Cor. 1:1-2); (3) and that they had men who served in a special sense called deacons (Phil. 1:1. 1 Tim. 3:8-13). Both elders and deacons were men chosen by a divine standard of qualifications and appointed to do the work ordained of the Lord for them to do. Both are essential to the maturity of the church, therefore, and to a proper respect for God’s plan for the operation of the church in its fullest capacity. No man has the right to dismiss these divine appointments any more than any other in the church and it is just as much a matter of apostasy to teach there is no need for them today as to pervert this local organization to serve a brotherhood plan and purpose. Both evidence disrespect for divine authority.
The Work of the Elders
The New Testament teaches concerning the work of “elders,” “bishops,” or “pastors” that they are to have the oversight of the church. These three terms are used interchangeably in Acts 20:17-28. They were the same men in the Ephesian church and doing the same work. The words come from three words in the original language of the New Testament: “elder” is from presbuteros; “bishop” from episcopos; and “pastor”from poimenas. The word presbuteros is defined as it is used concerning this organization of the church –“(3) in the Christian churches, those who, being raised up and qualified by the work of the Holy Spirit, were appointed to have the spiritual care of, and to exercise oversight over the churches. To these the term bishops, episkopoi, or overseers, is applied (see Acts 20:17-28, and Titus 1:5-7), the latter term indicating the nature of their work, presbuteroi, their maturity of spiritual experience. The divine arrangement seen throughout the New Testament was for a plurality of these to be appointed in each church” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine).
It is sometimes contended that the word “elder” means only older men. There can be no question that the term presbuteros is sometimes used to denote age, or a person advanced in life. But it does not always mean that and it never makes simply physical age a qualification of “elders” to oversee the work of the churches except as physical age is required in order to develop Christian experience and maturity and to keep one from being a “novice” or a new hand (1 Tim. 3:6).
It is also contended that the work of elders or bishops belonged only to the age of miracles and passed away with that age and that God has not ordained that such should exist in the work of the church today. The men who ordinarily so contend think, however, that the work of an “evangelist” has continued and they have no hesitancy assuming such a work and even becoming officious in their very attitude as such. The fact is that no passage teaches that elders were to cease in the churches when miracles ceased or that the work of an elder in the New Testament day was dependent upon some miraculous endowment any more than any work of the church. In New Testament days all who were charged with special responsibility in the Lord’s Church were distributed extraordinary endowments that they might under the direction of divine guidance perform their service and demonstrate to men the divine will. In this we see that the divine pattern of church government or supervision did not include the continuation of these extraordinary endowments but rather called for their discontinuation when revelation had been fully completed and the church had come to maturity through the knowledge of the divine will (1 Cor. 13:8-13; Eph. 4:7-16).
Under these qualified men the churches of the New Testament day carried out their divine mission. This government was adequate to the fulfillment of God’s purposes in His churches then and it is adequate now. When this divine pattern (elders in every church) is not followed, then the church is left without any play. or means of carrying out the will of the Lord and at the mercy of every novice, untaught, unscrupulous, self-willed, individual that aspires to “greatness in the Kingdom of God” through prominence or by the exercise of authoritative direction or control. The church without this divine pattern of government is “without form and void,” like the earth was before God set things in order in the beginning. Majority control is the only alternative to dictatorial power in the hands of a few (sometimes only one) who assume the right to direct the affairs of the church, when the church has no organization after the divine pattern.
God has assigned the work of elders in the churches of Christ. They have no primary authority to exercise or residual right to direct the work of the Lord’s Church by their own will. Like all other Christians who serve in any capacity they are prescribed, bound, limited, and restrained by what the Lord authorizes and can move only in harmony with his will. One of the qualifications laid down in the word of God is that they must not be “self-willed” men (Tit. 1:7). When any man uses the office of “bishop” to have his own way or to follow his own will, he is not fit to be an elder for the reason that he is disqualified by such a disposition. The fact that there are men who mistakenly are selected or appointed and have such disposition and abuse the privilege of so serving the Lord does not mean that we have the license or right to dispense with the divine plan. There are unworthy preachers too. Must we dispense with preaching the Gospel? There are also apostate churches, so shall we just dismiss the idea of having the church in existence today. There is no justification in running past Jerusalem in trying to avoid Rome and knocking ourselves out on the walls of Jericho. One extreme is no more right than another.
(To be continued)
Truth Magazine XIX: 50, pp. 793-794
October 30, 1975