By Jimmy Tuten, Jr.
When we talk about the organization of the church we need to know just what it is that we are talking about. We are not talking about the universal church, for it has no organization. The local church as such is a complete organization within itself. It organizes itself under the head, which is Christ, and is not dependent upon any man, machinery or organization outside of itself to handle its affairs. The Bible teaches that the local church is independently organized (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5), independently directed (Acts 20:28) independently charged (Eph. 4:12) and independent in function (Acts 11:27-30). In this arrangement it is completely self-governing and autonomous. The only head it knows is Christ. The only headquarters it will recognize is heaven. The only instructions it will accept are those from the heaven inspired book, the Bible.
The Apostle Paul prophesied that the first major apostasy would begin within the organization of the church. He said, speaking to the Ephesian elders, “also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). The same type of instruction is given in 2 Thess. 2:2-4. The apostasy predicted in these passages found their fulfillment when Boniface the Third was crowned first pope in Rome in 606 A.D.
Most apostasies in the church have begun within the organizational level. The ‘missionary society of the last century divided churches across the land.- This apostasy was the result of an effort to remodel the organization of the church from a local arrangement to that of a universal structure. Writing in the Millennial Harbinger in 1831, Alexander Campbell said, “a church can do what an individual disciple cannot, and so can a district of churches do what a single congregation cannot” (italics mine, jt). Writing in the same publication in 1866, W. K. Pendleton said, “we fear that the large conception of the church universal is too little realized by many Christians of the present day. The idea of the church and of the responsibilities and work of the church circle too much within the limits of the local congregation.” One can see a present day application of the principle in William Banowsky’s book, The Mirror of A Movement, p. 273, 313. The problem of apostasy within the organizational structure of the church still exists. It poses as great a problem today as it presented in days gone by.
Scriptural Church Organization
Scriptural church organization begins with the components of the local church. It is illustrated in Phil. 1:1 – “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (emphasis mine, jt). It is the will of God that each congregation of God’s people have a plurality of bishops or elders overseeing them. “And when they had ordained them elders In every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord . (Acts 14:23). Titus 1:5 says, “for this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders In every city, as I had appointed thee.” In addition of the fact that there are to be elders in every church, there are to be deacons who serve as physical servants of the church (1 Tim. 3:8-13). Hence, the saints work and worship with their elders and deacons.
Someone has suggested four possibilities or categories into which churches might fall. Every church falls into one of these categories with reference to local organization.
(1) Scripturally Organized – This takes place when a plurality of men meet the scriptural qualifications for the respective offices and are duly appointed.
(2) Unscripturally Organized – When men who are not scripturally qualified are supposedly put into the respective offices they become manmade officers.
(3) Scripturally Unorganized – This is a congregation that have no men scripturally qualified for the respective offices.
(4) Unscripturally Unorganized – When a plurality of men are qualified for the respective offices but for some reason are not appointed.
Each local organization is autonomous in nature. Webster’s dictionary defines “autonomy” as “independent in government; self-governing; without outside control.” It comes from two words: “auto” meaning self and “nomos” meaning law. Hence the right of self law. Therefore the word means self-law, self-rule or self-governing. This means that each congregation is to govern itself. Look at this from the standpoint of the direct statements limiting the authority of the elders to the flock over which they have been made overseers: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof . . .” (1 Pet. 5:2). Again, “take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers . . .” (Acts 20:28). The local organization with its bishops constitutes the largest unit of organization known to the New Testament. As such it is independent and self-governing. In the absence of authority for any other form of local government, we conclude that the law of exclusion forbids any other form of government. As such the local church possesses equality with other local churches (2 Cor. 8:14) and sufficiency in organization to do all that God intends that it do.
Perversions of Local Church Organization
There are perversions of the local church arrangement. Any organization that is larger or smaller than the local church is a perversion. Let us list some organizations that are smaller than the local church: (1) Sunday School organizations which have their presidents and superintendents, which function independently of the church. (2) Various committees within the church that function independently of the church. (3) Bible Classes which perform works in their own name, separate from and independent of the local church. (4) Young people’s organizations are perversions when they function independent of the church. Organizations that are larger than the local church are: Synods, Conferences, Sponsoring churches, Area-wide meetings and Societies, These perversions should not be tolerated by sound thinking brethren.
We can preserve the distinctive church organization by insisting that each church plan its own program, oversee its own work and manage its own affairs. This is the way God arranged it and the way we must have it.
Truth Magazine XX: 31, pp. 489-490
August 5, 1976