By Larry Ray Hafley
One of the major differences between the church described in the pages of the New Testament and modern denominational churches is that of organization or church government. Since a number of our regular readers are members of various denominations, it may be profitable to emphasize this point. Catholic and Protestant churches have various and sundry types and kinds of organizational structure and ecclesiastical hierarchy. They differ greatly from the church discussed in the Bible with respect to polity, government and organization.
“Elders In Every Church”
The New Testament pattern is simply this: “elders in every church” (Acts 14:23).
(1) Elders in each church in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch (Acts 14:21-23).
(2) Elders in Jerusalem church (Acts 15:4).
(3) Elders in Ephesian church (Acts 20:17,28).
(4) “Elders in every city” in Crete (Tit. 1:5).
(5) Elders in churches of Judea (Acts 11:29,30; 1 Thess. 2:14).
(6) “Elders of the church” (Jas. 5:14).
(7) (Elders), Bishops at Philippi (Phil. 1:1).
(8) Elders to feed and lead “the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28).
(9) Note: Elders, bishops, pastors (plural) in every church.
“Just Your Opinion”
Someone may object, “That is just your opinion; that is the way you see it.” That implies that what we have outlined above is not the teaching or the pattern of the Bible. If the verses above do not set forth the conclusion we have advanced, what do they advocate? If our conclusions are not true, then what do the passages teach with respect to the organization of the church?
It further implies that the objector is a member of a church that is not organized according to the passages of Scripture cited above. If so, where is your church’s organization in the Bible? Is it there? Can you find it? We know that the church in the New Testament had an arrangement of government; it had organization of some sort. Was it like what your church has?
Is it, though, “just (my) opinion”? No, it is not. Listed below are just a few quotes which show that several denominational scholars recognize the difference between the organization of the New Testament church and that of denominational bodies.
Lofton, in the English Baptist Reformation (p. 25), said, “Someone must yet restore a plurality of elders to Baptist Churches.” Lofton was right, but no one has done it yet.
Referring to Philippians 1:1, Augustus H. Strong, a prominent denominational theologian said, “In the very first verse you have recognized an organization of the Christian church that is noteworthy. He writes to those who recognize Christ, to the saints in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons; i.e., with the overseers and deacons. Only two orders are recognized, only two sorts of officers in the Christian church. First the pastors, or overseers, of the flock, and then the deacons of the church; and I suppose we have here the outline of church organization in the apostolic time. We do not anywhere find that there are more than these two ranks, or officers, in the Christian church” (Popular Lectures on the Books of the New Testament, pp. 242, 243)
Walter L. Lingle, former President of Davidson College wrote, “In Acts 14:23 we are told that Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church which they organized. In Acts 20:17 we learn that Paul sent for the elders of th church at Ephesus to meet him at Miletus. In Titus 1:5 Pau commands Titus to ordain elders in every city. These passages are sufficient to show that the New Testament church was governed by elders. . .
“Elders Sometimes Called Bishops. The Presbyterian is sometimes a bit perplexed by finding the word bishop in the New Testament. It occurs in five different places and leaves the impression that perhaps after all the New Testament church was governed by bishops. A little closer study of the passages will reveal the fact that these bishops were simply elders.
“In Acts 20:17 Paul sends for the elders of the at Ephesus. In Acts 20:28 he calls these same men bishop according to the correct translation given by the American Revised Version. In Titus 1:5 Paul directs that elders should be ordained in every city. In Titus 1:7 he refers to these same men as bishops. It is perfectly clear that elders and bishop are identical in the New Testament. They are only different names for the same office” (Presbyterians: Their History And Beliefs, pp. 11-13).
Paul F. Barackman, a Presbyterian Professor, commented, “Episkopos means ‘overseer,’ and was at first a general term. In Paul’s time the ‘bishop’s’ jurisdiction was the local church. . . .
“It is now rather generally agreed that ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ are two words for the same office in the early church. The term ‘elder’ was basically Jewish, and had reference to the man himself. The term ‘bishop’ was basically Greek, and had reference to the function of the office. As to what is said here and elsewhere in the New Testament regarding the qualifications for these officers, it might be a good thing if we were to review our church government from time to time in the light of what Paul and others had to say.
“‘Elders’ (presbuteroi) are not to be distinguished from bishops at this point” (The Epistles of Timothy and Titus, pp. 39,40,63).
The men and books noted and quoted above are not the standard of authority. The word of God is our pattern. The word of Christ will judge us in the last day (Jn. 12:48). New Testament churches did not have Archbishops, District Overseers, or a single Pastor serving under a board of deacons, but such structures are found in denominational churches. Is the church of which you are a member organized like that of the Bible? If its pattern of organization and government is not in the word of God, what about its worship and terms of admission, its plan of salvation? Are they like the Bible? If not, you need to be concerned. Ask questions. Seek scriptural answers; study your Bible.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 24, pp. 744-745
December 17, 1987