By Robert F. Turner
(Editor’s Note: The following article from brother Turner is part of a correspondence he had with a brother from the British Isles who had questions about the organization of the church. Brother Turner thought his answers to these questions might be helpful to other readers as well.)
1. Is the “single independent local church the only organizational structure divinely authorized”?
(lb) Does “elders in each church” mean a plurality in each congregation in a local church? For instance, (1c) did the church in Jerusalem have elders over it as a whole, spread out in 2 or 3 congregations, or (1d) did each congregation within the Jerusalem church have its own elders over that congregation only? To me, if the church there had a plurality of elders, maybe one in each congregation, could even have been in one congregation, overseeing the whole Jerusalem church, don’t you think?
Answer to One: Yes, I believe it is. There is no authority for an organization of saints on a scope larger than what we call a “local church;” and the burden of proof is on any who would contend otherwise. To reply to other questions and comments in an understandable manner we must first clear up the use of some terms.
“Congregation” is seldom used in the New Testament (Acts 13:43) but is often found in the Old Testament, coming chiefly from two different words: edah and qa1ah. The Hebrew edah is translated into the Greek LXX by sunagogue with its basic meaning of “gathering. ” (There was no institutional synagogue in O.T. times.) In the New Testmaent the word is applied to the Jewish synagogue and may even refer to the building where the Jews gathered (as “church” is so often applied today), but it retains its meaning of a “gathering” of people, or things (Jas. 2:2; cf. sunago,- Matt. 13:2; 18:20).
The Hebrew qahal of the Old Testament, also used for “congregation,” is translated in the LXX by ekklesia, and carries the idea of “a people joined to one another by laws or cords although they may not be collected” (Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament). In the New Testament it is applied to all saints (joined in Christ, Matt. 16:18); to saints distributively (Acts 8:1-3); as well as to saints who function collectively (Phil. 4:15). We usually use “local church” to designate this latter application. J.W. Roberts (Firm Foundation, July 6, 1965), writing about ekklesia says, “But as the ‘local church’ the meaning is that of the body politic, the totality of the individual Christians at a given place in their organized capacity.” Johannes Weiss, in Earliest Christianity (V. 2, 620), is quoted as saying, “Ecclesia therefore finally becomes a particular designation for the organized local church ” (my emphasis, rt). Please note Acts 14:27 where both words are used side by side “. . . and had gathered (sunagogontes) the church (ekklesia) together.”
The “local church” is a plurality of saints who have covenanted together to work as a “team” in the service of the Lord. They agree to work as one; to this end they pool funds, accept some means of reaching a common mind (when men are qualified they appoint elders), and they act as a team. Note Philippians 1:1, the saints in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (overseers and servants). In Philippians 4:15 these saints are called “church” and the word takes a singular verb. A local church (organized body) can function when not assembled, through its servants, or by funds sent to procure a service (cf. Phil. 2:25-30). One may call an organized local church a “congregation,” because these saints do “come together,” but a local church consists of many saints, not of many “congregations. ” The simple “gathering” of saints (for example: a home Bible study) does not constitute them an organized local church or congregation.
(lb) We first read of elders in Acts 11:30, before Paul’s first Journey, and there were a plurality. During that first journey Paul and Barnabas put “elders in every church” (14:23). During Paul’s second journey he wrote about “them” (plural pronouns) who are “over you in the Lord” (I Thess. 5:12-13). And thereafter, all reference to elders, bishops, pastors (shepherds) in a church are plural. In the absence of any other directions for church oversight I must conclude that God’s plan for organization structure is “elders in every church”; and that means elders in every congregation, if one wishes to use that designation.
(1c) The early church in Jerusalem had the apostles for teaching (Acts 2:42), leadership in handling problems (6:1-4), and contributions were laid at their feet (4:34-37); indicating they had control over those funds. The apostles appointed servants to handle certain physical matters (6: If). We have some indication of how they handled gatherings (see Acts 2:46), but there is no evidence of a plurality of churches congregations – at that time. Within a very few years the saints “were scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (8:1). However, by 50 A.D. the church in Jerusalem had elders (Acts 15:4f) and acted as one (15:22). Perhaps we need to realize that in those early days things were in a formative stage, inspired men directed the development as God would have it, but time was needed for full realization. Today we must be directed by the inspired written word.
(1d) As explained above, I do not believe scriptural terminology will allow us to treat “congregations” as units of a local ” church. ” Elders ” in every church ” means ” in every congregation” as well. If a group of saints qualify as an organized congregation, they should strive to appoint qualified elders (plural) as their overseers.
“The ‘local church’ is a plurality of saints who have covenanted together to work as a ‘team’in the service of the Lord. They agree to work as one; to this end they pool funds, accept some means of reaching a common mind (when men are qualified they appoint elders,, and they act as a team. (le) Shepherds of a local church are to “take the oversight thereof” and are to be “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2-3). This, coupled with “elders in every church,” seems clearly to teach that the elders of one church-congregation have no business claiming or taking oversight of some other flock or of their work. Church historians agree that the early apostasy began with the Metropolitan system, whereby overseers of one church controlled other churches around them, forming a diocese. This is a change in God’s plan for independent churches, and is as wrong today as it was then.
Paul told Titus to “ordain elders in every city” (kata polin) and some contend this means only one church per town. Of course it could as well mean elders in every church in every city. Crete was famous for its 100 cities. Are we to conclude there was a church in each of them? I believe the truth is far less speculative. Greek scholars (Robins, Lenski) say this is the distributive use of kata, and many of them (Expositors, Alford, Meyer) cite passages for comparison (Lk. 8:1; Acts 15:21,26; 20:23). They translated “city by city,” and indicate it means “all over the island,” “of the church in several cities,” etc. Pulpit says, “It shows Christianity was widely spread in Crete,” and Lenski says “the placement of elders in each congregation.” These men are not quoted as final authority, but their expertise in Greek is respected.
Checking their references we find “Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:21), i.e., every city where there was a synagogue. Paul said the Spirit told him “in every city” that bonds and afflictions awaited him (Acts 20:23), i.e., those cities along his route to Jerusalem (21:4,10f). This is called “synecdoche”: the whole put for the part (cf. I Cor. 6:12). The meaning in Titus is, wherever there was a church, appoint elders there.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 8, pp. 261-262
May 2, 1991