Restoration Of Scriptural Church Organization

By H.E. Phillips

The “restoration” of anything is putting it back as it was. The word presumes that a departure, decay, destruction, a turning away, has taken place. Galatians 6:1 tells those who. are spiritual to “restore” the one who is overtaken in a fault. “Overtaken” in a fault is the return to the state of sin after having been redeemed by the blood of Christ. To “restore” such an one is to bring him back to the state of redemption by repentance and prayer, according to the word of God.

The restoration of the scriptural organization means putting the local organization of the church back as it was in New Testament days. That local organization was quite simple and unsophisticated. The scriptural arrangement is congregational autonomy with no organization but the local congregation.

Soon after the church was established by Christ on the first Pentecost following His ascension into heaven, Satan began his work to corrupt the doctrine and organization of the church. Paul warned the elders of the church at Ephesus about this (Acts 20:29,30). “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work. . . ” (2 Thess. 2:3,7). “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils. . . ” (1 Tim. 4:1). These verses support the statement that departure from the original teaching and practice of the faith began in the days the New Testament was being written, and the departure would develop into full apostasy. We should expect this to include the organization of the local church.

The Rise Of Denominationalism

The term “Church” is used in the New Testament to include all the redeemed (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22,23; 3:10; Col. 1:18). It sometimes refers to the congregations in an area or district, such as Galatia, Judea, Galilee, Samaria (Gal. 1:2; Acts 9:31, ARV). It is used to signify the assembly of the “called-out” – the church (1 Cor. 11: 18; 14:19,28,34). Then the word is used to describe a local congregation of God’s people (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; Rev. 2:1).

By the close of the second century after the church was established, dangerous changes began to take place in the church government. A bishop with a strong, dominate character and forceful personality began to assume the role of “chief” or “head bishop.” He soon became “The Bishop” instead of one of the number of bishops. The irresistible trend of human organization has been to centralize and place power in one man or one committee. In the case of the papacy, the hierarchy of Rome represents the ultimate in central power and usurpation of God’s authority. By the middle of the third century the bishops of large cities had assumed power over a district of churches and ruled them through an ever expanding hierarchal system. Bitter rivalry developed among the chief bishops, which culminated in a division between the Bishop of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome. The separation of the two Bishops in 1054 resulted in the Greek Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The assumption of the title of Universal Bishop or the “Pope of Rome” was first given to the Bishop of Rome, Boniface III in 606 A.D.

This Universal Bishop claimed to be ruler of both the religious and the political world, thus the development of an Ecclesiastical-Political Hierarchy that suppressed people for centuries. Many subordinate ecclesiastical offices developed and this, of course, necessitated additional organizations. This Catholic Hierarchy is a maze of Political and Ecclesiastical organizations and institutions for every conceivable function. It is so foreign to the New Testament that it is not possible to even make a comparison with the New Testament pattern.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the rebellion against the Roman Church brought into existence a number of religious bodies with different forms of government. Denominationalism is the product of an effort to reform the Catholic Church in organization, doctrine and practice. As the various forms of church government developed, problems of internal unity arose.

Martin Luther began his protest against the Catholic Church on October 31, 1517 in Germany. Zwingli began in Zurich, Switzerland, and John Calvin set forth his principles in Geneva, Switzerland in 1536. A Presbyterian form of government came from Calvin. Presbyterianism was introduced in Scotland by John Knox in 1560. Henry VIII became head of the Church of England by declaring himself head of the church in 1527 in a dispute with the Pope. Thus, it continued with the development of denominations and various church organizations.

The Beginning Of The Restoration In America

Out of the storm of Reformation discontent and theological disputes came the refreshing winds of Restoration thought and ideals. The decline of moral and religious life near the close of the eighteenth century caused several men of good minds to seek solutions to the problems and a restoration of the spiritual life as it was in New Testament times. They proposed to abandon all creeds and religious councils and go back to the Bible for the basics of early Christianity in doctrine, organization and practice.

Shortly before the turn of the nineteenth century unrest appeared in some of the major denominations in this country. The two principal areas of unrest were: (1) the call to abolish their creeds, and (2) an effort to restore scriptural organization and administration of power. These goals challenged the best minds of that day.

Near the end of the eighteenth century, James O’Kelley was established as a preacher in the Methodist Church. In 1794 O’Kelley led a committee to create a church government that would do away with all creeds and take the Bible only as the authority. This was in the right direction, but it did not get very far because other “conferences” gave birth to more “creeds” of one kind or another.

The Baptist Church was having its trouble with internal demands for change. Elias Smith was a member of the Baptist Church. His diligent Bible study led him to the conclusion that “Christian” (Acts 11:26) was the only name disciples of Christ should wear. He insisted that the Bible was sufficient for doctrine and practice. He later began meeting regularly with a few and established a church, which he called “a church of Christ”; they considered themselves only “Christians.”

Abner Jones, another Baptist, came in contact with Smith shortly after he established this church. They worked together in Vermont and New Hampshire, establishing “churches of Christ” that were free of human creeds, using only the Bible as their authority. They called themselves “Christians.”

Alexander Campbell was one of several who called for an abolition of the clergy rule and the creed making. Efforts were made to restore church organization local in nature and function. This plea gained great favor by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Barton W. Stone and Walter Scott united their labors and efforts with Thomas and Alexander Campbell. The movement grew rapidly, but the missionary conventions proved to be the thorn in the flesh that was to cause division later. A. Campbell tried to justify these “cooperative organizations and meetings” by explaining that they claimed no authority over the churches and formed no governmental organization. He was completely wrong.

However, neither Campbell nor Stone got away from e concept that evangelism necessitated organization above and beyond the local church. They created them d worked through them, but continued to talk about e local government of the church as the only divinely ordained one. Alexander Campbell was the first president of the American Christian Missionary Society, and continued in it until his death. His effort at a restoration of the New Testament organization of the church fell short of its goal.

Problems With The Restoration Efforts

The first meeting of the National Convention of Disciples was held in 1849 and the American Christian Missionary Society was the result. Many lifted their voices against this organization as being unscriptural, but Campbell’s voice was used as assurance that all was being done scripturally. The result was division among these brethren, and the first listing of “Churches of Christ” was in 1906. The Disciples of Christ and Christian Church, which later developed from another division, continued on in unscriptural practices and organization.

As the waves rise and fall with the tides, so the position and power of the Clergy in the organization of the church continued to rise and fall through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the early arrival of clergymen from England the doctrine of Evangelistic Ordination was a vital part of church organization. Churches could not be established without duly ordained ministers, and ministers could not function until duly ordained by an ordained minister. This was the center of local organization.

But this office of Evangelist, with this degree of power, began to decline with the work of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. The practice of Evangelistic ordination gave way to the requirement that a man be tested by the Conference or Association to determine whether or not he was suitable to serve as minister.

It was not long, however, until the idea of the superior position of the evangelist arose again. The “Pastor System” became a substitute organization for the eldership. W. Carl Ketcherside and G.K. Wallace debated the proposition involving the Pastor System and Evangelist Oversight in Paragould, Arkansas in 1952, and in St. Louis, Missouri in 1953. These debates are in print and provide some information on the subject. It ran its course and is not now the problem it was, except for a few spots in the nation.

Restoration Into The Twentieth Century

J.W. McGarvey was a student at Bethany College from 1857 to 1860. He graduated with highest honors, and became one of the greatest scholars among churches of Christ. He wrote several books, among them a book on the Eldership in which may be found his position on the organization of the church.

He taught that each church must have a plurality of elders. He wrote that these men were determined suitable for this work by the qualifications given in the New Testament, and that men who were not qualified could not be appointed as elders. He taught that these men were limited in their work to “the flock which is among you.” He insisted that there was no excuse for churches forming any kind of organization in the church in the absence of qualified men to be elders. In spite of the fact that brother McGarvey was so true to the Book on this subject, he accepted the nature and function of the American Christi I an Missionary Society.

H. Leo Boles also wrote a book on the Eldership which set forth the same Bible principles as J.W. McGarvey. Other men of that generation taught and practiced the truth on local church organization as taught in the New Testament.

What The Restoration Produced

The “Restoration” of the organization of the church had to go back to the first century and the doctrine of the apostles. As Paul and Barnabas returned from their first preaching tour they “ordained them elders in every church. . . ” (Acts 14:23). Paul left Titus in Crete, “that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5). The church scripturally organized is pictured in Philippians 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.” There are “servants,” 44saints … . bishops,” and “deacons.” That is all!

Restoring the organization to the New Testament church meant that preachers no longer maintained the oversight, in part or whole. Committees, boards, and the like could not substitute for scriptural overseers in each congregation.

A group of elders, not just one man, is to function as overseers in each local church. There are no organizational ties between churches for any function. Elders have no oversight over or into the affairs of another church anywhere. “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof. . . ” (1 Pet. 5:2).

Finally, the restoration produced a self-sufficient church in the local organization. Any organization or institution through which the local church attempts to do the work assigned to it, is unscriptural. Every authorized work given to the church that the church tries to assign to any other body or group is iniquity, and the workers of iniquity will not enter heaven (Matt. 7:21-23).

The restoration of the New Testament church, including the local organization, is not something that can be done one time and be forgotten. It is something we must continually strive to maintain. Every generation must be taught the principles of the New Testament and the requirements of local church government.

Guardian of Truth XXX: 11, pp. 338-340
June 5, 1986