Scriptural Elders and Deacons and the Charles Holt Controversy

By J.T. Smith

In 1959 H.E. Phillips wrote a book entitled Scriptural Elders and Deacons which has provided a great source of information for those who want to study the subject of church organization. (All quotations in this article will, be from this book unless otherwise identified.) In the book, brother Phillips discusses the nature and organization of the church (with special emphasis on elders, their qualifications and work, and deacons, their qualifications and work). As is the general rule with all of brother Phillips’ work, it is complete and true to the Book.

In the late 1960s, the late J.D. Hall financed a periodical called Sentinel of Truth in which he and brother Charles A. Holt began to espouse the doctrine that the church is not an organized, functional unit and that elders are nothing more than older persons. They contended that there is no such thing as the appointment of men to the eldership, for there is no such thing as the eldership.

“Necessity of Organization”

In his discussion of the subject of organization (p. 3), brother Phillips said, “Organization is absolutely necessary to order and to accomplishment to the fullest of ability when two or more people are associated in any given task. The lack of good organization in the church is the greatest hindrance to the efficient administration of the mission of the church. Since the Lord has but one church, and has given us one pattern for all congregations, it follows that the organization revealed in the New Testament is the only acceptable one. Any departure from or substitution for that divine pattern is heresy before God.

“If we allow a deviation from the divine organization of the local church, how can we object righteously to the change or innovation in the worship of the church, or the terms of entrance into the church? One is as important as the other” (Ibid., p. 3).

In the chapter “Perverted Organization of the Church,” brother Phillips points out the danger of changing church organization. He said, “Many religious leaders have departed from the New Testament model of the church in several ways, but no departure is more glaring than that of the organization. Most gospel preachers would contend loudly for sound doctrine in the church, but are careless and indifferent toward the organization. Those who teach and practice a perverted organization in the church are as unsound as the one who preaches another gospel, and should be disciplined as false teachers, for so they are” (Ibid., p. 5).

Brother Phillips then discusses seven unscriptural ways of changing church organization. They are: (1) Elders Just Puppets, (2) Trial Government, (3) Preacher Rule, (4) Leadership Ruling, (5) Majority Rule (Business Meeting), (6) Committee Rule, (7) Inter-Congregation Rule. None of these measure up to the kind of organization which God has set forth for the church. All are perversions of God’s plan.

“The Scripturally Organized Church”

“Since the church of Christ must be organized, and since the Bible teaches the complete will of Christ in all matters relating to the church, we must see what the Scriptures teach about the organization of the church. If we follow the Scriptures in organizing the church, it will be a ‘Scripturally Organized Church'” (Ibid., p. 3). “What do the words ‘organism’ and ‘organization’ as we use them mean? Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary is a good authority and here are his definitions:

“Organism: ‘1. Any organized body or living economy; any individual animal or plant. 2. The state of being organized (rare). 3. An organized body of people; an organization. 4. Any organ of a living body.’

“Organization: ‘1. The act of organizing; the act or process of arranging and getting into proper working order; as, the organization of an expedition. 2. The state of being organized; that which is organized; an organized body. 3. Organic structure; the disposition or arrangement of the organs of the performance of vital functions. 4. The arrangement of the parts of an aggregate or body for work or action; systematic preparation for action'” (Ibid., p. 2).

Now having determined what is meant by organization, brother Phillips says, “We must determine now what the Bible means by ‘Church'” (Ibid., p. 2).

In discussing the organization of the church, brother Phillips draws the following conclusions.

“Different Kinds of Organizations”

“There are principally three kinds of government possible in the local church. If one of these classifications falls into the divine pattern, the others are not possible in church organization.”

He then lists three different kinds of organizations. “Monarchy – A government where all legislative, judicial and executive powers are invested in one man. The Monarch is the law-giver, the judge and executor of the law. The subjects have no power at all except as the supreme ruler delegates. The subjects have two alternatives: (1) To submit to the laws of the supreme ruler and enjoy his promises, or (2) rebel and pay the consequences” (Ibid., p. 4). Of course this fits perfectly the kind of government that we see in the Scriptures as it relates to the Kingdom of God.

The other two kinds of governments listed are, Democracy, and Republic (which space will not permit us to define). These do not fit God’s pattern.

Brother Phillips then lists “. . . four conditions of organization of the church today (only four of which are cited below, JTS). Almost if not all will come in one of these conditions.

“A. Scripturally Organized – having qualified elders and deacons appointed and performing the mission of the church in a scriptural way.

“B. Scripturally Unorganized – having no members qualified for elders and deacons. . .

“C. Unscripturally Organized – having unqualified and unscriptural men ruling as elders, or some human organization as ‘committees’ or ‘business meetings’ ruling the congregation.

“D. Unscripturally Unorganized – having men scripturally qualified for elders and deacons but have never been appointed and are not serving, but where they ought to be appointed” (Ibid., p. 4).

“Scriptural Meaning of ‘Church'”

“There are three ways in which the word ‘church’ is used in the New Testament, each of which must be understood when speaking of the organization of the church.

“A. The church is used in the aggregate or universal sense. This refers to all the people the world over, young and old, men and women, who are in the church. It is used in such passages as Ephesians 1:22,23. Christ is the head of the church.

“B. The church is used in the sense of all the people of God in a district or country. This includes several congregations geographically separated from others, as in Galatians 1:2 – ‘Unto the churches of Galatia.’

“C. The church is used in the local sense. This refers to all Christians living and meeting in a certain place. This is in the congregational sense. Christ is the supreme Ruler, and the apostles exercise His authority in all doctrinal matters. But in addition to this the eldership is delegated with local authority in the church. All work and worship is done through the local church, therefore, all work must be done under the eldership, properly the authority in the church.

No worship, praise or particle of the mission of the church can be expressed outside the local church. All work of the church that is done in a scripturally organized form must be done under the eldership. There is no organization, except the apostles under Christ, in the church in the first two senses. If such an organization can be formed to supervise several local churches, why are not all organized missionary societies and such like scriptural? The same authority that would grant one would grant the other” (Ibid., pp. 11-12).

“No Elder Theory”

“A. There is no such office in the church as elders. It is argued that there is no such thing in the church as an ‘office.’ That the expression ‘office of a bishop’ in 1 Timothy 3:1 is from episcopee which means twice ‘visitation’ and twice ‘oversight,’ but not at any time as ‘official’ authority. It is further argued that this is a work and not an authority.” ‘If any man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.’

“The word office in 1 Timothy 3:1 is from Episcopee and is defined in Abbott-Smith’s Greek-Lexicon as: ‘Office, charge, esp. office of an episcopos.’ Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon gives a similar meaning.

“It is admitted in the above that twice the word in 1 Timothy 3:1 means ‘oversight’; and that twice in 1 Timothy 3:10,13 the word means ‘work.’ Is it to be understood that anything that is a work is not of authority? Christ was and is in authority – supreme authority in the church – but he also has work to do. All men in authority, whatever degree it may be, must work in executing that authority. It is true that the ‘office of a bishop’ is a ‘good work.’ But it is also admitted in the above argument that the word means ‘oversight.’ What is oversight? It means to oversee, to look over, to superintend. Does one appointed to look over the affairs of another have any authority at all? Authority always carries the idea of responsibility, and responsibility carries the idea of authority. If one Christian is in any way responsible for another Christian, to that extent he has authority and must exercise it in order to fulfill his responsibility” (Ibid., pp. 19-20).

The conclusion of all this information is described by brother Phillips. “If we submit to men called ‘elders,’ we will have to do away with the authority of Christ, it is said. But to reject the authority of the eldership as Christ has appointed would do away with the authority of Christ. Any man to whom Christ has delegated authority must be recognized as such or we reject the authority of Christ” (Ibid., p. 21).

From the above it is easy for us to understand why brethren Hall and Holt would have pronounced anathema on brother Phillips’ book and would have it cast into the depths of Hell. In fact, there were several articles by brother Holt in Sentinel of Truth regarding the book and brother Phillips’ position.

As with the above material, the remainder of the book deals with many other aspects of the organization of the church, qualifications of elders and deacons and their work. If you do not have the book, it is a must for your library and well worth the price you will pay.

On November 13, 1967, brother Charles Holt published an open letter to brother Phillips in Sentinel of Truth in which he challenged him to a debate on the church and eldership issues. This was in response to an earlier statement by brother Phillips in Searching the Scriptures expressing his intentions to “review some of the things that you and J.D. Hall have written which I believe to be error.” However in his reply December 7, 1967, brother Phillips pointed out that even though brother Holt had challenged him to a debate to be published in Searching the Scriptures and Sentinel of Truth, “After a thorough search through your letter I am unable to find a proposition, or even a hint of one, that you want to debate.”

According to brother Phillips’ statements in Searching the Scriptures, there were a couple of meetings between him and brother Holt at the Florida College Lectures in January 1968. It was his understanding that both men agreed to a suggestion made by brother Phillips. “I suggested again that we agree on propositions, number and length of articles and publish them in book form. I understood ,Charles to agree with this.” Whether he agreed or not, the discussion never came to pass.

It is the considered opinion of this writer that the positions taken in brother Phillips’ book are unanswerable, thus the reason for brother Holt’s failure to engage in the debate.

It is also the considered opinion of this writer that H.E. Phillips possesses one of the greatest minds among us. It shows in the material that he has authored, not only in the above mentioned book, but in all his writings throughout the years.

It has been my privilege to study at the feet of this great man on numerous occasions. He is one of the finest Christian gentlemen I have ever had the privilege of meeting. My thanks to God for him and for his God-given ability.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 17, pp. 517-519
September 7, 1989