By Darrel Haub
God has intended from eternity that the church manifest His wisdom to men; therefore, we need to respect His desires in church organization as we do in all other aspects of the church (Eph. 3:8-11). By organization, we mean “to be organized.” When something is organized it is (1) provided with an organic structure; systematized; (2) arranged; established; instituted; brought into being. (Webster’s New World Dictionary). From the beginning of the New Testament to the end, we find the church described as belonging to Christ. In Matthew 16:18, He promised to build His church; in Revelation 21:9, we find her described as His wife. These basic ideas alone should encourage us to search out the type of organization which the Lord desires and support only that in the Lord’s church today.
We find the church described as blood-bought in both her universal (brotherhood of all the saved) and local (collection of Christians in one area) senses in the scriptures. In Ephesians 5:25, we are taught that Christ gave Himself up for the church. The reference in Hebrews 9:11-22 to the total body of those saved shows application of Christ’s death and the blood shed in His death to the church universally. In Acts 20:28, we see the eldership of Ephesus charged to shepherd the local flock of God which is also blood-ought. We would, therefore, expect to find the wishes of Christ manifested in the organization of the church in both her universal and local capacities.
In promising to build the church, Christ also authorized the apostles to bind and loose in the kingdom according to the binding and loosing already determined by God (Matt. 18:18). Therefore, apostolic authority is needed for any church organization that pleases God. We find that the methods of determination of authority used in Acts 15, when the question of circumcision was considered, should be used to establish authority in church organization. Briefly, the methods used there were necessary inferences such as Peter reasoned from God’s revelation (Acts 10), approved example used by Paul and Barnabus, and direct statements such as James quoted from Amos (Acts 15:19). Since apostolic authority is given for both the offices and the filling of these offices in the organization of the church, she should be organized only according to that authority. Therefore, in both structure and operation, the organization of the church is divine in origin.
Officers In The Universal Church
By many direct statements, we find the universal church established as a monarchy with Jesus Christ as her head. As Peter preached his first gospel sermon on Pentecost, He proclaimed Jesus to be both Lord and Christ (cf. 2:36). This statement makes Him both ruler and intercessor in the kingdom. As Lord, He is both Lawgiver and Judge (Jas. 4:12). When questioned by Pilate about Himself, Christ answered affirmatively to the charge of being a king, yet not a rival of Caesar (John 18:26-37). He is called the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls (I Pet. 2:25). We also find Him described as the Chief Shepherd over other shepherds (1 Pet. 5:4). This reinforces the subjection of local church elders to Christ as head of the church. In the Scriptures, Jesus Christ is described as a permanent high priest ever living to intercede for men under our better covenant (Hebrews 7:22-5). Therefore, the unique position of Christ in the church as ruler, judge, and high priest is firmly established by divine Scripture.
Jesus functions in these areas as He does because He is qualified to do so. He qualifies as ruler because He pleased God in all respects (Matt. 17:5). He qualifies as judge because God raised Him from the dead (Acts 17:31). He qualifies as high priest because He is both God and man who was tempted in all points yet without sin (Heb. 4:14-16).
Next in the universal church, we see the establishment of the apostleship. These men were charged with binding and loosing in the kingdom (Matt. 18:18). They function in a universal sense as Paul taught in many churches (1 Cor. 4:17). Their primary mission was to witness to men what Christ had said and done in person and what He would tell them through the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Acts 1:2-8). Their field of work is the whole world; they are still the church’s apostles even though none are alive today.
The qualifications for apostles are given to us in Acts 1:21-26. They must have been an eye witness of Christ. Also, the Lord must have chosen them Himself. This latter qualification is especially reinforced in the case of Paul as related by him in Acts 26:16-19. He is the last apostle to have been appointed by Christ (1 Cor. 15:8).
There is another office in the universal church in which men were inspired to function for the whole church. That office is the office of prophet. Some came from Jerusalem and prophesied in Antioch (Acts 11:27-28). We notice also that the church in Antioch had some prophets of her own (Acts 13:1). A prophet was qualified to prophesy by a spiritual gift which came by the laying on of Apostles’ hands (Acts 8:17). In the reading of 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14, the limited nature of spiritual gifts is taught so that the gift of prophecy would only exist until the revelation of the word of God was completed. We are not concerned that we have no Apostles to now bestow that gift. The prophets functioned to edify, exhort, and console the church (1 Cor. 14:3) before the inspired word was completed to do that work.
In the universal church, members are identified by various terms indicating status and function. Hebrews 2:11 shows us that we are brethren with Christ, hoping to inherit with Him. 1 Peter 2:4-10 presents the universal church as a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices. These descriptive names help us to understand our function as members of the universal body of Christ. The qualifications for universal church membership are salvation (Acts 2:47) and being faithful to God as we live day by day (1 John 1:5-10).
Officers In The Local Church
A local church is identified in Philippians 1:1 where the saints are addressed with the overseers and deacons. Until elders are appointed in a local church, something is wanting (Tit. 1:5). Even though it is not wrong -for a church to exist for a period of time without elders as in Acts 14:21-23, the local church is intended to be organized by having them. Never do we find them referred to as functioning without a plurality of their number.
By looking at the various names given to the eldership, we can determine their function. The idea of elders being overseers of the local flock is presented in Acts 20:17-32. However, they are also required to go to the word of God for their authority, not legislating for themselves. The word elder calls to our minds age, wisdom, and experience. In 1 Tim. 3:1, they are also addressed as overseers and, in 1 Peter. 5:1-3, they are told to shepherd the flock as shepherds. In this passage, they are also told to be examples to the flock and not as lords which might require one thing and do another.
When a question arose concerning the teaching of circumcision by Christians from Jerusalem, the elders were involved in an examination of the inspired evidence and a determination of what to do about this matter (Acts 15). One time, Paul called upon the elders in Jerusalem before entering the Temple and they advised him to go through the Jewish cleansing ceremony to avoid difficulty (Acts 21:17-26). It certainly is wise for a Christian to consult his elders to benefit from their wisdom and experience in problems of life as a Christian. They should be called upon to pray in behalf of one of their flock such as for sickness as discussed in James 5:14. We see them working to shepherd both the sheep and the flock of their charge.
By the very nature of their work in watching over souls (Heb. 13:17) and protecting the flock through exhortation within and refutation of false doctrine without (Tit. 1:7-11), they must be well qualified men. Qualifications for the eldership are given clearly in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1-:6-9. Even though these qualifications may appear to restrict the eldership beyond the average adult male, mature Christian, these qualifications must be respected or the eldership cannot do what God intends it to do. God never restricts needlessly; therefore, these things are essential to an elder’s normal function. Every man in the church should strive for the spirituality it takes to be qualified for the eldership whether he is married and a father or not.
In addition to the elders, we have an approved apostolic example of deacons, being appointed in the church (Acts 6:1-6). They were appointed to see to the details of the physical action of benevolence among the widows at Jerusalem. Again, a plurality of deacons is always seen, as in the eldership. Their qualifications are given 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The trusted work of the deacons in handlng the physical aspects of the local church’s work also requires the strict adherence to the qualifications listed.
In every case which discusses the eldership or the role of deacons, we see them restricted in their work to one local church. Elders are charged to shepherd the flock among them in 1 Peter 5:2 (i.e., one local church). The deacons of Acts 6 saw to the benevolent need of the widows in the church at Jerusalem. These facts show us that the Holy Spirit, as He establishes elders and deacons, establishes them to function only in the local church in which they hold membership.
Local church membership is based upon universal church membership or sainthood. Paul, after obeying the gospel, was accepted into the local church first at Damacus, then later at Jerusalem, based on his obedience to the gospel and new life which followed (Acts 9:18-28). In accordance with Paul’s instructions to Corinth, local church membership should be dissolved if unrepented sin is seen in the life of any of her members (1 Cor. 5). As members of the local church, Christians are expected to be subject to their authorized leaders as well as to the Lord.
The establishment of local church organization is done by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). In doing this, He works through the same revelation which is used to make us Christians. By the approved apostolic example in Jerusalem, we see the church selecting deacons and the apostles ordaining them. When the Holy Spirit has given us qualifications for the officers of the church and the members of a local church select men who meet those qualifications, having them set apart by an evangelist, we have acted by God’s authority in organizing the local church.
There is no earthly organization of the universal church given in the scriptures. Since the church in its universal sense has no functioning arrangement, it is logical that there be no earthly organization; therefore, Christ still rules from heaven as head of the church. The church in her local congregational capacity has an authorized earthly organization because she has collective activity to accomplish which is best done through organization. Even though local churches existed in New Testament times without elders and deacons and may do so now, they had and have something wanting until they are organized scripturally.
- Why should the church be organized according to Scripture?
- Discuss the significance of the church being blood bought in her universal sense and in her local sense.
- Why is apostolic authority needed in church organization?
- What is the general nature of the universal church organization?
- Describe the universal church’s offices.
- What offices are authorized in the local church?
- What should be expected of elders?
- What should be expected of deacons?
- Why should the local church be organized?
Truth Magazine XXIV: 4, pp. 69-71
January 24, 1980