There is an obvious contrast between the ecclesiasticisms of modern religious groups and the simplicity of church government in Christ’s original plan. Solomon wrote: “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccl. 7:29). Though this observation can have broader application, it certainly fits the way denominations have invented unscriptural schemes by which their churches are governed. The great apostasy which resulted in the hierarchy of Catholicism grew out of men assuming high positions of authority for themselves (Acts 20:29ff). Protestantism and the denominations which followed broke free of many of the errors of Rome, but for the most part could not give up the politics of centralized control. Even those which claim congregational autonomy may feel constrained by and be pressured by denominational conventions.
Christ the Head
In the scriptural plan Christ is the only head of the church and the only headquarters is Heaven (1 Pet. 3:22; Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22-23). He has absolute authority (Matt. 28:18-20) and no legislation is acceptable from any other source. It is not our purpose in this article to argue that the Scriptures alone reveal the instructions of our King, but knowing that to be the case, we surely see the error of councils which claim authority for themselves. It has been demonstrated over and over that the larger and more prestigious denominational organizations become, the further will be their departures from the truth. A recent egregious example was in a council voting to ordain homosexual bishops. That was a case of an unscriptural board approving an immoral lifestyle for a non-biblical position.
The Head of the church commissioned the apostles to be his representatives on earth (2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Cor. 14:37). These ambassadors of Christ declared the gospel and guided the proper formation of the congregations. It was through them that the commandments of Christ are made known (Matt. 28:18-20). It is important to understand that their instructions originated with and had the authority of Christ. He told them: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18, NASU, emp. mine). This reminds us of David’s assurance: “Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven” (Ps. 119:89).
The ministry of the apostles was in the context of history. Revelation of the pattern was progressive. That is, in various places situations arose which required apostolic guidance. The instructions they gave in those situations demonstrate the principles by which the church is to be guided today. In this way the New Testament gives a pattern which ought to be followed.
In telling the apostles that their authority would originate in heaven, he added: “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt. 18:19-20). This is sometimes thought to be assurance for those in small church gatherings, but that is hardly the application. In Acts 15 we find more than “two or three” of the apostles (and others) being together to affirm the truth regarding the Gentiles. This is the only time recorded of apostles meeting together over a doctrinal issue. However, it was not to legislate but to affirm for the brotherhood what Christ had already revealed.
This emphasis on apostolic authority is necessary because the world is not satisfied with the ancient order of things. The common notion is that the apostles’ teaching and practice was satisfactory back then, but hardly suitable for changing times. This presumes the Lord’s failure to provide a plan suitable for all nations and all times. Such presumption ignores not only the intended universality of the apostolic commission (Great Commission), but also Christ’s assurance regarding the apostles: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
There were movements even in New Testament times to depart from the original order. As a reason for not being “carried about with divers and strange doctrines,” the Hebrews writer emphasized: “Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:7-9). Whatever in any creed, discipline, manual, or private opinion that is thought to be an improvement on the Scriptural pattern is an affront to the infallibility and unchangeableness of the risen Lord. The “faith,” the true Christian system, was “once for all delivered” (Jude 3).
The biblical pattern makes no provision for succession of the apostolic office. This is evident when after the martyrdom of James no one was chosen to replace him. (Paul’s commission without being one of the twelve was unique, with a special purpose regarding Gentiles, but was not to be in place of James).
Baptized believers who worked and worshiped in a given area constituted a local congregation. Their assemblies together identified them as a church of Christ. Though in each Christian’s relationship with Christ he or she was part of the universal church, earthly membership was in local congregations. Each congregation organized after the New Testament pattern and faithfully serving Christ was in itself as completely a church of Christ as was any other congregation in the whole world. Christian were expected to assemble together (Heb. 10:25). Those who traveled to other places were expected to connect themselves with the local church there (Acts 9:26; 11:26; Rom. 16:1ff).
Local congregations were known collectively as “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). These were all part of the same cause and cooperated with one another, but were autonomous bodies. Unlike the inter-congregational arrangements of denominations, there was no hierarchy ruling over districts, states, or the world.
The letter Paul wrote to the church of Christ at Philippi was addressed: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). The term “saints” applies to all Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). “Bishops and deacons” refers to men qualified for leadership and service positions in the congregations. Another word for “bishop” is “overseer.” This implies leadership. The scriptural pattern is for a plurality of bishops to guide a local congregation. A church was not “set in order” until qualified men could be given this responsibility (Titus 1:5-9).
Other New Testament terms are used interchangeably in reference to the role of bishops. They are called “elders” (“presbyters”), reflecting their being men of experience. They are called “pastors” (“shepherds”) to show their loving care for the “sheep” in their charge. A review of various passages, such as Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-4, where these terms are used will prove that all applied to the same office. One will find, however, that the ways the same terms are frequently used today are different from the simplicity found in Scripture. Bishops/elders/pastors must meet qualifications (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). They are themselves subject to Christ and must never yield to their own self-interest (1 Pet. 5:1-4).
Another point about church government which denominations often choose to ignore is the pattern of male leadership. Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, wrote: “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:12). Only men were chosen to be elders. We should take note of the fact that Christ chose no female apostles. This is not to be interpreted to mean spiritual, moral, or intellectual inferiority, only that God made us male and female and has assigned different roles.
The deacons in New Testament congregations met qualification which made them suitable for special service assignments. It is likely that the seven men chosen to serve a special need in Jerusalem were deacons, though the term is not used in the text (Acts 6:1-6). (Diakoneo, a derivative of diakonos, the Greek term transliterated “deacon,” is used in Acts 6:2.) Deacons are not overseers. Instead, they are expected like all the members to obey those who have been scripturally appointed to rule the congregation (Heb. 13:17). The Acts 6 example indicates they are “special servants” whom the leaders of the church put in charge over various ministries of the local congregation.
Ephesians 4:11-12 indicates that in addition to the inspired apostles and prophets who gave the church the New Testament (cf. Eph. 3:3-5; 2 Pet. 1:19-21) and the pastors who oversaw the church as elders, evangelists and teachers also worked in the local congregation to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The work of evangelists is to bring the gospel to the lost, while the work of teachers is to teach and spiritually build up the saints. Preachers and ministers such as Timothy were given the responsibility to “do the work of an evangelist” and to “teach others” (2 Tim. 4:5; 2:2). Many preachers are financially supported in their work by local congregations (1 Cor. 9:4-14; 2 Cor. 11:8-9; Phil. 4:14-19). Serving under the oversight and authority of the overseers of the local church, they are to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2) “with all authority” (Tit. 2:15).
“Follow The Pattern”
In spite of the apostasy of many in departing from the simple organization found in the New Testament, churches of Christ must still heed “the pattern of sound words” which are found in the inspired writings of the apostles and prophets and in so doing, “guard the good deposit” entrusted to us (2 Tim. 1:13-14). The biblical pattern for church organization exists and is clearly seen in Scripture. We must work hard “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) and submit to the wisdom of God as shown in his plan for the organization of his church.
David is the former editor of the Carolina Messenger and serves on its board of directors.