The Organization of the Church

by Earl Kimbrough
via Searching the Scriptures, August 1978, Volume 19, Number 8

The Lord designed the church according to his own will and circumscribed it with certain distinguishing marks which are clearly set forth in the Scriptures. No one of these essential features of the church is more important than any other. "All things" must be "according to the pattern" (Hebrews 8:1-5; I Peter 4:11). But history shows that no part of the divine plan for the church has been abused with greater destructive consequences to the whole than what is generally called the organization of the church. This was the initial error that paved the road to Papal Rome and the most significant failure of the Protestant Reformation. It was also the opening wedge that divided the churches of the Restoration movement and led the larger portion of them into denominationalism. The Lord's design for the organization of his church, therefore, must remain a major concern of those who desire to "speak where the Bible speaks" and to "be silent where the Bible is silent."

The Scope of Church Organization

The organization of the church cannot be understood without recognizing that the word "church" is used in two different senses in the Scriptures. The universal church is the spiritual body of Christ composed of all the redeemed souls over whom Christ reigns as head (Ephesians 5:23-27; 1:22-23). However, the universal church has no organization on earth. Each member of the body is united with Christ, but this union is affected and maintained by individual submission to his will. The apostles were set in the church as special representatives of Christ with authority to make known the Lord's will for the present age, but their concurrent reign with Christ is through the New Testament (Matthew 19:28; II Timothy 3:17-18). A careful search of the Scriptures reveals no trace of any earthly head or hierarchy over the church. Neither is there evidence of any organization within the body of Christ on a national or regional basis.

However, the New Testament does show the organization of Christians on a very limited and clearly defined level to carry out certain collective responsibilities. This is the local church made up of the disciples at a particular place who meet, work and worship together according to the will of Christ. This use of the word "church" pertains to separate local congregations, such as, "the church that was at Antioch" and "the church of the Thessalonians" (Acts 13:1; I Thessalonians 1:1). The independence and autonomy of the local church is exemplified in the New Testament. Each congregation had its own local membership. For instance, "the church of God which is at Corinth" consisted only of the saints in that city (I Corinthians 1:2). Each congregation maintained control of its local fellowship. It received faithful brethren into its number, retained spiritual oversight of its members (through its elders), and expelled those who refused to walk uprightly according to the truth (Acts 9:26-28; 11:26; I Corinthians 5:13; Revelation 2:14-16). Each congregation also performed its own divinely assigned mission.

The Divine Order in the Local Church

"All things" pertaining to the church were subject to Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). This, naturally, embraces everything that concerns the local church, as well as everything that concerns the universal church. The apostles' teaching was bound on all congregations equally. Paul reminded the Corinthians of his ways in Christ which, as an apostle, he taught "everywhere in every church" (I Corinthians 4:17). His instructions to one church were ordained "in all the churches" (I Corinthians 7:17; cf. 14:31-34). Thus, there was uniformity in all the churches. The apostolic order established in one congregation is necessarily the order established in all others. This was not only true in the first century, it is also true now, for what the apostles bound on the church then is still bound (Matthew 18:18).

The organization the Lord designed for the local church is very simple. Each congregation is self-governed under the spiritual care of men divinely chosen to oversee its membership. These men are known as "elders" or "presbyters" (Acts 20:17; I Timothy 4:14). The word indicates that those to whom the Holy Spirit applies it are mature Christians, experienced in the faith. But other descriptive terms are also used to designate the elders of a local church. They are called "bishops" or "overseers" to show the nature of their work (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5-7). They are also called "pastors" or "shepherds" indicating the manner of their oversight (Ephesians 4:11). Their service as shepherds is further seen in the pastoral word rendered "tend" or "feed" -- "tend the flock of God" (I Peter 5:2). It means "to act as a shepherd" (W.E. Vine).

Soon after Barnabas and Paul established the churches of south-central Asia Minor, they "ordained (appointed for) them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). Four important facts are stated or implied in this action.

  1. Each church had its own elders.
  2. The elders of each church were plural in number.
  3. The elders within each church were equal in authority.
  4. The eldership of each church was independent of and on an equality with the elders of all other churches.

These facts are in harmony with and are underscored by all else the Scriptures teach concerning elders. No congregation that respects these facts will have any problem in regard to the organization of the church, provided the men chosen to serve as elders are qualified for the work.

Elders who function as the Lord intends will be on guard for the spiritual welfare of the flock over which they have responsibility (Acts 20:28). They will "take care of the church of God" (I Timothy 3:5). They will "rule well" and "keep watch over" the souls entrusted to them (I Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17). They will uphold and defend the word of God, keeping the church in the way of truth and protecting it from false teaching (Titus 1:9; Acts 20:29-31). Moreover, they will perform their duties without "lording it over" those allotted to them, but will prove to be "examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:2-3). The qualifications for elders make it certain that those who serve as shepherds of the Lord's people are willing and able to do the work to which they are appointed (Cf. I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).

The elders' oversight begins and ends with the local church. It is limited to the members, work and resources of the congregation in which they serve. The Ephesian elders were shepherds of the flock of God at Ephesus, but they had no responsibility over the flock at Smyrna, nor any other church in Asia or the world (Acts 20:28). Peter's exhortation to elders also limits their oversight to "the flock of God among you" (I Peter 5:1-4). What more could be said to more clearly ascribe the bounds of elders' authority?

In addition to elders, the Lord provides for deacons in the local church to assist the elders. Paul's letter to the Philippians shows that deacons were an established order in the congregation with the elders. It is addressed to all the saints at Philippi "with (including) the bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1). Evangelists in the church are charged with preaching and teaching the word of God (II Timothy 4:1-5; Acts 8:5; 11:26; 20:20; 21:8). But evangelists are not in charge of the church. Like deacons, teachers and other members of the congregation, they serve under the oversight of the elders.

The Sufficiency of the Lord's Plan

The congregational organization the Lord gave for his church is fully sufficient for all governmental details of its work. This sufficiency is obvious from the fact that the organization is exclusive (Cf. II Peter 1:3). If more were needed, more would have been given. No other order can exist by apostolic authority. Nothing else is "according to the pattern." Nothing more may be set up "in the name of Christ" (Colossians 3:17). Anything added to the Lord's plan for congregational independence carries us beyond the teaching of Christ and into that realm where there is no fellowship with God (II John 9-10).

The Lord's exclusive plan necessarily eliminates any means for the function of the universal church, whether by a confederation of churches or an intermediate agency to act for the churches. The Lord's church needs no outside organizations or inter- congregational arrangements through which to work in evangelism, edification, benevolence, discipline, or anything else that concerns its mission. Conscientious elders who understand Paul's instructions to their Ephesian counterparts in Acts 20 will not delegate any part of their work to any other elders or institution on earth.

The first century churches operated only in their separate congregational capacity. The local church "sounded forth" the word of the Lord in its own and adjacent regions (I Thessalonians 1:8). It supported preachers at home and abroad, sending directly to their need (I Corinthians 9:14; Acts 11:22; Philippians 4:15-16). It provided relief for its indigent members and when sister churches were destitute it sent directly to their necessity (Acts 4:32-35; 11:27-30). It was also fully sufficient in edification (Acts 20:28). Nothing -- no board, ecclesiastical order, or intermediate eldership -- stood between the church and its work. None was needed; none was allowed.

The Danger of Disregarding the Lord's Plan

More than a century ago, David Lipscomb wrote, "We sincerely and earnestly believe all organized bodies for religious purposes outside of, within, above or below the congregations of the Lord are sinful and treasonable" (Gospel Advocate, Jan. 18, 1870, pp. 27-28). Sin is the violation of God's law; and treason, specifically, is a betrayal of trust or a breach of faith. Disregard for the independence and autonomy of the local church, whether by overt institutionalism or weakly camouflaged under a "sponsoring church," violates God's law and is a breach of faith. This is exactly what institutionalists are guilty of and Lipscomb used well-chosen words when he labeled their practice "sinful and treasonable."

There is other danger also inherent in institutionalism. Once brethren overstep the bounds of divine authority to work through organizations outside their own congregation, they open the floodgate to further apostasy. It is only a matter of time until such churches lose their New Testament distinctiveness and blend smoothly into the denominational landscape. Those who try to justify institutionalism will pervert the word of God to achieve their purpose. This is seen in the futile attempt to find a missionary society in the Great Commission, a "sponsoring church" in Acts 11:27-30, and a benevolent board in James 1:27. Another real, though less apparent, danger is found in the difficulty men have in ever returning to the simplicity of the apostolic order once they have tasted the intoxicating power and glory of institutionalism.

"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1). This is the only organization the Lord gave for his church. Each congregation is an independent body with its own elders, deacons and other members. Each does its own work under its own elders. There are five good reasons why this plan should be explicitly followed by every church of Christ on earth.

  1. It is authorized by Christ.
  2. It is simple and practical.
  3. It is all-sufficient for what is needed by way of organization.
  4. It is a strong force in holding the disciples of Christ to the right course in all matters of teaching, faith and practice.
  5. Disregarding it will end in spiritual ruin.

As the lamented James M. Pickens expressed it so long ago, "If the door is set ajar for innovations, how shall we determine where it shall stand or that it should not stand wide open, and that continually?" (The Christian Monthly, Aug., 1870, p. 233.)