Organization of the New Testament Church

The organization God planned for Christ’s church was simple. They had nothing larger than the local church and nothing smaller than the local church. In contrast, a denomination is a religious organization larger than a local church and smaller than the universal church. In the New Testament there is not a single word about two or more congregations being bound together by any sort of an organization whatsoever. There’s nothing said about representatives appointed to attend any sort of a conference of the churches. The only kind of organization God has given is on a congregational level. All other forms of government are excluded.

History of Denominational Church Organization

The apostle Paul warned that apostasy in the church would begin among the elders of the local congregations. “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). Soon after the apostles were gone some elders were exalting themselves over the others in local congregations. He began to call himself “bishop” while his fellow-elders were the “presbyters.” He became the “president of the presbytery.” This change in church government became quite established by 150 A.D.

The next digression in God’s order of church government came when the bishop of a congregation took control of “mission” churches taking them under his oversight and control. As a result, these new congregations lost their equality, autonomy and independence. This gave rise to the man-made position of Diocesan Bishop. These men began to meet in councils within provinces to discuss issues. In time, these councils produced rules or creeds for churches to adhere to.

This new form of church government continued to progress until 606 AD when Boniface the III was declared to be the Pope of the universal or Catholic Church. He said, “We declare, say, define and pronounce to every human creature that it is altogether essential to salvation to be subject to the pontiff. There is but one name in all the world; and that is the pope’s. All princes ought to kiss his feet. He alone can nominate or displace bishops, or dissolve councils. Nobody can judge him, He has never erred, and shall never err in time to come. He can depose princes, and release subjects from their oaths of fidelity. Thou art the shepherd, thou art the physician, thou art the husbandman, finally thou are another God on earth” (Christopher Marcellus, Lateran Council; History of the Councils, Labbe and Sassart, Vol. 14, p. 304).

The Reformation Movement rejected the authority of the Pope but did not return to the God-given organization of the New Testament church. They merely perpetuated the ecclesiastical system found in the Catholic Church. Centralized government of Mormons is in Salt Lake City, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have their headquarters in New York at the Watchtower Society, the Disciples of Christ have a General Assembly, there is the general conference of the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Southern Baptist Convention meets to determine rules for their local congregations. All of these are but Protestant replicas of the Vatican City on Rome and Catholicism’s hierarchal government structure.

It was during the Restoration Movement in America that a movement was begun to restore the order and government of the church of the first century. Barton W. Stone became convinced that it was unscriptural for the congregations to be bound together as they then were. This “presbytery” dissolved it by writing: “The last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”. The fifth item said, “We will, that each particular church, as a body, actuated by the same spirit, choose her own preacher, and support him by a freewill offering, without a written call or subscription – admit members – remove offenses; and never henceforth delegate here right to government to any man or set of men whatever”.

Organization of Local Congregations

To the church Christ “Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11).

Elders to Oversee the Church

The Presbyterian Church has a local government in their congregations ruled by elders who are youths and often female. In the Catholic Church the term “bishop” is often used for a man who is over a particular parish. While the term is used in some Protestant denominations to refer to a spiritual leader ordained over a particular district. The Mormon church has elders who are youths often unmarried and without a family. Many denominational preachers are called “pastors.” Among all this confusion of denominational terminology which of these reflects the organization of the church found in the New Testament?

A study of the definitions of Biblical terms is critical to an accurate understanding of any Bible topic. Words are vehicles by which thoughts are expressed in a way that the mind can clearly understand. Biblical terms like “bishop,” “elder,” “pastor,” etc. are used in a variety of ways. Six different English words are translated from three Greek words relative to our study. The six English words are: “elder” and “presbyter” both translated from the Greek word presbuteros; “overseer” and “bishop” translated from the Greek word episcopos; also there is “shepherd” and “pastor” translated from poimen. These are not honorary titles, but words describing the work to be done by those qualified for the office.

These six terms under discussion, are used interchangeably in the New Testament. In Acts 20:17 the apostle Paul calls for the “elders” of the church at Ephesus to meet him in Miletus. In verse 28 he refers to them as “overseers” and instructs them to “feed” the church. The word “feed” comes from the Greek word “poimainein” which is simply the verb form of “poimen” (shepherd or pastor). Therefore, in this context the same group of men are referred to as elders, overseers, and shepherds. This clearly establishes the fact that they are one and the same. Again Paul uses the terms interchangeably when he tells Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5). Then in verse 7 he instructs him: “For a bishop must be blameless”. Further evidence comes from the apostle Peter. He exhorts “the elders among you”(I Pet. 5:1) to “feed the flock of God which is among you serving as overseers” (v. 2). The word “feed” once again is the verb form of “poimen” which is a shepherd or pastor. Peter then uses the three Greek terms to refer to the same office.

Biblically speaking, the terms elder, presbyter, overseer, bishop, pastor and shepherd all refer to the same office in the organization of the early church. Every congregation in the New Testament times that had these men appointed to the leadership would have a plurality of elders, overseers or pastors. Any man claiming to be an elder, presbyter, overseer, bishop, pastor or shepherd must first meet the qualifications found in 1 Tim. 3:1f and Tit. 1:5. Furthermore, a preacher or minster was not the same as the Pastor of a congregation. First, the terms preacher, minister, evangelist are not used interchangeably in the New Testament with the term “pastor” (Eph. 4:11). Pastor is used interchangeably with the terms “elder” and “overseer.” Secondly, there would have to be a plurality of men equally serving the congregation as pastors having all met the same qualifications.

Elders were not appointed by leaders of another church or religious organization. They became so by the authority of the Holy Spirit when they met the qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1f; Tit. 1:5f) outlined by the Holy Spirit revealed Word. With the aid of the preacher, the local congregation chose qualified men to oversee the local work. Each congregation is to have a plurality of men to serve a congregation (Tit. 1:5). Elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23). Jurisdiction of elders was limited to the local congregation. Paul sent for the elders from Ephesus (Acts 20:17). Elders of the flock was the church at Ephesus distinguishing them from elders in other places (20:28). Elders were to tend their own flock (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Elders are not overseers of any aspect of the teaching, work or worship of any other church.

Deacons to Serve the Church

When Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi he addressed “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). The Greek term for deacon means “slave or servant.” Deacons had to meet certain God-given qualifications (1 Tim. 3:8f) before a local congregation could appoint them. Their work is not specifically outlined in the Bible. They serve the needs of the local church under the direction of the eldership.

Preachers to Proclaim Truth to the Church

Preachers are also called “evangelists” and “ministers” in the New Testament. Their qualifications and work is detailed in Paul’s letters to the evangelists Timothy and Titus. Paul wrote to Timothy: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1,2). They are not set by a church headquarters. Each congregation is responsible for the preaching of the Word by faithful men. Each church is to financially provide wages for those who preach to the local congregation and if it cannot other congregations can send fund directly to him (2 Cor. 8 and 9).

Teachers of the Word to the Church

Paul also instructed Timothy: “the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Members of the Church

Just as a body is composed of various members so the body (the church) of Christ is made up of many individual members (1 Cor. 12:12f). They were baptized in the universal church and are expected to join a local congregation with which to work and worship.

Local churches of the New Testament recognized no spiritual head on earth but only the Head of the church which is headquartered in Heaven. They do not recognize the authority of any council, synod, or conference. There is no higher organization on earth than the local church. The church, with its elders to oversee it, the deacons to serve it, and the evangelists to proclaim the word is an independent entity and answerable only to Christ. In this way churches of the first century were truly autonomous and independent and equal. They were independently organized (Acts 14:23); overseen (1 Pet. 5:2); and operated to fulfill its work (Acts 11:27-30; Phil. 4:15,16).

– Daniel R. Vess

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