What God Authorizes for Organizing His Church
The word “church,” in the New Testament, sometimes is used in a general sense referring to all of the people of God. In this sense, there is but one church and this one church has no earthly overseer:
“Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Ephesians 5:23).
The church, in the universal sense, does not assemble, has no treasury, and has no work to do in an organized capacity. It is not an organization but a relationship between Christ and His followers.
In order for the people of God living in local areas to do anything in an organized capacity, God had to either reveal some organization in and through which to do His work, or just infer that His people were to organize in some fashion; in which case any organization devised by man would be authorized. In the good wisdom of God, He chose to give us the local church. The term “church” is used to refer to churches in local areas. Jesus instructed John to:
“write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thayatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” (Revelation 1:11).
We see from various Scriptures where the term “church” is used in a local sense that these churches consisted of saints who agreed to work and worship together under a common oversight and pooled their resources in a common treasury to accomplish the work God has assigned a local church.
How Were Local Churches in the New Testament Organized?
The simplicity of God’s organization for His local churches is seen in Paul’s address to the church in Philippi:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).
God ordained that each local church would be overseen by men referred to as “bishops” or “elders” (aged, experienced men). Paul left Titus in Crete so he could “set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city,” and in the midst of stating an elders’ qualifications, Paul said
“a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God” (Titus 1:5,7).
The term “bishop” means “one who watches over people under his charge…an overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly…guardian of souls, one who watches over their welfare” (Thayer, p.243). “Bishops” are also described as “pastors” (Ephesians 4:11) which refers to their responsibility to “shepherd the flock (church) of God” (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28). While elders are given the authority to “rule well” (1 Timothy 5:17), they are not to be “lords over those entrusted to” them, and so are not authorized to make laws; they are to feed and tend to the flock by teaching the principles of God’s law, remembering that they shepherd, not their own church, but “the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The Scriptures mention “deacons” as having a role in the organizational structure of a local church; after listing the qualifications for bishops, Paul lists qualifications for “deacons” and concludes:
“For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:10).
The word “deacon” means “servant” and refers to one who is a helper or servant of the church. “Deacons” are not rulers or overseers, as commonly practiced in many denominations; they are to work under the oversight of the bishops and assist them in the functioning of the local church. Deacons can be appointed over any business that is the God-given business of the local church.
We further read of “evangelists” (meaning “a proclaimer of good news”) as being a part of the organizational structure of the local churches that we have record of in the New Testament. Paul instructed Timothy to
“do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5).
When we examine the three letters written (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) to two evangelists, we learn how they assist in building up the local church by preaching the word of God, edifying the saints, taking the initiative in seeing that congregations are fully organized, and warning against false teachers.
Local Churches: Independent and Autonomous
“Independent” means “not subject to control by others; not affiliated with a larger controlling unit; not requiring or relying on something else” (Webster’s, p.584). “Autonomous” means “having the right or power of self-government; undertaken or carried on without outside control” (Webster’s, p.77). Local churches in New Testament times were independent and autonomous organizations; each local church could do all the work God assigned without outside control. There is no organizational tie between the local churches revealed in the Bible; each local church was separate and independent from every other local church. There was no control of one church over another; there was no system of church government larger than or smaller than the local church.
There is no indication in Scripture that any eldership ever, at any time, had oversight of more than one local church. God assigned the elders of a local church the oversight of the resources, the work, and the members of only the local church that was “among” them. Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus to
“…take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…” (Acts 20:28).
Peter instructed elders:
“Shepherd the flock of God which is among you…” (1 Peter 5:2).
Elders that assume the oversight of resources, works, or members that are larger than the local church which is among them, appealing to other churches for support and finances, do so without Scriptural authority. A local church ceases to be independent and autonomous (i.e. self-governing) when or if it turns the oversight of its work or finances over to another church, a centralized headquarters, or a human organization. The elders of a local church have no authority from God to turn the oversight of its resources, its work or its members over to another eldership, another church, or some human organization.
Safeguards are Inherent in God’s Plan of Organization
The organizational structure authorized by God is sufficient to do the work that God has assigned the local church to do, and it has safeguards against abuse and apostasy built in. For example, with a plurality of “elders in every church” (Acts 14:23) there is less likelihood of apostasy on the congregational level than with the “one-man-pastor” system of many denominations. With a plurality of qualified men overseeing the work and resources of the local church, there is virtually no way for a local church to fall away from the truth. Yet with one man ruling over and controlling the church and its finances there is ample freedom for him to lead people astray or act like “Diotrephes” (see 3 John 3-10).
With each local church being an independent and autonomous organization there is less likelihood of apostasy on a widespread or universal basis. The wisdom of God is seen in the independent local church arrangement; if one local church becomes corrupted in doctrine or affected by evil practices, other local churches would not be so affected. God will not accept any system of organization other than that which He has ordained for His church; we must “hold fast the pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13).