The Organization of the Church
The importance of the God-designed organization for the church He has established can be illustrated by considering the organizational structure of man-made companies or civic groups. Due to the nature of the business of certain companies, they may find it most suitable to be organized with a national headquarters that oversee district offices that in turn control local offices. Such companies may have a President or CEO, and district managers and local officers. Non-profit organizations may see fit to be overseen by a Board of Directors, with one manager or director over each local office. These different forms of organization are determined usually by the work or purpose that the business or social entity intends to be involved in.
The Church is the Pillar and Ground of the Truth
God has revealed the organizational structure for His church, and the church is to be organized in accordance with the purpose and work that God has revealed that His church is to be involved in. The apostle Paul said to Timothy:
“…I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15)
From this passage, and others, we see that God’s design and purpose for His church is that it be the source of support for the truth He has revealed in the Scriptures. As “the pillar and ground of the truth,” the church is to be guarding the truth against corruption, supporting the teaching of the truth to the lost, and teaching the saved how they are to conduct themselves in the church. All of the letters written by the apostles and inspired writers to the churches and evangelists in the first century reveal that this is God’s design for His church. God, in His wisdom, has revealed the organization for His church that is best suited to carry out His purpose and work for His church.
Local Churches—Independent, Autonomous Organizations
There is no world-wide, national or district organization given by God to oversee or control the individual local churches we read about in the Bible. Each local church was governed by Christ’s teaching and answered to Him alone as their source of authority (Ex.—“the seven churches of Asia” we read about in Revelation 1–3). Each local church was independent (“not subject to control by others; not affiliated with a larger controlling unit”—Webster’s) and autonomous (“the quality or state of being self-governing…undertaken or carried on without outside control”—Webster’s) from all other local churches. There was no control of one local church over another; there was no system of government larger than or smaller than the local church.
Oversight by a plurality of elders in each local church was limited to that local congregation. The apostles established several local churches in their evangelistic journeys and “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). These elders were charged with the responsibility to “shepherd the flock which is among you” (1 Peter 5:4). There is no indication in Scripture that any eldership ever, at any time, had oversight of more than one local church. The elders of one local church did not oversee any of the works of another local church.
The Organization of Each Local Church
In order to organize the church to best fit God’s purpose for His church, He choose to have a plurality of elders oversee the work of each local congregation. The apostles “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). These “elders” are referred to as “shepherds” (Acts 20:17, 28-29) and “pastors” (Ephesians 4:11; “pastor” means “to pasture”) because they are to care for (feed and protect) God’s people as shepherds would care for their flock of sheep. “Elders” are also referred to as “bishops” or “overseers” (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Titus 1:5-7) because they are to watch over people under their charge and they are “charged with the duty of seeing that things done by others are done rightly” (Thayer’s definition of “bishop”, p.243).
Along with elders in the organizational structure of the local church, the Scriptures describe a work or office known as “deacon.” The church at Philippi received a letter from Paul addressed “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). “Deacons” (meaning “servants”) are special servants of the church who work under the oversight of the elders and assist them in the functioning of the church (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
This simple organization of each local church is adequate to take care of every responsibility and challenge each church faces. We see this from the church in the first century: as the apostles and prophets revealed God’s will (and recorded it one time for all time), the evangelists proclaimed God’s will to the lost in the world and saints in the church, and the elders maintained the oversight with the deacons to assist them in the edification and protection of each local church. The independent, autonomous local churches you can read about in the Bible, with their elders, deacons and saints, within one generation had spread the gospel throughout the world; they accomplished what God intended for them to accomplish.
Safeguards Are Built in to the Local Church Organization
The wisdom of God is clearly revealed by the way God has chosen to organize His church. The simple organizational structure we read about in the Bible is Divine in origin, sufficient to do the work God assigned His church to do, and has safeguards against apostasy built in.
For example, with a plurality of qualified elders in every church there is less likelihood of apostasy on the congregational level, than with the “one-man-pastor” system found in many religious groups. With a plurality of qualified men overseeing the work and resources of the local church (“the flock which is among them”), there is virtually no way for a local church to fall away. Yet with one man ruling over and thus controlling the church and its finances there is plenty of freedom to lead people astray.
With each local church being an independent and autonomous organization there is less likelihood of apostasy on a universal or general basis. If one local church becomes corrupted in doctrine or affected by evil practices, other local churches would not be so affected. If dissension arose in one local church, it would not spread to other local churches. The independence of each local church is a protection for each one. Many religious groups organized by men have earthly headquarters that control all or some of their local church activities, finances and teaching. Since all the local churches are connected through the headquarters, what affects one affects them all.
I have emphasized that the church we are talking about is the one God has established. If a group of people choose to organize a religious group in a way that is not revealed by God, how can that religious group be God’s church? Their authority for their organizational structure is not from heaven, but from men.