"Organization of the Church"

by Michael S. Cole, M.D.

Jesus said, "On this rock I will build My church, and the
gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
- Matthew 16:18

The church that Jesus built was HIS church. Jesus Christ is Himself its foundation (I Cor. 3:11). He is the Savior of the church (Eph. 5:23). It was purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28). He is the Head of the church (Col. 1:18). The church is the bride of Christ (II Cor. 11:2). The church is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:23). The Bible says there is only one church (or body) (Eph. 4:4).

Since the church belongs to Jesus Christ, the New Testament is our only reliable guide to the church's organization and the regulations for entering His church. No man-made churches are described or authorized in the Bible (Psm. 127:1).

The New Testament often refers to "the church" in a universal sense, encompassing the entire family of God throughout the world (Mark 16:15). Also, the scriptures frequently refer to "the church" in a local sense (I Cor. 1:2).
The Bible authorizes no organization for the universal church, except Jesus, who is the absolute ruler (Eph. 1:20-23) with absolute authority (Matt. 28:18). The New Testament does present Christ's plan for the organization of the local church.

The only way to construct the true, original organization that God approves of is to look into the scriptures. Let us examine the organization of the local congregation in the first century.

The church was established in Jerusalem on Pentecost, about 33 A.D. (See Acts 2). After this, the New Testament makes no reference to anyone being saved without being in the church. God automatically adds the saved to the church (Acts 2:47). Entrance into the church (the body of Christ) occurs with baptism (Gal. 3:27, I Cor. 12:13, Acts 2:38-41).

In the first century church, members were simply called "Christians" (Acts 11:26, I Pet. 4:16). They were also referred to as "saints" (Acts 26:10, Rom. 1:7, I Cor. 1:2, Eph. 1:1). Christians were also considered to be "priests" (Rev. 1:6, I Pet. 2:9).
The New Testament is filled with instructions for Christians, including how to act, how to respond to others, and how to serve God (II Tim. 3:16-17, Titus 2:2-8).

Though men and women are equally valuable in God's eyes, they are to fill different roles in His church. It is by God's design that women are not permitted to assume positions of church leadership (I Cor. 14:34, I Tim. 2:12).

From among the members are chosen teachers, preachers, deacons, and elders.

All Christians are expected to be able to teach the lost (I Pet. 3:15, Matt. 28:19). All Christians were told to "teach and admonish" one another in the first century (Col. 3:16). Those qualified with considerable knowledge of the Scriptures can teach in a more formal manner. Those who do, have greater responsibility (James 3:1).
God expects teachers to present the Word accurately and fully (II Tim. 2:15, Acts 18:26, Matt. 28:20). The scriptures gravely warn Christians about false teachers (II Cor. 11:13-15, II Tim. 4:3-4, I Tim. 4:1-3, Matt. 24:24).

Men who choose the ministry as an occupation (I Cor. 9:14) are called preachers (Rom. 10:14), ministers (Col. 1:23), and evangelists (Acts 21:8). They have no duty to God different from any other Christian, just greater responsibility to work full time for the Gospel.
The apostle Paul instructed the young evangelist Timothy to "Preach the Word" (II Tim. 4:2, 5). First century preachers were primarily concerned with pleasing God (I Thess. 2:4, Gal. 1:10); therefore they preached the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).
A minister is to serve (Matt. 20:26-28). The preacher can be a leader in the church (Phil. 3:17). But no where does the Bible authorize him to be a ruler.

New Testament preachers diligently studied the Word of God, using references from the Bible to support their preaching (Acts 2). They believed the Scriptures alone were sufficient and condemned those who taught otherwise (I Tim. 4).

Faithful New Testament evangelists preached the gospel fully (Rom. 15:19), forcefully (Acts 18:28), simply (II Cor. 11:3), urgently (I Cor. 9:16), boldly (Eph. 6:19-20), and in love (Eph. 4:15).
Their preaching was aimed at converting the lost to Christ, restoring the wayward Christian, and keeping the saved saved.

The word deacon comes from a Greek word meaning "servant." We find the first deacons being chosen because of a specific need in Acts 6. The needs and circumstances of a given situation in the New Testament church determined when deacons were appointed and how many were required. The deacons had authority only as they were assigned to be over some specific business.

The Bible has clearly instructed early Christians (and us) about the qualifications for men who serve in the office of deacon (Acts 6:3, I Tim. 3:8-13):

  1. Good reputation
  2. Full of the Holy Spirit
  3. Full of wisdom
  4. Reverent (serious)
  5. Not double-tongued
  6. Not addicted to wine
  7. Not greedy for money
  8. Hold faith with pure conscience
  9. Found blameless
  10. One wife (who is reverent, temperate, faithful, and not a slanderer)
  11. Manages his own family well

The Bible makes no indication that deacons were permitted to rule in the early church. They were to serve under the oversight of elders (or bishops).

The local congregation in the first century had "bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:1).

By God's design "elders" are to rule in the local church (I Tim. 5:17). The office they hold is also referred to as "bishops" (I Tim. 3:1), "overseers" (Acts 20:28), and "shepherds" or "pastors" (I Pet. 5:2, 4; Eph. 4:11).
Each church should be governed and supervised by a plurality of such men, not by one "Bishop" or one "Pastor." There were "elders" over the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17), and "bishops" over the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:1). Paul instructed Titus to "appoint elders in every city" (Titus 1:5, Acts 14:23).
As a ruler in the church, an elder is only authorized to maintain those rules already set down in the New Testament (Acts 20:30, Gal. 1:9). He is not to be domineering, but is to lead by his example (I Pet. 5:3).
All Christians have been commanded to submit to the leadership and authority of the elders of their congregation (I Pet. 5:5, Heb. 13:7, 17).

The qualifications of men who may serve as elders can be found in I Tim. 3:1-7:

  1. Desires the office
  2. Blameless
  3. One wife
  4. Temperate
  5. Sober-minded (sensible)
  6. Good behavior (dignified)
  7. Hospitable
  8. Able to teach
  9. Not given to wine
  10. Gentle (not violent)
  11. Not greedy
  12. Not quarrelsome
  13. Rules his own house well
  14. Submissive and respectful children
  15. Not a recent convert
  16. Well thought of by outsiders

    ... and in Titus 1:6-9:

  17. Believing children who are not unruly
  18. Steward of God
  19. Not self-willed (or arrogant)
  20. Not quick-tempered
  21. Lover of goodness
  22. Just (upright)
  23. Holy
  24. Self-controlled
  25. Firm hold on God's word

Elders were instructed to watch over the flock (church) as shepherds (Acts 20:28-32). They are caretakers of souls who are to perform their duties willingly and eagerly (I Pet. 5:2). Without partiality they are to teach, instruct, and direct all of the members in the way of sound doctrine (Titus 1:9).

No man is head of the church on earth, but Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God (Eph. 4:15-16). Christ is the only head of the church, His one body (Col. 1:18). Therefore, every member of the body must be in subjection to Him (I Cor. 12:12-13, Eph. 5:22-32).
This means that in matters of religion we do not have to submit to any man-made authority, but only to the divine authority of Christ as revealed in the New Testament.

Though Christ has equality with God (Phil. 2:6), their roles are different. "The head of Christ is God" (I Cor. 11:3).
Jesus said, "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven" (Matt. 23:9).
Cast all your anxieties on God, for He cares about you (I Pet. 5:7).

  (including teachers, preachers, and deacons)
is the proper order of authority in the church.

We cannot expect to be rewarded by God unless we live "according to the rules" (II Tim. 2:5) we find in God's Word. We can conclude that God will not be pleased unless we play by His rules.

If we are to reconstruct the church of the first century, we must have an organization with baptized Christians, who are served by teachers, preachers, and deacons. All of these are to be governed by elders who accept Jesus Christ and His Father as the ultimate authority.

If you wish to discuss this information with someone, please e-mail West-Ark Church of Christ. Christians in these independent congregations will be happy to answer any of your questions about the church.

We plead for a restoration of the organization of the original church.

You are encouraged to study your Bible so that you may follow Christ's pattern for His church.

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