In this lesson, Mike answers questions regarding the Biblical pattern for church organization and function, and how this is different from the structure of many churches in the modern era.
Last week we reviewed the major religions in the world and we examined their beliefs and teachings in, kind of, a survey fashion concerning salvation or heaven or paradise or the hereafter. And one of the things that I remarked was that every religion has some teaching concerning the afterlife. Most people who seek out religion are usually seeking out that religion for what it offers them concerning their, quote, salvation. And we noted some important points when comparing this area of belief among the 12 major organized religions and philosophies of the world.
- Eleven of the twelve religious systems relied on law-based or works-oriented methods of achieving salvation or paradise or ultimate peace, whatever you want to call it.
- Christianity was the only religion where the burden for man’s salvation rested with God, and was offered freely to man on a basis of faith.
- When compared, the nature of salvation in the Christian religion is far superior in value and experience than any of the others.
Once a person knows the difference, they would not choose any other method or reward than the one that Jesus offers through His cross, okay.
We’ve discussed it at length many questions about church life and of course salvation, which we were talking about last week and this evening. We’re now going to move on to some questions that were asked by fewer people and cover a wider range of topics.
What is meant by congregational autonomy?
I believe that part of this question has to do with why we don’t have a headquarters or regional supervisors. Many churches are organized based on different models. For example,
- Roman Catholic church follows the empirical Roman model of government. There is a supreme leader, the Pope, just like in the Roman Empire there was a supreme leader, the Emperor, you see. There is a college of advisers in the Catholic church, called Cardinals. Roman Empire, the Senators. There were regional leaders, governors in the Roman system. Well, there are regional leaders in Roman Catholicism, they’re called arch bishops. They oversee various territories, which are each led by lesser ranking clerics that are called bishops, who are responsible for several churches. And then the local priest is responsible for the local church.
- Protestants did away with the papal head. In other words, they got rid of the idea of the Pope in their church organization, but they maintained the same top-down ranking system. They simply gave different names to the positions and they gave more power to the regional groups of leaders, who serve as a kind of religious court. Synods, for example, in the Presbyterian church. Same idea though. There’s leadership at the top, except they don’t have one single leader, they have, they break it down in that fashion, in different regions.
- Evangelicals have a modified system based more on the American political system than the old European classical or ecclesiastic model. They have conventions with regional groups that vie for votes and influence pushing various agendas and candidates to sit on “boards” or “councils.”
- Sectarian groups (Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists) have a more patriarchal approach, where a relative or hand-picked successor to the original founder wields great influence and great power. These leaders have veto power over the various church and regional leaders and agendas.
Now a few weeks ago I explained that what made us different from all other Christian groups or churches was twofold, two things that make us different:
- We believe that the entire Bible is inspired and therefore the Bible is our authoritative guide in matters of morals, spiritual things, religion.
- We believe that the Bible teaches that we should consciously be trying to establish and operate the church as closely as possible to the teachings, the commands, and the guidelines given to us in the New Testament. Someone will say, why should we do that? Because this is what the New Testament teaches us concerning these matters.
Historically, the effort to use strictly the New Testament organization and teaching and practice has simply been referred to as restorationism. We are trying to duplicate this first century model in the 21st century, that’s what we’re doing. So with this mindset and approach, when the question arises, how are we going to organize the church on a local and on an international level? We go to the New Testament to see what instructions we have there about this topic.
When we review the New Testament about church organization, there are many teachings and examples concerning ministry, the qualification of leaders in the church, and the makeup and organization of the New Testament church. According to the New Testament, a Christian church was made up of the following groups:
- Baptized Believers in Jesus Christ – Acts 2:47
- There are several roles or offices of leadership in this organization – Ephesians 4:11; I Timothy 3; Acts 20
- Apostles were the messengers of Christ, specifically the 12 in the upper room at Pentecost, and Paul the Apostle, later called to preach to the gentiles.
- Prophets were those who spoke the word directly given to them by God.
- Elders/pastors/bishops/overseers/shepherds/presbyters are different terms that refer to the same person: an older or experienced Christian man, who is a spiritual leader and mentor in the congregation, and serve mainly as teachers.
- Evangelists/preachers/ministers are different terms referring to one who ministered the Word of God to the church and proclaim the gospel to the lost. Evangelists are also responsible for planting new churches, they’re responsible for organizing the church along the lines of the New Testament pattern.
- Deacons are men who minister to the various needs of church members.
- Teachers are those qualified and trained to teach the Word.
- Saints are baptized believers. Every member of Christ’s body is a saint, however, some saints, because of their skills or gifts or training or experience, some saints are appointed to serve in some particular role or other. All the saints serve Christ in one way or another, but some of those saints are given special responsibilities within the congregation.
Once the New Testament was completed, a couple of centuries it took for, not only it to be completed and circulated and then brought together into one text, took a while, but once the New Testament was completed, the work of the Apostles and the prophets was then being done by the Word itself.
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training, for righteousness.
– I Timothy 3:16
Today we still have the same roles in the church, except that the Apostles and the prophet whose work was complete in the first century, their work is now done through the Bible itself.
In any other position or office or authority in the church, aside from these roles, are merely inventions of human beings. They’re man-made offices, man-made roles without the blessing, the authority, or any basis in the New Testament.
Another thing that is quite remarkable when studying this question is what you do not see in the New Testament concerning church organization. You do not see any of the modern systems of church hierarchy that exists in these other groups that I mentioned before. In the New Testament church, each congregation was autonomous and led by its own local leaders. This is how we are extremely different than others. Yes, different churches ask for advice and received help from the Apostles back in the day, from the Apostles in Jerusalem, but this was because they did not yet possess the entire New Testament record. And the Apostles were the source of scriptural authority back then, but today we have the New Testament.
We also notice that every mention of congregational leadership in the Bible (Acts 20; Philippians 1:1) always refer to a group of elders or bishops or overseers, there’s always more than one. There’s never a spot in the New Testament where they refer to only one who is the pastor of a single congregation, it’s always to the elders.
When we put the pieces together concerning congregational organization, this is the picture that emerges from the New Testament.
- Churches mainly met in homes or in cluster of homes in each city, and sometimes they used public places, when these places were available (Acts 19:9; Romans).
- Each congregation had a number of leaders depending on the size and the maturity of their congregation. These leaders included elders and teachers and deacons, who had specific responsibilities for different areas of church life.
- As the Apostles died off, the recorded word replaced the need for prophets, and there were more evangelists. And so, the preachers remained longer with individual congregations and served as missionaries to other nations.
- These autonomous or this autonomous congregational-style remained in place until it was replaced by the Catholic model in the second, third, fourth century.
If we want to practice New Testament Christianity, we need to renew the model of autonomous congregations with local leaders all held together by a common belief and commitment to follow God’s pattern in the New Testament for church structure and organization.
Churches of Christ have over 25,000 congregations in the world with no headquarters, no leadership with authority beyond the local congregations, united only by our commitment to restore the practice of New Testament Christianity and it works!
- Because the New Testament says that it does.
- Because if you are committed to this Biblical principle, you will have unity and fellowship regardless of the culture or time.