THE ORGANIZATION OF LOCAL CHURCHESPrint This Page.
Having already observed the difference between the work and the churches, between the apostles and the elders, between the basis of a scriptural church and sects, we can now proceed to see how a local church is organized.
According to the present-day conception, three things are regarded as essential to the existence of a church, apart from the group of Christians who constitute its members. These three are—a "minister," a church building, and "church services." The Christian world would question the existence of a church if even one of these three were lacking.
What would one think these days of a church without a "minister"? Call him pastor or anything else you like, but such a man you certainly must have. As a rule he is specially trained for church work, but he may be either a local man, or a worker transferred from some other place. Whatever his background and qualifications, he gives himself exclusively to the affairs of the church. Thus, those in the churches are divided into two classes—the clergy, who make it their business to attend to spiritual matters, and the laity, who devote themselves to secular things. Then of course there must be church services, for which the minister is responsible, and the most essential of these is the Sunday morning gathering. You may call it a service, or a meeting, or whatever you choose, but such a gathering there must be at least every Sunday, when the church members sit in their pews and listen to the sermon their minister has prepared. And naturally there must be a church building. You may term it a hall, a meeting place, a chapel, or a church; but whatever you care to call it, such a place there must be. Otherwise, how could you ever "go to church" on Sundays? But what is considered essential to a church these days, was considered totally unnecessary in the early days of the Church's history. Let us see what the Word of God has to say on the matter.
THE "MINISTER," OR WORKER,IN CHURCH GOVERNMENT
"Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons" (Phil. 1:1). In not a single scriptural church do we find any mention of a "minister" controlling its affairs; such a position is always occupied by a group of local elders. And nowhere do we get a clearer or more comprehensive presentation of the personnel of a church than in the verse just quoted from the Philippian letter. The church consists of all the saints, the overseers, and the deacons. The deacons are the men appointed to serve tables (Acts 6:2-6), that is, those who care exclusively for the business side of things. The overseers are the elders, who take the oversight of all church matters. (Acts 20:17, 28, and Titus 1:5, 7 make this quite clear.) And besides the overseers and the deacons, there are all the saints. These three classes comprise the entire church, and no other class of person can be introduced into any church without making it an unscriptural organization.
Before we go on to consider the elders, let us glance for a moment at the deacons. They do not occupy such an important position as the elders, who rule the church; they are chosen by the church to serve it. They are the executors who carry out the decisions of the Holy Spirit through the elders and the church. Because the deacons have actually more to do with assembly life than with the work, we think it sufficient to just make this brief mention of them.
There are two points in connection with the elders that call for special attention. First, they are chosen from among the common brethren. They are not workers who have a special call from God to devote themselves exclusively to spiritual work. As a rule they have their families, and their business duties, and are just ordinary believers of good reputation. Second, elders are chosen from among the local brethren. They are not transferred from other places, but are set apart just in the place where they live, and they are not called to leave their ordinary occupations, but simply to devote their spare time to the responsibilities of the church. The members of the church are local men, and as elders are chosen from among the ordinary members, it follows that they are also local men (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
And since all scriptural elders are local brothers, if we transfer a man from some other place to control a church, we are departing from scriptural ground. Here again we see the difference between the churches and the work. A brother may be transferred to another place to take care of the work there, but no brother can be sent out of his own locality to bear the burdens of the church in another place. The churches of God are all governed by elders, and elders are all chosen from among the local brethren.
If a group of men are saved in a certain place, and a worker is left in charge of them, then it is inaccurate to refer to that company as a church. If affairs are still in the hands of the worker and have not passed into the hands of the local brothers, then it is still his work; it is not a church. Let us make this distinction clear: the work is always in the hands of the workers, and the church is always in the hands of the local brethren. Whenever a worker is in control of affairs, then it is a question of work, not of a church.
It has been pointed out before that in God's Word there are local elders, but no local apostles. When Paul left Titus in Crete, his object was not that Titus should manage church affairs there, but that he should appoint elders in every place so that they could take charge of affairs. The business of the worker is to found churches and appoint elders, never to take direct responsibility in the churches. If in any place an apostle takes responsibility for the affairs of the local church, he either changes the nature of his office or the nature of the church. No apostle coming from another place is qualified for the office of local elder; the post can only be occupied by local men.
Let us who have been called of God to the work be absolutely clear on this point, that we were never called to settle down as pastors in any place. We may revisit the churches we have founded and help the believers we formerly led to the Lord, but we can never become their "minister" and bear the responsibility of spiritual affairs on their behalf. They must be satisfied with the elders appointed by the apostles and learn to honor and obey them. Obviously it needs more grace on the part of the believers to submit themselves to others of their own number and of their own rank, than to yield to the control of a man who comes from another place and has special qualifications for spiritual work. But God has so ordained it, and we bow to His wisdom.
The relationship between the work and the church is really very simple. A worker preaches the gospel, souls are saved, and after a short lapse of time a few of the comparatively advanced ones are chosen from among them to be responsible for local affairs. Thus a church is established! The apostle then follows the leading of the Spirit to another place, and history is repeated there. So the spiritual life and activity of the local church develops, because the believers bear their own responsibility; and the work extends steadily because the apostles are free to move from place to place preaching the gospel and founding new churches.
The first question usually asked in connection with a church is, "Who is the minister?" The thought in the questioner's mind is, "Who is the man responsible for ministering and administering spiritual things in this church?" The clerical system of church management is exceedingly popular, but the whole thought is foreign to Scripture, where we find the responsibility of the church committed to elders, not to "ministers" as such. And the elders only take oversight of the church work; they do not perform it on behalf of the brethren. If, in a company of believers, the minister is active and the church members are all passive, then that company is a mission, not a church. In a church all the members are active. The difference between the elders and the other members is that the latter work, while the former both work themselves and also oversee the others as they work. Since the question of elders has been dealt with elsewhere, we shall make no further reference to it here.