The Organization of the Church 

Introduction

The Bible teaches that the local church, which we should attend, will have certain essential characteristics.  The organization of the church has significant impact upon the work and activities of the church, so it should be considered when determining which church to attend.  However, before we study such an issue, we must first recognize that there is indeed a pattern for the church that God expects us to follow, and we must also understand some basics concepts about the church.  In this article, we will try to summarize the many complex issues related to church organization, which include cooperation among local churches and with other institutions.

What Is Meant by "Organization"

The term "organization" of the church refers to how the church is set up, or organized.  Should it have committees, or boards?  Or, may it use societies of cooperation or outside institutions to achieve its work?  Can local churches be part of a larger, earthly structure that is governed by men?  Who picks the local preacher, deacons, and elders?  How do local churches cooperate to achieve common goals?  All of these questions are addressed in a study of God's plan for the church's organization.

What this Question is Not About

Since this question is addressing organizations such as missionary societies and orphan homes, some people may accidentally mistake this article's intention to oppose taking care of orphans or spreading God's Word.  However, this article is most certainly not against these actions.  In fact, the Bible teaches that these are essential characteristics of a Christians life (James 1:26-27; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 10:29-37).  Therefore, please do not mistake this question to be whether we, or the church should be involved in such works; rather, the question is how the work of the church should be accomplished.

The Heart of the Matter

Fundamental to this study is the proper understanding of New Testament examples in establishing authority.  Since most of the Bible commentary on church organization are the examples of New Testament churches operating under the approval of God, it is imperative that we determine the authority that is inherent in these examples.   This article will adopt the conclusion that was reached in the writings on "Examples and the Pattern", which is that all examples are binding until sufficient reason is found for dismissal.

As we study the Bible to determine the nature of the church's organization, we will find two reoccurring themes, or points that are at the heart of the matter.  First, organization of the church begins and ends with the local church, and it should be entirely autonomous of all other organizations, including other local churches.  Second, the New Testament churches did not participate in collective cooperation, but they did help each other through a form of cooperation that never violated their autonomous independence.

Church Cooperation

The Bible does clearly endorse a type of cooperation.  However, we must determine if the cooperation in which our local church participates is conducted according to the pattern.  Some misunderstanding may arise through people using the same word in different ways in different contexts.  Therefore, to help us clarify the use of the word "cooperation", we will divide the Bible teaching on church cooperation into three distinct categories, which we will define and discuss:

  1. Independent Distributed Cooperation
  2. Independent Conjunctive Cooperation
  3. Collective Cooperation

Although these words are not found in the Bible, we can use these labels to help us categorize and recognize the different ways in which churches can cooperate.  However, we will find that some of these forms of cooperation may be found in the Bible, while others may not.

Independent Distributed Cooperation

This category is best demonstrated through the work in which many churches participate to further the gospel.  Many congregations support a local preacher. Some support preachers in new areas. And, hopefully all promote the gospel through the efforts of their individual members.  Each of these churches could be acting independently and in complete ignorance of the others, and yet each would be cooperating in the fulfillment of a common goal.  It is only through this form of cooperation that the universal church ever works or operates.

Jesus Christ is the head of the universal church, and every member is in a sense cooperating with the others when they obey the wishes of the body's head (Ephesians 1:20-23; 4:15-16).  Even though distributed over the expanse of the world and time, each Christian participates in the common work of the church and is, therefore, involved in a distributed and independent form of cooperation.  It is in this sense that the universal church works together as "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Timothy 3:15).

Independent Conjunctive Cooperation

This category is similar to the above category in that the people or groups involved act independently of each other.  However, this category is unique in that it includes those that deliberately and conjunctively cooperate together, or in parallel.  In the Bible we read of two exemplary cases that define the authority for this type of cooperation.  The best and most well known Bible example is the benevolent case of the Gentile churches sending aid to Judean Christians who were starving from a famine.  Let us focus our attention upon compiling and understanding the scriptures related to this first example, so that we may determine the boundaries for this type of cooperation.

Benevolent Church Cooperation

The background of this example involves a large scale famine that struck Palestine in the early days of the church, which left many Christians starving in Judea.  However, before it ever occurred, we read of other Christians contributing to the future need that was miraculously foreseen:

"And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch.  Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul."  Acts 11:27-30

From this we learn that one local church assisted other local churches by taking up its own collection and sending it to the needy by the hands of its own chosen messengers.  Moreover, when we read of the Jerusalem saints receiving contributions, we also find that the money was delivered to the local church's elders.  Therefore, using this passage as a pattern for church cooperation, we can determine that contributions should not be delivered to an organization or institution to accomplish the work, but it should be given directly to the elders who oversee the church in need - if we are going to follow the pattern.

Please note that at this point we must make a presumption.  We know that there were multiple congregations in Judea (I Thessalonians 2:14; Galatians 1:22); consequently, we must presume that the single collective contribution was either given to one set of elders who divided the relief among the other churches, or we must presume that it was given to the local elders of each work based upon each congregations need.  However, one of the conclusion ceases to be a presumption and becomes a necessary inference when we realize that elders could not have divided or controlled the distribution without violating each church's autonomy.  This would put them in conflict with other Bible teaching to oversee the "flock among" them (I Peter 5:1-3).  Therefore, to assume that a single church acted as a "central" or "sponsoring" church is to make an unsubstantiated presumption and "add to" God's Word.

The Ongoing Benevolent Need

From other scriptures, we learn that 10 years after this first famine, a second need arose in Jerusalem that prompted a second collection from even some of the more remote Gentile congregations.  We can read passages from which we find that each congregation was ordered to take up a collection (I Corinthians16:1; Romans 15:25-27; II Corinthians 8-9), as it is part of the work of the church (Ephesians 4:16-16).  However, each church was allowed to determine the amount to send by their own messengers.  Consequently, each church cooperated concurrently, in parallel, to assist with this single need. However, we never read of any centralizing agency or institution.  Moreover, the example we have is messengers, chosen by the contributing church (I Corinthians 16:1-4), delivering the contribution into the hands of elders of the local church, or churches in need (Acts 11:27-30).  This substantiates the pattern from the other passage:  Each church needs to be involved in the work God gave it to do, but each church is responsible for its own collection and distribution.  There is no room in the pattern for a centralizing agency, sponsoring church, or institution of cooperation.  This prompts us to ask ourselves the repetitive, but essential question, "Will we venture outside and beyond this simple pattern that God has given us?"

We should also recognize that the congregation that received the contribution was always in need.  In each case, the needy church was suffering an emergency that was bigger than the local church's capacity to handle (II Corinthians 8:13-15; Acts 11:27-29).  We nowhere read of a single congregation accumulating funds to undertake a benevolent need beyond its own membership.  Therefore, a third component of the pattern is the that the congregation to receive funds must be in need.  This excludes centralizing churches that collect funds from other churches to accomplish a work that is beyond their need, obligations, and boundaries of autonomy.

Evangelical Church Cooperation

The second Bible case of concurrent, but independent church cooperation is that of multiple churches supporting the apostle Paul in his evangelistic efforts to spread the gospel.  However, the Bible pattern for this second type of cooperation is not as elaborate as one might first suspect.

"I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to minister to you.  And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself."  II Corinthians 11:8

Although ingrained into a deeply involved context, this passage does introduce the authority for a preacher receiving funds from "brethren" to support his preaching in new fields, which included Corinth at the time of this reference by Paul (see also Acts 18:1-11; I Corinthians 9:9-14).  But, who were these "brethren from Macedonia"?

"Nevertheless you have done well that you shared in my distress.  Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities.  Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account. Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God."  Phillippians 4:14-18

Apparently, these "brethren" were those of the Philippian church.  These "Phillippians" were the members of the church in the city of Philippi to whom this letter was addressed (Philippians 1:1), and we learn that they at least supported Paul in his work at Thessalonica, which was one of his stops between Philippi and Corinth (Acts 16:11-12, 40; 17:1,10,13-16; 18:1), and they probably were part of the those supporting his work in Corinth.

So, what do these passages teach us about the pattern for churches cooperating in evangelism?  Please notice that the Philippian church selected a messenger who delivered their contribution directly to the preacher, Paul.  There was no congregation or society that served as a mediating agency.  From these passages we see that the New Testament pattern is similar to that of churches cooperating for the purpose of benevolence:  Each congregation selects its own messenger and delivers their contribution to the preacher in need.  However, it is unique from the benevolent case in that the preacher is supported, not the church.  If we are to abide by God's pattern, then we must abide by the pattern established by this example.

Collective Cooperation

 This third and final type of cooperation involves the collective collaboration of churches towards a single goal.  It differs from the other types of cooperation in that multiple congregations unite their resources under a central controlling, decisive body.  This body could be a missionary society, orphan home, the elders of a sponsoring congregation, or any other institution.  It is also different from the other forms of cooperation in that the Bible contains no inference, example, or statement that authorizes such cooperation.  It is simply not in the Bible.  Although many questions and issues could be raised to defend this type of cooperation, when we carefully address these questions, we finds that there is still no Biblical basis for collective church cooperation.   Therefore, the specific Bible examples combined with the Bible silence for this type of cooperation provides a specific pattern of church organization which excludes this last type of cooperation.

Conclusion

We have examined Bible examples of two types of approved cooperation.  Isolated congregations in a sense cooperate by their independent efforts to spread the gospel and build up the universal church.  Secondly, churches may cooperate by directly helping a needy congregation or concurrently supporting a gospel preacher.  However, we find no pattern for congregations uniting funds and oversight under a central church or organization to collectively cooperate, such as through an orphan home, missionary society, or central sponsoring church.  This introduces an organizational framework that is not found in the Bible.  Moreover, it is specifically excluded by the specific organization that is given for us in the Bible.  Therefore, any use of organizations beyond the local church constitutes "adding to" God's Word and the pattern for accomplish His work for the church.

Next in our series, we will investigate the proper names by which a local church should be known.  However, if you are interested in further investigation of church cooperation and organization, then you are encouraged to read an article that addresses frequently asked questions about church cooperation.

 

Next: The Name of the Church

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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