The Organization of the Church – Lester Kamp

Lester Kamp

The word church is used in two ways in the New Testament. First, it is used in a universal sense, meaning all the saved wherever they might be. For example, Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). This is not a reference to any locality, but to all who have come into a saved relationship with Christ through obedience to the Gospel of Christ. It should be realized that to be saved, a person has to be a member of that church. Christ is said to be “the savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23). The definition of the body is given earlier in the same book, “…the church, which is his body” (Eph. 1:22-23). There is, therefore, only one church (Eph. 4:4). For Jesus to be a person’s savior, he has to be in that body, the church.

The church in the universal sense is an absolute monarchy. Christ has all authority (Matt. 28:18). “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22, emph. added LK). There is no other structure of organization over the church universal given the New Testament. The New Testament knows nothing of synods, councils, general assemblies, conferences, or such like. Men have no authority to change anything that Christ has authorized. Christ’s laws are the New Testament and are unchanging. According to the New Testament, the universal church has no earthly headquarters or organizational structure other than the absolute authority of Christ.

The second way that the word “church” is used is in a local, congregational sense. For example, the Corinthian letters are addressed to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1). This refers to the saved which meet and work together for the Lord in a particular locality under the authority of Christ, in this case the city of Corinth. In other words, the church here refers to a congregation of the Lord’s people.

According to the New Testament, these local churches (congregations) have a Christ-authorized structure. Notice: “Paul, and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phlp. 1:1). The church at Philippi was made up of saints, bishops, and deacons. This indicates not only the composition of the church at Philippi, but also the structure of organization for that congregation. When God in His Word sets forth a description of one congregation, it should be understood that this description applies to all congregations (1 Cor. 7:17; 14:33; 16:1).

Let’s examine these terms. First, the word “saints” is a reference to all Christians. The meaning of this word is “set apart for God’s service,” those who respond in obedience to the call of the Gospel of Christ (2 Thes. 2:14). Notice Paul’s reference to the church at Corinth again: “Unto the church of God at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, will all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2, emph. added, LK). According to Christ, every member of His church is a saint, sanctified, set apart from the world for God’s service (Col. 1:13; Rom. 12:2). Saints are members of the church; members of the church are saints. All those who have been added to the church by the Lord when they were baptized into Christ are saints. The term saint in the New Testament is never used as a special term for some sort of “super Christian,” but instead is used interchangeably with Christian, child of God, disciple of Christ, or member of the church.

Saints affiliate themselves with a local congregation of those with “like precious faith” (2 Pet. 1:1) for worship and service. When Saul (the apostle Paul) returned to Jerusalem following his becoming a Christian in Damascus, “he assayed to join himself to the disciples” (Acts 9:26), meaning he desired to be part of the congregation of the church that met in Jerusalem. Every Christian is to be part of a local congregation of God’s people.

Second, in congregations which are fully and Scripturally organized, there are bishops. Congregations can exist for a time without being fully organized and therefore have no bishops. On Paul’s first preaching tour, he established congregations in each city and then went back and ordained (appointed) elders in each of these churches. So, these congregations existed for a period of time without having bishops. It cannot be determined how long the church in Jerusalem existed before elders were appointed, but it is certain that the congregation there existed some time without them.

It is also important to notice that there are several English terms used in reference to these officers in the church. In Titus 1:5, 7, the words “elders” and “bishops” are used interchangeably and applied to these men. In Acts 20:17, 28, the words “elders” and “overseers” are used interchangeably and applied to the same men. In 1 Peter 5:1, the term “elders” is used, but in verse 2 the verb form of “pastor” or “shepherd” is used and applied to elders.

Bishops (elders) have authority according to the New Testament only in one congregation where these men live and work. Peter says that elders are to “feed the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:2, emph. added LK). Paul instructed Titus to “ordain elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Elders have no authority beyond the local congregation where they serve and have no authority to change any of the instructions of Christ. Their authority involves only areas where Christ has not legislated, i.e., matters of. For example, elders cannot rightfully decide that the church can employ mechanical instruments in their worship when the Bible only authorizes singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

Every reference to elders in a local congregation is always plural. There is to be a plurality of elders, therefore, in each congregation (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Titus 1;5, Phlp 1:1 et al). Scriptural organization demands a plurality of bishops. The qualifications of these men are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9. These qualifications are requirements given by God and are essential for one to be appointed and to serve in this capacity. Paul says that these men “must” have these characteristics to serve as elders (1 Tim. 3:2).

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). This references the obligation of every member (saint) to submit and obey the elders who rule, oversee, and watch for the souls in the congregation they shepherd.

Third, in fully organized congregations, there are deacons. According to Philippians 1:1, deacons are an ongoing part of the local congregation. Contrary to the opinion of some, deacons are not appointed for a particular task and when that task is complete the deacons no longer serve. When Paul addressed the church at Philippi, he knew that there were deacons there; it was an ongoing position—not sometimes present, sometimes not present.

The word “deacon” means servant. Deacons serve under the eldership to accomplish the tasks that need to be done in the local church. The qualifications of these servants are given in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. It should be noted that these men “must first be proved” (1 Tim 3:10), indicating that the congregation should know them and their capabilities through observation of them over time before they are appointed to this role. The “must” is again used in reference to the qualifications of deacons. The qualifications listed are essential.

It is also significant that God states regarding deacons, “for they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13). Working and functioning well as a deacon allows a man to grow and develop in the Lord’s kingdom so that other tasks can also be successfully accomplished.

The organization of the church is one of the identifying characteristics of the New Testament church. Some churches that claim to be the Lord’s church in our world today are imposters. One of the questions that must be asked when one is looking to be part of the church that belongs to Christ because He purchased it with His own blood (Acts 20:28) is this: How is this church organized? Other questions are relevant to this: Is there an organization that extends beyond the local congregation? Is there a church headquarters? Are there synods, councils, or conventions that govern? Are the local congregations organized as the first-century congregations were organized? Are the congregations organized with elders, deacons, and saints? If they have elders, do they have the qualifications given in the Scriptures? Is there a distinction made between elders, bishops, and pastors? Are there other officers in the church? What are these other offices? Answering these questions and similar ones will help identify the church that belongs to Christ and the imposters.

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Author: Editor

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