When it comes to the organization of the church, there has long been debate and variation. Whether it is a single worldwide leader (e.g. Pope), or having various “presiding Bishops” to oversee certain groups or regions of churches, or having a single “Pastor” to preside over a local flock. Based on all these variations, one would think the Bible is either vague or silent about instructions or examples for the organization of the church. Some of the organization of the church might begin to be cleared up after recognizing how the church is defined in the Bible, and fact that it is described with both universal and local distinctions. Beyond that, what else do we find about the organization of the church?
How Scripture answers "What is the organization of the church?"
Examples that teach us about the organization of the church are found throughout the New Testament:
- Fundamentally, under the universality of God’s kingdom and Christ’s headship, we find that each local church functioned with autonomy1,4,5. Never do we see churches joining together or “combining forces”.
- Each local church was led by a plurality of leaders called bishops1,2 (overseers), elders4,5,6, pastors9, or even shepherds6. These designations were used interchangeably to refer to the plurality of men with discrete qualifications appointed to lead a local congregation2,6. It could be that they are paid by the congregation9, especially if they also preach and teach6.
- Never do we see a single bishop/elder over a local congregation.
- Never do we see elders exercising authority over another local congregation.
- Never do we see any qualifications like “good business leader” or “strong financial acumen” stated.
- Never do we see a preacher referred to “pastor”, only as elders.
- Never do we see women serving; in fact, they are explicitly excluded from serving.
- Serving under the oversight of the elders were deacons1 with their own set of qualifications7.
- The situation in the early days of the church (in Jerusalem)10 serve as some examples for us regarding deacons.
- Some translations render “sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae”8 where ESV translates “servant”. The Greek word could be either, and given Paul’s qualifications for the office of Deacon7, that would not be Phoebe.
Interestingly, as a footnote, Paul says of himself, “I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” (1 Tim 1:11). Paul wasn’t married, so he did not meet that qualification for elder. On the other hand, the apostle Peter who was married, did serve as elder6. These personal testimonies align with Paul’s own summary of church leadership roles9.
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