The Expository Files

  The Organization of the Local Church

New Testament Church Series #12

The word, and concept of, "organization" in spiritual matters has a negative ring to it in the minds of many. To speak of anything pertaining to our relationship with Christ as "organized" is a real "turn off" to them. It is true that much of the religious community has organized and stressed organization in spiritual matters to such an extent that the organization has come to mean more than the Lord does and one's fellowship with God is defined almost strictly in terms of a relationship to an organization. In that sense "organized religion" certainly deserves criticism and rejection.

However, this does not mean there is not a type of "organization" that the Lord approves of and wants his followers to be involved with. Sometimes these "organizations" were referred to as "churches of Christ", Rom. 16:16, others were called a "church of God", 1 Cor. 1:1, or simply "the saints in Christ Jesus", Phil. 1:1, but they are all designations which indicate that first century Christians organized and acted in a collective manner. In
this capacity they....

Furnished wages for, and the physical needs of, evangelists, 1 Cor. 9:1-14; 2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:15
Provided for the physical needs of those who were impoverished, Acts 11:27-30
Received benevolent assistance, Acts 11:30
Heard the "complaint" one sinned against and spoke to the sinner, Matt. 18:17
Disciplined unruly members, 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6-15
Chose servants, Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-ff; and messengers, Phil. 2:25; 2 Cor. 8:19,23, to implement their work.
Appointed overseers to provide for spiritual direction, Phil. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 14:23
Had the physical means to implement their work, 1 Cor. 16:1-3; Phil. 4:15
Had their own name (reputation) Rev. 2:2
Had a "membership" Acts 13:1
Could be gathered together Acts 11:26; 14:27
Existed as a unit when not assembled Acts 14:27

Conclusions Regarding These Collectives
Read the above passages carefully, and in their contexts, to see if the following conclusions are not correct.

They had "organization"
This word simply means "1. An organizing or being organized; 2. Organic structure; manner of being organized; 3. An organism; 4. A unified, consolidated group of elements; systematized whole; especially a body of persons organized for some specific purpose, as a club, union or society." Webster. The Philippian letter makes it clear that this group of saints, as a unit, (a) planned work, 4:10, (b) implemented work through ministers and servants, 4:15-16, (Epaphroditus being one of them, 2:25; 4:18), and (c) had bishops to provide spiritual leadership, 1:1. (Notice that "your fellowship", 1:5, "your thought", 4:10, "your messenger", 2:25, "your service", 2:30, and "the things that came from you", 4:18, denote many acting as one, i.e., collective planning and implementation.)

They were organized on the local level only
The "local level" is the only "level" upon which God's people were structured. The scriptures know nothing of attempts to organize the "church universal" by getting Christians to act collectively in some arrangement other than a local church. No work has been assigned to such a group, no oversight has been provided and no method of raising the funds to implement the work has been set up. We repeat here the wise words of bro. Earl West which were cited in a previous article: "The study of church history reveals the fact that every time men thought in terms of the church universal, they ended up by forming organizations which in their work substituted themselves in the place of Christ...The only church organization known to the New Testament is that of a local church, not the church universal..." The Search For The Ancient Order, vol. 2, p. 56.

They were independent
They planned and implemented their own work, selected their own overseers and sent their own servants and messengers to do their collective work. Phil. 1:5; 4:15-16 make it clear that Philippi acted independently in all of their planning an working and an objective reading of all other collective action passages will lead to the same conclusion. No other congregation(s) did these things for them and there was certainly no outside oversight and control. These collectives became dependent only when circumstances arose over which they had no control (e.g., a famine, Acts 11:27-30).

They were the only authorized collectives of this nature
Local churches are the only organizational arrangements we read about in the New Testament that provide for spiritual works. Any collectives of Christians larger than, smaller than, or other than these are other than what God has authorized. Robert Turner said it well: "There is no divinely recognized collective unit larger, or smaller, than the local church for the performance of the work of the church; and no loyal Christian will support or condone that which is contrary to divine sanction. The organizational structure of the church begins and ends with the independent congregation, and it is here that the Christian fulfils his collective obligations,--or miserable fails." "The Christian's Relation To The Local Church", Digest Of Truth (date unknown).

They were all sufficient
None of the congregations were charged with doing a work it was unable to provide for and thus needing a "sufficiency" supplied from another source. Just as individual Christians are responsible for doing only what they are able to do, so local churches are not required and expected to take upon a work for which they alone cannot make provision. Each local church was responsible for using its abilities and resources to take advantage of whatever opportunities might come their way. We find nothing in the passages above to lead us to conclude that these local churches felt obligated, much less authorized, to take upon a work that was beyond the scope of their abilities and resources and then seek the assistance of other congregations.

"Church Organization", when put into the New Testament context, is far from what we see practiced in many religious groups today. Rather than something to reject, this type of "organization" ought to be embraced because of its simplicity, but primarily because God wants it that way. We urge a fresh, objective study of the simple New Testament pattern of organization and then a return to what worked so well in the 1st century and what can be just as effective as we move into the 21st.

By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.12; December 1998