Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

ST009/3 Organisation of the Church.


The Organisation of the Church.

The idea of the Church commences in the Old Testament, where the nation, Israel, chosen of God, is the Church of God, the conveyor and the guardian of the truth of God and the centre of the worship of God.

It is not, however, till New Testament days that  the true idea and form of the Church comes to light. It commences in the ministry of our Lord. There is an aspect of His teaching concerning the Kingdom of God, which undoubtedly has the church in view.

His choice of the apostles, His sending out of the seventy, all point to the commencement of the formation of an organized church. It is just as clear, however, that He laid down no definite, hard and fast rules or plans as to how that church was to be organized and run.

The only clear teaching is ethical and spiritual and that they were to await the coming of the Holy Spirit and depend utterly upon Him. He would lead them into all truth, He would give them the power they required to be witnesses and to carry on the work of spreading the Gospel and building the church.

The dependence was to be upon Him, "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.(Matt.16:18).

1 The Formation of the Church.

(a) Its Founding.

The actual founding of the church is always taken to be the Day of Pentecost. It was then and there that for the first time the early Christians were knit together by faith in a risen Christ and by being filled with the Holy Spirit.

It was then first of all that they truly worshipped in the full sense of the word. It was then for the first time that they faced the world and went out to her with joyful confidence, with Holy Ghost power, and with zeal born of love for their Lord. Not till then was the church in existence as a body of people bound together with one aim and purpose and one driving power.

(b) Its Function.

No movement can possibly survive and be virile which has no driving purpose and which is not clear as to its function. The Christian Church is no exception. During His own lifetime our Lord made it clear that He had come to this earth with a purpose, "to seek and save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10) and "that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly (John 10:10).

And it was clearly not to end with Him for He commissioned the disciples after His resurrection with these words "As My Father bath sent Me, even so send I you" (John 20:21).

The function and purpose of the Church is stated in Christ's last commission in Matt.28, illustrated in the life of the early church in Acts 2 and described further in the application of the gifts mentioned in Eph.4.

The several functions of the church derived from this last commission are given by J.O.Sayes as follows;

  1. A recognition of divine sovereignty, or worship: "All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth";
  2. Evangelism and missions: "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them ....".
  3. Education: "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you".
  4. Fellowship and communion: "Lo! I am with you alway." (Exploring Our Christian Faith p.405). 

We find these carried out in the picture of the early church given to us in the last
verses of Acts 2. All the elements of church life are found there in worship, preaching, fellowship and the Lord's Supper, adding to the church and edification. 

Then in Eph.4 we find that the various gifts are given for the perfecting of the saints, for the edifying of the body of Christ and that they may come to a perfect man. More modern writers have given lists of the functions of the church and one of these is as follows from the pen of Frank McKibbon -

  1. To interpret religion.
  2. To promote and enrich the fellowship of Christians.
  3. To provide worship and training in the devotional life.
  4. To extend the fellowship to include an ever increasing number of people.
  5. To provide incentive, training and opportunity for individuals to participate in efforts to improve society.
  6. To aid individuals.
  7. To enlist and train workers for the local church,
    community and world.
  8. To maintain a wholesome and effective institutional life. (Christian Education through the Church p.16)

To sum up in the simplest way, however, the function of the church can be stated in the words "worship" and "witness". Worship refers to all that has to do with the interior life of the church, its relationship to God and the spiritual relationship of its members to each other. 

Witness has to do with all the outgoing activity and urge of the Church and its fulfilment of the promise of our Lord - "ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and ye shall be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem ..... and unto the uttermost parts of the earth." (Acts 1:8). The church is the "sphere of the Spirit's operation."

(c) Its Formation.

Under this section we must consider how much there was of actual organization in the early church and how far any blue print was laid down for future generations. There are three opinions held generally on the matter. There are those who say that there was no organization whatsoever in the early church, and at the other extreme there are those who say that a clear, definite structure is expounded and illustrated and it is incumbent on the church today to follow it. 

Neither of these seems really to accord with Scripture and the third and mediating position seems to be far more correct. This position holds the.t no clear structure or organization was laid down or was ever intended to be, but that general principles were formulated which could be adjusted to every and any country or situation as the need arose.

The facts of the case seem in a general sort of way to be as follows. After the church had really got going and had begun to grow, the first step taken was the choice of men to deal with the more practical tasks which required attention. Up till then the apostles had obviously taken the lead in everything.

While these seven are usually considered to be the first deacons, they are not actually called such. After this we find elders mentioned on several occasions. There were elders in the Jewish synagogue and it seems fairly certain that this office of the Christian church was a following of the Jewish custom under the direction of God. 

The actual manner of appointment of the elders cannot be stated with absolute certainty, though it does seem that, at least in the case of the churches founded by Paul, it was in the apostle's hands. Elders seem to be the local officers and ministers in each church but, strangely enough, they are not mentioned in connection with every church. 

In addition to this in Acts 15 we have the account of the assembly gathered in Jerusalem to deal with the matter of the circumcision of Gentile believers. While only the apostles and elders are mentioned in the earlier part of the chapter, it seems certain that more than these were present from the words "and the whole church"found in v.22. 

As far as actual leadership is concerned, it seems that Peter took the lead mostly at the beginning, although James was just as clearly in the chair at the assembly in Jerusalem. In the latter part of the Acts Paul is the main actor and appears to have been the one to guide and control the churches founded by him and his ministry. 

Even in these cases, however, there seems to have been no absolute rule and the epistles reveal that there were times when the apostle had to fight to maintain his own authority.
From these facts it seems certain that the mediating position is the true one and that no clear cut, absolute structure was set up which was intended to be exactly followed by all churches and generations.

At the same time, however, there was organization of some kind. All this is further borne out by the fact that the early churches were obviously separate entities only bound together by fellowship and the spiritual authority of the apostles.

Membership of the early church was by confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and by "conscious Christian experience and life". Baptism was usually the first open step which joined the believer to the Christian body, but it is doubtful whether it can be proved that it was always so.

Something needs to be said concerning; the various types of church organization which have evolved since the first century. At one extreme stands the Roman Catholic Church where the whole authority lies with the clergy, with the Pope and the Cardinals at the head, a vast hierarchical system. 

At the other end is the Congregational system, where all authority lies with each local assembly and each local assembly is autonomous. The Baptist and Brethren forms of government are along these lines. In between these two come the Episcopalianism of the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Churches, the Methodist Churches, and the various Holiness and Pentecostal Denominations, all of which have various proportions of central and local government. 

The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches is growing fast and should also be mentioned. While disowning the title "denomination"it would come under the Congregational set up. Some of these are more distinctive than others, and some, such as the Roman Catholics and high Episcopalians at one end and the Brethren and the Apostolic Church (which has not been mentioned) at the other end, would claim to have the actual method of church organization and government laid down in the New Testament.

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