by David Lasseter


In our last study we discovered how the body of Christ and His church are one in the same.  We studied the body and how it is made up of many members, but all are the same in that they share the mind of Christ despite their varied functions.  We saw how the denominational approach to the Lord's body cannot be valid, in that each religious organization has a different mind, therefore a different head.  We considered how each of us might know we have the mind of Christ:  through obedience to His word, just as He was obedient to the will of His Father.  Now lets take a detailed look at the Lord's body.

I'd like to start by considering the organization of the church.  In the religious world today we see many different organizational schemes to the various religious bodies around us.  They range from complete autonomy for an individual congregation one hand, to near complete lack of autonomy and subjection to a national or international organization on the other.  What guidelines on organization does the Holy Spirit through the Bible give us?

  1. What non-miraculous offices are authorized within a local congregation of the Lord's body?  I emphasized non-miraculous in this point, since we know that the church had people in the first century who were endowed with miraculous gifts and served the church with these gifts (1 Corinthians 12).  We have seen in another study ("Why must we use the Bible only") how miraculous gifts ceased upon the death of the last person to whom these gifts were given by the laying on of an apostles' hands.  Today, only non-miraculous offices exist in the Lord's church.  What are these offices?
  1. The Elder (also referred to as the bishop, shepherd, overseer, or pastor):  The elders are the overseers of an individual congregation of the Lord's body.  Notice how I included the terms "bishop" and "pastor" in the list of synonyms for the office of the elder.  Many denominations have established separate offices for bishops and pastors.  Why did I include these two terms as synonyms for the elder?  Please turn to Acts 20:17.  Here we see Paul calling the elders of the church to meet him at Miletus.  Now turn to Acts 20:28.  Here Paul tells the elders to "take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood."  Here we see Paul referring to the elders as "overseers."  The Greek word translated "overseers" is episkopos.  The word is translated into English using two different words:  overseer and bishop.  Only one other Greek word is translated "bishop" in the NT:  episkopeEpiskopos refers to the bishop himself, and episkope refers to the office he occupies.  In the Greek, there is no difference between the overseer and the bishop.  In Acts 20:28 we see Paul calling the elders "overseers."  Those who translated the NT from Greek into English could have used "bishop" instead.  So we see that the elder may correctly be referred to as an elder, overseer, or bishop.  But what about "pastor?"  This word is used only once in the entire NT (KJV):  Ephesians 4:11.  Here the Greek word is poimeen, and is translated elsewhere in the NT as "shepherd" or "shepherds."  What did Paul tell the elders to do in Acts 20:28?  "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers"  What does a shepherd do?  He feeds the flock!  Isaiah tells us about this duty of a shepherd in chapter 40, verse 11 of the book named for him:  "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd."  So when Paul tells the Ephesian elders to feed the flock entrusted to their care, he was telling them to serve as a shepherd to the flock.  The Greek word translated "shepherd" is poimen, which is translated "pastors" in Ephesians 4:11.  We see an elder being instructed to feed the flock in 1 Peter 5:1-2.  Therefore, an elder is also a pastor, an overseer, a bishop, and a shepherd.
  1. Who may serve as an elder?  Specific qualifications for the bishop are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.  I've provided links to these verses so you may study them for yourself.  I'll mention a couple of these qualifications, since they relate directly to the qualifications for bishops established by many denominations.  We see from these two passages that the bishop must be a married man ("the husband of one wife") and he must have children ("having his children in subjection...").  Many denominations teach that the bishop must be unmarried.
  2. How many elders comprise an eldership?  More than one.  Paul sent Titus to "ordain elders in every city" (Titus 1:5).  Luke records in Acts 14:23 that there were elders ordained in every church established by Paul on his first missionary journey with Barnabas.  The singular "elder" is used only 8 times in the NT, and each time refers to a specific individual or one of advanced years.  Paul warns the Ephesian elders that some among them would "arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30).  So even among the eldership there would be those who would pervert the truth of God.  If a single elder were appointed, the opportunity for the flock to be corrupted by his evildoing would be greatly enhanced.  Having a plurality of elders offers an opportunity for the faithful elders to discipline the one doing evil before the entire flock is corrupted.  Paul tells Timothy to hear an accusation against an elder only if two or more witnesses to his wrongdoing are present.  But if they are, that elder is to be rebuked before the entire congregation, so that others also may fear (1 Timothy 5:19,20).  The elders are to serve as examples to the flock they lead (1 Peter 5:3).
  1. The Deacon:  We read of the office of deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  The Greek word translated "deacon" is diakoneo, and is translated elsewhere in the NT using the terms ministered, ministering, serve, serveth, and served.  The plural diakonos is translated minister, servants, and servant in addition to "deacons."  Clearly we see the role of a deacon in these terms:  one who serves the church.  However, this is not a minister as we usually think of the word today (that is, a preacher).  While a deacon certainly may preach, the deaconship has been given a particular place in the church.  Paul states, "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 Timothy 3:13).  So we see the deaconship is a specific office in a local congregation of the Lord's church, to be filled by qualified men.  Paul lists the qualifications necessary before one can be considered for the office of deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  Please link to the scripture above for a full account, but again we see that the deacon must be a married man with children.  We read of the presence of both bishops and deacons in the church at Philippi in Paul's introduction to his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 1:1).  Since an eldership must be present to oversee the congregation, the office of deacon should be vacant until after a group of elders have been appointed.  Once this has occurred, deacons may be appointed to serve the congregation under the oversight of the eldership.
  1. Other positions of service within the church:  Only the eldership and deaconship are specific offices within the local congregation, to which Paul gives specific requirements before one may occupy them.  However, other positions of service with the church are mentioned in the NT.  These include evangelists and teachers (Ephesians 4:11).  In this verse Paul also mentions apostles and prophets, but we know from study of the NT that nobody today can fulfill the requirements one must meet to fill these positions.  In Acts 1:21-22 Paul lists the requirements one must meet to be selected as an apostle.  Nobody today was alive during the time of the baptism of John to the ascension of Jesus into heaven after His resurrection.  In 1 Corinthians 12:10 Paul lists "prophecy" as one of the miraculous spiritual gifts given to members of the church.  However, we seen in Acts 8:14-17 how those prophets gained this ability:  through the laying on of an apostles' hands.  When the last apostle died, the last true prophet had been made.  When the last true prophet died, the end of prophecy occurred.  So these were miraculous positions filled by men during the period of time prior to the completion of the written word of God.  For further studies please see my article titled, "Why must we use the Bible only?"  In Ephesians 4:12 we see the purpose of these various positions of service:  "For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ;”  So those who serve as evangelists and teachers have a responsibility to minister and edify.
  1. The Members:  Peter describes the members of the Lord's body as "lively stones" who "are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5).  He continues in verse 9 of the same chapter:  "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people;”  Here we see that each and every member of the Lord's church is a priest, making up a royal priesthood to show forth the praises of Him who hath called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).  We see in these verses the source of the denominational practice of a priesthood separate from the membership of the congregation:  this doctrine is of man, not of God.  Likewise the members of the Lord's body are referred to as saints throughout the NT writings.  The plural "saints" is used 60 times in the NT, while the singular "saint " is used only once (Philippians 4:21).  The one time Paul uses the singular he is actually referring to the plural, instructing the Philippians to "salute every saint in Christ Jesus."  He tells them to salute each member of the body in a personal fashion.  Philippians 1:1 is a good example of the use of the plural "saints" in the NT.  Paul writes this letter "to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:”  So again we see the denominational practice of declaring special honor upon long-dead members of a religious body by calling them "saints" is a practice not of God, but of men.  Living members of the Lord's body are each and every one a saint and a priest.
  1. Is a congregation of the Lord's church autonomous, or is it subject to a national/international organization?  What does that word "autonomous" mean?  I've provided a link to Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary should you wish to read the definition for yourself.  M-W tells us that something that is autonomous has the right or power of self-government, can carry on without outside control, or is capable of existing independently.  The word "denomination" refers to the absence of autonomy of an individual congregation of a particular religious organization.  M-W defines a denomination as "a religious organization uniting local congregations in a single legal and administrative body."  So any religious body, which has any type of organization unifying more than one congregation of people together in an administrative or legal sense, is a denomination.  Therefore any congregation of people belonging to a religious denomination is incapable of existing independently (in one fashion or another).  The local or national organization of that religious body carries some legal or administrative control over the individual congregation of members.

Do we find within the scriptures support for a local or national organization of the Lord's body?  Since the word "denomination" is so prevalent when referring to religious organizations today, is that word found in the New Testament?  No.  The word denomination referring to different religious bodies is a term used by man to refer to these various organizations.  But is the concept of denominationalism applied to the Lord's church found within the NT, even though the word is not?

Let's begin by considering again the eldership.  As we noted above, elders were appointed in every city visited by Paul on his first missionary journey.  The eldership has the responsibility of looking out for the spiritual welfare of the flock they have entrusted to their care.  There are no scriptures in the NT authorizing the establishment of a bishop or groups of bishops that oversee an area, region, state, nation, or denomination.  Again consider the wisdom of this autonomous arrangement of individual congregations.  If a bishop or group of bishops who were not faithful to the word of God oversaw an area or region, then the entire area or region is at risk of apostasy.  We've seen this time and again with different denominations in the very recent past.  I'm sure many of you are aware of the embezzlement scandal within the leadership of the Baptist church a few years ago.  Such a scandal would never have occurred had the commandments regarding church organization given by God been followed.  Unfortunately we frequently hear of scandals within the Catholic priesthood, which often include charges of molestation involving one of the priests and a young boy.  Had the commandments regarding marriage and fatherhood for bishops given by God only been followed it is likely many of these unfortunate events would never have occurred.  Paul tells us in Romans 6:19 that good cannot come from iniquity.  When man fails to follow the commandments of God, only iniquity results.  But when man follows the commandments of God and yields his members as servants to righteousness, holiness results (Romans 6:19).

I've heard of Acts 15:1-29 being used as justification for a central authority for a denominational group.  Let's look at these verses and determine whether this is valid or not.  We see in verse 1 that certain men came from Judea had come to Antioch (chapter 14:26-28) and began teaching that the saints at Antioch could not be saved unless they were circumcised after the manner of Moses.  Paul and Barnabas disputed with them (verse 2).  It was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and certain others would go to Jerusalem and ask the apostles and elders about this question (3).  In Jerusalem, they declared to the church, the apostles, and the elders all that God had done with them (4).  But in the church at Jerusalem there were Pharisees who were believers.  This group rose up during this meeting and declared that it was necessary to keep the law of Moses with regards to circumcision (5).  The apostles and elders came together as a group to discuss this matter (6).  Peter and James delivered eloquent speeches showing how God had declared the Gentiles partakers of His grace in the church, and that the Jews were unable to bear the yoke of circumcision during the period of time the law of Moses was in effect (7-21).  It was decided that a letter would come from the apostles, elders, and the whole church instructing the Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia to do the following:  abstain from meats offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and to keep from fornication (22-29).  Why was it necessary for them to write this letter and to send these men out again to deliver it?  Because certain people had gone out from the Jerusalem church, troubling the saints in Antioch with the demand that they must be circumcised to be saved (24)!  Why did I highlight the phrase above?  The meeting was held in Jerusalem for several reasons:  the apostles were there, and the false teachers had come from the Jerusalem congregation.  This wasn't a general conference of bishops from around the world who met to discuss how a denomination would practice its religion.  This was a meeting between religious leaders from a church that had been taught false doctrine and the leaders of the church from which the false teachers had come.  The letter generated from this meeting was sent specifically to the congregations in the region affected by the false teaching.  One cannot use this example to justify the existence of central bodies that guide the doctrinal stance and practices of so many religious organizations today.  Congregations of the Lord's body are designed to exist independent of every other congregation.  By doing so, should one congregation fall into apostasy as the result of false teaching, all of the congregations in an area, region, state, or even nation won't fall into the same trap.


In our study of the organization of the Lord's body we've discovered that the church consists of believers who have been added to the body of Christ (Acts 2:47).  These saints reside in various locations throughout the world, but as a whole make up the church.  The Lord has instructed His people to assemble on a regular basis.  These local congregations of His people throughout the world are organized in a fashion authorized by God.  Each congregation is independent and is overseen by a group of elders.  Deacons serve the congregation in various ways.  Commonly an evangelist is present among the members of the congregation.  Several members also serve as teachers.  We've seen how the Lord does not authorize the various denominational conferences.  The practice of exalting one man as bishop over an area or region is also not scriptural.  To declare a long-dead member of a religious body a "saint" is a practice devised by man and has no authorization in the inspired word of God.  To many these points may seem trivial.  But unfortunately the news is frequently filled with accounts of wrongdoings that result directly from man's unwillingness to obey the commandments of God dealing with the organization of His church.  We'd do well to remember Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 1:25:  "Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men."  When we question the pattern authorized by God for the organization of His church we are relying on the wisdom of man that will never match even the foolishness of God.  The Ecclesiastes writer closes his book with the admonition:  "Fear God and keep his commandments:  for this is the whole duty of man.  For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:13,14)

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