The church manifests the manifold wisdom of God. (Eph. 3:8-11) From the beginning of the New Testament to the end, we find the church described as belonging to Christ. In Matthew 16:18, He promised to build His church; in Revelation 21:9, we find her described as His wife. Jesus died for his bride and paid for her with his own blood. (Eph 5:25) Yet, Jesus placed qualified men to rule the church in his absence. (Acts 20:28) We would, therefore, expect to find the wishes of Christ manifested in the organization of the church in both her universal and local capacities.
In promising to build the church, Christ also authorized the apostles to bind and loose in the kingdom according to the binding and loosing already determined by God (Matt. 18:18). Therefore, apostolic authority is needed for any church organization that pleases God. Since apostolic authority is given for both the offices and the filling of these offices in the organization of the church, she should be organized only according to that authority. Therefore, in both structure and operation, the organization of the church is divine in origin.
Jesus Christ Is The Head Of The Universal Church
By many direct statements, we find the universal church established as a monarchy with Jesus Christ as her head. As Peter preached his first gospel sermon on Pentecost, He proclaimed Jesus to be both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). This statement makes Him both ruler and intercessor in the kingdom. As Lord, He is both Lawgiver and Judge (Jas. 4:12). When questioned by Pilate about Himself, Christ answered affirmatively to the charge of being a king, yet not a rival of Caesar (John 18:26-37). He is called the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls (I Pet. 2:25). We also find Him described as the Chief Shepherd over other shepherds (1 Pet. 5:4). This reinforces the subjection of local church elders to Christ as head of the church. In the Scriptures, Jesus Christ is described as a permanent high priest ever living to intercede for men under our better covenant (Heb 7:22-5). Therefore, the unique position of Christ in the church as ruler, judge, and high priest is firmly established by divine Scripture.
Jesus functions in these areas as He does because He is qualified to do so. He qualifies as ruler because He pleased God in all respects (Matt. 17:5). He qualifies as judge because God raised Him from the dead (Acts 17:31). He qualifies as high priest because He is both God and man who was tempted in all points yet without sin (Heb. 4:14-16).
Next in the universal church, we see the establishment of the apostleship. These men were charged with binding and loosing in the kingdom (Matt. 18:18). They function in a universal sense as Paul taught in many churches (1 Cor. 4:17). Their primary mission was to witness to men what Christ had said and done in person and what He would tell them through the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Acts 1:2-8). Their field of work is the whole world; they are still the church’s apostles even though none are alive today.
Elders Rule The Local Church
A local church is identified in Philippians 1:1 where the saints are addressed with the overseers and deacons. Until elders are appointed in a local church, something is wanting (Tit. 1:5). Even though it is not wrong for a church to exist for a period of time without elders as in Acts 14:21-23, the local church is intended to be organized by having them. Never do we find them referred to as functioning without a plurality of their number.
The idea of elders being overseers of the local flock is presented in Acts 20:17-32. However, they are also required to go to the word of God for their authority, not ruling absent of Scriptural Authority. The word elder calls to our minds age, wisdom, and experience. In 1 Tim. 3:1, they are also addressed as overseers and, in 1 Peter. 5:1-3, they are told to shepherd the flock as shepherds. In this passage, they are also told to be examples to the flock and not as lords which might require one thing and do another.
By the very nature of their work in watching over souls (Heb. 13:17) and protecting the flock through exhortation within and refutation of false doctrine without (Tit. 1:7-11), they must be well qualified men. Qualifications for the eldership are given clearly in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1-:6-9. These qualifications must be respected or the eldership cannot do what God intends it to do.
In addition to the elders, we an approved apostolic example of deacons, being appointed in the church (Acts 6:1-6). They were appointed to see to the details of the physical action of benevolence among the widows at Jerusalem. Again, a plurality of deacons is always seen, as in the eldership. (1 Timothy 3:8-13) The trusted work of the deacons in handling the physical aspects of the local church’s work also requires the strict adherence to the qualifications listed.
In every case which discusses the eldership or the role of deacons, we see them restricted in their work to one local church. Elders are charged to shepherd the flock among them in 1 Peter 5:2 (i.e., one local church). The deacons of Acts 6 saw to the benevolent need of the widows in the church at Jerusalem. These facts show us that the Holy Spirit, as He establishes elders and deacons, establishes them to function only in the local church in which they hold membership.
Local church membership is based upon universal church membership or sainthood. Paul, after obeying the gospel, was accepted into the local church first at Damascus, then later at Jerusalem, based on his obedience to the gospel and new life which followed (Acts 9:18-28). In accordance with Paul’s instructions to Corinth, local church membership should be dissolved if unrepentant sin is seen in the life of any of her members (1 Cor. 5). As members of the local church, Christians are expected to be subject to their authorized leaders as well as to the Lord.
The establishment of local church organization is done by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). In doing this, He works through the same revelation which is used to make us Christians. By the approved apostolic example in Jerusalem, we see the church selecting deacons and the apostles ordaining them. When the Holy Spirit has given us qualifications for the officers of the church and the members of a local church select men who meet those qualifications, having them set apart by an evangelist, we have acted by God’s authority in organizing the local church.
There is no earthly organization of the universal church given in the scriptures. Since the church in its universal sense has no functioning arrangement, it is logical that there be no earthly organization; therefore, Christ still rules from heaven as head of the church. The church in her local congregational capacity has an authorized earthly organization because she has collective activity to accomplish which is best done through organization. Without elders the church will be improperly fed, have no one to guard their soul, and no one to guard against false teachers. Even though local churches existed in New Testament times without elders and deacons for a time, and may do so now, it is noteworthy they do so at their own peril. Mature churches need mature elders in order to do the necessary work of the church. (Eph 4:11,12)