The nature on how a church is governed affects its way on how it will relate to other (true) local churches of Christ. Actions taken by churches unto another will either be opposed (when it is permitted) or allowed (when it is unwarranted).
This makes a number of organizational style to be adopted by churches in order to have that relationship they need. But which of these have the closest resemblance the Bible had without compromising Scriptural principles?
The Biblical reality
Just as a Christian is not to be a lone-ranger but should be part of a local church, so also each local church should not exist in isolation from other local churches. The local church is part of a larger body – the universal church, which includes all true local churches of Christ.
Thus when we read the Scriptures, we find a rich dynamic of inter-church relations. We find that local churches cultivated fellowship with each other. They communicated greetings one to another (Rom 16:16; 1Cor 16:19; Heb 13:24). There was a healthy measure of transparency existing among churches (2Cor 8:1;Col 4:14-16; Rev 2-3). Personal visits and reports were given to churches individually about God’s work elsewhere (Acts 14:27; Acts 15:4; etc).
Moreover, there was a healthy regard of how other churches viewed a particular church (2Cor 8:24 cf 2Cor 4:2; 2Cor 6:4). The idea that a church should not be concerned about how other churches view her is foreign to Scriptures.
In addition, letters of commendation were sent from one church to another concerning a minister of the gospel (Acts 18:27-28).
In addition, churches voluntarily engaged in a cooperative effort to meet a specific need as was the case of the benevolence work for the needy saints in Jerusalem (2Cor 8&9).
And the church in Antioch sought the counsel of the church in Jerusalem on a point of duty (Acts 15:2). And although there is definitely something unique about this incident because there were living Apostles in the church in Jerusalem, and yet it does lay a general principle that one church can seek the counsel or advise of a more mature church.
Therefore, the idea of a church being isolated from other churches is clearly not biblical. Each local church must live and relate with the larger body of Christ’s disciples.
The various church models: a survey
There is one vital question that must be asked at this point. How are churches to carry out this rich biblical dynamic of inter-church relations? What model should guide them in inter-church relations?
In the long history of the church, four models are identifiable. They are the Episcopal, Denominational, Associational, and Fellowship models.
Now which of these models is warranted and consistent with the Scriptures? This question is crucial. Although it has nothing to do with orthodox beliefs (essential to the Christian faith), and yet church history is a witness that any deviation from the apostolic structure and government of the church will have very serious repercussions. In the words of Scriptures, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (Gal 5:9).
The Episcopalian/Bishopric Model
This is the earliest model that emerged right after the apostolic era. Concerning this model, Philip Schaff writes, ” The most important and also the most difficult phenomenon of our period in the department of church organization is the rise and development of the episcopate as distinct from the presbyterate. This institution comes to view in the second century as the supreme spiritual office, and is retained to this day by all Roman and Greek Christendom, and by a large part of the Evangelical church, especially the Anglican communion. A form of government so ancient and so widely adopted, can be satisfactorily accounted for only on the supposition of a religious need, namely, the need of a tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church.” (History of the Christian Church: Vol 2: Pg. 123). Later he adds, ” We cannot therefore assume any strict uniformity. But the whole church spirit of the age tended towards centralization; it everywhere felt a demand for compact, solid unity; and this inward bent, amidst the surrounding dangers of persecution and heresy, carried the church irresistibly towards the episcopate. In so critical and stormy a time, the principle, union is strength, division is weakness, prevailed over all” (Ibid. Pg 129).
The distinctive of this model is that the office of “bishop” (episcopate) is distinct from the office of elders (presbyterate) and that the “bishop” had authority and rule over several local churches. In the words of James Bannerman, “The bishop alone has the power of ordination and jurisdiction; the presbyter has no power to ordain or to rule. A bishop supreme in authority and independent in powers within his own diocese, alone having the right of ordination, and ruling singly over the subordinate ranks of presbyters, deacons, and Church members, embodies, according to the Prelatic theory, the proper ideal of the Episcopal as distinguished from other forms of ecclesiastical polity.” (The Church of Christ: Vol 2: Pg. 262).
The most advanced expression of the Episcopal model is found in the Roman Pontiff who claims to be the “bishop of all bishops”, the supreme ruler and judge of the church universal.
The Denominational Model
Not agreeing with the Episcopal model and yet still feeling the need for organizational unity with the wider body of churches, some have resorted to the denominational model.
Again there is no strict uniformity in this model. What is basic to this, however, is that several churches are all under the rule and authority of a supra-church body. This governing body is composed of either the pastors of member churches (as in the case of the Presbyterians) or members of churches chosen by the churches to act as their representative.
In this model, the local church has no autonomy. But a supra-church body has authority over the churches. It has the power and right to define doctrines for member churches (ecclesiastical Councils and Synods), set policies for member churches, embark in joint efforts, require financial contributions, discipline church officers and members, and interfere with other internal affairs of member churches. In the words of James Bannerman, who favors this model,”…if it is lawful or Scriptural for the governing bodies of different neighbouring congregations to associate for common counsel and the exercise of joint rule, this necessarily implies that the members and rulers of each of these congregations singly are subject to the authority of the whole representative convention. In other words, such an association implies the subordination of each congregation, and the rulers of each congregation, to the common and more general authority of the higher courts (emphasis mine)” (The Church of Christ: Vol 2: Pg. 316).
Moreover, although this is by no means necessary, the denomination at times owns the property of member churches. The titles of lands and other properties are under the denomination.
The Associational Model
Not agreeing with both the Episcopalian and denominational models of inter-church relations and yet feeling the need for expressed unity and order, others resort to the associational model.
Like the denominational model, the associational model still involves some organizational structure. Hiscox, who favors this model, writes, “It (association) frames its own constitution, makes its own by-laws, elects its own officers, and manages its own business… It fixes the terms of membership and the conditions on which the churches may associate; designates the number of messengers to be sent from each Church, orders its own exercises, meets and adjourns at its own pleasure. If any Church does not approve the proceedings it can refuse to affiliate, and withdraw at any time from the Association, if it thinks best.” (Ibid. Pg. 336). In fact, an “Association can refuse to receive its messengers, and drop from its fellowship any Church that has violated the constitution and the original compact, or that has, in any matter deemed vital, departed from the faith and practice of the associated churches…” (Ibid. Pg. 337).
The difference, however, between the two models is that the associational model vows to uphold the autonomy of the local church. Again Hiscox writes, “an Association cannot legislate for the churches, exercise any authority over them, or bind them in any way by its own action… They may make suggestions to the churches, or present appeals, and lay requests before them; to all of which the churches will give such attention as may seem to them right and proper” (Ibid. Pg. 335-336).
There is among those who embrace the associational model, however, one significant difference. Some believe that an association can have a common purse, run a publication, established a school for theology, run a mission agency, etc. Others disagree. They believe that all joint or cooperative efforts supported and approved by the member churches shall be under the direct control and supervision of any one of the confederated or member churches who has the responsibility to guard the stewardship of this trust given by the other member churches. The reason for this is to avoid establishing a standing institution of any kind that is not really under the control of any one of the local churches.
The Fellowship Model
Not agreeing with the models previously mentioned some embrace the fellowship model. Those who embrace this model are also concern for expressed unity, cooperation, and order of the wider body of Christ’s disciples. They, however, cannot find any biblical precedent or warrant for the Episcopalian, denominational, and associational models. They believe that even the associational model will only complicate the simple apostolic structure and government of the church.
Therefore, although they believe in the mutual recognition of churches, helping one another, cooperation between churches whenever possible and appropriate, consulting churches in matters that affect their relationships, etc, and yet they believe that churches should work out these rich biblical dynamics of inter-church relations without some humanly devised external structure or organization.
Moreover, although those who embrace the fellowship model see a biblical precedent and warrant for churches to voluntarily form inter-church teams to accomplish a specific task (as indicated in the benevolence work for the needy saints in Jerusalem), yet these teams should not assume any permanence. Once the specific task or need is accomplished, then it is dissolved. Cooperative efforts of a more enduring nature like the training of men for the ministry, missionary work, church planting work, are to be under the oversight of either one of the local churches which the other participating churches commend. This is to avoid establishing a standing institution of any kind that is not really under the control of any one of the local churches.
Going back to our vital question, which of these models is warranted and consistent with Scriptures? To answer this question, we need to see the big picture. Unless we do, we will “get lost in the forest because of the woods”. Therefore, it is essential that we first patiently consider the universal church’s structure and government of the church. And here I will have to be sketchy.
In the NT, it is clear that there is a definite structure by which the universal/local church is governed. 1) Christ – the Head of the Church – in Heaven 2) The Holy Spirit – Christ’s Vicar on Earth 3) Then as to purely human agents we have the Apostolate 4) The Prophets 5)
1. So first we have Christ – the Head of the Church – in Heaven
But what does it mean for Christ to be the Head of the Church?
It means that Christ is the Supreme Ruler of the Church. This is what all standard lexicons say is the meaning of the word “head” keqalh, when used in the figurative sense. This is obviously the meaning when used of Christ with reference to His position over everything in Col 2:10 and Eph 1:22. This obviously is also the meaning of the word in the LXX in Judges 10:18; 11:8. In the church, there is no authority higher than Christ’s authority. He is the Supreme Ruler of the Church.
Furthermore, as an outgrowth of the first, for Christ to be the Head of the church also means that He is the One who directs and is the ultimate source of the growth of the body (Col 2:18-19;Eph 4:16 cf. Acts 2:47b).
In practical terms, this means that since Christ is the Supreme Ruler of the church, then the church is to be subject to Christ in everything (Eph 5:24). Any teaching or practice that is contrary to the will of Christ must be rejected. Moreover, it is when the church is subject to Christ that we can expect true spiritual and numerical growth (Col 2:18-19; Eph 4:15-16). And any growth experienced that is not from Christ is cancerous growth.
Christ now, however, is no longer on earth but in heaven. As the exalted Messiah, He is now seated at the right hand of His Father in heaven (Col 3:1). So how does Christ exercise His rule and care over His church? That leads us to the next.
2. The Holy Spirit – Christ’s Vicar on Earth
Speaking to His apostles in the Upper Room, the Lord said to them, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper (emphasis mine), that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16-18).
The word “another” in describing the “Helper” (the Holy Spirit) is the Greek a;llon, which means another of the same kind, not of a different kind. Moreover, the word and statement imply that the Holy Spirit will take the place of Christ and act on His behalf. He is Christ’s Vicar on earth.
And throughout the NT, we find the Holy Spirit actively involved in the life and ministry of the church.
He was the One who infallibly guided and empowered the Apostles in their apostolic ministry. The Lord said to His apostles in the Upper Room, “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” It would have been impossible for the apostles to remember everything that Christ taught them while He was still on earth. In fact, as clear from the gospel narratives, the apostles failed to understand the meaning and significance of many things Jesus said to them. But here Christ assures the apostles that the Holy Spirit, who will take His place, will teach them all things and bring to remembrance all that Christ said to them. Later Jesus adds, ” I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come”(John 16:12-15). Prior to Christ’s death and exultation, it was impossible for Jesus to unpack all the implications and ramifications of the truth that He has revealed. The apostles were not ready for it yet. Christ, however, promises them that the Spirit, whom He will send, will guide them into all the implications and ramifications of the truth He has revealed. He will be Christ’s Vicar on earth. (See also 1Cor 2:6-13; Eph 3:4-6; Heb 2:1-4)
In addition, the Spirit also is the One who speaks to the churches in the apostolic writings. This is clearly indicated in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. Each letter from Christ to a particularly church ends with the statement, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ (Rev 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22). The letter addressed to a particular church was intended also for all the churches in any and every generation. It is interesting to note that Jesus in His earthly ministry also repeatedly used a similar expression – “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4:9; 4:23; 7:16; 8:18, etc.)
Moreover, the Spirit superintended in the appointment of elders in local churches. This is clear from Paul’s words to the elders of the church in Ephesus. ” Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood”(Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit was the One who made these men overseers of the church. How? We are not told in this text. But other portions of God’s word indicate that the Holy Spirit was the One who gave these men certain gifts and graces that would meet the non-negotiable qualification of elders He gave through the apostles (1Tim 3; Tit 1), and that He guided the church in identifying the men who meet these qualifications.
In addition, it is the Holy Spirit who gives different gifts to each member for the good of the entire body (1Cor 12:4-7).
There are other examples of the activity of the Spirit as the Vicar of Christ on earth but let these few suffice. Christ has not left the church as an orphan. The Holy Spirit has taken His place. In fact the Lord said to His apostles, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7). Let us never forget this glorious and awesome reality. As churches we should not feel insecure. We have Christ’s Vicar on earth. And let us do what we can to avoid grieving the Holy Spirit less we find a diminishing of His activity and influence in our hearts and in our midst (Eph 4:30 cf Ps 51:11).
* That leads us now to the human agents in the government of the universal church.
Two passages of Scriptures give us the overall structure. 1Cor 12:28 “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues” (emphasis mine). Notice that Paul mentions a hierarchy of three officers that Christ has appointed in the Universal church. Then dropping the numerical sequence, he mentions various gifts Christ has given the church. So here we have three sets of officers – first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.
The witness of Ephesians has a slight difference but is essentially the same, “And He (the ascended and exalted Christ) gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers (emphasis mine) “(Eph 4:11). The language here indicates that pastors and teachers refer to but one set of officers (note that the word “some” tou.j is repeated only four times and it does not precede the word “teachers”). The only difference between the 1Cor 12 and Eph 4 passages, therefore, is the addition of “evangelists” euvaggelistou.
But what is an “evangelist”? It is important that we define this word according to how it is used in the Scriptures. In the words of Augustine (I am quoting from memory), ” He who gives meaning to the words of Scriptures that is not derived from the Scriptures is an enemy of Scriptures.” Aside from its usage in Eph 4:11, the word “evangelist” is used only twice elsewhere in Scriptures. It is used to refer to “Philip the evangelist, one of the seven” (Acts 21:8). Paul also exhorts Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry”(2Tim 4:5). It is clear from Acts that Philip had close ties with the Apostles who were in Jerusalem. And in the case of Timothy, it is clear that he was intimately associated with the Apostle Paul and acted as his delegate. Other men also acted in that same capacity like Titus. Since the apostles had the care of all the churches (2Cor 11:8) and since they could not visit all of them at once, they needed certain men who could help them and act as their representatives (Acts 19:22; 1Cor 4:17; 1Cor 16:10; 2Cor 1:1; 2Cor 1:19; Phil 1:1; Phil 2:19; 1Thes 3:2,6; Phm 1:1). This explains why the word “evangelists” is not even mentioned in 1Cor 12:28. In a real sense, evangelists were more of helpers and extensions of the apostles. In the words of James Bannerman, “They (evangelists) are exhibited to us in the Scripture narrative as the attendants upon the Apostles in their journeys, and their assistants in planting and establishing the Churches, acting under them as their delegates, and carrying out their instructions.”(The Church of Christ: Vol 2: Pg. 235).
There is, therefore, no essential difference between 1Cor 12:28 and Eph 4:11. In terms of human agency in the Universal church structure we have first apostles, second prophets, third pastors-teachers. I want us to look further at each of these in detail.
3) The Apostles
The word “apostle” avpo,stoloj (lit. “sent one”) is used in four different ways in the Scriptures.
In addition, the word is used only twice in Scriptures to refer to men sent by the church/es – often translated as “messenger/s” (2Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). This last usage must be differentiated from the previous mentioned. For these men were sent by a church or churches and not directly by Jesus Christ. Therefore, they are apostles of the church or churches and not of Jesus Christ.
Now these Apostles of Jesus occupied a very unique place in redemptive history.
For Christ personally chose them to become His Apostles. This is true both of the close circle of Jesus’ twelve apostles and the wider circle of Jesus’ apostles, which Paul and others belonged (Luk 6:13; Acts 1:1-3; Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; Gal 1:1).
Moreover, the Apostles were men who had personally seen the resurrected Christ – they were first hand witnesses of the risen Christ (Acts 1:22; Acts 10:40-41; 1Cor 9:1; 1Cor 15:3-9). It was for this reason that many questioned the apostleship of Paul. For he became an apostle of Christ only after Christ has ascended into heaven. Thus Christ had to make a special appearance to him on the Damascus road to commission him for his work. It was because of this rather unusual case that, as an apostle of Christ, Paul designated himself as “one untimely born” (1Cor 15:8).
In addition, the mark of an Apostle was that they were men invested with power to work astounding signs and wonders and miracles. ( 2Cor 12:12; Heb 2:3,4; Acts 2:43; Acts 4:33; Acts 5:12). If you study carefully the book to Acts, almost all the recorded miracles were done by apostles (Thus the document was later given the title “The Acts of the Apostles”).
Moreover, the Apostles were men who were the infallible mouthpieces of God’s revelation ( Jn 14:26; Eph 3:5; 2Pet 3:2; 1Cor 2:6-11). The teachings of apostles of Christ served as a test of the genuineness of one’s Christianity and true giftedness (1Cor 14:37,38; 1Jn 4:6).
Now these Apostles were pastors or elders not just of one local church but of the universal church and they ruled over the churches of Christ, regulated their life and practices, gave directions and instructions that were binding to all the churches (Acts 16:4; 1Cor 6:1; 1Cor 7:17; 2Cor 11:28; 1Tim 3:15-15; 1Tim 2:11-12). Therefore, the Apostles, together with the NT prophets, served a very unique role in redemptive history. Thus the church is said to be built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Christ Himself being the corner stone (Eph 2:19,20).
It is obvious from everything that has been said that there are now no more living Apostles of Christ. However, their unique role still continues to be of tremendous relevance to churches in any and every generation. In a real sense churches are still under the rule of Apostles whose teachings and instructions have been summarized, comprehended, preserved, and universally publish to us now in the NT Scriptures. As churches of Christ, we must carefully study, obey, and implement the apostolic teachings. For to submit to their teaching is to submit to the Spirit who infallibly guided them in their teaching. And to submit to the Spirit is to submit to Christ who is the Head of the Church.
4) The Prophets
There are many efforts today to redefine what a prophet is and I will not enter into the details of this. But in the light of the OT teaching of a prophet, it is beyond question that a prophet did not only received infallible, direct, and self-authenticating revelations from God, but also they communicated those revelations by the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit. With reference to His prophets, God said, “I will put My words in your mouth” (Deu 18:18; Isa 51:16; Jer 1:9). Even the strange and wicked prophet Balaam who loved the wages of unrighteousness (2Pet 2:15) could not speak anything contrary to what God would reveal to him (Num 22:18).
It follows that the words of a prophet are binding to the people. As God said to Moses, “It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he (the prophet) shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.” (Deu 18:19).
Therefore, in the OT, God gave very stringent tests for the genuineness of a prophet (and not just the words of a prophet). Even if one of his prophecies will fail, that prophet will die (Deu 18:9-22). Moreover, even if his suppose prophecy or dream will come to pass, another test had to be applied. If that self-confessed prophet counsels rebellion against God’s revelation given through the prophet Moses, then that prophet must die (Deu 13:1-5).
Now if OT revelation was preparatory to and in anticipation of God’s final revelation to be given at the coming of His Son (John 1:17; Heb 1:1-2), would we expect anything less of NT prophets? The idea is ludicrous. To say that the prophets of the NT were inferior to the OT prophets (as some would suggest) is just completely out of line.
In spite of the dignity of the NT prophets, however, they were still only “second” to the Apostles. Their position in the Universal church was subordinate to the apostles of Jesus. Just like the revelation God gave through the prophet Moses served to test the genuineness of an OT prophet so also the revelation God gave to the Apostles of Jesus served to test the genuineness of a NT prophet. As Paul puts it to the Corinthians, ” If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I (the Apostle) write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” (1Cor 14:37-38).
So what about those who claim to be prophets today? They are like the false prophets that the Bible condemns (Jer 14:14; Jer 23:16; Ezk 13:1ff). These suppose prophets are themselves self-deceived. They would say, “Listen to the word of the Lord” or “The Lord declares” when in reality they are those “who prophesy from their own imagination” and they are “following their own spirit”. God has not really sent them. God has not really given them a direct revelation. And yet these “prophets” are so self-deceived that “they hope for the fulfillment of their word’.
Just like the Apostles of Jesus, there are now no more living prophets. However, the revelations they have received from God needful to the church throughout all generations until Christ returns have been summarized, comprehended, preserved, and universally published in the NT. The Prophets served a unique role in redemptive history. Thus not just the Apostles but also the prophets are said to have a foundational role in the universal church – “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Himself being the corner stone”(Eph 2:20).
Therefore, we must not think that we are less rich today than the churches during the Apostolic era. In fact we have even an advantage. Because now we have the teachings not just of the OT but of the Apostles and prophets summarized and persevered to us in the NT. We do not have to go to Jerusalem (where most of the Apostles were based) to get a judgment for a controversy. We do not have to seek out a living prophet to know what God would have us to do. We can just turn to the completed Bible, and there we have all the revelation we need until the 2nd coming of Christ.
In the NT, “elders” presbute,rouj are also called “overseers” evpisko,pouj and they are “to shepherd (poimai,nein or pastor) the church of God” (Acts 20:17, 28; 1Pet 5:1-4; Tit 1:5, 7). Therefore, elders are also overseers and pastors. Moreover, one of the qualifications of an elder is that he must be “able to teach” (1Tim 3:2 cf Tit 1:9). Therefore an elder is also a teacher. This does not mean that all elders or pastors must be able to teach publicly or in a monologue sort of way. Nor does this mean that all elders are to have as their exclusive vocation the teaching and preaching of God’s word (1Tim 5:17). It does mean, however, that all elders must be “able to teach” because they have the role of being teachers of God’s people.
Now these elders or pastors or overseers or teachers are officers of local churches. We read in the book of Acts, “When they (Paul and Barnabas) had appointed elders for them in every church (emphasis mine), having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). Every local church had a plurality of biblically qualified elders.
We must not think that these elders were appointed without the involvement and participation of the entire local church. For how was the appointment of deacons done in the church at Jerusalem? We read, “So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. . But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose (emphasis mine) Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:2-6). Just as the appointment of deacons involved active congregational participation, so the appointment of elders must have gone through a similar process. And this is indicated by the word “appointed” ceirotonh,sante use in Acts 14:23. One lexicon defines the word as “choose, elect by raising a hand to signify a vote.” Lenski points out in his commentary, ” We may translate ‘designate’, ‘elect’, ‘appoint’; but the one designating or appointing voted to do so. Luke would make an important point by using this verb here. For the question at issue is whether Paul and Barnabas chose these elders without congregational participation or whether they conducted a congregational meeting in which a vote was taken by the show of hands, the congregation choosing with participation of the apostles and under their guidance. The latter is undoubtedly correct, just as the praying with fastings by no means includes only the two apostles but each congregation as well. The method used is fully explained in 6:2-6″ (Acts of the Apostles: Pg. 585-586).
Now why are deacons not even mentioned in 1Cor 12:28 and Eph 4:11 where the universal church structure are given? The only biblically consistent answer to that question is that the deaconate is mainly a serving and not a ruling office. Deacons serve as helpers to the elders to free them from the more mundane concerns of the church. They serve as extensions of the elders’ hands and feet to take care of the more mundane concerns of the church (Acts 6:1-7). The ruling body of the local church is the eldership (1Tim 5:17).
So the authority structure of the church universal during and after the apostolic era is still essentially the same. Christ, who is in heaven, is still the Head of the Church. The Holy Spirit, who has been sent, is Christ’s Vicar on earth. In terms of human agents, we are still under the rule of the apostles and prophets whose teachings have now been summarized, comprehended, preserved, and universally publish in our completed Bibles. And at the local church level, churches are still ruled by elders or pastors or teachers. The only real difference now is that we do not have living Apostles (and their delegates) and prophets.
The Episcopalian/Bishopric Model
As pointed out, the main distinctive of this model is that the “overseer” or “bishop” is distinct from the “elders” and that the “bishop” rules over several churches in his diocese.
It is a quite obvious that this model is a departure from the universal/local church structure and government. It is a clear violation of the Scriptural teaching. To say that the episcopate (office of overseers or bishops) is distinct from the presbyterate (office of elders) is purely a human invention. It has no biblical warrant whatsoever. As we have seen, all elders presbute,rouj are also overseers evpisko,pouj and all are exhorted to shepherd (pastor) poimai,nein the flock of God (Acts 20:17, 28-30 cf 1Pet 5:1-2; Tit 1:5,7). Furthermore, the idea that an overseer, as distinct from the elders, has rule over a group of churches is plainly without Scriptural warrant. Each local church even had a plurality of “overseers” or “bishops” (Acts 20:17,28-30).
Although the motive behind this model might have been noble in the sense that the people felt a need to have some “tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church” (quoted above), it is, nonetheless, an unscriptural and, therefore, a defective approach. It is a deviation from the Scriptural teaching concerning the structure and government of the universal/local church. And history is a commentary of the evils this deviation has brought to Christianity. We have the evils of this model fully developed in the Roman Catholic Church. Fueled by pride and carnal ambition, note what one Roman Catholic Catechism says about the Pope of Rome: “The pope takes the place of Jesus Christ on earth…. By divine right the pope has supreme and full power in faith and morals over each and every pastor and his flock. He is the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the entire church, the father and teacher of all Christians. He is the infallible ruler, the founder of dogmas, the author of and the judge of councils; the universal ruler of truth, the arbiter of the world, the supreme judge of heaven and earth; the judge of all, being judged by no one; God himself on earth.” (Emphasis mine) (New York Catechism).
The Denominational Model
As we have seen, the distinctive of this model is that a supra-church body rules over member churches, and therefore, there is no local church autonomy. As quoted above, “the members and rulers of each of these congregations singly are subject to the authority of the whole representative convention. In other words, such an association implies the subordination of each congregation, and the rulers of each congregation, to the common and more general authority of the higher courts “. This supra-church body is either composed of the elders of member churches or of men and women chosen by the member churches.
When compared with the Scriptural teaching, this model is clearly unwarranted. For the universal/local church structure as presented above nowhere indicates a supra-church body compose of elders from member churches or members chosen by the churches to act as their representatives to rule over the churches involved. Instead, each local church had a plurality of elders ruling over the particular church they were appointed.
The closest we can find in Scriptures to support the denominational model is the Counsel in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Closer examination, however, shows that the elders from the other churches were not invited to discuss the matter of whether the believing Gentiles had to be circumcised or not. Only the church in Jerusalem, where the apostles of Jesus where based, discussed and decided the issue in question (Acts 15:1-2,6,22-24). The result of that discussion, the apostolic dogma, was sent to the churches and was regarded as binding to them (Acts 16:4,5). The clear teaching of this recorded incident, therefore, is that the church in Jerusalem, where the apostles were based, was the Apostolic See. All churches were to be subject to the church in Jerusalem – the mother of all churches. And for any group or any church now to issue decrees supposedly binding to the churches is to challenge and usurp apostolic authority! Moreover, the incident also teaches a principle that a church may seek the counsel of a more mature church. However, such advice is not vested with apostolic authority, and therefore, cannot be regarded as binding to a church or churches.
And elsewhere in the NT, the autonomy of each local church is plainly and clearly taught. We see it illustrated in the case of Christ’s dealings with the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev 2&3). Christ did not envision a denominational board or some other humanly devised supra-church body to censure any of the seven churches for doctrinal or moral deviations. But Christ (and the Holy Spirit) speaks to each church by way of an apostolic letter, warns the church that unless they repent of their sins and do what He says they must do, then He Himself will deal personally with the church by either destroying it (Rev 2:5; Rev 3:3), disciplining the erring members (Rev 2:16; Rev 2:22-23), or excommunicating the entire church (Rev 3:16). And the message of each letter was not just intended for the church it was particularly addressed, but for all the churches in any and every generation. Thus each letter ends with the statement, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches”. This clearly implies that Christ will deal with each church in any and every generation in the same way He said He would deal with those seven churches. The idea of some humanly devised supra-church body ruling over or policing the churches is alien to the mind of Christ.
In addition, it is clear from the Scriptures that there is no court higher than the local church court (Mt 18:15-18). In fact, an apostle could not even excommunicate someone from the church independent of the corporate involvement of the gathered church (1Cor 5:1-7). Therefore, the idea that there is a court higher than the local church court is a clear departure from the Scriptural teaching.
The idea also that a denomination may own the property of local churches and require contributions from them is completely foreign to the Scriptures. Even Paul, the apostle of Christ, did not regard contributions from churches for mission work as mandatory but voluntary (Phil 4:15). Churches, therefore, were autonomous, even though they were under apostolic oversight.
The Associational Model
As mentioned above, there are similarities between the denominational and associational models in that both would involve some organizational structure. This is true even of those who are of the conviction that an association should not have a common purse, run a publication, established a school for theology, run a mission agency, etc.; but that all joint or cooperative efforts supported and approved by the member churches shall be under the direct control and supervision of any one of the confederated or member churches. For an association must have its own constitution, make its own by-laws, recognized some sort of officers, lay certain conditions for accepting or removing members, etc. These things are essential to forming an association.
The difference between the two, however, is that the associational model vows to uphold local church autonomy. As quoted above, an “Association cannot legislate for the churches, exercise any authority over them, or bind them in any way by its own action… They may make suggestions to the churches, or present appeals, and lay requests before them; to all of which the churches will give such attention as may seem to them right and proper.”
Of all the above-mentioned models thus far, this model seems to be the most consistent with Scriptures. For this model seems to uphold three important biblical principles – the principle of the autonomy of each local church, the interdependence of churches, and the principle of order (1Cor 14:33, 40). However, one must not rush to embrace this model for the simple reason that we do not see that the NT churches ever formed associational structures in order to implement these important biblical principles. Hiscox, who favors the associational model, honestly admits that, “It (association) is of human, not divine authority; it grows out of the sympathies of Christian fellowship, and the need of mutual help. (Principles and Practice of Baptist Churches: p 335). Also Berkhof admits, “Scripture does not contain an explicit command to the effect that the local churches of a district must form an organic union. Neither does it furnish us with an example of such a union (emphasis mine). In fact, it represents the local churches as individual entities without any external bond of union.”(Systematic Theology, Pg. 590-591). What then was the bond of union of those churches? The indwelling of the same Spirit and submission to apostolic rule! With this bond of union they entered into the rich dynamic of inter-church relationships. However, there is no record, whatsoever, that those local churches in the Scriptures formed “associations” or organized themselves into “associations”.
The passage often used to support the practice of forming associations was the benevolence work several churches voluntarily undertook for the needy saints in Jerusalem (1Cor 16, 2Cor 8&9). The church in Corinth was the first to begin and desire to do this work of benevolence (2Cor 8:10). The other churches also voluntary joined in this endeavor (2Cor 8:1-12, 2Cor 9:7). A group from the church in Corinth was formed to accompany Paul (1 Cor 16:3,4). Then men were appointed by several participating churches in these endeavor to ensure that no one will discredit the work (2 Cor 8:16-24). This inter-church team, however, was formed by participating churches to accomplish only a very specific and temporary task. As Alan Dunn puts it, “We see that these teams were formed ad hoc and did not assume any permanence. A providential need occasioned the formation of such inter-church team effort. Once the need was met, we read of no establishment of parachurch positions needing to be filled and perpetuated. With the task completed, the team is dissolved and the personnel reassimilated back into their respective churches.” (Perspectives on Inter-Church Relationships: Pg. 5).
Noel Espinosa, however, has recently advanced one ingenious justification for the associational model. To quote his paper, “Do we see in scriptures, for example, a mandate that says you must form associations? Well, we don’t. Is it therefore a conclusion to be made out of that that therefore associations are wrong? That is based on the wrong approach that you limit yourself to the imperative mood. Let me quote from the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. [ 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: I. 6 ] – ‘The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own Glory, Man’s Salvation, Faith and Life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new Revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God, to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church common to humane actions and societies; which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.’ So here, it acknowledges the fact that in the government of the church, there are those things that are not commanded by means of an imperative mood from scriptures, yet they are to be guided by prudence that is according to the general rules of the Word of God. Even the Confession of Faith acknowledges that there are mandates and there are those things consistent with scriptures even though they are not expressly stated in so many words in scriptures.”
I see, however, two errors in this line of reasoning. First, the problem of those who are not for the associational model is not that there is no command (imperative) in Scriptures that churches form associations. If that were the case, then even forming local churches would be a problem since there is no command (imperative) in Scriptures to do so. Clear from the apostolic practice or example recorded in Acts and indicated in the Epistles, however, the apostles did organize believers into local churches (Acts 14:21-23; Tit 1:5). And therefore, it is the duty of Christians now to organize themselves into local churches. But that is not the case of associations. We cannot find in Scriptures that the apostles ever formed associations or organized churches into associations. Therefore, that practice is without apostolic warrant.
Another problem I have with that line of reasoning is that it has not dealt with the specific matters envisioned in the confession and the qualifying phrase. To quote that part of the confession, “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church common to humane actions and societies; which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (emphasis mine). Those who do not embrace the associational model do not have a quarrel with this statement of the confession. However, it is clear that the confession here is dealing with matters that have to do with working out the details of worship and the government of the church. The details of how long the church is to meet for worship, what is the exact order of worship, how to go about choosing church’s officers, etc, must make use of the light of nature and Christian prudence. Moreover, the statement ends with a vital phrase, “according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed”. Therefore, in the case of worship, it has to be on the 1st day of the week (1Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7; Rev 1:10), it must include all and only the essential elements of NC worship (Deu 12:29-32; John 4:24; Heb 7:12), it must be consistent with the principle of cooperate edification (1Cor 14:26b). In the case of church officers, the men must be biblically qualified (1Tim 3; Tit 1), there must be active congregational involvement in choosing them (Acts 6). These are the general rules of Scriptures that must always be observed in working out some details in the worship of God and in the government of the church. Now, is organizing churches into associations or forming association according to the general rules of Scriptures, which must always be observed? Can it be considered as simply a matter of detail in the government of the church? Where is the bible example to at least indicate that the apostles ever formed associations or organized churches into associations? None! In the observation of Berkhof quoted above: “Neither does it (Scriptures) furnish us with an example of such a union. In fact, it represents the local churches as individual entities without any external bond of union.”
Besides, if we are to follow this line of reasoning, it will prove too much. It will open the way of justifying the creation of all sorts of supra-church and para-church organizations!
There is no apostolic warrant, therefore, for the associational model. And to introduce that model would only complicate the simple universal/local church structure given to us in the Scriptures. To force the rich biblical dynamics of inter-church relation into this model, in spite of its intended benefits, will only complicate matters. It will not really solve the problems it is designed to address and it will even create new ones. To put it simply, the bad effects far outweigh the good it is intended to achieve.
Now what are some of the bad effects? One bad effect is that this model will hinder, instead of promote the true unity of the churches of Christ. What is the true basis of the unity of local churches? Spiritual (indwelt by the same Spirit) and Scriptural (apostolic rule), not some humanly devised external structure or organization. Now what will happen if you will introduce a humanly devised external structure or organization like an association? You will fence out churches that are not part of your associational structure. These churches may be true churches of Christ. But for reasons that they may not yet qualify to be part of your association (they are not fully convinced of the 1689), or they cannot in good conscience join your association or any association, or they may already be part of another association, then you will fence them out. For unless they are part of the associational structure, how can they really be involved in it? But if there were no associational structures, then any true church of Christ, who wants to join in a cooperative effort designed to meet a specific need, can and may join.
Moreover, the associational model can also encourage an illusion of unity. The fact that churches are part of an associational structure does not necessary mean that they are truly united in doctrine. Some churches may just forced themselves to embrace the 1689 so as to qualify to be a member of the associational structure and enjoy the suppose benefits it might offer. This embrace, however, might not really be from an enlightened understanding of the word. A church also may really lack true involvement with other churches, but this defect might be concealed by the fact that she is a part of an association. As J.L. Dagg puts it, ” A want of fellowship in a church, is a disease preying on the spiritual strength of the body; but it is better that it should be seen and felt, until the remedy is applied, than that it should be concealed by an outward covering of ecclesiastical forms. When mere organization supplies the union and strength on which we rely, we shall cease to cultivate the unity of the Spirit, and to trust the power of truth.” (Manual of Church Order: Second Part: Pg. 279)
Another bad effect in the associational model is that, instead of promoting order, it will lead to unnecessary confusion and tensions, and will encourage carnal politicking. Unlike the inter-church team we find in the Scriptures designed to meet only a specific and temporary task or need, an association has a more permanent and broad role and function. But what would be the role and function of the association over member churches? And since more permanent positions and functions, that are nowhere to be found in the Bible, will have to be created in order to run the association, who will determine what those positions and functions would be? What would be the responsibility and authority of those who hold those more permanent functions? What would be their qualifications? And who will chose those who will be in those positions? This will create unnecessary confusion and tension, and will encourage carnal politicking. It would be like putting all twenty close and related family units under one roof or compound. Instead of improving further their relationships, you will only complicate matters, create confusion of authority and unnecessary tensions. So why complicate matters? Let us cultivate and maintain fellowship with as many true churches of Christ as possible. When a specific need arises, any church can voluntarily participate in a cooperative effort designed to meet a specific need. Let the church share her gifts to as many churches as possible. When necessary, let a church voluntarily seek the advice of a more mature church or churches of her choice. But why complicate the simple biblical structure of the church universal by creating some humanly devised external structure or organization? It will only lead to unnecessary confusion and tensions, and encourage carnal politicking.
Still another bad effect in this associational model is that it is potentially dangerous to human pride and carnal ambition. Now that there are no more living apostles, their delegates, and prophets, there are now only two offices in the church which men can hold – the office of elders and deacons. Therefore, the office of elder or pastor is the highest position one can hold in the church today. Once you are in that office, there are no more steps you can climb in the “ecclesiastical ladder”. And since the biblical norm is a plurality and parity of biblically qualified elders, then there is a means to keep in check the dangerous tendency to human pride and carnal ambition. In the associational model, however, there are more permanent positions and functions men can aspire for in the “ecclesiastical ladder”. And this is potentially dangerous to human pride and carnal ambition – and church history is a witness to this fact.
Pastors who do not really like the hard and difficult work of shepherding sheep can aspire for some other church function, which an association provides. Gifted men, who might think that the pastorate is too low a work for the exercise of their gifts, can aspire for some “higher” ecclesiastical role or position. This is so dangerous to human pride and carnal ambition as church history graphically illustrates. Never forget what Luther once said that there is a little pope in every single one of us. But if we stick to the universal/local church structure and government as given in the Scriptures, that danger is greatly reduced – although not completely eliminated. As a pastor, I feel well protected with the simple God-ordained structure of a plurality and parity of biblically qualified elders. And I do not have a ladder to climb! Although my influence may go beyond one local church, and yet my authority is clearly limited only to the local church of which the Holy Spirit has made me one of the overseers.
Another bad effect of the associational model is that it will, in a subtle way, eventually undermine local church autonomy it has vowed to uphold. For what if an association votes on a particular issue, like recognizing or removing a church from the association, or engaging in some cooperative effort, and the outcome is not unanimous? Should the minority in disagreement be forced to abide by the decision of the majority? Even if they are not expected to for the sake of upholding the principle of local church autonomy, will they not at least be viewed as divisive, or at least, as suspect? Moreover, will not a small church be externally under pressure, and not that inward pressure that comes from an enlightened conviction, to just conform to what the association has decided less it further delay discussions or less it fall out of grace? So the autonomy of a local church that an association has vowed to uphold will still, in a subtle way, eventually be undermined. It would be like saying that you will be taking a bath but you do not want to get wet in the process!
The Fellowship Model
There is one more model left – the fellowship model, which, in my judgement, is the biblical model. Those who embrace the fellowship model are often accused of isolationism. And sadly, in some churches, there is some truth to that. However, many in favor of this model are also actively involve with other churches. There will always be more room of improvement – yes. But the rich dynamic of inter-church relations is an evident reality.
Another major criticism against this model is that it tends to be without order and acts only according to necessity. But was not the benevolence effort for the needy saints in Jerusalem done voluntarily and out of necessity? And are we now saying that having an associational structure is a “must” for order and in order to avoid acting according to our subjective whims and feelings? If that is the case, then why do we not see the apostles forming associations or organizing churches into associations? And are we saying that churches that have a plurality and parity of biblically qualified elders cannot relate with each other in a principled, proper, and orderly way without an associational structure? Does this not betray a very low view of the eldership and of the local church?
The only rationale why an associational structure could be a necessity is when churches have less than a plurality of biblically qualified elders acting in true biblical parity (which is still a problem in many Reformed Baptist Churches today). If that were the situation, then maybe an associational structure would be necessary. However, even that would not be the real and biblical solution. The solution is to earnestly pray and labor that God would soon raise biblical qualified elders in all the churches just as He did during the apostolic era. Men who are spiritually mature, men who know and love the teachings of the Scriptures, men who can rule well, men with sober integrity, men who can handle problems and criticisms biblically, men who genuinely see the need of a plurality of biblically qualified elders in a local church and can work in true biblical parity with each other, men who are blameless. This is the biblical solution! Let us not look for some other solution. Let us not devise our own human solutions. But let us cry to God and labor that churches will soon have a plurality of biblically qualified elders working in true biblical parity.
Like an autonomous family unit relating with other autonomous family units, each local church is organizationally and structurally complete under Christ and apostolic rule. Therefore, she is at liberty to follow her enlightened convictions and freely enter into the rich dynamics of inter-church relations with any and as many true churches of Christ as possible, without the complications that come from being a part of a humanly devised external structure or organization. This is the genius of the fellowship and biblical model!
There will be no confusion of authority and no carnal politicking. No pressure to surrender local church’s autonomy. Each church is not under pressure to embrace certain beliefs, without true heart conviction, just to become a part of an association or so as not to be left out. There will be no pressure to embrace the decision of the majority of member churches in an association just to avoid tension and division and a falling out of grace. Any true church can freely and voluntarily enter and participate in a specific cooperative effort designed to meet a particular need without the necessity of joining an association and without the need of being bound by some other agreed policies that have nothing to do with the particular cooperative effort. The elders will have to be content with and focused upon their God-given work and calling because they know the sphere of their authority and responsibility and they have no higher positions to aspire. The members feel safe that they are under the rule of men whom they have the confidence; because they personally know them as those who are biblically qualified and they themselves have chosen them for the office. Whenever there are conflicts and problems within the church, the members are forced to settle them within the bounds of the local church and not drag others who are not in any position to be involved or take sides. When a church cannot solve internal problems on her own, she can still voluntarily request any church or churches of her own choice for advisory help, without other churches meddling in her own affairs. That’s the beauty and that’s the genius of the fellowship and biblical model of inter-church relations!
There are still some practical questions left unanswered as to how the fellowship model actually works out in practice. What if a disciplined member of another church applies for membership in your church and he/she alleges of having been a victim of unbiblical church disciplined? How are you to relate to churches that obviously have abusive leaders? How are you to relate to churches that have some doctrinal error? How are you to relate with church leaders whose personal actions and dealings with you are questionable? Although these practical questions need some answers, I will not enter into them for now. Alan Dunn in his paper “Perspective on Inter-Church Fellowship” helpfully deals with some of those practical questions and problems. And confident of the completeness and all-sufficiency of the Scriptures, each church needs to wrestle with practical questions and problems of this nature.
In seeking biblical answers and solutions, however, we must work within the universal/local church structure as we find it in the New Testament. To try to solve those problems by introducing a humanly devised structure not warranted by the Bible would only complicate matters and create many new problems. Church history is a witness that any deviation from the apostolic structure and government of the church will only have serious repercussions Let us not forget the warning of the Scriptures, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (Gal 5:9).