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Online Articles

Organization of the Local Church

There is a simplicity about the church in the New Testament, as simple as the greeting in the letter to the Philippian church: "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons" (1:1). Overseers (also called elders and shepherds) lead the congregation. Deacons served the congregation. And they and all the rest of the congregation were "saints," a term referring to their holy way of life. Elders and deacons with the saints — that is it!

There were to be "elders in every church" (Acts 14:23), indicating both a plurality of them and a need for them in each congregation. They were to "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers" (Acts 20:28), showing their work was limited to their own congregation. 1 Peter 5:2 also says, "Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight." Elders and deacons were chosen by the congregation using qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which is how the Holy Spirit, as He revealed God's truth, still makes men elders and deacons today.

This simple organization gave way to men's ideas over several centuries following the days in which the New Testament was written. Individual, self-governing congregations became part of larger groups and organizations. Historians tell us it happened along these lines.

  • By 175-200AD one man was now distinguished from the elders and ruled over them: A Bishop.
  • By 275-300AD there came to be a bishop over all of the bishops of a province: A Metropolitan.
  • By 325AD three men ruled from the larger centers at Rome, Antioch and Alexandria, each as a Patriarch.
  • By 606AD there was one Patriarch or Father at Rome who was now ruling over all, who was called the Pope.

It took 500 years, but finally a point was reached where individual, autonomous congregations weren't even a distant memory. All now were a part of the universal (the meaning of the word "Catholic") church, as directed by one man, the Pope. It is not a plurality of men leading each congregation. It is one man ruling all, the man-appointed head of a human organization, comprised of all the congregations.

Surely the devil is pleased any time the New Testament is set aside and left behind. And he is patient, willing to wait 500 years or longer. But when did this error take place? It happened the first time a single congregation appointed a head elder to break tie votes and make things more efficient. Leave the Bible behind and the New Testament church will eventually evolve into the Catholic Church. But if we hold to the Bible as Divine Wisdom, we will be joyfully content in its beauty, no matter how inefficient it may seem to the worldly.