Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
March 25, 1954
NUMBER 45, PAGE 8-10a

The Berney Points Series: The Divine Pattern Of Church Organization

Marshall E. Patton, Birmingham, Alabama

God is the great architect. He has furnished the pattern for the accomplishment of His purposes throughout all ages. God gave Noah a pattern, and he was blessed because of his implicit obedience. (Gen. 6:22) God commanded Moses to "make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount." (Heb. 8:5; Exodus 25:9) God commanded Israel not to add to, nor to diminish ought from His commandments that what they did might be AS He commanded it. (Deut. 4:2) The Old Testament abounds in examples of those who failed in this particular. "Every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward." (Heb. 2:2) The principle of adhering to God's pattern is just as binding today as then. (Heb. 2:3; 2 John 9)

Those who love the truth find great delight in searching for the truth, and in contending for the truth. Christianity in its purity is the very essence of all that is glorious. On the other hand perverted Christianity is the most pathetic, deceitful, and heart rending thing in all the world. This is true because it has its finality in the depths of an eternal hell! When Jude said, "... contend earnestly for the faith" (Jude 3) he thereby imposed upon all saints the grave responsibility to keep it pure. For this reason every issue must be studied prayerfully. Today, church organization is definitely an issue! We must study again the divine pattern of church organization.

Perhaps all would acquiesce in the statement that major apostasies of the church have had their origin in seemingly innocent and harmless practices. However, the evil that lurks in such practices does not always become manifest until they reach great proportions. Then what once was considered absolutely harmless becomes evil. Unfortunately, too often we are complacent in the fact that no one has regarded it as a departure before, therefore, we conclude it is no departure now.

All should realize that in the first apostasy of the church the first departures did not become evident as departures until they reached great proportions. We know from history something of the efforts spent in vain to reform that old apostate church. She stubbornly refused to be reformed! Nothing short of an all out restoration would do the job. Even after the restoration itself was well underway certain practices developed in our midst which were regarded by some very outstanding and influential brethren to be absolutely innocent and harmless. But after the stage of great proportion was reached; the evil became manifest to many — even to some who formerly gave their endorsement to them. They then turned and became the bitter enemies of the practices they once regarded innocent and harmless. Unfortunately, all brethren did not see the evil. It was impossible to stem the tide. Digression was inevitable!

That leads me to make this statement, It is hard to turn men from a religious practice they have held for a time! Jesus, the Son of God, earnestly sought in vain to turn the Pharisees from their vain traditions. (Mark 7:1-7) They were prejudicially wedded to them! Our prayer, then, should always be, may God help us to see any departure before it reaches great proportions. And if we do not see it until then, may God give us the courage to always make good our boast — the one we have been ringing in the ears of our denominational neighbors and friends through the years — "Show me where I am wrong, and I will change!"

The Development Of Church Organization

In our search for the pattern let us notice first the development of church organization. I use the word "development" because this organic structure in its mature state did not come into being over night, but through a divine process of development. In our study of the Bible we find that church organization developed consistent with divine purpose as the need for it arose until a state of maturity was reached. However, let it be remembered that church organization in this mature state is circumscribed and bounded by divine law! The divine limitations cannot be ignored without suffering consequences!

Christ is head of the church universal. (Eph. 1:22, 23) The apostles are executives in the church universal subject to Him who is head. (Matt. 19:28) The church universal knows no other officials.

Of the first converts we read, "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." (Acts 2:42) They continued not only in WHAT the apostles taught, but also in BEING TAUGHT by the apostles. Thus, the first converts were under the direct supervision, guidance and teaching of the apostles. This, no doubt, accounts for no mention of elders in the Jerusalem church at the beginning, and the appointment of deacons before elders. Being present in this local church, and there being but one congregation to oversee, the apostles could well serve the purpose of elders. Hence, at first the apostles were the only officials in the Jerusalem church. For awhile this sufficed, but in time complaints were made. The Grecians murmured against the Hebrews because of neglect in the matter of daily ministration to their widows. Then the apostles said, "It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables." (Acts 6:2) They further instructed the church to select men of certain qualifications, which men were appointed over this business. While these men are not designated here as deacons, a further study of the word in conjunction with their official appointment and the nature of the work they did establishes the fact that they were deacons. Here we have the appointment of the first officials whose duties were confined to a local congregation. Furthermore, these deacons were appointed, not just with a view to completing the organization of the church, but to meet a NEED! Today deacons are often appointed just with a view to completing the organization of the church and without regard to the need. Consequently, in some instances, after the appointment, the need goes right on unmet.

As Christianity spread, the duties of the apostles became more exacting. This can best be appreciated by considering the true position occupied by the apostles in the church, which position is stated most clearly by Jesus himself in Matthew 19:28: "And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." You will notice that the apostles are to judge the whole of Israel. Notice, too, that their judging is coextensive with the reign of Christ and with the period of regeneration. Therefore, the doctrine .of apostolic succession is false! The apostles are sitting on those thrones now, and there they will continue to sit until the reign of Christ ends and the period of regeneration is no more. Then they judged orally. Now, they judge through the written word. Nevertheless, they are judges of the whole of the Israel of God or the church. (Gal. 6:16) Furthermore, when we remember that the spiritual gifts — so essential in the local congregations in apostolic days — were imparted through the laying on of their hands, we can appreciate more the magnitude of their responsibilities.

This increase of responsibilities on the apostles created the need for elders — even in the Jerusalem church during the life time of the apostles. There was also a need for overseers in other localities where churches were planted. Hence, we find that the Jerusalem church had elders and deacons. (Acts 6:1-8; 15:4) The church in Ephesus had elders. (Acts 20:17) The church in Thessalonica had elders. (1 Thess. 5:12, 13) The church at Philippi had elders and deacons. (Phil. 1:1) Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every city of Crete. (Titus 1:5) Paul ordained elders in every church on his return from his first missionary journey. (Acts 14:23) From this we also see that under some conditions churches may exist scripturally — be recognized as churches — without either elders or deacons. However, in that fully developed and mature state we always find a plurality of elders and deacons in each local congregation. Since the terms "elders" and "deacons" sustain a vital relation to the subject of "Church Organization," some time should be spent in a study of them.

Elders And Deacons

There are different terms used in the Bible to designate the overseers of the church. In fact, we find three very prominent and distinct ideas inherent in the terms that are used. The terms "elders" and "presbyter" mean the same thing. One is of Hebrew origin, and the latter is the Greek form. Both mean wisdom, prudence, mature judgment by reason of years of experience. Therefore, the idea of age necessarily inheres in the terms. The term "bishop" means overseer, and is so translated in many instances. It carries with it the idea of superintendent, or one in charge. The term "pastor" is of Latin origin, and corresponds in meaning with the Greek term translated "shepherd." Here the idea is that of shepherding the flock.

From these observations we find that they are called "elders" because of their mature judgment through years of experience. They are called "bishops" because they are the overseers. They are called "pastors" because they are to exercise a shepherd's care over the flock. They are "set to watch for their souls as they that must give account." (Heb. 13:17)

The term "deacon" means an attendant, waiter, servant, or minister. It is so translated in numerous passages. The term "deacon" in the general sense would apply to any person who was performing any work that had been assigned to him by another. In that general sense we all are deacons. We are deacons of Christ — servants of the Lord. However, the New Testament reveals that there were official servants in the church in apostolic days. (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:12) Here we find the deacons distinguished from the saints in general. We also find that wherever elders and deacons were appointed there was always a plurality of both in each congregation. The elders were all equal in authority. The deacons were subject unto them.

Perhaps the significance of these points can best be appreciated from a negative viewpoint. In other words let us notice what we do not find. (1) We do not find the terms "elder," "bishop," or "pastor" used to identify different offices or officers in the church. They always refer to the same men and the same office. (Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:17, 28) When and wherever you find these terms used to identify different offices or officers in the church, you have found an unscriptural situation — something contrary to the divine pattern. (2) We do not find one man pastor, bishop, or elder of one church. When and wherever you find one man pastor of one church you likewise have an unscriptural situation — something contrary to the divine pattern. (3) We do not find one man pastor, bishop, or elder of churches (plural). When and wherever you find one man bishop of more than one church you likewise have an unscriptural situation — something contrary to the divine pattern. It is always elders (plural) of the church (singular). God's duly appointed overseers are to oversee one church and only one church.

Thus, we have a picture of the divine pattern of organization both from a positive and negative viewpoint. This is the whole of the executive structure of church organization. Jesus Christ is the head. (Eph. 1:22, 23) The apostles are on thrones judging the whole of Israel. (Matt. 19:28) We have elders in local congregations amenable only to Jesus Christ and his apostles. Under the elders we have deacons as the special assistants of elders or official servants of the local church. Within this divine framework we also have the overseen — preacher and members of the local body. (Heb. 13:17) This is the divine pattern of church organization!


From these facts some necessary conclusions follow. This makes the local congregation the only church organization on earth. When you go beyond the local congregation, so far as earthly organization is concerned. you have created an unscriptural situation. That being true, it necessarily follows that all the work that God wants the church to do, as such, may be done through the local congregation. If the local church cannot do it, it necessarily follows that it is not a work of the church! If an organization other than the local congregation is necessary to do that which is a work of the church, we are forced to the conclusion that God's revelation on church organization is incomplete! If that be true, how do we know that His revelation on items of worship and other matters are complete? Are we prepared for the consequences that necessarily follow? It resolves itself into a question of faith in the all-sufficiency of the scriptures;

If we are to walk by faith, and we are (2 Cor. 5:7), and since faith comes by hearing God's word (Rom. 10:17), then God's word becomes the limit and measure of our walking. We are limited in the matter of church organization to what the Bible reveals. Therefore, we can go no farther in the realm of church organization than the local church — not by divine authority.

Furthermore, these facts necessarily preclude any central organization through which the local congregations may work. Each local congregation is free and independent of any and all super-imposed systems of control. This is true not only of the congregation, but of any phase of work of a local congregation. The work of the church is to be under the oversight of God's duly appointed overseers of church work. We should remember, too, that such overseers are limited in their oversight to those things peculiar to the congregation of which they are overseers. In 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28 we find elders specifically charged to exercise oversight over those "which are among you," and "over that which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers." The Holy Spirit has not made them overseers of anything save a local congregation and its activities. The apostles are officers of the church universal. Elders are officers of a local church only! This leads us to a study of the "church universal" concept, which will follow next week.