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A Structure of Serving
By Thomas Ryan
The subject of church government is a concern of many of us today.
Mr. Harold Smith and Mr. Norman Edwards have written long articles on church government. There have been numerous articles in the "In Transition" publication that have addressed this subject. I must say that there have been some very good articles.
I have made it a point to question various ideas in the articles and prove them from scripture. What I will be giving here is what I believe to be correct, after making my own personal study on the subject.
Some of you will probably recognize some the material that I have used from the articles that I mentioned earlier.
There were certain requirements for the original apostles: (1) They had to be taught and trained by Christ, beginning from the time Christ was baptized by John until the day he was taken from them; (2) They had to be an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus, (Acts 1:21-26; I Cor. 15:5-8). Matthias, who replaced Judas, fulfilled these requirements. Also, the apostles were given the power to perform signs, wonders and mighty deeds (II Cor. 12:12). They were well known for their acts of healing.
Two other men were selected after the original apostles: Paul, who was selected by Jesus Christ and was taught by Him for three years in Arabia (Gal. 1:15-18), and Barnabas, who was selected by the Holy Spirit for a special work with Paul (Acts 14:14; 13:1-3).
It is my opinion that the office of apostle was a special one-time foundational ministry of the first century church and there were no successors to the apostles, only disciples.
This makes me wonder about the self-proclaimed apostles today. Mr. Ed Martell, in his sermonette on May 25, 1996, brought to our attention the scripture in Rev. 2:2 about those that "...say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars." These sound like false apostles to me.
The apostles were of equal status, no one in authority over the others. At the same period of time, each was doing his own work. The twelve were going to the Jews, Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles. This does away with the fallacy of one man at a time in charge of the work or church. The idea of God working through just one man came later with the bishop of Rome, not from God. The apostles were following the instructions of Jesus Christ. He told them to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). It's my opinion that Jesus Christ was in charge, then and now.
The seven churches listed in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 evidently were independent churches. Each church was evaluated independently on their own good works. Then, they were told their faults. Each was then encouraged to overcome their faults. When we read Paul's epistles, we see that the church was a loose confederation of congregations, not a hierarchical type of organization.
After saying all this, I realize that any mention of order or structure in the church causes automatic suspicion. Most think of a "hierarchy". I am going to define hierarchy and show that there is evidence of a "structure of serving" in the first century churches.
What is a hierarchy? Webster's Dictionary defines hierarchy as 1) body of persons, ecclesiastics [clergymen], in whom authority is vested and who are organized in successive ranks, 2) any group arranged in ranks.
Christ's instructions to the apostles were different. Luke 22:24-26 states [KJV] "And there was also a strife among them [the apostles], which of them should be accounted the greatest. And He [Jesus] said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve." Verse 27 says in paraphrased form "For which is greater, he that sits at a meal, or he that serves the meal? Is not he that sits at the meal? But I am among you as he that serves." Serving is Christ's priority for leadership.
Some claim the apostle Paul established a hierarchical order of apostle's evangelists, pastors, elders and deacons. I Cor. 12:28 and pH. 4:11 supposedly lists ministerial ranks in descending order of authority.
Let's take a look at these scriptures. I Cor. 12:28 [Amplified Bible] states, "So God has appointed some in the church (for His own use): first apostles [special messengers]; second prophets [inspired preachers and expounders]; third teachers, then wonder-workers, then those with ability to heal the sick, helpers, administrators, [speakers in] different [unknown] tongues."
Eph. 4:11-12 says "And His gifts were some to be apostles [special messengers], some prophets [inspired preachers and expounders], some evangelists [preachers of the gospel, traveling missionaries] some pastors [shepherds of His flock], and teachers." Notice the purpose of these spiritual gifts, verse 12, "His intention was for the perfecting and the full equipping of the saints [His consecrated people], (that they should do) the work of ministering toward building up Christ's body, [the church]."
Instead of these verses describing ministerial ranks in descending order of authority, they describe what I call a "structure of serving" established by Christ to supply the needs of the church. With the rapid growth of the Jerusalem churches, the needs of the church grew. A "structure of serving" was created and grew out of the distribution of spiritual gifts.
Webster's Dictionary defines structure as 1) something built or constructed; building, etc., 2) the arrangement of all the parts of a whole.
This describes what Christ did. Christ set or arranged the members in the body of Christ and through the distribution of spiritual gifts a "structure of serving" (I Cor. 12:18).
The subject of I Cor. chapter 12 and Ephesians chapter 4 is spiritual gifts, (I Cor. 12:1,4; Eph. 4:7,8,11). These spiritual gifts are listed, perhaps in order of need, importance or in the order the gifts were bestowed upon individuals by Jesus Christ.
Jesus set the members in the body as it pleased Him and then gave them various gifts that they should do the work of ministering, serving, building up Christ's body, the church. One might think of it as job descriptions and requirements for a successful church (I Cor. 12:18,28).
In the first century church, the apostles and prophets were the principle leaders of the congregations. The apostles were charged with teaching doctrine, because they were personally taught and trained by Christ. The apostles and prophets provided the spiritual leadership, not the physical administration. I will talk about this later.
Evangelist was not a ministerial rank. It described a function. A man was an evangelist because he was one who evangelized. Pastors were shepherds and teachers taught.
It is interesting to note the "elders" or "bishops" are not listed as spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit grants. Men naturally grow older and become elders.
In Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, the word "elder" in the New Testament, number 4245, is "presbuteros" (pres-boo'-ter-os). It is where we get the word "presbyter" which means "elder(est), old". So when we see the word "elder" or "elders" using in the New Testament, it is referring to an older person.
The words "elders" and "bishops" are used interchangeably in the New Testament (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7). From the elders in the congregation, one or more, depending on the needs of the congregation, was appointed by the ministry or selected by a show of hands by the congregation (Acts 14:23; II Cor. 8:19). (Note: "ordained" and "chosen", #5500 in Strong's Concordance, "cheirotoneo" from "teino" (to strech); to be a hand-reacher or voter (by raising the hand); means to select or appoint, choose, ordain.) They had to meet certain qualifications to be considered. When a local congregation has older men with a good knowledge of scripture and a reputation for fairness and honesty and fulfills the qualifications in I Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, and they wish to serve in the manner, appoint them to serve if there is a need.
In the first century churches, the elders appointed were primarily responsible for the administrative needs of the congregation (I Pet. 5:2). They also taught the word in the congregation. It's my opinion that elders selected to serve in this manner would be considered to have the spiritual gift of an administrator (I Cor.12:28 translated "governments" in KJV).
The word "bishop" means "overseer". The King James Bible translators tried to make the word "bishop" appear to be a position of rank. It would have been easier for us to understand if they had just used the word "administrator" to describe the "elder" that was appointed primarily to take care of the physical administration of the congregation.
A hierarchy type of church government is a concern of many of us today. We saw that type of government fail us when many of us had to leave our former affiliation in order to obey God. After studying this subject, we find that the hierarchical type church government is of gentile origin designed to control by positions of rank from the top down. This type of government is not from God. His way is to server others, not rule over them.
United Christian Ministries