I. APPROACH TO SUBJECT
1. The General Sense
2. The Local Sense
II. INTERNAL ORDER
1. Subjects of Admission
2. Definite Organizations
4. Ecclesiastical Functions
(1) Control of Membership
(2) Selection of Officers, etc.
(3) Observations of Ordinances
5. Independent (Autonomous) Organizations
III. EXTERNAL AUTHORITY
IV. COOPERATIVE RELATIONS
The object here sought is to discover what kind of church government is mirrored in the New Testament. To do this with perfect definiteness is, no doubt, quite impossible. Certain general features, however, may clearly be seen.
I. Approach to the Subject.
The subject is best approached through the Greek word ekklesia, translated "church." Passing by the history of this word, and its connection with the Hebrew words `edhah and qahal (which the Septuagint sometimes renders by ekklesia), we come at once to the New Testament usage. Two perfectly distinct senses are found, namely, a general and a local.
1. The General Sense:
Christ is "head over all things to the church, which is his body ...." (Eph 1:22); "the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven" (Heb 12:23). Here we have "church" in the broadest sense, including all the redeemed in earth and heaven, and in all ages (see also Eph 1:22; 3:10; 5:22-27; Col 1:24; Heb 12:23).
2. The Local Sense:
Here the Scripture passages are very numerous. In some cases, the word is used in the singular, and in others the plural; in some it is used with reference to a specified church, and in others without such specification. In all cases the sense is local.
In Ac 11:26, it is said that Paul and Barnabas were "gathered together with the church," where the church at Antioch is meant. In Ac 14:23, Paul and Barnabas are said to have "appointed elders in every church," that is, churches which they had planted. In Re 2:1-29 and 3 the seven churches of Asia Minor are addressed. In Ac 16:5 we are told that the churches "were strengthened in the faith." On the local sense see, further, Ac 8:1; 15:4; 16:5; 20:17; Ro 16:4; 1Co 12:1-31; 6:4; 11:16; Ga 1:2,22, and many other places.
There are a few passages that do not seem exactly to fit into either of the above categories. Such, for example, are Mt 18:17 and 1Co 12:28, where it seems best to understand a generic sense. Such, also, are passages like Ac 9:31, and 1Co 10:32, where a collective sense best suits the cases.
Church government in the New Testament applies only to the local bodies.
II. Internal Order.
With respect to the constitution and life of these New Testament churches, several points may be made out beyond reasonable doubt.
1. Subjects of Admission:
They were composed of persons who professed faith in Christ, and who were believed to have been regenerated, and who had been baptized. See Ac 2:41,44,47 (the Revised Version (British and American) "added to them"); Ac 8:12; Ro 1:8; 6:4; 10:9-10; 1Co 1:2; Col 1:2,4; 1Ti 6:12, and others, where they are called "saints," "sons of God," "faithful brethren," "sanctified in Christ Jesus."
2. Definite Organizations:
They are definitely and permanently organized bodies, and not temporary and loose aggregations of individuals. It is quite impossible, for example, to regard the church at Antioch as a loose aggregation of people for a passing purpose. The letters of Paul to the churches at Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, cannot be regarded as addressed to other than permanent and definitely organized bodies.
They were served by two classes of ministers--one general, the other local.
At the head of these is the "apostle" (1Co 12:28; Eph 4:11). His official relation to the churches was general. He did not necessarily belong to the group of the original Eleven. Besides Matthias (Ac 1:26), Paul and Barnabas (1Co 9:5-6), James, the Lord's brother (Ga 1:19), Andronicus and Junias (Ro 16:7) are reckoned as "apostles." The one invariable and necessary qualification of an apostle was that he should have seen the Lord after the Resurrection (Ac 1:22; 1Co 9:1). Another qualification was to have wrought "the signs of an apostle" (2Co 12:12; compare 1Co 9:2). He was to bear witness to what he had seen and heard, to preach the gospel of the kingdom (Ac 1:8; 1Co 1:17), to found churches and have a general care of them (2Co 11:28). From the nature of his chief qualification, his office was temporary.
Next comes the "prophet." His relation to the churches, also, was general. It was not necessary that he should have seen the Lord, but it appertained to his spiritual function that he should have revelations (Eph 3:5). There is no indication that his office was in any sense administrative.
After the "prophet" come the "evangelist" and "teacher," the first, a traveling preacher, the second, one who had special aptitude for giving instruction.
After the "teacher" and "evangelist" follow a group of special gifts of "healing," "helps," "governments," "tongues." It may be that "helps" and "governments" are to be identified with "deacons" and "bishops," to be spoken of later. The other items in this part of Paul's list seem to refer to special charismata.
There were two clearly distinct offices of a local and permanent kind in the New Testament churches. Paul (Php 1:1) addresses "all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons."
See BISHOP; DEACON.
The most common designation of the first of these officers is "elder" (presbuteros). In one passage (Eph 4:11) he is called "pastor" (poimen). In Ac 20:17-28, it becomes clear that the office of elder, bishop, and pastor was one; for there the apostle charges the elders of the church at Ephesus to feed (pastor) the church in which the Holy Spirit has made them bishops (compare Tit 1:5,7; 1Pe 5:1-2).
The function of the elders was, in general, spiritual, but involved an oversight of all the affairs of the church (1Ti 3:2; 5:17).
As to the second of the local church officers, it has to be said that little is given us in the New Testament. That the office of deacon originated with the appointment of the Seven in Ac 6:1-15 is not certain. If we compare the qualifications there given by the apostles with those given by Paul in 1Ti 3:8-13, it seems quite probable that the necessity which arose at Jerusalem, and which led to the appointment of the Seven was really the occasion for originating the office of deacon in the churches. The work assigned the Seven was secular, that is to say, the "service of tables." They were to relieve the apostles of that part of the work. A similar relation to the work of the elders seems to have been borne by that of the deacons.
Again, they exercised the highest ecclesiastical functions.
4. Ecclesiastical Functions:
(1) Control of Membership.
In Mt 18:17, our Lord, by anticipation, lodges final action, in the sphere of church discipline, with the church. When the church has taken action, the matter is ended. There is no direction to take it to a higher court. In the church at Corinth, there was a man who was guilty of an infamous offense against purity. With regard to the case, Paul urged the most summary discipline (1Co 5:5). If the church should act upon the judgment which he communicated to them, they would act when "gathered together"; that is to say, action would be taken in conference of the church. In 2 Cor 2, a reference to the case shows that they had acted upon his advice, and that the action was taken by the majority ("the many," the more, 2Co 2:6). In 2 Cor 2 he counsels restoration of this excluded member now repentant. Exclusion and restoration of members were to be effected by a church. This, of course, carried with it the reception of members in the first instance.
(2) Selection of Officers, etc.
This was true in case of the Seven (Ac 6:3-13; see other cases in Ac 15:22; 1Co 16:3; 2Co 8:1 ff; Php 2:25). Ac 14:23 and Tit 1:5 seem, at first, to offset the passages just given. In one of these, Paul and Barnabas are said to have "appointed" (cheirotonesantes) elders in the churches which they had planted. But scholars of first quality, though themselves adhering to Presbyterial or Episcopal forms of church government, maintain that Paul and Barnabas ordained the elders whom the churches selected--that they "appointed" them in the usual way, by the suffrages of the members of the churches concerned. The word rendered "appoint" in Tit 1:5 (katasteses) is more easily understood as referring to ordination instead of selection.
(3) Observation of Ordinances.
Paul gives direction (1Co 11:20-34) to the church at Corinth about the observance of the Lord's Supper. These directions are given, not to any officer or set of officers, but to the church. Ecclesiastically, of course, the two ordinances are on the same level; and, if one of them had been committed to the custody, so to say, of the churches, so must the other.
5. Independent (Autonomous) Organizations:
The management of their business was in their own hands. Paul wrote the church at Corinth: "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1Co 14:40). In that comprehensive injunction, given to a church, is implied control of its affairs by the church.
III. External Authority.
The investigation up to this point places us in position to see that there is in the New Testament no warrant for ecclesiastical grades in the ministry of the churches, by which there may be created an ascending series of rulers who shall govern the churches merged into one vast ecclesiastical organization called "the church." So, also, we are in position to see that there is no warrant for an ascending series of courts which may review any "case" that originates in a local church. We may see, on the contrary, that to each local church has been committed by Christ the management of its own affairs; and that He had endowed every such church with ecclesiastical competency to perform every function that any ecclesiastical body has a right to perform.
As the churches are not to be dominated by any external ecclesiastical authority, so they are not to be interfered with, in their church life, by civil government. Jesus taught that Christians should be good citizens (Mt 22:15-22); so did the apostles (Ro 13:1-7; 1Pe 2:13-16). Jesus also taught the spirituality of His Kingdom: "My kingdom is not of this world" (Joh 18:36). It follows that only where the life of a church touched the civic life of the community has the civil authority any right to interfere.
IV. Cooperative Relations.
While each local church, according to the New Testament, is independent of every other in the sense that no other has jurisdiction over it, yet cooperative relations were entered into by New Testament churches. Examples and indications of that may be found in Ro 15:26-27; 2Co 8:1-24; 9:1-15; Ga 2:10; Ro 15:1; 3Jo 1:8. The principle of cooperation effective in those cases is susceptible of indefinite expansion. Churches may properly cooperate in matters of discipline, by seeking and giving counsel, and by respecting each other's disciplinary measures. In the great, paramount business of evangelizing and teaching the nations, they may cooperate in a multitude of ways. There is no sphere of general Christian activity in which the churches may not voluntarily and freely cooperate for the betterment of the world, the salvation of humanity.
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E. J. Forrester