The Organization of the Church

Author : Keith Sharp


During the fifties and sixties, many brethren tried to justify unauthorized practices by claiming there is no New Testament pattern in these areas. For example, Athens Clay Pullias, who was then President of David Lipscomb University, wrote a tract entitled “Where There Is No Pattern.”

Brethren sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). During the sixties and seventies a group of brethren advocated fellowship between those of differing doctrines and practices, even to the fellowship of denominations, claiming there is no New Testament pattern of authority. One wrote, “Nowhere, nowhere, do I find a consistent diagram or blueprint of what life should be or what the church should be.” (Sanders. 51)

Now, those who plead for a “new hermeneutic” (new way of understanding the Bible) teach that the life of Christ is the only pattern for the individual Christian and the church as a corporate body has no divine pattern to follow.

For the individual believer, Christ’s perfect example remains the benchmark for his or her life. For the corporate body of Christ, there is no historical prototype of the church for duplication…. It is not a fixed, static institution. It has no once-for-all form.¬†(Shelly & Harris. 6)

In contrast with the lawless attitude of Shelly and Harris, the New Testament contains a divine pattern for the church (2 Timothy 1:3; Hebrews 8:4-5) which we must carefully maintain (2 Timothy 1:13; 2 John 9-11). In this lesson we will study the New Testament pattern for the organization of the church.


The term “organization” denotes “a group of people who work together in a structured way for a shared purpose” (Cambridge). I am using this word to mean a body of people having three qualities: oversight, pooled resources (a treasury) and a common work. The question of organization is separate from issues about work, methods, or arrangements. In the Lord’s church, the local congregation is the organization. It may, for example, do the work of teaching the word, that work may be done through the question and answer method and the Bible class arrangement may be employed. But, regardless of the work, method, or arrangement used, the local congregation is the organization.


Universal Church

Let’s look first at the universal church. The universal church is that entity which Jesus promised to and did build (Matthew 16: 18). It is the body of all the saved people in all the world, both living and dead (Ephesians 5:23), in that all those who are saved by the Gospel are also added by the Lord to the church (Acts 2:47). There is only one such body (Ephesians 4:4).

This body has only one Head, Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:18), and all the parts (members) of the body are to function individually as the Head instructs (Colossians 3:17).

The only means revealed in the Scriptures that Christians universally have fellowship (joint participation, sharing in work and blessings) is as each member (Christian) has fellowship with the Head in obedience to His will (cf. 1 John 1:3,7). This means that Christians on a world-wide scale simply function as individuals rather than being bound together in some ecclesiastical machinery on this earth.

The universal church has no divinely authorized organization or function upon this earth.

This means of fellowship can be illustrated by a city clean-up campaign. We could all be organized under a central organization which would send out committees of yard mowers, rakers, etc. That would be joint co-operation. Or, we could all cooperate in the work (have fellowship) simply by cleaning up our own place. This would be concurrent cooperation, the kind of fellowship authorized for Christians in the universal church.

When, in the 1840s, Alexander Campbell and others wanted to activate the universal church through a missionary society, they pushed for joint cooperation, the type of fellowship unknown to the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was the first president of the American Christian Missionary Society, the foundation upon which the Christian Church denomination began. In the 1970s Jimmy Lovell called for “universal action for the universal church” in promoting World Bible School. This is the same mistake made in the formation of the missionary society. Modern examples of this unscriptural form of fellowship are the Herald of Truth, One Nation Under God, World Radio, church supported orphanages, and church supported colleges.

Local Church

The local congregation is the only organization on this earth authorized by the New Testament to be a part of the church of Christ (cf. l Corinthians 1:2). Any organization larger, smaller, or other than the local congregation, in any way tied to local churches, is unknown to the New Testament.

Local congregations have six characteristics revealed in the New Testament. They are composed of disciples of Christ who agree to work together (Acts 9:26-28), in a given locality (1 Corinthians 1 :2) and to assemble to worship on a regular basis (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 11:18).

Each local congregation functions collectively in a manner distinct from the individual activities of its own members (l Timothy 5: 16), by the planned use of its own resources, which it possesses as the result of the first day of the week collection of its members (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). This means there is a difference between the work of the church (local congregation) and the efforts of its individual members. When an individual Christian functions, that does not mean the church is at work. The church has neither the obligation nor the right to do everything the individual may do.

Furthermore, each congregation is, as its members mature, to be fully, scripturally organized. Paul and Timothy addressed themselves “to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).


Bishops (overseers), also called elders (presbyters, older men) and pastors (shepherds) are to be developed, selected and appointed in each congregation to oversee and shepherd the church (Acts 20:17,28; 14:23). Deacons (servants) are to serve the church. Saints (those set apart to God. Christians) are to work together. Each congregation has the right to support evangelists (messengers of good), also called “preachers” (heralds, those who proclaim), to work either with the church that supports them or in other places (Philippians 4:15-16) to preach the word (2 Timothy 4:1-5).

Finally, each local congregation is to be independent or autonomous of every other local church or any organization begun by human design. Each local church is to do all its own work under the oversight of its own elders (l Peter 5: 1-2). No eldership has the right to oversee any part of the work of any congregation save the one where they are members. No church is authorized to turn any part of its work over to the oversight of the elders of another congregation. This eliminates the sponsoring church set-up in which many churches send money to one church, which in turn oversees a work for all of them.


Human Organizations

No church-supported human organization (an organization begun by human authority) can be scripturally made to fit this pattern. They are wrong in at least six ways.

  • They are additions to the pattern (2 John 9).
  • They are substitutions for the divinely authorized pattern (Isaiah 55:8-9).
  • They presume to improve the divine plan for church organization (Romans 11:33-36; Jeremiah 10:23).
  • They usurp divine authority (Ephesians 1:22-23).
  • They violate the principle of walking by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7; Romans 10:17).
  • They pervert the function of the congregation into simply a fund-raising organization and thus rob it of its strength (Ephesians 4: 12-16).

This last objection is dramatically illustrated by a comparison between practices in the 19th century which culminated in the formation of the Christian Church and parallel practices by churches of Christ today.

David E. Harrell, Jr., notable social and religious historian, observed of the nineteenth century:

A much more noticeable, and more important, symptom of the growing denominational consciousness of church leaders was the growth of institutional benevolence in the late nineteenth century. Organized benevolence grew slowly in Disciples history because of the caustic anti-institutionalism preached by the church’s early leaders … The crucial point at which Disciples disagreed about benevolence was how it should be done. (The context shows he is talking about organization. – K.S.) Conservatives remained convinced that the church was an adequate organization to accomplish all that needed to be done; liberal Disciples increasingly looked for more efficient and orderly methods of operation … Even more telling was the conservative argument that organized benevolence killed the sense of local responsibility; Christians too often relieved their consciences with token contributions to remote institutions¬†(The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900. 62,69).

Those “liberal Disciples” who “looked for more efficient and orderly methods of operation” eventually formed the Christian Church denomination. Now many churches of Christ are following the same path toward denominationalism.


Indeed, there is a pattern for the organization of the church, and we dare not violate that pattern (2 John 9). Those who contend for church support of human organizations and the sponsoring church set-up must either produce scriptural authority for their pet projects or repent (Revelations 22:18-19). Brethren, let us return to the “old paths” (Jeremiah 6:16).

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