Chapter 14: EACH LOCAL CHURCH IS
SELF-GOVERNING UNDER CHRIST
by Wallace Alexander
When Jesus called
his disciples together in Caesarea Philippi to inquire about whom
the people considered him to be, he made a solemn promise to build
his church (Matthew 16:15) affirms the universality of the church.
The scriptures frequently refer to the church in a universal sense,
encompassing the entire family of God throughout the world.
The New Testament
also frequently refers to the church in a local sense. Many of
Paul's letters were directed to the church in a particular city
(Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 1:1), or region
Christ's church may
well be described as a monarchy. Other than Jesus, the absolute
monarch and head of the church (Ephesians 1:20-23), who possesses
all legislative authority (Matt. 28:18), the New Testament
authorizes no organization for the universal church. In the absence
of any Biblical authority for organizing the church universal, any
assumption of authority beyond the local congregation constitutes a
government not sanctioned by the scriptures.
In his divine
wisdom, God did not permit ambitious men to wield undue influence on
the church universal. Jesus emphasized humility and service to
others as character traits of those great in his kingdom. Ambitious
men seeking power over others through an organizational structure
greater than the local church runs contrary to greatness as God sees
however, do present God's plan for the organization of the local
church. That all things might be done decently and in order, he
commands the selection of a plurality of men in each congregation to
serve as shepherds of the flock. These men are scripturally
described as elders (1 Peter 5:1), bishops (Phil. 1:1; 1 Timothy
3:1), the presbytery (1Tim. 4:14), overseers (Acts 20:28, KJV), or
pastors (Eph. 4:11).
The divine wisdom
of God was demonstrated in making each local church self-governing
under Christ. Each was to have its own leaders. In Acts 20, Luke
records Paul's meeting with the elders of the church in Ephesus (v.
17). Paul gave these men the solemn charge to "Take heed unto
yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made
you bishops..."(v. 28). When writing to the church in Philippi, Paul
addressed his letter "to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at
Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:1). To Titus, Paul
said, "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set
in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every
city, as I gave thee charge" (Titus 1:5). Each church had its own
The elders in each
locality had specific responsibilities to teach, oversee, rule, and
be examples to the flock of God under their care. Each congregation
functioned with a plurality of elders. The elders in one city, or
congregation, had no responsibility or authority in another city.
Likewise, all elders in a congregation had equal responsibility and
authority in that congregation.
God planned for his church was simple. A plurality of men qualified
by character and experience (1 Timothy 3:1-7) were to be chosen
(Titus 1:5). The plan did not include a modern "single pastor"
system. It did not include any individual with authority and
responsibility beyond his own congregation. It did not include a
"bishop" elevated above the other elders or bishops.
Other forms of
government such as are now practiced by many religious organizations
with their synods, general assemblies, councils, conferences,
presbyteries and the like did not develop suddenly. The departure
from the New Testament pattern in organization began early in the
history of the church and has gradually evolved into the many forms
of organization used today. However, any deviation from the New
Testament pattern must be rejected for what it is -- a deviation.
AN EARLY DEPARTURE
One of the first
departures from the New Testament pattern was the development of the
monarchal bishop. One man from among the elders accepted the title
of bishop (a term scripturally referring to an elder) and was
elevated above the rest. He became chairman of the elders." One by
one, monarchal bishops were ordained until around 150 A.D. it became
a generally accepted practice.
The position of
"bishop" continued to gain prominence as churches evangelized their
surrounding areas. The church in a large city, such as Rome,
Antioch, or Alexandria, would begin a church in a smaller city and,
with a sense of paternal responsibility, the bishop accepted the
oversight of the new congregation. It was natural that the monarchal
bishops in the larger cities wielded a great influence. The gradual
development of synods resulted. Ultimately, religious authority
emanated from Rome, perhaps partially because Rome was the seat of
establishment of monarchal bishops, these men met in councils as
representatives of their respective congregations to consider their
common interests. It was not long, however, until the bishops saw
themselves, not as representatives, but as authorities to dictate to
the churches. The bishops' conclaves were described as councils or
synods and the resulting regulations were known as canons or rules.
Late in the second century there were attempts to establish a
succession of bishops back to the apostles. This attempt shows the
undue authority the bishops were accepting. To trace their lineage
back to the apostles had the effect of placing them on an equality
with the apostles.
The selection of
monarchal bishops was far more than an insignificant deviation from
the pattern. It became the beginning of an organizational system
which eventually evolved into the hierarchal form of government seen
in Catholicism today. The ultimate assumption of power came in 1870
when the Vatican Council declared the doctrine of papal
When the courageous
reformation leaders came on the scene seeking to reform the apostate
church, the result came to be known as Protestantism. Many of the
Protestant groups were influenced by the Roman hierarchy and
retained various elements of its polity after they broke away.
Others, preferring different organizational structures, adopted
forms of government which seemed good to them. The result is the
diverse methods of organization seen in the religious world -- many
of which cater to the pride and ambition of men but do not resemble
the simple command of Paul to "ordain elders in every city" (Titus
Churches of Christ
today plead for a return to the organization of the church of the
New Testament. Jesus Christ is the absolute monarch and sole
legislator. A plurality of elders with equal authority and
responsibility in each congregation and with no authority beyond
their local congregation oversee the affairs of the local church
under Jesus, the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). All children of God
throughout the world are brothers and sisters in Christ -- with no
clergy or laity distinctions -- but each congregation must be
autonomous, working within the framework of the simple organization
described in the New Testament.
The term "church"
is used in what two ways in the New Testament?
To what extent is
the universal church organized?
To what extent is
the local church organized?
legislative power in the church reside?
To what did the
term "bishop" originally refer? How was it changed?
Who is the Chief