TGOC Bible Class Curricula – The Church of Christ (1st Quarter) - Lesson 5 God's Pattern For The Organization Of The Church (Part 1)

Every religious body known to man has some form of organization. It may be very complex or it may be very simple, but it is organization, nonetheless. Some have great councils that make decisions for it and pass them down for the church to follow. Some have only local and internal methods of governing its group.

For us to be the church that Jesus promised and built, our organization must be the same as it was in the first-century church. A group cannot have a different organization and make the claim that they are the same as the church Jesus built.

As we journey through the Bible we are given sketches of many congregations of the Lord’s church. While a complete description of the organization, worship, etc., is not given of every congregation, enough is given for us to understand how God organized His church and how He expects us to continue in that pattern.

I. Each congregation was “autonomous” (self-governing):

The word autonomous means: (1) Not controlled by others; (2) Self-directed, independent of the laws of others; (3) Self-governing. It means that each congregation of the Lord’s church ruled itself. It was not controlled by any other congregation, organization, council, or hierarchy. Each congregation was whole and complete in itself. This does not mean that they were isolated from one another. It also does not mean that there was no spirit of cooperation between them. They practiced complete fellowship and cooperation with each other. Individually, they were self-ruled. Collectively, they were united as one body serving one Lord (Ephesians 4:4-5). We can see examples of this fellowship and cooperation in the following.

Money was collected in one congregation to help the needy in another.

Acts 11:28-30 “28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Romans 15:25-26 “25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.”

Philippians 4:15, “Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only.”

God expects us to follow His pattern of organization. This being true, we need to learn how the early church was organized.

II. God’s pattern of organization was simple.

The pattern of organization which God placed in the first-century church is very simple, and, if followed, effective. Jesus, of course, is the Supreme Commander who is over all (Colossians 1:15-18).

A. Christ is Head of the Church: God delegated the responsibilities as head of His Church to His Son, Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 1:22 “22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.”

Ephesians 5:23 “23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

As the Supreme Head of the church, Jesus Christ, and He alone, has the authority to make laws for His church. He and He alone has the authority to make any changes in His church. Some believe that because Christ died, He is the head only in Heaven, and that gives them the right to select an earthly head to govern here on the earth. However, the Bible says that God made Christ to be the head over the church and no place does it say that He ever took that responsibility or position away from Him. As a matter of fact, the Scriptures say that He continues to live and speak to God for us. (Hebrews 7:25)

B. They selected elders in each church: God, in His wisdom, knew that Jesus, although He was the head of the church, could not do first-hand supervision over His church. Therefore, He instructed the apostles to select godly men in each congregation.

Acts 14:23, “23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”

Titus 1:5, “5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.”

C. Names by which they are called: There has been some confusion and misunderstanding on the part of some about the names of God’s spiritual leaders. The Bible uses several different descriptions to refer to one and the same office. Some have mistakenly understood this to refer to different offices in the church. As a result, they have elevated one office above another and created a hierarchy that God never intended.

1. Elders: In the following passages of scriptures, God’s spiritual leaders are referred to as elders.

James 5:14, “14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

1 Peter 5:1, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:” (See also Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 22:5; 1Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5)

The English word “elder” is taken from the Greek word PRESBUTEROS which means an older, wiser and more experienced man. This term is used to show that the leader of the church should be a man who has experienced life; a man who knows where the pitfalls are; a man who has spent many years in the study of God’s Word. This person can warn Christians about the dangers they will face in their walk with God and offer tested methods of avoiding it.

2. Bishops: The term “bishop” is also used in the Scriptures to refer to the office of the elders. Notice the following:

1 Timothy 3:1, “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.”

Titus 1:7, “7 Since an overseer is en­trusted with God's work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunken­ness, not violent, not pur­suing dishonest gain.”

The word used for “overseer” in the KJV is “bishop”. It is taken from the Greek word EPISKOPOS, which means “…an overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly. An elder.” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon) The Bible uses different words to express the different duties of the elders. An elder is a supervisor over the people of God. This should not be difficult to understand because we do the same thing in English and other languages. The Scriptures reveal to us that an elder (older man) is to be an overseer (bishop) of the people of God. In Paul’s Letter to Titus, he uses both words. He began by telling Titus he was to appoint elders in every city. He then talks about their qualifications. He tells him how these men are to be blameless. Then he says, “Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—”

3. Pastors: Another word that is used in the Scriptures to refer to the elders is the word “pastors”. This is another word that has been greatly misunderstood and misused. This word is taken from the Greek word POIMEN which means a man who “shepherds a flock”. The only place that this word is found in the New Testament is in Ephesians 4:11.

Ephesians 4:11, “11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” 1

Here Paul talks about the special assistance that God gave to His church. Among those he mentioned was pastor. This word appears 14 times in the New Testament. And, with one exception, each time it is translated “shepherd”. The exception is found in 1 Peter 5:4. Here it is translated from ARCHIPOIMEN which means chief shepherd and refers to Christ.

The next obvious question is, “Who is a shepherd?” A close look at the following passages of scripture will answer this question.

1 Peter 5:1-4 (Easy to Read Version) “1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

Acts 20:28 (Easy to Read Version) – “28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Verse 17 tells us he was talking to the elders at Ephesus)

In 1 Peter 5:1-4, Peter addresses the elders. He tells them they are to be shepherds (pastors), and overseers (bishops). In this one verse alone we see all three words used to refer to one and the same office.

The word pastor was never used to refer to the preacher, nor is such use authorized today. The preacher is mentioned separately from the pastor in Ephesians 4:11.

III. Qualifications of Elders:

Not just any man could be selected to fulfill this office of grave responsibility in the Lord’s church. They had to be men who possessed specific qualifications and characteristics. An individual considered for this office was screened closely to determine if he met God’s requirements. Paul, in his letters to Timothy and Titus, outlines the qualities a man must possess to be considered for the office of an elder. (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-10)

1. Blameless – Not charged with any wrongdoing

2. Husband of one wife – Not a polygamist; has a scriptural marriage

3. Temperate – Exercises modera­tion and self-restraint.

4. Sober-minded – Thinks clearly; has sound judgment.

5. Of good behavior – Has proper conduct.

6. Hospitable – Warm and generous to Christians and strangers.

7. Able to teach – Has adequate knowledge and skills to teach and does teach

8. Not given to wine – Exercises self-control; not a brawler; perhaps one who not only does not consume fermented wine for pleasure (which the Scripture never authorizes) but does not even consume wine for the stomach’s sake (medicinally, so as to have full, mental faculties when making important spiritual decisions)

9. Not violent – One who controls his temper.

10. Not greedy for money – Does not use unscriptural means of increasing his income.

11. Gentle – Considerate and kind. Not harsh or severe.

12. Not quarrelsome – Not disagreeable nor a lover of an argument for the sake of arguing.

13. Rules his own house well – He is in control of his family. He is the head.

14. Children in submission – His children respect and obey him.

15. Not a novice – Not a recent convert.

16. Having a good testimony among those outside the church – Has a good reputation among non-Christians.

IV. The Responsibilities of the Elders:

The responsibilities of the Church pastor/elder/bishop may be learned from the New Testament in three ways: From the names given to them, from their qualifications, and from specific instructions given to them.” (Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999, p. 324)

A. What their names tell us. Each name that is given to the leaders of God’s church tells us something about the leaders themselves, or something about the responsibilities God has placed upon them. The name “elder,” as we have seen, indicates what kind of man an overseer is to be. He is to be a man who is advanced in years, in experience, and in preparation. The name “bishop” points to the fact that he is to supervise the people of God. He is to instruct them and lead them in God’s way and discipline them when they fail to walk in it. The name “pastor” denotes that he is to be a leader and guide. He is likened to a shepherd leading a flock of sheep. Every responsibility a shepherd has for caring for his sheep an elder has to lead the flock of God.

Acts 20:28 “28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. (bishops; emphasis mine) Be shepherds (pastors; emphasis mine) of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (See also 1 Peter 5:2)

Our Lord was referred to as both a bishop and shepherd, but not an elder, most likely because He was only in His 30s when He began preaching. He was a bishop in the sense that He was the head or supervisor over the church (1 Peter 2:25). He was a pastor in the sense that he was the chief shepherd or leader of the people of God (1 Peter 5:4).

B. Specific instructions suggest the elders’ responsibilities.

1. Elders must take heed to themselves. This is what the Apostle Paul told the Ephesian elders:

Acts 20:28, “28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers….”

The men who were selected and appointed as elders in the first-century church were instructed to, first, look to themselves. They were to make sure they lived lives that would be examples to the church. Paul listed a number of characteristics elders are to possess when he listed their qualifications in his letters to Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1):

a. Christ-like qualities: Elders must be humble, prayerful, and gentle in nature.

b. Able to rule his household well: If an elder has no control over his own house, how can he exercise scriptural control over the church?

c. A diligent student of God’s word: Elders should know the Word of God well. Paul told Titus…

Titus 1:9, “9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

An elder is expected to be able to give an answer to those who would oppose the teachings of God. To do so requires a great deal of knowledge and proper temperament.

d. An example to the flock: An elder must be above reproach. Paul used the word blameless. This means that no one can prove any wrong doing against him.

2. Elders are to take heed to the flock (1 Peter 5:4). The good and welfare of the church are the primary responsibility of the elders. They must direct the affairs of the church with firmness and love.

3. Elders must oversee the church. God has placed His church into the hands of these godly men. He tells them to manage and see to her needs. A supervisor, working in a company, gives directions to those under his supervision, and discipline to those who fail to follow his directions. The same is true for elders/bishops/pastors in the Lord’s church. They have to have the wisdom, knowledge, and experience necessary to do this. This is why an overseer in the Lord’s church cannot be a young man or a novice.

4. Elders are to feed the church. The word “feed” has reference to spiritual nourishment. It was the responsibility of the elders/bishops/pastors in the church of the first century to see that every member received the proper instruction and training. It was also their responsibility to see that the instruction and training that was received was grounded in the truth (Ephesians 4:11-16). This can be accomplished through preaching, Bible study, training classes, or any other means the elders deem appropriate in meeting the needs of the church.

The office of an elder in the Lord’s church was and is an awesome responsibility. This is why the men appointed to this task must be men of quality, knowledge and experience. In their hands they hold the souls of God’s children. Let us take heed to Hebrews 13:17, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”


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