An editorial in the November 1987, issue of the THE EXAMINER stated that the English word "church" is not a proper translation of the Greek word ekklesia. I am in agreement with that editorial. However, since the term church is so ingrained in the thinking of people, and likely will remain so for a long time, "church" will be used in this article instead of the more acceptable word assembly.
The purpose of this article is not to deal with either the definition or the proper translation of ekklesia, but with a current question. Is the church in scripture an organized institution? I think it is necessary to define what is meant by organized institution. Institution: A corporate body organized to perform some particular function. Organize: To arrange systematically, with either elected, appointed or self-proclaimed officers, to make decisions and policy for and give direction to the corporate body.
Jesus did not instruct His disciples to organize a church. Likewise, the apostles never gave instructions on how to organize a church, nor is there an example in the N.T. where anyone ever organized a church. Perhaps that should be enough said, case closed. But most, if not all, churches of today are highly organized, with one or a combination of local, state, regional, national or world-wide slate of officers, exercising authority over some particular church. But the question remains, are these organizations from God or did they originate with man?
For any belief pertaining to God and His will to be valid, that belief must be supported by the New Covenant scriptures. So at this point, we turn to the scriptures and read the entire 12th chapter of Romans.
Verse 2: "And do not be conformed to this world"; to be conformed to something is to be shaped, patterned, fashioned after, or according to a model. In the world there are all kinds of organizations: political, business, civic, social, etc. The churches with which I am familiar are organized in the likeness of one or more of these types. Some churches are organized along political lines, with a supreme earthly head similar to, if not exactly like, a monarch or emperor. Others are organized more like a republic. The local congregations send delegates to conventions and conferences to represent them in the decision and policy making that governs the entire body. The Church of Christ is generally organized along the lines of a business corporation. Usually there is a board of directors (elders), with junior executives (deacons), and an operational manager (preacher, minister) to direct the day by day operations. Sometimes, depending on the size of the congregation, the head or pulpit minister has a staff of secretaries and lesser ministers to manage certain functions of the corporation. But understand that all decisions and policy come down from the top, the elders.
Just because churches have conformed to the world in organizing an institution, governed according to the world entities, does this automatically make them wrong? Not if someone will produce the scripture that will authorize such. But that is exactly what is lacking, scriptural support.
Now consider this, if Jesus gave no instructions to organize a church, and the apostles gave no instruction on how to organize a church and if there is no N.T. example of a church being organized, then it must follow that one church organization is as good and scriptural as any other church organization.
Verse 2b: "but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." To be transformed is to be transfigured, changed. But, there is no essential change from world organizations to church organizations. Religious organizations are copies of world institutions or organizations. Now what has Paul just said here in Romans 12? That by being transformed and renewing the mind we may prove the good, acceptable and perfect will of God. What is God's will concerning organized institutions called church?
Verse 3: Paul says, "to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think." But, who will deny that the Roman Pope is exalted above all others of that persuasion? Of late, I am hearing that the elders in the Church of Christ are exalted. Brother Burton Coffman, in his commentary, says the English in I Peter 5:3 "is too strict, that elders are Lord (in a limited sense, of course)."
Verse 4, 5: "For we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another." We know from Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:22, 23 that the body and church are one and the same thing. Also, we clearly see that Jesus is the head of the body, the members of the body are simply workers with particular functions.
Verses 6, 7, 8: These three verses tell us what these functions are. They are prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and showing mercy - working members, not boss or overlord members. The remainder of the 12th chapter follows the same pattern; individual members fulfilling their responsibilities to God, not to some organization, board of directors or any earthly head of religious organization.
Turning now to the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians, we have a view of brothers and sisters with a serious problem. Some seemed to think they were superior to others because of their particular spiritual gift. But Paul says that they are all equally important. "But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it" (verse 24). It is further stated, "And God appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues" (verse 28). There is just no rank to be found in our examination of the scripture thus far. All members are equal! But all members have something to do! God arranged it that way!
Furthermore, chapter four of the Ephesian letter carries out the exact same idea. First of all, Paul pleads for unity, oneness of the body. Then, he tells how God arranged the body. "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers" (verse 11). Again, no ranking as to importance or authority. He even mentions pastors (elders), but not in connection with power or authority.
Once again we ask you to turn to scriptures, this time to Matthew chapter 13. This chapter is known as the Kingdom parables: and we of the Church of Christ usually consider the Kingdom and church the same thing. Not once does Jesus compare the kingdom to any kind of organized entity. Rather, He compared it to seed sown by a farmer, weeds among the wheat, mustard seed, leaven in meal, hidden treasure, pearl of great price, or a dragnet to catch fish. Wonder why? It may be there is no comparison to be made with a world organization. He certainly had opportunity to compare God's kingdom with a kingdom of the world, for the Roman Empire was at its zenith of glory. The simple fact is that scripture makes no provision for any earthly power structure in or over the church - not Pope, council, conference, synod, committee or board of directors called elders.
If the church is not a structured, organized, corporate institution with appointed or elected officers, and I believe that this has been proven by previously cited scriptures, then what is it? I propose that the church (ekklesia) is a community of believers, a voluntary association of the saved. It is a fellowship of equals (Gal. 3:26-29), males, females, slaves and all, who are free in Christ (Gal. 5:1). It has no head except Christ (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22, 23), and He has all authority (Matt. 28:18). And we (elders, deacons, preachers and everyone) should bow to that authority. Each member of the body is to blend his or her ability with the abilities of all other members (Rom. 12:3-8; I Cor 12; Eph. 4:1-16), to form the whole or complete body of Christ upon earth. Individual members are bound together by their love for God and one another (Matt. 22:37-39; Eph. 4:2). This love is not mere lip service, but it is to be demonstrated to God by obedience (John 14:15) and to each other by serving one another (Gal. 5:13).
Then why, where, and how did this thing of organizational structure come about? Man likes to be in control and has never been satisfied with God's arrangements. He ate the forbidden fruit in the garden to become as wise as God and know both good and evil. Man built the Tower of Babel to circumvent God, and Israel wanted a king instead of the judges in opposition to God. Perhaps in the churches of Christ the idea of local autonomy has been forced to the extreme.
According to dictionaries, autonomy means self-governed, and we like the idea. Our national heritage causes us to like the idea of government by the people. However, we must not let our modern day ideas interpret scripture and God's will for us. We go to God with "empty heads" and let Him fill us up. Also remember this, "He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of Lords" (I Tim. 6:15). All that is necessary is for man to quit attempting to take the authority and position of Jesus.