29. Church Organisation


The great apostasy began as early as the second century. In no way was this departure from the truth more evident than with respect to changes made in church organisation.

Since that time many other alterations to the divine plan have been made and therefore a careful study of the organisation of the primitive church is highly desirable.


The New Testament church is not a democracy. It is a monarchy, with Jesus as the absolute king. We read, “And he is the head of the body, the church.” Colossians 1:18.

The supremacy of his authority is stated in the Great Commission, “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Matthew 28:18.

Since his authority is complete, the worship, organisation and work of each congregation must be regulated by the teachings of Jesus and his divinely commissioned apostles. These are found in the New Testament. No local church may rightly present any teaching not sanctioned by Christ.


In giving the body of teachings found in the New Testament, the apostles were acting under authority granted them by the Lord. The apostleship was a temporary office designated to lay the groundwork of the church which was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” Ephesians 2:20.

Of the apostles, only Judas Iscariot was replaced after his death (by Matthias), and that was because he had committed suicide prior to the establishment of the church, See Acts 1.

Paul was a special apostle with a special commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles, Acts 9:15. He was not one of the twelve. With the death of the last of the apostles near the end of the first century, the work of the apostles was completed.


In the first century each congregation was completely independent, subject only to Jesus as the head of the church. There was no hierarchy with authority over the local church. However, this does not imply that there was a lack of fellowship and co-operation among congregations.

They were united by love and assisted one another as occasion demanded. When a famine arose in Judea, the church in Antioch sent help to the elders by Paul and Barnabas. Acts 11:29-30.

A few years later Paul travelled among the churches he had established, asking for contributions for the saints in Jerusalem. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; Romans 15:25-26. Yet in all of this each church maintained its autonomy and no super organisation was established.


As soon as possible after their establishment, churches of the first century were organised. We find Paul and Barnabas planting churches in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Acts 13-14.

Later they returned to these congregations and appointed elders. Acts 14:23. Prior to the appointment of elders, these were scriptural congregations.

A church may scripturally exist without elders, but as soon as qualified men are available, they should be appointed. Elders were appointed in the first century by preachers of the gospel as the above example shows.

Also, Paul wrote to the young preacher Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5. (To ordain is to appoint.)

When seven men were chosen to care for the Grecian widows in the Jerusalem church, they were selected by the body of Christians, but specifically appointed by the apostles. Acts 6:3.

Two offices existed in the local congregations, elders and deacons. The elders were also known as bishops, pastors, overseers and presbyters. Each congregation had more than one elder and more than one deacon.


The elders of the church are the shepherds of the flock. Into their hands has been committed to the welfare of the congregation.

Peter admonishes bishops, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:2-3.

Elders are overseers, not dictators. Yet we are told, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” 1 Timothy 5:17.

Therefore, it is their responsibility to rule the church, and having taken into consideration the needs of the members, to make the final decisions which will shape the spiritual destiny of the body. They are to be teachers.

Paul addressed the Ephesian elders, “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.” Acts 20:28.

The qualifications of elders, (which Paul says are “musts” and therefore cannot be dispensed with) are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.

The student should read these passages carefully. Space does not allow extensive comment on these qualifications but brief of a few should be made.

A bishop must be apt (or given) to teach. He must “be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” Titus 1:9. Many fine Christian men who are otherwise qualified are not competent to teach and should not be made elders.

A bishop must also rule well his own house. He is to have faithful (or believing, as rendered in the A.S.V.) children. Paul explains that a man’s family is his proving ground. “(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” 1 Timothy 3:5.

Moreover, he must not be a novice. A beginner in the Christian faith usually does not have the knowledge, and certainly does not possess the experience necessary to shepherd the flock of Christ.


Since the elders are their spiritual shepherds, the members should be subject to them. We read, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” Hebrews 13:17.

Although Christians may occasionally doubt the wisdom of the decisions of the elders, they should submit themselves and not rebel.

When elders are lacking in discretion or zeal the fault usually lies with the selection of unqualified men for that office. Hence it is most important to select only men who possess the qualifications given by the Holy Spirit.


The scriptures tell us little about the work of deacons. The Greek word from which the word deacon is derived means servant. It is elsewhere translated minister.

Sometimes it is used in the scriptures in the general sense of “servant” while on other occasions it refers to a specific function in the church. From the definition of the word, we conclude that deacons act as servants rather than shepherds as is true of elders.

In Acts 6 we read that seven men were appointed by the apostles to care for the needs of the widows of the Grecian Jewish Christians. Although they are not called such in this chapter, the work which they performed would be similar to men who were called deacons.

Their specific responsibility was to minister to the needs of members of the church while the apostles confined themselves to the oversight of the church. Thus, it would appear that deacons have the responsibility of looking after matters to which they are assigned by the elders.

The qualifications of deacons are discussed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. They are similar to those demanded of elders, the chief distinction being that deacons are not required to be able to teach. Otherwise, they are to possess the same high moral characteristics stipulated for bishops.


When Paul came to Caesarea we are told that he “stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven.” Acts 21:8. Paul wrote to Timothy, “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:5.

An evangelist is a preacher of the gospel. The word is used in the scriptures to refer to preachers without respect to whether they confine their work to one locality or travel from place to place. Paul did both.

Much of his time was spent going from city to city establishing new congregations. Yet he remained a year and a half in Corinth, Acts 18:11, and three years in Ephesus. Acts 20:31.

Paul outlines the work of an evangelist in his epistles to two young gospel preaches, Timothy and Titus. Timothy is charged, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Timothy 4:2.

Evangelists are to establish new churches, strengthen established churches, and proclaim the word of God wherever opportunity affords itself.

They may labour with congregations having elders as Timothy did with the church in Ephesus. See Acts 20:17 and 1 Timothy 1-3. However, in this capacity, they are not to usurp the work or authority of the bishops.

An evangelist is not a pastor or shepherd unless he serves in the dual role of elder and preacher as was true of Peter. 1 Peter 5:1. He should be subject to the discipline and direction of the elders and ought not to be held in higher esteem than the bishops by members of the church.

When the initiative for new works must always come from a preacher rather than the elders, or when a preacher has the prime responsibility for shepherding the flock, it indicates that he is doing the work of an elder rather than an evangelist.

Moreover, if the congregation is unable to provide its own talent for preaching and edification in the absence of an evangelist, it is a sign that elders are failing in their responsibility to feed the flock.

And when members will not attend the worship unless they like the speaker, it shows that they are more wedded to a man than to Christ. These are danger signs of which to be aware.

Jesus condemns the use of titles of distinction by evangelists or anyone else. “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.” Matthew 23:8-10.

In these verses, Jesus condemns not just the three titles specifically mentioned, but all other titles of distinction such as “Reverend.” In this, as in all other things, let us hold fast to the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” Jude 3.


Please proceed and fill in the evaluation sheet below with your answers.  Thank you and God bless your studies.

Go To Lesson 30