Free in Christ – Chapter 22, Flexibility in Organization

by Cecil Hook


Recently, an elder told me that, if a church had an unscriptural elder in it, the entire congregation would be in sin — even the teenagers! Like so many others, he believes that the church is an organization and that we relate to God through a certain pattern of organization. Our traditional pattern of independent congregations, each with elders and deacons, is often viewed as a life-or-death matter. Any flexibility would be unthinkable. But where in the New Testament is such emphasis placed upon organization? Our saving relationship is with Christ rather than in an authority structure of men. Where is an exclusive pattern set forth and enjoined? God could have outlined one plainly, but he did not choose to do so. Why should we seek to make access to Christ through specified organization?

This traditional interpretation says that all churches with qualified men must appoint them as elders with open-ended (lifetime) tenure by nomination and lack of “scriptural objection written out and signed.” The nominations are often made by the existing elders. When appointed, these elders are given authority in many churches to make binding decisions which the congregation must support under threat of hell. This is traditional rather than scriptural, however.

Those who are saved in Christ are not an organization, but they may organize the cooperative work of individuals. As they band themselves together for mutual edification and work, no inflexible structural pattern is necessary to identify them as the Lord’s disciples. In its simple form a church may be only a mother who lives in a remote area and her children with no organized program of work or assemblies outside the home. A group of women may compose a congregation like Lydia and her household did in the beginning in Philippi. In Romans 16, Paul sends greetings to what we may call house churches, and there is no indication in the epistle of any larger assembly or organization comprising the church in Rome.

Jerusalem presents a more complex picture of the church, though it is not in conflict with the Roman picture. Early in Acts, there were 5,000 men (4:4), which number “multiplied greatly” (6:7). Some writers suggest the possibility of 100,000 disciples in the Jerusalem church. They could hardly have met in one assembly. In fact, we know that they met from house to house (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 8:3). Yet we never read about churches (plural) in Jerusalem; it is always the church. These house groups operated within the framework of the Jerusalem church. They could have their house meetings for their general activities and still be involved in the city-wide fellowship. A house church could appoint an elder or elders, and any and all elders in these groups would be included in the mention of the elders of the church in Jerusalem. All of these small (and larger) groups would be cooperating through their elders with all others in the city. Since no mention is made of separate groups of elders, it seems certain that there was only one body of elders in Jerusalem while, at the same time, it is emphatic that there were various places of meeting. There were centralized gatherings for preaching and teaching in the temple (Acts 2:46; 5:20,25,42), but it would be unrealistic to suppose that thirty, sixty, or ninety thousand disciples met there on a regular basis. Although we read of the whole church being assembled in the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:22), we can hardly demand that this included all the many thousands of disciples in one assembly. It must mean that the whole church was there by representation.

One congregation may have no elders, or only one elder. Another might appoint deacons to serve it while having no elders, even as they chose special servants in Jerusalem in earlier times. Still another church might be overseen by an evangelist. Then, there may be churches following our traditional pattern with a highly organized program. Some churches may work independently while others may choose to share in certain efforts. None of the alternatives offered here are set forth as an exclusive pattern, but they are a suggestion of great flexibility and adaptability of groups of disciples.

To those who believe there is a strict pattern, some of the above may sound very shocking. But hold on; the quake is not over! There is no command or instruction in the New Testament for a church to appoint elders, nor is there an example of a church appointing elders. The qualifications of elders were not written to congregations or to existing elders. “Elders in every town” (Titus 1:5) does not necessarily mean a plurality in every congregation for there might be numerous churches or house groups in the city. “Elders (plural) in every city” is not equivalent to “elders in each city.” In this state, mayors are elected in every city, but no one understands that to mean that mayors (plural) are elected in each city. “Husbands, love your wives” (Eph. 5:25) does not obligate a man to love a plurality of wives, nor does it obligate a wife to have a plurality of husbands.

Although Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23), they did not command that this be a universal practice. There were elders in the Jerusalem church, but that did not mean that there were elders in each house church which composed it. If that is a binding example, then we can have no church without elders, for they appointed them in every church. No mention is made of tenure. Elders were not given authority to legislate, binding decisions. No one stands between a man and his God; we are all equals before him. Although some versions use the word rule relating to their work, that word carries the meaning of leadership rather than authority.

There is instruction for an evangelist to appoint elders (Titus 1:5), and there is an example of evangelists appointing them (Acts 14:23). Lists of qualifications were sent to the evangelists, Timothy and Titus, rather than to elders or churches.

Timothy was at Ephesus when Paul wrote to him. There were elders in Ephesus before that time. Why did Paul not send the description of elders to the existing elders in Ephesus instead of sending it to Timothy? Why not include the description in the Ephesian letter instead of Timothy’s letter? When Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders at Miletus previous to his writing to the Ephesians and Timothy, he warned that some of the elders would become destructive (Acts 20:24-30). Their correction was not left to the Ephesian church or the other elders, but the evangelist was to hear the charges and give public rebuke against those elders who persisted in sin. The evangelist was to exercise that authority, being cautious about whom he would appoint, laying hands on no one hastily. This was a task of such magnitude as to give the young evangelist nervous indigestion or ulcers. So he would need a little wine to settle his nerves. Amen! (1 Tim. 5:17-23).

Elders are not necessary. They are expedients. A church might carry on its activities for many years in a democratic way. Its decisions are not law, but the group only asks for unity of spirit and loyalty. Later, it may appoint men to oversee the group, and these elders may decide to continue the same program of activity. The decision of the elders is no more binding than was that of the general meeting. They can only continue to call for unity and loyalty.

Then why have elders? As a group grows in number, its oversight becomes more cumbersome. A smaller group of men can expedite its activities better. The group can choose men who have greater talent, leadership, understanding, and spirituality for greater efficiency. These are reasons of judgment and expediency.

Servants – Deacons – Ministers

Deacons are necessary. Anyone who fills an appointed capacity is a servant of that church. We would do well to forget that synthetic, prejudicial word deacon, which is the anglicized Greek word for servant or minister. A deacon is a servant, and to serve is to minister. A servant/deacon/minister (SDM) is one who serves. A SDM of the church is one who is appointed to serve by the church rather than an office or standing committee. A man appointed to keep the treasury, lead singing, serve Lord’s Table, or mow the lawn is a SDM. A woman who teaches a class, keeps the nursery, or publishes the bulletin is a SDM.

I have heard and read of various efforts to give a job description for deacons. They are always strained and vain searches for clues to uphold a traditional concept. The only job description is in the words servant or minister. Some servants (traditional deacons) do not serve while others who serve are not servants (traditional deacons). Much of our confusion stems from our legalistic interpretation of the qualifications of a SDM (1 Tim. 3:8-13). Paul is saying that only upright persons should represent the congregation in any capacity of service. He or she has a stamp of approval when appointed for public activity, so “Do not be hasty in laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22) lest we be partakers of the sins of unworthy persons who have been approved by their appointment.

An absurdity of our interpretation is evident when we choose a pulpit SDM or song leader whom we will not call a servant (traditional deacon) because he has no children. Others, because they have children are appointed as servants (traditional deacons) in name who often are assigned no area of service; yet these fill an office and are listed on the stationery letterhead!

A person is a SDM of the church only in the area assigned to him or her. When that work is completed, the appointment is fulfilled and he or she is no longer a SDM.

Women have been included by Paul as those who qualify “likewise” or “in like manner” for congregational service (1 Tim. 3:11). Application of this passage to deacons’ wives is an evasion born of legalistic interpretation. Why would Paul give requisites for a SDM’s wife and be silent about an elder’s wife?

With both men and women, it boils down to this: no job assigned — no SDM; keeping an assignment — a SDM. All of us serve the Lord, but all do not have congregational assignment; hence, all are not servants of the church.

A church with no elders can give assignments even as the church in Jerusalem chose servants for a specific work (Acts 6:1-6). A church must have servants if it carries on any organized activity.

It is hoped that the preceding thoughts will cause you to see that our traditional refinements are not necessarily the last word or the model for all others. God has allowed some flexibility even though you don’t hear much about it from our pulpits. It is tedious to teach anything unsettling about the elders and deacons within the congregation. When you are supported by the system, you must support the system. No marvel that Timothy needed a little wine.

Methods of carrying on church business and of selecting elders are not specified in the scriptures. Much of it seemed to be the responsibility of the evangelist, but the “located preacher” of today does not necessarily correspond with the evangelist of the New Testament. The evangelist brought the gospel to them; hence, he was the mainstay in the formation of the congregation. This is the role that Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and Titus filled which qualified them to appoint elders. The Corinthian disciples were to recognize and be subject to the household of Stephanas because of their work and stability in developing the church there (1 Cor. 16:15-18). Read the epistles to Timothy and Titus to see that evangelists exercised the authority of leadership. They would have already proved their love, their understanding of the group, and their ability to lead. So they would lead in the organizing of congregational activity. They would consult with and gain approval of the congregation as to who would qualify for appointment. Congregational independence and autonomy seem evident in the Scriptures, so we may conclude that any method which preserves those qualities is permissible today. Since this is left to judgment in the various congregations, we must allow for flexibility, for all will not have the same judgment.

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