Scriptural Church Organization
the organization of a New Testament church many people seem to think that nothing more is needed than just "to scratch out a place, rent or buy a building, and get some souls saved," and then one automatically has a scriptural church. But this proceeds upon a very erroneous idea of what a scriptural church is, and how a church is constituted. Errors that have come about through some of the renowned evangelists of the past, whose preaching, being almost entirely evangelistic, was very shallow, doctrinally speaking. To many, evangelism is the very sum and substance of Christianity, and they lose no opportunity to decry doctrinal teaching and preaching, as if it were the very essence of all division and error. But in reality, the opposite is the case, and one has only to consider the portions of Scripture that were addressed to preachers to see that more emphasis is placed upon them preaching and teaching doctrine than upon evangelism. Salvation is not the end; it is only the beginning, and membership and service in a sound church is the only proper way to glorify God, (Eph. 3:21). But Satan, wily creature that he is, (2 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 6:11), has his false churches to sidetrack even those that are genuinely saved from their commanded duty to glorify God in His church.
Scriptural church constitution is no part of the salvation package. It must be brought about after souls are saved and scripturally baptized, yet many that claim to be serving God make no attempt to embody their converts in the one place that the New Testament says is where God is to be glorified.
To illustrate the shallow thinking regarding proper church organization, the writer would cite two personal experiences. When he was called to pastor the group in Salem, Ohio, which was just beginning to come to understand church truth, he was told that they had serious doubts as to whether they had been scripturally organized. They said that if he became pastor, they would want him to check into this matter, and that they would follow his recommendation in the matter. Though this "church" had existed under two different names for some twenty-five years, sometimes running over two hundred in attendance, no evidence could be found of anything even remotely resembling a Biblical organization. Apparently an over-zealous, but ignorant preacher had gathered a few supposed converts, and decreed "we are a church." We say "supposed converts" because out of literally hundreds of souls supposedly "won to the Lord" only a very few gave any evidence of being genuinely saved. Many of the others still live in this city, but they differ not a whit from the pagan populace. Upon the pastor’s recommendation, the group was disbanded, and a scriptural authority for organization, to be detailed later, was sought and implemented.
More recently the writer met and talked with a preacher who had been active in the ministry for many years. He recounted how in one year his wife had held ten Vacation Bible Schools in a given city, then boasted "My wife organized churches out of these." Now it may be granted that perhaps he was only justifiably proud of his wife’s labors, and might have only meant that converts made in those Vacation Bible Schools were later constituted into churches. However it sounds as if she was the only authority for the beginning of those churches, in which case by no stretch of the imagination could such be scriptural churches. And it’s sad to have to say that many people are just this fuzzy in their thinking about what constitutes a New Testament church.
As with everything else, in the organization of churches, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. And the devil will do all in his power to make sure that a careless group of professing Christians does it the wrong way, for therein he formulates a false church, though it may be constituted of saved people. A group of genuinely saved and scripturally baptized persons no more constitute a scriptural church by their uniting together than a pile of hands, arms, legs, torso, internal organs and head necessarily constitute a real human body. As it takes proper organization and life to constitute a group of human body parts into a real human, so likewise it takes proper organization and life to constitute a group of saved people into a body of Christ. And in particular, there can be no scriptural church without the proper corporate life in the body.
At this point, some would object that a church is not an organization, but an organism. But to be an organism—a living thing—implies and necessitates organization, for the simplest organism has a definite organization to it, else it would not have life. Organism and organization are not two opposite and incompatible things in a church. On the contrary, they are actually two mutually harmonious aspects of a scriptural church, without either of which there can be no real church.
In the original creation of the different species of creatures—organisms—in Genesis 1, God set in motion the laws of reproduction, and these were characterized by the words "after his kind." This phrase appears no less than ten times in Genesis 1. And while we do not find this phrase in the New Testament in regard to the church, yet it is only logical to believe that the church, being an organism—a living thing—will also be governed by this law. If not, by what law? The law of confusion and rebellion?
In harmony with this, in the New Testament we find no church that can be proven to have sprung up spontaneously and of themselves. It is true that we find some churches whose origin is not detailed, but where the origin is detailed, it is consistently in harmony with the law that like begets like. Churches must be born out of churches, not out of the barren soil of human enthusiasm, wisdom and strength. The only instance in the New Testament that approaches the origin of a church apart from church authority was that of the twelve Ephesian men in Acts 19:1ff.
These men had made professions of faith, they had been baptized and they were gathered together into a religious body, but Paul, upon examination of them, found that they were grossly ignorant of spiritual truth. It seems evident that someone—perhaps Apollos—had endeavored to perpetuate the ministry of John the Baptist some thirty-five years or more after his death. This was a ministry that was never meant to be perpetuated, for his sole task was to "prepare the way before the Lord," (Mark 1:2), "to make ready a people for the Lord," (Luke 1:17). These twelve men at Ephesus had been baptized "unto John’s baptism," (Acts 19:3) [but not "by John"], yet they did not have the Holy Spirit in His office as Comforter indwelling them as a church body.
They had a defective baptism, but not because of the wrong mode, for they were immersed. Their baptism was defective: (1) Possibly because they were not fit subjects (it seems possible that they were not genuine believers). (2) Possibly because they did not have the proper purpose in being baptized (they seemed not to have understood what the purpose of baptism was). (3) But certainly because they were not baptized by one having proper authority. Paul acknowledged the soundness of John’s baptism, as to its mode, purpose, subjects and authority, (v. 4), yet he proceeded to rebaptize these men when they met the requirements.
This all shows that in a scriptural church organization, there must be the authority of a sound church transmitted to the prospective church before it has the right to call itself a church and to act as a church. Hence it was that after Deacon Philip had had great success in preaching at Samaria, Peter and John were sent down to Samaria from the Jerusalem church to scripturally organize the new converts into a church, (Acts 8:14-17). The receiving of the Holy Spirit in this instance was not the individual reception of the Spirit, which takes place when anyone is truly saved, (Rom. 8:9). Rather it was the baptism of the body of converts in the Holy Spirit (never in the inspired original languages is it baptism "by the Spirit," for He is the element, not the agent) in token of them being a New Testament church. This baptism in the Holy Spirit was always a corporate thing—upon a body of converts—never an individual matter. This happened only three or possibly four times in history, the three times corresponding to the three divisions of Acts 1:8. The possible fourth time is in Acts 19:1-7.
A totally Jewish group was baptized in the Spirit in Acts 2 in token of them being the house of God. This was necessary to authenticate them in a similar fashion to what had been done to authenticate the Tabernacle, and then later the Temple. The same thing happened to a group of Samaritans to likewise authenticate their church-hood, (Acts 8:14-17). Without this, the nationalistic Jews would probably not have recognized Samaritan churches as on a level with them. Then this happened again to a wholly Gentile group in Acts 10:44-48. This is confirmed in Acts 11:1-4, 12-18, to be the same thing that had happened to the Jewish group in Acts 2. If Acts 19:1ff is another instance, it is perhaps to show that when a spurious church has been reorganized upon scriptural principles, it too has the indwelling Comforter but not otherwise.
There was never another instance that could be definitely proven to be the baptism of the Holy Spirit, nor would there be any need for another, for these proved that God acknowledged believers of all nations, Jew, Samaritan and Gentile, as His house of witness. But it would also be necessary henceforth for a group of saints who desired to become a church of the living God to receive authority from one of these already existing churches that were baptized in the Holy Spirit, or else from a church that had its authority from one in a direct line back to one of them.
There is an important principle that is involved in all this. Churches are likened to human bodies, but no man can manufacture a human body. It must be born out of an already existing human, but in doing so, there is passed on, not only the physical body, but also the human spirit. This is called traducianism—the passing on of the spiritual as well as the physical characteristics through birth—and is the only way to explain the fact of hereditary spiritual traits as well as hereditary physical traits in humans. It also explains that hereditary depravity which is passed on from father to children. But the principle involved, as applied to churches is, that though man may manufacture a church organization, it will not have the indwelling Spirit of God in His capacity as the Comforter except as it has been born out of a scriptural church that has the Comforter. On the basis of John 16:13-14, we have in this the explanation of why unscripturally organized churches are always unsound on many matters. They do not have the teaching of the Comforter, Who alone reveals the great mysteries of the faith, (1 Cor. 2:10-12), but at best only have the teaching of men.
It is readily granted that no one can trace a direct line of church succession back to the first century, but this does not justify anyone in forgetting about church authority altogether. We do the nearest thing that we can to tracing a line of church succession: we trace a line of group succession (groups of Christians holding to the same faith and practice), and endeavor to have churches that are in this line of succession. This is one of the reasons why Baptists cannot consistently receive members by letter from Protestant denominations. All Protestant churches are of mere human origin, having been organized by some human founder many centuries this side of the apostolic age, and all of them having an origin either directly or indirectly from Rome, and none of them originating from a church possessing the Comforter.
The facts noted above makes certain things evident. No church which is organized just upon the authority of some preacher—however holy or sound he may otherwise be—and no group which simply decides to constitute itself into a church—no matter how certainly saved and scripturally baptized its people may be—and more especially, no group which comes out of an unscriptural church organization, can be a scripturally organized church in the Lord’s sight.
We have already noted how the Jerusalem church sent Peter and John down to Samaria to constitute the converts there into a church. The same thing is observable in Acts 10, for when Peter went down to Caesarea to Cornelius’ house, he took with him six men from the Joppa church. These six men doubtless constituted a majority of the male members of that church, or possible they were the whole of its male members, but in any case, he put the matter up to them in Acts 10:47 before he took any action upon the converts. Clearly not even an apostle would take any action in organizing a church without the authority of one of the Lord’s churches behind it.
Once again we see the same thing at Antioch, for when the Jerusalem church heard that souls were being saved under the preaching of the persecuted disciples, (Acts 11:19-21), they sent Barnabas down to help them and to teach and exhort them, (Acts 11:22-25). His authority was expressly limited to the group at Antioch, but immediately after his visit there, the group was recognized as a church (v. 26). Obviously an organization took place sometime after Barnabas’ arrival here.
Some teach that all that is needed for a man to organize churches is for him to have a divine call to preach. If so, then there would have been no need later on for the church at Antioch to have been called upon to send out Barnabas and Saul, for they had already been called by the Lord to this work, as the tense "have called" in Acts 13:4, shows. This church was called upon by the Holy Spirit to send out these men with authority to do mission work, which involves the organization of the converts into churches. The fact that Paul and the other missionaries reported back to this church after each missionary journey, (Acts 14:26-27), also emphasizes the fact that the authority for their work was from this church. Thus, the proof is all one direction in this matter of proper authority for organizing churches.
The responsibility to transmit scriptural authority to groups of new converts is implied in the Great Commission, for the command is that those who are made converts by the preaching of the Gospel, (Matthew 28:18-19; Mark 16:15), are to be baptized. But this is necessarily an act of embodiment, for all scriptural baptism is "into one body," (1 Cor. 12:13). Thus the commission necessitates church bodies in the locale where the converts are made as soon as is practical so that they also can, as a New Testament church, begin to carry out this Great Commission themselves. It seems certain that this was Paul’s and the other missionaries’ practice from the fact that everywhere that they had success in preaching the Gospel, churches were found shortly after they had been there. The Great Commission enjoins this, and the Antioch church obediently authorized the missionaries to put this into practice.
Perhaps some, in an endeavor to excuse their own disobedience, would object that such church authority is not expressly stated. But it does not have to be expressly stated, for apostolic example is as authoritative as a command, where there is no command to the contrary, and this example is repeatedly seen in the Book of Acts with never an indictment of it voiced. It is clear to anyone who is willing to see it, that the first churches that came into existence after the Jerusalem church were all founded upon the authority of that church by the men who were sent out from Jerusalem for that specific purpose. None of them took it upon themselves to do this, but all were expressly said to be sent out by that church.
Again, perhaps someone will object that though this may be the case in the earlier writings of the New Testament, yet the later books are silent as to any such practice. Such an objection is a begging of the question, for the only answer needed to this is that once a principle or practice is established by Divine command or apostolic example, there never is needed a subsequent command or example relative to it unless the principle or practice is changed. But the very fact that the later books of the New Testament are more or less silent on church authority in the founding of churches is proof that the original way in the Book of Acts continued to be the scriptural way to the end of the apostolic age. And if it was so at the death of the last apostle, it is still the scriptural way to this very day, and will be perpetually to the end of the church age. The only question in this matter is, will the Lord’s people be obedient to God’s Word?
Inasmuch as the Lord has declared that the church is where His glory is to be, (Eph. 3:21), it seems clear that any attempt to by-pass the authority of the church, or to substitute any other authority in organizing a new congregation, is manifestly an act of rebellion against the will of God, and cannot have the Lord’s blessings. Such a church may grow large and imposing in the eyes of man, for Satan loves anything that is out of harmony with the will of God and he will do nothing to hinder such a human invention.
Some have endeavored to use Matthew 18:20 to justify the lack of church authority in the organization of churches. This verse says, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." They hold that even as few as two or three can declare themselves to be a church, and without any other authority it will be so. It is most strange that anyone would try to use this verse in this matter, for the verse follows a teaching that is a strongly worded declaration of church authority. Sadly the translators, by not properly translating all of the verbs, have obscured the Lord’s demand to only do what is revealed from heaven to be God’s will. A literal rendering of verse 18, as with Matthew 16:19, taking into account all of the verbs in their proper senses would read as follows. "And that which thou mayest bind on earth shall be what has already been bound in heaven; and that which thou mayest loose on earth, shall be what has already been loosed in heaven." Thus, instead of these verses being a carte blanche permission for churches to do whatsoever they may please, as Rome and others claim, they are rather a demand that they do nothing except in accordance with heaven-revealed principles. That is, all must be based upon scripture principles. Throughout all of Baptist history, this has been their controlling principle.
Matthew 18:20 cannot be lifted out of its context, which is what is done when men use it to try to justify lack of authority in church organization. It is in the midst of one of the most strongly worded teachings of church authority, and must be interpreted only in harmony with that authority. So far from justifying lack of church authority, all this verse does is to show that where even two or three are gathered together under the authority of a church as set forth in verses 17-19, there the Lord promises to be with them.
However, while it is always wise to have formal authority from a scriptural church to organize another church, there may be sound churches that the Lord owns as His which were not organized with formal authority from another church. To illustrate: There have been some churches that are truly the Lord’s churches that were organized by the associational missionary of some Baptist super-church organization. But these are true scriptural churches, not because of the way they were organized, but in spite of it. Such organizations as conventions, associations, fellowships, etc., do not have divine authority to organize churches, but a church organized by one of these may be a scriptural church because of any one, or all, of the following facts. (1) If some of the charter members who make up the organization have letters of dismissal from a sound church, granted for the express purpose of them entering into a new organization this would constitute valid church authority. (2) If the pastors and preachers who assist the group in organizing come from their own churches with authority to do so, (whether the authority is formal or informal) this would likewise constitute sufficient authority for organizing, for it would be authorization by an already existing church of the new one. (3) It used to be the practice, and it still is in some places, to call a council of Baptist churches to recognize a new church shortly after it is organized. This might be considered proper authority for the new church, though extended after the fact. (4) The missionary who takes the lead in such an organization, though he has submitted himself to the unscriptural authority of an ecclesiastical organization, may have come from some church that sent him forth under the assumption that he would organize what converts were made into a church, and so, with implied authority to do so. Such would also constitute scriptural authority for the new church.
But none of these reflect the ideal way of organizing a new church. At best, they constitute only marginal authority for the organization. The ideal way of organizing a New Testament church is the way it was done in the Book of Acts, for about this way there can be no question of having proper authority. This would be for a church to authorize and send one or more of its male members to the place desiring to organize a church, and, as soon as a sufficient number of qualified saints are gathered for practical purposes, to constitute them, on the authority of the sponsoring church, into a new Body of Christ.
However, it is often unwise to organize a small or weak group into a church, for unless it is comprised of some sound and dedicated men, it will quickly come to naught and only leave a poor testimony in the community. Numbers do not mean much, for a dozen sound and dedicated men in a new church may be better than a hundred persons where there are none who are strong in the faith and dedicated to the Lord’s cause. Though it may be considered quite a thing for a preacher to boast that he has led in the organization of a church, or several churches, yet what is more important is, did the churches organized live and grow, or did they languish and die shortly because they were ill equipped to face the problems and pressures of the world.
Again, some churches have been rightly organized, but they were not tended by a faithful shepherd, and so, they quickly passed off the scene. There is no glory for anyone when a church is organized and then deserted without a pastor to tend and care for it. It would probably be better not to organize a church than to organize one and then have it die in a few months from lack of proper leadership. It is observable from a number of incidental references in Acts and Paul’s epistles that he generally left one of the other missionaries to pastor the churches that he organized. Then after a time, when the Lord had raised up one of the church’s own men to be pastor, the missionary would rejoin Paul and the others at some other mission field.
Sometimes a preacher will accept the pastorate of such a church on the assumption that he will be able to quickly build a great and large church out of it, and so, make a name for himself. And when he finds that it doesn’t work out this way, in a few months he deserts the infant church and leaves it to die a slow and languishing death. This is especially a danger to young preachers who are full of pride and self-importance, (1 Tim. 3:6), but older preachers are not immune to this.
There are many mushroom churches that spring up overnight, and then perish almost as quickly because they either have no adequate root, but have only sprung up from rotting roots (this is one of the things that produces mushrooms), or else they die from lack of conscientious care by a shepherd. The death of any church, whether old or young, is a tragic thing, and someone must take the blame for such, for the Lord doesn’t kill churches. The devil does, yet even the devil cannot kill a church without help from the inside, except by persecuting its members to death, as he often did in past ages. Presently, his most efficient way is by internal rot.
Unfortunately we all have to contend with our full share of Adamic pride, which often moves us to seek for glory that does not belong to us. Sometimes one seeks to organize a church without proper authority through ignorance. But sometimes this is done because he wants all the credit for starting the church. Pride is an especially dangerous pitfall to the young preacher, who has not yet learned his own nothingness in the Lord’s work. Brother R. J. Anderson, now with the Lord, once said that "Preachers are like wasps—biggest when first hatched." It is interesting to note that in the divine injunction in 1 Timothy 3:6, before referred to, "lest being lifted up with pride" may also be correctly rendered "lest being demented with pride." Pride is a form of insanity. No none—not even the saved—are immune to pride, for it is one of the three main forms of temptation, (1 John 2:16). And so, when anyone seeks to organize a church independently of church authority, it must of necessity be for one of two reasons: either through ignorance of the correct way, or else because of pride and the desire for self-glory.
We rejoice to see every new congregation raised up for the glory of the Lord, but those that are raised up solely as a monument to some man’s pride and egotism and self-will, we disdain with pity for those who are caught up in them. Our Lord paid the same high price for His churches that He paid for His saints—the price of His own shed blood—and for this reason every person ought to have the highest regard and concern for the welfare of every one of His churches. The occupants of both pulpit and pew ought to put forth their best efforts for the soundness and sanctity of the church of which they are members.
Every church that is rightly organized is a temple of the Holy Spirit, for He indwells it as Christ’s Vicegerent, and the saints’ Comforter, (1 Cor. 3:16-17; John 16:7-15). But every church which is not rightly organized is, at best, only a human organization, and may be a synagogue of Satan, for it may be Satan’s instrument to lead men astray, though it may have saved people in it, (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). All of which points up the need for soundness in the organization of a church.
All living things are born "after his kind," and a New Testament church, as an organism, is a living thing, and so must come into existence from one of its own kind. It is true that God can create anything out of nothing, and He did so when the Jerusalem church was brought into existence in Mark 3:13ff. But after God has once begun a genus of any kind, He does not generally revert to creation to produce it, but causes it to follow the natural laws of reproduction. Hence, there must be scriptural authority from an already existing church before a new church can be brought into existence. People are born of people, animals are born of animals, and churches must be born of churches. If anyone disagrees let him take the matter up with the Spirit of God Who has set forth the clear-cut examples in the Book of Acts of this method of reproducing churches. But let no one deceive himself into thinking that God will condone rejection of, and rebellion against, the Word of God simply that he may glorify himself as the originator of an ecclesiastical organization. Let us all remember what Jesus said in John 12:47-48. "If any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day." Nor are Jesus’ words just the red letter portions of the Gospels. All of the New Testament constitute the "words" of Jesus that the Holy Spirit receives of Him to show unto His people (John 16:13-15).
Is Your Church Scripturally Organized?