The enormous differences among the denominations are staggering. One church keeps the Sabbath and other Old Testament ordinances. Some churches have elaborate worship services that appear to appeal to men rather than to God almighty. Entertainment has become a major focus in some denominations. The leaders in a number of denominations wear gowns and other strange paraphernalia that probably resemble the clothing worn by Jewish priests under the Mosaic covenant, even though the new covenant is not a carnal arrangement as was true of the Jewish law. One of the latest changes in denominationalism is what are being called "contemporary worship services." Is there something wrong with following the New Testament pattern? Have these denominations lost all respect for the authority of scripture?
One of the greatest differences among denominations is the government some of them have instituted. For example, one denomination claims to have apostles, Melchizedek priests, presidents, and so on. At least one church has dozens and dozens of officials. One church is governed by deacons, another by stewards and still others by different arrangements. Again I ask you: Have these denominations lost all respect for the authority of scripture? Do we institute the form of government we like rather than the one authorized in the word of God? May I say as forcefully as I am able: The church of the New Testament is not a democracy? Decisions are not made by popular vote.
I am fully aware of the foolish notion that the Bible does not provide a pattern for the church, including the government of the church. I shall not take the time today to show that the Bible provides one pattern after another. But all serious Bible students know that Paul outlines the pattern for partaking of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-34). Oddly enough, many of those churches that object to "pattern theology" do not feel free to add a third or a fourth or a fifth element to the Lord's Supper. Neither do they feel free to partake of the Lord's Supper any time they feel like it, although that may be changing.
What is God's pattern for the government of the church? The Mosaic covenant arranged for a special group of men called "priests." There is no scriptural authority - I repeat - no scriptural authority under the new covenant for a special office of the priesthood. Every Christian under the new covenant is a priest. The Apostle Peter identifies all Christians as "a holy priesthood" (1 Pet. 2:5). The Apostle John says that Jesus Christ "has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father" (Rev. 1:6). In the first century there were apostles and prophets. In the Christian era, no person on earth can qualify for either of these positions.
The book of Acts and Paul's
epistles teach that elders are to lead the church of our Lord. On his first
missionary journey, the Apostle Paul preached the gospel in the city of
Some observations on this
passage are in order. The word "ordained" just simply means
"appointed." Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. The
elders of the church in Derbe had no authority over the elders in the churches
at Lystra or Iconium or
Paul and Barnabas did not appoint additional apostles to govern the church or churches. Neither did they appoint priests in those churches. They appointed elders. Later Paul instructed Titus, his own son after the faith: "For this cause I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city as I had appointed you" (Tit. 1:5). The elders had authority over one congregation, as Acts 14:23 makes plain. There is no scriptural reason to think that any eldership ever had authority over any church except their local congregation.
The wisdom of having an eldership over only one congregation ought to be apparent. If an elder or an eldership had authority over several congregations, there was possibility that the elder or eldership could not provide the leadership those churches needed. In addition, if an eldership were over several churches departed from the faith that would likely affect all of the churches in an association or synod. If the churches were under local elderships, that would be less likely to happen. All one has to do to confirm this last observation is to study the current situation among denominational churches. Most of the congregations associated with the major denominations became liberal when their presiding bishop or elder decided that the Bible is not an infallible guide. The Presbyterian Church USA is a good example of having leaders who did not respect the Bible as God's inspired word. Many of the congregations in associations or synods were not free to determine their own destiny. They generally followed the leadership of their presiding bishop or elder. They were led astray from the teaching of scripture by bishops like John Shelby Spong, James Pike and other radicals.
Some modem denominations make
a distinction between elders and bishops. That is because of their tradition or
because they want to do it. The Bible does not allow for such distinctions. In
his farewell address to the elders of the Lord's church at
The Greek word correctly
translated "overseers" is episkopous from which
we derive our English word "bishop." According to divine inspiration,
the elders at
Dr. Renwick affirms that elders were permanent officers in the church. They are variously described as bishop, pastor, shepherd, steward, and overseer. All of these terms provide a different aspect of the same office. Dr. Renwick observes: "Paul addressed his letter to the Philippians to 'the bishops and deacons.' It was a small church in a small city, yet it had a plurality of elders." He quotes Dr. J. B. Lightfoot, one of the Church of England's greatest Greek scholars, as saying: "It is a fact now generally recognized by theologians of all shades of opinion, that in the language of the New Testament, the same officer in the Church is called indifferently bishop and elder, or presbyter" (p. 21).
In his letter to Titus, as I have already indicated, Paul says he left Titus in Crete, that he would set in order the things that were wanting or lacking, and appoint elders in every city as Paul had ordered him to do. Please listen to what follows in Titus. "If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of gain" (Tit. 1:5-7). Did Paul instruct Titus to appoint elders and then give him the qualifications of a different office, a bishop? Or are the offices the same, as Bishop Lightfoot of the Church of England believed?
Scholars of most denominations - at least those with whom I am acquainted - believe that the elder and the bishop occupy the same office. In his Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1974), Dr. Ronald Ward has written: "The introductory words, for a bishop, are highly significant. The apostle has just given directions with regard to the appointment of elders or presbyters. He justifies his requirements for presbyters by listing what is necessary for a bishop. It is obvious that a presbyter is a bishop. A bishop is a generic term and refers to all bishops. When we say that 'a soldier must be brave' we mean 'all soldiers'" (p. 240).
Dr. D. Edmond Hiebert agrees with Ronald Ward. Dr. Hiebert's commentary on Titus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978) says: "The leader's true position and personal qualifications are given in vv. 7, 8. The switch in v. 7 to "overseer" shows that 'elder' and 'overseer' or 'bishop' are interchangeable terms, yet with a different connotation. 'Elder' (presbuteros) implies maturity and dignity of the man, while 'bishop' (episkopos) indicates his work as the 'overseer' of God's flock" (p.430).
Before I make some observations on the organization and work of the Lord's church, I must say a few words about elders. I believe that preachers of the gospel have some of the most awesome responsibilities any human being can accept. But they are not so serious as are the responsibilities of elders. Elders not only must lead the flock of God; they must also make sure the preachers are teaching the truth of God's word. The elders are responsible for all the teaching that is done in the local congregation. If the preacher teaches error, the elders must remove him from his position. Elders are shepherds. They must lead the flock. They must also protect the flock from wolves in sheep's clothing.
I hope you have noticed in our
brief study the simplicity of church government that God himself ordained.
There are no elaborate structures that govern all the churches of Christ in any
given area. Each congregation is independent and autonomous. We cooperate in
projects that are too large for any single congregation. For example, the
International Gospel Hour depends on hundreds of churches and thousands of
individuals to broadcast the gospel over more than 200 stations nationwide and
over the Internet worldwide. The contributions from churches and from
individuals are purely voluntary. We have no authority to require anyone to
give to this effort. The work of this program is under the oversight of the
elders of the West Fayetteville Church of Christ in
Not only is the government of
We have congregational singing as prescribed in Paul's epistles. Please listen to these verses. "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:18-19). "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16). The goals Paul had in mind in these verses cannot be fulfilled with mechanical instruments of music.
It ought to be obvious from
these passages that the Holy Spirit authorized singing. Tragically, many
churches couldn’t care less about authority. If they want to include certain
activities in the worship services, so be it. If it feels good, do it. For many
years Dr. John L. Girardeau taught at Columbia Theological Seminary, a
conservative Presbyterian seminary, in
One paragraph from Dr. Girardeau's book will have to suffice for this lesson. "Attention, at the outset, is invoked to the consideration which serves to establish the following controlling principle: A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence of their statements, is forbidden.... This truth operates positively to the inclusion of everything in the doctrine, government and worship of the church which is commanded, either explicitly or implicitly, in the Scriptures, and negatively to the exclusion of everything which is not so commanded" (pp. 6-7). Very simply, Dr. Girardeau affirmed: We must have authority for all acts of worship, for the government of the church and for the church's teaching.
Churches of Christ partake of the Lord's Supper every Lord's Day. It is a simple and dignified celebration of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. We do not engage in two worship activities at the same time - singing and taking the Lord's Supper. We do not leave the impression that the Lord's Supper is the most important part of our worship to God. But we do believe it is important enough that we eat the Supper every Lord's day. Paul told the Corinthians: "For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you show (or proclaim) the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper is a powerful sermon. We want to preach that sermon every Lord's day.
Giving is a significant
feature of our worship. Paul commanded the Corinthians: "Now concerning
the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of
Faithful churches of Christ
support strong gospel preaching. I know there are some exceptions, but
generally speaking, elders among churches of Christ demand that preachers
"preach the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). When Paul met with
the Christians at
Churches of Christ also
emphasize prayer, just as the first
I close with this challenge. All churches should do Bible things in Bible ways and call Bible things by Bible names.
The International Gospel Hour