Ecclesiology: Teaching on the Church



Ecclesiology: Teaching on the Church

Does the Order of the Church Really Matter?

Richard Hollerman

Probably a number of our readers are aware of the Greek term, ekklesia.  This is a word that means assembly, community, congregation, gathering, or group.  Generally, in most translations, this is rendered as “church” (although this is not really the best translation).

The term ecclesiology refers to “the doctrine of the ekklesia” or “the teaching of the church.” When one studies the various branches of theology (the teaching of God), he comes across ecclesiology and it is important for our understanding if we desire to know the will of the Lord.

Sadly, many Protestants, Catholics, and non-denominationalists are quite concerned about correct and orthodox teaching on God (theology), Christ (Christology), the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), and salvation (soteriology), but they give very little time and show very little interest in regard to the important teaching of ecclesiology.

Let’s explore one aspect of the Bible’s teaching on the Body of Christ (or the church, if you will).  I refer to the organization of the church.  Does the body of Christ have an official, God-given and God-prescribed organization or is this left up to each denomination or local congregation to work out on their own?  Is the Bible merely descriptive in this matter (simply describing what the early Christians did) or is it prescriptive (offering clear commands and examples of what God wants in Christ’s body)?

The Teaching of the Bible

Let’s first look at what the Bible says. Then we will briefly notice what a number of churches in my own area are practicing.  First, we discover that the Bible says that local assemblies of believers in the first century were to be governed or led by elders. These are always in the plurality in the respective assemblies, providing they had qualified men to fill these positions.


These “elders” (presbuteros) were also known as “overseers” (KJV, bishops) or “shepherds” (KJV, pastors).  Notice, for example that “the elders of the church” in Ephesus (Acts 20:17) had been made “overseers” and were to “shepherd the church of God” (v. 28). We can see that the elders were the overseers (bishops) and these were to shepherd (pastor) the congregations of God.  All three terms refer to the same position or work. This differs radically from today’s arrangement!

Notice also that Paul had left Titus in Crete to “set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city” (1:5).  Qualifications for these elders are then given in vv. 5-9, and the apostle says, “For the overseer must be above reproach .  . .” (v. 7). We again see that the elders were overseers. Again, examine 1 Peter 5:1-3. Peter instructs “the elders” (v. 1) to “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight” (v. 2). Once again, the elders were the shepherds and they were to be overseers. Verses like this show that the one position of elder is also known as a shepherd and overseer.  There were not two or three separate and distinct positions or works.

As we look at early church history, before long this arrangement changed. By the early second century, Ignatius draws a sharp distinction between the elder and the shepherd or overseer. He sees the overseer as the bishop who is over the elders in the local assembly.  History tells us that in time these bishops became leaders over all of the congregations in a given city, then region, and then province.  After several centuries, the Roman bishop arrogated to himself the title of “universal bishop” and this evolved into the modern papacy of Roman Catholicism. (The position of “patriarch” in the Orthodox churches also evolved in a similar manner.)  This illustrates how far the apostasy had consumed the churches in the first several centuries and it has continued to our own day. But certain aspects of this have likewise affected the various Protestant churches and denominations.

These elders or overseers were required to meet certain established, God-given qualifications (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). It was necessary that they be men, not women (1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:6), that they be married (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6), that they have believing children (1 Timothy 3:4-5; Titus 1:6), and that they have various moral and spiritual qualities. This would necessarily exclude others from filling this important position, such as women, the single or widowers, the childless, and the morally unfit.

Along with the elders or overseers, there were also servants (diakonos) or “deacons” in the congregations (Philippians 1:1) and these also had to meet certain qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). The early assembly further had prophets (Acts 13:1; 15:32; Romans 12:6), teachers (Acts 13:1; Ephesians 4:11; Romans 12:7), proclaimers (evangelists) (Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5), and other functionaries (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:27-30; 1 Peter 4:10-11).

Churches and Congregations in the Vicinity

When we study modern churches and denominations, we discover a great variety and different functionaries have been created.  Seemingly unconcerned about what the New Testament says and the order that we find there, these church groups have established many positions unknown in the Bible. What do we mean? Let’s look at the example of various churches in my own area.

One “Assembly of God” Church about one mile from my house was featured in the lead article in a local shopping paper (City View Shopping News). The article says that the “Lead Pastor” “surrounds himself with qualified leaders who can facilitate the vision of Christ Church.” The article continues, “Through layers of leadership is the only way a church can grow, says Pastor . . . . And that’s just what the church is doing.”

As we look at their website, we notice that they have at the top a husband and wife team who are labeled as “Lead Pastors.” Particularly notice that the wife is also called a “Lead Pastor” which violates the instruction that only married men are qualified to be overseers (or shepherds/elders) in a congregation.  Under him are a long list of other “pastors” (shepherds), including the “Executive Pastor,” “Pastoral Care and Counseling” (a couple), “Hispanic Ministries Pastor,” “Youth Pastor,” “Children’s Pastor” (a couple), then the former “Student Ministries Pastor” (a couple) who is now “Lead Pastor” at a branch church, and another “Lead Pastor” at another branch church who had been “Executive Pastor” at this main congregation. As you can see, there are many unscriptural positions in this church and many women are in leadership roles, whereas the New Testament forbids women to assume such roles (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1ff) and even forbids them from speaking, teaching, or praying in public (1 Timothy 2:8 [Greek], vv. 11-12; 1 Corinthians 14:33-37).

Let’s go to another local church. This time, it is a huge Southern Baptist Church. Here we find the “Pastor” over the congregation. (Many churches assume that the single “pastor” is the official leader or authority over the congregations.)  Along with him, there is the “Senior Associate Pastor.” Interestingly, since “pastor” (shepherd) is an elder, this would mean that this person is a “Senior” associate elder/senior. Ironically, he is a senior senior! Then there is the “Administrative Pastor,” the “Hispanic Ministries Pastor,” the “Family Pastor,” the “Student Pastor,” a “Missions Intern,” and a woman called the Administrative Assistant. So once again we find an assortment of “pastors,” not to speak of a series of lower positions in this congregation.

Now let’s go to the largest “Church of Christ” in the world (with about 5,000 members) which is located some miles away but in this vicinity.  It is quite liberal in comparison to the usual “Church of Christ,” thus this may account for its huge ministry staff. There are about 33 “ministers” (both men and women) of various kinds. One is the chief “minister” called the “Minister of the Word” and there is also the “Executive Minister.” Along with this are the ones they call “Shepherds.” There are 36 in this category.  Within this category, there are six with labels that say they are part of the “Governance Council” (apparently both the husband and wife?) and all of the others are labeled as “Shepherding Group” (perhaps including both the husband and wife?). Their explanation for these categories:

“The Leadership of The Hills Church of Christ is comprised of Elders who serve the church family on two teams, the Shepherding Group and the Governance Council. Members of the Governance Council, whose primary role is to perform administrative duties, are selected annually by the full Eldership. The remaining Elders serve as members of the Shepherding Group to achieve [a variety of duties].

We can see that again there is high structure to this megachurch as in the others.  There seems to be little regard for New Testament teaching on this matter.

A somewhat smaller independent church is located about a mile away.  The officers or workers here would include the “Lead Pastor,” the “Discipleship Pastor,” the “Worship Pastor,” a woman who is the “Children’s Pastor,” and two more women, one called the “Staff Counselor” and other called the “Wee School Director.”

Then there is a liberal United Methodist Church about a mile away.  Here we find the “Senior Pastor” and a woman called the “Associate Pastor.” We already see that there is little respect for the authority of Scripture here (since women are forbidden to exercise authority over men or speak in public).  Along with these “pastors,” we find another “Associate Pastor,” a “Director of Programs and Student Ministries,” the “Director of Children’s Ministries,” the “Contemporary Worship Leader,” the “Director of Senior High Ministries,” and assorted other positions.

Another nearby church is part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), another liberal denomination. Here we have “Rev. Dr. …” who is the “Pastor,” “Dr. . . .” who is the “Choir Director,” a man who is the “Youth Director” and a woman who is “Office Administrator.”  A quarter mile away is another liberal “Church of Christ.” Here we find twelve “Shepherds.” Then they have a category they call “Ministers.” Under this category, they have the following: Preaching Minister, Associate Minister, Children’s Minister, Small Groups Minister, Youth Minister, Administrative Minister, Worship Minister, and a woman called a “Youth Minister.”  Similar to other larger churches, this one has devised a variety of different positions to meet their wishes and presumed “needs.”

About two miles away we find another Southern Baptist Church, this one catering to African-Americans.  The main speaker and leader is called “Reverend . . .,” the “Pastor/Teacher.” Then his staff includes a woman who is “Executive Assistant to the Pastor,” and others—the “Minister of Christian Education,” the “Minister of Family Development,” the “Youth Minister,” the “Director of Music,” the “Assistant Director of Music,” and “Director of Media,” and the “Recreation Leader.”  There seems to be no end to the kinds of positions these churches devise. Since these are large institutional churches, they feel the need to create positions that are reminiscent of large companies or businesses.

About two miles away we find a very large progressive Catholic Church. Here we find “Father ….,” the “Parochial Administrator.” Also there are two “Deacons,” and the “Music Director,” the “Youth Minister,” the “Communications Director and Facilities Coordinator” (a woman), and the “Director of Religious Education.” Besides this, there are assorted office staff.

Downtown we find Saint Patrick Cathedral and the listing of their staff is long. Here is what we find: “Very Reverend . . .” as the Rector, Parochial Vicar, Priest in Residence, another Priest in Residence, Deacon, Music and Liturgical Director, Adult RCIA Director, Children’s RCIA Director, Religious Formation Admin. Assis, Sacristan, Historian/Archivist.

Finally, let’s examine a fairly large independent “Bible Church” about four miles from where I now write.  First, there is the “Lead Pastor” who does most of the public teaching/preaching.  There is also the “Executive Pastor,” the “Worship Pastor,” the “Missions Pastor,” the “College Pastor,” and the “High School Pastor.” Perhaps reluctant to use the term “pastor” for them, there are also three women: the “Children’s Director,” the “Women’s Coordinator,” and the “Girl’s Coordinator.” To their credit, it would seem that the women are not over men.  Interestingly, it would seem that many of these “pastors” are young, thus it would make one wonder if they are married with children old enough to believe (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).

A Biblical Assessment

Did you examine the Biblical teaching on positions in the local body of Christ?  And did you arrive at a general understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding such positions as overseer (the shepherd or elder), servant (or deacon), teacher, proclaimer (or evangelist/preacher), and other positions?

As we examined some of the local churches or congregations near where I live, did you get weighed down with the multiplicity of different positions these churches devised?  There would be some parallels between these groups but also quite a few differences.  Many of them have a leading preacher or shepherd who does much or most of the public teaching/preaching.  And some do have various positions that also lead in a public way—whether this be teaching or leading a choir or leading various groups of members.  Most of the people in positions are men but quite a few are also women.

Is the Biblical information so difficult to understand?  Is ecclesiology a subject that we can just have differing views about and think that we are pleasing to God?  Why is it that many churches, particularly Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, insist on correct Christology, theology, soteriology, and other important fields of study, but they are quite careless when it comes to the organization and makeup of the church?  Apparently, they think that this is an area that God has allowed freedom.  Seemingly, they think that God says, “You may have whatever positions you want to have, according to your denominational needs, and according to your personal preferences.”

But God does care how the body of Christ is ordered.  Paul wrote, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).  The “sound words” that Paul spoke are reflected in what he wrote to Timothy (in both the first and second letters). And it is in 1 Timothy 3 that he carefully lays out what kind of leaders should be selected to oversee the body of Christ.  The apostle said, “I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Further, when Paul wrote to Titus, he said, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (1:5).

Here was an apostle who directed an evangelist or preacher to “set in order” what remained on the island of Crete, and one of the important matters that was a concern was the appointment of “elders” in every city where believers met.  (presumably every city had one assembly or congregation, probably meeting in homes). As we noticed, the elders where also called overseers or shepherds. Just as Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23), this is to be done today as well.  Obviously, if there is no one qualified to serve in this position (as detailed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9), then elders cannot be appointed. We can only do what is possible to do—and Scriptural to do. We must not “bend the rules” or violate the apostolic instructions.

If we take the NT instruction seriously, this should solve a lot of problems in the groups of people that are churches around us.  Are “pastors” in the modern sense really Biblical?  Are modern positions such as rector, priest, minister, bishop, arch-bishop, cardinal, general overseer, or Pope justified in light of what the inspired Word of God teaches about positions or New Testament functionaries?  How did churches and denominations develop such practices when they are foreign to Scriptural teaching and practice?

Probably one of the chief reasons is that people—including religious leaders—have lost a confidence in the inspiration and authority of the Word of God.  For example, the last few days I’ve been in correspondence with a devoted and knowledgeable Catholic who is steeped in Roman Catholic theology and practice.  He has constantly denigrated my utter confidence in the authority of the Bible, insisting that we can’t really understand the Bible but need the Catholic leadership (the magisterium—the pope in association with the bishops) to guide us and tell us what God’s will is.  He can’t bring himself to simply take God’s Word, believe it, and obey it, even when he can see that it conflicts with the traditions of Romanism.

What we need is a deep and unshakable confidence in God’s inerrant written Word that is our authority in all things.  Paul wrote, “We also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).  He further wrote, “You know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (4:2). Are we willing to accept Paul’s commands and apply them to our personal and corporate life?

How important is it that we obey the apostles’ instructions (which reflect our Lord’s will)?  Paul puts it this way: “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Corinthians 14:37). He said this regarding his instructions on what is to be done in the public assemblies of the saints (14:33). One of those commands is that “the women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves” (v. 34). Although this may be considered passé in our age, we need to recognize that Paul (with the full authority of an apostle) says it is God’s will, the “Lord’s commandment” (v. 37).  The apostle recognized that his commands to first century Christians were the will of God—and we should also recognize this.

What is known about Paul’s writings is true of all of the apostles.  They all communicated the authoritative words of Christ. When we receive the words of the apostles, we are receiving Christ Himself (cf. Matthew 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20).  All of them were to have authority in the early body of Christ (cf. Matthew 19:28).  God’s “household” was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20; cf. 3:5). The apostles will always have their place as the foundation of God’s family and the holy city (cf. Revelation 21:14). 

Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the apostles so that they would know the truth of God (cf. John 14:26 and 16:12-15) and be able to communicate it to others. The “keys” were given to Peter and the right to bind and loose was given to him (Matthew 16:17-19) and to the body of Christ (18:18).  Thus, it is important that we recognize the apostles’ authority and the authority of the words that they wrote for our instruction (the New Testament writings).

Will we not only be concerned about God’s will in regard to salvation, the nature of Jesus, the teaching of the Holy Spirit, the truth of angels and demons and sin and righteousness, but also God’s will in regard to the organization of the body of Christ?  Let’s make an objective study of the New Testament teaching on the positions in God’s family in the first century and determine to reproduce it in our own day. There is no other way!


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