Almost since its inception, the Body of Christ has been turned from the organism/family model of the New Testament (NT) into the organization/business model of the world. This has had tremendous impact upon how people view what the Christian life is all about. I would like to make a brief case for abandoning this artificial model in favor of what Jesus and the apostles meant for us.
Please understand that I am not condemning all who still participate in the current/historical institution, merely arguing against that institution’s legitimacy. I believe the information I’m about to present is unknown to the majority of believers, although there is a noticeable shift to house churches underway. But I must at least make the information known. A list of links which this summary is derived from is at the end of the post.
First let’s look at some scriptures.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
1 Cor. 14:26-33
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two - or at the most three - should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church; let them speak to themselves and to God.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace - as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
What’s most striking about all those passages of scripture is what we don’t see. People had to meet somewhere, and it was usually in a building of some kind, but nobody is shown erecting a building for believers to meet in. No instructions are given on how to build a proper “temple”, as was the case for Israel. All collections of money or goods went directly to the needy; nothing was ever given to a building. Missionaries such as Paul received some support on occasion if they needed it, but there is no command on what, if any, regular salary any church leader is to receive. But some will then quote this scripture:
1 Timothy 5:17-18
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “Workers deserve their wages.”
The context preceding this is about support for widows, but first note that it was given in the form of food, not specifically money. And this verse begins a shift to specific instructions about elders. But what does “workers deserve their wages” mean here?
The key is found in the words “double honor”. If the meaning here is all about money, paying salaries to professionals, then does “double honor” mean they get twice as much as someone else? And who is this “someone else”? If the elder is being compared to the rest of the congregation, then it would mean everyone gets a salary! (Unless preachers would agree to getting double of nothing!) If “someone else” means only widows, then elders should only get twice as much as the church gives widows. Some may claim it means they get twice as much as deacons, but nowhere are deacons told they should get material support from the people they serve. They are not mentioned here at all.
I think “honor” means just that: honor. The reference to not muzzling an ox simply illustrates that elders who do work for the people deserve something back, which in this case is respect. This is reinforced by the next verse, which states that accusations against elders have to be supported by 2 or 3 witnesses. The reason this is so is because elders are worthy to receive “double honor”.
Notice also that it says “the elders... the church”. There were to be several elders in each church, each with equal respect and authority. There was no head elder or Senior Pastor.
Now about “offices” and the alleged clergy/laity class distinction.
The NT only specifies three groups of people in the church: overseers, deacons, and everyone else. Paul wrote to Timothy about specific requirements for overseers and deacons. These were to be exemplary servants, people who had mastered the scriptures, had proven by example that they lived out the Christian life as Jesus and Paul taught, and were experienced believers. Nobody was to be appointed a leader without first having been a follower, a student.
Nowhere in the NT is any elder or deacon shown to be an autocratic ruler, but instead they are to be a “good shepherd”. Such a shepherd cares for and nurtures the flock, while strongly defending it against hostile attack. In turn, the “sheep”, those who are not yet spiritually mature, are to follow their leaders as a matter of safety. But these followers are not to be perpetual children, always dependent and vulnerable. The goal of any student is to eventually graduate. This was what Paul emphasized in Hebrews 5 and 6, stating that the people were to have matured by that time and not still be babies.
Some try to equate the calling of the Seven in Acts 6 with the establishment of the “office of deacon”, but no such connection is made in the NT. This was never said to be a permanent command for all believers of all time, but is only shown as a specific answer to a specific need at a particular time. In Paul’s instructions about qualifications for deacons, he never ties it in with this incident. In fact, he never actually tells us what deacons are supposed to do. Perhaps they were people who wanted to be elders but were still being “tested” (1 Tim. 3:1,10).
So this is how “church” is supposed to be:
All the believers meet together for teaching and learning and “building each other up”, and for hearing any message God may have for them. Several elders watch over them all, guarding against falsehood and seeing to it that everyone gets sound instruction. They may (per Paul’s examples) place temporary restrictions on some people, administer discipline, or approve worthy candidates for becoming elders too.
The location of such meetings is irrelevant, as is the day or time or frequency. As Paul stated, “Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike. Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5). There is to be no tolerance for a domineering spirit or autocratic rule, as Jesus and Paul both made clear. No believer is better than another: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In other words, neither ethnic heritage, social standing, nor gender shall put one believer over another. Everything depends upon spiritual maturity that has been tested and found faithful.
And as we saw in the scriptures from Acts, the Christian life was more than the sum of its meetings. It was to be a community of families, forming a larger family. They were to live and practice the teachings of the apostles every day. Separate instructions for home life were largely given as practical advice on how to behave in society, but such instructions can never negate or supercede the overarching principle of mutual submission among all believers.
Now look at what the church has become instead:
Very soon after the apostles died, and just as they predicted, the legalizers and false teachers took over. There are early accounts of “bishops” elevating themselves to near divine status, demanding the same unquestioning obedience that the people were only to give to God. Hierarchy set in, and a full-blown system of management layers was developed. Buildings were erected and “sacred” objects brought in. Even in the early centuries there were professional orators (our modern Pastors or Preachers), choirs, theater-style seating, a raised platform for performers, a lectern (pulpit), and strict litergies of worship. “Church” as we have always known it was born.
Today there is no mistaking the worldly corprate nature of Churchianity. Its very structure stifles the work of the Holy Spirit and creates class distinctions between “clergy” and “laity”. We have teachers who do not know the scriptures but only their teacher’s guidebooks, and students who never graduate. We have CEOs (Pastors), boards of directors, other lower staff, and the masses at the bottom.
And it also is very much like a social country club. Members have greater privileges than nonmembers, there are business meetings following “Robert’s Rules of Order”, and many of the members come mainly to socialize. (Or worship anonymously and never interact with others at all.)
While much good has been done in spite of all the faults of Churchianity, the end does not justify the means. God never intended this for his Bride. Who knows how things could have been if this artifical, worldy model had never been adopted? But it’s never too late; we can still start forming church groups that meet according to the NT model. We do not condemn those who still enjoy the status quo or cannot see the problems with it, but neither should we continue to support it when we see the proper model. God can work through our weaknesses, but when he reveals something to us we’d better listen.