Many evangelicals today argue that the form and structure of the church are unimportant. They contend that the debate itself distracts the church from more crucial issues of spiritual life and the evangelistic mission to the lost. Others point out that a variety of churches with many different structures seem to be blessed by God and are growing, vibrant testimonies for Christ.
Some oppose even seeking to restore the New Testament pattern. Edwin Hatch, a historian of the early church, writes, “It is given to each generation to revise and reform the present; but it is not given to bring back the past. The attempt to artificially restore an ancient institution is futile. The history of the organization of Christianity has been in reality the history of successive readjustments of her form to altered circumstances.”1
Others argue that there is insufficient information to know the exact pattern of the New Testament church. A leading British evangelical, Leon Morris, states: “The New Testament evidence is not full enough for us to know exactly the position of the early church. The New Testament simply does not give us the answers.”2
Is the Word of God insufficient? Has the God of incomparable order and design left us to our own design? Is this the perspective of the New Testament?
Although there is a seed of truth in these arguments, it would be a serious mistake to render the structure of the local church insignificant. It would be an even greater mistake to introduce a new structure to replace the biblical pattern. Highlighting this danger, G.H. Lang, writes, “Nor is there need, nor can there be a hope, of improving on the Lord’s ordering. He knew perfectly the purposes which His church is to serve on earth, and knew fully the conditions of human affairs amidst which the church must work; and He instituted through His apostles the very best arrangements and methods for doing the intended work under the given conditions. To assume otherwise is to impute folly to God.”3
A careful study of the New Testament will convince us that we cannot, and must not, treat the church pattern as merely cosmetic or irrelevant. At the very outset of the New Testament it is striking that the Lord Jesus and the apostles labored to establish only one institution–the local church. Paul stated, “As a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon” (l Cor. 3:10). The local church lies at the heart of God’s program today. Indifference to the doctrine of the church is certainly indifference to the plan of God. The local church matters to God, and it ought to matter to us.
Undeniably, the church was intended to be a relentless light-bearer of God’s truth. To this end the Word of God states that an assembly of Christians is “…the house of God…the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Therefore an assembly must be on guard that absolutely nothing will hide or dim the shining forth of the truth of God. The Lord would not leave the church to her own devices to accomplish this mission.
Concerning the permanence of this divine blueprint, author Francis Schaeffer writes, “The church did not sit there as a group of believers with no form. The New Testament form is commanded by God. These norms are not arbitrary–they are God’s form for the institutional, organized church and they are to be present in the twentieth century as well as in any century.”4
Paul was singularly gifted to expound the principle of an enduring church pattern. On at least five occasions in 1 Corinthians alone, he writes concerning such a principle, which is applicable to all churches in all regions and all cultural backgrounds in every time period:
* “…my ways which are in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17).
* “…as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches” (1 Cor 7:17).
* “If any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16).
* “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (l Cor. 14:33).
* “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak…” (1 Cor. 14:34).
The apostle drew instruction from one divine blueprint for all that he taught, ordained, and commanded in the churches. In 1 Corinthians 4:17, he states that these things he taught “everywhere in every church.” The New Testament indicates that Paul was directly or indirectly involved in the establishment and development of at least 18 different churches in 12 diverse areas. Thus one divine, cross-cultural, trans-geographical blueprint was used by the apostle, and should be used by us today.
Tertullian drew on this principle when he taught that the covering for women was not bound by culture or time. About 160 years after the writing of 1 Corinthians, he comments, “Throughout Greece, and in certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of churches keep their women covered. So let no one ascribe this custom merely to the gentile customs of the Greeks and barbarians. The Corinthians themselves understood him (the Apostle Paul) to speak in this manner. For to this very day the Corinthians veil their virgins. So, on both sides of the matter, the apostle has written with sufficient clarity, in fact he says quite succinctly, ‘every woman.’ What does ‘every’ mean if it doesn’t mean every class, every order, every condition, and every age?”5
Is there internal biblical evidence that would make the New Testament pattern incumbent on the church today? A review of God’s Word reveals principles which show the timeless constitution of the church:
THE BLUEPRINT WAS PRESCRIBED: The qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7), the order of worship and ministry of the Word (1 Cor. 1l-14, 1 Tim. 4:6-16), and assembly discipline (1 Cor. 5:9-13), are all prescribed in orderly detail (not just described, as if adherence was optional). Notice Paul’s language in listing the requirements of an elder: “A bishop must be blameless…” (l Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7): concerning financial giving: “Concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches…” (l Cor. 16:1); regarding local church discipline: “We command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly…” (2 Thess. 3:6).
The blueprint of the New Testament church, received through revelation by the apostles, is obligatory, and does not consist of optional principles for the followers of Jesus Christ. To Titus Paul writes, “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority” (2:15).
THE BLUEPRINT WAS OBEYED: Time and again assemblies in the New Testament are seen practicing the biblical principles taught by the apostles. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). “I praise you, brethren, that you…keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2).
New Testament assemblies were also corrected when they deviated from the order. In Galatians the correction comes concerning the controversy between law and grace; in 1 and 2 Timothy there are warnings concerning false teachers; in 1 Corinthians there is correction concerning moral and doctrinal decay. Paul sums up the principle that would serve as a rudder to steer the church through the theological tempests of the day: “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize the thing that I write to you, that it is the Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14:37, jnd).
THE BLUEPRINT IS CHRIST-CENTERED: Church order is not bound by culture or time because its source is Christ. Hearts full of competing interests must give way to hearts devoted to Christ. The pattern Christ established best enables the assembly to respond to the guidance of its living Head. There is so much in the religious world that desires to usurp Christ from His rightful place.
C.H. Mackintosh writes, “We are too prone to regard the Word of God as insufficient for the most minute details connected with His worship and service. This is a great mistake–a mistake which has proved the fruitful source of evils and errors in the professing church. The Word of God is amply sufficient for everything as regards the order and rule of the assembly.”6
Those who follow this truth find they must bear reproach for their obedience. However, biblical orthodoxy will lead to spiritual blessing. A proper understanding of Christ’s desire for His people will result in obedience to His Word and the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and gathering Center of the assembly.
1. Edwin Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches, London, Longmans & Green Co., 1895, pp. 216-218
2. Leon Morris, Ministers of God, London, IVPress, 1964, pp.l 11
3. G.H. Lang, The Churches of God, London, C.J. Thynne & Jarvis, 1934, p. 9
4. Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Downers Grove, IL, IVPress, 1970, p. 66
5. Tertullian, On Veiling of Virgins, translated by David W. Bereot, Tyler, TX, Scroll Publishing, 1991, p. 138
6. C.H. Mackintosh, Notes on Exodus, NY, Loizeaux Bros., 1972, p. 271