And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach,
The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.1
“Do All to the Glory of God”
This is the most important consideration of all. What is the purpose of the church? The church does not exist for its own sake but for His.2 Whereas Babylon as the harlot ‘glorified herself,’3 New Jerusalem as the bride of Christ both has and is ‘the glory of God’.4 It is through the church that God wants to reveal Himself:
in order that the manifold wisdom of God will be now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places… in accordance with the eternal purpose… 5
It is God’s ‘eternal purpose’ that we the church make known and glorify God, in particular His ‘manifold (or multi-faceted) wisdom’. Of course, we must first do this as individuals, and down through the ages individuals stand out in every denomination who have glorified God, revealing His eternal nature and wisdom. Unfortunately, as in the time of the Crusades, our corporate structures have all too often merely revealed and glorified our own fallen nature and foolishness.
But what does it mean, ‘to glorify God’? What is ‘glory’? How can God be glorified through us and our structures? The Greek word for glory (doxazo)…
primarily signifies an opinion, estimate (from doxa, an opinion), and hence, the honour resulting from a good opinion. It is used… of the nature and acts of God in self-manifestation, i.e. what He essentially is and does.6
So to glorify means ‘to reveal the the truth about’. And it’s here we can so easily go wrong. Like an advertising agency whose over-enthusiastic efforts to ‘glorify’ an excellent product may overshadow or obscure the public’s perception of the real attributes of the product, we as the church don’t have a great record.
For God to be properly glorified, or to receive the honour due to Him, it must be by His ‘self-manifestation’. He must be able to reveal Himself. So what stops Him? We will see why later on, but the Father has limited Himself to be revealed by people who do His will. Jesus glorified the Father perfectly by getting His own ideas out of the way:
I can do nothing on My own initiative… I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.7
His constant prayer:
… not My will, but Thine be done.8
If we want God to reveal Himself through us as the church, we have to stop seeking our own will and seek His in all things, to do our utmost to cooperate with Him. Our behaviour together, which is usually directed by our structures, therefore must be kept just as clearly under review and discernment as are our individual lives, to see if they are in line with God’s ‘eternal purpose’ of making Himself known through the church.
Consider the purpose of God in prophesying, as revealed in 1 Corinthians 14. Forget the church’s desire for a moment. Forget what we want. What does GOD want? Paul wrote:
I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more that you prophesy.9
Why does He want us to prophesy? Because prophecy allows God to speak directly to the meeting and the result can be dramatic:
…if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man (lit. uneducated, i.e. in the spiritual gifts) enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.10
Is Paul hopelessly idealistic? Or is he inspired? He is plainly teaching that if our meetings are structured so as to allow God to speak through any and all, God is more revealed and glorified than if only one speaks or prophesies. That is what he is saying, isn’t it?
For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted.11
He adds that we also need to “let two or three prophets speak”,12 a prophet being one more consistently gifted in prophecy than the average saint.
But what if our meeting structure does not allow this? Firstly, we are being disobedient to the Scriptures and the expressed will of God through Paul, and secondly, as a direct consequence, God will not reveal Himself in this particular way in our meetings, even if He does in other ways such as in our worship or preaching and teaching. Do we really want to limit God’s work in our midst?
God’s Will or Ours?
God is most glorified when His will and not ours is being done13 Only as we change our structures to more accurately fit God’s will and ways, not just in prophecy but in every area of church life, will we see the glory of God to the extent that He wants to reveal Himself ‘through the church’. This is nowhere better illustrated than in two Old Testament events and one New Testament event which were recorded for our sake so that we could be ‘taught, reproved, corrected and trained’.14 On each of these three occasions there was a visible manifestation of the glory of God, at the end of the construction of three particular structures.
There were two structures, one erected by Moses and the other by Solomon, that so pleased God that He took up residence in them and His glory was seen in them. If we want His manifest presence and glory, and I’m sure any one reading this does, we should surely consider why these were significant to God. The two structures were the tabernacle and the temple.
At this point I want to acknowledge and thank my friend Jim Doak for so powerfully drawing my attention to God’s attitude to these. This whole section is drawn straight from my remembrance of his understanding and teaching.
(1) The Tabernacle
Jim took me, and the rest of his audience, through Exodus, Chapter 40, which describes how Moses erected the tabernacle and positioned its furniture. He pointed out firstly, a recurring phrase: ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’.
In Exodus 40:17-19, we see that Moses set up the tent itself with its sockets, boards, bars, pillars and coverings, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. In verses 20-21, he placed the ark of the covenant with its contents and mercy seat in the innermost part behind the veil, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. In verses 22-23, he carefully positioned the table and the showbread, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. In verses 24-25, he placed the seven-branched lampstand in its place and lighted the lamps, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. In verses 26-27, the golden altar and he burnt some incense, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. In verses 28-29, he set up the veil and the bronze altar at the doorway, and offered the burnt offering and the grain offering, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. And verses 30-32, he placed the laver filled with water so the priests could wash, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. Then he erected the outer court and the veil for the gate and ‘thus Moses finished the work’.15
Then Jim pointed out the result:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.16
The manifest presence of God, ‘the glory of the LORD’, so tangible that even Moses could not enter, filled this structure which had been so carefully constructed, furnished and positioned, ‘just as the Lord had commanded Moses’. The seven-fold use of this phrase tells us very plainly that there was a way God wanted it built, and no other, before His glory would rest and be seen there. We will look at why later.
(ii) The Temple
Jim then took us to the building of the temple in Jerusalem. Although Solomon built it, he did so according to the plan and materials given to him by his father David, in all its dimensions, materials, appearance, and furnishings. Even the weights of ‘all utensils for every kind of service’ whether gold or silver, David gave to Solomon.
“All this,” said David, “the LORD made me understand in writing by His hand upon me, all the details of this pattern.17
When Solomon, with all the elders and congregation of Israel, had thus finished constructing, furnishing and dedicating the temple, and when all the priests, Levitical singers and musicians, including 120 trumpeters, were ‘heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the LORD’… Then the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.18
Again, the manifest presence of God, ‘the glory of the LORD’, filled that structure so tangibly that the priests could not stand to minister. Who does not want that?! But again the structure was not arbitrarily designed or constructed. It was not from the imaginations or traditions of men. It was designed by God and in such detail that David could write down the weights of even the smallest utensil used in it. Nothing was left to chance or human invention, and when it was finished, God’s glory filled the place in overwhelming splendour.
The New Covenant structure was not a physical building but a ‘spiritual house’;19 it was a gathering of people. My friend Jim drew our attention to Acts and that Day of Pentecost when 120 disciples of Jesus had gathered together in the upper room of a dwelling in Jerusalem. Like the 120 trumpeters in Solomon’s temple, these 120 were of ‘one mind’, and then came that wonderful experience:
Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind… and tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.20
The Holy Spirit had arrived in power and His visible presence ‘rested’ on the believers. The house of God, not a physical building made of stones, but a spiritual structure made of ‘living stones’, was filled with the glory of God and the whole world soon saw it! Today, two thousand years later, and even in the ‘uttermost parts of the earth’ from Jerusalem, we still long after the glory of God as revealed then in the Early Church.
God obviously was well satisfied with this third structure, the New Covenant temple, which He had established through His son Jesus. While we can easily understand the Father being glorified in Jesus, fallible men were involved in erecting the Old Covenant tabernacle and temple and the New Covenant church. Let us look at why God’s glory could be seen there.
Why in These?
Besides being the dwelling places of God in three eras, they were the work places of the priests. Let us never forget that God’s original intention was for the entire nation of Israel to be priests, to minister to Him and to all other nations.21 With Israel’s quick reversion to idolatry, only those who were fully obedient to Him, the tribe of Levi, actually attained the priesthood.22 Happily, the nation’s failure is redressed in the New Covenant so now as Christians, the new “holy nation” of both Jew and Gentile, we are every single one of us called to be ‘a royal priesthood’ in this world.23
Why ‘priests’? Priests are essential for all of God’s dealings with the human race because of His holiness and our sinfulness. Consider God’s dilemma – He cannot directly reveal Himself, His glory cannot be seen, without destroying the very ones He wants to reach. We find this in Moses’s request on Mount Sinai:
“I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!”24
And God’s response:
“I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you… [But] you cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live! Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; And it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”25
What a wealth could be drawn out of here but we must limit ourselves to our immediate point. Moses wanted to see God and God explained that an unlimited revelation would kill him! The only way Moses could safely know God and see part of His glory was by being placed in the cleft of the rock. In the same way today, in our mortal bodies, we believers can only know God and see part of His glory by being in Christ, ‘the Rock of Ages, cleft for us’. We can for now only ‘know in part’, but ‘when this mortal will have put on immortality’, we shall see Him ‘then face to face;..then we shall know fully just as we also have been known fully’.26
So God is limited in what He can reveal of Himself to us but He has chosen to reveal Himself to the world through ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession’,27 through the church in which every one is a priest.28
And, just as the Old Covenant tabernacle and temple provided a place for the priests to work, so too the New Covenant structure should shelter, encourage and ‘equip the saints for the work of service’29 and ‘spiritual sacrifices’.30
Did the New Covenant Structure Pass Away?
No more than the New Covenant has! The New Covenant is also the “eternal covenant”31 and so remains forever “new”. It is my belief that if we want to as fully see the glory of God in our churches today as was seen in the Early Church, we need to cooperate with the same Holy Spirit to re-erect the same Holy Spirit-inspired structure. It is not hard to rediscover His structure because He gave us a book containing His blue-prints or plans, and because the early church had the simplest of structures, if only we are willing to do His will instead of our own:
If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.32
Today we have huge variety and outright confusion in the churches of God regarding how He wants us to be structured. Many believe God doesn’t even care. However, He did care when it came to the Old Testament temple, which foreshadows the church. David had the blueprints for that temple and he was able to pass them on in writing:
All this, said David, the LORD made me understand in writing by His hand upon me, all the details of this pattern.33
If God cared so much about a temple made of stone, how much more when His temple is made of living stones. Jesus built His church according to everything the Father showed Him.34 He had blue-prints and Paul was given them to pass them on in writing to us. Paul wrote that his extraordinary revelation was:
To bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God… in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church…35
Peter confirmed that “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you”36 and today everyone of us can read for ourselves both the actions of Paul in setting up churches to achieve this purpose, such as in Acts 13 & 14, and his teaching on structure, in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12-14.
We have the plans! We also need to work with the right materials, since a perfectly structured church made of “dead” stones (i.e. unbelievers) or non-functioning stones (i.e. those not versed in the gifts) will not achieve the purpose of God. Meetings that are perfectly structured to allow and encourage all to prophesy, for example, will not reveal God to others unless all DO prophesy. The new covenant priesthood must be revealed, understood, practiced and encouraged. “Each one” being allowed in the assembly to bring “a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation” will not be edifying unless each of the saints is genuinely able to hear from heaven.
We therefore must have two goals in our churches: firstly the quality, or genuine spirituality, of the people and secondly, a structure that will “let all things be done for edification”.37
So How Did We Go Wrong?
Considering the simplicity of the Early Church, how and why have we become so confused today? Because, in the same way as the stately sailing ships of old used to slowly become encrusted with barnacles merely traveling through the seas, our churches today groan under a weight of tradition and misunderstanding, accumulated on the passage through time and different cultures. Of course, the old-time ships were so valuable that rather than be scrapped because they were becoming unmanageable, they were periodically scraped clean of the ubiquitous barnacles, back to the bare wood and pitch of the hull. Scraped rather than scrapped, so to speak.
Unfortunately, today many have seen the way our churches have become lumbering hulks and, failing to recognise the true worth of the gatherings of the saints, have abandoned ship. Others have instead set out to “defend the indefensible” by trying to validate the barnacles or worse yet, to redefine them as part of the hull. I would now like to portray, as I see it, the simple shape or outline of the hull so that we can set about the barnacles without holing our ship.
We will look at the two revealed blue-prints in the New Testament, the first as outworked by Jesus during the three and a half years of His earthly ministry among the Jews, and the second by Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles. We will see that despite being in very different cultures, they are identical structures.
Blue Print One – the Church that Jesus Built?
Because Jesus didn’t immediately “plant” churches but traveled a lot, ministering in the Jewish synagogues as well as out-doors and from house to house, it is easy to overlook what He built during that short time. Firstly, He made disciples.38 He built each of them on a very solid foundation, prefigured in Moses’ tabernacle by two talents of pure silver. From among these disciples, He appointed twelve apostles39 but since they were as mobile as He was, it is not until just before the Day of Pentecost that we can see clearly what He had been doing all along to establish the church in Jerusalem. Let’s look therefore at Acts, chapters 1 and 2.
We find, waiting for the Day of Pentecost, “about one hundred and twenty persons” gathered in an upper room, including the eleven apostles, “the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers”.40 Peter addresses them as “brethren”.41 This generic term “brethren” applied to all male and female disciples and it reveals a non-hierarchical attitude among them in obedience to Jesus’ teaching:
Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.42
Peter then drew attention to the missing apostle, Judas Iscariot, and called for a replacement. The church then prayed as to who should…
“…occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside.”43
Matthias was chosen. So we see there needed to be among the “brethren”, twelve particular members who occupied a “ministry and apostleship”. We will look at why twelve later, but what was their purpose? “Ministry” means full-time service. Some of the Twelve had to leave their nets, in order to become “fishers of men”; the others also left their means of earning an income, such as tax collecting. They became servants of God or “ministers”. “Apostleship” refers to their being sent forth by Jesus to preach the gospel, heal the sick and cast out demons, when they became “apostles” or what we today call missionaries because they too are sent on a mission.
So far then, in the Early Church, among the “brethren” there were some called to special tasks – the Twelve were to be in “full-time ministry” and to keep going forth with the gospel as “apostles”. But there is another piece of their structure revealed in this chapter, in Peter’s earlier description of Judas’ calling. Quoting from Psalms, he says:
His office let another man take.44
The word “office” in the Greek is literally “position as overseer”, some Bible translations therefore translating it as “bishopric” or “overseership”. From this we see that the Twelve also functioned as “overseers” or elders. This also will be properly established later, but for now we see the church on the Day of Pentecost, in which God so “presenced” Himself, consisted of:
(i) Disciples, or “brethren”
(ii) Ministers, or those in “full-time ministry”
(iii) Apostles, or “those sent forth”
(iv) Overseers, or elders
While it is true that at this time the Twelve were disciples and fulfilled all three roles of ministers, apostles and overseers, all I want to establish here is the distinct roles. Later we will see how in the absence of the Twelve, the roles nevertheless continued.
So Why the Twelve?
The Twelve had another role, unique and unrepeatable, that goes beyond their ministry, apostleship and overseeing: they were “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” whose names are forever written on the foundation stones of the wall of New Jerusalem.45 In the same way that Israel looks back to the twelve sons of Jacob as their patriarchs, the church looks back to the twelve apostles of the Lamb as our patriarchs. Their unique qualifications were spelled out by divine inspiration when Peter called for a replacement to make up the Twelve:
It is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us – beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us – one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection.46
Only men who had accompanied Jesus “all the time” of His earthly ministry were eligible. That time is clearly defined, from Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist right through to His physical resurrection and ascension, which took place just ten days prior to Pentecost.47 So the church today still has these original twelve to look back to and does not need to try to reproduce their function, any more than the nation of Israel today needs to find twelve men to be their patriarchs. Their role as such cannot be replaced or reproduced. However, their roles as ministers, apostles and overseers can be, and need to be, as we will see from Barnabas and Paul’s work among the Gentiles.
Blue-Print Two – Drawn on a Clean Slate
In Acts chapter 14 we can get a very clear picture of the structure of the New Testament church. The slate is clean because it predates today’s traditions, the Twelve are off the scene, and Paul and Barnabas are working with “unchurched” people. We get to see these churches being constructed from the ground up, so let us consider this chapter.
Paul and Barnabas have been preaching the gospel in the cities of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch and making “disciples”, initially “of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes”48 but soon many other Gentiles join them. We are told that in one city, Iconium, “a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks”49 and that the apostles stayed “a long time”. There was usually ferocious opposition in these places, even to Paul being pelted with stones and left for dead.50
Now, how do these inspired men of God, these “church-planters”, organise these large numbers of new believers? Well, initially they don’t, as they are often leaving town in some haste, but they later retrace their steps through Asia Minor,51 “encouraging the disciples to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”.52
They then take the first step of organisation:
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. And they passed through Pisidia.53
They appoint “elders” and leave them all to it, pressing on with their mission and eventually returning home. They do not appoint, as we would today, a “priest”, “vicar” or “pastor” but “elders”. Note, not “an elder in every church”, but “elders”. Why more than one? Because “two are better than one”54 and the apostles themselves worked in pairs.55 Why “elders”? Many reasons, but for now the main and obvious one: disciples, like new plants, grow or mature at different individual rates, and some, in maturing faster either because of age or experience, come to be “older”. They are therefore called on to keep an eye out for the rest who are younger, in the same way that earthly parents call on their older children.
However, since this growth is only apparent after a time, it is logical enough that the apostles do not appoint elders immediately. Instead they leave all the disciples to grow for a while, helped only by God and each other, and on their return the apostles look to see who has done what. That this is a deliberate policy of wisdom, not neglectful haste, is clearly stated by Paul at a later time when he reminds Titus:
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains (NIV – straighten out what was left unfinished), and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.56
Paul had not appointed elders in Crete. Instead of waiting for them to become apparent, he had traveled on and had left their appointment to be done at the proper time by Titus.
The structure of these churches, or assemblies, so far then is very simple: at first there are only disciples, all those who have believed; then in all the gatherings of those disciples, elders, the older or more experienced disciples, are appointed to look after them as need be. Notice,the apostles are not included in the structure of the assemblies at this stage because they are not assembling – they are traveling on.
Appointed by God Himself
The elders are not appointed before the apostles and the disciples have prayed and fasted.57 All three groups were in agreement as to the will of God regarding who should be elders, so that Paul could later say to “the elders of the church” of Ephesus:58
The Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the flock of God.59
To those who say that God doesn’t care about church structure, the plain testimony of Scripture is that the Holy Spirit is so interested that He even chooses, labels and commissions these elders in the church. This is not a new idea – Jesus prayed all night to find His first twelve elders among the Jews60 and then spent several years as the Good and Chief Shepherd in further developing them61 Does He care less today, or do we? The church then was not left to chance, nor to cultural norms or traditions, nor to be figured out as best the apostles and disciples could. The Holy Spirit knows what He wants, “elders”, and He chooses and commissions them to do the work He knows will be needed, “to shepherd the flock of God”, and He labels them “overseers”.
This is the structure of the Holy Spirit, God Himself.
This presents us with a clear choice: we either learn to cooperate with Him while He builds the church, as the apostles did, or we ignore Him and He has to build around us, or worse, in spite of us. Remember Gehazi, Elisha’s servant? He was terrified by a surrounding Aramean army and completely unaware of the spiritual realities around Elisha and him until…
… Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see”. And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.[note]2 Kin 6:17[/note]
I suspect his terror was replaced with some embarrassment at his lack of faith in God’s protection, but what is true in spiritual warfare is just as true in the spiritual building program of God. He is calling each and every one of us as “living stones” to find and take our proper place in the Temple made without hands. May God open our eyes too.
In summary of Acts 20:28, we see that elders are to be overseers and to shepherd the flock; there are no other offices such as “overseers” or “shepherds” as distinct from elders, since elders are labeled overseers and are commanded to shepherd by the Holy Spirit. With disciples and elders then, the churches are initially established.
In these churches, among the disciples and elders who are all “individually members” of the Body of Christ,62 there begin to emerge particular members with special gifts and abilities. This had happened in Paul’s first and sending church:
Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers.63
Paul explains the need for diversity of gifts:
If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?64
Every disciple can and should evangelise but some are clearly more gifted and/or motivated than usual, so they become recognised as evangelists. While all disciples can teach in some measure, only some display a special aptitude and ability and hence are teachers. Still others are used more consistently by the Holy Spirit to prophesy, though He clearly can use all, and only these come to be seen as prophets. Every believer can pray for the sick and the casting out of demons but only some specialise enough to be seen as having “gifts of healings” or “workers of miracles” and so on.65 There are therefore specialised members of the Body.
Some special members were appointed to physically help widows who, in those days before the Welfare State, had lost their family “bread-winner” and therefore needed the help of the church. This function of the church is described in Acts 6:1-6 and is today popularly, though not Biblically, thought to be the work of “deacons”. It is actually the work of “helps”.66 We will come to the deacons shortly.
Of course all of these gifts and abilities do not stop the particular members of the Body of Christ from being “members”, simply because they have special functions – they are still included in the overall designation of disciples, or saints. And these gifts can appear anywhere in the Body, the Holy Spirit “distributing to each one individually just as He wills”.
It is about now, when these gifts are functioning, that two other clearly defined functions of the Body appear, “deacons” and “apostles”.
While all disciples are called to serve God, some are called to be servants in a special way. In operating in their special gifting, they find that they are also called to leave their usual jobs or occupations in order to become servants of God, to serve Him in “full-time ministry”. Their ministry arises from their gift and eventually becomes inhibited by their “secular” work, so they leave that to others in order to “devote themselves to the ministry of the word”.67 They become thereby “ministers” or “deacons”. The word “minister” is from the Latin word for “servant”, which is the usual and ordinary meaning of the Greek, diakonos, from which we get our Anglicised version, the deacon. Despite present-day church tradition to the contrary, the Early Church’s “full-time ministries” were in those days called “diakonos” and they were the New Covenant equivalent of the Old Covenant Levites.68
This is why when Paul and Timothy wrote to the Philippians, they wrote: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons”69
As we have already seen, the overseers were also known as the elders, so in other words, the letter was addressed to all believers in Philippi, including the elders and the “Levites” or those in “full-time ministry”. This exact same pattern is seen in Paul’s letter to Timothy. In 1 Timothy, chapter 3, Paul tells us of the special members that need to be recognised among the saints in the church at Ephesus, and indeed the church of God anywhere: he describes the kind of people who should be accepted as “overseers” and “deacons”.
Because this does not accord with our traditions, we have usually overlooked this chapter as defining the whole structure of the church. However, Paul does not mention any other functions in how the church should be structured to most facilitate the royal priesthood of all the saints because there is no need for any others – these two terms cover them all. All the gifts can function within this structure.
… And “Apostles”
While this is all there is to the structure of the churches, or assemblies, there are some who because of their effectiveness or special giftings are called to leave the gatherings of the saints and go to other places where there are no saints:
Now there were at [Syrian] Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers… [and five are named including Paul and Barnabas]. And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.70
The two were from then on named as “apostles” but they had already been operating amongst the “prophets and teachers”. They went out from Antioch in Syria to the aforementioned cities of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch where they preached the gospel, made disciples of all who responded, and established new churches in each city.
Notice, then, that although any of the saints could be especially gifted, these primarily Gentile churches had the same structure as the Jewish believers on the Day of Pentecost:
(i) Disciples, or “brethren”
(ii) Overseers, or elders
(iii) Ministers, or those in “full-time ministry”
(iv) Apostles, or “those sent forth”
So this is the original hull of the sailing ship, the blue-print of the spiritual temple as the Scriptures show us. The church, as God plans it, is a very simple structure but must be seen through spiritual eyes to be properly appreciated. Like Elisha’s servant, we need our eyes opened to see it and Paul warns us:
… But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them for they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things…71
The beauty of this design, though, is that being spiritual rather than natural, it is thoroughly trans-cultural and able to be reproduced amongst the Jews or the Gentiles, as it was in Palestine, Asia Minor or Europe, and in the twenty first century as well as in the first.
(i) It is made up first and foremost only of disciples, otherwise known as brethren or saints, all who have been cleansed of their sins through faith in Jesus Christ as the King. The primary goal of any church is to be a local gathering of His dispersed “kingdom of priests”, a cooperating community of healthy, functioning saints, led by the Holy Spirit.
(ii) Among the saints are some called elders, who are older, more experienced or more mature in their character as believers. They are also known as overseers and are to shepherd the flock of God.
(iii) As the saints and elders continue to grow in the Lord, material needs may become apparent so some are appointed as “helps”.72 Special gifts of the Spirit become apparent in some, so that they can be recognised as prophets, evangelists, teachers, exhorters, healers etc.
(iv) In turn, some of these leave their usual jobs and occupations in order to have the time and opportunity to use these gifts more widely and effectively in “full-time ministry”. Those who work this way are “deacons” or ministers. Like the Levites of old, they are the servants of the rest of the priests, equipping them, and erecting and maintaining the structures for the priests to properly function.
(v) Some of those who are functioning well in their home assembly are called to leave and go where their particular gifts are most needed. Evangelists, or preachers of the gospel, are usually called to go where there are no believers; teachers, exhorters, prophets may be sent where there are believers who need their particular ministry. Those who go in this way are called apostles.
(vi) In turn, these apostles may begin new churches, assemblies of the newly converted disciples who grow and reproduce, eventually sending out new apostles, so that a chain-reaction is deliberately rather than providentially maintained.
What’s Stopping Us?
The earliest public messages of Jesus were summarised by Mark as: “the kingdom of God has arrived; repent and believe”.73 For God to truly be our King, we must seek His will in everything – we individually have to “repent”, that is to turn from our ways and our thoughts, and to “believe”, that is to trust in His ways and His thoughts.74 We all know that, but have we considered what He requires when we sin corporately, or as a group?
We each need to acknowledge that we have together gone wrong,75 and turn away from our own ways in our meetings and begin to trust in His will for us in our meetings. We need to exercise a collective faith to properly live and worship together.
For example, Paul says:
When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.76
Where any church does not believe in any of these things, they will not “let all things be done for edification”, despite the plain command of Scripture. Their collective faith and obedience is therefore deficient. But how can the issues be addressed? Not by coercion or decree but by winning individuals, leaders or not, to a more accurate understanding and belief. Of course, leaders will be held more liable by God. If most of the people in my church do believe in the things of the Spirit of God but I do not, and I have the status or position to hold it back, my church will suffer because of my lack of faith in the Scriptures; we will not receive in our church life the edification God was willing to provide through the church functioning and being structured properly. Our goal therefore is to win as many as possible to corporately “repent and believe”.
Where can we get this corporate repentance and faith? The same place that we get individual repentance and faith:
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.77
In order to have my own faith or conviction regarding any of the numerous issues we face individually, I have to seek the Lord Himself in prayer and fasting, Bible study and consultation with other believers, to find the will and word of God regarding each issue. Having found His word, I then have to exercise faith in it or it will be of no benefit to me:
… But the word they [Israel] heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.78
When it comes to structure therefore, we need in our churches to find together the will of God regarding that structure, by prayer, by fasting, Bible study and by consultation, and after finding His will, we together need to exercise our faith in that word and in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring it about through us.
As I see it, this is one of the greatest needs in the church today, since we either do not bother to search out the will of God in this matter from the Scriptures or we do not believe an ideal structure is possible. If we allow ourselves to continue in this way, we will be just like the Sadducees who were told by Jesus:
You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God.79
May this not be true of us.
Are Apostles Always Necessary to Start a Church?
Well, consider the home-church of Paul and Barnabas. That wasn’t started by apostles.
So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also…. and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.80
This wonderful church at Antioch, which became the missionary centre of the Early Church, was not “planted” according to a deliberate “missionary policy” of the Jerusalem church. It grew out of persecution, much as stamping on a fire can scatter embers that start other fires. “The persecution that arose in connection with Stephen” scattered disciples from Jerusalem, “except the apostles”.81 The Antioch revival among Jews and Greeks happened almost in spite of the church in Jerusalem, led by the Twelve. At the time,82 Peter was still trying to persuade them that Gentiles could be saved!
When the Jerusalem church heard of Antioch, and what had been accomplished by ordinary disciples, “men of Cyprus and Cyrene”, they sent Barnabas to encourage the new believers.83 He in turn went and got ahold of Paul who had gone home to Tarsus, and “for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers”.84 Finally, the Jerusalem church sent some prophets to minister to them as well.85
We see then that the church at Antioch was not started by apostles, even though it was later aided by the teaching of Barnabas and Paul and the prophesying of Agabus and others. It was started by some disciples fleeing persecution in Jerusalem.
It was until later that we see, as in Acts 13:1-2, apostles being sent out and planting churches. Barnabas was sent to Antioch to encourage and teach the new believers, though he is not specifically referred to as an apostle at that stage. It was from among the teachers and prophets of the Antioch church that Barnabas and Paul were sent out as apostles on their missionary journeys.
What About 1 Cor 12:28, “First Apostles”?
And God has appointed [lit. set some] in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, steerings, various kinds of tongues.
Some teach that this means first in order of importance but this whole passage is to be understood chronologically rather than hierarchically. For a church to exist, firstly someone has to be sent with the gospel. As Paul also says:
How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?86
This one sent first is “a preacher” or evangelist, whether the “preacher” is a disciple fleeing persecution or an apostle deliberately sent forth. Having won some to Christ, it is then important for the new disciples to be further established in the word of God since true disciples are defined as those who “abide in My word”.87 The word of God is to be heard both directly through prophecy (what God is saying now) and indirectly through teaching of the Scriptures (what God has said previously), so that the two sources are independent testimonies and check or confirm each other, so Paul writes “second prophets, third teachers”.
After the word is heard come the signs that attest to it, “then miracles, then gifts of healings”, thereby encouraging faith in that word.88 “Helps” cater to the material needs of the disciples, “steerings” and “various kinds of tongues” are gifts that are to function in the newly created assemblies of the believers. So there is a very clear chronological order to these functions rather than a hierarchy.
Obviously, a believer can function in just one calling, in several, or in many of the functions simultaneously or sequentially. It is these multiple callings that cause confusion, unless we are careful to maintain the distinctions between each of the callings as the Scriptures define them.
For example, Paul was first a disciple,89 and then described himself “a preacher and an apostle… as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth”,90 and a deacon or minister.91 In calling himself “a preacher and a teacher”, he was describing his special, indeed extraordinary, abilities in evangelising and teaching primarily the Gentiles, being eager to preach and teach where no one else had;92 “an apostle” describes his calling to travel in order to achieve this goal; as “a minister of the gospel”, he had left his tent-making in order to “devote himself completely to the word” he was preaching and teaching.93
On the other hand, Peter was a disciple, a preacher and an apostle primarily to the Jews,94 as well as one of the Twelve (i.e. a patriarch) and an elder or overseer of the church in Jerusalem.95 The apostle John also was an elder96 but Paul never describes himself as an elder, which is not surprising since elders need to consistently dwell with the flock they are shepherding.
- Isa 58:12 NASB
- 1 Cor 11:9
- Rev 18:7
- Rev 21:11, 1 Cor 11:7
- Eph 3:10-11 paraphrase
- W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary, p. 153
- John 5:30
- Luke 22:42
- 1 Cor 14:5
- vv. 24-25
- v. 31
- v. 29
- John 12:27-28
- 1 Tim 3:16
- v. 33
- Ex 40:34-35
- 1 Chron 28:19
- 2 Chron 5:13-14
- 1 Pet 2:5
- Acts 2:2-4
- Ex 19:6
- Ex 28, Deut 33:8-10
- 1 Pet 2:9
- Ex 33:18
- vv. 20-23
- 1 Cor 13:12, 15:54
- 1 Pet 2:9
- Eph 3:10-11, Rev 1:6
- Eph 4:12
- 1 Pet 2:5
- Heb 13:20
- John 7:17
- 1 Chron 28:19
- John 5:19
- Eph 3:9-10
- 2 Pet 3:15
- 1 Cor 14:26
- John 4:1-2
- Matt 10:1-2
- Acts 1:14-15
- v. 16
- Matt 23:8
- Acts 1:25
- Acts 1:20
- Rev 21:14
- Acts 1:21-22
- Acts 1:3
- Acts 13:43
- Acts 14:1
- Acts 14:19
- Acts 14:21
- Acts 14:22
- Acts 14:23 & 24
- Eccles 4:9
- Luke 10:1
- Titus 1:5
- Acts 14:23
- Acts 20:17
- Acts 20:28
- Luke 6:12-16
- John 10:1-18, 1 Pet 5:1-4
- 1 Cor 12:27
- Acts 13:1
- 1 Cor 12:17
- Rom 12:6-8, 1 Cor 12:28-30, Eph 4:11
- 1 Cor 12:28
- Acts 6:4, Acts 18:3-5
- 1 Cor 8:13-14
- Phil 1:1
- Acts 13:1-2
- 1 Cor 2:14-15)
- Acts 6:1-6
- Mark 1:15
- Isa 55:6-9
- Lev 4:13-21, Rev 2:5
- 1 Cor 14:26
- Rom 10:17
- Heb 4:2
- Matt 22:29
- Acts 11:19-20
- Acts 8:1
- See Acts 11:1-18
- Acts 11:22
- Acts 11:26
- Acts 11:27
- Rom 10:14-15
- John 8:31
- Mark 16:20
- Acts 9:18
- 1 Tim 2:7
- Col 1:23-25
- Rom 15:20
- Acts 18:5
- Gal 2:8
- 1 Pet 5:1
- 2 John 1, 3 John 1