The Organization of the Lord’s Church

It shouldn’t surprise the Bible student that the Lord has given a pattern for the church. In the construction of both the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 25-31) and the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 28:11,12,19) patterns were given by God. And so also in the New Testament Temple (the church, Ephesians 2:20-22 & 1 Corinthians 3:16) a pattern has been given:

  • for entrance (e.g., Romans 6;17 & Acts 2:47),
  • for worship (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:1-33),
  • for mission (e.g., Mark 16:15,16),
  • for holiness (e.g., 1 Peter 1:15,16),
  • for unity (e.g., Ephesians 4:1-6 & 1 Corinthians 3:16,17), and
  • for leadership and organization (e.g., Ephesians 4:7-16).

And part of that pattern of leadership and organization includes the establishment of elders (e.g., Titus 1:5 & Acts 14:22-23).

Some churches follow the Biblical pattern for church organization, others don’t. We might categorize how men organize churches in four different ways.

Scripturally organized—As Paul sat in prison for his faith, he was determined that his mission of planting and nurturing churches not be stopped, he wrote instructions for both Timothy and Titus about how to encourage and organize new gatherings of disciples into functional churches. These instructions included the appointment of elders and deacons as part of a pattern of church organization. Churches that follow this pattern are Scripturally organized flocks of believers in Jesus, and this is the Lord’s desire for us.

Scripturally unorganized—Of course, New Testament churches don’t start full grown and mature. As Paul went through southern Turkey and established churches there, they were, for a while, without elders and deacons. As Paul doubled back on his mission route and returned to these new churches, he established elders in every city (Acts 14:22,23). He was able to do this, because he gone first to the local synagogue and was able to convert already Biblically educated, morally upright, and spiritually practiced Jewish men to fill that position. Not every group of believers has that advantage in our age; many smaller churches are without qualified elders for many years. Such churches remain Scripturally unorganized led by the men of the church, often by traditional customs like business meetings. It is not ideal, in the same way that we want our children to mature and grow up, but it remains within the pattern of the New Testament.

Unscripturally organized—Then there are those who have chosen to organize their churches by worldly wisdom. One of the more popular unscriptural organizations is pyramids—pyramids of bishops overseeing thousands of congregations with a human at the top overseeing them all. These pyramids come in a variety of “flavors”, the most famous being centered in Rome. Other unscriptural organization would include women in leadership positions, “open fellowship” leadership, and the appointment of unqualified leaders (see 1 Tim. 3). Such organizations (“churches”?) have clearly added to and departed from the Biblical pattern—unscripturally organized.

Unscripturally unorganized—Then there are churches who give lip service to following the Biblical pattern; but who deliberately neglect the appointment of elders and deacons, when there are qualified men willing to serve. The motivations for this neglect are various; but the end result is an unscripturally unorganized church, a stunted body of Christ, and one disobedient to the will of God. If the church has men who are both qualified and willing to shepherd God’s flock, they should be appointed and followed (see the above scriptures).

God has indeed given us a plan for His New Testament Temple, the church. Let us, as faithful disciples, humbly submit to His will and wisdom, and let us organize His church His way.

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Jeroboam Consulted

Jeroboam was a rising star in Solomon’s kingdom. He was an Ephraimite who had been a valiant warrior in Solomon’s army, and his hard work had won him a position as overseer over the forced labor in Ephraim. Moreover, God found virtue in him and, through the prophet Ahijah, promised to give him the northern ten tribes of Israel after Solomon’s death. God even gave him a promise, one very much like the one he gave to David…

“I will take you, and you shall reign over whatever you desire, and you shall be king over Israel. Then it will be, that if you listen to all that I command you and walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight by observing My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build you an enduring house as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you.” 1 Kings 11:37, 38, NAS95.

So, when Solomon died, Jeroboam was given the lion’s share of the great kingdom of Solomon—just the way that God had promised. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, reigned over only Judah and Benjamin.

But no sooner had Jeroboam settled into his new throne and kingdom than he began to worry.

“Jeroboam said in his heart, ‘Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.’ So the king consulted…” 1 Kings 12:26-28, NAS95.

Who you consult with makes a difference

We’re not told who he consulted with. If it were modern times, he might have consulted with a special political consulting firm, pollsters, cultural critics, a PR firm, or perhaps with the fastest growing kingdoms in the area to find out what they’re doing.

But whoever they were, they came in with some “whiz-bang” ideas:

  • Bring in visuals (some golden calves to represent the LORD), because worshipping an invisible God is really weird — everyone likes to see what they’re praying to.
  • If you really want better attendance, especially from the northern tribes, you need to put the place of worship closer to the people—at least two, one in Dan and one in Bethel.
  • And a priesthood drawn exclusively from the Levites is really very narrow and out of step with the rest of the religious world. Let’s open up the priesthood to others.
  • And lastly, the timing of the Day of Atonement is kind of inconvenient; if you really want attendance in Dan and Bethel, make this holy day about a month later than the old one.

That’s all; no big changes, just little tweaks to the pattern to be more relevant to the masses (see 1 Kings 12:28-33).

Now, although we don’t know for sure who Jeroboam consulted with; we do know that he didn’t consult with the one person he should have consulted with—God. As the inspired prophets wrote the rest of the history of the deepening corruption of the kingdom of Israel (1 & 2 Kings), the phrase “the sins of Jeroboam” is repeated over 22 times. Jeroboam’s kingdom did not last, and he became known as the origin of Israel’s fall from God and the poster-boy of disobedient kings.

But what if…

What if he’d just trusted the promise of God? I believe God would have kept His promises; He always does. I believe that Israel would have stayed with Jeroboam, the kingdom would have grown stronger, and Jeroboam would likely have lived a long life reigning over a glorious and influential kingdom. Instead of his name becoming a byword for idolatry, we’d be talking about Jeroboam like we talk about David.

Modern Jeroboams

There is also fear in the hearts of many of today’s preachers and elders—modern day leaders, contemporary Jeroboams, if you will. They are sometimes anxious over the reports that the church is shrinking, that young people are leaving, that the church isn’t reaching the lost, and that we’re becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the world. So they consult—often with the wrong advisors: pollsters, PR firms, denominational mega-church consultants, and the latest church growth fads. These consultants often suggest:

  • Make worship more entertaining and appealing to people
  • Let women lead the congregation in worship
  • Introduce instruments and bands to the worship
  • Talk less about sin and the Bible, and more about feelings and “relevant” issues of the day
  • And don’t worry, we won’t touch “salvation issues” (yet)

But what if the modern, anxious Jeroboams just consulted with God instead. What if they just trusted God’s word and His pattern? What if church leaders just trusted that the Gospel is just as powerful today as it ever was? What if they accepted the tragic truth that sometimes men just reject the Gospel (just like some men did in the first century)? And what if they just refused to change the Biblical pattern? I believe that the church would continue to exist, to thrive, and to grow strong, glorious, and influential—even as the world opposes it. I believe that instead of being called to account for caving in to the world’s “wisdom”, that such leaders would be spoken of in Heaven like the other heroes of God’s people who stood firm with God’s “foolishness”.

It’s OK to be concerned about fulfilling the Lord’s mission about evangelism and the strength of the church; let’s just look for consultation in the right place, God’s word.

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The Sacred Honor of Service

The world usually doesn’t use the words “honor” and “service” in the same breath. The world doesn’t like to serve, and often considers it a bother and a burden rather than an honor, when it must serve. Honor, the world thinks, is found in being served; and so it pushes and shoves, claws and fights for the top of the pyramid. Sometimes it is through words or law or manipulation and sometimes it is through actual fighting and war. To serve another is considered proof of inferiority—inferiority of station, money, or strength. Thus, everyone in the world wants their own way, wants to call all the shots, wants others to do their bidding.

But Jesus came and modeled a whole new understanding about service. Though equal to the Father, He willingly served the Father’s will. And despite being far, far greater than any man, Jesus washed the feet of men (John 13), healed their sicknesses (Matt. 8:2,3), and died for their (our) sins (2 Cor. 5:21). And He taught, “…’If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:35). In the Kingdom of God there is not only honor in service; there is sacred honor.

It was David’s sacred honor and role to serve in the army of king Saul, in spite of the fact that he had already been anointed and was arguably a superior warrior and leader. It was Jonathan’s sacred honor and role to yield the throne he was supposed to occupy by inheritance to David, because of God’s choice. John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy of the great Elijah’s return, but even so, it was his sacred honor to step aside in service to Jesus as Messiah and recognize his role as the forerunner to Someone whose sandals he was unworthy to untie.

In the broader world, it is the ruler’s sacred honor to serve the needs of his country and his people (for which he will give an account to God, Daniel 5:24-29), and the people’s sacred honor to serve their rulers (Romans 13:1ff). Commanded by God.

In the family, it is the husband’s sacred honor and role to serve the needs of his family. It is wife’s sacred honor and role to submit to her husband and meet the needs of her children. It is the children’s sacred honor to serve their parents through obedience and to honor them when they grow old. (See Ephesians 5:22—6:4.)

In the church, it is the elders’ (Acts 20:28-32), preacher’s (2 Timothy 4:1-5), and deacons’ (1 Timothy 3:13) sacred honor to serve the spiritual and physical needs of their congregation. It is the congregation’s sacred honor to serve one another and obey their leaders as they follow the Lord (Hebrews 13:17). And it is the brothers’ role of service in the church to lead in worship and teaching, while it is the sisters’ role of service to either follow the men (as they follow the Lord) or lead other sisters and children, not exercising authority over men (1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-40).

Even the Father in Heaven serves. Daily filling us with gracious blessings too many to list. Yes, there is a sacred honor in service that makes this life a little taste of Heaven, when we fill our roles.

Yet, some still chafe at the idea of service and roles. Certainly the world, but Christians, too.

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Being Ananias

Ananias doesn’t get a lot of sermons done about him. I’ve never read a bulletin article about him. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of a church named “St. Ananias”. But he played a key role in one of the most important events of Gentile Christianity; Ananias was the man who baptized the apostle Paul. And there’s some important things we can learn from his brief but crucial mention in the Bible.

Getting a Scary Assignment
Saul of Tarsus had quite an anti-Christian reputation. It may have not been widely known that Saul had held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, but word of mouth had already carried the news among the disciples of Jesus in Damascus that he was on his way to the city to arrest, imprison, and persecute anyone who had believed in Jesus. He was clearly someone to avoid at all costs. And Ananias had planned to avoid him.

That is, until the Lord came to him with an assignment: “‘Ananias…Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:10-12). But Ananias objected, “…Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name” (Acts 9:13, 14). Can you blame him?

Can you identify? Of course, we seldom get an assignment from the Lord so fraught with danger, but we still have a similar assignment that tends to scare many of us almost to death, “Go make disciples…”

Showing Faith and Showing Up
Brave Ananias, however, didn’t make excuses, didn’t put it off, and didn’t wait for someone else to do it. Ananias takes, no doubt, a deep breath and heads off to Straight Street, asking for a certain Judas with a guest named Saul. He acts in faith, not knowing exactly how it would turn out—he might have been walking right into martyrdom for all he knew.

Of course, it could be argued that the Lord gave him extra motivation: “…Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15, 16). But who’s to say that the person that you need to speak to about the Gospel won’t also have a very important purpose in the Lord’s plan.

Showing faith and showing up is all the Lord is looking for from us, too.

Showing Love
Knowing who Saul of Tarsus was, knowing what he’d done, knowing why he’d come to Damascus, it’s easy to imagine that not only was Ananias anxious, but perhaps even a little angry. But none of that showed. Notice that he laid his hands on him (in a healing way) and said, “…Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17). Brother? Regain your sight? I can only imagine how those gestures of love from one of those “hated Christians” must have effected the now conscience-stricken Saul.

And there’s another great lesson here, too. Love is the key to effective evangelism. Love for the sinner; love for the Savior; love of God’s grace. As the saying goes, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Following Through
Once telling Saul what he needed to do to be saved (“Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” Acts 22:16), Ananias baptized Saul and it is implied that he fed him (v. 19). But there had to have been more, because Ananias would have been the only disciple of Jesus who would have trusted him, at least at first. Ananias introduced him to other Christians, who fellowshipped with Saul and gave him at least encouragement, if not a few Jesus-stories, before he began proclaiming Jesus as Lord in the synagogues in Damascus.

The lost need the message, certainly, but they also need you. You. Your care, your fellowship, your introductions to brothers and sisters, your encouragement, your help, your friendship.

There’s no doubt about it, the Lord chose the right guy, when he chose Ananias. A man of courage, faith, love, and follow through.

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A Cappella Obedience—What Happened?

For the first 1000 years after Jesus came and established His church, all those who claimed the name of Jesus worshipped the Lord in song with voice only. This was not simply a tradition, but rather was it was practiced as obedience to the Lord’s com- mand on the basis of the meaning of the Greek word used in Scripture—we’d spell the word in English “ado”.

The apostolic church (from the church’s beginning to about 100AD) understood the word as meaning vocal singing only. The patristic church (about 100AD to 451AD) understood “ado” the same way, never used instruments, and rebuked the few in this era who attempted to introduce them. It wasn’t until about 1000AD that the Roman church began to use instruments. The eastern church (still largely speaking Greek) continues to understand “ado” (to the present day) to mean to sing vocally only. And when the Protestant Reformers (about 1500AD forward) led men out of Roman Catholicism they, studying and understanding the Greek, uniformly rejected instrumental music until about 1800AD. No small wonder, then, that vocal only singing became known as a cappella (Latin for “in the manner of the church”).

So what happened? How did we get to the point where churches of Christ, the Greek Orthodox Church, and a few others are the only ones who don’t use instruments these days? The attempts at justification have been many.

“It sounds good”—There’s really only one word needed to refute this reason, “irrelevant”. Be- cause what’s pleasing to man is not always pleasing to God. When God declares His command and preference (a cappella), the loving disciple gladly just obeys.

“Instruments were used in the Old Testament”—Of course; and so were animal sacrifices, food restrictions, Sabbath observance, and other shadows of Mosaic Law. But we are under a new covenant. A famous theologian put it simply, “Musical instruments, in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, or the restoration of the other shadows of the Law.”

“It’s just a tradition”—Merely calling a cappella song in worship a tradition, doesn’t make it so; and mis-labeling it as a tradition betrays either a dangerous weakness of Bible knowledge or a straightforward attempt to dismiss a Biblical teaching. Traditions are man-made rules, and therefore dismissible. Commands (and this is a direct command: Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) are God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16,17), and therefore not dismissible. Singing a cappella is the Lord’s command, not a tradition.

“God didn’t say we couldn’t”—Specific commands automatically eliminate all other possibilities, and “ado” is a specific kind of singing, eliminating other kinds. Can you imagine how big the Bible would be, if God had to list all the specific things He doesn’t want us to do?

“There are harps in Revelation”—Yes, but in three of the four places they are mentioned, the references are 1) scenes full of imagery, symbols, and apocalyptic language, and 2) always in Heaven (not earth). The other is in reference to the secular world. Using Revelation to justify instruments in worship in the church is a mishandling of Scripture.

And it is no small matter. It is a fellowship issue. Practically speaking, those who obey the command to sing a cappella in worship will have difficulty worshipping in the same assembly with those who are using the instrument. But even beyond this, the Scripture teaches, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds,” 2 John 1:10, 11.

Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” John 14:15. Let’s love Jesus with our obedience.

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What’s a “Salvation Issue”?

Denominational theologians use the phrase in the religious world to try to smooth over the deep doctrinal divides between religious groups. Sometimes even leaders in the Lord’s church have used the phrase in an attempt to avoid splits and divisions. But what is it?

The phrase “salvation issue” (never used in Scripture) refers to teachings about how to become a Christian. In the denominational world “salvation issue” usually refers to “believing in God the Father and Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God”. All other teachings get demoted to the “they don’t matter” category, because they’re not “salvation issues”.

In the Lord’s church there are those who will sometimes defend a controversial teaching by suggesting to everyone that it is not a “salvation issue”. And this is precisely where faithful disciples need to ask the question, “How would the Lord define a ‘salvation issue’?”

There are three categories into which most Christian teachings will fall: traditions, opinions, and commands.

Traditions are a set of teachings that leaders pass on to their students to help them keep God’s law, and they can be very helpful (1 Cor. 11:2 / 2 Thess. 2:15 / 2 Thess. 3:6) as long as they aren’t being taught as God’s commands (Matt. 15:1-9).

Opinions (aka, judgments, liberties, or even conscience) include a wide range of persuasions that we humans hold about how to obey the Lord; they can include tastes, cultural norms, human “think-so”, scruples, or someone’s experience-informed conclusions.

We are allowed by God’s word to hold traditions and opinions as long as they lie within the boundaries of God’s pattern and don’t become divisive. But as we hold them we must remember that traditions and opinions—according to the Lord (e.g., Matt. 15:1-9 / 1 Cor. 8-10)—are not binding and can be altered or changed.

To illustrate, we are commanded to meet on the first day of the week, but each congregation has its own traditions about meeting times and meeting places. Some congregations (for example, Italians) hold to a tradition that uses fermented wine for the Lord’s supper, while others (for example, the U.S.) hold to a tradition of unfermented “new wine”. And some hold the opinion Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated, while others do celebrate. These traditions and opinions are not matters upon which our salvation might be endangered—“salvation issues”.

Commands, on the other hand, are a different category. A command can be recognized through direct command, necessary inference, or approved example; and once a command is given through God’s word, it is neither changeable nor optional. It simply needs to be obeyed. And obedience is important (Matt. 7:21ff). The very definition of sin is disobedience to the Lord’s command (e.g., Lev. 26:21; Isa. 42:24; Rom. 6:16).

And obedience to the Lord’s commands is why the meaning of “salvation issue” needs to be reexamined by those who use it. The Scripture teaches us: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,” Hebrews 10:26. Willful, deliberate disobedience in a Christian, according to this very clear, inspired verse, will result in no further forgiveness for sins. This makes the many Biblical teachings beyond “faith, repentance, confession, and baptism” into “salvation issues”, too—including some of the hotter worship topics of our day, a cappella singing and male leadership.

While some might want to limit “salvation issues” to only what one must initially do to be saved, the rest of God’s will cannot be demoted and dismissed so quickly. The truth is that obedience is a salvation issue.

Park Linscomb

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Who Has the Words of Eternal Life?

Jesus had been teaching, healing, and feeding the people. His fame had spread all over Galilee, and tremendous crowds were following Him. But many were following for the wrong reasons; they wanted to make Him a political king, because He fed them. So Jesus found it necessary to winnow out those with the wrong motivations by teaching “hard” things. And it had the desired effect; for this reason, the Scriptures say, many stopped following Him (John 6:66). And then Jesus asks His closest disciples (the twelve) a curious, but necessary question, “…You do not want to go away also, do you?” John 6:67.

I can’t help but wonder about the specific reason that Jesus said this. The fact that Jesus asked this question in response to so many walking away makes me suspect that Jesus realized the social impact that this mass exodus was having on the apostles. Maybe it was the look of disappointment on the faces of the apostles that so many were leaving. Maybe the apostles were getting too excited about the numbers, the size of Jesus’ movement, the prospects of a physical kingdom—and then watched as Jesus deliberately said shocking things that sent lots of them home. Perhaps Jesus’ words had shocked even some of the apostles enough that, especially combined with the crowds leaving, they had begun to wonder if they hadn’t made a mistake about Jesus being Messiah.

Thank God for Peter, who gave the right answer, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” John 6:68.

Relationships are powerful things in our lives. Whether marriage, children, family, friends, colleagues, peers, neighbors, or society at large; our relationships are all powerful influences in what we think, how we feel, what we do, what we accept, and what we reject. Consequently, they can either have an influence for good in our lives or be a stumbling block for evil.

In 40 plus years of ministry I’ve observed with heartbreak as husbands and wives were being led away from the Lord because of an unbelieving spouse; as parents deserted the Lord, because their children left Him; as children followed a worldly path, because parents were weak and uncommitted in their discipleship; as Christians left the faith, because friends or colleagues tempted them and scorned them when they resisted; and even as church leaders have strayed off course, because society doesn’t accept Jesus’ teachings as they are given to us in the Bible. Satan has many proxies in this world, who he uses to great effect in his war against the Lord’s people.

It is the reason why the Lord forbade marriage to foreigners (Deuteronomy 7:3). Why Israel was forbidden to make any covenant with the Gentiles (Exodus 23:32,33). And why Paul warned the Corinthian Christians about being bound together with an unbeliever (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Those with whom we associate can strongly influence us.

This is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t have any association with unbelievers at all; how else how could we share the Good News with the lost?

But it is to say that we as Christians need to steel ourselves against the influences of the world around us, and we must be the stronger influences. We need to stand convinced that the Bible is right and that what the world proclaims is not. We need to remind ourselves that our loyalty must be to the Lord first and foremost, far above all other ties. We need to remember the words of the Peter not only when he said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life,” but also when he said, “…We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5:29.

It’s a common parent / child scenario:

Child: “But mom/dad everybody’s doing it!”

Parent: “If everybody jumped off the bridge, would you want to do that, too?”

It’s an answer that should ring in our ears especially, when it comes to spiritual matters: “If everybody jumped off a spiritual bridge, would you want to do that, too?” Hopefully, not.

Jesus may not have the key to popularity, but He does have the words of eternal life. Follow Him!

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