What does the Bible say about the organizational structure of a church?
The Bible offers many principles regarding church structure within the New Testament. These include its ultimate leader, its human leaders, its members, and its relationship with other churches.
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First, the head of the church is Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:22 clearly teaches, "And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church." He is the great shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) and leader of the flock of God.
Second, the New Testament notes the existence of two groups of human leaders—elders and deacons. The qualifications for these offices are described in 1 Timothy 3:1-12 and Titus 1:5-9. First Peter 5:1-4 also teaches elders are to serve as shepherds of God's people and to live as examples among them.
Third, the New Testament recognizes the importance of church members. Members include every person in a local church who has professed faith in Jesus Christ. Every member is expected to regularly gather together (Hebrews 10:25), to grow (Acts 2:42), serve others, and share their faith. First Corinthians 12 notes that every member is to be involved in service for an effective congregation. Ephesians 4:11-12 notes church leaders exist to equip members for service.
Fourth, churches are to live in harmony with other Bible-believing churches and to live as salt and light to the unbelieving world. The early churches shared the same core beliefs and often helped one another through finances or encouragement, serving as an example for today's churches. Matthew 5:14-16 teaches, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Further, local churches served with much autonomy in the New Testament. In other words, each local church was ultimately responsible for its decisions.
Within these guidelines, four main models of church structure have developed. First, the episcopal model includes churches in which church leaders are appointed by the denomination. Second, the Presbyterian or elder led model includes the church selecting elders who represent the church as decision makers. Third, the congregational model includes the church body voting to determine both the church's leadership and other key decisions. Fourth, the non-governmental model includes churches with no formal structure such as house churches.
So long as the four guidelines above are applied in church structure, much flexibility exists for a local church to choose its leaders and effectively lead and live as a church family. The church is a family whose structure should exist to honor God and help people grow in the Lord.
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