Mr. Donald L. Norbie of Greely, Colorado, a frequent contributor to FOCUS, serves the Lord in assembly building and student work.
Every man who begins a church has some model in mind. There is an ideal in his thinking that motivates him. Various denominations have different models.
As Paul went into Corinth he had a goal to build a temple for God. He too had a model, a plan, to follow. He later wrote, “According to the grace of God which is given unto me as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon” (1 Cor. 3:10). In later years Paul was deeply concerned that there be no deviation from God’s pattern (1 Cor. 14:37) .
In the 1800’s, as the assembly movement took root in Canada and the United States, those pioneering preachers too, had a model. They felt very keenly that they must follow the simple plan of the early churches.
What were some characteristics of the model they envisaged? The true Gospel of grace must be preached. Baptism should follow a profession of faith. The local assembly should welcome all who love the Lord and are not morally disqualified. The assembly was viewed as a family united by spiritual ties rather than as an organization with a formal membership.
The Lord’s Supper and teaching were emphasized. A strong stress was placed upon worship. All men were encouraged to participate verbally in prayer and worship. All believers were viewed as priests.
Gifts were encouraged. Young men were given opportunity to speak. If they showed gift for preaching or teaching, these were further encouraged.
The preacher who started a work had a goal of turning it over to local elders. His aim was to see other works begin and weak assemblies strengthened. Some of his work was itinerant. He never envisaged giving his time exclusively to one assembly on a permanent basis. Most assemblies tended to be smaller than denominational churches.
Today a different model is being advanced as more practical and efficient. Smaller assemblies are viewed as weak and ineffective. The goal now is a large assembly of two hundred or more.
As groups get larger they tend to function as organizations rather than as families. Administration becomes complex. It is more difficult for elders with regular employment to handle such a work. One or more permanent full-time workers are viewed as indispensible. And the tendency of the professional staff is to grow.
Increasingly, in the larger assembly, more occupy a passive role. Good speakers are needed to hold a large audience. One hour at the breaking of bread means only a handful of all the men can participate. But the numbers are large and the crowd is exciting.
Let us not deceive ourselves. These two models are different. But how do we choose? Is it all a matter of personal preference?
In the June 1980 HIS magazine Virginia Owens writes:
“The only question admitted as valid by the pragmatist is ‘does it work?’ yet never before have we so desperately needed some guide, some scale of judgment for determining on grounds other than pragmatism, what is fitting and proper, in the original sense of that word, to an expression of the Christian faith” (p. 19).
If one is committed to the principle that the New Testament church is not an anachronism, but a valid pattern for today, then he must discover the principles that guided the first century churches. Pragmatism is not his guiding philosophy.
The cradle of the early church was the synagogue, as Edersheim put it. Too often men view the early church through the spectacles of current church practice. One will get a much truer picture if he studies the synagogue first.
The synagogue movement was widespread throughout the Roman Empire in the first century. Wherever a Jewish settlement was found, there was a gathering for worship and instruction. The leadership was by elders. There was no clergy class; any man might speak if he had a message from God. This was where Jesus learned the Word and sharpened His teaching gift (Luke 4:16). He, a lowly carpenter, could address the congregation in Nazareth.
All of these elders worked; all had employment. No elders were supported by the local congregation. This then was the practice of Jewish synagogues.
The question is, “Did the early apostles establish a similar elderhood?”
The early apostles or missionaries (the term is often used in this sense) viewed their ministry as wider than the local church. Paul spoke of “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Their ministry was partially itinerant, “in journeyings often” (2 Cor. 11:26). They were a unifying force between churches which had no external organization binding them together.
When an apostle left a church he had established, he appointed no one elder to take his place. No local elder was encouraged to quit work to serve the assembly. To the contrary Paul worked at times to encourage elders to do the same. “I have showed you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak …” (Acts 20:35). Peter writes to elders in the same tenor, “Feed the flock of God … willingly, not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind” (1 Peter 5:2).
Some would try to find justification in 1 Timothy 5:17 for the practice of giving a salary to a local elder, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor…” If this is a salary it is a complete break with synagogue practice and the other teaching of the New Testament.
“As for time, this word never means wages, pay, hire, which are misthos …” (p. 681).
“It is generally assumed that the elders were paid for their services in the apostolic churches. We are convinced that this assumption is not tenable. The probability is that none of them were paid. The elders of the synagogue were not paid or salaried” (p. 683 — R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon. Columbus, Ohio: Wortburg Press, 1946).
Lenski is right concerning the early church. Missionaries (apostles) lived by faith, supported by God’s people. Local elders were expected to earn their living and to shepherd the flock in their spare time. By sharing responsibilities the needs of the flock could be met.
Let us not play word games. One may choose the type of church organization he wishes. But we are not free to claim New Testament precedent for such if we depart from this simple pattern, and this writer is convinced God’s ways are best for His people, and for His glory.