Church Framing

There are beliefs that we take for granted. We absorb them from our parents, friends, and society. They are not analyzed because they are assumed to be true. One of those beliefs is our understanding of church structure. I was recently in a conversation with a "pastor" who said that the church should be lead by "a male in a plurality of elders." The problem with this perspective is that there is no biblical evidence for it. There is nothing to indicate that there is a primary leader of any church, except for Jesus Christ. That same week I was in another conversation with someone and they mentioned that they don't identify overseers at their church. This practice also does not follow the pattern found in Scripture of identifying overseers by their qualifications. Both of these conversations inspired me to look more closely at how a church actually should be organized.

The minimum structure of a church is fairly straightforward, there are overseers (elders), deacons, and saints (people). Paul recognizes this structure in the opening verse to the church in Philippi. "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (Phil. 1:1)." The qualifications for overseers are found in 1 Timothy 3:17 and Titus 1:5-9. The qualifications for deacons are found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Paul also clarifies the purpose of this structure in the following verses:
I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
A church that operates according to God's principles displays the righteousness and glory of God. It is important to remember that truth is not learned by logic alone, but by demonstration of that logic. In any case, it is worthwhile to consider God's direction regarding church structure.

Although the Bible lays out the qualifications of an overseer in great detail, it does not layout the responsibilities in the same way. An overseer by definition is responsible for making sure things are done properly. Overseers are specifically responsible for teaching, preaching, correcting, and rebuking.
He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). 
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour especially those who labour in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17).
Not all overseers (elders) need to teach and preach publicly, but they are still responsible for the doctrine of the church and must be able to teach. This is the primary responsibility for overseers.

A deacon is a servant of the church. This word has a broad usage and is used to refer to men, women, Jesus and even the government (Rom. 13:4), so it should be understood with caution. The qualifications for deacons specify that they should be men, but their responsibilities are undisclosed. The only clue we have regarding the responsibilities of deacons is found in Acts.
"It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty (Acts 6:2-3).
Therefore, a deacon is not responsible for the doctrine of a church, but for carrying out the practical activities that are a part of a church.

Overseers are appointed to protect the saints from men who are false teachers. Paul makes this clear when he talks to the overseers at Ephesus.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).
Deacons are most likely appointed for this same purpose, although the Bible never explicitly says that. Making sure that leaders have the right qualifications is very important to keeping the wolves out of the sheep pen. Does this mean that only overseers and deacons can preach, teach, and serve in the church?

No, the Bible never says that. For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 it indicates that any man can participate, teaching included, when the church comes together as long as it is done in an orderly fashion. The responsibilities of overseers and deacons are not limited, but they are also not exclusive. Although they have the primary responsibility, they are free to allow others to use their gifts according to scriptural principles.

Is it wrong to not have appointed overseers? I don't think it is wrong, but it is not what God told us to do. What is the point of having qualifications if we are not going to evaluate leaders accordingly? The problem with not appointed leaders is that it easier for unqualified wolves come in and twist the truth. It has amazed me over the years to see the number of influential leaders who do not have the proper qualifications, yet are still given the office of leadership. The result is never a surprise.

Is it wrong to have one leader in a church? I don't think it is wrong, but it is not healthy. By nature we all think we are right, and it is only by talking to somebody with a different perspective that we come to a complete knowledge of the truth. Truth is sharpened in conflict. All too often we rely on one person's interpretation and do not properly understand the truth for ourselves.

A healthy church should have multiple overseers and deacons who meet the qualifications that are outlined in the Bible. Overseers and deacons who do not meet these qualifications should be removed because if they are not they will most likely leave the pen open for the wolves, if they are not part of the pack themselves. Perhaps the reason that the responsibilities of overseers and deacons are not enumerated in detail is because they will know what they are responsible for, if they have the right qualifications. After all it is the Spirit that is building the church (Eph. 2:21). A church is like a house. The foundation of the church is Christ Jesus and the apostles (Eph. 2:20), but the framing is the overseers and deacons. However, none of the trades can do their jobs properly if the framing is not right.


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