To understand church organization, we need to firstly consider the definition of organization. Several definitions have been stated: H.W. Byme, defines organization as “the breaking down of the responsibility of the group as a whole into parts which can be assigned to individuals and committees.”1 Arthur Merrihew Adams defines it as ‘the process of defining the activities of an enterprise, establishing the responsibilities and relationships of the persons involved, in order to accomplish the ends of the group.’2 Lloyd Perry puts it as “the strengthening of those human processes or organizations which improve the functioning of the organization so that it achieves its objectives.”3
The three definitions of organization lend insight into the constituents of church organization. It is the establishing or defining of the responsibilities of the church. It is the equipping of human resources in the church for the undertaking of responsibilities, with the scope for improvement in functioning. It is the delegating or assigning of responsibilities to equip responsible individuals and committees. It is the planning, organizing and controlling of activities for the achieving of a specified end.
Human resource plays a key role in church organization. Paul speaks of the church as a body of Christ and he expressed the concept in the following way: “From whom the whole body, fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:16; 2:21). It is simply the integration of the combination of joints and parts into one united whole so that together all can work as one unit effectively and harmoniously.
The Scope of Church Organization
1. The New Testament Church Pattern
Over the years, there have been those who had maintained that any organization within the church is a matter of spiritual decline from the original practice and pattern of the church. The New Testament church, it is held, was directly dependent upon the guiding of the Holy Spirit, and so it had no need of an organizational structure. Others have felt that even with the New Testament itself, we have a development from the original, free and unstructured ideal (such we might find reflected in the Corinthians correspondence) to the rather more realistic organization with church officers and a systematic way of executing church matters as we find in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus.
The New Testament letters and Acts of the Apostles give us views of how the organization of the church started. In Acts 2:42-47, the apostles and other believers met together and taught the new converts. They celebrated the Lord’s Supper. They also lived out of a common fund, in Jerusalem at least. In Acts 6:1-7, we see them organizing themselves for efficiency.
They also set apart and commissioned their missionaries (Acts 13:2). They made collections for poorer churches and sent the gifts with specially appointed church delegates. (Acts 11:27-30). They called a representative Council to settle church issues. (Acts 15:1-21). At Ephesus there was order in the conduct of affairs regarding widows: (1 Tim. 5:1-11).
2. The Historic Church Pattern
The New Testament gives us three classes of men that are considered officials of the local church: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. According to acts 6:1-6, the deacons took care of material and financial side of the Church’s programmes e.g. the collection and distribution of relief. The bishops and the presbyters regulated the spiritual aspect of the church’s work, its worship and discipline. The qualification of the bishops and the deacons are given in 1 Timothy 3.
In the second century, we see the rise of what the late bishop Charles Gore called “Monepiscopacy”, that is the rule of the one bishop in each congregation.4
The beginning of this movement towards the rule of a single bishop is reflected in the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch whose writing probably dated from the second decade of the second Century.5 Ralph G Tumbull quotes F C Grant who made the following comment: “In the Epistle of Ignatius the “Monarchical” bishop makes his appearance; Ignatius is ardent and indefatigable in urging his rights and claims that we suspect he cannot have been very long established in his supreme position of authority, even in his own church in Antioch..”6
The movement towards “Monepiscopacy” gathered momentum so rapidly that by the end of the second century it was the standard pattern of church government throughout Christendom. That is to say, each congregation was governed by a bishop, a body of presbyters, and a board of deacons. In the latter part of the third century, a development began whereby the bishop of the Chief City in any province tended to become principal bishop of that province. In the sixth century the bishops of the five chief cities of Christendom – Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome – were accorded the title patriarch. Their leadership extended over the adjacent territories, and included the right to ordaining the metropolitan bishops under them, of trying these metropolitans when they were accused and of hearing appeals from their judgments.7 This means that the church was becoming organized on hierarchical line.
Among the five patriarchal bishops two became the chief: the bishops of Rome and Constantinople. The bishop of Constantinople derived importance from the fact that his city was the capital of the Roman Empire, the only such capital city after the downfall of the Roman Empire in the West in AD 476. During this time, Rome was important from the Christian point of view, the reason being that it was the only church in the West of undoubted apostolic origin, because it was associated with Peter and Paul, and because its bishops were usually found in theological dispute on the side which finally won acceptance as orthodox.