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Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple and to breaking bread in their homes. Acts 2:46a

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Are you sure? I have read many years that there is nothing whatsoever to do. Simply "be". Or just "be the church".  :)

Such sentiments are well intended and like many errors they have an element of truth. Yes, the church is the people - not the building. And yes, we can only obey God by his strength and Spirit in us.

Let's prove all things and whatsoever we DO - DO all to the glory of the Lamb.

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Most of us receive more notifications than we want or need. To cancel email notifications just tap the UNSUBSCRIBE button at the bottom of any email from house church network.

We desire to be a blessing to others, not a nuisance. 

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Thanks Cyndi, for adding these important comments. Thank God we do have the Scriptures to test all teachings.

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This is good. These are aspects of Paul's writings that many today ignore. They claim that God does it all, and there is nothing left for us to do. I for one admit that warfare is frightening, but at the same time God is with us, in us and for us, giving us the victory as we participate with Him!

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The apostle Paul drew three comparisons to illustrate what it is like to live as a believer. He likened himself to a fighter, a runner, and a soldier.

First, he said he was like a fighter: “I have fought the good fight . . . ” (2 Timothy 4:7). The idea Paul was conveying was a potential fight to the death. This reminds us that the Christian life is a conflict. Once you enter into this new relationship with God, you discover that your adversary, the devil, will try to undermine you. It is a spiritual battle, and thus we need to use spiritual weapons.

Paul also compared himself to a runner. He said, “I have finished the race . . . ” (2 Timothy 4:7). The word he used for “race” described an event with obstacles in it, more like getting through an obstacle course. There were numerous hurdles and obstacles that Paul had to deal with in his life, and Paul was saying he had completed that race.

Finally, Paul said he was a soldier: “I have remained faithful” (2 Timothy 4:7). In the original language, this statement carries the meaning of having guarded the faith as an armed soldier would guard his post against enemy attack. Paul was saying that he had not strayed from the truth of God’s Word, that he lived it out.

So have you been winning or losing in the struggle against the adversary and personal sin? Have you kept pace in the race of life, or have you slowed down? Have you guarded and kept your faith in the way that you live and tell others.

Let’s make it our aim to be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.”

Greg Laurie, Finishing Well

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As always, we do not make blanket endorsements of anyone or for any organization. Nor for any "ism". 

Let's just follow Jesus Christ and his word and leave it to others to define themselves by extra-biblical terminology. Because for every "ism" there are many confusing variants.

So your milage may vary. That said, many of these free books look very worthwhile to me. You?

  • 1871

Jesse, something I might have failed to mention in the original article is the testing process. Paul wrote in an letter in the bible that we should test all things. My personal journey of questioning and testing the bible, book by book started in my childhood.

Much of why I believe what I believe is from trial and error. When I ignored what God was teaching me through the bible I learned much from each experience. Later, through dialog with others as you have mentioned I continued in the process.

At 70 years of age I am now to the point of allowing the words of the bible to test me.

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David, thanks for adding these thoughts. I appreciate your willingness to respect the convictions of others. I would like to add that I did not come by my beliefs about the bible without years of careful and thoughtful consideration. However it was the work of God in my heart that was the most convincing.

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Jesse, I understand your point about people reacting to the misuse of scripture. I however think the best reaction is the correct use of scripture. I also agree with the importance of understanding the process of canonization. Sadly, not many people want to invest the time.

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This post is two years old, but I felt the need to comment for others who might read. Sir Isaac Newtown said, "Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, not in the multiplicity and confusion of things." The bible has been found to be without error(with miniscule grammatical errors that do not change the overall message) over the last two thousand years. There are over 5000 original Greek manuscripts. The Word is TRUTH. The Bible is God's Word. The Word or Logos  refers to the bridge between the transcendent and material universe.  Why this confusion? Satan is the author of confusion. The only thing that needs to be questioned is denominational doctrine--this needs to be held up against the light of Scripture.

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by Iain Murray

I have often put off taking up this subject and I do so now with considerable hesitation. (footnotes 1,2) The reason why I have this feeling is that I would much prefer to speak on a subject upon which I have more confidence and certainty. The truth is that I once had a good deal of confidence about it but that ended some twenty years ago when, on a summer's day in St Andrews, I purchased a second-hand book entitled, The Theory of Ruling Eldership, by Peter Colin Campbell, Principal of the University of Aberdeen.(3)The reading of that book gave me a considerable shock. While it did not lead me to exchange one view for another, it created in me an uncertainty and convinced me that my former confidence had been largely the result of ignorance. As someone has said: 'The wider the reading, the greater will be the modesty'. Although I have thought and read much on the subject since that time I am still uncertain.

Hearing such introductory words you might ask, 'Why take up the subject at all unless one can be positive and definite about it? Why not leave the eldership question alone and put the time we have to better use?' That is a reasonable question. Let me try to answer it.

The Christian Ministry In Question

There are factors in the current situation which make our subject compelling. We cannot keep putting it off.

1. We who gather here are all deeply concerned for the continuance and the strengthening of the Christian ministry. We believe that in the structure of the church the office of the preacher is of vital importance and our prayer for the future is that God will raise up and appoint many men to that office.

Our attitude in this regard goes back a long way. Calvin, for instance, says of gospel ministers: 'Whoever, therefore, either trying to abolish this order of which we speak and this kind of government, or discounts it as not necessary, is striving for the undoing or rather the ruin and destruction of the church'. (4)

I need hardly remind you that today the traditional view of the minister of the Word is questioned very widely among professing evangelicals. All round the world a chorus of voices have repeated the words of such authors as Paul Benjamin who writes:

The idea of every Christian being a minister of Christ is finally dawning upon the American mind. During a long night, growth has been thwarted by the 'one minister one congregation' concept of ministry. (5)

Or, to give you another example, in a work entitled Biblical Eldership, An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, Alexander Strauch, says:

The one-man-professional-ministry concept is totally unsuited for the body of Christ. Outwardly it may be successful, but in reality it is harmful to the sanctification of the members of Christ's body. (6)

Now taken on their own, such quotations might be given a perfectly justifiable sense and it would be folly for us to believe that we are called to defend everything connected with traditional views of the Christian ministry. We agree that 'ministries' exercised by all Christians represent a New Testament picture of church life. J. C. Ryle asserted that as strongly as anyone has ever done over a hundred years ago, (7) and C. H. Spurgeon could say, 'Ministers do not pretend to be a class of sacred beings, like the Brahmins of India.' (8) But these modern quotations come in a context which is far more original and which leaves little need for Christian ministers at all. It is the office of the preacher which is discounted today, sometimes even condemned as 'clericalism', and this attitude is frequently defended by what are claimed to be more scriptural assertions about the 'eldership'. In some words of testimony which could have been written by many contemporary ministers, Mark R. Brown of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, has said this of opposition which he once encountered from elders in his congregation:

To recognize distinctions in calling and functions between the pastor and other elders was seen by them as evidence of clericalism, hierarchy, and arrogance. For example, the dissident elders were offended when I would encourage young men to consider a call to the ministry. To them this was a put down. They felt I was falsely assuming ministerial prerogatives to myself. They wanted a rotating pulpit, the right to baptize and administer communion on the basis of their calling as elders.'

So the eldership issue has become increasingly relevant and if we offer no answers to the claims now commonly heard there is real danger that the work traditionally done by men called to a full-time preaching ministry will be further undermined. (9)

2. As a second reason for taking up the subject let me suggest that a measure of uncertainty, such as I have personally experienced, may not be altogether a bad thing. It is written of Dr. George Matheson, the last-century Scottish preacher and hymn-writer, that when he was young, 'He was confident that he could establish the intellectual coherence of religious and scientific truth . . . But as time went on he seemed to lose his confidence' (10) The consequence, we trust, was that the author of 'O Love that wilt not let me go' became a humbler Christian. Similarly, some of us were once too ready to think that we could resolve all questions of church order and government. Uncertainty, with humility of mind, is better for us than a wrong dogmatism. For anyone to be hesitant when Scripture is definite is a sin. But we have also to recognize the danger that we may be definite when Scripture itself allows a greater latitude of opinion or practice than we are prepared to do.

Turning then directly to our subject, I want first to state three different understandings of New Testament eldership. I take these three because they are the only views known to me which can make any real claim to be biblical.

View 1: One Office, two Functions

This is the view which believes the New Testament office of elder (Gk: presbuteros) is one office, but that it contains within it two distinct groups or classes of men: those in one group both preach and participate in the government and oversight of the people; those in the other only rule and govern. In rank and authority the two groups are equal, they differ only in function: some are teaching elders (traditionally called 'ministers'), while the remainder (often simply called 'elders') are only sharers in the government of the church.

View 2: Two Separate Offices

This second view argues that there is not one office, sub-divided as above, but rather two distinct offices. The first office is that of the eldership proper, and in this office all elders are preachers and pastors. According to this position, the traditional Protestant minister, and he only, does the work of the New Testament elder for, it is claimed, in strict New Testament usage no one should be designated an elder/presbyter who is not called to preach. So the call to the eldership is identical with the call to the ministry

But this second understanding, held by many Presbyterians, allows for a second office, made up of men who happen to be called 'elders' although the actual term does not belong to them in the usage of the New Testament churches. How then is the work of such men in the government of the church to be justified if the New Testament title does nor strictly belong to them? The divines of the Westminster Assembly answer that question in these words:

As there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with the priests and Levites in the government of the church; so Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church, hath furnished some in his church, beside the minister of the word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church. Which officers reformed churches commonly call Elders. (11)

So this view accepts two groups of men called to the spiritual oversight of the church but it says they do not hold the same office. Hence the refusal of the Westminster divines to allow any of the proof-texts relating to elders/presbyters to be used to support the work of those whom they preferred to call, 'other church governors'. The difference here is more than a difference in function. The presbyters/elders are the principal leaders of the church in spiritual things. Others may assist them in the oversight and the title 'elder' is allowed to them chiefly on the grounds of sixteenth-century usage.(12)

According to this view Presbyterians have accepted the use of the term 'elder' for non-ministers, while believing that if we are to be strictly governed by the New Testament 'there is no evidence that can stand up to objective criticism for the title "elder" used in our way.' (13)

View 3: One Office, One Function

This view agrees with the first in arguing that there is only one office, but it disagrees that functions are to be distinguished and separated. We should not, its upholders say, speak of 'teaching elders' and 'ruling elders', because, it is argued, all elders have the same basic duties: all may teach and preach. If they do not do so regularly in the congregation it is by their voluntary choice; they choose to give way to others who are better trained or who have more popular gifts. Thomas Witherow held this view and drew the conclusion: 'So a member of the eldership ought not to have his tongue tied by legislation. It should be left to his own good sense when to speak and when to be silent. Even if he were sometimes to speak weakly and out of season, greater calamities might happen'.(14)

It would appear that this third view is akin to that held by the Christian Brethren. There may be many teachers and preachers in one church and it can be left to local circumstances to determine how the work is divided among them.

No Consensus

These, then, are the three best-known views. As we review them, there is one thing which can be said with certainty, we will never resolve which is right simply by reading the theological authorities and taking our side with the majority or the most orthodox. The truth is that some of the best-known names in the reformed churches to go no further will be found on opposing sides. There is no consensus. Even William Cunningham, commonly regarded as one of the clearest champions of 'divine right' Presbyterianism, could write to Charles Hodge:

I have never been able to make up my mind fully as to the precise grounds on which the office and functions of the ruling elder ought to be maintained and defended. For some time before I went to America I had come to lean pretty strongly to the view that all ecclesiastical office-bearers were presbyters, and that there were sufficiently clear indications in Scripture that there were two distinct classes of those presbyrers, viz, ministers and ruling elders; though not insensible to the difficulty attaching to this theory from the consideration that it fairly implies that wherever presbyters or bishops are spoken of in Scripture ruling elders are included. I have been a good deal shaken in my attachment to this theory by the views I have heard from you, but I have not yet been able to abandon it entirely. (15)

If men of Cunningham's calibre were uncertain, it can surely only mean that each of the three views I have outlined has its own point of weakness. Let us go over them again to note where the weaknesses lie.

Lack of Scriptural Evidence

In the case of the first, the view which says that the one office of the eldership is made up of two distinct groups of men, its most serious weakness lies in its ability to offer only one proof-text to support a division in function. The text is 1 Timothy 5:17, 'Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine'. The NIV translation of that verse reads: 'The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.'

According to the NIV the meaning is plain. All elders 'direct the affairs of the church', or rule, but of that number it is only some 'whose work is preaching'. But the original is by no means so clear and the NIV translators are doing here what they appear to do too often, namely, interpret rather than translate. The words 'whose work' does not accord with the original. Other versions stay close to the KJV's 'especially they who labour in the word and doctrine'. On the latter wording, which stays closer to the original, the meaning can well be, 'All elders who do well as leaders are worthy of double honour, especially those who are painstaking in preaching, who "toil" (kopiao) unweariedly "in the word and in teaching".' On this understanding, the difference is not between elders who only rule and others who preach, it simply urges special commendation and support for those who are outstanding in their efforts in the preacher's calling. The text gives no leave to some elders not to preach at all.

The fact is that there is no unanimity among the exegetes on 1 Timothy 5:17 and it has to be hazardous to use it as a proof-text for divided functions in the absence of supporting evidence. The NIV translation represents the same minority view that was rejected by the Westminster Assembly. In this connection it is noteworthy that some who once claimed 1 Timothy 5:17 as a proof text for two classes of elder came to abandon this opinion. Thomas Witherow, for instance, wrote an ardent little defence of divine-right Presbyterianism in 1856 entitled, The Apostolic Church, Which Is It?. In that book he said:

Any unprejudiced person may see from 1 Timothy 5:17, that the office of the eldership divided itself into two great departments of duty in primitive times, even as at the present. (16)

But in 1873, the same, shall we say wiser, Thomas Witherow, wrote of the 'distinction between two classes of elder':

To us it seems clear that the whole theory rests on a misconception of the force of the passage, 1 Timothy 5:17, and therefore cannot be any real justification for the difference that actually exists between the ruling elder and the minister. (17)

The case that 1 Timothy 5:17 does not speak of two classes of elders would appear to be strengthened by what we read in chapter 3 of the same epistle. There is no hint at all in the third chapter that Paul envisages two classes of elder, on the contrary, aptness or ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2) is set out as a qualification for the office. The inference has to be that men with no such ability are not to be made elders at all.

The great weakness, then, of this first view is that the one text which it offers for proof of a distinction between teaching and ruling is far from being a certain support for that interpretation, while not only 1 Timothy 3 but all the other Pauline references to the work of elders join teaching with ruling. The elders at Ephesus are to counter the threat of 'grievous wolves' by feeding the church of God with the truth (Acts 20:28). Elders in Crete are to 'hold fast the faithful word' and 'be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers' (Titus 1:9). In deciding on the meaning of 'ruling' we need to beware that we do not carry the ideas of modern parlance into the New Testament. The New Testament elder rules not by making his decisions for others but rather by teaching Christians from Scripture how they should act. Teaching is therefore a part of ruling and Scripture itself is the only authoritative instrument of government.

My personal opinion is that the one office, two classes, theory of eldership has often found acceptance among us because we assumed it was the position biblically established by the Westminster Assembly. The truth is that the assumption is wrong. As I have said, the documents coming from the Assembly support not this first view but the second to which we must now turn.

What Happens to Plurality and to Scriptural Warrant?

What is the weakness of the second theory the theory which justifies not one office, subdivided, but two distinct offices: one, that of presbyters, and the second of 'church governors' (mistakenly called 'elders)?

1. One weakness is that if the apostolic churches knew no elders other than preachers then there would appear to be a strangely large number of preachers in New Testament congregations. Certainly there is no church of which we read that it only had one presbyter/elder. As Witherow points out, plurality in the eldership 'shews itself often undesignedly in the apostolic admonitions "Remember them which have the rule over you" "Obey them that have the rule over you" "Salute all them that have rule over you" "Know them which labour among you and are over you in the Lord". (18)

In reply to this it may be said that those who regard all New Testament elders as preachers (as those who hold the first view) have no objection, in principle, to more than one preacher. Calvin attributed to the 'ignorant' and the 'godless', a remark that three preachers were enough for Geneva. (19) Two preachers in a congregation were to be found in cities in Puritan times, and William Guthrie believed that it was simply 'want of maintainance' which prevented that practice from being more common. (20) Whether two preachers can be taken as the equivalent of the plurality to be found in New Testament churches remains, however, open to question. Yet it has also to be borne in mind that 'the church' in such places as Ephesus (where we read of a plurality of elders) was not necessarily comprised only of one congregation, any more than the congregation at St. Peter's, Geneva, comprised all the churches of that city.

In passing it is interesting to note how John Glass, the eighteenth century Scottish preacher and theologian, understood the plurality of elders who were all (in his view) preachers in the New Testament churches. Teaching, he says, has several parts and no one teacher 'can excel in every part'. Some can best instruct the mind. Others with a greater gift in exhortation can deal better with the wills and affections of their hearers. The 'rule well' of I Timothy 5:17 he takes to be a reference to excelling in the application of the Word to the lives of the people. So preaching, Glass argues, has three necessary parts instruction, exhortation and ruling: 'Growing in knowledge, without the other two, would make monstrous Christians.' (21)

2. A second weakness in the second view is perhaps more serious. This view accepts that in the New Testament there were men who assisted in rule and government yet were not presbyters. The justification for such non-presbyter 'rulers' was found (as we have noted in the case of the Westminster divines) in Romans 12:8, where he says, 'he that ruleth with diligence'. But Romans 12:8 and the parallel reference to the gift of 'governments' in 1 Corinthians 12:28, scarcely demonstrates the existence of an office distinct from the eldership. The silence of the New Testament in this respect surely constitutes a problem and it was this which led the well-known opponent of this second view, James Henley Thornwell, to charge that if the existence of the non-preaching ruler was justified on such a flimsy basis, then Presbyterianism was guilty of accepting an office which had no clear New Testament authority: 'To say that a Ruling Elder [in Presbyterian churches] is not entitled to the appellation of Presbyter . . . is just to say that the fundamental principle of our polity is a human institution.' (22)

Furthermore, it may be asked, if there were in the apostolic age a class of men who functioned as 'rulers', alongside elders, how is it that we hear nothing of any such class existing in the immediate post-apostolic age? We know of 'presbyters' and 'deacons' in the second century, and we know that the rank of 'bishop' early became separate from that of presbyter as an hierarchical structure had its unhappy beginnings, but no records show the existence of any other office-bearers.

What appears to have happened at the time of the Reformation was that leaders in the reformed churches, conscious of the evils of the clerical ambition and domination which had long existed, were convinced that spiritual men who were not ministers would be involved in the oversight and discipline of the churches. They saw the need for other helpers; they noted the place which the Old Testament Church gave to representatives of the people; and they considered that in the New Testament gifts of rule were not necessarily the possession of presbyters alone. Our of such general considerations, and conscious that without such 'lay' leaders the churches would be threatened by prelacy on the one hand, or by the anarchy of popular democracy on the other, they encouraged the creation of these 'other church-governors', who, in distinction from ministers/presbyters, they began to call 'elders'. Expressing this view of the origin of 'elders' in the churches of the Reformation, G. D. Henderson writes: 'The demand for Elders sprang from the necessities of discipline, and Scripture foundation was then discovered for the office.' (23)

In line with this thinking, Cotton Mather, the New England Puritan leader, argued that the most conclusive argument for ruling elders was their usefulness. 'There are some', he wrote, 'who cannot see any such officer as what we call a ruling elder directed and appointed in the word of God'. But whatever theoretical arguments might be raised in objection to 'eldership', he concluded: 'I think none can be made against the usefulness of such a thing. Truly, for my part, if the fifth chapter of the first epistle to Timothy would not bear me out, when conscience, both of my duty and my weakness, made me desire such assistance, I would see whether the first chapter of Deuteronomy would not'. (24)

I have digressed somewhat from the main theme. To repeat, the second theory of the eldership maintains preacher and elder are one in the New Testament, but that spiritual assistants who are not strictly elders at all may be justified on general grounds both by Scripture and by expediency. This was the position argued in the nineteenth century by Charles Hodge. (25)

A Team of Preachers?

Let us turn, then, to think of the principal weakness to be urged against the third view. As already said, this view says that ability to teach is a qualification for all elders. It disagrees with the first view by arguing that no elders should be excluded, in principle, from the pulpit; and it disagrees with the second view in denying the lawfulness of any spiritual assistants who are not elders in the New Testament sense of the word. Each church is to have a plurality of elders who are all authorised to preach, and who actually takes the main part of the work is to be determined by local circumstances. Upholding this view, Witherow writes:

Nothing is more natural than that each elder should follow his bent, and do most frequently the work that he could do best. Common sense would teach them that this is the way in which the church is most likely to profit.

There is not now the same necessity for ordinary elders to preach, because each congregation now commands the service of a trained elder, who usually can from his training preach better and with more acceptance . . . The elder is in everything, except in training and the consequences of training, the very same as a minister. The one thing that makes it proper for a minister rather than an elder to preach and to administer the sacraments, is, that owing to his education and professional studies, he is better able to make these ordinances edifying to the congregation. (26)

What is the weakness here? It is surely that because Witherow does not want a multiplicity of preachers in every congregation he draws this strange distinction between the 'ordinary elder' and the professionally trained preacher. But does the call to the public ministry of the Word really depend on educational training? Does it not rather depend essentially on a divine call? This call, in Thornwell's words, 'must impart a peculiar fitness, an unction of the Holy Ghost, which alone can adequately qualify for the duties of the office . . . The characteristic qualification for the ministry, the unction from on high, is the immediate gift of the Holy Ghost, and cannot be imparted by any agency of man. Human learning is necessary the more, the better; but human learning cannot, of itself, make a preacher. (27)

Witherow's view entails the view that while Christ raises up and sends preachers, and that all elders are officially preachers, nevertheless there may be some elders who rarely, if ever, preach at all. The commendation given to those who 'labour in the word and doctrine' can never be theirs.

But supposing we forget Witherow and the language of Victorian Presbyterianism, does any weakness remain if we state this third theory simply as it is held by the Brethren, namely, all elders should share in the preaching? I believe there is indeed a serious weakness:

1. According to 1 Timothy 5:17 those who excel in teaching and preaching are especially worthy of 'double honour'. Few exegetes doubt that the 'honour' includes financial support, maintenance in temporal things. The very next verse says, 'The labourer is worthy of his reward,' and other scriptures say, 'the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel' (1 Cor. 9:14. See also Gal. 6:6). Now if a congregation were to treat equally a whole team of preachers how could they possibly fulfil this obligation? Is it better to have a whole group of preachers, none of whom is adequately supported by the church, if supported at all, or to have one or two preachers who can give themselves wholly to the work of the gospel because their temporal needs are provided for?

It is not required of the pastor, says Owen, 'only that he preach now and then at his leisure, but that he lay aside all other employments, though lawful, all other duties in the church, as unto such a constant attention on them as would divert him from this work, that he give himself unto it, that he be in these things labouring to the utmost of his ability.' (28) How can such an ideal be fulfilled other than by the tradition which has been most common in the Protestant churches?

2. The testimony of church history is against the theory that a team of men, all of equal rank, can work harmoniously together, without an appointed leader. Theoretically it may be argued that a group of Christian preachers should be able to settle among themselves who preaches, and how often, but 'the best of men are men at best' and this theory has never worked long in practice. It seems to be a mistaken view of the New Testament which supposes the leadership of one individual in a congregation is unlawful. Calvin did not think so. Commenting on the reference to 'bishops and deacons' in Philippians 1:1, he says:

I acknowledge, indeed, that, as the minds and manners of men are, there cannot be order maintained among ministers of the word, without one presiding over others. I speak of particular bodies [i.e., congregations], not of whole provinces, much less of the whole world. (29)

Similarly John Owen writes of the New Testament situation:

It is evident that in all their assemblies they had one who did preside in the manner before described; which seems, among the apostles, to have been the prerogative of Peter . . . it is certain that the order very early observed in the church was one pastor. (30)

Owen did not regard the 'one pastor' as necessarily unscriptural. (31) He conceded that 'in each particular church there may be many pastors with an equality of power, if the edification of the church do require it,' but added the significant caution, 'the absolute equality of many pastors in one and the same church is liable unto many inconveniences if not diligently watched against. (32) He believed in 'the necessity of precedence for the observation of order. (33)

Relevant at this point is the question why 'the ruling elder' disappeared in all the churches of the Puritan tradition in England and New England except among the Presbyterians. The Puritans who were Congregationalists were, initially, as committed to a ruling eldership as the Presbyterians, yet by the end of the seventeenth century they had nearly all given it up and entrusted the major spiritual control to one pastor assisted by deacons. (34) Different reasons probably entered into this change but one reason was that an equality of authority in the leadership of congregations had not proved conducive to peace. Cotton Mather believed 'the inconveniences whereunto many churches have been plunged by elders not of such a number or not of such a wisdom as were desirable, have much increased a prejudice against the office. (35)

At times independent churches have attempted to restore eldership as happened in the congregations gathered around the Haldane brothers in Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century. James Haldane, pastor of the Edinburgh Tabernacle, argued in 1805 that 'the elders are all equal in office, but an equality of gifts among them is not to be expected. Where the elders and the church are of a proper temper, there will be no disputing on this head.' Yet disputes there evidently were. It was not necessary, James Haldane believed, that several elders 'should, in their turn, conduct the public service'. Where that system had been allowed to operate there had been 'great injury to the power of religion, even in the members of the church.' (36) He was speaking from unhappy experience and observation. (37) The attempt to secure a plurality of elders at Haldane's Tabernacle 'did not succeed' and Robert Haldane was to say in 1821 that 'the system did not work.' (38)

After the seventeenth century, however, Congregationalism, in general, moved decisively away from the idea of two classes of elders and came to hold only the offices of pastor and deacon. The reason why Presbyterianism did not make the same change was that it had evolved a system of checks and balances which made it impossible for the eldership in any congregation to act over the head of the minister. In theory the minister and elder might be considered to occupy the same office, in practice the minister, as the permanent member of the local presbytery, had very distinct privileges.

In the last thirty years, as is well known, a number of Calvinistic independent and Baptist congregations have admired Presbyterian order and re-introduced elders. For a number of churches this change may have proved beneficial but there has also been cause for misgivings and the old doubt has re-surfaced whether an order can work which gives elders an equality with pastors, and leaves pastors without the greater security built into the Presbyterian system. In saying this I am nor arguing here for Presbyterianism but simply making an observation.

Apart from the danger of disharmony, there is another lesson from history which I believe can be urged against the third view It is that congregations do not want a team of preachers. They have found great edification in the ministry of one or two pastors. Even assemblies of Brethren have found reason to move away from their original position. The consecutive teaching of a man, anointed of God and enabled to give himself wholly to the needs of a congregation, is commonly throughout Christian history vastly preferable to a number of preachers whose time for gospel ministry is necessarily far more limited. It is all very well for modern innovators to decry the 'one-man ministry' as they do but let any congregation which has known the blessing of God be asked whether they would have preferred their pastor to share the pulpit constantly with a number of others and the answer would not be in doubt.

It is far too simple to claim, as the modern upholders of 'body ministry' have done, that the move away from regular, appointed ministers of the Word is the result of a new spiritual understanding and liberty. The claim might not be made with such confidence if its promoters knew a little more church history. As long ago as 1862, Spurgeon said, 'The outcry against the "one man ministry" cometh not of God, but of proud self-conceit, of men who are not content to learn although they have no power to teach. (39)

General Observations

1. We have covered enough ground to establish at least one thing clearly: the question of the eldership is by no means straightforward. The subject has been handled by a number of the most eminent teachers of the Church including Calvin, Owen, Thornwell, Hodge to name a few and none is decisive in establishing a clear scriptural case. They are all unconvincing at certain points and sometimes they are inconsistent in the very views they advance. Witherow goes so far as making the following admission:

The apostolic eldership is thus the difficulty of every existing system of church government. The difficulty of prelacy is, that every one of these primitive elders in the congregation was a bishop. The difficulty of Independency is, that there was a plurality of pastors in every church. The difficulty of Presbytery is, that the majority of elders are forbidden to do what it is admitted the minister or first elder has a perfect right to do in the congregation, and what was in the apostolic age competent to every elder. (40)

As we have seen, Witherow offered yet another solution to put the situation right. But is it not more important that we should deduce from this absence of certainty that the New Testament itself contains obscurities which no one can readily resolve? Even the number of permanent officers in the apostolic churches has never been unanimously agreed. Two we are certain about, presbyters and deacons. Calvin, however, believed that there were four: pastor, doctor, elder and deacon. The Westminster divines agreed, though substituting 'other church-governors' for 'elders'! The very nature of 'office' remains a subject of discussion.

Then there is ambiguity in the very usage of the word 'presbyter' in the New Testament. Sometimes it may simply refer to older, senior men, not to office-bearers at all. Sometimes, of course, the reference is to office-bearers in the synagogue. Some writers make much of the claim that the Christian elder is taken over from the Jewish elder and that his primary role was ruling. Therefore, they argue, that the first eldership in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 11:30) constituted a group of rulers, with the actual teaching being done by the apostles, prophets and teachers endowed with special gifts.

That may possibly be true of the Jerusalem eldership at the early date of Acts 11 but, even if it was so, it does not mean that it should be regarded as the permanent pattern. There is transition, change and development within the New Testament itself. Just what that change was is another thing not entirely clear. We can see that the diaconate of Acts 6 is not identical with the later diaconate of 1 Timothy 3. Similarly, supposing elders were not, at first, preachers and teachers, it is quite understandable that a change was required by the time the Pastoral Epistles were written. On this point E. A. Litton wrote:

The abundant manifestations of the Spirit, which distinguished the infancy of the Church, were not meant to be perpetual: they were bestowed for a temporary purpose . . . In due time, ordinary endowments, moral and intellectual, which, when sanctified by the Spirit, had from the first found a sphere of exercise in the Church, were entirely to supersede the supernatural gifts which accompanied the Pentecostal effusion: prophecy' and 'speaking with tongues' were to give way to the stated teaching of official persons, and 'wisdom' and 'knowledge' were to be the result, not of the direct agency of the Spirit, but of study and reflection. The transition from the period of immediate spiritual influence, to the normal state into which the Church was to settle, is distinctly marked in St. Paul's pastoral epistles. In these, the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit disappear altogether from view; and the directions given to Timothy in reference to the admitting of persons to the ministry are applicable to every age of the Church. (41)

2. The uncertainties surrounding 'office' in the New Testament lead some to emphasise that what is important, after all, is not the name of an office but the gifts which Christ bestows and which are to be used. The titles we give to men are less significant than the gift. So if men clearly have gifts of leadership and rule, although they are not preachers, does it matter if we call them 'elders'? Most Presbyterian churches have concluded that, in practice at least, it does not matter. Yet the fact is that any serious reader of the New Testament can see that the word 'elder' is the only word which designates the work of gospel ministers and so all modern churches who sanction non-preaching 'elders' leave their pastors open to the charge that they are arrogating to themselves a work which ought to belong to all elders. As Charles Hodge says, 'Much confusion has arisen from the use of the word elder {i.e., in the sense of ruling elder] and presbyter as synonymous. (42)

This confusion would have been avoided if the Westminster Assembly's preference for the term 'Church Governors' had displaced the loose use of the term 'elder'. The main objection to this, as we have noted, is that it would give men a title and position which has no clear existence as an office in the New Testament. Rather than do that, some have argued, it would be better to embrace the functions of our present ruling elders within the diaconate. Thus T F Torrance writes:

It would seem to be the case that our elders now fulfil a ministry which in the New Testament itself is ascribed to deacons. In other words, the best, and indeed the only biblical evidence for the ministry fulfilled by our elders is found in New Testament teaching about deacons, supplemented by what we learn from Early Church documents. Consider, for example, the Epistle to the Philippians 1:1, in which St. Paul mentions only 'bishops and deacons'. Are we to include 'elders' here under 'bishops' or under 'deacons'. That is the issue, and when faced with it, Reformed commentators have regularly included them under 'deacons'. It might be said, then, that what we call 'elders' are really 'elder-deacons'. This falls closely in line with what a great scholar like J. N. D. Kelly has to say about deacons in his commentary, The Pastoral Epistles. (43)

In this connection it can probably be added that, in point of fact, in healthy gospel churches of independent persuasion, the actual work done by deacons in assisting pastors is the equivalent to the work done by elders in Presbyterian congregations. One Presbyterian writer, taking a 'comparative view of English and Scottish dissenters' actually asserts this. Dr. Thomson of Coldstream writes: 'Two sorts of officers are recognized by both: and what are deacons in the one are just elders in the other. Names are nothing.' (44)

3. If the train of thought we have followed is not seriously awry then the difficulties attached to theories of the ruling eldership must raise the larger question whether there is any unvarying, 'divine-right' model of church order, set down for all time in Scripture. Many of the most distinguished of the Puritans believed that there was indeed a definite pattern, and that principle binds us to it, but their failure to be able to clarify or agree on this definite pattern shows that no one had enough light or evidence to convince others. Differences over church order were argued to the point of exhaustion and when it was all done an author such as T. M. Lindsay in his book The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries could say, perhaps with some justice, 'The organization of the Primitive Christian Church . . . has no resemblance to any modern ecclesiastical organization, and yet contains within it the roots of all whether congregational, presbyterian (conciliar) or episcopal.' (45)

This issue of one definite scriptural order lies at the heart of the debate which took place between Thornwell and Charles Hodge over ruler elders. Thornwell was shocked that Princeton could defend elders on grounds other than proof-texts to which clear-cut obedience is required: a class of men was being recognized concerning whom the New Testament says nothing about their appointment. Hodge freely admits this:

We maintain that Christ has, in his infinite wisdom, left his Church free to modify her government, in accordance with these general principles, as may best suit her circumstances in ages and nations. (46)

4. It has to be remembered that a great deal of the zeal manifested in the seventeenth century to establish uniformity in church government was driven by the belief that without it churches would be in a state of schism. But if Christ has imposed no one, unvarying form of government, and if schism is not a matter of external conformity, then that belief was a noble mistake. As A. A. Hodge writes:

If the church be an external society, then all deviation from that society is of the nature of schism; but if the Church be in its essence a great spiritual body, constituted by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost through all the ages and nations, uniting all to Christ, and if its organization is only accidental and temporary, and subject to change and variation, then deviation of organization, unless touched by the spirit of schism, is not detrimental to the Church . . . All claims that our Church is the one Church and only Church, are of the essence of schism; all pride and bigotry are of the essence of schism; all want of universal love, all jealousy, and all attempts to take advantage of others in controversy or in Church extension, are of the essence of schism. (47)

This does not mean that matters of church government can be treated as unimportant. But it does warn us that all over-vigorous dogmatism, and all 'ultraism' for one 'orthodox' position on points of order, are more likely to distract churches with controversy than to do lasting good. In the winning of souls to Christ Scripture commends a higher duty to us. The supreme need is to see men and women belonging by faith to Christ himself and thus being united to the church which is 'the heavenly Jerusalem'. Apart from this, as Owen says, 'All contests about church-order . . . are vain, empty, fruitless.' 'If this only true notion of the catholic church were received, as it ought to be, it would cast contempt on all those contests about the church, or churches, which at this day so perplex the world. He who is first instated, by faith on the person and mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ, in this heavenly society, will be guided by the light and privileges of it into such ways of divine worship in churches here below as shall cause him to improve and grow in his interest in that above.' (48)

In different words, James Haldane was to profess similar sentiments in his last illness. 'It was his conviction that the Spirit was given as the Lord saw good to all Churches that it was the preaching of sound doctrine which the Lord blessed, and not particular systems of church-government. "Great good," he said, "was done by itinerating, but we were permitted for a time to attach too much importance to some things connected with Church order; and whether it was that we were nor worthy, or whatever was the cause, our efforts to restore apostolic Churches and primitive Christianity were unsuccessful."' (49)

We should not deduce from this that it is not worth struggling about questions of church order neither Owen nor the Haldanes believed that but our endeavours should ever be moderated by the consciousness that much imperfection and some uncertainties belong to the order of all churches. So Calvin, while preaching on the eldership, could say: 'There is yet a great distance between us, and the order that was practised in the apostles time. And therefore let us pray God to confirm us, that he bring things to a better pass . . . seeing we are not only not in the middest way, but to speak truth have scarce begun.' (50)

It may surely be that one reason why God has permitted difficulties with the subject we have discussed, as with other subjects, is that we might have further cause to learn humility. 'While we wrangle here in the dark,' writes Baxter, 'we are dying and passing to the world that will decide all our controversies; and the safest passage thither is by peaceable holiness'. (51)


1. No one modern form of church government can be said to be prescribed in all its features by 'proof-texts'.

2. If insistence upon precise biblical evidence is believed to be required for true church order, then non-preaching 'elders' cannot form a part of that order.

3. If the two-offices view of the eldership can be defended from general biblical considerations, so also can some other forms of government in which the same functions operate under different names.

4. We have left the New Testament when we show more concern for establishing forms of church government than we do for seeing men and women joined to the church universal and in possession of eternal life



1. The substance of an address given at the 1995 Leicester Ministers' Conference.

2. I did treat the subject from an almost purely historical angle in an article, 'Ruling Elders A Sketch of a Controversy', Banner of Truth (issue 235, April 1983), pp.1-9.

3. The Theory of Ruling Eldership or The Position of the Lay Ruler in the Reformed Churches (W Blackwood: Edinburgh and London, 1866).

4. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Ch. III, 2 (F L. Battles, trans., J. T MeNeill, ed., Philadelphia, 1960, vol. 2, p. 1055). The two extremes which Calvin noted on this subject are still with us: 'In our day there has been great controversy over the efficacy of the ministry. Some exaggerate its dignity beyond measure. Others contend that what belongs to the Holy Spirit is wrongly transferred to mortal men.' Ibid., vol. 2, p. 1020.

5. The Equipping Ministry (Standard Publishing: Cincinnati, 1978), pp. 1516.

6. Biblical Eldership (Lewis and Roth: Littleton, Colorado, 1988), p. 16.

7. See The Upper Room, being a few truths for the time (1888, repr. Banner of Truth: London, 1970), pp. 328331.

8. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1890 (repr. Banner of Truth: London, 1970), p. 255.

9. Mark Brown's experience led to his book, Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers (Classic Presbyterian Government Resources: Duncansville, Pa., 1993).

10. W Robertson Nicoll, Princes of the Church (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1921), p. 189.

11. The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, appended to most editions of the Westminster Confession. The proof texts given to justify these 'other church governors' are restricted to Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28.

12. There were of course differences among the Puritans on this subject, a minority, whose view was not endorsed at the Westminster Assembly, holding that 'lay elders' shared in the strict N.T. office of the eldership. Richard Baxter writes: 'As far as I can understand, the greater part, if not three for one of the English ministers' opposed that minority view. Five Disputations of Church-Government and Worship, 1659, Preface, p. 4.

13. T F. Torrance, The Eldership in the Reformed Church (Hansel Press: Edinburgh, 1984), p. 8.

14. 'The New Testament Elder' in the British and Foreign Evangelical Review, 1873 (J. Nisbet: Edinburgh, 1873), p. 227.

15. Letter of July 1844 in Life of Charles Hodge (T. Nelson: London, 1881), p. 425.

16. The Apostolic Church, Which Is It? (repr. N. Adshead: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1956), p. 68.

17. British and Foreign Evangelical Review, 1873, p. 216.

18. British and Foreign Evangelical Review, 1873, p. 203.

19. Sermons of Calvin on the Epistle to Timothy and Titus (London: 1579; repr. Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 1983), p. 512.

20. 'A Treatise of Ruling Elders and Deacons' in Works of W. Guthrie (Glasgow: 1771), p. 329.

21. 'Of the Unity and Distinction of the Elder's Office' in Works of John Glass, vol. 2 (Perth, 1782), p. 226. Glass (16951773) was a man of independent judgment, and his contribution to the much-criticised thinking of his son-in-law, Robert Sandeman, partly explains the oblivion into which his able and stimulating writings have fallen. In criticism of his Presbyterian contemporaries, he says: 'they think they do well when they get one bishop in every congregation, with a company of such elders as can neither teach nor preach, nor administrate baptism and the Lord's supper; and these they call ruling elders.' (Ibid., p. 227).

22. Collected Writings of J. H. Thornwell, vol. 4 (1875; repr. Banner of Truth: Edinburgh 1974), p. 115. See also p. 125: 'Presbyterianism stands or falls with the distinction between Ruling and Teaching Elders'.

23. The Scottish Ruling Elder (James Clarke: London, 1935), p. 19.

24. Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America (repr. Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1979), vol. 2, pp. 239-40. With similar effect, Samuel Miller quotes Dr. John Edwards: 'Truly if there was no such office mentioned in Scripture, we might reasonably wish for such a one, it being so useful and serviceable to the great purposes of religion.' An Essay on the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Ruling Elder (1832; repr. Presbyterian Heritage Publications: Jackson, 1987), pp.163-4.

25. The Church and Its Polity, Charles Hodge (London, 1879).

26. British and Foreign, 1873, pp. 206, 223-4.

27. 27. The Call of the Minister' in Collected Writings of J. H. Thornwell, vol. 4, pp. 27-28.

28. Works, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 16, p. 75.

29. Commentaries on Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians (Calvin Trans. Soc.: Edinburgh, 1851), p. 23.

30. Owen's Works, vol. 16, p. 46.

31. Ibid., p. 141, 'There may be, and oftentimes is, but one teaching elder, pastor, or teacher in a church'.

32. Ibid., p. 105.

33. Ibid., p. 105.

34. See Mather, Great Works, vol. 2, pp. 23940; H. M. Dexter, The Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred years (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1879), p. 485.

35. Great Works, vol. 2, p. 239. Samuel Miller says that the mistake in New England was 'to have made the office of Teacher and Ruler, wear an appearance of being rivals for influence and power' (Ruling Elder, p. 161). But the question is whether tension is not inevitable where different office-bearers exercise identical authority in independent churches, particularly if elders exceed pastors in number. In Presbyterian churches, whatever the theoretical reasoning, elders and ministers do not exercise identical authority.

36. A View of Social Worship and Ordinances Observed by the First Christians, Drawn from the Sacred Scriptures Alone, J. A. Haldane (Edinburgh, 1805), pp. 254-8.

37. On this subject see, The Lives of Robert and James Haldane, Alexander Haldane (1852, repr. Banner of Truth, 1990), pp. 356-61. Some of the congregations allowed any man to speak in public worship, 'a system [writes J. Haldane] which appears to me destructive of the pastoral office and of all order in the house of God.'

38. Ibid, p. 379.

39. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 8, 1863, p. 195.

40. British and Foreign, 1873, pp. 212-3.

41. The Church of Christ, In Its Idea, Attributes and Ministry 1851, pp. 174-5.

42. The Church and Its Polity (T. Nelson: London, 1879), p. 265.

43. The Eldership in the Reformed Church, p. 10.

44. Quoted by Ralph Wardlaw, Congregational Independency in Contradistinction to Episcopacy and Presbyterianism: the Church Polity of the N.T. (J. Maclehose: Glasgow 1864), p. 185. Wardlaw points out, with some effect, how the work of the diaconate has been too poorly regarded in many Presbyterian churches.

45. The Church and Ministry in the Early Centuries (Hodder and Stoughton: London. 1910), p. 155.

46. The Church and Its Polity, p. 277. 'Christ has not . . . bound his Church to any one exact model of ecclesiastical discipline' (p. 284).

47. Evangelical Theology (1890, repr. Banner of Truth, 1976), pp. 181-3. If Hodge's understanding is rejected then it has to be explained how Christ's prayer that his people be one has never been fulfilled. From the real unity which does exist among true Christians we ought rather to say that what he prayed for has and is being accomplished.

48. Works, vol. 24 (Exposition of Hebrews, vol. 7), pp. 342, 352. Further on this subject, see D.B. Knox on 'The Church and the Denominations' in Sent by Jesus (Banner of Truth, 1992), pp. 55-65.

49. Robert and James Haldane, p. 583.

50. Sermons on Timothy and Titus (1579, repr. Banner of Truth facsimile, 1983) pp. 508-9.

51. The Cure of Church Divisions, Richard Baxter (1670), p. 256.


Born in England in 1931, Iain Murray studied history and philosophy at the University of Durham and considered becoming an English Presbyterian Church minister. While at the university, though, he read material written by the Puritans and began assisting at St. John’s Free Church in Oxford. While there, he served as the first editor of The Banner of Truth magazine. From 1956-1959, he served as assistant to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel and, in 1957, he co-founded the Banner of Truth Trust. Iain Murray books include J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone, giving Christians the opportunity to discover more about this influential 19th century evangelical author who had been largely forgotten; a two-volume biography titled D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (with individual volumes also available separately: 1 and 2); Forgotten Spurgeon in which he focuses on clearing up misconceptions about Spurgeon and delineates his spiritual beliefs; and a biography of a remarkable woman, Amy Carmichael.

Australian Christian Life From 1788

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 1899-1939

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981

The Forgotten Spurgeon

Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography

The Life of Arthur W Pink

The Life of John Murray

The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy

Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858

Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching

This article appeared in the Banner of Truth Magazine, Issues 395-396, August-September 1996. Used by permission.

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Added a Group 

We are a network of churches committed to equip and empower people to be disciple makers. Share the good and bad in our lives. Growing together, pray together, and doing life together. Follow Jesus to learn how to obey His Great Commission and make disciples who multiply. We scatter and gather in places all around the San Francisco Bay Area. Join us now and get connected.

  • 4479

Dan, that is an understatement. Actually, you were the regular painter for the governor's mansion in the capital of Ohio. Wow. 

Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they will not serve before officials of low rank. Proverbs 22.

Again, I wrote to the effect that I was unaware of any first century Christians going out to plant or start or organize or organize churches. Rather, IMHO, they sought first to preach the good news then to encourage the new converts to meet as the church or, if you will, as a church.

Yes, there is plenty said about planting and watering but it's related to the gospel seed - not to church formations or structures.

Again, I am fascinated that in reading the scriptures, there is _nothing_ about starting churches or planting churches. No one is referred to as a church planter. No one is told to do such. 

This isn't just an insignificant detail or just semantics. The tremendous reality here is that Jesus himself will build his church. No one needs to start one or plant one because its already been done once and for all. He did it and did it right.

We thus read: Acts 8:4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

Acts 11:19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.

** This is why the Roman Churches, which Paul said he had not yet visited were ALREADY in existence. Attendees at Pentecost just took the message back home. **


1 Cor. 11:17 Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye *come together not for the better, but for the worse.

1 Cor. 11:18 For first of all, when ye *come together in the church*, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.

1Cor. 11:20 When ye *come together therefore into one place*, this is not to eat the Lord's supper.

1Cor. 11:33 Wherefore, my brethren, when ye *come together to eat, tarry one for another.

1Cor. 14:23 If therefore the whole church be *come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?

1Cor. 14:26 How is it then, brethren? when ye *come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

(To this list could be added the many texts that speak of gathering together and gathering in Jesus' name and forsaking not the gathering together.)

Furthermore, if we were ordered to "start" churches, surely there would be minimum requirements or specific instructions as to what this would entail. Surely there would be some mention of a "core group" somewhere waiting to attain "real church" status. Most assuredly would someone, somewhere be referred to as a church planter.

Unfortunately, much house church literature is full of "church planting", "church planters" and of outsiders needing to come in to assist... One writer even boasted that the real church planters today were the ones trained by him.  : )

The modern plan for "starting churches" is, I believe, from the same factory which gave us the sacraments, and priestly kinds of church leaders who had the sole right to "adminster" them. When they speak of starting churches what they mean is starting a catholic-type parish where everything will essentially be centered around the pastor, "officers", and the building.

Furthermore. It should also be noted that no one in the Biblical history is ever said to have "joined a church". WOW! This is because membership goes into effect at conversion. 

I realize that this may just sound like technicalities or trivialities but I believe that we often put the cart before the horse in these pursuits. It is a bit like a woman who is in a turmoil about wanting a family but hasn't yet found a husband.

All of us desire the same thing - to see more conversions and to see Christians meeting as the Church. My question is "What does it take and who does it take?"

Sorry, but I cannot see in the scripture that every church had to resemble every other one in every aspect. Consider the synagogue, a prototype of the church. It was the natural outgrowth of the social needs of God's people. It was not commanded but rather organically adopted. Eventually it was endorsed by the Lord and his apostles. Yes or no?

I am in search of the lowest common denominator when it comes to the Kingdom's advancement strategy and meeting the needs of Christians to meet together. To add to God's prescription is to put myself in bondage and become a stumbling block to others.

This plan which I have proposed, of course, does not preclude a specialist or many specialists who could expedite matters either in person or via letters or email. One may construct a house or he may employ professional builders (or both).

Whatever you want to call them - church planters or apostles, etc - there just doesn't seem to be enough of them to go around. But, if one should happen to come along to assist that would be WONDERFUL. 

In summary: 1. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. 2. Assemble in His name. 3. Exercise your gifts for the good of others. 4. Proclaim Christ and let this wonderful cycle begin again. 

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Here is a link to Everyday Church, San Francisco Bay Area---website is  for those who want to initiate and facilitate starting a house church.

  • 5870

Sorry if we didn't see these comments! We are still active as described. You can email for current locations, time, questions, etc.

  • 6000
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We are a house church in far Western Kentucky.   The Lord is moving and giving direction, for which we are so thankful.  Spirit-led worship, prayer, music, fellowship, delving into the Scripture, eating a good meal---these are some of the things that happen on Sundays. We praise the Lord for His goodness!

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A church, we have observed, simply means a gathering, group, or an assembly. A church of Christ, we learn from the Scriptures, consists of believers statedly assembling together to enjoy the benefits of association. These benefits are not limited to any number. Even two can associate together. They can mutually assist, admonish, or reprove each other. When the Lord commands his disciples not to forsake the assembling of themselves together, he requires that they should associate as far as they have opportunity, and no farther. The precept is as binding on two as on two hundred. These can co-operate, and continue stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers; and the abundance of the one may be a supply for the other's want. It is, I believe, generally admitted, that two or three disciples residing in the same place should meet together, and observe every ordinance, except the Lord's supper.

But we find no limitation as to the number of a church in the Scriptures; nor any thing to countenance the stated association of the disciples in any other form. Besides, what is there peculiar in the ordinance of the Lord's supper, that the churches, while attending to every thing else in their power, should delay the observance of this till they obtain elders to administer it? This idea of administration is very consistent in the church of Rome or of England, where each individual receives the elements from the Priest; but in this country, both in the Establishment and among Independents, each member administers it to his neighbour; that is, puts the bread and the cup into his hand. If the elder administers it to those nearest him, they, in their turn, administer it to him; so that the idea of laying any stress on an administrator is utterly inconsistent, besides leading to the unfounded supposition, that the administrator represents the Lord Jesus Christ - in which case he ought not himself to partake.

The plea for the necessity of an elder or officer being present at the Lord's supper, surely originates in some mistake respecting its nature. It must be supposed that it is similar to the sacrifices under the law, which could only be offered by a Priest, or that it contains a mystery still unexplained; and if transubstantiation be given up, something analogous is substituted in its place. Let the reader compare and consider with attention the passages in which this institution is described, and he will be convinced that this view has no foundation.

No good reason then can be given why two or three believers, who have not an opportunity of meeting with a greater number, should not statedly assemble as a church of Christ, to observe the Lord's supper, as well as to continue in the apostles' doctrine and in prayers. Indeed it is their bounden duty to do so. It certainly cannot be shown that elders or deacons are essential to the existence of a church, while we find the apostles returning to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, and ordaining elders (i.e. appointing elders or older ones to be the shepherds or pastors) in every church, Acts 14:21,23, which they had previously gathered. Indeed, from the very nature of the case, churches must exist before elders, out of which they arise.

The apprehensions that the consequence of two or three observing the ordinances of Jesus, will be their remaining at home, and not assembling in any considerable number, nearly resemble those of the consequences of eating the Lord's supper without elders, which, it is alleged, sets aside the elder's office. But as long as men regard the authority of Jesus, they will consider themselves bound, after the example of the first churches, to assemble statedly with as many of their brethren as local circumstances might permit. And if ever His will, so plainly signified, loses its effect upon their minds, it is a matter of little consequence whether they have them (i.e. officers) or not. Their eating the Lord's supper at all, must in that case, arise from superstition, and not from Christian principle.

Observations on Various Subjects, J.A. Haldane, published by John Ritchie, 1808. pp. 12 - 15.

James A. Haldane preached to 10,000's in open air meetings even after the General Assembly of Scotland banned such meetings. His excellent biography has been recently republished: The Lives of Robert Haldane and James Haldane, Alexander Haldane, 1852 and in 1990 by the Banner of Truth Trust.

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David, I love this, "Too many Christians seem to be living for the sole purpose of attending another meeting. This is living to eat instead of eating to live. This is buying an automobile in order to drive back and forth to the filling station. "

Also:"So, begin by beginning. Like skating in order to learn to skate. Like riding a bike to learn to ride a bike. Yes, the hardest part of a task is getting started. That is why we must continue to encourage one another as we enter the future by returning to the past. "

I have used a similar analogy for the trade that has provided for my family for 40 years. A man put a paint brush in my and and showed me how to brush back and forth, until I became a painter!

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Hi sister and other thoughtful discussion readers,                

I once privately heard from a guy who said that he used to have great home meetings which may have been "church". Yes they were, I thought to myself.

Can I tie this in with another concept pertaining to another phrase which constantly comes up here - "starting a house church". And yet another - "church planter".

I am quite surprized that in reading the scriptures, there is _nothing_ about starting churches nor planting churches nor organizing such. No one is referred to as a church planter. No one is told to do such. No core group is viewed as waiting to become a church.

This isn't just an insignificant detail! Yet there are some in the house church movement who seem to be preoccupied with church planting and church planters...

The tremendous reality here is that Jesus himself will build his church. No one needs to start one or plant one because its already been done once and for all. He did it and did it right.

The divine arrangement is (1.) to preach the gospel to all and then (2.) to simply meet AS the church.

God has always been jealous for his own sovereign glory. Jealous is his name. Man's mindset says that the harvest is great, the laborers are few - therefore it must be up to us. God says, "No - pray to Me that I will send forth laborers into MY harvest."

Jesus, in whom all power is deposited, has commanded us to go into the world and proclaim the good news to every creature. The saving faith that they exercise is from God, too - lest anyone should boast. Eph 2.

Our Heavenly Father has so ordered all events that all glory goes to Him. No wonder Paul said, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." No wonder he commanded us to do all to the glory of God.

Unshackled house church Christians can easily implement these earth-shaking ideals. Let us arise and give Him glory for all things.

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David, thanks so much for this post--you articulated so well what the house church is--loved all of it! Your analogies of 'begin by beginning'  (perfect title!) were just what I needed to hear! Blessings, Cyndi

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oh, i  missed the last bit--yes the author is correct--we will not be 'called to glory' until the gospel has been preached to all the world. "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."--Matthew 24:14

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The time is ripe more than ever for house church fellowship. I left the institutional church way before the pandemic hit, but didn't know how to find other believers like myself. We need to be in prayer that God would  put it on other believer's hearts to open their homes for house church fellowships and to help us find one another!

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I don't think the subject according to scripture is so black and white, otherwise God's word given thru the prophets of the end times and Jesus' in the New would be considered 'pessimistic' according to this author. The prophets were wrong when they said 'Peace' Peace' when there was no peace. Jesus spoke of dire times coming on the earth in Matthew 24 and Revelations. We need to continue to share the gospel, but we also need to be watchful. "While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape."--1 Thess 5:3

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Added a Discussion  

Please notice the help link on the bottom of each page.

To find others go the main menu and and tap on People. From that page go to search.

Here is the Discussions is a forum for ISO or in search of. 

Your feedback is helpful indeed and it will be carefully considered. Much thanks!

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You have the permission. And you likely have the ability. 

The author here is one James Gall, a man who would know the meaning of words. Since he compiled a Concordance.

This insightful chapter is from his book: The Science of Missions, The Evangelistic Baptism.

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As you would lay the foundations for your own church at home, remember that you are acting upon an ancient Biblical and a historical precedent. A practical one, too. You are acting upon the Word of God - not reacting or overreacting to something or someone else. You are building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, the solid rock.

Do not however expect too much nor too little from your initial endeavors. Thunder and lightning won't occur. Christian meetings, although essential, are not and were not meant to be an end in themselves. Their purpose is to equip, edify, encourage, and excite the saints for something else - ministry or service. The popular view that spirituality is essentially measured by the number of "services" that one attends is quite erroneous. We are recreated in Christ for good works. Ephesians. 2:10, Titus 2:14, Hebrews 10:24. Too many Christians seem to be living for the sole purpose of attending another meeting. This is living to eat instead of eating to live. This is buying an automobile in order to drive back and forth to the filling station.

What about yourself, dear reader? How is your progress in this new direction? Have you yet decided what to call your own meetings as you consider what ministries you will undertake and whom you would invite? Simply call it a Christian meeting, gathering, home fellowship, home church, house church, small group, or just church. 

Is someone suggesting that you are being too seperatistic? Simply invite that someone to your meeting! Did someone say that you have insufficient accountability? Invite this person to enter into a personal accountability relationship with you. Do you feel that you're not qualified to initiate a meeting? Wrong. Do you feel uncomfortable to lead in prayer? Pray silently then. Your confidence in this area will come later.

Do you feel that it would be improper to eat the Lord's Supper in your own home or even outdoors? Really? For what reason?

Did you ever notice that Scripture is completely silent about "starting a church". Or "organizing a church"? This is because there is but one church and it has already begun. Thus in Scripture, we read about those who "were added to the church" - not about those who started churches in this place or another.

Objections arise. "But we have no pastor". Maybe not but it is nothing to be ashamed of. Shepherds do not magically appear. It takes time and experience. Surely one would not fault a young couple who were childless. Nor would you accuse them of not having a real family. That would be cruel. 

Yes, the New Testament often speaks of leaders. And of churches which are incomplete without them. But notice that the churches existed nonetheless, prior to the appointment of officers. 

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. Titus 1:5.

And notice that the elders were city-wide elders in the above context. Interesting.

Simply said, if you are a Christian, you are a minister-servant of Jesus Christ and a priest unto the Lord God. You are the 'highest' which God has ordained to do the 'lowest'. Mark 9:35, Mark 10:44. Act accordingly and enter into God's glorious liberty. And fail not to accept the accompanying responsibility to spread the mercy and truth of our Risen Savior, as you find, disciple, and join with like-minded friends.

So, begin by beginning. Like skating in order to learn to skate. Like riding a bike to learn to ride a bike. Yes, the hardest part of a task is getting started. That is why we must continue to encourage one another as we enter the future by returning to the past.

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Joseph Higginbotham


The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches. C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest, Regal Books, page 11.

The need for new churches is too urgent to remain the province of a few seminary-trained religious specialists. Even when we lower the bar of church membership to include so-called "new converts" who drop away after 6 months, profligates who come by transfer of church letter and babies who don't even know they are on the roll, 80% of our existing churches are numerically declining or plateaued. (Carl George, How To Break Growth Barriers, Baker Books, page 184.) What all this means is that our existing churches are failing to reach the current culture and the current generation and that our minuscule net growth rate isn't keeping pace with population growth. The 20% of our churches which are growing are doing so largely at the expense of the declining churches (which means it's transfer growth, not conversion growth) and only because they are spending huge sums of money to do it. Because our current churches are failing to reach the lost, the future expansion of the kingdom of God depends (humanly speaking) upon how effectively we can equip, encourage, empower and cajole so-called "lay people" to plant not just great numbers of new churches, but churches which are different in kind from the churches which are now failing to get the job done.

Recent church history is a monument erected of barriers to the establishment of new churches. The future expansion of the kingdom of God depends upon our obedience in identifying and dismantling these barriers. How many churches could we plant if we enlisted every so-called "layman" (an unbiblical word and concept which didn't plague the church until the third century) in the planting of new, different churches? How many churches could we plant if every Christian was taught to see his or her living room as a potential church building?

This is not untested theory. The early church turned the world upside down because they did not erect the barriers to church planting and growth which we have accepted today. When the poor beggar, lame from birth, asked alms of Peter and John, they didn't say, "We can't help you until we have a budget, a piece of land and a nice building in the suburbs, a paid preacher, by-laws and a constitution." When Peter said "Silver and gold have we none, but what I do have I give to you" (Acts 3:6), he was saying, in effect, "We offer no excuses for inaction, we acknowledge no barriers to the spread of the gospel." This article is about identifying and eliminating the barriers which today hinder the proliferation of new, different churches.

     Part One : Barriers to Church Planting

A budget is a theological document. It indicates who or what we worship. J S. Hewett.

Barrier #1 The Expense Excuse

To keep church planting deliberative and rare, Satan doesn't have to convince us that it is a bad idea; he only has to convince us that it's expensive. Even churches whose own formation and history are proof to the contrary accept the Satanic premise that church planting is too costly.

Recently I was invited to preach several times in a small, 25-year-old church which had slipped from an attendance of about 150 in the mid-80s to an attendance of about 50 in 1996. During my association with this church, I challenged them to plant at least one new church in 1996. They told me they couldn't afford to start a new church, that their attendance was so low and their budget so small that it was all they could do to pay for a mortgage and a preacher. Their own church had begun as a mere Bible study group, so I decided to ask a few leading questions.

"Where did your own church start?", I asked a group of their "regulars".

"We started up the road in brother Winter's house", answered one of the charter members.

"Who paid the mortgage at brother Winter's house?", I probed.

"Well, brother Winter did, of course - it was his house."

"Well what about paying the preacher. What did that cost you?"

"Well, the preacher", explained one of the charter members, "had a good job down at the plant so he didn't charge us a dime until we got on our feet."

"Let me get this straight", I summarized, "25 years ago you started this church without a paid preacher, a budget or this beautiful building and land, but you're telling me you can't start another one the same way you started this one? Why not? You have more resources now than you did then. Besides your priorities, what's stopping you?"

Barrier #2 Getting the Organizational Cart Ahead of the Relational Horse

There are consequences to the way we define church. When church is "where the bishop is", those who are with the bishop exclude from communion those who are not. (See Geoffrey Bromiley's Historical Theology: An Introduction for an insightful a analysis of the Ignatian and Cyprianic idea that the church is where the bishop is.) When church is where the state says it is, bishop and magistrate join in unholy collaboration to persecute - even kill - people who disagree. Ask the Montanists, Donatists and Anabaptists. When church is where right doctrine is preached, unity in Christ is replaced with unity in a creed. When church is where signs and wonders occur, charlatans are licensed to mislead and exploit the undiscerning and gullible.

Similarly, when church is defined as a place and/or an organization with a budget, by-laws, paid clergy and a mortgage, our very definition of "church" is a barrier to starting churches. So defined, new church start-ups are rare because the task appears expensive and daunting.

First-century Christians knew no such barriers to church planting. Elders were appointed after the establishment of new churches. Titus 1:5. The first "deacons" were chosen after the Jerusalem church was already thriving. (See Acts 6. Note: Christians disagree on whether these men were "deacons" in the official sense, but whether they were or not, the principle that organization follows community remains.) It is a well-documented fact of church history that many "major doctrines" were not codified until centuries after the proliferation of churches. The emphasis was on community first, organization later. The modern church has reversed the order to the detriment of both church planting and quality of life in the church.

If we continue to define church as a place/ organization with a building, a budget, paid clergy and by-laws, we place the organizational cart ahead of the relational horse. Church planting will indeed remain rare. If, however, we define church as where community and shared commitment to Christ exists, we can start new churches anywhere, at anytime, with or without budgets, preachers and buildings!

Barrier #3 The High Cost of a Low View of Non-Clergy

In the pioneering days of this country, untrained, uneducated Methodist and Baptist "lay ministers" were evangelizing the frontier and planting new churches while the Episcopalians and Presbyterians were still building seminaries to train clergy. That early continental penetration explains Baptist and Methodist numerical dominance centuries later. There's a lesson here.

I said in the introduction that the need for new churches is too urgent for church planting to remain the province of a few highly-trained professionals. What I didn't say is that empowering so-called "lay people" to start new churches is only logical if we truly believe in "the priesthood of all believers" as taught in the Bible. I Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6. It is orthodoxy elevated to orthopraxy, right doctrine translated into right practice.

The 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, believed in the "rule of faith" and the "perspicuity of Scripture". This is the idea that the major truths of Scripture are sufficiently clear to the believer who is illuminated by the Spirit such that even a simple, uneducated peasant or farmer can teach and preach with greater power and understanding than unregenerate theologians. "Evangelicals" have long given lip-service to these ideals, but it is only when we begin encouraging so-called "lay people" to start and lead churches that we can transcend the hypocrisy and priestcraft which have long hindered the advancement of the kingdom of God.

Am I advocating theological naiveté or attacking scholarship and learning? Not at all. But think about this: when the professional theologians study, teach and write theology, whose words and ideas do they analyze? Jesus. John. James. Jude. Peter. Paul. Not a Th.D. or D.Min. among them, but they changed the world.

Barrier #4 Unilateral Comity With Hell

Do not hinder him, for he who is not against you is for you. Jesus, Luke 9:50.

Perhaps not consciously, denominations have long defined church in much the same way marketers define franchise and, in doing so, have impeded the spread of the gospel and the establishment of new churches. This is called comity. A comity agreement is much like the geographical protections afforded to owners of McDonalds franchises. Under the terms of this agreement, the person or company buying the franchise is also buying exclusive rights to sell McDonalds products and trade on the McDonalds name in a specified geographical market area. The franchisor - McDonalds - agrees to restrict the sale of McDonalds hamburgers and the use of the McDonalds name within the protected area. This is why you don't see competing McDonalds restaurants across the street from each other. It's why you don't see two National League baseball franchises in the same city. It's also why we don't have enough churches to reach the masses. In the church world, comity is a sort of "gentlemen's agreement" to "compete" with other churches for the same population of people. Formal comity agreements once existed between denominations. I can still remember how angry it made some American Baptist churches in West Virginia when the Southern Baptists pushed northward into "their" state. American Baptists didn't rejoice that more gospel "hamburgers" would be available; they wanted the exclusive franchise on selling gospel hamburgers in West Virginia.

The comity/franchise idea today expresses itself every time a pastor says that instead of starting new churches we should work to build up the churches we already have. To ask for this kind of comity or geographically-exclusive franchise is to, in effect, strike a unilateral comity agreement with Hell. Satan can "plant" all the outposts and centers of rebellion he pleases while we politely respect each other's territorial claims. Satan understands who the "competition" is. It's us. We, on the other hand, limit the number of churches because we think the "competition" is other Christians, other churches, other denominations. Our polite reticence to plant churches where churches already exist is tantamount to unilateral comity with Hell. We agree not to compete with each other and, thereby, agree not to compete with Satan. A denominational church planter recently told me that his church planting efforts are impeded because his denomination is reluctant to start new churches where local pastors don't welcome "new competition".

When we plant new churches we create more staging sites for the spread of the gospel. We create more doors of entry to the kingdom. Each time we reach a new person for Christ - someone that another church failed to reach - we gain an inroad to that person's social network and family. McDonalds can't sell enough franchises to put hamburgers into the mouths of everybody. That's why there's room for Wendy's and Burger King. Similarly, there's no danger that we'll plant too many churches. The danger is that we won't plant enough.

     Part two : What Kind of New Churches Should We Plant?

The basic trouble (with the church) is that the proposed cure has such a striking similarity to the disease. Elton Trueblood in Company of the Committed.

Beware the Hungry Man Who Offers You A Meal

I used to be very hard on the 80% of our churches which are numerically declining or plateaued. I saw them as fat, lazy and sleepy - like I become after eating too much Thanksgiving dinner. I now believe the opposite is true. They are not, as I first thought, sated gluttons, groggy from gorging on sweet communion with the saints. They are starving to death. They cannot hear the cries of the spiritually hungry for the growl in their own spiritual bellies. If they had a theme song it would be Peggy Lee's rendition of Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening they go to the "services" of their churches, sit passively in rows and wonder if they are alone in their disappointment with the level of "fellowship" in their church. They are prompted to sing "I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God", they hear people addressing each other as "sister" and "brother" but wonder why their "family" never calls on the phone or drops by for a visit. They wonder why the only "brother" who inquires when they're sick is the one paid to do it. They wonder how marriages disintegrate without anybody in the "family of God" noticing a problem. They wonder if anybody would notice their own absence, if anyone would care.

I began to understand how hungry churchgoers are for the fellowship and community they read about in their Bibles when my wife, Carol, took a lonely, grieving widow to an empty Sunday School room for prayer and consolation during a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Thereafter, the woman weeped each time she saw Carol, explaining that, while she had been a faithful "everytime-the-doors-are-open" member of this church for decades, Carol was the first person who ever listened to her and prayed with her. Christians like this poor woman can't recommend the Christian life to their friends for the same reason I don't tell my friends about a Viet Namese restaurant where my wife and I once spent over $20 for dinner but left the restaurant so hungry we stopped at Taco Bell on the way home.

Someone has quipped that evangelism, reduced to its essence, is one penniless hobo telling another where he can get a meal. In one of Christ's parables, He reminds us that this "food" is not a private, brown bag lunch, but a banquet with servers and numerous guests (Luke 14:16-23). The meal, then, is more than message.

Make Them An Offer They Can't Refuse

Any business which has lost as many customers as the church has would have tried new ways long ago - but the church tends to resent all that is new. William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, p. 68.

For a long time, churches have been making people an offer they find easy to refuse. For the church-illiterate, "church" is a menu in a foreign language. It's an "opportunity" to "worship" a God they don't love, in a place where they don't feel comfortable, with people they don't know, in clothes they don't normally wear on Sunday morning, at an hour when they'd rather be sleeping or watching the Sunday morning TV political shows. Adding embarrassment to inconvenience, we ask them to turn to passages they can't find in a book they don't believe. We ask them to sing songs they neither know or like. If you've ever been the only unchurched "heathen" kid on the block, can you remember how out of place and how different you felt when all the church-literate kids knew what was coming next and you didn't know whether to sit, stand or bow? Oh, yes, and when the offering plate is passed, our church-illiterate guests feel a subtle pressure to pay for the ordeal. Little wonder people are not waiting in line to visit our churches. We're making them an offer they can easily refuse. So-called "seeker-sensitive" services - like the ones offered by Saddleback Community Church and Willow Creek Community Church - are an improvement over the annoying services most of our churches are offering, but they are not a permanent solution to the problem of "getting people to church".

FAREWELL TO EVENT-BASED CHURCH. What we are witnessing - and good riddance - is the end of event-based church services. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part churches are finding that no amount of publicity, no amount of entertainment, no amount of big-name celebrities will do much more than bring out the already-churched or church-literate. In the future, we will not attract those who are neutral or negatively-disposed toward God and church no matter how much we spend on entertainment and hype. When that happens we will have to do what we should have been doing for the past 2000 years: we'll have to take "church" to the "marketplace" of commerce and ideas.

This scares many Christian leaders to death, but it shouldn't. As society breaks down, as lawlessness increases, as technological and economic innovations (ATMs, computers, the Internet, home-based offices) increasingly insulate people from people, meaningful human contact will become more powerful. Friendship will become the "church growth strategy" of the future - the offer nobody can refuse. We must plant churches which start friendships in the marketplace and redefine friendship in the sweet community of the church family. We've never taught this. Our established churches can't teach it because they haven't learned it. For the sake of Christ, future churches must.

Acts 20:20 Vision

I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house. Paul, to the Ephesian elders, Acts 20:20.

While the Bible stops short of delineating a strategy to edify the saints and reach the lost it does, nevertheless, clearly reveal one. It's implementation is documented in the book of Acts, but the Western mind, fond as it is, of declarative statements and creedal formulations, has largely failed to see this strategy because it is reported and modeled, not codified. Some modern strategists - and I applaud them for seeking - have discerned part of the apostolic strategy. Bill Beckham, in his The Second Reformation, got it partly right when he discerned that the church God designed flies on two "wings" - a large group meeting and a small group meeting. (Bill Beckham, The Second Reformation, Touch Publications, page 25-31.) So far, so good, but then Beckham says the large group meeting is a "celebration" and a Sunday "worship" service. This is where Beckham goes wrong - along with most of today's churches. While Beckham correctly identifies the purpose of the small group "wing" as "community" and "primary care" for members, he has misrepresented the obvious use of the large group meeting: evangelism and apologetic defense of the gospel in a setting where the presence of lost people was virtually assured. ("Apologetics" is the persuasive, well-reasoned argument for the truths of the Christian faith, especially the deity of Christ and His resurrection as an historical facts.) While it goes without saying that Christians are in a worshipful state of heart when meeting together to proclaim the gospel and defend the faith, worship was a by-product, not the objective of the large group meetings.

Similarly, my friend Steve Atkerson, gets it partly right when he defines New Testament worship as the "life of obedience" described in Romans 12:1 and points out that the New Testament "never" presents worship as the objective of a church meeting. (Steve Atkerson, The Practice of the Early Church, NT Restoration Newsletter, page 7.) He errs, however, when he says evangelism, likewise, is never an objective of the church meeting. This is demonstrably false. In Acts 2:6, 2:46, 3:11-26, 5:12-16, 17:19-34 and others, the church deliberately gathered in such public places as synagogues, temple courts and the Areopagus - places where lost people were sure to see and hear their evangelistic/ apologetic message. Note the content of the messages preached in these large, public meetings. Note that unconverted sinners were present. Contrast this logical strategy of taking the gospel where the lost folks are with our pathetic practice of preaching "salvation" messages to rooms full of churched people, in church buildings, at Sunday "worship" services. The New Testament strategy - to preach the gospel where there are lost folks - is clearly better.

David Finnell gets it exactly backwards when he says the "celebration" (the Touch Ministries term for a large group church gathering) is for "believers, not unbelievers". (David Finnell, Life In His Body, Touch Publications, page 25.) If the large group meetings we see in the New Testament were not for unbelievers, why are they conducted in public places (frequently open-air) and why is the preaching obviously aimed at the unconverted?

When Christians wanted to restrict their meetings to believers only, they did so in private houses. In these private, "house to house" meetings they prayed, broke bread, confessed sin to one another, prophesied, and did many other things - always for the edification of the body. I Cor. 14: 26,31; Hebrews 10:24-25.

The new, different churches we must plant will return to the clear New Testament pattern: small group (house to house) meetings in which the saints can be edified coupled with large group (public) meetings at which unbelievers are present and can be confronted with the claims of Christ. The New Testament knows nothing of churches which meet exclusively in large groups or which use those large group meetings to preach to the already-converted or to sing repetitious "praise choruses" at the prompting of "worship teams".

Why Cell Churches Are Not The Answer

Unfortunately, many churches these days are crippled by insecure pastors who want to be the hub around which the whole church revolves... Consequently, churches end up with a lot of gifted people sitting in the pews each Sunday with their hands folded dutifully in their laps. Bill Hybels, Pastor, Willow Creek Community Church (L. & B. Hybels, Rediscovering Church, Zondervan, p. 154.)

While some of the world's largest churches are cell churches (e.g.,Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul and New Hope Community Church in Portland), I do not believe that cell churches, for the most part, have delivered on their promise to free the flaccid "laity" from priestcraft, clergy-dominance, building-dependence and organizational rather than relational order. One need only look at the contrived, convoluted and extra-Scriptural "organization chart" of a typical cell church to see that keeping the cell members and "leaders" tethered and subordinate to the senior pastor is the chief reason for promoting subunits called cells rather than autonomous communities recognized as full-fledged churches.

Calling it "the ideal model", Ralph Neighbour, who is making an industry out of cell church promotion, sets forth a 7-layer stratification of the local church which makes the organizational structure of the Roman Catholic Church appear flat and makes virtual popes out of pastors who once railed against "papists" and heirarchical church polities. (Ralph Neighbour,Where Do We Go From Here? Touch Publications, page 76.) Cell church polity has proven that pastors - even Baptist pastors - don't object to papism in principle as long as somebody else isn't pope.

CONGREGATION AS DOWNLINE. Neighbour's "ideal" cell church is structured suspiciously like Amway, Excel and other "multi-level" or "network" marketing companies in which the object is to get as many people "under" you as possible (that's your "downline"). In a multi-level marketing organization the "upline" is the guy above you. He benefits from any sales made by you and others in his "downline". What multi-level marketing does for the "upline" (the guy above you), cell church structure does for the senior pastor. By arranging "district leaders", "zone pastors", "district pastors", "zone servants", and "shepherds" underneath himself, the senior pastor can orchestrate, control and monitor every cell of the church as if he were omnipresent. "Confidences" are heard and discussed at every layer of "leadership".

CELL GROUP LEADERS AS "PASTOR-EXTENDERS". "Physician extenders" - a growing part of the health care industry - now have an ecclesiastical counterpart. The "extenders" - nurse practitioners and physician assistants - can be hired at half the cost of a "real" doctor, but can perform most of the diagnostic and even prescribing functions of a more expensive "real" doctor but only when working under the supervision of a "real doctor". In cell church structure, the titular "leaders" exist to extend the real doctor, so to speak. Instead of "equipping" the saints for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12), pastors use them to achieve ubiquity. The new, different churches of tomorrow will free the saints to find their own ministries, not tether them to another's. Spies will report on Jericho and on Canaan, not on Israel.

     Part Three : How To Plant New, Different Churches

To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables. (NASB) Jesus, Mark 4:11.

Find Out Who Can Read The Blueprints

Many would-be church planters never get past this question: "Where do I find the Christians who will help me as God's coworkers in this new and different church?" Let's begin with who not to invite to your first meeting.

DON'T INVITE FOLKS WHO ARE HAPPY AS CLAMS DOWN AT "FIRST CHURCH". Don't invite anybody who sees no contradiction between the church Jesus designed and the churches we have constructed. Jesus put it this way, He said that it's not sensible to put new wine into old wineskins because the old, inflexible wineskins cannot accomodate the still-fermenting new wine. Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-39. The old wineskins burst, the new wine spills, both are lost. Consider Jesus' example: Jesus came with "new wine" and He didn't try to pour it into the old wineskins of the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Scribes, The Chief

Priests, or the Sadducees. He didn't even go to the change-happy Zealots or to the spiritually-inclined Essenes, although several of the disciples may have been former Zealots. (See Leonard Verduin's The Anatomy of a Hybrid, Christian Hymnary Publishers, pp. 63-66.)

Jesus, the Master Builder, found 12 guys who were not heavily invested in keeping things the way they were and with these uneducated and unremarkable men, He changed the world. He "started from scratch". Do the same. Leave the folks alone down at First Church. Believe me (I've made this mistake), even if you recruit them, you'll be sorry.


1. Pray that God will put it all together. All authority in heaven and earth is deposited in Him who will build his Church, despite any barrier. The first time I was used by the Lord in the formation of a church, it wasn't even my idea. God sent the people to me.

2. Find out who can read the blueprints. Start talking to people about the obvious differences between the church Jesus designed and the church we have erected and see who understands what you're talking about. Those who ask questions about budgets, choir robes, building funds and the like can't even hold the blueprints rightside-up, much less read them. On the other hand, there may be somebody in your life who has already been prepared by God to hear what you will say. Go ahead. Show the blueprints. See who can read them.

3. Schedule a meeting. Don't use this meeting to write by-laws, elect officers and formulate a creed. That's getting the organizational cart ahead of the relational horse. Just be the church together as brothers, sisters, and servants of all. "The river (life) makes its own riverbed (structure)." (Rudy Ray, "Authority and Ministry In The Local Church", Searching Together, Spring 1984.) Pray for a deluge.

Conflict Resolution 101 the last days difficult times will come. For men will be ...irreconcilable... Paul, II Tim.3:3.

Bible-believing, evangelical churches have done a pretty fair job preaching reconciliation with God but not so well preaching reconciliation with others. The reconciliation-optional "just me and Jesus" attitude of the modern church introduces a concept of the church which would have been utterly foreign and downright unChristian to the early church (For a helpful discussion of the modern versus the apostolic view of community see Kevin Giles' What On Earth Is The Church?, IVP, pp. 15-21). Never mind that the Bible specifically instructs Christians not to go to secular courts against other Christians (I Corinthians 6:1-11), stories of litigation between seminaries and their denominations or churches and their denominations routinely embarrass us in daily newspapers and monthly magazines. In every community there are churches started, not as the good fruit of a zeal and a vision for evangelism, but as the evil fruit of an ugly, unnecessary "church split". Pastors who sense that they might get voted out take part of the flock down the street to a storefront and "start a new work", not because their hearts burn with the fires of church planting, but because they need a job. With as much schism and relational tension as exists in churches, one would think that the Bible has left us without a clue about how to handle conflict. Briefcase-carrying "consultants" offering "conflict resolution services" are finding clients and a burgeoning new industry. The new, different churches of tomorrow must model lives of reconciliation toward God and man. The Bible has not left us clueless about how to do it. Here are but a few of its principles:

Do not approach God or try to perform religious acts until you are reconciled with your brother. Matthew 5:23-24.

Be quick to reconcile (Matthew 5:25) even if it means acquiescing to a wrong done to you (I Cor. 6:7).

When wronged by a brother, (a) go first to that brother privately to seek some form of remedy. (b) If that fails, involve a small number of other Christians. (c) If that, too, fails let the whole church decide the matter. (d) Be prepared to separate from the so-called brother who will neither reconcile nor abide by the decision of the entire church. Matt. 18:15-17. (Let us not overlook that in this disciplinary process, the "church officers" deemed necessary for a "true church" are conspicuously absent. Consider also the entire context of the Corinthian correspondence, particularly 1 Cor. 6:4 - ed's note.)

Forgive , forgive, forgive and keep forgiving. Matt. 18:21-35.

It is more important to be reconciled than to be vindicated or to receive "justice" (I Cor. 6:7, Matthew 5:39-41, Luke 6:29-30). The prudent among us will overlook offenses, making reconciliation unnecessary. Prov. 19:11. The mature Christian will be last to take offense, first to forgive, first to initiate reconciliation.

Reconciliation 102

Proclaim the gospel everywhere you go. When necessary, use words. St. Francis of Assisi.

It is hard to believe what we can't see. When we preach a Christ who died to initiate reconciliation with men, we sound like reconciliation, but do we look like reconciliation? In other words, does our message fail to grip men's hearts and change their lives because, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 60s, "The Medium Is The Message"? If preaching isn't enough, if the message must be caught as well as taught, seen as well as heard, modeled as well as preached, what does reconciliation look like?

WHAT RECONCILIATION LOOKS LIKE. Reconciliation looks like Elizabeth Eliot who went as a missionary to the Auca Indians who had murdered her husband, Jim.

Reconciliation looks like my friend, Tom, who was slapped with a frivolous lawsuit by a man in his church and responded by sending his accuser a blank check and offering to settle the issue Biblically, in church, according to the provisions of Matthew 18.

Reconciliation looks like 16th century Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems, who sacrificed his chance of prison escape by stopping to save his drowning pursuer from the icy waters of "the Hondegat". (John S. Oyer and Robert S. Kreider, Mirror of the Martyrs, Good Books, pp. 36-37.)

Reconciliation looks like a man who, when defrauded of $3,000 in a business deal with a so-called "brother", forgave the debt explaining that, he, too, had been forgiven a debt (the debt of sin) and that he must forgive the debts of others. Matthew 18:23-35.

THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. Political pundits agree that Kennedy's 1960 upset victory over the better-qualified, better-known Nixon was a case of the more attractive medium beating the obscured message. By electing the young, handsome, telegenic Kennedy, we automatically rejected the twitchy, scowling, sweaty Nixon whose whole platform and message was obscured by his obvious discomfort in front of the cameras and his intractable "5 o'clock shadow." The defeat of Nixon and his message is not unlike the defeat our own message suffers when our message of reconciliation is obscured and made unattractive by behavior incongruent with reconciliation.

The new, different churches we must plant will follow the Lord in costly, self-sacrificial demonstrations of reconciliation, showing as well as telling about a Christ who came to initiate

reconciliation with men. For too long our churches have said to a watching world, "Don't do as I do, do as I say." We must plant churches which invite the world to "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ."

So, do not stand gazing up into the sky. You'll hear that heaven came down in Toronto or at some "revival meeting" or in some new movement. God is wherever "two or three" gather in His name. A few years ago a pop song said "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." We can't be with the One we love, but He has commanded us to love the one He left us with, His body the church. There's a real sense in which, to look into the faces of your house church is to look into the face of Jesus. Learn to love that face.

Joe Higginbotham is a nationally acclaimed freelance writer. He and Carol publish Discernment and are available for seminars and consultation in all matters pertaining to house churches, evangelism, and church planting. Joe is just the kind of person we love to encounter along life's road - he loves God and he loves people. He's the proverbial mountain man who has never met a stranger. He brings not years - but decades of experience and wisdom to the table.

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