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United in message, mission, and organization

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Archives / 2017 / April



United in message, mission, and organization

Mark Finley

Mark A. Finley, DDiv, serves as an assistant to the president, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.


Throughout the New Testament, Jesus emphasized the divine nature of the church. When Peter confessed that Jesus was the divine Son of God, our Savior replied, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18, KJV). The church cannot be classed as some human, bureaucratic, manmade institution; it is a divine movement raised up by God. Its purpose is to nurture and foster the spiritual life of each believer and equip each one to use their gifts in the proclamation of the gospel in a life of self-sacrificial service to others. The church is the body of Christ, the flock of God, the pillar and ground of the truth, a holy temple, and the remnant of His seed. It is “God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world.”1

Church organization in a growing church

With the ordination of the twelve disciples, Christ laid the foundation for the organization of His church. The ordination of the twelve was a crucial step in Christ’s plan for accomplishing heaven’s mission to the world.

The church’s organizational structure continued to grow and more fully develop in the early decades of Christianity. In the book of Acts, church organization is paramount to the unity of the church. Without organization, the church’s message could easily have been hijacked by false teachers and its mission sidetracked. Without church organization, the biblical message of truth, based on the Word of God, would have been distorted and the mission of Christ diluted.

Let us review church organization in the book of Acts and notice its function in nurturing a believer’s spiritual life, preserving the church’s message, and fostering its mission.

In Acts 1, a united group of 120 believers met in the upper room to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (vv. 13–15). They were united in their love for Christ. They were committed to His teachings. Their hearts beat with an overwhelming desire to share His love with everyone they met. The record states that they were in “one accord,” seeking God for the outpouring of His Spirit and power to reach the world (Acts 1:8, 14, 15).

A potential problem arose at the end of the chapter. The position vacated by Judas’s betrayal and death needed to be filled. The early church considered two of their number as possibilities. This could have been problematic. These New Testament believers could easily have taken sides with hardened positions on the name they thought was God’s will for the position. Instead they mutually agreed to seek God’s wisdom on the matter (v. 24).

The fact that they chose two when they were going to select only one indicates that there were differences of opinion among the group. This experience of selecting one over the other could have easily divided the church, but they agreed on a process of discerning God’s will and also agreed to accept the outcome. They were willing to surrender their own convictions to the revealed will of Christ through the selection process. Even in its embryonic stage, the church was learning lessons of submission for the sake of unity and mission.

In Acts 2, 3,000 people were baptized on the day of Pentecost. They united with the church and continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine, fellowship, and prayers (vv. 41, 42). Those baptized became part of an organized movement. They were taught the “apostles’ doctrine,” enjoyed the believers’ “fellowship,” and joined in in the congregation’s “prayers.”

According to Acts 6, as the church grew it faced new challenges. The Greek widows were not receiving their fair proportion in the food distribution. Once again there was open discussion and a mutually agreed upon solution. A representative group of deacons was chosen. These deacons ministered to the needy Greek widows and maintained the unity of the church in a time of crisis. They were chosen because they had “good reputations,” were “full of the Holy Spirit,” and were guided by divine “wisdom” (Acts 6:3, NKJV). At each step of its development, the early church refined its organizational structure for the sake of nurturing the growing church, safeguarding its teachings, and fostering its mission.

Acts 9 records the conversion of the apostle Paul. Immediately upon Paul’s Damascus road conversion, the Holy Spirit led him to Ananias, a representative of the church. The Spirit did not, at this juncture, lead him into the wilderness to spend time alone; neither did the Spirit send him out immediately on an evangelistic mission. He was brought into contact with a representative of God’s church. One reason for this was to illustrate the importance of church organization and authority. In the book The Acts of the Apostles, Ellen White puts it this way: “Thus Jesus gave sanction to the authority of His organized church and placed Saul in connection with His appointed agencies on earth.”2 Paul was nurtured in his faith by Ananias and further taught about God’s plan of church organization.

In Acts 15, the New Testament church faced a critical juncture in its development. A conflict arose over how Gentile believers, who now had accepted Christ, should relate to Jewish customs, especially circumcision. This was no little matter. Circumcision had been practiced by Jewish believers for millennia and was part of their identity and deeply imbedded in their culture. Consequently, Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissension and dispute” with these Jewish leaders (Acts 15:2, NKJV). They mutually agreed to refer the matter to the Jerusalem Council. The Jerusalem Council had the authority to make a decision that not everyone was pleased with but that the majority of the church accepted. Its decision was accepted by the church at large and brought unity to the body of believers.

Unity came as individuals surrendered to the authority of the larger body. My point here is not the decision that was made but the process by which this decision was made. A complex issue was brought from the local church to a larger administrative body. Both the leadership and membership agreed to accept the decision of the Jerusalem Council.

A very difficult issue that was troubling Christianity was settled by the willingness of both sides to accept the decision of the Jerusalem Council. People had convictions on both sides of this question, but most were willing to accept the decision of a representative body of leaders for the sake of God’s mission.

This general meeting of believers with delegates from varying churches brought unity to the body of Christ, and once again they focused on what was the most important thing on God’s heart—saving lost people. Think of what could have happened if the rest of the book of Acts was spent discussing the varying sides of a debate over circumcision for Gentile converts to Christianity. Imagine the tragic impact on the growth of the church that an endless debate on this matter would have had. Wisely, the New Testament Church accepted the decision of the larger body, the general council of the church, and passionately moved on with mission.

In Acts 20:17–32, the apostle Paul instructed the elders of the church on both building up and safeguarding the flock of God. He counseled them that one of the functions of church organization and an ordained ministry was to protect the church from false teachers and to keep it focused on mission. Once again, he emphasized the importance of church organization and its relation to both building the faith of the church members and protecting them from false teachers.

Paul’s letters to Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae and his counsel to Timothy and Titus indicate a cohesive organizational structure with elders, deacons, and deaconesses. A financial sharing plan emerged as Paul took an offering for the suffering believers in Jerusalem and encouraged that “those who preach the gospel shall live from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14, NKJV).

When we differ

There will be some issues where honest people see things differently In these instances the gospel invites us to treat one another with respect and dignity. But this one thing is clear: the gospel also demands that we place a high priority on the unity of the church and respect the decisions of the corporate body. The unity of the church comes near to the heart of God, and the organization of the church represents a central truth in the New Testament.

Without church organization, the church would quickly develop a congregational system of theological pluralism, weakened mission, and organizational chaos. To disregard or minimize the corporate decisions of representatives of the world church creates disunity and pains the heart of God. The New Testament church was unified in its commitment to Christ, His present truth, His prophetic message, His mission to the world,and His divinely established church organization.

In the development of church policy, faithfulness to the unchanging truths of Scripture and a commitment to mission guide the church. The policies of the church never are a substitute for the eternal, unchanging truths of Scripture. They are mutual agreements of trust by representative leadership in harmony with Scripture to facilitate mission. They are to be neither exalted above Scripture nor treated lightly, or else either a hierarchical lifeless structure on the one hand or organizational chaos on the other will develop.

The unity of the church is maintained when our commitment to Christ is foremost, when we are united in the truths of Scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, when we place priority on mission and are moved by what moves the heart of God, and when the mutual agreements or policies of the church serve as the foundation for a system of church governance and authority. To neglect any one of these four aspects of unity would be to invite disunity, a dismantling of biblical truth, and a distortion of mission. To down- play church organization or authority is to leave the church in disarray and fundamentally erode its mission.

May we be filled with the Spirit of Christ, proclaiming the message of Christ, fulfilling the mission of Christ, and upholding the church of Christ. Then and only then will the church arise to fulfill its destiny and reveal the glory of God to a waiting world and watching universe.

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1 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 9.

Ibid., 122.

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