The Structure of Christ’s Church

The epistles give a structure of the church to provide order within the body of Christ and individual believers. Apart from this general structure the Bible leaves great freedom for churches to construct their ministry strategically and logistically in a way to fit the church’s needs and their society’s culture. The beauty of this biblical plan is that it helps the gospel to go forward into multiple countries and societies at different times in human history, adapted to the people’s needs and culture.

  • General structure of the church (Ephesians 2 18 -21, I Peter 2:4-8)
    • Christ the cornerstone – Jesus is the founding and fundamental building block of the church providing both access, through our salvation, and now heading the body of Christ as He sits at the right hand of God the Father (Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 1:17-18).
    • The apostles and prophets
      • The apostles These were the foundation of the early church receiving their authority and teaching directly from Christ, the cornerstone, and gave their teaching directly to the second-generation Christians. The apostles’ authority (please see section under apostolic authority) was necessary for the early church to receive the information that God wished it to have in the Bible as well as to establish local congregations.
      • The prophets Defining the role of the prophet in the New Testament is more difficult than for an apostle, which is mentioned clearly and found in the church throughout Acts and the epistles. Two potential groups of prophets could be in view based on the description in Ephesians 2.
        • Old Testament prophetsThese were important because they predicted the coming Messiah and kingdom for which the church is a part. (Please see below).
        • New Testament prophetsThe context of Ephesians 2:20 implies that a role of prophet existed at the beginning of the church. Here are some points to consider regarding their potential identity and role:
          • The Bible indicates prophecy ended in the times of John the Baptist and in the early church period (Matthew 11: 13 and I Corinthians 13: 8-13). Therefore, it is doubtful prophecy continued to exist in the second generation of Christians as the apostles’ role ended with the first generation so also did the role of the prophet.
          • Historically, important prophets in the bible are named.
          • The role of telling the future and forth telling God’s truth (both allowed by the Greek word for prophecy, προφητεία, prophēteia) for the New Testament times were important. These roles probably overlapped with Christ, and at least some of the apostles who had prophetic functions in both telling forth revelation from God and predicting the future. The role of prophet was obviously important in establishing the word of God in the church.
          • When the word of God was established in the New Testament we know now that Christ speaks through the Bible and no other source is needed (Hebrews 1:2). Please see section under apostolic authority.
    • Building blocks – These are built upon Christ and the apostles. Each of us as Christians are individual building blocks within the entire structure of the church, built throughout the ages (please see our role below).
  • The church and the kingdom – This is a controversial topic and will be better detailed in a future describing the plan of God.
    • Spiritual aspects of the kingdom – In brief, the church represents the spiritual aspects of the Messianic kingdom promised in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:25-27, Isaiah 59:20-21, 53:1-12) including the coming of Messiah to die for our sins, the knowledge of the word, and coming of the Holy Spirit and its benefits.
    • Physical aspects of the kingdom – In contrast, the physical kingdom with Christ at the head, offered in the gospels (Matthew 3:7; 4:16; 10:12) which was rejected by the Jews at Christ first coming, is not yet established. Christ’s physical kingdom, including also the spiritual aspects, will commence at His millennial kingdom (Revelation 19 and 20).
  • Leadership structure of the church – The Bible provides for a leadership structure for the church which is quite flexible.
    • Elders – This description of an individual, or group of individuals, is presented in scripture as the one(s) who oversee an individual local church. It is as described by two Greek words presbuterion (Gr: πρεσβυτέριον) and ̓ episkopē (Gr: επισκοπή, also bishop) which are probably the same position (Titus 1:5-7) although this is controversial. As the early church grew functionally the episkopē (bishop) took on a regional ruling role over the presbuterion. Nonetheless, the two words may be used to teach two important functions of church leaders, the overseer function (episkopē) and the experience and wisdom function (presbuterion).
      • Relevant passages – Four major passages describe the function of the elders:
      • Underlying competenciesIn general, the elder should be able to teach, be experienced in ministry, combined with personality skills that allow gracious communication. He should demonstrate an orderly and ethical business and family life.
      • Duties of an elder (1 Timothy 3:1-7) – The Bible indicates the elder(s) should lead the church (Titus 1:5; I Peter 5:1-4). Therefore, all functions of the church ultimately should fall back to the elders as their responsibility. The details of the job description are not enumerated extensively in scripture leaving freedom to develop the elder position as the church chooses, in faith. Some functions alluded to in scriptures are:
      • Elder attitude – Elders should perform their tasks with humility, desiring to help those under their charge, being an example and not lording their position over the congregants (I Peter 5:1-4; I Timothy 3:1).
    • Deacons (diakonos, Gr: διάκονος) – This word simply means servant. It is described in the New Testament by the following:
      • Founding role – Deacon is first mentioned in Acts 6 as a group of 7 believers who assisted the apostles with administrative tasks in the first church.
      • Nonspecific mention (Philippians 1:1) – In the epistles deacons are mentioned in passing implying perhaps a leadership role of some individuals. No details or qualities are given in this verse.
      • Defined position in the church – I Timothy 3 teaches the qualities of a deacon related to a defined position. However, no specific job description is provided, and along with the meaning to the word, deacon as servant, scripture appears to leave the position free to be formed by the church as a needed. Further, it does not need to be limited to just one position but might be multiple as the church requires.
        • 1 Timothy 3:8-13 – These verses describe the qualities of a deacon, some of which overlap with those of elders, although teaching is not mentioned. In contrast, there is an emphasis on deacons being proven, first themselves and maybe also for their wives (verse 9). This may be because they were less known than the elders and not as experienced in ministry.
        • Woman deacons (V.11) – The Greek word here refers to a woman in general or a wife (gunē, γυνή) depending on context. It’s possible that women being mentioned between verses for deacon qualities allowed a potential defined position for women in the church. This intention of this verse is controversial and is often interpreted as the deacon’s wife. Godly women are vital for the proper running of the church and so having a position for them that is recognized with a job description is conceivable by the verse, although by 1 Timothy 2:12, they would not hold authority over a man or teach men in the worship service.

In summary – The epistles describe leadership offices that the church may use as the elders and the deacons. The elder(s) has the overall leadership role and may include a teaching elder (1 Timothy 5:17). The deacon has as a servant role, apparently under the elder, with job description(s) as needed by the church. Within the structure of these roles the churches appear free to develop, in faith, positions and staff needed to carry on their ministry.

  • Alternative congregant agendas – Alternative agendas among church attendees generally come from one of two types of people: Christians who are not in line with the Bible or goals of the elders, and unbelievers masquerading as Christians, who the Bible calls ‘tares.’
  • Christian church consumers- Some people appear to use the church mostly for their own desires and consuming the time and resources of the church, its leaders and caring congregants. Such church consumers might have detrimental outcomes for their church. Here are some responses from a recent Teleios survey which potentially might represent a desire for a personal agenda.

Table: Most frequently cited ratings potentially indicating using church for a personal agenda.

Who are these Christians church consumers? We do not know for certain but here are some potentials:

  • Earnest, suffering believers needing help from the church – There are afflicted Christians who are honestly seeking God. Although it may take time and emotion from the church leadership and caring church members, Scripture tells us to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:2) and assist suffering believers back to spiritual health (1 Thessalonians 5:11-12).
  • Naïve young believers who need teaching – These individuals need to be taught and discipled.
  • Immature believers seeking emotional attention with no intent to change – These members may cause significant damage, sucking away people’s time and good grace to satisfy themselves without any plan or desire to change their lives. They are not truly seeking God and provide little benefit to the body of Christ. Some of these church attendees may not even be born-again Christians.
  • Active anti-church agenda – These members use the church as a personal power base, or to aggrandize themselves in some manner. They may cause harm, at a minimum by distracting other members from seeking and serving God, and at worst by creating divisions that could divide the church or teaching incorrect doctrine (2 Peter 2:1; Jude 1:3-16). Some of these church attendees may not be born-again believers (please see below)!
Tares
    • How many tares are there at church? – Teleios performed a recent survey that explored the incidence of tares in the church using the Instagram app, Instapray, often visited by young mostly evangelical adult Christians. The key finding in the survey was that while 94% of participants, when prompted by the correct answer, indicated they were saved by grace, only 16% had confidence in the knowledge of their salvation to provide a correct answer without a written prompt.Was there a difference in the personal characteristics of this confident group of individuals who indicated without prompting they are saved by grace? Participants who most confidently identified themselves as saved by grace:
      • Adhered more closely to the practice of their faith (prayer, praise, fellowship, outreach, Bible study, sharing the Gospel).
      • Had greater confidence in the security of their salvation.
      • Indicated better personal general wellbeing but also specific measures of wellbeing such as: contentment, peace, joy and purpose.
      • Enjoyed reduced guilt levels. The church is God’s plan to implement His purposes for this time before Christ’s return. It should function efficiently with love and unity as consistent with God’s word. Attendees who push their own non-Biblical agendas, whether for emotional comfort (with no desire to change) or for power, even covered in a pseudo-spiritual façade, represent a potential danger to the church.
      • The Teleios survey reflects wonderfully how knowing and believing God’s word can impact a person’s wellbeing. Scripture indicates that our great salvation is by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9) and those who understand this well enough to confess it without prompting, as well was believing that it cannot be lost, on average enjoy better wellbeing.
    • Why would a non-believer be in church? Again, we do not know the reasons but they are probably reflected in the same reasons many Christians consumers come to church. indeed, there are few places in society where one can gather as a group to find generally such nice, giving people who are willing to listen and even perhaps provide monetary funds. Rarely can secular society in political, activist or community groups supply such a giving and attentive attitude. Consequently, when a non- believer comes to church they receive many benefits and need only to learn church jargon as well as the social expectations and they are likely to be accepted within the group.
    • How do we know if a church attendee is truly a believer? – Only God knows! However, the Bible assists us in providing measures for Christians and how to recognize a faithful believer. If we know who is faithful it makes it easier to know who is not. Here are some key sections of scripture.
      • Basic measures (1 John 2-4) – This important book describes three major criteria that should characterize a true believer in the process of maturing (i.e., those in the fellowship of Christ, 1 John 1).
        • Love – They have a biblical (agape) love. This type of love is not just an emotional feeling but is primarily based on truth and what is good for the believer, in both actions and speech (Philippians 1:9; 1 John 5:2).
        • Proper doctrine – The important truths center around Jesus and that He: came from God, is Man, is God, is the Son and is the Christ (our Redeemer, 1 John 2:22-23; 4:2 and 15; 5:1,20).
        • Obedience – A true Christian’s life is generally characterized by following the precepts of scripture (I John 2:4-5).
      • Unity (Ephesians 4:1-7) – The apostle Paul often stresses unity which involves both proper doctrine and love for each other. 
      • The true disciple (1 Thessalonians 1:5-7) – A true believer is:
        • Saved by faith.
        • Secure in salvation.
        • Accepting of the guiding principles of God’s Word in their lives.
        • Imitating scriptural principles and mature believers around them.
        • Influencing others to the faith.
      • Christian practice which is helping the church (2 Peter 1:5-8,10):
        •  Virtue
        •  Faith
        •  Knowledge
        •  Self-control
        •  Patience
        •  Godliness
        • Brotherly love
        • Giving love (agape)
      • Believer’s growth (2 Corinthians 3:18) – In short, a true Christian changes over time to become more Christ-like, as this verse states ‘from glory to glory.’
      • Spiritual outcomes
        • Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 5:9) – These are measures of a person’s maturity in the Holy Spirit and include: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, humility, self-control righteousness and truth.
        • Qualities of an elder/deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-15) – This is a wonderful group of measures we can all use to assess ourselves and include generally: family values, personal attitudes, ability to minister and community reputation.
        • Controlled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) – This means we think, act and speak as the Spirit would.
        • Able to teach and demonstrates good judgement (Hebrews 5:13-14).

        These scriptures help you assess fellow believers. Importantly, assessment is not judging! Christ judges ultimately at the end of the age (John 5:22). Our job is to consider others so we can better understand them and determine how to love and help them know or grow in Christ (1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Timothy 2:25-26). Have mercy on your friends and your family! Consider carefully if they truly understand their salvation which is so carefully laid out in Scripture. Tares need our love and prayer they need to be helped.