As one person put it: "The New Testament church composes all the saved throughout the whole world. This is true because, according to Acts 2:47, the Lord adds `to the church daily such as should be saved'. Over the church universal there is no functioning government on earth. There is no central earthly headquarters. The New Testament speaks of the church in a local setting such as the church at Antioch, at Ephesus or at Corinth. People in a given geographical area work together as a local congregation. Each of these is independent. There is no sort of ecclesiastical tie that binds them into a highly centralized organization. They may cooperate with other congregations in the performance of a needed work. But each one still maintains its own autonomy."
It is further pointed out that the Greek word for church is "ekklesia," which means "a gathering or assembling of people." With this understanding it is believed that wherever two or three people are gathered together in the name of the Lord, there is where you will find Christ's church (Matthew 18:20). With such an interpretation, it then becomes easy to view the early apostles as merely traveling preachers who went from town to town proclaiming the gospel and then leaving the newly converted Christians to assemble together and worship God on their own with nothing more than their newly found faith to guide them.
With such an impression, they accept as fact that the earliest Christians didn't have any formal church organization except perhaps on a individual, local gathering level. They further believe that all these individual gatherings were not united together or directed or given guidance by any central (main, primary, higher) organizational authority.
Those who accept this understanding of the scriptures point to the Catholic church as an example of how people have put their trust in the arm of flesh, rather than relying on the Spirit of God for their direction. They feel it is wrong for anyone to follow the council and direction of one man (i.e., the Pope) or a group of men, no matter how spiritual they may seem. They further explain that an over regulated church bureaucracy does more to promote false doctrine and lead people astray from the truth of God's word than does a large group of independent gathering of believers who are not manipulated by some man-made organization.
As one person put it, "The church is fallible for it consists of sinners saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8,9). Complete truth isn't found in a denomination. Jesus Christ is truth (John 14:6) and His word is truth. Therefore, He is fully able to teach us about Himself. We don't need fallible people to reveal complete truth."
Although adherents to such a belief are genuinely sincere in their convictions, the Bible itself provides us with an abundance of information that the original apostles did set up a very structured organization with a central head that had jurisdiction and oversaw the affairs of all the various gatherings of Christians throughout the known world.
To understand what kind of a church Christ did build, let's take a look at some scriptural examples.
In Acts 15 we learn that while Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch, they had a rather heated difference of opinion with certain other Christians over whether the Gentiles should be taught the gospel or not. At some point during this debate, it was determined by both sides that they "should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question" (verse 2). We need to ask ourselves: Why did they seek to clear up this disagreement by appealing their case, not only to the apostles, but also the elders in the church who were at Jerusalem?
The word "elder" comes from the Greek word "presbuteros" which can signify either an elderly person, or can refer to a term of rank or office. In Acts 14:23 we read that as Paul went about his missionary duties, he "ordained elders in every gathering or assembling of people." The position of an elder is an "ordained" position, and obviously Paul didn't go into every city ordaining people to the position of old men. Therefore the position of an elder has to refer to a position of rank, office, or title of authority within the church. And, indeed, a study of early church history verifies this fact.
Furthermore, since Paul ordained elders in each city he visited, why did both sides of this argument take their case before the elders in Jerusalem rather than asking the elders in Antioch, which is where the debate was taking place? If each local gathering acted independently of any outside authority, wouldn't the elders in Antioch have as much authority to resolve this dispute as the ones in Jerusalem? Apparently not. It's obvious that Paul and the others felt that the authority to settle this question rested with the apostles and elders who resided in Jerusalem. If that is the case, then the elders in Jerusalem must have had greater authority than the ones in Antioch. That means there was a hierarchy of rank or degrees of authority within the church among the elders. In fact, this is the common understanding among most Biblical scholars of ancient Christian history.
Once they had arrived in Jerusalem, "the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter" (verse 6). In other words, they convened a conference, or held a council to listen to each side of the argument. Apparently, the debate became rather raucous and heated, with both sides strongly disputing with one another. At some point in this debate, Peter rose and spoke to the assembled Christians. The implications from the scriptures seem to indicate that when he did this, the crowd quieted down to hear what he had to say. Peter told how he himself had preached the gospel to the Gentiles at the command of God, and then gave his approval to Paul's side of the argument.
When he was through talking, rather than continuing the debate, "then all the multitude kept silence and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul" who then went on to declare "what miracles and wonders had [been] wrought among the Gentiles by them" (verse 12). When these two men had finished their defense, the apostle James then spoke at length on this subject, agreeing with Barnabas and Paul's position. "Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas" who were sent with letters written by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem explaining the new doctrine.
There are several things that become evident as we look at this event. First, we notice that the elders in Antioch were to be appraised of the new doctrine concerning the Gentiles and were expected to obey the decision of the elders in Jerusalem. It is clear from this that the elders in Jerusalem had more authority than did the elders in Antioch. Secondly, we read that "the whole church" consented to this. Obviously the term "the whole church" doesn't mean that the decision was reached by putting the question to a referendum vote of all the local gatherings of Christians. The decision was made by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, but then it became the law for each and every believer regardless of where they gathered.
We read in Acts 16:4, "And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep that were ordained [ordered] of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem" (italics added). The New International Version translates it, "As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey" (NIV). In other words, the council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem had the authority to make policy decisions that "the whole church" was to abide by.
This decision was not merely a suggestion but rather was a decree from the leading authorities in Jerusalem. It was a pronouncement that carried with it the validity of law for those who called themselves Christians. Therefore, the third thing we learn is that all the local churches were expected to accept this decision without any hesitation or dispute. The clear implication is that every gathering of the church was to willingly submit themselves to the orders which came from the church authorities in Jerusalem. To do this means that all the local churches had to be united in recognizing the apostles and elders in Jerusalem as having jurisdiction and final authority over them.
But do apostles have the same level of authority as elders? I doubt that any modern-day Christian believes they do. So, the fourth thing we can learn from this story is that the apostles had a higher position of leadership within the church than the elders who were in Jerusalem. Notice the effect Peter had on the multitude when he stood up to speak. Not only did everyone become quiet and listen when he spoke, but no one argued against him afterwards. Furthermore, it was after the apostle James added his approval towards Paul and Barnabas that the decision was reached in their favor without any further dispute. It is therefore abundantly clear that the apostles were very much in charge of the meeting and their pronouncements were considered as the final word on the subject.
The fifth thing we learn is that there was an organizational structure that allowed for discussion on various issues that affected the faith, beliefs and practices of all Christians everywhere. This was not the first time such a conference had been called, nor was this the last. In the first chapter of Acts we read of a conference that was called to decide who was to take the place of Judas Iscariot to "be ordained a witness with us of his resurrection" (verse 22). From other writings we know that in 62 A.D. another conference was called to select someone to take the place of the apostle James, who had been serving as the Bishop of Jerusalem when he was murdered.
In Acts 6:1 we read, "And in those days when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration." By this time, the number of people who had converted to Christianity had multiplied into the thousands and had spread into many different cities and into many different cultures. One of the things the apostles had decreed, or ordered was a collection of food, money and other necessities from Christian believers in every city. These items were sent to Jerusalem and from there the apostles themselves daily distributed these items to the Christian widows and the poor.
However, because of the increasing scope of this work, it seems that some people felt the food was not being distributed equitably. We know that the Grecians thought that their widows were not getting their fair share. "Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them (this is another conference or meeting) and said, It is not reason that we should leave the [preaching of] the word of God and serve tables [i.e., distribute food on a daily basis]. Wherefore brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business" (verse 4).
What we see here is that the apostles formed a committee to oversee and take care of the collecting and distributing of the food. Two things become clear to us from this story. First, the apostles were definitely in charge of the whole church. They ordered the collection of food to be conducted in every Christian gathering, and each church obeyed their decree. Consider the words of Paul to the Corinthians when he wrote, "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. [You should follow the same orders I gave them.] Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem. And if it be meet that I go also, they shall go with me" (1 Corinthians 16:1-4, emphasis added).
We see that, not only did the apostles have the authority to order the Christians to provide for this food, but they also had the authority to order the formation of a committee to oversee this work. Furthermore, notice there is no mention of any elders being part of this decision making process, once again showing the higher authority of the apostles over the elders in Jerusalem.
The second thing we clearly see is that this committee of seven men had universal jurisdiction over all the local churches and with which all the local churches cooperated and participated. The collection and distribution of food was not done exclusively on a local level but was overseen and directed over the entire church system by one, central church committee who performed their duties under the direction of the twelve apostles. In order for such a system to be successful, all the local gatherings of Christian believers had to be united into one, common, collective church organization.
In Acts 11:27 we read, "And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch." We're told that the name of one of these prophets was Agabus. Notice that these prophets came from Jerusalem and were sent to the city of Antioch. They were not members of the local church there, but came representing the authorities in Jerusalem. In Acts 13:1 we're also told that "Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul" were also prophets and teachers.
One non-Mormon, Christian Bible commentary says of the position of prophets and teachers in the early Christian church, that they "ranked next to the Apostles, and were regarded with them as the foundation upon which the church was built. (Eph. 2:20)." (The Rev. J.R. Dummelow, M.A)
According to another Christian Bible commentary, it says of Acts 13:2, "'As they ministered to the church' - The word denotes the performance of official (their italics, not mine) duties of any kind, and was used to express the priestly function under the OT. Here it signifies the corresponding ministration in the Christian church." (Jamison, Fausset and Brown)
The fact that the position of prophets and teachers were "ranked next to the apostles" in authority shows a hierarchy of command and an organizational structure within the Christian community. Furthermore, from the scriptures we see that their official duties were not confined to the local church in which they lived, but had jurisdiction over the entire body of believers.
Then there is the office of a bishop. The word bishop comes from the Greek word "episkopos" which means "overseer". It was the duty of the bishop, in the early Christian church, to oversee the gathered saints in each city over which they presided. But he did not oversee his own congregation without the guidance or direction from those in authority over him. We know this because of the letter which the apostle Paul wrote to Bishop Titus giving him instruction on how to perform his duties, and Bishop Timothy who received two letters of instructions from Paul.
And then there are deacons. That word comes from the Greek word "diakonos" which means a minister, or a servant to a minister. It appears that in the early Christian church, a deacon served under the direction of the bishop, who served under the direction of the apostles.
All of these positions clearly shows an organizational structure with people in authority, both within individual, local gatherings, as well as over the entire body of believing Christians. More than that, there was a hierarchy of rank or authority among these Christian leaders. In other words, there was a clear chain of command, making it a "church" organization in the truest sense. And each local gathering of the early Christians belonged to this universal "church."
Far from showing that the early Christians were just a disconnected body of believers who were not managed by any man or group of men, but who relied solely on the Holy Ghost for their direction, the scriptures show just the opposite. We see a very well structured organization which united all Christians under the leadership and supervision of the twelve apostles who regulated all the affairs of the church.
But this shouldn't surprise us. When the Lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He similarly organized them into a well structured church. Moses was instructed by the Lord to set Aaron apart as the High Priest of the tabernacle. He was in charge of overseeing all the priestly duties that were to be performed in the temple. Serving under him and assisting him were his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. In addition to them, the Lord also instructed Moses to ordain every male of the tribe of Levi to serve as priests. These became known as the Levitical priests, but their duties were supervised and regulated by Aaron, the High Priest. In the days of King David, this organizational structure became even more complex and intricate.
It is argued that since Jesus did away with the law of Moses, He also did away with the need for a structured church. But, as we have seen, that is not the case. What we see instead is that God merely changed the form of His church organization. The Lord is not a God of confusion, but a God of order. As such, in all ages, God has established a certain order in which things are to be done. Even the stars and planets are organized and operate within a structured setting.
Also, consider the word which Paul wrote to the Ephesians when he said, "And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:9-11)
Notice that Paul talked about "principalities and powers in heavenly places.'' The word principalities comes from the Greek word "arche" which means, in this sense, "the first place, principality, rule, magistracy." The equivalent Hebrew word is "mar'ashah" which means "place at the head, dominion, head place." The dictionary defines principality as "The position or authority of a prince or chief ruler. In theology an order of angels." This word comes from the Latin "principalitat" which means "first place, or superiority."
But notice that Paul uses this word in the plural sense. That means, in heavenly places there are many chief rulers, or principle positions of authority. This indeed suggests a hierarchy or order within the ranks of angels. In 1 Thessalonians. 4:16, and in Jude 1:9 it talks about the archangel, Michael. Obviously, an archangel is greater in authority than a mere angel. The clear implication is that Michael, as an archangel, has jurisdiction or authority over other chief, or ruling angels. And to be a "principle" angel infers that there are descending ranks of angels under their direction.
So we see that in all God does, there is organization that unites everything into one cohesive structure.
Even history itself shows that the "body of believers" were always thought of as belonging to one institutional church system. For those who point to the Catholic church as having corrupted the way Christ set up His church, they can't adequately show where the transition from individual local gatherings changed into a large, apostate bureaucracy.
In fact, we know that, after all the apostles had died, the bishops convened their own conference in 108 AD in the city of Smyrna to discuss the rise of heretics within the church and how to combat it. We therefore see that, shortly after the death of the apostles, the bishops assumed the role of providing overall guidance and direction to the entire body of believers. In time, however, the bishops began to argue among themselves over which one of them had more authority than another. But, in all of this debate there was never any argument about whether there should be any central leadership or not. The only disagreement was centered around who should be part of the church's central governing body.
In 1521 Martin Luther was the first person to begin a protest movement to reform what he felt was the erroneous teachings of the Catholic church. Even so, he never advocated that the "body of believers" were to be nothing more than individual gatherings without any central leadership. Today, the Lutheran church is still a well structured organization which incorporates all members of their faith under one governing rule. Although the form of that primary administration may be different, the same can be said of the Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Presbyterians and many other mainstream Protestant churches.
The idea of a community of believers with no head or main leadership to which the faithful followers of Christ are subject to is a relatively modern concept that is not supported by either the scriptures or by history and bears no resemblance to the church which Christ built.