In the New Testament, the life of the church always precedes the order of the church. Order, in fact, flows out of life. This is why there is no prescribed church order to be found in the New Testament. The emphasis of the New Testament writers is on the life of believers, not on an outward form or order.

This was illustrated in the 1970s when a number of Christian leaders, including well-known teacher Bob Mumford, talked of restoring the order and government of the New Testament Church. One day Mumford heard the Holy Spirit say, “Bob, to have a New Testament Church you must have New Testament people.” Mumford suddenly realized that they were wrongly preoccupied with establishing an outward form and order, when God would have them focused on the life of His people. He realized that “church” would not be realized by a particular organizational structure, but in a living, functioning body of Spirit-filled believers bringing glory to Jesus Christ.

In a similar way, many today are seeking a New Testament or apostolic order for their church or churches. Throughout history there have been many such attempts, and the current quest is merely the latest of these unending efforts to produce a New Testament church order. The problem is that these attempts are based on the erroneous assumption that an outward structure and order can be extracted from the New Testament.

The Variety of Order in the New Testament

The truth is that the New Testament witnesses to a variety of church order without prescribing any one of them. Dr. David Scholer, late Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, says,

"The patterns of authority in the early church are varied and fluid. There are no fixed patterns, terms or offices. No single church structure and/or pattern of authority or office is validated by the New Testament. The patterns of authority in the early church are determined and described primarily by the functions they served within the church."

The book of Acts, which gives the only history of the early Church, does not present a static church order. The order of the church in Jerusalem is different from the order of the church in Antioch, and Antioch is different from the order of the churches established by Paul. The epistles witness to an even greater variety of church order and ministry. Commenting on this diversity, Dr. Gordon Fee, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Regent College, says, “This is hardly the stuff from which one can argue with confidence as to how the early church was organized—or whether it was!”

For example, the church in Jerusalem is made up of Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah. They attend synagogue, offer sacrifice at the Temple, and keep the Jewish rituals and festivals. They do have their own gatherings in homes and within the Temple complex, but are generally looked upon as a sect within Judaism. The Twelve initially provide leadership for the young church and Peter is obviously the most prominent. Sometime after the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7, and for reasons that are not clear, James, who is not one of the Twelve, replaces Peter as the most prominent leader in the church at Jerusalem.

In contrast, the church in Antioch (Acts 13) is primarily a Gentile church. The believers there do not attend synagogue or keep Jewish traditions and festivals. The Twelve or other apostles are not mentioned as having any influence in Antioch. It seems, at this early stage, that prophets and teachers are the leaders of the church in Antioch. They are the ones through whom the Holy Spirit confirms the missionary calling of Paul and Barnabas and they are the ones who lay hands on them before they depart on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4).

The church in Corinth is different still. In spite of serious problems, including sexual immorality, divisive cliques and chaotic expressions of Spiritual gifts, Paul, in his first letter to this congregation, does not appeal to any leader or group of leaders to deal with the problems. He, rather, appeals to the entire congregation to do what is right. The order of their gatherings, as revealed in 1 Cor. 14:26-31, show no sign of any leader who is “emceeing” the meetings. It is a sort of open, freewheeling meeting with congregational involvement. Although there is no mention of a bishop, elder, apostle or other leader of this congregation, Paul commends them in 1:7 because they, Come short in no gift.

The Pastoral Epistles witness to a still different style of church order. In these letters Paul uses the term “elder” (presbuteros) for the first time and qualifications are given for those who would serve as episcopoi (bishops) or diakonoi (deacons). Adolph Harnack, however, cautions against making too much of the new terminology and thinks that “elder” may merely denote the old as opposed to the young, and John Knox says, “We are not dealing with formal offices, but with functions for which persons were as certainly spiritually endowed as for prophecy and healing.” New Testament scholar, James D. G. Dunn, thinks the pastorals do witness to a more formal order of church and ministry, but insists, “The pastorals should not be given primacy over the other New Testament writings when it comes to formulating a theology of ministry.”

Order Flows from Life in the New Testament

Why does the New Testament reflect such diversity in outward form and order? The answer seems clear. The New Testament writers are obviously more concerned with the inward life of the Church than with the outward form through which that life is expressed. When the apostles were supernaturally released from prison, they were instructed by the angel of the Lord to, Go stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life (Acts 5:20). And Jesus Himself had said, I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly (John 10:10b).

Commenting on the many different forms of order and ministry in the New Testament, Michael Harper says it only makes sense, “If you view them as the ad hoc promptings of the Holy Spirit amidst the most taxing circumstances.” In other words, order flows out of the life of the church. In his classic work, The Primitive Church, Professor Burnett Streeter says,

"Whatever else is disputable, there is, I submit one result from which there is no escape. In the primitive church there was no single system of church order laid down by the apostles. During the first hundred years of Christianity, the Church was an organism alive and growing—changing its organization to meet changing needs. Uniformity was a later development."

The Church is not like a McDonald’s franchise where uniformity of food, surroundings, and service are the same everywhere. Big Macs look and taste the same in Bangor, ME as they do in Houston, TX. Not so the Church! Under the dynamic guidance of the Holy Spirit, the order and structure changes with different times, places, and situations. At its very core, the Church is an organism--not an organization--alive and growing, changing its form to meet changing needs.

If life in the Spirit rather than a particular order was the emphasis of the New Testament Church, should it not be the emphasis of the Church today? Should not the churches today, therefore, be seeking a revival of New Testament life rather than an elusive apostolic order that cannot be found in the New Testament? And if, in the first century, this life was expressed through a variety of outward forms, should we not expect it to be expressed through a variety of forms today?

A Major Hindrance to Revival

The insistence on a particular church order may, in fact, be the major hindrance to genuine revival in the Church today. Professor James L. Ash, Jr. says that virtually all historians of early Christianity agree that the institutionalization (organizing, ordering) of early Christianity was accompanied by the loss of Spiritual gifts and power. The key for the Church of the 21st century will, therefore, not be found in a particular church order or government, but in a return to the life and message of Jesus and the New Testament. Streeter stated it well when he wrote in 1929, “It may be that the line of advance for the Church of today is not to imitate the forms, but to recapture the spirit (life) of the primitive Church."

Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, historian, Bible teacher and ordained minister. His latest book, PURSUING POWER: How the Historic Quest for Apostolic Authority & Control Has Divided and Damaged the Church, is available from Amazon and at www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.