House Churches & Institutional Churches, Part 6

Getting organized

We need to talk about just what it is that elders should do. Not what they do, but what they should do. You see, if the early church was led by city-wide elders, what did they do?

It’s not that easy to answer, since we’ve always read the passages about elders in light of a small, autonomous congregation. So let’s take a fresh look.

Acts 20

(Act 20:28 NRS) “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”

In Acts 20, Paul charges the Ephesian elders to “watch over” (or “watch out for”) the church and to “oversee” the church there by defending the church against “fierce wolves.”

An “overseer” is a person in management. “Supervisor” or “superintendent” would be a good translation in most contexts.

It’s easy to read an authoritarian interpretation into this passage, and there certainly is a measure of authority in view. But the passage has to be read in light of —

(Mat 20:25-28 ESV) 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,  28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Elders, therefore, must first be servants. They can’t lead people to be like Jesus by being unlike Jesus. It just won’t work. Therefore, I think elders should exercise as little of the authority God has given them as is consistent with performing their assigned duties.

Now, knowing Paul, the “savage wolves” were likely false teachers — either Judaizers or proto-Gnostics. That is, these were teachers who either wanted to insist that the saved be marked by circumcision, celebration of Jewish feasts and the Sabbath, and the like, or else Greeks who wanted to declare the Creation (including our bodies) evil and so separate God and Jesus from the Creation.

Wolves and false teaching

We see that Paul was worried about false teaching, but not just about any false teaching. He was worried about teaching that diminished the sufficiency of the gospel to save or that divided Christians along racial or ethnic lines.

However, we also see from such passages as Romans 14 that Paul tolerated doctrinal disagreements that did not threaten unity and the core of faith in Jesus. Indeed, the main difference between the controversy over eating meat discussed in Romans 14, where disagree was to be tolerated, and eating meat controversy discussed in Galatians, where those disagreeing were declared apostate, is the hearts and attitudes of those disagreeing. If you disagree and yet accept those you disagree with as in full fellowship and unity, then Romans 14 commands acceptance and full fellowship. If you disagree and damn those you disagree with, then you just might be teaching “another gospel” and be damned, as Galatians teaches.

I’ve covered this distinction is some detail in Do We Teach Another Gospel? and in the GraceConversation dialogue, and don’t want to have to recover that ground here.  But it’s a critical point when it comes to discussions of unity. If someone has to agree with me on everything to be united with me, I will be a very lonely person in a very small church. But if I’m in fellowship with everyone no matter what they believe, then the Kingdom is fully come and we’re already in heaven, and I don’t think that’s true just yet. I’m pretty sure the world is still lost and broken.

The essential doctrinal agreements are taught plainly in the text —

(Gal 5:6 ESV)  6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

(1Jo 3:23 ESV)  23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

It’s faith in Jesus and love — an active, sacrificial love. In other words, it’s submission to Jesus as King and following him in his life of service, submission, and sacrifice. That’s the irreducible core. (Regarding baptism, see the links in the previous post.)

And therein are the lines of fellowship. We can also approach the question also in terms of —

* Faith: The belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God = Jesus is the Christ

* Hope: The belief that Jesus will keep his promises to reward those with faith = Jesus is Savior

* Love: Following Jesus by becoming like him in our attitudes and actions towards others = Jesus is Lord

Back to elders

So it’s not that hard to imagine an eldership over many churches that holds the churches to these standards. And such a system would permit the community of believers to remain united despite disagreements over the sorts of issues mentioned by Alexander Campbell in the Christian System (see prior post). Take, for example, the Synod of Dort that he said was no barrier to fellowship.

The Synod of Dort established TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) as the five key elements of Calvinism. Now, I’m not a Calvinist. But here’s the cool thing. You can be wrong on such speculations and still go to heaven — where, I imagine, both sides will be surprised to learn the real answer!

Hence, it’s entirely possible for an eldership over multiple congregations to limit their “guarding of the flock” to the core issues and not have to sort out Reformation-era debates.

A little history of damning each other

In early church history — the history that’s behind the New Testament — we see Paul and other apostles upset about doctrinal issues, but very rarely damning over issues. There are issues that could cause someone to fall away and be lost, but these are contradictions of the core doctrines discussed in the last post. The vast majority of issues that divide churches are very far removed from such concerns.

And yet soon after the apostles died, the church began damning and dividing over some very odd things. The Nestorians — making up a large portion of the Asian church that may have been as large as the European church as the time — were damned for refusing to call Mary “Mother of God.” The Nestorians established churches at least as far east as China! But the Europeans deemed them damned and their history has been ignored in European thought.

The Eastern Orthodox were damned over whether communion bread should be leavened and whether the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son rather than just the Father.

The Lutherans and Reformed Churches refused fellowship over consubstantiation. And on it went, with Christians dividing and fighting and damning over all disagreements.

Stone, the Campbells, and others tried to restore unity by teaching that only faith in Jesus and submission to baptism were essential to fellowship, but the next generations returned to old habits, damning over fellowship halls and the cup count during communion.

Stone, the Campbells, and Paul the apostle got it right. Most others did not.

Preliminary conclusions

So, yes, indeed, elders are responsibile for sound doctrine, but sound doctrine includes tolerance of those who disagree on non-core issues. Which should mean that a city-wide fellowship is possible.

But, of course, doctrine is not the only issue when it comes to a citywide fellowship. But for most of us, it’s the biggest.

We’ll take up some other issues in the next post.

I’m not advocating any form of denominationalism. The cure for denominationalism isn’t the creation of a new, better denomination! It’s learning to think in entirely new ways.

Neither is the cure the formation of autonomous congregations that treat other churches are rivals and competitors. Merely listing yourself in the Yellow Pages under “Nondenominational” hardly makes it so, especially if you act like a one-congregation denomination. And that’s the nature of many (not all) “community” churches.

No, the cure for denominationalism is unity within the Kingdom of God, submission to a single King, and the removal of all pretenders to his throne. And unless we work for unity, we participate in the sin of division.


About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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17 Responses to House Churches & Institutional Churches, Part 6

  1. Price says:

    It seems to me that over the past 50 years that the CoC has taken greater pride in individual church autonomy than in unity. To avoid the "denoms" which is spelled almost exactly like demon, we have moved mountains and building locations to avoid being like them… I've always wondered if we had some sort of centralized body to break down the theological discussions into what was Certain, Flexible, Questionable and Objectionable that we would stop having the kind of disagreement and division that has occurred. At one point there was some role that the CoC colleges and Universities played in that but now we just quote whomever we choose and call the others progressives. However, it might cause as many issues as it prevents…but I like the idea of some organization, especially as it relates to common agreement of good doctrine.

  2. David Himes says:

    At the risk of being missunderstood, I want to point out how the CofC has focused so much on the Bible, we often miss Jesus. There is a sense in which we worship the Bible more than we worship Jesus. This often is most clearly manifest in the pre-occupation of elders on doctrinal matters rather people.

    At the web-site of the congregation where I worship, the web site includes eight statements regarding "what our family believes". Of those eight, six begin with the phrase, "Our family believes the Bible teaches …"

    While seemingly innocuous, it reveals a focus that is more on the legalistic interpretations of the Text than on the Spirit Jesus imparts to us thru our relationship with Him.

    I find this focus common among the congregations with which I have experience.

  3. David Himes says:

    Strictly speaking, from a linguistic point of view, the greek which we translate is as "word of God" is not a reference to the Text. "Scriptures" is a reference to the Text, but "word of God" is really referring to "knowledge of God."

    And interestingly, I don't believe there is any reference within the Text itself, which describes the Text as the "word of God." And even more curious, every reference in the NT to "scriptures" (except for 1) is a reference to the OT.

    So, there is a big difference between the Text and Jesus / the Holy Spirit / God. The Text is about God — the Text is not God.

    When we cross some line (and who knows where that line actually is), we cross over from getting what God wanted us to get from the Text, into arguing endlessly over the meaning of words.

    Personally, I never refer to the Text as the word of God. It is certainly our best source to learn what the gospel message is, to learn about the history of God's interaction with mankind.

    Our pre-occupation should be with loving others and one another the way Jesus loved us. That is what Jesus asked us to do. Among the greatest values I get from the Text, is encouragement and guidance is figuring out how to do that.

  4. Alabama John says:

    To really experience the love of God, and Jesus of course, you have to get away from the CofC.
    The emphasis on fear and trembling and every lesson taught on how we should fear doesn't create much love.
    Respect out of love would be a better term.
    The only love taught I have seen in 60 plus years is in the songs sung, but, many of those have had words and phrases changed to coincide with todays teaching.
    Love for one another when sick, in need, far surpasses the love of God and Christ in our churches.
    They are returning love one to another in wonderful ways. You see to really love we do it so much easier to someone that we feel loves us.
    Today does a child love a father that beats him every day? of course not, but we are supposed to love a father that promises to do far worse than that. Eternity in torment for us if we don't love Him.
    Ordered to do so.

    What a crock!!!

    How we have goofed that up with our teaching.

  5. Roger Cook says:


    I think you misunderstood the reason for the separation of the Nestorians. The reason that Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox use the term "Mother of God" or "Theotokos," is because we (I say "we," because Protestant Christianity (and hence Restoration Christianity) developed out of the line of churches where these communions developed also) believe that to say "Jesus Christ" is to say "God the Son." We believe that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man from the moment of His conception.

    The Nestorians don't believe that. To them, Mary was the "Mother of Christ," or "Christotokos." The unity between the human and the divine natures of Christ is, to them, at least much looser, or even nonexistant.

    This at least comes perilously close to saying that Jesus was a human who was adopted by God instead of God who became human.

    This is a question of "Who is Jesus?" I think it'sright to divide over these questions. These questions have more importance than whether or not we can eat meat.

  6. Price says:

    John 5:39-40 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

    Seems that there is some difference that Jesus is trying to illuminate for the Pharisees regarding "scripture" and "Him"……… Apparently, the word of God isn't exactly the same as the Word of God…. At least according to Jesus… IMHO

    If the leaders of our day focus on the "scripture" and not the scripture Maker as the leaders of that day, I'm pretty sure we'll miss the main point as well… Seems human nature hasn't changed all that much.

  7. laymond says:

    Price, I do believe the scripture Jesus is referring to, is "old testament scripture, I was referring to "the gospels"

  8. Price says:

    Laymond, you are probably much more adept at deciphering that sort of thing but I don't see a real big difference between the Old Testament word of God and the New Testament word of God…Seems like the same God to me… Anyway, I see a huge difference between searching for doctrine and searching for the living God. A difference between head knowledge and spiritual discernment…but that's just me… I don't equate Jesus with a book.

  9. laymond says:

    Price, this is the difference.
    Jer 31:31 ¶ Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
    Jer 31:32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers —–.

    Price, the New Testament, is a record of Jesus' life and mission on earth, It is not a total biography, but it is the best we have.Jesus delivered the spoken word, the bible delivers the written word, that Jesus is to have spoken. The word is the word, spoken or written in my opinion. The written word just happens to be the form we are privy to.

  10. Price says:

    Laymond…we are privy to the Holy Spirit….see that's my point…we rely on a book and subconsciously reject the Spirit of God that is sent by Jesus Himself to help us..We don't have to rely on just a book. In fact, Paul prayed that the eyes of heart would be ENLIGHTENED…was that by What or by Whom ?? Many are missing the very essence of God by relying on instructions…again…IMHO… It's like if a person doesn't believe in miracles or speaking in tongues then they throw out the Holy Spirit with the proverbial bath water… I just think that's self destructive…We need a relationship with the Person of Christ…not just a few recorded details…

  11. Jay Guin says:

    Roger,You sent back to do some further research — and now my head really hurts. A lot.Consider —

    “There is a wonderful connection and indissoluble union between [Christ's] human nature, which was assumed, and God the Word who assumed it, a union existing from the first moment of conception. This teaches us to recognize only one Person (parsopa), our Saviour Jesus Christ, Son of God, begotten in the nature of his Godhead by the Father before all ages, without beginning, and born finally in the nature of his Manhood of the holy Virgin, the daughter of David.”

    That sounds pretty orthodox to me, but that’s the official Nestorian position adopted at a council of bishops in 612. <a href=";… />If one of our preachers stuck that on his “what we believe” page on the church website, I don’t think many would get upset.But maybe I’m missing a subtlety.

  12. laymond says:

    Price, can you tell me anything that you have learned about salvation from the holy ghost, that is not written in the bible? or about the way we are to live.?

  13. laymond says:

    We believe that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man from the moment of His conception.
    If that statement is true, the following doesn't make any sense does it?

    Luk 2:52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
    John 2:4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.
    Mar 1:10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:

    whatever happened to the "Lamb of God" story ?

  14. Price says:

    @ Laymond…Can you tell me what you have learned about salvation or how we should live without the help of the Holy Spirit ?? Do you honestly take credit for your own spiritual discernment ? You have reached a level of understanding where you no longer need God to enlighten you in regard to the truth ? I ask God daily to strengthen me where I'm weak and increase my understanding… James says that if ANY man ask God for wisdom HE will give it to them… Are you saying that you are now all wise? Or, rather than direct the question to you personally, can anyone be all wise and no longer need the influence, guidance, encouragement and council of the Spirit of God which dwells in everyone belonging to Christ ?

    John 6:44-45 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, 'And they will all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— Doesn't appear to me that the scriptures are all that is necessary…It seems clear at least to me that without the Spirit of God there is no opportunity to learn of Him and be saved. It says that they ALL will be TAUGHT by God…Who among us is no longer in need of being taught ?

  15. laymond says:

    Price you have a basis for believing the way you do, to a point, no we are not going to be drawn to Jesus unless, the words of God draw us there. The words that Jesus spoke.
    Price said.
    " …Who among us is no longer in need of being taught ?"

    Hbr 8:10 For this [is] the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
    Hbr 8:11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.

    Hebrews 8, and Jeremiah – Chapter 31, tell of something that dwells within a human being that acts as a guide. you seem to believe that this only applies to baptized Christians, as do many people, and you as many others believe this is the dwelling of a comforter/guide known as "The Holy Ghost" within the human body,

  16. laymond says:

    but lets look at what Paul said about this guiding factor of the human soul.

    Rom 2:14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
    Rom 2:15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and [their] thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)
    John mentions the same dweller of man in this scripture.
    Jhn 8:9 And they which heard [it], being convicted by [their own] conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, [even] unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

    Act 24:16 And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and [toward] men.
    Rom 9:1 ¶ I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost,
    When we become convicted by a good conscience, we become a "a holy spirit" not "The Holy Spirit" in that way we are indwelled by a holy spirit.

  17. laymond says:

    Price I guess you need to read the second comment first, I will never get used to this 🙂

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