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The Church, individual and collective

Churches in the New Testament were house-sized. This can be proved by the various references to believers meeting "in the house of" (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2).

However, a church could also refer to a number of churches within a city. An example of a city-wide church is found in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. At the beginning of first Corinthians, Paul mentions that there were divisions among them. Some would claim allegiance to Peter, others to Paul, and still others to Apollos. Very likely those who claimed allegiance to Peter assembled in one place, the Paul assembly in another and an Apollos one somewhere else. So Paul deals with this problem as a collective problem, as if it were affecting just one church.

Also, when problems arouse in individual churches, it tended to involve the wider church, or city-wide church. For example, the Jerusalem church had to sort out the problem of the widows who were being neglected in the distribution of funds to them (Acts 6), and the resolution of the problem on whether Gentiles should be circumcised when they became believers (Acts 15). So they convened with representatives from the many house churches that were operational in Jerusalem by then. (Jerusalem must have had numerous house churches after the 3,000 baptisms at Pentecost and the many that were added on a daily basis [Acts 2:47].)

Now the question should be asked, "Was the model followed by the New Testament Church a mega-cell-church concept or did the individual house-churches truly have autonomy?" In other words, was the relationship among the many city-wide house churches a symbiotic relationship (needing the other to survive) or a commensalistic one (deriving benefit, but not needing the other for survival)?

The role of leaders

The answer lies in first understanding that church leadership in the New Testament is not seen to be positional or hierarchical, but merely advisory and functional. The governmental mechanism in the New Testament churches was that of collective and consensual decision making and not executive leadership mandate. The traditional and prevailing idea that church leadership, whether local elders or traveling apostolic ministries, had delegated authority over the churches would have been alien to New Testament believers. Far from being through an executive authority of leaders, church decisions were made by the gathered saints. They were church body decisions.

Thus, elders (or apostles, or any other leaders, local or otherwise) were not in any way hierarchical or positional, but only functional. They were there to serve the church; they were not there to rule over the church. In other words, they are neither authorized nor responsible for making decisions on behalf of either their home assemblies or those they visit. Again, decision making in the apostolic era was both collective and consensual. Even to the ultimate and extreme responsibility of exercising church discipline, both the Lord Jesus and Paul laid the responsibility not at the feet of the elders, but on the collectively gathered church to which the decision pertained (Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5).

The very reason leaders do not have positional or hierarchical authority over people is precisely because, whether pertaining to individual churches or a wider church scenario, the only hierarchy we see in the pages of Scripture is Jesus and everyone else. Leadership, whether in the form of local elders or apostolic ministries traveling much more widely, is simply there to teach and equip churches, and to show them, amongst other things, how to actually engage in collective decision making and to facilitate them in the process. Leaders are themselves part of the process, of course, but they are not the process itself.

The end goal is to strengthen families. Having families come together and collectively exercise ultimate authority strengthens and upholds them. Thus, the two keys to the success of a church in this regard are: understanding that a church is an extended family of believers, and that leadership is only functional, not positional and hierarchical.

It is in this context that the appointment of deacons makes sense. The Jerusalem believers appointed seven chosen men to look out for the widows precisely in a situation that affected all the house churches. That is to say, it was a situation affecting more than one individual church, and so must be dealt with by the wider church and on a multiple church basis.

Thus, elders were meant to be functional leaders for the local church (deacons need not apply); while deacons were functional leaders in practical matters for the city-wide church (elders need not apply). In the same vein, apostles functioned for the benefit of the Universal Church, seeding and planting new churches (as Paul eminently exemplified) and shepherding (teaching and caring for) the established ones.

(The above is a condensing, reworking, and adding to the article, "The City-Wide Church Problem!" For the full text go here)