8. Restoring the church

Tintern Abbey ruinsPutting all of this together, we can say that, according to scripture, the structure necessary for a church to function effectively and to grow is built on three pillars:

  1.  an assembly of members; which appoints
  2.  elders to lead and teach the flock and care for it pastorally; and
  3. deacons to administer the finances of the congregation.

Each of these, the congregation, the elders and the deacons are accountable to each other. Each will respect and listen to the others and will submit to each other. All must aim to be obedient and responsive to the will of God.

Without this biblical structure, the church is in danger of falling iinto ruin.

Function and office

The Bible does not say that apostles, elders and deacons are the only offices that there can be in the church but it does make it clear that they are essential for the function and wellbeing of the church. It can be useful to distinguish between function and office. Ephesians 4 mentions “pastors and teachers”. Elders have a teaching and pastoral responsibility and this may refer to elders but, in context, the passage is talking about function rather than office. All elders should be pastors and teachers but not all who are doing the work of pastors and teachers need to be elders. There will be other people who perform functions in, through and from the church, including evangelists, prophets and healers. It may sometimes be helpful to recognise an established function by creating an office to fit it, but this is not necessary in every case. There seems to be a difference in the way that apostles and elders are appointed. Apostles are called by God. Elders and deacons are appointed by the congregation (though possibly with apostolic guidance). It is arguable that the role of apostle is a function rather than an office.

Paul outlines in Ephesians 4 v 12 – 13 the reason why God places the functions and offices within the church:

“… to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, reaching the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

The function of the offices and ministries in the church is to bring people to maturity. That’s one reason why the assembly of believers is important. It provides a context where, under the guidance of elders and following their example, ordinary believers can become confident in decision making, learning to interpret scripture and to hear God for themselves.

Ahead, not above

This calls for an eldership who nurture and encourage growth in individual church members.  So often in church life I have come across frustrated and often embittered people who have time and time again been passed over for leadership positions because of a character flaw which disqualifies them in other people’s eyes. If only nurturing elders could get alongside them and lovingly help them address the character flaw and provide mentoring while they do the job under supervision they could often be released into effective leadership and service.

It has been traditional to think in terms of leaders “covering” or “directing” people from above. In the Biblical model leaders are not over the people but ahead of them, showing them the way and inviting them to follow.

Engaging with the world

Central to the life of the church is the meeting that gives it its name, the ekklesia. As we have seen, this is primarily a political word. It is about discussing and taking decisions. With the Christian ekklesia the aim is to find God’s will and resolve to pursue it as a body. It’s not about persuading one another to a particular point of view. Nor is it just about the internal politics of the Christian community (often all that church members ever get to discuss). It is about how the rule of the kingdom of God will be released into a local community and how the work of Satan can be stopped. It is about corporate action in areas such as evangelism, justice, healing, freedom, mercy, reconciliation and protecting the weak and vulnerable.

Photo: Tintern Abbey, Wye Valley, UK
Photo © copyright Michael Jobling