THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH
It's Organisation and the New Covenant Church of God Today
Every seven or so years the New Covenant Church of God traditionally has a doctrinal review in which it closely studies the evolution of Church doctrine and practice and makes a careful comparison with the Biblical model. The following article was prepared by the Presiding Patriarch in 1995 and had, as its objective, the aim of expunging any left-overs from the Restoration Movement which it was concerned had survived the death of the former Independent Church and was still present in the then NCCF (New Covenant Christian Fellowship, or NPKF). The article caused a furor and was one of the stimuli that contributed to the "Third Rebellion" which led to the dissolution of the NCCF and the full restoration of the New Covenant Church of God in its present form today. As such, therefore, it is an important historical article for this Gospel Work.
The apostolic Church of God, as described in the New Testament (which was written over a period of about 50-60 years, from the time of Jesus' resurrection to the last days of the ministry of the apostle John), was organised in a rather special way. This article forms a summary of what is stated in the canonical scriptures of the NPKF.
The New Testament teaches that the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood, which presided over the Church of Moses (the Old Covenant) passed away, being changed into the Melchizedek Priesthood (Heb.7:12) of whom Jesus Christ is our High Priest (Heb.5:10; 3:1), being our intercessor in heaven before God the Father.
Unlike the Levitical Priesthood, which could only be held by the Israelite tribe of Levi (and later, only through the clan of Zadok), the Melchizedek Priesthood is automatically held by all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. True believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves and freemen, men and women (Gal.3:28), are therefore "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" (1 Pet.2:9, NIV), as the Hebrews were under the Old Covenant.
Offices in the Royal Priesthood
The New Testament teaches that every believer has one or more gifts given him or her of God, and that therefore everyone has a calling and a ministry. These gifts include prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing to the needs of others, leadership, and showing mercy (Rom.12:6-8). This list of gifts is amplified in several places to include giving apostolic ministry, the working of miracles, healing, helping, administering the Church, and speaking in foreign languages (1 Cor.12:28).
Combinations of these gifts are given formal recognition through callings to individuals to specific priesthood offices with a defined ministry. These offices confer authority upon those who hold them to do the following tasks, as detailed by the apostle Paul to a gentile Pastor called Titus:
The New Testament mentions six different priesthood offices:
(1) To establish a worthy ministry (Titus 1:8);
(2) To overcome internal opposition to the Gospel (Titus 1:9);
(3) To teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9);
(4) To silence the rebellious and those who teach false doctrine (1 Tim.1:3; Titus 1:10-11);
(5) To encourage, rebuke and discipline (Titus 1:9)
These six appear to be divided into three (some would maintain two) different groupings: Elders, Teachers, and Deacons.
Apostles, prophets (and prophetesses), evangelists, pastors (also called presiding elders, overseers or bishops), teachers and deacons (and deaconesses) (Eph.4:12; 1 Tim.3:8-12).
The term "priest" does not refer to an office per se (as it is in some denominations) but is a term used to represent anyone in the ministry who holds a priesthood office (see Rev.1:6; 5:10; 20:6). In later times the word "priest" (or "minister") became synonymous with the pastor or presiding elder of a congregation.
Elders and Pastors
The Elder was the highest "office" in the Priesthood. Apostles, evangelists and pastors were all elders. Because Paul and the other apostles were teachers (1 Tim.2:7; 2 Tim.1:11; Ac.15:2,4), and because evangelists and pastors were also teachers (1 Tim.4:13;), it is the opinion of some that teachers were elders also. However, we see the term "teacher" used in many ways in the New Testament. Basically, every Christian schooled in the milk of the Gospel is responsible for teaching the elementary principles (Heb.5:12).
Detailed instruction is given concerning elders. They were to be held in high respect by the congregation and honoured. Elders (and especially here, Presiding Elders/Pastors/Overseers/Bishops) had to be blameless, married have control over their children; they were not to be overbearing, or quick-tempered, drunks, violent or dishonest. They were to be hospitable, lovers of goodness, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. They had to hold firmly to the Gospel message in order to encourage others by sound doctrine and be able to refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:6-9; 1 Tim.3:2-7). Because elders have such a worthy position strict procedures were followed if they fell into transgression (1 Tim.5:19).
Every elder in the Church was appointed by the apostles after prayer and fasting to know the will of God (Ac.14:12), and not by their congregations. We do not know from the New Testament whether they were accepted by the congregation by a democratic vote though the witnesses of the sub-apostolic pastoral letters suggests they were. Titus was instructed by the apostle Paul to set apart elders in his local congregation (Titus 1:5) and it is assumed that he was a pastor himself. According to Eusebius, Titus was a bishop.
The elders received financial support from their congregation when it was absolutely necessary, especially if they had many responsibilities which precluded them from taking full-time work. In general, though, it appears that only the apostles had this right to financial renumeration.
The apostles Paul and John referred to themselves as elders (1 Pet.5:2; 2 Joh.1:1; 3 Joh.1:1), as did James (Ac.15:2,4) and described their ministry as essentially being to shepherd the people (1 Pet.5.1). Elders were not necessarily "old" and indeed we understand that Timothy was quite a young elder, though how young we do not know. He is instructed not to rebuke older men or women harshly but treat them like fathers and mothers, and to look upon young men and women as brothers and sisters (1 Tim.5:1-2).
Elders who were not called to be apostles, evangelists, or pastors could become administrators, preachers and teachers if so appointed by their pastors. Sometimes the pastor did all of these jobs, sometimes only some. Those who served in multiple-functions were said to be "worthy of a double honour" (1 Tim.5:17), including financial support (v.18). Possibly if a congregation could not afford to support a pastor financially he shared some of his responsibilities with other elders. Thus a local congregation might well consist of many elders. Those who had no specific calling likely were called to preach and assist in other areas.
The elders as a whole were called to set an example in speech, life, love, faith and purity to the whole Church and to the world. One of their other responsibilities was to anoint and pray over the sick (Jas.5:14).
The word "bishop" is used interchangeably in the New Testament with "presiding elder", "overseer", and "pastor" and referred to the head of a congregation. In the sub-apostolic period following the death of the apostles, a distinction was made between a "bishop" and an "overseer/pastor" as the Church grew in size. In effect, a bishop was a "senior pastor" with the responsibility for a group of churches in the region. The bishop would have begun as an overseer of a small congregation. This congregation would then send missionaries out to evangelise local towns and villages. These new congregations then became subject to the "mother church" which founded them, and the pastor of the "mother church" became a "bishop". Though this was not a New Testament practice, it was a natural outgrowth of it especially after the apostles died.
The Apostolic Council of Elders
The apostles and elders at Jerusalem were regarded as the chief apostles and elders of the whole Church of God (Ac.15:2,4) and formed the highest legislative authority (Ac.15:6). Their callings included selecting missionaries (Ac.15:22), issuing official letters in the name of the council (Ac.15:23) and making administrative and doctrinal decisions (Ac.16:4). The apostles had the right to summons any elder (Ac.20:17) and appoint elders as shepherds (pastors) of the Church of God (Ac.20:18).
The head of this Council was undeniably the apostle James, the half-brother of Jesus, for as long as he lived (Ac.21:18). Together with Peter and John, these three clearly had the pre-eminence and served as a quorum of "fathers" or "patriarchs" over the other 9 apostles and the Church of God as a whole (e.g. Mk.9:2; 5:37; 14:33 Mt.17:1).
The authority of the three patriarchs, and the apostles as a whole, was final. However, they were not arbitrary dictators but -- as happened so often in the New Testament Church with not only ordinary members but elders as well -- appealed in love to their errant brothers to repent and reform before taking decisive and final action (1 Pet.5:1).
Prophets and Prophetesses
The "office" of a prophet is not detailed and there is no evidence that anyone was "called" or "ordained" to be a prophet. Rather, prophets were elders who occasionally prophesied. They were clearly of great importance to the local churches since they are listed as being second in importance to the apostles (1 Cor.12:28; Eph.4:12). Any elder could be a prophet -- that is, prophesy -- if God placed the spirit of prophecy in him. There were no "institutional prophets" over the whole church. Indeed, we are told that one congregation, at Antioch, had several "prophets and teachers" (Ac.13:1).
References are also found to two prophetesses in the New Testament, though one (Anne) was not a member Church of God (Lk.2:36) and the other (Jezebel) was a false prophetess leading Christians into sexual immorality (Rev.2:20). We cannot be sure that prophetesses were a feature of the early Church though such can be inferred because of their noble record in the Old Covenant and the fact that prophetesses per se were not condemned by God in the Book of Revelation.
Evangelists are listed third in the hierarchy of the ministry of elders in the Church of God (1 Cor.12:28; Eph.4:12). We understand that they were travelling missionaries like the apostles but perhaps remained in newly formed congregations to build up new converts in the faith after the apostles had moved on until their own elders and pastors could be appointed. Their calling is described as reading the scriptures aloud to the congregation, preaching and teaching (1 Tim.4:13). In this respect, they resembled pastors but with the added responsibility of travelling around to establish or consolidate new congregations.
Evangelists were called through prophecy and set apart by the elders by the laying on of hands (1 Tim.4:14) which was the custom followed throughout the Church in the setting apart of members to the ministry. They were almost certainly called by the apostles, as Paul called Timothy.
The calling of teacher was a very important one, appearing third in the priesthood hierarchy in one list (1 Cor.12:28) and fourth in another (Eph.4:12) and was shared by the apostles, evangelists, and pastors. As these officers could not always manage all the teaching in the Church, local teachers were appointed. Everyone having an understanding of the basic principles of the Gospel -- repentance from sin, faith in God, baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and eternal judgment (Heb.6:1-2) -- was, in a sense, a teacher (Heb.5:12) -- to their children, their families, and their friends.
The calling of a teacher was regarded as a high and a holy one, with considerable responsibility (Jas.3:1). False teachers, like false prophets, received a specially hard condemnation because of their power to lead souls astray and away from salvation (2 Pet.2:1-3). Thus teachers were judged strictly. Indeed, the ministries of prophets and teachers were closely linked for they are especially singled out and named in the Antioch local church -- Barnabas, Lucius, and Manaen (Ac.13:1). [We see here, incidentally, that Barnabas was referred to as an elder, apostle, prophet and teacher, possibly showing that a person with a high calling also had all the other "lesser" callings too]. As we have seen, Paul the apostle was also a teacher (1 Tim.2:7; 2 Tim.1:11).
The teacher was strongly warned to watch his teaching carefully (1 Tim.4:11) and to only teach apostolic doctrine. Clearly teachers had a great influence over the local Church, and therefore the Church as a whole, and thus their selection was a matter of the utmost care. It is highly likely that a person subsequently called to be an apostle, evangelist, pastor or an ordinary elder had first served in the capacity as a local church teacher.
There has been considerable debate as to whether women served as teachers in the local church or not. They have been denied this calling in many denominations because of a misunderstanding of remarks made by Paul to Timothy. "I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing -- if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety" (1 Tim.2:12-15, NIV).
In view of the fact that women are in several places described as "co-workers" and "friends" of Paul, like Priscilla (Rom.16:1-4), are "joint heirs of the grace of life" (1 Pet.3:7), and equal with men before Christ (Gal.3:28), it seems odd that they should be so restricted. The problem, as ever, is one of translation. Elsewhere, speaking to the Corinthians, Paul says: "Let your [Corinthian] women keep silence in the churches for it is not permitted for them to speak" (1 Cor.13:34, AV). But the correct translation is: "...for it is not permitted for them to utter sounds that are incoherent [Gk.lalein] and which are not understood by others." In other words, they were not permitted to babble in strange "tongues". This was a local Corinthian problem, as well as a modern one in some denominations. Keeping them silent was better than having them babbling nonsense and disturbing the peace of the saints.
Paul's counsel to Timothy has been mistranslated too, for the sense is: "I do not permit a wife to teach or have authority over her husband" -- in other words, is the calling of the husband, as head of the household, to teach and exercise authority (Titus 2:1-5; 1 Pet.3:1-7).
The truth is that the women were teachers for we find that they have a special calling to teach the young women (Titus 2:4) and the children (Eph.6:1; Col.3:20; 1 Thes.2:7; 1 Tim.5:10; Titus 2:4).
Deacons and Deaconesses
When writing to the Philippians, Paul especially addresses the "overseers and deacons" (Phil.1:1, NIV) indicating the position of importance they held in the early Church. The qualifications of a deacon are not unlike those of a Pastor or Overseer: they are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulgers of wine, and honest; they are to hold the deep truths of the faith (i.e. the "meat Gospel") with a clear conscience. They are to be thoroughly tested before being called. In the same way, deaconesses (sometimes translated "wives") are to be respectful, not gossipers, but temperate and trustworthy. A deacon must be married and be able to manage his children well (1 Tim.3:8-13). It is possible that deacons were married to deaconesses and that they served together as a man-wife team.
The only deaconess mentioned by name is Phoebe, who is described as "a deaconess [servant] of the [local] church at Cenchrea" (Rom.16:1, NIV).
Little is said about deacons and deaconesses though from our knowledge of the sub-apostolic era it seems they were special personal assistants to the Pastor. Some denominations claim that deacons only had responsibility for temporal matters but the writings of Paul seem to suggest that the high spiritual qualifications required of deacons indicate that they had a distinctively spiritual ministry. Indeed, the apostle Paul describes Epaphras as a "deacon" [servant] of Christ and himself as a "deacon" [servant] of the Gospel and of the Church (Col.1:7,23,25). The word diakonos appears 30 times in the New Testament; a deacon or a deaconess is seen to be one who assists the pastor in preaching and pastoral work. That the deacons had temporal responsibilities is also true, for it can, in other contexts, also mean one who supplies material needs and service (e.g. Rom.15:25; 2 Cor.8:4). Martha's table-waiting is described as diakonia (Lk.10:40) and so is Peter's mother-in-law's (Mk.1:31). Indeed, Christ Himself says that He is diakonos or a servant, for that was why He had come (Mk.10:45). Therefore the Lord is the Deacon par excellence. And in this sense, deaconship is the mark of the whole Church of God.
We are to conclude from this that each local congregation had many deacons and deaconesses, and perhaps they had different callings. It is likely that Deacons and Deaconesses had especial responsibility for financial administration of the Church and were the local "treasurers". Whatever they were in the first Church, it is clear that their calling was both "spiritual" (assistants in preaching and pastoral work) as well as "temporal" (as servants responsible for the physical comforts of the saints, attending to the care of the sick, serving at table [communal meal preparation and service], preparing the Lord's Supper, etc.).
Without a doubt, the deaconate was the most heavily staffed and it is likely that the women dominated it. This in itself suggests that the women were preachers, filling callings akin to the elders.
The Keys of Women's Ministry
There are two keys about women's ministry and priesthood which we learn from the New Testament:
Thus we find references to, or hints of, women being deaconesses, teachers, preachers, administrators, and prophetesses in local congregations, but no reference to them being travelling evangelists or apostles, except in the capacity as the wives of the apostles (1 Cor.9:5). Since so little is said about them, apostolic instruction is badly needed for the modern Church of God.
(1) They hold the Priesthood as much as men, being joint-heirs to salvation and possessors of the Royal Priesthood;
(2) Their ministry is essentially local or congregational in addition to their having the primary responsibility of being mothers and homemakers.
Local Church Worshipping Patterns
The first Christians assembled together to do seven principal things:
The New Covenant Church of God
(1) To hear public readings of the Scriptures (1 Tim.4:13);
(2) To hear the preaching of sermons (1 Tim.4:13);
(3) To be taught (1 Tim.4:13);
(4) To sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col.3:16);
(5) To receive prophetic words (Rom.12:6);
(6) To partake of the Lord's Supper together (1 Cor.11:20-34);
(7) To confess sins and to pray for one another (Jas.5:16).
The New Covenant Church of God, established in our day as a modern New Testament Church, is trying to follow the pattern of the first Church of God described above. Organised originally in 1988, it has since that time undergone a number of reformations and reorganisations in order to conform its organisation, worship patterns and doctrines to the New Testament Church. A recent reorganisation, begun in October 1995 and expected to be completed by April of this coming year, will result in a Church which we believe to be in complete harmony with the divine will. What follows is a brief glimpse into the workings of the Church as we expect it to be.
The Reorganised New Covenant Church
The reorganised New Covenant Church of God is led by an Apostolate consisting of Twelve Apostles of whom three are called to be the Patriarchate or Apostolic Fathers of the Church. The Apostolate have the overall responsibility of preserving the apostolic doctrine and guiding the Church in its world mission. The Presiding Patriarch is responsible for all the Elders of the Church, the Second Patriarch for all the Teachers, and the Third Patriarch for all the Deacons. [With the subsequent reception of further revelation, this was modified in 1996, the Presiding Patriarch taking responsibility for the Patriarch-Apostles, the Second Elder for all the Elders, and the Third Patriarch for all the Deacons. The office of Teacher was subsequently partitioned between the Elders and Deacons].
The Church consists of congregations or churches called colonies, as was the practice of the sub-apostolic and apostolic Church in New Testament times. Thus the congregation in Oslo is called, "The [Local] Colony of the Church of God in Oslo".
The 12 apostles are travelling missionaries whose responsibility it is to establish colonies throughout the world. They are assisted by evangelists who have the responsibility of building up and running the new colonies as pastors until mature elders can take over their running. As a colony becomes established, so it sends out missionaries into neighbouring villages and towns, building up new colonies. In time the mother colony becomes a bishopric responsible for all the colonies in its area, with the pastor and pastress being known as the bishop and bishopress.
Each colony consists of a standing ministry which is governed by a pastor with elders called by the local apostle who have the various callings described above. Each colony also has a pastress with eldresses who have especial responsibility for the women and children. Together the pastor, pastress, elders and eldress constitute an elders' council. Their responsibility is to select male and female teachers, deacons and deaconesses who have received a call from God according to their gifts, and establish them as trainee or apprentice ministers prior to their full ordination. The pastor and pastress have special responsibility for the elders and eldresses, one elder and eldress for the teachers, and one elder and eldress for the deacons and deaconesses. These six elders and eldresses constitute the colony's pastorate.
Members with a good understanding of the elementary principles of the Gospel who have a sincere desire to serve the Lord are called as apprentice ministers and act as assistants to the regularly ordained deacons, teachers and elders, according to their gifts.
All the apostles, evangelists, pastors, pastresses, elders and eldresses belong to an Apostolic Council of Elders (and Eldresses). Other councils include the Apostolic Council of Teachers and the Apostolic Council of Deacons (and Deaconesses).
The Scriptural Canon
There was no formal scriptural canon in the New Testament Church and there is none in the New Covenant Church. The former was based upon the Old Testament and the letters and gospels written and circulated by the apostles. In time these became canonised but not until two centuries after the apostles' death in Damascus, Syria.
The New Covenant Church admits the modern Protestant Canon (Old and New Testaments), some of the writings of the sub-apostolic fathers (e.g. Clement, Ignatius & Polycarp), and some of the Apocrypha (e.g. Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon), to be finally determined with the publication of the new Constitution. It also reads out the letters of the modern apostles to the local congregations or colonies as in days of old.
The Old Gospel Returns in Newness of Life
The New Covenant Church of God patiently awaits its endowment as the first Christians did following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It has struggled hard during its long birth process and anticipates with keenness its call from heaven. Already the changes that have occurred, both inwardly (spiritually) and outwardly (organisationally, doctrinally and practically) have resulted in a strong, faithful, and committed body of Christians willing to offer their all for the Lord of the Way. We aim now to walk that Way, in His grace and strength, to the best of our ability.
This page was created on 16 April 1998
Last updated on 16 April 1998
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