The Bible does not give a precise description of what the our system of church organisation should be. Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and house church models for church can all claim some Biblical basis for their system of church. That the Bible does not give a precise description of the system of church does not surprise me. God’s church has to exist over the whole course of human history, in diverse geographical locations, in differing cultures and in the presence of both hostile and friendly governing authorities. If governing authorities are benign large churches can exist with a visible presence (e.g. a building with a cross on the side), but in a persecuting environment an underground house church movement of many small congregations makes more sense.
However this freedom can cause issues when working together as a local congregation – people can have differing views of what church is. This problem is made worse if a large part of the congregation has not been spiritually nurtured or mentored from within the congregation. Those who have grown up within the indigenous culture are more likely to take on the prevailing view of the culture. Those who have been discipled outwith the indigenous culture are more likely to have a differing view of what church is. We would all like to think we are the product of the Bible alone, the reality is that the Bible, church tradition and personal experience all play their part.
Here is the problem for the local congregation – if people have differing views they will pull in differing directions and not work together. The situation is certainly not resolved by various groups repeatedly restating and forcing their particular views onto the rest of the congregation. How can two walk together unless they are agreed (Amos 3:3)? It is certainly a great blessing when Christians dwell together in unity (Psalm 133:1). However God can use differences in opinions to separate people and multiple missionary effort (Acts 15:36 – 41). Real strength comes from unity that includes agreement on the vision (“one mind” in Phil 1:27). Ultimately divided groupings tend to fall in the end (Matthew 12:25), so it is worth finding agreement!
One thing that hinders finding this agreement is that people confuse principles and methods. The Biblical principles never change, methods will as culture changes, technological developments occur etc. For example a key principle is that the oversight and final responsibility for the teaching in the church is given to the Elders. However the methods they use to undertake this can vary. The Scottish Covenanters had to meet in secret around God’s word and often in small gatherings for fear of persecution. Today in the USA a modern “mega-church” movement has sprung up where, using satellite TV technology, one man can preach to 1000s of believers present in multiple large gatherings. The methods change with the time and environment. The key question I often ask myself is, “Are the right Biblical principles being upheld here?” It is less about exactly what musical instrument is used in worship. It is more do the worship songs contain Biblical truth? Is the human voice given pre-eminence?
The Bible places a strong emphasis on the character of church officers, Elders and Deacons (e.g. 1 Tim 3:1 – 13), which is timeless principle. I suspect, that get the right people in church roles, and almost any system of church will work. Get the wrong people in church roles, and almost any system of church will fail. Humility is so important! The question is not, “Is God with my system of church?” The question is, “What system of church God does want in this place?” Knowing the answer to that question I suspect depends on much prayer, looking at the gifting of the congregation, and understanding the environment the church is placed in – not an easy task!