On previous occasions, I have argued in favor of the view that the New Testament Church is expressed (in addition to in other ways and on other levels) on a citywide level (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here & here). At the same time, I think there is good evidence that a plurality of individual house churches existed within at least several of the cities of the New Testament world. What is not so clear is the degree of autonomy with which each of these individual house churches functioned. Did each house church, for instance, have its own separate elder or elders? Were there always a plurality of elders at the house church level? As far as I can tell, with the possible exception of the “angels” or “messengers” of the churches of Revelation 2 & 3, every mention of citywide churches and elders in the New Testament assumes a plurality of elders at the citywide level. What is not so clear is whether or not each individual house church had its own elders, or, if they did, whether they were always plural, or at times singular.
Some of the passages that have a bearing on this question are the following:It is evident (at least, to me) that the church today is not organized exactly as it was in New Testament times. As Baptists, we claim to be restorationists in our ecclesiology; that is, we claim to base our ecclesiology on a desire to return, as much as possible, to the New Testament model, and do the things we do, as churches, according to biblical criteria.
Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Hebrews 13:24 Greet all your leaders and all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.Titus 1:5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.
Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.Acts 20:17-18, 28-30 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: … Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
In New Testament times, for example, there were no denominational divisions. As I understand it (at least according to the biblical ideal), neither were there racial or social divisions within the church. The “church of Ephesus” or the “church of Corinth” or the “church of Philippi” was composed of every single person living in each of those cities who was an authentic believer in and disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a lot of ways it is probably unrealistic to be consistently restorationist in our approach. Sometimes, in order to go back to the way things were in New Testament times, we would have to sacrifice other elements in our ecclesiology that serve as good safeguards for possible abuses. However, in keeping with a consistent restorationist mindset, I believe we should be aware of possible inconsistencies in our ecclesiology, and continually ask ourselves if there are not ways we could reform ourselves even more than we already have in order to come closer in line with the New Testament model.
For example, it is evident from what we read in the Bible that New Testament Christians met together with each other on a regular basis.
Hebrews 10:24-25 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
It also seems to me that some believers within a particular city were considered as being associated with or belonging to a particular subgroup of the church of that city, very possibly (as I see it) one of the individual house churches that jointly made up the church of the city (see Romans 16, et al). It seems likely (at least, to me) that the believers also met together on occasions with the believers from other house churches within their city (Acts 2:46; 1 Corinthians 11:20; 14:23).
However, can we make the jump, on the basis of biblical evidence, that each believer considered themselves to be members of individual congregations on a house church level?
As I understand it, a key to answering this question hinges on the use of the phrase “your leaders,” which occurs three times in Hebrews chapter 13. The author of Hebrews apparently distinguished between Christian leaders who might rightly be regarded as the leaders of the individual receptors of the epistle of Hebrews, and other Christian leaders who were not specifically their leaders. Verse 17 appears to me to be particularly significant in this regard. As I understand this verse, certain leaders were expected to “watch over” certain believers and to “give an account” for them. This implies (if I am understanding this verse correctly) that there were other believers over whom they were not expected to “watch over” or to “give an account,” at least not in the same way as those particular believers who looked to these men as their leaders.
Acts 20:28-30 appears to allude to a similar dynamic. The elders of the church in Ephesus were admonished by Paul to “keep watch over … all the flock of which the Holy Spirit [had] made [them] overseers” and were to “be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Although it is possible to interpret this as referring to a broader group than just the believers in Ephesus, or to the hypothetical members of the particular house church in which each elder served, it makes more sense to me to see the responsibility of oversight and shepherding as a specifically local responsibility. It is a separate question whether or not they each exercised this responsibility individually, or if they exercised it collectively (e.g. if all of the Ephesians elders jointly exercised collective oversight over all of the church of Ephesus).
An additional factor that I believe plays into this is that, logically speaking, in order for someone to effectively “watch over” someone else and “give account” for them, it would be necessary to have a personal relationship with them, and to have a pretty good idea of what was going on in their life. In a smaller group, this would normally not be a problem. However, once a group reaches a certain size, the more and more difficult it becomes for a “leader” or an “elder” to truly “watch over” and “give an account” for every member of the group, or for even a team of “leaders/elders” to do so effectively.
Thus, it seems to me that each believer ought to have spiritual leaders they consider to be their leaders, and that the elders/leaders of a church ought to be clear about who specifically comprises that part of the flock of God of which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. As far as I can tell, the Bible does not give us specific instructions about exactly how this is to be accomplished. However, it seems to me to be a valid inference that special care should be taken to see to it that no one “slips between the cracks.” Each individual believer ought to have some spiritual leader who knows them personally, watches over them, shepherds them, and gives account of them before the Lord.
It would also seem that each individual elder ought to have someone who shepherds them. I think it is likely due to this concern that very early in church history a system of leadership hierarchy developed, and a distinction was made between the role of bishop and elder. The responsibility of the bishop was to watch over, shepherd, and give account of the other elders.
The problem with this was that it eventually became a recipe for tyranny and corruption within the church. As early as the late first century, Ignatius of Antioch made the argument that the unity of the church hinged upon cooperation with and submission to the local bishop. I think he was almost certainly sincere and well motivated in his thinking on this point. However, what he was not able to foresee was that legitimate appointment and ordination as an elder/bishop through a pure line of apostolic succession did not necessarily safeguard someone from doctrinal error and moral corruption. Wishful thinking, perhaps. Subsequent history, however, was to reveal that faithful adherence to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles through the written records of the New Testament canon is a better safeguard for the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the church than ordination and apostolic succession.
As best as I can understand it, one of the main reasons (if not the main reason) behind the Baptist distinctives of local church autonomy and local church membership is to guarantee the freedom of the individual believer, within the context of a system of mutual accountability, to seek out and attempt to follow the will of God as revealed in Scripture on their own apart from the coercive imposition of an episcopal hierarchy. However, this does not necessarily mean adopting, at the same time, a philosophy of “to each his own.” As Christians, we are called upon to be mutually submissive one to another, and hold each other accountable in our walk with the Lord. And within this system of mutual accountability, those who are recognized as leaders or elders have a special responsibility to watch over, shepherd, and give account of those other believers of whom the Holy Spirit has made them overseers.
At the same time, I think it is evident that the one another admonitions of the New Testament were not meant to be carried out at only a congregational or local house church level. In a very real way, we are expected to love, exhort, teach, encourage, and hold accountable all of the members of the Body of Christ, to the degree this is possible, even if they are not members of our particular congregation or house church. Evidently, the degree we are able to do this in any practical manner will depend on the level of personal relationships we are able to develop with other believers. And, we can never expect to develop a truly close, personal relationship with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ spread throughout the world. I do think, however, that we have a responsibility to do what we can, especially at a citywide level, to get to know each other better, and to carry out a more meaningful dynamic of body life and mutual accountability among us as the Body of Christ in our locality.Several interesting side questions to this are the following:
1. Does it necessarily follow, from what I have written here, that every believer should be a member of one and only one local congregation at a time?
2. Is there a biblical basis for condemning church-hopping?What do you think? Does what I have written here seem biblically faithful to you? Why or why not? How would you answer these side questions from a biblical perspective? Are there other issues that what I have written here bring up that apply to the way we, as Baptists, and as Evangelicals, “do church”?
3. How do we, in the current modern-day denominational church system, best watch over, shepherd, and keep account of all the believers in our city?
4. What about our present-day large congregations, which are much larger than the New Testament house churches? Is official membership in a mega-church really a sufficient safeguard of mutual accountability and the watching over, shepherding, and giving account for each of the members of that congregation? Should not the church also be organized in such a way so that each member has at least one “leader” who knows them personally, and feels personally responsible for watching over, shepherding, and giving account of them?
I think David has made a good case. What do you think?