Throughout his entire ministry, Paul, the great evangelist of the New Testament, was careful to institute proper organization in the churches he established. In fact, Paul thought organization was so important, that a short time after he had been stoned in Lystra, he returned to organize the churches. He saw that gospel order (which included the appointment of elders and deacons) was “an important factor in the spiritual growth of the new converts.” Acts of the Apostles, 185. It was a safeguard against error and fanaticism and promoted unity among the believers. In place after place, Paul diligently instructed and aided churches in the establishment of proper order.
Ellen White says that in Lycaonia and Pisidia, “churches were duly organized in all places…where there were believers. Officers were appointed in each church, and proper order and system were established….” Ibid., 185.
The church in Thessalonica was also “properly organized.” “Officers had been appointed to act as ministers and deacons.” Ibid., 261.
Regarding the work in Crete, Paul instructed Titus to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” Titus 1:5.
Inspiration shows that the appointment of elders and deacons was an integral part—a fundamental element—of the gospel order that Paul established in his churches. A group of believers that simply gathers together for meetings, with no officers selected, as elders and deacons, is not a “properly organized” church.
Selection and Ordination of Leaders
To ordain an elder or deacon simply means to appoint a person to a position of authority and leadership, in the church of God. Through ordination, church members recognize a person’s spirituality and ability to serve the church in a leadership capacity.
In the selection of deacons, at the time of the early church, the apostles instructed the church to “look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the work.’ This advice was followed, and by prayer and the laying on of hands, seven chosen men were solemnly set apart for their duties as deacons.” Acts of the Apostles, 89.
We see that the apostles did not themselves alone choose the deacons, but the entire church recognized those, from among its membership, who were “of honest report and full of the Holy Ghost.” We are not told exactly how the process of the selection worked. Today, in some small churches, all the members are directly involved in the selection of officers. In other churches, members select a group of members, called a nominating committee. This committee selects, considers and prays about various potential candidates. When they are finished they recommend to the church at large their completed list of candidates. The church then votes to accept or reject the recommendations of the committee.
For new, small churches, we are given this extremely practical counsel in regards to choosing a leader for a church. “Such arrangements should be made for the little companies accepting the truth as shall secure the prosperity of the church. One man may be appointed to lead for a week or a month, then another for a few weeks; and thus different persons may be enlisted in the work, and after a suitable trial someone should be selected by the voice of the church to be the acknowledged leader, never, however, to be chosen for more than one year. Then another may be selected, or the same one may be re-elected, if his service has proved a blessing to the church.…Many fail to exercise proper discernment in these important matters where eternal interests are involved.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 619.
Consideration of whether a person meets the qualifications for an office is necessary. What are some of the questions that should be asked about a person being considered for a leadership position in the church? Please see the list of qualifications for elders and deacons along with reading the following inspired quotations:
“The family of the one suggested for office should be considered. Are they in subjection? Can the man rule his own house with honor? What character have his children? Will they do honor to the father’s influence? If he has not tact, wisdom, or power of godliness at home in managing his own family, it is safe to conclude that the same defects will be carried into the church, and the same unsanctified management will be seen there.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 618.
Lay Hands on No Man Suddenly
We are also instructed in the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy to give a man due consideration and to pray much before placing him in office. We should not be in a hurry. “It will be far better to criticize the man before he is put into office than afterward, better to pray and counsel before taking the decisive step than to labor to correct the consequences of a wrong move.” Ibid.
Head Elders and Deacons
Is it right that there should be a head elder or deacon? In Story of Redemption we find that Stephen was chosen to stand at the head of the seven deacons. He was to lead them. He was thought the best qualified because of his multi-cultural ability in the midst of the tension between the Jews and Greeks.
Blessings from the Appointment of Officers and the Establishment of Church Order
There are great blessings to be gained from following God’s counsel. We have found that the establishment of church order:
- Enables churches to successfully give the Three Angels’ Messages
- Shields churches from fanaticism
- Is an important factor in the spiritual growth of church members
- Serves to unite in one body all believers in Christ (Acts of the Apostles, 89)
- Enables ministers and elders to be able to work more effectively
- Increases the number of believers (Acts 6)
- Increases the strength of believers (Story of Redemption, 260; Act 6:7)
Some may ask: “With all the theological issues facing the church today, why should they be concerned with the appointment of church officers? Shouldn’t we just focus on spreading the Three Angels’ Messages?” Yes, we should focus on spreading the Three Angels’ Messages. The appointment of church officers and the establishment of church order will not only help us give the message but, according to inspiration, we must have order to be successful in giving the message. “I saw that there should be order in the church of God, and that system is needed in carrying forward successfully the last great message of mercy to the world.” Testimonies, vol. 1, 211.
Many Seventh-day Adventists have been told that they should not conduct evangelistic efforts. Why? Because they are no longer connected with the conference. They have been forced out or have left because error is continually taught. Many have not felt it safe to bring their Bible students to church and felt forced to meet in their homes or in a rented building. Then, should these faithful Adventists no longer take the Three Angels’ Messages to the world—because they are not connected with the conference? No, they should do everything they can to spread it. While exercising the same courtesy that Jesus and the apostles did, we should say with Peter, “We ought to obey God rather than man.” Acts 5:29. We cannot obey any man or woman, whatever their position, when he or she tells us not to evangelize. And we cannot obey man when we are told not to follow the counsel of having orderly churches. The gospel commission of Matthew 28 still stands. And, to effectively fulfill that commission, we must have organized churches.
Proper church order will also help squelch some of the rampant fanaticism existing today and promote unity among the brethren. “There is order in heaven; and there should be system and order upon the earth, that the work may move forward without confusion and fanaticism.” Testimonies, vol. 4, 601.
Proper organization also enables ministers and elders to center their attention on the spiritual welfare of the church. Throughout history we see that it is too much for one man or one group of men to be able to focus on both the spiritual and business matters of the church. In the Old Testament, Moses’ father-in-law instructed him to delegate some of the voluminous load he was carrying, of settling all the minute details of the business, in the camp of Israel. In the New Testament (Acts 6), the church appointed deacons to oversee the business of the church and assist the apostles in spiritual leadership. As a result of dividing the labor (appointing deacons), the number and strength of the believers increased.
Results From Not Following God’s Counsel
- If God’s counsel is not followed what will be some of the results?
- Satan will benefit
- Minister’s spiritual discernment will be dimmed
“Order must be observed, and there must be union in maintaining order, or Satan will take the advantage.” Testimonies, vol.1, 211.
“Those whom God has called to minister in word and doctrine should have time for meditation, prayer and study of the Scriptures. Their clear spiritual discernment is dimmed by entering into the lesser details of business and dealing with the various temperaments of those who meet together in church capacity.” The Story of Redemption, 261. This is very solemn. An elder or minister’s spiritual discernment needs to be as clear and bright as the day.
Reasons for Lack of Organization Today
There appear to be many groups of Seventh-day Adventists that believe in the historic pillars of our faith (including the Spirit of Prophecy), that meet together every Sabbath, but do not recognize the importance of “proper organization.” There are probably many reasons for the lack of organization. Examples include:
- Fear of starting a “new organization”
- Belief that it is unnecessary
- Lack of knowledge of inspired counsel
- Desire to avoid local church struggles
For those afraid to organize, for fear they are starting a new organization, we would say the following: The church is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Timothy 3:15) To knowingly cling to error is to leave God’s church. If you have left a “structure” church because error is being taught, do not think that you are leaving the true church and starting a new organization.
It is unfortunate—more than unfortunate, it is a tragedy, that so many Seventh-day Adventists do not feel safe to worship in their local conference church. Surely it brings great pain to the heart of God and should to our hearts also. It should cause us to weep. But it should not cause us to disregard inspired counsel. The New Testament instruction, of Paul, Luke and Peter, is that the local church is not complete without the appointment and service of elders and deacons.
Many Seventh-day Adventists who are worshipping separately from the conference are told that they should not organize the group of historic believers with whom they are worshipping. Opponents quote a Spirit of Prophecy statement that says we should enter into no new organization and go on to say that if a church organizes separately from the conference that they are not following the Spirit of Prophecy.
Friends, the only way to avoid starting a “new organization” is to adopt New Testament church order. A candid look at inspired counsel reveals that Seventh-day Adventists, in and out of the conference, are not following the Lord’s instruction when it comes to church organization. (See previous articles by Neil Livingston, “The Mark of An Image,” parts one and two about the 1901 and 1903 General Conference Sessions.) The conferences that we are familiar with are not following God’s counsel regarding church organization. They already have entered a new form of organization and are not following the instructions clearly outlined in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy. Neither are most historic Seventh-day Adventists. It is past time that, along with following the counsel about health reform, dress reform and Christ-likeness of character, we also follow the counsel about New Testament church organization.
We cry about the departure of God’s professed people from following His counsel. And well we should. When a person cares about God’s work they will, like the apostle Paul, mourn at the pain we have caused to the heart of God and the reproach that has been brought upon His name. “The position which the Jews as God’s professed people occupied before an unbelieving world, caused the apostle intense anguish of spirit.” Acts of Apostles, 412. But let us do more than mourn. Let us look to see that we, like Paul, are individually doing all we can to promote conformity to the divine plan of order and organization among God’s people.
To those who believe organization to be unnecessary we would say, that, as children of God, we are not in a situation to be telling God what is and is not necessary. Surely our Creator, our Chief Shepherd, knows what is best for His churches. Whenever a church disregards the counsel of God, it is in a weakened position spiritually.
It seems that there are always some that are against proper church organization. There were some in the church at Thessalonica that were “self-willed, and impetuous, who refused to be subordinate to those who held positions of authority in the church. They claimed not only the right of private judgment, but that of publicly urging their views upon the church. In view of this, Paul called the attention of the Thessalonians to the respect and deference due to those who had been chosen to occupy positions of authority in the church.” Ibid., 261–262.
In both the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy we are given counsel about the character and qualifications of deacons. Please see the shaded box.
Of the first seven deacons, in the early church, we are told that, “These officers gave careful consideration to individual needs as well as to the general financial interests of the church, and by their prudent management and their godly example they were an important aid to their fellow officers in binding together the various interests of the church into a united whole.” Acts of the Apostles, 89.
Interestingly enough, Ellen White does not limit the responsibility of attending to the business of the church to men alone. She says that women could also attend to this. “There is a wide field in which our sisters may do good service for the Master in the various branches of the work connected with His cause. Through missionary labor they can reach a class that our ministers cannot. . . . There is work neglected or done imperfectly that could be thoroughly accomplished by the help that sisters can give. There are so many kinds of work too laborious for women, which our brethren are called to engage in, that many branches of missionary work are neglected. Many things connected with different churches are left undone that women, if properly instructed, could attend to. Our sisters might serve as church clerks, and the church business would not be so sadly neglected. There are many other offices connected with the cause of God which our sisters are better qualified to fill than our brethren, and in which they might do efficient service.” Welfare Ministry, 147. This should be good news to many small churches. The workforce may be bigger than many at first thought it could be.
Ministers and Elders
The inspired instruction we are given regarding the character and qualifications of elders is both detailed and broad. Please see shaded box.
An elder’s duty encompasses more than merely preaching a good sermon. It means offering personal, unselfish effort for church members and non-church members.
“Those who occupy the position of undershepherds are to exercise a watchful diligence over the Lord’s flock. This is not to be a dictatorial vigilance, but one that tends to encourage and strengthen and uplift. Ministry means more than sermonizing: it means earnest, personal labor.” Acts of the Apostles, 526.
“The greatest help that can be given to our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers. Let them learn to work as Christ worked.…Just as soon as a church is organized, let the minister set the members at work. They will need to be taught how to labor successfully. Let the minister devote more of his time to educating than to preaching.” Testimonies, vol. 7, 19–20.
“Let the neglected tithes be now brought in.…Elders of the churches, do your duty. Labor from home to home, that the flock of God shall not be remiss in this great matter, which involves such a blessing or such a curse.” Testimonies to Ministers, 306.
“But My Church is Very Small”
Some will make the plea, “But my church is so small. We do not have enough members to establish true gospel order.” Paul was careful throughout his ministry to organize even small groups of believers. “Those who in any place were by his labor led to accept Christ as the Savior were at the proper time organized into a church. Even when the believers were but few in number, this was done. The Christians were thus taught to help one another, remembering the promise, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.’ Matthew 18:20.” Acts of the Apostles, 185–186.
What Can Small Churches Do to Support Missions?
We are told in Gospel Workers, 466–467, that several small churches can unite to support a foreign missionary. What about two or three small home churches supporting a minister? Remember the widow with the two mites. She thought that her contribution was so small and insignificant. But how many, upon hearing the story, have given their small bit? And all those small bits added together have provided millions and millions of dollars for the advancement of the Lord’s work on earth. You may not be able to support a foreign missionary in your church, but, as we are told, you can unite with another church or several other churches and together support the local or foreign mission field.
An Important Requirement
Much more could be written about church order and organization. At the end of this article there is a list of recommended reading material for further study of the topic. However, there is one requirement to the establishment of proper church organization that we thought so key that we saved it until the end.
In speaking of the Jews and of Christians today, Ellen White said: “The order and prosperity of the church depended upon the good order and thorough discipline of families.…These injunctions which God laid upon the Jews with so much solemnity, rest with equal weight upon Christian parents.” Testimonies, vol. 3, 294.
In order to have orderly and organized churches, we must have orderly homes and disciplined families. And it does not happen overnight. Everyday we must take up the battle for order and discipline anew. Everyday we must humble ourselves before the throne of grace, pleading with God for a new heart, for wisdom to deal in a loving but firm way with our children and for a sense of our complete dependence upon Him. Only God can make our homes like heaven. In learning the secrets of how to have a happy, disciplined family and an orderly home, we will learn how to have happy, organized churches. It takes much effort, planning and prayer. But God will help you. We know He will. He has helped us. He works with all of us as we put forth earnest effort.
Today, God would have us to study—to be wide-awake to the times in which we live. The counsel is clear. God has instructed us to be organized because we need to be organized to help finish His work of salvation in our homes and our churches. He is calling us to come into line. It may not be easy. A person who has lost his job, because of keeping the Sabbath, would not call Sabbath-keeping easy. In fact, it could seem not only to be hard, but also down right awkward for several weeks; because it is new. But week after week it will become easier and more natural. The same is true with church order. It may be difficult and awkward at first, but, if we persist, God has promised a blessing.
“Choose ye this day whom you will serve.…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15.
- Not double-tongued
- Not given to much wine
- Not greedy for money
- Possess a pure conscience
- An experienced Christian
- Involved only in a monogamous relationship, if married
- Able to rule their homes well
- Possess calm judgment and discretion
- Able to deal with difficult cases of trial including murmuring and jealousy
- Attend to the general financial interests of the church
- See that a faithful tithe is brought into the treasury (Testimonies to Ministers, 305)
- Care for individual needs of the widows, orphans and worthy poor
- Teach the faith (example: Stephen)
- Take difficult temporal matters to the minister or elders
- A hearer
- A learner
- Of good repute
- Able to present Bible subjects
- Familiar with the Scriptures
- Full of zeal
- An effective ruler of household
- Able to educate church members to be workers
- Possessor of judgment
- Possessor of a fresh experience
- Involved only in a monogamous relationship, if married
- An experienced Christian
See 1 Timothy 3; Testimonies, vol. 4, 406–407; and Testimonies, vol. 5, 617–618.
- Laboring earnestly and personally for souls, inside and outside of the church
- Educating church members about how to work for souls
- Providing church members work to do in God’s vineyard
- Encouraging faithfulness in the return of the tithe
- Preaching the Word