First Century Patterns For 21st-Century Churches


April 5, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

I. The Purpose of This Mini-Series

A. To provide a biblical background for some of the key issues surrounding the proposed revision of our church constitution. There are three primary issues that need special discussion: the role of elders, the role of deacons, and the biblical basis for congregational government.

B. To explain my own thinking as it relates to some of the crucial issues relating to the local church. In particular, I want you to know where I’m coming from as I approach these sensitive issues. If I were in the pew, I would want to know not only what my pastor believes, but also how he arrives at those conclusions.

II. New Testament Principles or Patterns?

A key place to begin is with the following question: Does the New Testament give general principles for the life of the church which may be flexibly adapted to varying cultures and locales or do the actual patterns of the New Testament present models which should be followed by local churches today? Many would say that we are to follow the principles but not the actual patterns of New Testament church life. I disagree. In approaching matters such as how the government of the church should be organized, I think we should make an effort to follow the New Testament pattern of leadership as closely as possible.

In the Appendix of this paper I have reproduced a very helpful discussion by Dr. Charles Ryrie on this subject. In it, he makes several useful observations:

1. Most of us would argue for flexibility in some areas (meeting in buildings and not in homes) and for no flexibility in other areas (baptism must be practiced).

2. No church can be 100% consistent with the New Testament because of unavoidable cultural differences.

3. The arguments in favor of unlimited flexibility are mostly historical and analogical, but not biblical in nature.

4.The fact that so much detailed teaching on church life is recorded (especially in Paul’s epistles) must mean something. It is doubtful that we should feel free to ignore it.

5. The most reasonable course is to attempt to follow the biblical patterns of church life as closely as possible.

We want to be biblical not only in what we believe, but in how we organize our congregation.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

I agree with his analysis (I hope you will take time to read Dr. Ryrie’s very helpful comments) and recommend that approach for our church. I think that approach is fully in accord with our Articles of Faith which say that the Bible is to be “absolutely authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.” That last phrase is crucial. It means we want to be biblical not only in what we believe, but in how we organize our congregation.

III. Observations From Acts

In this section I would like to illustrate what I mean about looking to the Bible to find actual patterns of church life. Since Acts records the earliest days of the Christian church, we can begin our search there.

A. Acts 2:41-47 This passage reveals the birthday of the church. Verse 41 shows us the normal pattern of salvation, baptism and church membership. Verse 42 reveals the great principles of church life: Teaching, Fellowship, Communion and Prayer. Verses 43-46 show how these principles were worked out in the daily lives of the believers. Verse 47 shows the result: continual evangelism as new believers were being added to the church.

B. Acts 6:1-7 As the church grew it faced certain organizational problems. Because of a controversy within the church over the care of the Grecian widows, the apostles asked the congregation to select seven men to insure that the needs of the Grecian widows were fully met. This passage reveals a most important pattern that emerges in the early church–a two-tiered leadership structure in which the apostles cared for the spiritual needs of the people and the seven men (proto-typical deacons) cared for the material needs. As the church expanded, this two-tiered pattern would be duplicated by the election of elders (to give overall spiritual direction) and deacons (to handle various administrative and pastoral responsibilities).

C. Acts 11:27-29 This passage is notable because it reveals the first Benevolence Offering in the early church. It demonstrates the growing circles of concern as believers in one location gave money to help believers in other places. It also shows that the elders were given primary financial responsibility for handling the offering.

It is amazing how much we can learn about how to organize our church simply by studying the Bible! </h6 class=”pullquote”>

D. Acts 13:1-3 Almost everyone highlights these verses as among the most important in the book of Acts. They show us the first Missionary Conference in the New Testament as Paul and Barnabus are formally set apart as “foreign missionaries.” These verses also reveal the growing ethnic diversity of the early church. No longer exclusively Jewish, it will soon be a Gentile majority.

Summary: I am suggesting that as we discuss what patterns are best for us, we would do well to go back to the one infallible sourcebook. It is amazing how much we can learn about how to organize our church simply by studying the Bible!

IV. Francis Schaeffer’s Eight New Testament Norms for the Local Church

Most of us know Francis Schaeffer through his penetrating analysis of modern culture in the light of the gospel message. Time magazine called him a “missionary to the intellectuals.” Of all his books, the one that has impacted me the most is The Church at the End of the 20th Century. In it, he says these words, “I am often asked, ’Is the institutional church finished as we face the end of the 20th century?’ My answer is decidedly no, for the church is clearly given as a New Testament ordinance until Christ returns.” (p. 60) He goes on to say that although the church itself is not dead, many churches have been fossilized by empty tradition to the point where they have nothing meaningful to say to the people of the world.

Many churches have been fossilized by empty tradition to the point where they have nothing meaningful to say to the people of the world</h6 class=”pullquote”>

His theory goes like this: The New Testament specifies certain non-negotiable “norms” for the local church. These must always be observed by every local church in every culture in every century. Outside of those “norms” each church is free under the leadership of the Holy Spirit to do what it wishes in a wide variety of areas. In other words, there is both form and freedom for the local church. In Chapter Four he presents the eight principles which he believes to be biblically mandated, non-negotiable “norms” for the church in the 20th century. I reproduce them because I think they represent the kind of approach we need to take.

1. Local churches are to exist and they are to be made up of Christians.

2. These congregations are to meet together on the first day of the week.

3. There are to be church officers (elders) who are responsible for leading the church.

 Our goal should be to say exactly as much as the Bible says in any given area–no more and no less. </h6 class=”pullquote”>

4. There should be deacons responsible for the community of the church in the area of material needs.

5. The church is to take discipline seriously.

6. There are specific qualifications for elders and deacons which must be followed.

7. There is a place for form on a wider basis than the local church.

8. The two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to be practiced.


(The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Chapter 4, “Form and Freedom in the Church,” pp. 60-65)

I find his whole discussion very helpful because it shows that the New Testament can and must be used as an authoritative guide in discussing key areas of church life. We aren’t left to guess about everything. Schaeffer also points out that some will not agree on all eight norms. Some would want to rephrase them or to add some or to drop some. But the precise number and wording is not the point. The New Testament does say something about the life of the church, and that something should be followed as closely as possible. That’s why it’s important for the whole congregation to go back to the Bible in discussing such things as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, elders and deacons. Certain norms are revealed which must be taken seriously.

Schaeffer’s other point is equally important. Our goal should be to say exactly as much as the Bible says in any given area–no more and no less. He summarizes his chapter with these wise words: “The New Testament sets boundary conditions, but within these boundary conditions there is much freedom to meet the changes that arise both in different places and different times.” (p. 67)

Different churches will come to different conclusions about precisely what the “boundary conditions” are. What is important is that each congregation state what it believes the “boundary conditions” to be. That’s really why I am giving these Sunday night studies–to help us determine the biblical “boundary conditions” that we intend to follow, particularly in the area of leadership.

V. Concluding Thoughts on Form and Freedom

1. The Bible is to guide both our doctrine and our practice.

2. The New Testament reveals both established form along with great areas of freedom. The forms are to be followed. Where no authoritative command is given, Christians are free under the leadership of the Holy Spirit to do what is best for a particular time and place.

3. We should hold our convictions tightly and our preferences lightly .

4. While no one can be 100% consistent, when in doubt we should follow the biblical pattern.

The New Testament reveals both established form along with great areas of freedom.  </h6 class=”pullquote”>

Appendix:Principles And/Or Pattern?

An excerpt from Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie:

“Before considering the biblical teaching concerning organization, order, and ordinances for local churches, a basic question should be raised. Does the New Testament give principles for these areas to be followed generally, but to be adapted to various cultures and times; or does it also expect the pattern practiced in New Testament times to be followed today in all cultures? For example, does the New Testament teach principles of church government which can be adapted in a variety of ways, or does it also prescribe the particular pattern which must be followed? Many would say that flexibility in this area is permitted. The church must have leaders, but it makes little difference whether they are called elders or deacons or whether a group has both. One might even call them stewards and still follow the New Testament principle of leadership.

“Or take another example. The New Testament teaches the principles of believers gathering together. But in New Testament times they gathered in homes. Are we today allowed the flexibility of building church buildings, or should we follow the pattern of meeting in homes? Most would allow for flexibility in this case.

“Or another example: The principle in water baptism (whatever mode is used) is to show leaving the old life and entering into the new. Is there any way that principle can be followed without using the pattern of actual baptism? Almost all would say no. But why not erect a little closet on the church platform, have the candidate enter it in old clothes, change his clothes inside the closet, and then emerge in new clothes? Would that not illustrate the same truth as baptism does? And is it not a scriptural illustration? (Colossians 3:9-12) In church government we allow some flexibility between principles and pattern. In using church buildings we permit complete flexibility between principle and pattern. In water baptism we insist on no flexibility between principle and pattern. Whatever be a person’s or group’s theoretical views on this question, I doubt that anyone is totally consistent in practice.

“Arguments for flexibility are mostly historical and analogical. Historically, it is pointed out that since the early church was influenced by its culture and adopted its forms from that culture, we can do the same today. To be sure, elders came from the synagogue organization (though Gentile communities also had them). That the idea of deacons was taken over from the synagogue is much less clear. Baptism was practiced as one of the requirements for proselytes to Judaism and in the mystery religions. The Lord’s Supper was new to the church, though it grew out of the Passover feast. Instruction in the Jewish synagogue and instruction in the Christian church were similar. Excommunication was practiced by both groups. Unquestionably many practices which the church used had their antecedents in Judaism. This is to be expected. But the question still remains: when the church took over these practices, did they become divinely sanctioned (to be followed today) or simply divinely exemplified (not necessarily to be followed today in every detail)? The historical argument really does not settle the matter.

“Analogies are often drawn to support flexibility between principles and patterns. For example, the Gospel is an inviolable principle, but there are many patterns to follow in presenting it. Salvation is an absolute; but conversion experiences vary. Therefore, it is argued, though the church is an absolute, its forms and functions are variable. But because it is not exegetical the argument is weak.

My own feeling is that we should attempt to follow as many details as possible of the patterns for church life as they are revealed in the New Testament.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

“Those who feel that church practices should conform closely to the principles and patterns of the New Testament point out that the Scriptures claim to be sufficient for every good work, including the work of the local church (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Specifically, Paul wrote 1 Timothy with all its details about church life and government so that Timothy might know how to conduct himself in the house of God and how to instruct others in those same specifics (3:15). And in the same epistle, cultural conditioning of truth is specifically ruled out (2:11-14). Furthermore, Paul expected the churches to follow the “traditions” which included both principles and practices (1 Corinthians 11).

“Can this matter be settled? Probably not conclusively (and no one is entirely consistent). But to conclude, much flexibility seems to ignore the detailed patterns that are revealed in the New Testament. It is one thing to acknowledge a difference of interpretation about some detail, but it is quite another to say it is unimportant. My own feeling is that we should attempt to follow as many details as possible of the patterns for church life as they are revealed in the New Testament. Otherwise, there is no satisfactory answer to the question of why the patterns are there. And since they are there, I want to use them today.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?