The New Testament teaches “there is one body” (Ephesians 4:4), and that the church “is His body” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Christ promised to build one church: “…and on this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). That one church is described as the “general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). But in Acts 14:23, we read of “churches” (plural) when Paul and Barnabas returned through the cities where they had preached on their first journey: “So when they had appointed elders in every church….” Likewise, in the NKJ version of Ax 9:31, Luke speaks of “churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.” It is obvious then that the word “churches” is used in a different sense than the “one body” (one church), yet without contradiction. The word church, therefore, may refer to all of the saved everywhere or to a specific congregation of the saved, and the latter is the sense in which the word is used in Acts 9:31 and 14:23. So we learn just in these two contexts in Acts that 1) multiple, specific congregations existed with apostolic authority, and 2) elders were appointed in each of the ones in Acts 14:23.
Let us ask this important question: Is there any organization that groups individual churches? The answer to that question is No. Search the New Testament, and you will not find any organization that groups congregations. What you do find repeatedly is this: Independent, autonomous congregations of Christians in different localities. In addition to the examples cited in Acts, consider these: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to the all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). The first letter to the Corinthians is to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
The example of elders in each church (Acts 14:23) is consistent throughout the New Testament. As we continue reading in Acts, we find authoritative, apostolic instruction to the elders of the church in Ephesus to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). In similar fashion, Peter, who is an elder when he writes his first letter, exhorts elders to “shepherd the flock which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2). His instruction limits their oversight to the flock “which is among” them. Putting it all together, we have elders in each church, overseeing only the flock that is among them – that specific church among which they are elders. This is God’s design for the churches.
In the New Testament, then, a church is under oversight of one set of elders, while another church is under oversight of another set of elders. Brethren, each church is therefore self-ruled, or autonomous, with each saint submitting to the Head. No church directs the affairs of another church.
The book of Revelation contains seven letters to seven separate churches, each with their own commendation, condemnation, or a combination. Each church, in other words, was independent of the other in its works and thus in God’s judgment of it.
In the New Testament, there was no “mother” church. There was no church above another or under another – no hierarchy.
When you look at the religious world today, you’ll find all sorts of organizations of so-called churches. Some are organized into conventions, while others may have a “mother” church or a central organization directing affairs in a hierarchical manner. Nothing of the sort can be found in the New Testament, and this is one clue among others that those so-called churches are not the church of the first century. Let us adhere to the New Testament pattern.
– Larry Jones