THE primary work of the Apostles in the first century involved establishing, supporting and assisting ecclesias. It was impossible, of course, to have ecclesias without any members, but God was calling out “a people for his name” (Acts 15:14)—ie, a community of believers united by shared beliefs and with a common purpose. When Paul and Barnabas went about “confirming the souls of the disciples”, “they ordained them elders in every ecclesia … and commended them to the Lord on whom they believed” (Acts 14:22,23). Some years later, Paul wrote to Titus, whom he sent to Crete to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5).

It is therefore significant that most of the New Testament epistles were written to ecclesias rather than individuals. But where there were individual recipients, such as Timothy and Titus, the content of their letters is about the arrangements they should make for the smooth running and edification of ecclesias: “these things write I unto thee … that thou mayest know how men ought to behave themselves … in the ecclesia of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:14,15 RV); “for this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting” (Titus 1:5). From this wealth of information about first century ecclesial life it is apparent that, as well as commonly held doctrinal beliefs, there was also a generally accepted way of doing things. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, for example, about matters involving the contribution and deportment of sisters, explaining that the ecclesias had an accepted “custom” and practice on this subject (1 Corinthians 11:16); and brethren and sisters were consistently advised to “be of one accord, of one mind” (Philippians 2:2, cp Acts 2:1, etc).

Royal Association of Believers

Similar requirements existed with the re-establishment of a community of believers in the mid-nineteenth century. Brethren and sisters were not considered as isolated disciples serving God and their Lord in ways that suited themselves. Right from the earliest days believers met together as ecclesias. In 1854 Brother Thomas drew up a constitution of “The Royal Association of Believers in New York”: men and women who were waiting for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The constitution of “The Royal Association” explained the things they had in common, both in belief and practice. As the numbers of believers increased, just as they did in the first century, there was a similar need to “set in order” things that were wanting, so that it would be apparent “how men ought to behave themselves” in their ecclesias.

There were spirit-gifted elders in the first century, and still it was necessary for the apostle to explain what was needed to establish mutual order. How much greater the need once spirit gifts no longer existed. Yet the apostle left on record the advice he gave directly to ecclesias, and indirectly through those whom he appointed to different tasks. When we wish to know “how men ought to behave”, these scriptures are available to guide us.

The doctrinal beliefs that we have in common with brethren and sisters all round the world are well summarised in our Statement of Faith, and the Scripturally based arrangements for organising and operating our ecclesias are gathered together in each ecclesiaʼs constitution. Though there will be differences between these constitutions arising from local needs, the major principles of operation are effectively the same, and it is right that they should be. The Scriptures explain about the proper organisation of ecclesias, ensuring that things run smoothly and in accordance with Scriptural teachings. By describing situations that arose in the first century and how the apostles tackled them, the Scriptures provide practical guidance that can be applied in similar circumstances today.

Ecclesial Organisation and Arrangements

In order that things within ecclesias are done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40), the Scriptures must themselves always be the arbiter and guide. So, just as the Statement of Faith summarises scripture teaching about first principles of belief, The Ecclesial Guide1 was produced in 1883 to summarise Bible teaching about ecclesial organisation and arrangements and to assist ecclesias in the preparation of their individual ecclesial constitutions. At first sight, it might appear to be dry and dusty, designed to deal with issues of controversy and dispute; negative rather than positive. Yet, on reading, this view is immediately dispelled; it is a booklet full of Bible-based, sound and practical common sense. It stresses the important role of ecclesias as oases of peace in a tempestuous world, and as lampstands in the darkness of widespread unbelief.

As we have already remarked, ecclesias are formed by groups of individuals who are united by their shared beliefs, and Brother Roberts wisely counselled against the widespread use of the word “church”, which tends to focus on the place or the building rather than on the individuals who worship there. Those individuals have been called out from the world by the Word of God, and this “calling out” is reflected in the word “ecclesia”. From our earliest days therefore, the brotherhood has spoken about ecclesias and about meetings (for a time, indeed, even about synagogues), to distinguish its gatherings from the often social and sometimes political activities of the surrounding churches.

Mutual Submission

Such churches are often characterised by an over-bearing structure of bishops and archbishops, canons and deacons. But how is a group of individual believers to organise itself without introducing a hierarchy of one sort or another? How can they “have all things common”? The fact is that there is a head, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is over all, and every brother and sister is subject to him in all things. Because Jesus laid down his life for the brethren, each member of the ecclesia is not only subject to him, but must recognise the need to lay down their lives for their brethren and sisters. Ecclesias thus comprise individuals who should be subservient to each other, always seeking to succour the needs of their brethren and sisters.

This principle of submission to the needs of the ecclesia as a whole must colour everything that is done. Arrangements are made for the good and for the convenience of all. Each member has opportunity to contribute, and to select those who, for the time being, are more closely involved in making the necessary arrangements. There are Scriptural qualifications to assist this process of selection, emphasising the importance of spiritual qualities over those that would be recognised by most worldly organisations.

Much that appears in the pages of The Ecclesial Guide runs counter to the assertiveness and promotion of individual rights that colours the dealings of the world about us. There is an implicit warning in the Scriptures not to be influenced by the thinking of men, and the Biblical model of submission in ecclesial life is a welcome reminder that Godʼs ways are not manʼs. It has even been known for individual brethren to try and dominate ecclesial affairs, so the counsel in The Ecclesial Guide is always to refer to members as “Brethren”, and never by a term that could imply rulership.

Decisions are therefore always to be taken by the ecclesia and not by any individual member or a self-selected group of individuals. For practical reasons, day-to-day decisions are often delegated to a group of selected serving brethren, but all their actions, and especially matters touching on fellowship must be subject to the endorsement (or rejection) of the ecclesia as a whole.

Relations Between Ecclesias

It will be appreciated from these brief comments that each ecclesia is responsible for handling its own affairs. Other ecclesias cannot dictate what it should do, nor can it impose its will on any other ecclesia, near or far. How then are ecclesias to cooperate together? What is the basis of their association? This is one of the most important sections of The Ecclesial Guide, and one that is all too often overlooked.

In a characteristically straightforward manner, Brother Roberts introduces this section by emphasising “the simple law of Christ, to do to others as we would be done by”. This leads him to show how the Scriptures explain that problems and concerns ought to be discussed with the brethren concerned and with their ecclesias, and not addressed by edict or widespread publication of allegations and charges. Because ecclesias are united in belief, there should be no disagreement about fundamental Bible teachings, but there may be differences of view about the application of these in practical ways. How can such differences be addressed? Again the simple law of Christ provides the key, explaining how there should be mutual respect for the views of other ecclesias, each allowing the other to determine local cases that arise, and without seeking to impose their own solution on problems in other ecclesias.

The intention is that the scriptural analogy of the “body of Christ” is upheld. Each ecclesia, like each individual brother or sister, forms a part of the body of Christ. Circumstances and functions differ according to circumstances, but with a united aim and a common purpose, these differences add to, and do not detract from the work of the body. Schism and divisions arise only when the united aim and common purpose are denied in belief or practice, or when no mutual respect exists.

The True Secret of Success

This leads to probably the most important section of The Guide, titled “The True Secret of Success”. Brother Robertsʼ words in this section are better than any to be found by this reviewer, and they explain the principles that underlie this most helpful publication. The greatest benefit any ecclesia can obtain will come from always ensuring that the Scriptures are the foundation and guide in the lives of individual believers, and for the communities of believers gathered from the nations to shine forth the light of the gospel in this dark world:

“The true secret of success lies in the rich indwelling of the word of Christ in each individual member of an ecclesia … When every mind is influenced by the Word, the worst rules run smoothly. When it is otherwise, the best will miscarry … In fact, a small company where Christ is in the heart ascendant, can get on best without set rules. It is only because this is not universal and when members increase, that rules become necessary.”