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Relevant Verses: Matthew 20:20-28; Acts 15

Leading Question: Does the Bible tell us anything at all that applies to church organization?

Perhaps the most significant words from Jesus that relate to church organization are found in his response to the request of James and John and their mother that the two brothers be granted the highest places in the kingdom. This is Matthew’s version of the conversation:

Matthew 20:20-28: 20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (NRSV)

Comment: Here is God incarnate giving the example of servant leadership. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus command his followers to worship him. He came to serve, not to be served.

1. Question: How might the experience of Moses and Jethro, his father-in-law, during Israel’s wilderness wandering inform modern church organization? Is organization simply a practical matter or are their theological implications?

Exodus 18:13:-27: 13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” 15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20 teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country. (NRSV)

Comment: While the purpose of organization is practical, the theological implications become significant when practical matters involve other people and are handled in God’s name.

2. Question: How are the practical and theological implications reflected in the first General Conference, as reported in Acts 15?

Comment: Acts 15:28 is the key verse that describes how the “delegates” related to the issues and the people involved: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . .”

3. Question: Do the contrasting features of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” have a bearing on church organization?

Galatians 5:19-26: 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

Comment: Note the reference to “competing against one another, envying one another” in vs. 26, precisely the problem that Jesus and the disciples experienced when James and John asked for the top positions in Jesus’ kingdom.

Adventist Postscript

Early Adventism has much to offer the church today in terms of how to relate organization, leadership, and the Bible. It wasn’t until 1980 that Adventists began “voting” on beliefs, a practice which seemed innocent at the time, but has turned into a dangerous procedure. The two documents that are most crucial from early Adventism is first, the original Covenant which was used by the early Adventists when they first began organizing churches in 1861, and second, the preamble to our first unofficial statement of beliefs in 1872. Those are reproduced below:

“We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ [Rev. 14:12].” – Adopted in 1861 at the organizing session of the first SDA conference (Michigan), recommended for use in the organization of local churches; published in Review and Herald, October 8, 1861 (SDAE [1996] 416)

In presenting to the public this synopsis of our faith, we wish to have it distinctly understood that we have no articles of faith, creed, or discipline, having any authority with our people, nor is it designed to secure uniformity among them, as a system of faith, but is a brief statement of what is, and has been, with great unanimity, held by them. We often find it necessary to meet inquiries on this subject, and sometimes to correct false statements circulated against us, and to remove erroneous impressions which have obtained with those who have not had an opportunity to become acquainted with our faith and practice. Our only object is to meet this necessity. – From the preamble to the 1872 (unofficial) “Declaration of the Fundamental Principles Taught and Practiced by the Seventh-day Adventists” (Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, Battle Creek Mich.,1872).

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