The set of housegroups that make up Church 14-26 in an area will be a single church, overseen by several Elders. Each 14-26 group and each Bible study group should include at least one Elder or Deacon (‘servant’, a church position acting as an assistant to the Elders).
A church is governed in the New Testament by a plurality of Elders, who oversee it. The word for an Elder in scripture is presbyteros, and the word for an overseer is episkopos. These are the same people: one word denotes seniority, the other denotes their function. In Acts 20:17 & 20:28, Paul calls for the presbyteroi (plural) of the church at Ephesus and then addresses them as episkopoi. Further plurals are stated in James 5:14 and Acts 14:23. Elders shall be male, and shall normally be family men, for Paul says that they must be “men of one woman”, and that how they run their families is a guide to their suitability as overseers (1 Timothy 3). They must be competent scripture teachers (1 Timothy 3:2).
Does authority lie with the Elders or the congregation? To ask this question is to think wrongly. Authority lies with Jesus Christ, and only if this principle is grasped will a church function as it should. The Elders and Deacons meet regularly to coordinate the workings of the church, and share significant information to be passed to all groups.
In the list of ministries set out in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers), a pastor – poimen, meaning ‘shepherd’ – is a mentor who is gifted at helping new believers to be discipled and grow in their faith. It is obvious that some people are particularly suited to this, and a church should have at least one in each housegroup, just as it should have many prophets (1 Corinthians 14:5,29). The position of a lone pastor/teacher in a congregation is an unscriptural tradition. Nobody in congregational leadership in the New Testament is identified as a poimen (although many pastors are men of faith). In England this tradition runs back unbroken to 1688, when the Church of England’s ecclesiastical monopoly was ended permanently after Tudor and Stuart monarchs had enforced it, even against believers who merely wished to worship together privately with no political intent. (Some migrated to North America, where they founded colonies that became the USA.) Many ministers who quit their livings in the Church of England in the 1660s over the reimposition of fixed liturgy became leaders of the free congregations that sprang up in 1688. These men were faithful teachers of scripture, but pastorate of this type – whether chosen by the congregation or by a hierarchy above – is a continuation of one-man congregational leadership, without priestly ordination.
Church 14-26 does not acknowledge an ordained priesthood in Christ’s church. We appreciate that many ordained persons are committed Christians, but all believers in Jesus Christ are priests of God (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6), with Jesus Christ as their High Priest (Hebrews 4). An ordained officer class is divisive in the church. Ordained priests, who alone may minister certain sacraments to the rest, are liable either to burn out (if conscientious) or lapse into indifference. Small wonder, for they are trying to do the ministry that God means an entire congregation to do. The ‘laity’ expect their ordained and trained priest to do much of the work, and fail to seize hold of the spiritual power they have been given as believers. The dependence of many dozens of laity on one ordained man also makes the ‘service’ model of gatherings inevitable.
The word episkopos is translated as ‘bishop’ in some church systems, in which many churches are overseen by one bishop, rather than vice versa. The historical steps by which the original scriptural arrangement was inverted can be traced, but the change cannot be justified on the basis of scripture. In the New Testament a church is founded by an apostolos – meaning someone who is sent – who then chooses a council of episkopoi from among the believers in a place, and ensures that they have learnt to oversee their congregation properly. An apostolos retains authority over a congregation he has founded, but he will normally move on to plant churches in other places. After he is off the scene, the church chooses its overseers (episkopoi) from within itself. The plurality of episkopoi ensures continuity of leadership when any episkopos dies or moves town. The authority of a founder is unique, and therefore cannot be handed on to any senior episkopos in an ‘apostolic succession’; that is to confuse the roles of apostolos and episkopos. No hierarchy is described above the local church in the New Testament.
To the question “but who will oversee the leaders?” (asked in Roman rhetoric as quis custodiet ipsos custodes), Church 14-26 answers: “Jesus Christ. If you appoint a further tier of men, who will oversee them? We are just following the scriptural pattern.” Oversight by a hierarchy, which ordains people and moves them from congregation to congregation, is contrary to the personal basis of relations between believers described in the New Testament. It is also more prone to cover up misconduct than deal with it.
Unlike a house church, a large hierarchical church system may attract loyalty that is due to Jesus Christ alone. People find meaning by giving themselves over to something greater than themselves. Tragically, many people who go to services may not realise that they don’t know Him personally or have the Holy Spirit. The scandal of schism throughout church history – in 1054 (between Rome and Greek-speaking Orthodox churches), 1378 (rival Popes for a generation), 1517 (the birth of protestantism giving rise to multiple competing hierarchies) – cries out that God intended not a single extensive church hierarchy, but none.