The Congregation’s Place in True Worship
“I am writing you these things . . . that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in God’s household, which is the congregation of the living God, a pillar and support of the truth.”—1 Tim. 3:14, 15.
1. What organizational development especially noticeable in this twentieth century has also brought the worship of Jehovah to the fore?
THE twentieth century has witnessed the development of organizations on a national and international scale unheard of before. Organizations representing various business, labor, farm, consumer, political or religious interests are striving to combine their forces so as to wield greater influence in the lives of the people. In the midst of all this has appeared a fast-growing, dynamic society of Christian men and women who have one aim, and that is to bear witness to the name, divine qualities and purpose of the Creator, Jehovah God. This society, known as the New World society of Jehovah’s witnesses, is rapidly nearing the million mark, but it is not size or numbers that are so impressive. This society represents men and women from all lands and all national, racial, economic and other groups, persons living in at least 179 lands who are united in teaching, in belief, in conduct and in their loyalty to Jehovah and his reigning King, Christ Jesus.
2. Which of the three unifying factors for Jehovah’s witnesses is sometimes objected to? On what grounds?
2 All this is an evidence of the unifying power of God’s holy spirit and Word. But persons acquainted with Jehovah’s witnesses observe a very vital factor in this unity and that is organization. An extensive organization is evidenced in the way Jehovah’s witnesses unitedly carry on their preaching work, arrange large conventions and maintain the same standards of conduct in their 21,008 congregations world-wide. Sometimes some persons become wary when they see vast organization associated with the spiritual worship of God. At times one hears objections, such as that there is a danger of being over-organized, or the danger of serving or even worshiping an organization instead of God. Some ask, “Will not extensive organization tend to quench the free flow of God’s spirit and the spontaneous expression of love among dedicated Christians?”
3. (a) Why did Jesus not form a congregation while on earth? (b) How do we know it was God’s purpose for him to build a congregation?
3 Because the congregation today is very much tied in with the worship of Jehovah, it is vital that we find the Bible answers to these questions pertaining to the congregations. It will be good to examine the Scriptural record concerning the Christian congregation in the days of the apostles. It is true, as some argue, that Jesus did not build an organization or congregation while he was on earth; but that does not mean the Christian congregation was a human idea of the apostles. Jesus was born under an existing system of things that had been set up by his Father through Moses. This was still valid, and for him to have formed another organization would have made him a dissenter. But Jesus came to fulfill the Law with the offering of his own lifeblood and thereby to lay the foundation for God to establish a new system of things based on a new covenant. It was with this in mind that Jesus said he would build a congregation on himself as cornerstone.—Matt. 5:17; 16:18; Heb. 8:6, 10-13.
4. What counsel of Jesus to his apostles indicates there would be an organized arrangement among them?
4 With this congregation in mind Jesus used an occasion to teach his apostles the principle of organizational leadership or oversight that would apply. When James and John asked to have the highest positions in the Kingdom next to Jesus, he replied: “You know that those who appear to be ruling the nations lord it over them and their great ones wield authority over them. This is not the arrangement among you; but whoever wants to become great among you must be your minister, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44) This did not imply that there would be no organization, but rather that the arrangement for organization among Jesus’ followers would be patterned in Jehovah’s way.—Matt. 5:45, 48.
5 Shortly before his ascension to heaven Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of people of all nations, teaching them all the things he had commanded them. (Matt. 28:19, 20) This would include teaching these people the principle of organization that should prevail, as well as the need to be in union with Christ, like the branches in a vine. (John 15:4-7; 17:20, 21) Jesus further showed that those apostles whom he had taught and trained by word and example would have definite responsibilities in teaching and supervising the spiritual growth of others who would hear and accept their teaching. They would not simply be taught a few doctrines and left to go their way as independent believers, but would be brought into a unity, gathered into a congregation, like sheep to a fold. Jesus appointed the apostles as shepherds with his command: “Feed my young lambs,” “Shepherd my little sheep,” and, “Feed my little sheep.” This gave the apostles a very high degree of responsibility to look after all those who would be gathered.—John 10:1-17; 21:15-17.
THE CONGREGATION TAKES FORM
6, 7. How did the first congregation begin to take form after Pentecost, and how was it shepherded or supervised?
6 That they were to gather disciples into association with them was demonstrated at Pentecost a few days later. Upon receiving the holy spirit as proof that the new congregation had been founded, the apostles preached to and gathered many persons. The first three thousand believers did not merely accept some new teaching and then go their way. They needed to keep together and benefit from the oversight of the apostles. We read: “And they continued devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to association together, to taking of meals and to prayers.”—Acts 2:42.
7 As the apostles and other Christian believers preached, the message was spread to many lands and thousands of persons were gathered in. Wherever they were— Jerusalem, the regions of Judea and Samaria, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome or other places—they associated with their fellow believers and became ecclesias or congregations. (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 13:1; 14:23, 26, 27; 16:5; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 1:1; Philem. 1:2) The apostles knew that they alone could not properly shepherd this rapidly growing flock, so they trained mature and qualified men, those well versed in teaching, and appointed them as undershepherds, as overseers and ministerial assistants to look after the spiritual needs of all in the congregations. We note that the congregation in Antioch had the services of “prophets and teachers.” (Acts 13:1; 14:23; Titus 1:5-9; Phil. 1:1) Inasmuch as the apostles and older men in Jerusalem were the most mature and experienced in serving Jehovah and had received authority from Jesus to serve as shepherds, it was only logical that they became a governing body for all the new congregations, and the experiences they had in the Jerusalem congregation could well serve as a pattern or example for the others to follow.—Acts 8:14-17; 16:4, 5; 1 Thess. 2:14; 1:6, 7; Heb. 6:12.
8 All the congregations in Judea, Samaria and later in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, Babylon and other places actually made up one congregation of God. (Acts 9:31) This was an organized arrangement built up by God’s spirit. Far from being a human organization, Peter calls it the “flock of God” and urges the older men to “shepherd” this flock diligently. The apostle Paul emphasized that this was God’s arrangement when he said to the overseers from Ephesus: “Pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the holy spirit has appointed you overseers, to shepherd the congregation of God.” The congregation was God’s, and the overseers were responsible to teach and train and exercise oversight of those entrusted to them.—1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28; Titus 1:9; 2:15.
9 All those in the congregations were to respect this shepherding arrangement as being from God and submit themselves to it. The apostle Paul wrote to the Hebrews: “Be obedient to those who are governing you and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account, that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to you.” So no one could rightfully reject the counsel or chastening of an overseer by saying, “I am serving God. I have no responsibility to you, nor do you have any over me.” The overseers must render an account, and for the sake of the congregation it ought to be with joy. Any other report would be damaging to independent, self-seeking wrongdoers.—1 Pet. 2:13, 14; Heb. 13:7, 17.
10, 11. (a) What proofs show that the visible, earthly congregation was “God’s household”? (b) What importance does Paul attach to the congregation in relationship to the truth?
10 Some persons in those early days may have reasoned: “The congregation is not as important as the Word and the Spirit. I will follow these two, but I do not feel it necessary to associate with a congregation or submit myself to an organization.” Others may have argued that the true congregation of God was an invisible, spiritual association and did not need expression through a visible congregation. But when the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy on appointing overseers in the congregation, and was talking definitely about the visible congregation arrangement on earth and not some heavenly spiritual arrangement, he added: “I am writing you these things . . . that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in God’s household, which is the congregation of the living God, a pillar and support of the truth.” Yes, this earthly, visible congregation was called “God’s household,” the “congregation of the living God,” and, far from being of minor importance, it was a “pillar and support of the truth.”—1 Tim. 3:1-15; Heb. 3:4, 6.
11 Not individual congregations, but the composite congregation of Christ’s followers was likened to a human body containing many members that needed to cooperate with one another. It was in the visible congregation where the Christians would learn to co-operate with one another. (1 Cor. 12:4-30) It was of a visible congregation Paul wrote when he said: “God has set the respective ones in the congregation,” for he then mentions apostles, prophets, teachers, gifts of healing, different tongues, and so forth, all of which had to do with the ministry and works of the congregation on earth and not a spiritual or heavenly condition.—1 Cor. 12:18, 28.
THE PURPOSE OF THE CONGREGATION
12. In what sense were the early Christians to be as aliens, and in what sense as an organized group?
12 What was the purpose of the congregation? To train and unite all believers. The Christians were not to be a large, unidentifiable, disassociated crowd of persons, each of whom had his own ideas and loyalties, keeping themselves separate from this world and living like dispersed aliens in a strange land. Though living as aliens and temporary residents in this old world, the Christians were to be as ‘living stones being built up into a spiritual house,’ “a holy nation, a people for special possession.” In other words, they needed to be gathered and fitted together to worship as a group, as a congregation, and this in a tangible way.—1 Pet. 2:5-11.
13. How do three illustrations used by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians indicate that Christians should be unified in a tangible way?
13 A similar illustration of the congregation arrangement was used by Paul in explaining how both Israelites and non-Israelites were united in Christ, becoming a unity with common aims, obligations and identity. “Certainly, therefore, you are no longer strangers and temporary residents, but you are fellow citizens of the holy ones and are members of the household of God, and you have been built up upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, while Christ Jesus himself is the foundation cornerstone. In union with him the whole building, being harmoniously joined together, is growing into a holy temple for Jehovah.” (Eph. 2:19-21) Here Paul uses three different illustrations of individuals or things organized together to serve a common purpose. First, “fellow citizens of the holy ones,” which indicates a common sharing of certain rights, privileges and responsibilities and identity that such citizenship gives. With the illustration “members of the household of God” Paul shows the way all believing Christians were organized as a family unit. In every household there is a definite arrangement of things, and all must respect the family head and live up to the standards of the household. In comparing them to building stones “being harmoniously joined together,” ‘being built up together,’ Paul shows the need of a congregation. Within the framework of the congregation these “stones” could be shaped, smoothed and fitted. Only when united in the congregation as a body of people and not seeking isolation could they be God’s temple and serve to advance true worship, while being trained for their future assignments in the heavenly Kingdom organization.—1 Cor. 3:16, 17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16.
14. How could the congregation demonstrate God’s wisdom, as mentioned at Ephesians 3:10, 11?
14 So the anointed Christians of the first century were to be assemblers, not dissenters, trying to serve God independently of each other. Since God’s heavenly arrangement was orderly and harmonious, surely the called-together group of God’s servants on earth would demonstrate this same harmony. If the greatly diversified wisdom of God was to be made known through the congregation, then this congregation needed to be well organized, harmonious, and not see its members separating from one another to seek their own interests.—1 Cor. 14:33, 40; Eph. 3:10, 11.
15. What were the “gifts” to the congregation, and what was their purpose?
15 A clear picture of the congregation organization established by God’s spirit and its purpose is outlined in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. First, he shows the responsibilities each anointed Christian had to others in a group, “putting up with one another in love, earnestly endeavoring to observe the oneness of the spirit.” Then, from verse 11 on, he mentions the organizational provision for this, namely, the congregation with the different features for oversight and teaching as gifts from Christ. “And he gave some [gifts] as apostles, some as prophets, some as missionaries, some as shepherds and teachers, with a view to the training of the holy ones for ministerial work, for the building up of the body of the Christ, until we all attain to the oneness in the faith and in the accurate knowledge of the Son of God.” So their being anointed with the spirit did not in itself change over these Christians to completeness in a miraculous and instantaneous manner. Rather, the spirit led them to the congregation, where, with the help of the spirit, the Word and the organization arrangements, they would become of one mind and be trained for the ministerial work.—Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Cor. 1:10.
16. How did the congregation help build up the individuals in love?
16 By their associating in the congregation the anointed ones both gave and received benefit. It was here in a most tangible way that they were “being harmoniously joined together,” and not merely in some sort of invisible spiritual way. In the congregation they were being made to cooperate through “every joint which gives what is needed, according to the functioning of each respective member in due measure,” which resulted in the “growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” The congregation organization did not stifle or quench love’s expression or make it mechanical as if according to rules, but rather trained and built up all in love and gave them opportunity to practice it.—Eph. 4:16; 2 Thess. 1:1-3; Rom. 1:9-13.
THE CONGREGATION A TEACHING ORGANIZATION
17. How was the congregation to unify teaching, and how was this beneficial?
17 Not only did the congregation serve to build up those in love, but it unified their thinking and understanding of the Scriptures. Some of the Ephesians may have complained that this arrangement stifled individual and independent thinking and forced them to accept only the apostles’ ideas instead of being free and independent to develop their own philosophy on things. But this arrangement did not inhibit the scope of understanding of the congregation to the narrow viewpoints of one or two individuals. It did protect them from being subject to “every wind of teaching” and “the trickery of men.” Faithful Christians did not consider this as some ‘brain-washing’ tactic. They had come out of the world and wanted to put away their old personality and put on the new personality, which was created according to God’s will. The congregation’s unified teaching program provided for this.—Eph. 4:14, 17-24.
18. What arguments have been used to show that a teaching congregation was not necessary, but what proves these arguments false?
18 Some who preferred to be independent of any congregation may have argued that one can gain accurate knowledge through communion with God and through his spirit, and therefore a teaching congregation or organization was not necessary. They may have referred to Ephesians 1:17, 18 or Eph 3:16-19, where Paul writes concerning God as giving believers wisdom and accurate knowledge and says that Christ would dwell in them and they could grasp these things mentally, or 1 John 2:26, 27, where John writes: “You do not need anyone to be teaching you; . . . the anointing from him is teaching you about all things.” But note, these expressions are found in letters of instruction that the apostles Paul and John sent to the congregations and that would be used further to teach those in the congregation. If the spirit would have done all teaching direct with all spirit-begotten individuals, there would have been no need for these letters to be written to the congregations.—1 John 1:3, 4.
19, 20. What are some of the truths that the first Christians learned, and how did they learn them?
19 Consider for a moment some of the vital truths those early Christians learned by associating with the congregation. The decision of the apostles and older men in Jerusalem as to the requirements for non-Jewish believers was sent by letter to the congregations. The details of God’s sacred secret regarding an administration to gather all things together in the Christ and to assign people of the nations as joint heirs were revealed to the congregations in the letter to the Ephesians. The truths about the falling away, the man of lawlessness being manifest, Christ’s presence, and how the cry “peace and security!” would mark the climax of Jehovah’s day were explained to those who associated with the congregations where the letters to the Thessalonians or copies of them were studied.—Acts 15:22-35; 16:4, 5; Eph. 3:3-7; 1 Thess. 1:1; 4:13-18; 5:1-11; 2 Thess. 1:1; 2:2-11.
20 By being associated with a congregation the early Christians learned of the letters to the Corinthians, which contained explanations of the Lord’s evening meal, the operation of spiritual gifts and the resurrection. Yes, all the explanations of doctrine found in the apostles’ letters were inspired instruction given through members of the governing body and they came to individual anointed Christians through the congregation. Only by associating with the congregation could they benefit from overseers who ‘ministered in a right manner,’ men ‘holding firmly to the faithful word as respects their teaching.’ And only thus could they learn in a tangible way that there was no difference between Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, foreigner, Scythian, slave, freeman, male or female.—1 Corinthians, chapters 11-15; 1 Timothy, chapter 3; Col. 3:11.
21. How did the congregation retain its identity, and what effect did this have on the believers from many lands?
21 The congregation was built up by God to declare his excellencies, to show forth his wisdom. (1 Pet. 2:9) For this reason the congregation conformed to God’s will; it did not conform to the will and customs of the different people and their ways. (Eph. 4:20-24) As this congregation spread to many lands it retained its identity, its principles of operation, its pure teaching and its unity. Instead of its being marked and shaped by every wind of doctrine and all sorts of conduct, it put its mark on those associated with it. It had to be kept clean and holy; therefore immoral persons were disfellowshiped. (1 Cor. 5:13) It had to unite men with the truth of God’s Word; therefore those who would bring in division and false teaching were disfellowshiped also. (Titus 3:10; Rom. 16:17) In this way the congregation retained its organizational identity and form. The principles of thinking and living taught through the congregation marked the believers deeply, affecting their personal lives, marriage and family life, and the relationship between slaves and masters.—Col. 3:5; Ephesians, chapter 5.
22. What part did the first congregation play in true worship?
22 These are only some of the Biblical proofs showing that the Christian congregation of the first century played a vital part in the training and upbuilding of the anointed Christians. It was in fact a pillar and foundation of the truth. The congregation proved to be God’s provision to teach Christian believers of their need for one another and gave them full opportunity to practice love, mercy and forgiveness as well as to learn respect for theocratic authority. It did not quench God’s spirit or stifle love’s expression, but, rather, by teaching and example it was able to build up all in the congregation in love and maturity so that they were most receptive to the operation of the holy spirit.