The Christian Congregation and Its Operation
MANKIND is greatly divided at the present time. Religious, racial, national, social and linguistic barriers have proved insurmountable. But this division was not purposed by God. At the first, Adam and Eve, the parents of the human race, were in full unity and harmony with each other and, more importantly, with God and his heavenly family of angelic sons. (Gen. 1:27-31; Job 38:7) God purposes to restore this unity and harmony in the universe. The Bible, speaking of “the sacred secret of [God’s] will,” says: “It is according to his good pleasure which he purposed in himself for an administration at the full limit of the appointed times, namely, to gather all things together again in the Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth. Yes, in him.”—Eph. 1:9, 10.
There can be no peace and happiness on earth without unity. But it cannot be a unity through fear, as the nations today hope to achieve to protect themselves against nuclear warfare. True peace must be based on heartfelt unity—love for one another and for God. This gathering together in Christ is a gathering together under Jehovah God’s authority, an acknowledging of him as Sovereign. For the past 1,900 years he has been gathering persons from all races, nations and languages to form the Christian congregation, with Christ as Head. In this time of the conclusion of the present world system of things, God is also gathering persons hoping to survive this system’s end, to live on earth forever under Jehovah’s sovereignty. Moreover, during the thousand-year rule of his kingdom Christ will bring back the dead by a resurrection, to gather together all who prove to be obedient into one harmonious body.—1 Cor. 15:22, 23.
THE CONGREGATION AND ITS UNITY
What is the congregation? The word “congregation” is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which means, literally, “a calling out,” from ek, “out of,” and klesis, “a calling.” The term was used by early Greeks of a body of citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of State. English equivalents of the word are “assembly” and “congregation.” Some Bible versions render ekklesia as “church.” The equivalent Hebrew word is qahal, used in referring to the congregation of Israel.—Compare Psalm 22:22, 25 and Hebrews 2:12.
The expression “congregation” applies, in its largest sense, to the entire body of Christian disciples under Christ as Head. (Col. 1:18; Rom. 12:5) It is also used in the Bible with reference to local bodies of Christians. (Acts 15:41; Rev. 1:4) Each congregation must have unity within itself and with the entire earth-wide congregation—they are all as one. The kind of unity that the congregation must have is described at 1 Corinthians 1:10: “Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”
Love, the basis for unity, is the primary identifying mark of the true Christian congregation. Jesus said: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” (John 13:35) The Bible commands Christians: “Clothe yourselves with love, for it is a perfect bond of union.” (Col. 3:14) To achieve this loving unity all members of the congregation must study God’s spirit-inspired Word and follow it. In this way they develop the mind and the spirit or motivating force of Christ and gain his mind on matters. (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 2:16) They come to know God—his personality, his fine qualities and ways, and can become imitators of him. (Eph. 5:1) This brings unity but not uniformity. Each member of the congregation, in ‘putting on the new personality,’ does not lose his identity. (Eph. 4:22-24) He still has his own tastes, talents and abilities. This works for enjoyable variety and for happiness in the congregation.
THE CENTRAL BODY OF ELDERS
Unified, concerted effort is necessary to get the proclamation of the “good news” accomplished earth wide. First-century Christians enjoyed this unity, as the apostle Paul wrote to the Christian congregation in the city of Philippi in Macedonia: “Only behave in a manner worthy of the good news about the Christ, in order that, whether I come and see you or be absent, I may hear about the things which concern you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one soul striving side by side for the faith of the good news.” (Phil. 1:27) The first-century congregations cooperated with the Jerusalem congregation. Since it was the oldest congregation, and the body of elders thereof included the apostles, the other congregations looked to this body for counsel and direction.
Jehovah’s Witnesses today have made efforts to learn the mode of operation of the early Christian congregation and to follow that Scriptural pattern. The more than 40,000 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the earth cooperate with a central body of elders at Brooklyn, New York. This body is made up of Christian men who are mature, experienced members of Christ’s congregation, and are from various nationalities and from various lands. They qualify also, as outlined at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, to be shepherds and overseers of the flock of God.
The operation of the first-century body of elders in Jerusalem is illustrated in Acts chapter 15. As shown there, God was dealing with his people wherever they were on earth—his entire congregation. Through the Head of the congregation, Jesus Christ, God led his servants Paul and Barnabas, preaching in non-Jewish lands, into a situation that posed a problem: Should Gentiles accepting Christianity be required to be circumcised before being accepted into the congregation? Some Jewish Christians said Yes.
Consequently the apostle Paul and others took the problem to Jerusalem, where the rest of the apostles and the elders of that congregation resided. (Acts 15:1, 2) With all this body gathered together, Paul and Barnabas set the question before them. A discussion ensued in which Peter described the leadings of the spirit in connection with the first Gentile convert, Cornelius. (Acts chap. 10) Next, Paul and Barnabas testified similarly. The holy spirit thereby ‘bore witness’ to God’s will on the matter. (John 15:26) Then, to settle the question Scripturally, God’s spirit acted as a reminder to direct the attention of James the half brother of Jesus Christ to Amos 9:11, 12, and as a teacher to get James to see the significance of that prophecy. (John 14:26) Thus the matter was settled, actually by holy spirit. Consequently, a letter was written to all the congregations to guide them in harmony with God’s will.—Acts 15:22-29.
By observing how that Christian body in Jerusalem operated, we can see how the modern-day central body of elders functions. When the need arises for additional help, the men composing the central body of elders select other experienced men who are qualified to serve on this body with them. This body also directs the review of recommendations of elders made by the congregations and the appointing of men to these positions. Another of its functions is the supervision of the writing and/or publication of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines, Bibles and other Bible publications, using the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., as legal agencies.
In addition to the administration of these matters, the central body keeps closely in touch with the congregations throughout the world by means of branch offices. It maintains the missionary school of Gilead at Brooklyn, New York, directs the assignment of missionaries throughout the earth and sees that proclaimers of the “good news” of the Kingdom reach isolated places. Members of this body visit these other lands from time to time. This helps worldwide unity of thought and action to be maintained. (1 Cor. 1:10) These men associate with and serve as elders in local New York congregations. They are not governors or “masters” of the lives or faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but are viewed as brothers and equals having a duty of stewardship.—1 Cor. 4:1, 2; 2 Cor. 1:24; 1 Pet. 4:10.
ELDERS IN THE CONGREGATIONS
Each local congregation, in turn, has its body of “elders,” or “overseers” (Greek, episkopoi). The elders are in no way superior persons, but are actually servants to the “flock” of God. Their attitude and work are described by the apostle Peter at 1 Peter 5:1-4, where they are called “shepherds.” They are to help the “flock” in their charge. The terms applied to these men are not titles but, rather, actually designate that they are in fact “elders” as mature Christian men appointed to do a work of shepherding and overseeing spiritual matters. Special titles that set apart a “clergy” class from a “laity” are not used among Jehovah’s Witnesses.—Job 32:21, 22.
Men recommended by each congregation to be recognized as elders or overseers are selected according to the Scriptural qualifications set forth at 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9 and other texts describing the qualities and work of true overseers. Thus it is that “holy spirit” indicates to the central body of elders whom they should appoint “to shepherd the congregation of God.”—Acts 20:28.
The supervision of the flock of God is a “pastoral” work. In speaking of their duty to “take care of God’s congregation,” the apostle Paul uses the Greek word epimeléomai, which signifies “to take care of,” involving forethought and provision, epi indicating ‘the direction of the mind toward the object cared for.’ (1 Tim. 3:5) At Luke 10:34, 35 the word is used with regard to the good Samaritan’s care for the wounded man.
Accordingly, the primary function of the elders is to look well to the spirituality of the congregation, teaching, helping, reproving, correcting, exhorting. The elders are concerned with the congregation, not as a mass of people, but with the spiritual welfare of every member individually. The elders’ being “qualified to teach” includes ability to give helpful counsel to individuals, married couples and families as to the application of the Scriptures to their lives and problems.—1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 4:2; 2:24, 25.
The elders of a congregation sit as required to hear cases in which there are disputes between members of the congregation, or in which charges of wrongdoing are involved. However, in this they are not to be viewed as harsh judges, but, rather, as loving brothers interested in the recovery of the wrongdoer. Their objective is to help those involved to work out their problem as God’s Word directs and to maintain the moral cleanness of the congregation, in harmony with the Scriptures. This assures God’s continued favor and also guards against reproach upon God’s congregation. (1 Pet. 2:15, 16) Mercy and the good spiritual standing of the congregation are therefore the primary factors. Every effort is made to ‘gain’ the erring one, helping him to readjust, to correct his way and get back into sound spiritual condition. (Matt. 18:15) However, if individuals seriously violate Scriptural principles and show no true repentance or inclination to turn away from a bad practice, the body of elders may act to “disfellowship” the offender. This action is a dissociation or breaking off of spiritual fellowship and social intimacy.—1 Cor. 5:9-13.
Besides keeping the congregation free from the accusation of condoning wrongdoing, disfellowshiping may help the offender to come to his senses. (1 Tim. 1:20) Such a person, if he later repents and turns away from his wrong course and requests reinstatement, may be received back after the body of elders gives consideration to his changed course and attitude. (2 Cor. 2:5-8) While in the disfellowshiped state, the individual is not mistreated or abused, but is regarded in the way that Jesus counseled, “as a man of the nations,” that is, as one who is among the outside world, not a member of the Christian congregation.—Matt. 18:17.
“Ministerial servants” (Greek, diakonoi, servants or ministers) are selected on the basis of qualifications laid down in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. These men work under the supervision of the elders to assist in caring for the congregation’s many needs. This they do by taking care of the records of the congregation, keeping meeting places clean, equipped, supplied, seeing that the people in the community are systematically reached with the “good news,” which involves territory maps, assignments of territory to individuals and groups, making sure that all members of the congregation are supplied with Bible literature for witnessing and teaching, assisting new ones to proclaim the “good news,” visiting interested persons, helping needy or sick ones, and so forth. They, as well as the elders, serve in harmony with the “gifts” that God has seen fit to give them. (Rom. 12:6-8) None of the elders or ministerial servants receive a salary as such. Their services are given free.
While women engage in the work of proclaiming and teaching the “good news” to the people, as did women of the early Christian congregation, none are appointed as elders. This is in harmony with the apostle Paul’s words at 1 Timothy 2:12 and; 1 Corinthians 14:34.
To provide special training for the elders, a school course is provided periodically, in convenient locations. All congregational elders are invited to these schools, called “Kingdom Ministry Schools,” where they are provided with a textbook tailored to their needs. Qualified instructors conduct the schools. Local congregations may provide food and lodging for those who come to the school from outside the school’s vicinity. A similar school is provided for training “pioneer” Witnesses—those who regularly devote ninety hours or more each month to the direct work of proclaiming the good news.
TRAVELING CIRCUIT AND DISTRICT OVERSEERS
Elders who are in a position to devote all or a large portion of their time to work as circuit overseers are appointed to make regular visits on some twenty congregations within a given area. The circuit overseer’s work is to cooperate with the elders in the congregations that he visits, discussing problems that arise and encouraging the congregation by association and by sharing with as many members of the congregation as possible in the fine service of proclaiming the “good news.” He also gives talks encouraging all to progress in the faith.—Rom. 1:11, 12.
The work of the district overseer is similar to that of the circuit overseer. A district is usually composed of about twenty circuits or sections thereof. The district overseer visits these circuits, at which times “circuit assemblies” are held in convenient cities or at a centrally located Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He serves as chairman at such gatherings. These assemblies are usually of two days’ duration. Upbuilding talks and discussions by the circuit and district overseers and other local elders deal Scripturally with the life of a Christian, his work and problems. The central body of elders supervises the outlining of programs for two such assemblies a year. A baptismal service is conducted at these assemblies.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, as a congregation, have the following meetings each week, scheduled at the times most convenient locally.
Congregation book study. Once a week Jehovah’s Witnesses and persons who are studying the Bible with them meet at homes in their various neighborhoods for a one-hour study, using the Bible and a Bible textbook produced under the direction of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Here a person can become closely acquainted with others in his locality who are serving God. The small size of the group encourages a person to speak up freely and to get accustomed to declaring his faith before others. (Heb. 13:15) He also has opportunity to ask questions and receive answers, along with a discussion of scriptures in support. This sharpens one’s knowledge of the Bible.—Prov. 27:17.
The home where the congregation book study is held usually serves as a meeting place for the group at other times, to go from there to visit the homes of the people of the neighborhood with the “good news.” This group arrangement gives opportunity for persons progressing well in their Bible study to receive help in sharing in the proclamation of the “good news.”
Public meeting. Each week, usually on Sunday, the congregation meets to hear a public Bible talk. Outlines on a wide variety of Bible topics are provided, and qualified speakers, usually elders, present the talks. By bringing a Bible along a person has opportunity to follow the speaker as he quotes or cites Scripture references, thus enabling him to get an understanding of what the Bible teaches on the subject.
“Watchtower” study. This meeting usually follows the public meeting. It consists of a study of the Bible with the help of the Watchtower magazine. The procedure followed here, with the entire congregation present, is similar to that of the small group at the congregation book study. Questions are asked by the chairman and voluntary comments are offered by the audience.
Theocratic School. Each congregation conducts this school to help all enrolled members to equip themselves more fully to speak the truth effectively to others. It equips many to “become an example to the faithful ones in speaking,” as they give public talks, and exhort and teach the congregation from the platform. All in the school are assigned talks on Bible topics, and are helped to progress through kindly private counsel by the elder conducting the school. (1 Tim. 4:12, 13, 15; 2 Tim. 2:15) Anyone associated with the congregation may enroll. In this way they become more effective in speaking and teaching in the homes of interested persons.
Service meeting. This meeting, which usually follows the Theocratic School on the same evening, is so named because it focuses specifically on the service of the Christian toward Jehovah God. This includes matters of everyday living as well as proclaiming and teaching the “good news” to the people. Ways of presenting the Bible truth to others, the training and disciplining of children, deportment, experiences of the Witnesses in proclaiming the “good news,” in meeting problems of life, and so forth, are discussed. The program includes talks and group discussions. Also, Bible discussions with others who have a hearing ear, and the conducting of Bible studies in the homes of interested persons, are demonstrated at this meeting.
KINGDOM HALLS AND FINANCING
Jehovah’s Witnesses call their congregational meeting places “Kingdom Halls.” Sometimes rented buildings are used, but often the Witnesses build beautiful, yet simple, functional halls. Generally most of the building work is done by the Witnesses themselves. The building and maintaining of Kingdom Halls and all other expenses of the congregation are met by voluntary contributions from members of the congregation. At the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses no collection plates are passed, and no solicitation of money is ever made. A contribution box is placed in the hall, and anyone desiring to help in defraying expenses may contribute as he sees fit.—Matt. 6:3, 4.
Similarly, the worldwide work of Jehovah’s Witnesses is supported by contributions from those desiring to see “this good news of the kingdom” preached. (Matt. 24:14) Contributions received from interested persons for Bible literature defray part of the cost of printing and distribution.
Realizing that the “congregation of the living God” is a “pillar and support of the truth” in the earth, Jehovah’s Witnesses hold closely to the Bible for its structure and function. Their purpose is that the congregation may truly help many persons to learn of God’s arrangements and live according to the truth, and to glorify the God of truth.—1 Tim. 3:15.
[Picture on page 600]
Body of elders in U.S.A.
[Pictures on page 602]
Family entering Kingdom Hall in Australia
Witnessing in Brazil
. . . in Ivory Coast