Let the Congregation Be Built Up
“The congregation . . . entered into a period of peace, being built up.”—ACTS 9:31.
1. What questions might be asked about “the congregation of God”?
ON THE day of Pentecost 33 C.E., Jehovah recognized a group of Christ’s disciples as a new nation, “the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:16) These spirit-anointed Christians also became what the Bible terms “the congregation of God.” (1 Corinthians 11:22) What, though, did that involve? How would “the congregation of God” be arranged? How would it function on earth, wherever its members lived? And how are our lives and happiness involved?
2, 3. How did Jesus indicate that the congregation would have structure?
2 As noted in the preceding article, Jesus foretold the existence of this congregation of anointed followers, telling the apostle Peter: “On this rock-mass [Jesus Christ] I will build my congregation, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:18) Furthermore, while Jesus was still with the apostles, he gave indications as to the function and arrangement within that soon-to-be-established congregation.
3 Jesus taught by word and deed that some in the congregation would take the lead. They would do so by serving, or ministering to, others in their group. Christ said: “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 way 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) Clearly, “the congregation of God” would not be merely scattered, isolated individuals, amounting to an amorphous congregation. Rather, there would be structure, with individuals in the congregation interacting with one another.
4, 5. How do we know that the congregation would need spiritual instruction?
4 The One who would be the Head of that “congregation of God” indicated that his apostles and others who had learned from him would have specific responsibilities toward the rest. To do what? A key assignment would be to give spiritual instruction to those in the congregation. Recall that the resurrected Jesus, in the presence of some of the other apostles, said to Peter: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter answered: “Yes, Lord, you know I have affection for you.” Jesus said to him: “Feed my lambs. . . . Shepherd my little sheep. . . . Feed my little sheep.” (John 21:15-17) What an assignment!
5 We can see from Jesus’ words that those being gathered into the congregation are likened to sheep in a fold. These sheep—Christian men, women, and children—would need to be spiritually fed and properly shepherded. Furthermore, since Jesus charged all his followers to teach others and make disciples, any new ones becoming his sheep would need to be trained in how to carry out that divine commission.—Matthew 28:19, 20.
6. What arrangements were made in the newly formed “congregation of God”?
6 Once “the congregation of God” was formed, those making it up gathered regularly for instruction and mutual encouragement: “They continued devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to sharing with one another, to taking of meals and to prayers.” (Acts 2:42, 46, 47) Another notable detail in the historical record is that some qualified men were designated to help in caring for certain practical matters. They were not selected because of years of schooling or technical skills. These were men “full of spirit and wisdom.” One was Stephen, and the account calls attention to his being “a man full of faith and holy spirit.” One result of the congregational arrangement was that “the word of God went on growing, and the number of the disciples kept multiplying in Jerusalem very much.”—Acts 6:1-7.
Men Used by God
7, 8. (a) The apostles and older men in Jerusalem served as what among early Christians? (b) What resulted when instruction was provided through the congregations?
7 Understandably, the apostles took the lead in the early congregational arrangement, but they were not alone. At one point, Paul and his companions returned to Syrian Antioch. Acts 14:27 relates: “When they had arrived and had gathered the congregation together, they proceeded to relate the many things God had done by means of them.” While they were still with that local congregation, a question arose about whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised. To resolve the matter, Paul and Barnabas were sent “to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem,” who clearly served as a governing body.—Acts 15:1-3.
8 The Christian elder James, Jesus’ half brother but not an apostle, presided when “the apostles and the older men gathered together to see about this affair.” (Acts 15:6) After deliberation and with the help of the holy spirit, they reached a conclusion in harmony with the Scriptures. They sent this in writing to the local congregations. (Acts 15:22-32) Those receiving this information accepted and applied it. With what result? The brothers and sisters were built up and encouraged. The Bible reports: “Therefore, indeed, the congregations continued to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number from day to day.”—Acts 16:5.
9. The Bible outlines what roles for qualified Christian men?
9 But how were the local congregations to function day by day? Take, for example, the congregations on the island of Crete. Though many people living there had a bad reputation, some changed and became true Christians. (Titus 1:10-12; 2:2, 3) They lived in various cities, and all were a long distance from the governing body in Jerusalem. That was not a major problem, however, because spiritual “older men” were appointed in each of the local congregations on Crete, as elsewhere. Such men met qualifications that we find recorded in the Bible. They were appointed as elders, or overseers, who could “exhort by the teaching that is healthful and . . . reprove those who contradict.” (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-7) Other spiritual men were qualified to aid the congregations as ministerial servants, or deacons.—1 Timothy 3:8-10, 12, 13.
10. According to Matthew 18:15-17, how were serious problems to be resolved?
10 Jesus indicated that such a structure would exist. Recall the account at Matthew 18:15-17, where he noted that difficulties might arise at times between two of God’s people, one sinning in some way against the other. The wronged party was to approach the other and “lay bare his fault” privately, between just the two of them. If that step did not resolve the issue, one or two others who knew the facts might be called upon to help. What if the matter was still unsettled? Jesus said: “If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” When Jesus said that, the Jews still constituted “the congregation of God,” so his words initially applied to them.* However, once the Christian congregation was established, Jesus’ direction would have application therein. This is another indication that God’s people would have a congregational structure for the upbuilding and guidance of each individual Christian.
11. How were elders to be involved in resolving problems?
11 Fittingly, the older men, or overseers, would represent the local congregation in handling or resolving problems or in addressing cases of sin. That is consistent with the qualifications of elders mentioned at Titus 1:9. Granted, the local elders were imperfect men, as was Titus, whom Paul sent to congregations to “correct the things that were defective.” (Titus 1:4, 5) Today, those being considered for appointment as elders must have proved their faith and devotion over time. Others in the congregation thus have reason to put trust in the direction and leadership provided through this arrangement.
12. What responsibility do elders have toward the congregation?
12 To elders in the Ephesian congregation, Paul said: “Pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the holy spirit has appointed you overseers, to shepherd the congregation of God, which he purchased with the blood of his own Son.” (Acts 20:28) It is equally true today that congregation overseers are appointed “to shepherd the congregation of God.” They are to do so lovingly, not lording it over the flock. (1 Peter 5:2, 3) The overseers should strive to build up and help “all the flock.”
Sticking With the Congregation
13. At times, what might occur in a congregation, and why?
13 The elders and all others in the congregation are imperfect, so from time to time, misunderstandings or problems occur, as they did in the first century when some of the apostles were still present. (Philippians 4:2, 3) An overseer or another person may say something that seems rude, unkind, or not quite true. Or we may think that something unscriptural is happening, but it seems that although the local elders are aware of it, they do not correct the matter. Of course, it may be that the issue has been or is being handled in accord with the Scriptures and in the light of facts of which we are unaware. But even if the situation is what we think it is, consider this: For a while, a serious wrong existed in the Corinthian congregation, a congregation that Jehovah cared for. In time, he had the wrongdoing handled, correctly and firmly. (1 Corinthians 5:1, 5, 9-11) We might ask ourselves, ‘If I had lived in Corinth back then, how would I have reacted in the meantime?’
14, 15. Why did some stop following Jesus, providing what lesson for us?
14 Consider another possibility involving the congregation. Suppose that a person finds a Scriptural teaching hard to understand and accept. He may have done research in the Bible and in publications available through the congregation and sought help from mature fellow Christians, even elders. Still, he has a hard time grasping or accepting the point. What can he do? Something similar developed about a year before Jesus died. He said that he was “the bread of life” and that to live forever a person had to “eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood.” That shocked some of his disciples. Rather than seek an explanation or simply wait in faith, many disciples “would no longer walk with [Jesus].” (John 6:35, 41-66) Again, had we been there, what would we have done?
15 In modern times, some have ceased associating with the local congregation, feeling that they will serve God on their own. They may say that it is because their feelings were hurt, they think a wrong is not being corrected, or they cannot accept some teaching. How reasonable is their course? While it is true that each Christian should have a personal relationship with God, we cannot deny that he is using a worldwide congregation, as he did in the apostles’ day. Furthermore, Jehovah used and blessed local congregations in the first century, arranging for qualified elders and ministerial servants to benefit the congregations. That is also true today.
16. If tempted to leave the congregation, a person should think about what?
16 If a Christian feels that he can rely just on his own relationship with God, he is turning away from a God-ordained arrangement—that of both the worldwide congregation and the local congregations of God’s people. The individual might go off on his own or be associating with just a few others, but where is the arrangement for congregation elders and the provision of ministerial servants? Significantly, when Paul wrote to the congregation in Colossae and directed that the letter be read also in Laodicea, he spoke of being “rooted and being built up in [Christ].” Those in the congregations, not individuals who separated themselves from such, would benefit from this.—Colossians 2:6, 7; 4:16.
Pillar and Support of Truth
17. What does 1 Timothy 3:15 show about the congregation?
17 In his first letter to the Christian elder Timothy, the apostle Paul outlined the qualifications of elders and ministerial servants in local congregations. Right after that, Paul mentioned “the congregation of the living God,” saying that this is “a pillar and support of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15) The entire congregation of anointed Christians certainly proved to be such a pillar in the first century. And it is indisputable that the principal arrangement for individual Christians to receive such truth was in connection with the local congregation. That is where they could hear truth taught and supported, where they could be built up.
18. Why are congregation meetings vital?
18 Similarly, the worldwide Christian congregation is God’s household, “a pillar and support of the truth.” Our regular attendance at and participation in the meetings of our local congregation is a key way for us to be built up, strengthened in our relationship with God, and prepared to do his will. Writing to the congregation in Corinth, Paul focused on what was said at such meetings. He wrote that he desired that what was said at their meetings be clear and understandable so that those attending could be “built up.” (1 Corinthians 14:12, 17-19) We today can be built up if we recognize that Jehovah God has authorized the arrangement for local congregations and is supporting it.
19. Why do you feel indebted to your congregation?
19 Yes, if we desire to be built up as Christians, our place is within the congregation. It has long proved to be a bulwark against false teachings, and God has been using it to have the good news of his Messianic Kingdom declared around the globe. Without a doubt, God has accomplished much through the Christian congregation.—Ephesians 3:9, 10.
Bible scholar Albert Barnes recognized that Jesus’ direction to “speak to the congregation” could mean “those who are authorized to try such cases—the representatives of the church, or those who act for them. In the Jewish synagogue there was a bench of elders, before whom trials of this kind were brought.”
Can You Recall?
• Why should we expect that God would be using congregations on earth?
• What do elders, though imperfect, do for the congregation?
• How are you being built up by the local congregation?
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The apostles and older men in Jerusalem served as a governing body
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Elders and ministerial servants receive instruction so that they can fulfill their responsibilities toward the congregation