Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 22, 1951
NUMBER 29, PAGE 8-9b

Diocese Of The Overseers

James A. Allen

(Editor's Note: There are few men among us who write with more clarity and conviction than James A. Allen, editor of "The Apostolic Times." In the following article he deals with some present issues in a concise and simple fashion. We commend the article to your careful study.)

When men, of their own wisdom and devising, inaugurate a human institution, separate and apart from the congregation, and that is organized to do some particular part of the work of hundreds of congregations, and then organize a board of officers to operate it, and this board of officers is composed of the elders of some one particular congregation, it confronts the Christian people with a question that they must consider candidly, honestly and in the light of the teaching of the scriptures.

The Christian people are the one religious people on earth, and the only one, who take "the Bible and the Bible alone" to be their all-sufficient and alone-sufficient guide, and who endeavor to adhere faithfully and implicitly to the teaching and practice of the apostles and the apostolic churches in New Testament times. They cannot evade or endeavor to suppress the question with which this board of officers confronts them. Such a course would be to stultify themselves in claiming the Bible to be their guide.

All agree that there is neither precept nor precedent for such an institution or organization in the teaching and practice of the apostles and of the apostolic churches. Such a human institution, separate and apart from the congregation, organized to combine the work of hundreds of congregations, also has a direct, as well as an adverse, bearing on the work of the overseers or elders of each congregation.

And actually agree that this board of officers, organized to manage and direct a business that is bigger than the business of a single congregation, is also entirely without precept or precedent in the New Testament, and that such a board or organization is wholly unauthorized in the teaching of the apostles. None of the apostles, and none of the elders of any New Testament congregation, ever served as a member of such a board.

We wish to very kindly submit a question, Can the elders, or overseen, of a congregation, oversee a work that is bigger than the work of the congregation in which they were appointed elders?

This is a fair question. A man cannot rightfully be branded as a crank for asking it. It is a very vital, fundamental and scriptural question, and has a direct bearing upon a proper understanding of the work of the elders of the congregation. No congregation can properly function and successfully perform its work without qualified overseers; and no man can be a qualified overseer without a clear conception of what constitutes the work of the congregation and of how it should be performed. It is the good work of the several overseers of the congregation to diligently, zealously and faithfully attend to its business. Anything that would affect the efficiency of its overseen would hinder and retard the work of the congregation. Can the overseers of the congregation properly function and lead it to the highest measure of success in its work if they divert a portion of their time, talents and energies to another work that is bigger than the work of the congregation in which they are overseers?

God, in his wisdom, both by precept and by the examples set by the New Testament churches, appoints the overseers of the congregation to work in their own community. Their own community is their diocese. Under their overseership, the deacons of the congregation are appointed to function, in caring for the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and for the poor and unfortunate in general, not only throughout the membership of the congregation, but also throughout the community in which the congregation is located, —to "work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith." The several deacons of the congregation are thus appointed to supply the material needs of every one who is worthy of assistance, both in the congregation and in the community in general. If a public calamity visits the community, other congregations are taught to send relief to the afflicted area. It is to be sent to the elders and distributed by the deacons, under their overseership.

For the bishops, or overseers, to step out of their own diocese, which is the immediate community in which their congregation is located, is for them to be guilty of dreadful presumption. Such a step is wholly unauthorized and is entirely without a precedent in the inspired records of the New Testament congregations. To allow fleshly ambition to incite and to tempt them to leave the bounds of their own congregation and to cause them to reach out for a bigger work than the immediate work to which they were appointed, is for them to take a very deadly step and one that can only lead to failure and ruin. "And angels that kept not their principality, but left their proper habitation, he hath kept in everlasting bonds under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." (Jude 6) The evil example of the angels that sinned and of the terrible consequences of their sin, is a vivid warning to all who become dissatisfied with the work to which God appoints them, and who allow an evil ambition to incite them to step out of bounds. To step outside their territory, or the area in which they may scripturally exert jurisdiction, which, in the case of the overseers of the congregation, is their own local community, is for them to leave "their proper habitation." It is a horrible sin.

Every congregation, with its overseers and deacons is completely and thoroughly equipped for the performance of every good work. No human institution is, or can be, prepared to care for and serve the poor and unfortunate as is the congregation. Providing for their physical, bodily wants, while very vital and important, is the lesser of their necessities, and is the specific work of the deacons of the congregation. But the additional service rendered them by the overseers or elders, under whose superintendency the deacons do their work, is of an inestimably higher and greater value and cannot be duplicated by an employee of a human institution.

The congregation is the divine institution to do this work. All the poor and needy of the congregation, and also of the community in which the congregation is located are the responsibility of the deacons, as they serve under the directions of the overseers. To do their work, they must know who and where the needy are. They can make any arrangement to care for them that expediency suggests. If proper assistance does not enable them to retain their homes, the deacons may rent or otherwise provide them a house in the community. But they cannot ship them off to a distant place for others to care for. They cannot do it by proxy. They must themselves personally see that it is done. Thus keeping their own poor within their own community, these poor, not only have the deacons attending to their physical needs, but they also have the elders looking after their spiritual wants, and they also receive the comfort and assurance that comes from having the entire congregation generally interested in them. It is the way the New Testament congregations cared for the poor and unfortunate and that so astonished the world, and that has never been, and can never be, duplicated by any human institution.

But each congregation is commanded by the example set by the New Testament congregations, to preserve inviolate in its own autonomy, completion and perfection. It cannot be merged with other congregations. A congregation of congregations, or a super or overhead institution, separate and apart from the congregation, in which the work of more than one congregation is consolidated, is a presumptuous creation of the Man of Sin and ends in corruption, failure, and ruin.

For either the elders or the deacons to leave "their proper habitation," and to divert themselves to a work that is not the work to which they were appointed, is for them to undermine the autonomy of their own congregation. To the extent that they divert their attention elsewhere, to that extent they cease to succeed in their own proper work. If the overseers of every congregation today would function in their own community, as did the overseers of every New Testament congregation, the world would be as amazed and astonished today, as it was in New Testament times, at the efficiency with which every sort of good work was fully attended to.

Our plea is simply that the congregation function, as God ordained that it should do, and as the apostles taught New Testament congregations to do. We are not "anti" anything, except "anti-everything" for which the apostles did not give the precept or set the example. We plead simply that the overseers actually oversee, and that they not make of the eldership merely a sinecure, or be overseers in name only; and we plead that the deacons actually do the work of deacons in attending to the physical needs of every such a one in the congregation first, and then in the entire neighborhood. We simply turn away from every human institution to the one and only divine institution, which is "the body, the church," of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is the glorious institution that all Christians are members of and through which all Christians are divinely commanded to do every good work.