The necessity of healthy church structure has been a challenge from the time that the church began. It is not a new dilemma. Acts 2 describes how the first church developed a basic structure for worship, Bible study, and fellowship. As the church grew and additional challenges surfaced, the leaders added structure to take care of the need. As the church at large continued to grow, as the gospel spread across the known world, and as the church began to mature with age, new problems appeared. The Apostle Paul addressed some of the problems to his protégé pastor Timothy in his personal letter to him that we know of as 1 Timothy. The church being addressed was the one established in Ephesus.

Paul, accompanied by Aquila and Priscilla, established this church around AD 52 (Acts 18:18-26). He did not remain there long, but returned in AD 54 to serve as pastor of the congregation until AD 57 (Acts 19). After his 1st Roman imprisonment, he would leave Timothy in Ephesus in AD 63 to address problems and issues that had arisen during the time of the church’s existence. Paul would write his first epistle to Timothy most probably from Macedonia.1

At this juncture, the church was no longer a church plant. It was an established church of 11 years and was facing the problems that churches face when proper structure is not in place or when faulty structure exists. According to Paul’s epistle known as 1 Timothy, the church that Timothy inherited faced difficulties with doctrine (1:3-7), worship (2:1-15), leadership (3:1-14), and money (6:6-19). If a proper structure was not put into place and followed, those problems would fester and eventually lead the church into decline. Unfortunately for Ephesus, Timothy would not remain very long with the congregation. By the time that the church at Ephesus is mentioned again in Scripture some 40 years after its birth, it became known as the church that had left their first love (Revelation 2:1-7). It may seem like a giant hermeneutical leap to go from the need for structure to a loss of love for Christ, each other, and the lost, but this one fact demonstrates why so many churches are in trouble. Instead of structuring for growth, they become cesspools of power struggles and fights over position. The issues root themselves far more in a spiritual structure than just in a physical structure. In other words, a church can have the right schematic that has a proven growth record. If the foundational spiritual structure is not in place, though, the structure will lead to control, not growth.

Therefore, look to the Scripture. Paul gives a clear picture of healthy structure in 1 Timothy. In fact, he really provides some insight into how to get a church back on target to grow again. What does a healthy, spiritual, and foundational structure look like?

1. The church must be grounded in the Word so that its decision-making, doctrine, and practice are biblically-based (1:1-11). Mark Dever defines a healthy church as “a congregation that increasingly reflects God’s character as his character has been revealed in his Word.”2 Being healthy is much more than just a performance of duties on the outside. It is a reflection of what we have become on the inside as a result of God’s transforming grace and power as revealed in Scripture.

2. The church must develop healthy leaders (3:1-7). The Bible gives some clear guidance as to the proper governance of the church, but Paul’s admonition to pastors/elders and deacons is far more than just the establishment of particular offices in the church. It is why he warns, “Don’t be too quick to appoint anyone as an elder” (5:22). The fact is, if someone is not a faithful church member, that person may not be a faithful pastor or leader. If he does not like attending and serving faithfully as a volunteer, he will carry that attitude with him as he leads. Therefore, the church must be structured so that it has accountability measures in place in order to produce, hire, and maintain healthy leaders.

3. The church must be structured to give the ministry away and allow others to serve (4:1-16). Believers need to grow to a maturity that challenges them to lead. They may never be called upon to fulfill an official church position, but they need to lead nonetheless.

4. The church must be structured to care for and discipline its members (5:1-16). As Paul addressed the need for Pastor Timothy to confront issues within the congregation – and especially with specific offending men and women in the church, he was to do it within a specific challenge. His church was not perfect. Notice the substance of the entire conversation. It was not unbridled and unloving discipline. It certainly was not self-centered, i.e., I am rebuking you because you hurt my feelings or did not do what I wanted.

The foundation of the discussion was that they were brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, the church must have a structure that allows for believers to have their needs met but also to understand the importance of what it means to be a part of that congregation.

5. The Church Must be Structured to Promote Healthy Relationships (5:17-25). My observation and conclusion on biblical leadership is that the Bible does not really talk so much about leadership the way that a lot of Christian leaders try to define leadership. If we lead like Jesus, we lead as servants. I may be overstating that supposition, but I have observed too many churches implode because of the prideful attitudes of leaders, both laymen and pastors.

  1. George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, in The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 9. (↩)
  2. Mark Dever, What is a Healthy Church? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 40.
    (↩)