The Savior’s commission to the church to carry the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28.19, 20; Mark 16.15) meant not only preaching the message but also ensuring the welfare of those who accepted that message. This involved shepherding as well as housing the flock, and also meeting problems of relationship. Such a situation called for organization.
At first the apostles constituted a council that directed the activities of the infant church from Jerusalem (Acts 6.2; 8.14). When the company in that city became so large that the administration of its practical affairs became a problem, deacons were appointed to look after the business of the church (Acts 6.2-4).
Later, other congregations grew up, not only in Asia but also in Europe, and this called for further steps in the matter of organization. We find that, in Asia Minor, elders were ordained “in every church” (Acts 14.23). It seems clear also from the divine record that the extension of the work throughout the various provinces of the Roman Empire called for the organization of churches into what might be called conferences which, it seems, included the churches in a specific province, such as “the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1.2). Thus step-by-step the early church was organized. As the needs arose God guided and directed the leaders of His work so that, in counsel with the church, a form of organization was developed which safeguarded the interests of the work of God as it extended to every land.
Forms of Church Government
There are four generally recognized forms of church government. These may be summarized as follows:
Episcopal—the form of church government by bishops, usually with three order of ministers, as bishops, priests, and deacons.
Papal—the form of church government in which the supreme authority is vested in the Pope. From him the church is governed by cardinals, archbishops, and priests. The local church or individual member has no authority in church administration.
Independent—the form of church polity that makes the local church congregation supreme and final within its own domain. This is usually referred to as congregationalism.
Representative—the form of church government which recognizes that authority in the church rests in the church membership, with executive responsibility delegated to representative bodies and officers for the governing of the church. This form of church government recognizes also the equality of the ordination of the entire ministry. This is the form of church government which prevails in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Four Levels of Organization in the Seventh-day Adventist Church
In the Seventh-day Adventist Church there are four constituent levels leading from the individual believer to the worldwide organization of the work of the church:
The Local Church—a united organized body of individual believers.
The Local Conference—a united organized body of churches in a state, province, or territory.
The Union Conference—a united body of conferences, missions, or fields within a larger territory.
The General Conference—the largest unit of organization, embraces all unions in all parts of the world. Divisions are sections of the General Conference, with administrative responsibility assigned to them in designated geographical areas.