(See also: Church Administration)
It seems to me that the practice of the administration of local churches, when the New Testament was written, resembles in certain aspects the administration of the people of Israel during the time of the judges. These were some of the characteristics in Israel:
After the general administration of Moses and of Joshua, each tribe was left under a hereditary chief, a “prince” to rule it, to execute justice and to lead it to war, aided by the heads of families in important decisions.
Although without a staff ruling over the whole nation, they had a King – the LORD present in His “Tabernacle–Palace”. The priest could consult him for the people.
From time to time some tribes became unfaithful and disobedient to their invisible King. Their idolatry and sin were punished with oppression by enemies until, recognizing their fault, they called out to God for help. He then intervened by raising liberators or judges, and they freed those tribes of their enemies, destroyed the idolatry and promoted the knowledge of God. This is the main subject of the book of Judges.
In the end the people didn't want any more to take shelter under the shadow of their invisible King. That tragic lack of faith drove them to want a king like the nations around them. God granted what they wanted, and the people lost the freedom they had (Judges 21:25), and suffered the consequences of the weakness of character and unfaithfulness of the kings that ensued.
Carefully analyzing the biblical report, we conclude that the nation in general enjoyed much more prosperity than adversity when they were under the judges. During the 450 years that period lasted, there was only oppression for 111 years by their enemies, or a quarter of the period. Even in most of those 111 years only some tribes were subdued by other people each time. The oppression was not always very severe, and all calamities ended with victory and glory for the people of Israel, as soon as they repented, returned and cried to the LORD. The tribes had no reason to change their modality of government, because they would enjoy prosperity if only they observed the conditions that the LORD had determined for them
Like the tribes of Israel, each local church has its own administration, directly in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 2 and 3), operating in each one by the Holy Spirit. Each church is disciplined by Him. Sometimes He orders “judges” to admonish a church of its flaws and to renew its knowledge of God; by its repentance, purification and sanctification the local church is revived. History shows how shortly after their beginning, many churches “wanted a king” and went on to join themselves under a man - the “bishop” or “archbishop” - or an ecclesiastical hierarchy. Disasters followed, culminating with apostasy, for the same causes: weakness of character and unfaithfulness to the Lord by those “kings”.
Local not institutionalized churches should take care of their independence in order not to commit the same mistake. The world says union builds strength, but our strength comes from God: it is He who strengthens us (Colossians 1:10, 11; 1 Peter 5:10). Paul said “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). They ought above all to flee from the temptation of uniting under a “king”, which would be the case of an institutionalization.
To assume a name in common that distinguishes them from other Christian churches would be the first step on the road to institutionalization. Any union with total preservation of the participants' independence is an impossibility, at least from the human point of view.
It is not feasible for two or more churches in different places to join administratively if each local church answers to Christ directly, and He has the government of each one directly in His hands.
Spiritually, however, it is the desire of our Lord that all of us who belong to Him be one (John 17:11), both Jewish and Gentile believers, as He and the Father are one (John 17:20-23). Therefore, spiritual unity is a divine imperative, both individually and collectively, unity of the type that there was in the people of Israel at that time of the judges, when they had only one God, one high juice-priest, one tabernacle.
That unity is well expressed in Ephesians 4:3-7: “endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift.”
Although there is an individualism and administrative independence of each church, each local assembly is an integral part of the church of God and it should make an effort to preserve this “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” with the others.
Just as some Israelite tribes sometimes joined in combat to a common enemy, the cooperation among the churches is highly desirable. The primitive churches collaborated with gifts (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, etc.) and workers (Paul, Titus, Timothy, Epaphroditus, etc.). Churches today equally can join efforts to reach certain objectives without there being an administrative union. They don't need to sacrifice their individuality and autonomy for that.
Sometimes it is necessary for churches to cooperate closely in the areas of evangelism and teaching. Those, and many other activities in the work of God, can be developed better when the material and human resources are shared, as well as financed, by several churches instead each striving to do it on its own. For example, systematic biblical teaching, literature (pamphlets, hymn books, magazines), collection and distribution of gifts, child evangelism in public schools, need not be restricted within each church.
Such activities should be carried out by people or entities chosen by the churches for that purpose. Usually a legal entity is formed, for legal and administrative ends. Many already exist. In the same way as local churches, giving a restrictive denomination to such entities, as if they belonged to some ecclesiastical institution or particular Christian group, should be carefully avoided.
We belong to the church (or assembly, or congregation) of God and of Christ. This ought to be evident in our conduct and expression, without trying to identify us and our work and activity by name with some particular group of believers. Such a name would indeed turns us into still another denomination.
We must, however, sound the alarm against a very present serious danger in our days: that of gigantism. When the activities that the churches want to develop together are all handed over to one entity, this will tend to become very visible and powerful, absorbing financial and human resources of the churches that associated for its creation. Because it is then endowed with greater resources of this type, the churches will lean on it more and more, coming to depend on a creation that, in theory, exists to serve them. When the servant is larger than his master, unavoidably the relationship between them is inverted! A local church will have difficulty in disconnecting itself from an entity on which it so much depends, in order to trust itself entirely to the Lord as before. It will be institutionalized.
Read 1 Samuel 8:11-20, and see the parallel to these circumstances.