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Lessons from the Early Church Structure

Principles of Early Church Structure

The early church movement was rooted in the meaningful message of its founder, Jesus Christ. It was that message that gave strategic intent that caused an explosion of growth for this new group and provides productive principles for design and structure of modern organizations. Strategic intent means that all the organization’s energies and resources are directed toward a focused, unifying, and compelling overall goal (Daft, 2016, p. 51). Early first century Jews needed something to unify them, compel them, and focus them toward a goal. In his book, Church History in Plain Language, Bruce Shelly adds, “During the days of Jesus, Palestine never lacked for loyalties. It was a crossroads of culture and peoples. Its 2,000,000 or more people—ruled by Rome—were divided by region, religion and politics” (2008, p. 19). Jesus had a unique message. He made no mistake about sharing what his mission was, “18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4:18 ASV). It was his people, that were poor, captives, and in need of hope. Jesus made a persistent point about the special kind of life that separated “the kingdom of God” from rival authorities among men. Little by little his disciples came to see that following him meant saying “no” to the other voices calling for their loyalties. In one sense that was the birth of the Jesus movement. And in that sense, at least, Jesus “founded” the church. (Shelly, 2008, p. 19). This early movement, empowered behind his message, had no complex structure at all. In many ways, the early church was noteworthy not for its structure but for its lack thereof. Given the sometimes-exhausting superstructure associated with modern Christianity, it is important to remember the fledgling community-based nature of the early movement (Price, 2012, p. 43).

Jesus’ simple structure for this movement began with him calling his disciples. He built relationship with twelve men and taught them his message. So, for them Jesus drew the distinction between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. His followers, he said, represented another type of society and another type of greatness (Shelly, 2008, p. 23). Because of his message, Jesus would ultimately be crucified and die and be raised from the dead. His disciples would now have to carry on the message he began to teach and take that message everywhere. This would be the starting point for the early formation of the church. The word church derives from the Greek word ekklesia and originally meant, “an assembly called out by the magistrate or by legitimate authority.” (Austin-Roberson, 2009, p.29). Those called-out ones begin to form into a community of believers that would carry on the teachings of Christ. Only after the Christian community had reached substantial size and survived heavy persecution did it begin to assemble much of the hierarchy with which we are now familiar. (Price 2008, p. 43). Several principles can be extracted from the early church’s simple yet impactful church structure that aided in its growth. In careful observation of Acts 2:42-47, these principles can be drawn:

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 44 And all that believed were together and had all things common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. 46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (KJV)

First, the early church adhered to the instructions of the it’s leader. Then, the early believers were dedicated to continuing the work and building the sense of community, and finally they were open to providing structure for need-based opportunities.

Principal 1: Leadership Instructions

Although the early church provided no formal strategy for modern organizational structure, there are principles that can be considered when structuring today. The first principal that can be considered is stressing the importance of following the leader’s instructions. Jesus didn’t leave the disciples wondering about what to do next. He gave them clear and concise instructions before ascending into heaven:

8But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Becoming witness for Jesus was the primary standard for the early church leaders. This would be possible by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Then each disciple was expected to take the message from Jerusalem to the world. With this simple instruction, the disciples saw extreme growth. When the Holy Spirit came, the disciples had to put their ability to follow instructions to the test. Acts 2:42 says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ASV). Guzik adds, “Continued steadfastly uses a Greek verb communicating ‘a steadfast and single-minded fidelity to a certain course of action’ (Longenecker). There was to be no departure from the apostles’ doctrine, because it was the truth of God” (Enduring Word, 2019). The same instructions, lessons, and values that Jesus have given to them, they were committed to, and would not abandon them. Teaching and giving themselves up to the instructions which, in their raw state, would be indispensable to the consolidation of the immense multitude suddenly admitted to visible discipleship. (Jamieson-Fausset- Brown, 1871). It was important for the early church’s structural consideration that close adherence to the leader’s instruction be followed. While this seems obvious, a lack of patience can be disastrous to organizational design. The maxim “measure twice, cut once” definitely applies in the design process and part of that measurement is ensuring you do not get ahead of senior leadership in the process (Price, 2008, p. 43). The early group of believers that had taken Christ’s mandates were not concerned about their own agendas, not implementing their own desires, or chasing their own ideologies. However, this group was dedicated to following and fulfilling the requests and requisites of their crucified leader. Organizations that have implemented this concept well, will have created a culture that understands the impact and influence of its leaders. Training and tactics that improve on followership will help to rally the team around the leader’s instructions. Followership is a process whereby an individual or individuals accept the influence of others to accomplish a common goal (Northouse, 2019, p.294). When considering organizational design, modern organizations should draw from this principle of early church formation.

Construction of Community

The book of Acts begins with Luke, the author, speaking about the things that Jesus “began both to do and teach” (Acts 1:1 KVJ). The idea is that since Jesus began a work, his followers would continue the work. Three thousand people had already joined the group, which originally started with the twelve (Acts 2:41). In Acts 2:41, “they had all things in common” (KJV). There was a sense of community that this growing organization had adopted. Sharing commonality, embracing unity, and sharing resources was central to this community’s design (Acts 2:44).

They Were Together

It is important to note that the idea of community is founded on the concept of unity. In Acts 2:44, “they were together” (KJV). And thus joining together, because it was apart from those that believed not, and because it was in the same profession and practice of the duties of religion, they are said to be together, epi to auto. They associated together, and so both expressed and increased their mutual love. (Henry, 1706). This is a great organizational lesson; leaders and members should stay together. Albert Barnes adds, “Were united; were joined in the same thing. It does not mean that they lived in the same house, but they were united in the same community, or engaged in the same thing. They were doubtless often together in the same place for prayer and praise. One of the best means for strengthening the faith of young converts is for them often to meet together for prayer, conversation, and praise” (Barnes, 1962). This unity was the adhesive that kept the community together through the impending persecutions that was yet to hit the early church.

They Had All Things in Common

The early believers exemplified the earliest signs of developing organizational culture. It was their commonality that planted seeds identity that shaped their culture. In any organization there may be different and competing value systems that create a mosaic of organizational realities rather than a uniform corporate culture. Besides gender, race, language, and ethnicity, religious, socioeconomic, friendship, and professional groups can have a decisive impact on the cultural mosaic (Morgan 2006, p. 141). This group of individuals had a variety of lifestyles, family histories, and ethnic backgrounds, but they also had “all things in common” (Acts 2:44). F.B. Meyer adds, “This pointed not merely to an exuberant and spontaneous liberality (De Wette, Neander, Bengel), but to an actual community of goods—which, however, was not legally instituted, but voluntarily practiced” (Bible Commentary, 1979). It is noted that as the church begin to grow, not every congregation or group applied this method. It was particular to this early instance in the life of the church. Adam Clark gives adds more emphasis, “We may therefore safely infer, it was something that was done at this time, on this occasion, through some local necessity, which the circumstances of the infant Church at Jerusalem might render expedient for that place and on that occasion only” (Bible Commentary, 1997). An organization’s culture can be established when individuals who make up the culture find their common ground. When members of the organization can bring in ideas, resources, and possessions and share them for a common cause, the organization can experience high levels of success.

Structuring around Needs

The great benefit of evaluating structure through the lens of the early church is the ability to take lessons from the initial guidance of its leaders and from the organizational design efforts that followed. The clear mission and powerful events at Pentecost propelled the establishment of a distributed Christian network that quickly reached most of the known world. Without the technological connections enjoyed by today’s networked organizations, the early church employed a hub-and-spoke network centered on major cities and executed through the surrounding communities (Price 2012, p. 43). Much had changed for this early group of followers. As the early church began to grow, several needs arose that prompted them to implement certain structures. In Acts 2:47, “the Lord added daily” (KJV). In Acts 4:4, “the number of men came to be about five thousand” (KJV). The small group had grown to over eight thousand. The demands for the group were higher and the needs were greater. By Acts chapter 6, the church's structure would take on a new shape. Because of the growth, “there arose a murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration” (Acts 6:1). The church was driven by this need of administration to appoint leaders. And so, they told the people to choose “seven men of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:3).

The final decision rested with the apostles. They asked the congregation to nominate the men (seek out from among you), but the decision really rested with the apostles. This was not an exercise of congregational government, though the apostles wisely wanted and valued the input from the congregation (Guzik, 2019). B.W. Johnson adds, “The people selected under apostolic direction; the apostle inaugurated into office” (Johnson, 2019). Here lies another leadership principle when structuring organizations. The principle is found in the fact that top leadership should value the opinions and feedback of the other members. Leaders may start by allowing team members to decide on small tasks until they have shown the ability to accomplish larger ones. Allowing groups to become self-starters and share in decision making while providing reflection as a whole are all ways that organizations can welcome feedback from the whole team.

Forming and Structuring

Organizational design is a formal, guided process for integrating the people, information and technology of an organization. It is used to match the form of the organization as closely as possible to the purpose(s) the organization seeks to achieve. Through the design process,organizations act to improve the probability that the collective efforts of members will be successful (Austin- Roberson, 2009). The early church organically adopted certain principles that can be used today in forming and structuring modern organizations. While there is always danger in attempting to extract practical organizational lessons from a divinely empowered movement, it is clear the early church provides a rich case study in organizational design. Contemporary leaders may not be able to depend on the distribution mechanisms of speaking in tongues 16 or heavy persecution 17 to facilitate growth, but today’s intense competition demands serious deliberations when approaching the structuring or redesign of an organization (Price, 2012, p. 46). Thinking about organizational structure requires a systematic approach which should begin with formulating ideas about the type of leaders the organization should have. Instructions should be initiated by leadership, then the organization should become unified behind those initiatives, and the needs that arise can prompt certain structures to be deployed. These are the first among many principles that can be observed from the early church.


Austin-Roberson, Kathleen (2009). Making Better, Stronger Churches through Organizational Design. Journal of Strategic Leadership. (Vol. 2 Issue 1). School of Global Leadership and Entrepreneurship, Regent University.

Barns, Albert (1962). Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. (Volume 1). Kregel Publications Inc. Grand Rapids, MI

Clark, Adam (1997). Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible. E-Sword X (Version 6.2)

Daft, Richard (2016). Organization Theory and Design. (12th Edition). Cengage Learning. Boston, MA

Guzik, David (2019). Enduring Word Commentary. E-Sword X (Version 6.2)

Fausset, A.R. (1871). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. E-Sword X (Version 6.2)

Henry, Matthew (2014). Commentary of the Whole Bible (6 Volumes). E-Sword X (Version 6.2)

Johnson, B.W. (2019). Bible Commentary. E-Sword X (Version 6.2)

Meyer, F.B. (1979). Through the Bible Commentary. E-Sword X (Version 6.2)

Price, John F. (2012). Structured to Flourish: Organizational Lessons from the Early Church. (Volume 4, Issue 1). Journal of Strategic Leadership. Regent University.

Morgan, Gareth (2006). Images of Organization. Sage Publications, Inc. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and Practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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