There are no scriptures which say that brethren must go to a "pastor" or "elder" for counsel. There are none that say the advice of church leaders is God's advice. There are numerous scriptures that promise answer to humble prayers seeking God's will. The Bible also says: "Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established" (Proverbs 15:22). People need to listen to a variety of wise advice and pray to make a wise choice. It can be dangerous if someone believes that all they need to do is counsel with any one "minister" and they will "receive God's will". They will tend to look around for a "minister" who will agree with what they want to do. Many bad marriages have begun because one "minister" approved them and the couple did not make themselves responsible to obtain a multitude of advice. Rather than blindly following one counselor, people must realize that they are responsible for finding multiple good counselors and then making the best decision from their advice.
The Bible does not record anyone preaching a funeral message. It mentions burial customs, people mourning for the dead, and people gathering together after a death, but does not mention a specific "funeral message" or who must preach it. The Bible contains many verses on the resurrection of the dead, the rewards given to believers and God's great love and mercy. Mature believers should be able to read these scriptures to comfort those gathering after a death. In the United States, an "ordained minister" does not perform any legal function in connection with a death or a funeral.
Removal of sinful or disruptive members
There are times when the congregation must ask a member to leave (1Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul makes it clear that this should be done when the congregation is assembled (1Corinthians 5:4). The whole procedure for doing this is described in Matthew 18:15-17 (see our section on handling disagreements in the church). A pastor is not required for this, only a concerned believer empowered by the Holy Spirit to start the process and a congregation willing to carry out their duty.
Representing the congregation to others
When a congregation works with other groups on a joint evangelistic project, or when it negotiates a lease for a building in which to meet, its pastor usually represents it. He also usually writes on behalf of members who may want to home school their children, avoid vaccines, miss school or work for religious reasons, and other issues. What happens when a congregation does not have a pastor? Either the whole congregation, or the elders can authorize someone on behalf of the church to act in whatever way is needed. One person may be good at negotiating leases, another may be good at evangelizing, and another may be good at dealing with state laws. Most governments and individuals will accept the written or oral representation of an individual who has a document signed by the church members or elders authorizing him or her to represent the church congregation.
Baptizing new believers
This is another function typically performed by church pastors. Since it is very important to an active congregation - no matter how small - it is covered here in a little more detail.
It is important to realize that baptism was not a new thing introduced by John the Baptist. Immersion in water for cleansing one's sin is a practice among Jews today and was apparently used well before John. Our Savior's disciples baptized people long before His death and resurrection (John 3:22; 4:1 - 2).
Three thousand people were baptized on the Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection. If only the 12 Apostles did the baptizing and laying on of hands, each one would have had to baptize and lay hands on 250 people. That would give them less than 2 minutes for each person if they did it for eight hours. If all 120 disciples (Acts 1:15) participated in the baptism and laying on of hands, they could devote 15 minutes to each person and finish in 6¼ hours.
There is NO command in the Scripture that requires people to be of a certain status or "rank" to baptize others or lay on hands. God commanded Ananias to baptize Paul, and even though we have much description about Ananias, he is not called a prophet, minister, elder, or any such thing (Acts 9:10 - 18; 22:12 - 16). Paul clearly explains that who baptizes a person is not very important - even though he preached in many places, he rarely ever baptized anyone, and he could not remember for certain how many people he baptized! (1Corinthians 1:13 - 17).
Some have taught that a certain "rank" is required to lay on hands based on Acts 8. Philip baptized some people in Samaria (v 12), but they did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John came (verses 14 - 17). The chapter says nothing about why they did not receive the Holy Spirit. However, it is unlikely that it was due to a "lack of spiritual power" on the part of Philip - great miracles were performed through him (verses 6 - 7) and he made a 70-mile evangelistic trip (verse 40). This author believes that God withheld His spirit so Peter and John could refute Simon the Sorcerer (verses 18 - 23), a false leader credited with much evil by third century church historians.
Finally, there is no mention of baptizing or laying on of hands in any of the Biblical lists of spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6 - 8; 1Corinthians 12:7 - 11, 28 - 31; Ephesians 4:11 - 15, 1Peter 4:8 - 11). Rather, they are listed as basic doctrines that mature believers should have mastered (Hebrews 6:1 - 2).
A new believer must understand that baptism is an outward action signifying an individual's desire to repent and follow Christ. It is not a "sacrament" or benefit of belonging to a church group. The fact that a mature believer agrees to baptize a new believer does not guarantee that the new believer has repented. A mature believer laying hands on a new believer does not guarantee that the Holy Spirit will be given. Jesus Christ guarantees that a repentant person will be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. One should not baptize people who appear obviously insincere or unrepentant; but it is possible that someone may pretend to be repenting when they really are not (especially if they need to "be baptized" to marry, qualify for a church position, etc.). Christ looks on the heart of the individual - He is not bound by the possibly erroneous decisions of those who baptize or lay on hands.
The Bible does not spell out rules for the place of baptism, but the examples seem to be lakes and rivers, places with a lot of water. The Jewish teaching of the times was that it needed to be done in "living water" - water that was flowing. Lacking a river or lake, the Jews frequently constructed a Mikveh - a large stone tub with at least a small source of water coming in and a place for it to flow out. Many of these have been discovered by archeologists - dating back to the time of Christ. A bath tub with water flowing in and the drain partly open would be similar to this. We should try to follow the Bible example as closely as possible, but adjustments may be necessary when all outside water is frozen - or for a disabled person who cannot get under the water at all.
All of the examples in the Bible and even the Greek words used for baptism indicate that it was a total immersion. History indicates that the person being baptized went under the water themselves - the person baptizing watched to be sure that he or she went completely under water. If they left a part out, the person baptizing would tell them to do it again. (The baptize might also assist a person who needed help getting in and out of the water.) A more common method today is for a "minister" to physically push the person under the water and then to pull them up. This seems to symbolize that a minister "controls a believer's spiritual life." Whereas, self-immersion symbolizes a person laying down their own life to Christ, rising up by the power of Christ in them and relying on other brethren to point out mistakes that they cannot see for themselves. This symbolism seems much better.
Since no baptism method is described in detail in the Bible, but much is said about the need to understand the nature of sin and to repent of it, we must conclude that the repenting is the most important part. The family of Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized (Acts 10:47).
The laying on of hands normally occurs immediately after baptism. Several scriptures mention "elders" or multiple people laying on hands, so the baptizer(s) as well as other elders (mature brethren) can participate. Obviously, it is God who gives the Holy Spirit, not the elders. If he wants to do it, He can, even through the prayer of unconverted elders. On the other hand, He can withhold it even though the elders may be righteous men with the best of intentions. But in any case, we should endeavor to do what the Bible teaches.
A person should not live a life of fear wondering if God counts them as a believer because they were not sure that their baptism or laying on of hands was done "correctly". The Bible emphasizes ongoing SELF-examination (1Corinthians 11:27 - 28), not examination of one's baptism method. A person in doubt should pray and ask God to restore their faith and confidence in what He has done, or else to redo their baptism and laying on of hands. Obviously, if a person comes to realize that they had not personally repented before their first baptism, but were just doing it because others did, and wish to really repent, they should be baptized and receive the laying on of hands again.
Who can perform a marriage?
Without marriages, there is no future to human existence. Social systems of raising children outside of families are not supported by Scripture and have consistently failed throughout history. Marriages are the major remaining place where church and state still work together in a significant way in western societies. The state has its own administrative network to process births, deaths, illnesses, child custody, etc. If a church representative becomes involved in any of the above events, it is irrelevant to the state. Baptism, church membership and other church positions are also irrelevant to the state. But in marriages, ministers frequently act on behalf of civil governments when they "perform weddings". Civil governments will accept almost any "minister" who has "ordination papers" or even a written statement from his congregation that he is their minister.
But what does the Bible say about who should perform a wedding? Actually, there is no mention of any minister performing any wedding or marriage in the Bible. Weddings were a public affair and there were certainly wedding feasts with many guests invited. But histories of weddings show that the practice of ministers officiating at weddings is only about 600 years old. Before that, weddings were handled by a contract between the married couple's parents (or the couple themselves if they were older). A marriage was seen as a contract between the husband, wife and God; neither the "Church" nor the "State" had a part in it. It has only been during the past 150 years that local governments in the United States have issued marriage licenses. Marriage contracts and common law marriages are still recognized by most states. The high divorce rate over the past 50 years should not be surprising since both the "State" and most church groups - the entities that "authorize" marriages - have also begun "authorizing" divorces, assuring couples that their divorce is "approved". If couples were utterly convinced that they were responsible to God for their marriages, they might work harder to keep them together.
It is not in the scope of this paper to go into all the reasons why a couple getting married should or should not obtain a state marriage license. As with any life-affecting undertaking, people should find out as much as they can before making a decision that cannot be easily undone. This author has read several sources that indicate there is no procedure for rescinding a marriage license once it has been obtained (a divorce still leaves the state as a party to the arrangement). A state-licensed marriage is an agreement between husband, wife and the state. Whereas, a contract-marriage is between husband, wife and God. On the other hand, marrying without a license and without detailed legal knowledge of how that will affect you is a big mistake. Property ownership, child custody, inheritance, and many day-to-day financial agreements will be affected greatly by the presence or absence of a license. If someone thinks about foregoing a marriage license because it will be easier to split up if "it doesn't work out," they are foolish and should not marry.
What constitutes a marriage in the sight of God? All that is necessary is the clear intent to marry (Genesis 24:51) and sexual intercourse consummating the marriage.
"Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (Genesis 24:67).
A couple that has sexual intercourse, but no intent to marry has committed fornication, not marriage. A person who intends to marry, but has not consummated the marriage, could potentially have any ceremony or contract annulled.
"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
God is flexible. If a single man and woman are the only two survivors of a shipwreck, and they beach upon some deserted tropical island, they can write a marriage agreement on a piece of bark, read it to God in prayer and "make love" in the sunshine. That marriage is just as valid as the biggest ceremony, planned for years, with thousands of witnesses.
But most marriages should be shared with families, extended families and the entire community. Marriages are not secrets! How does one conduct a marriage without either the Church or State pronouncing the couple man and wife? What ceremony does a couple use? The idea of following traditions for marriages is good in that those who marry are continuing the process of their parents, bringing forth a new generation into the world just as they were brought forth into the world. However, when traditions stray from the teaching of the Bible, then some generation must recognize that and make a new tradition in keeping with the Scriptures.
The reciting of vows in front of witnesses (or the reading of the marriage contract) is an ancient practice and biblically sound. The Bible mentions feasts and ceremonies following a marriage - seven days long sometimes (probably not practical in our day). Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast. Yet the Scriptures never state that any of these things are required for marriages. The following are suggestions that a couple might want to use in their own plan for a wedding ceremony - suggestions that this writer hopes to make to his sons someday.
Set a date and place, and invite all the relatives and friends - as is common in our day. A "church building" is a possibility, but not at all a necessity. With all of the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours that typically go into preparing a wedding, a much higher priority ought to be placed on the purpose of the celebration. If couples are going to face the many decisions of property ownership, health, and child-rearing together, they need to be able to write down their commitment and goals for marriage. If they need help in writing, then they can get it, but just like all of the other marriage decisions, by the grace and inspiration of God, they need to make the final decisions themselves. The purpose of the wedding guests is to encourage the couple and help them get a good start. Practical presents are a good part of this. But the guests should be able to verbally express a positive message to the two who are about to wed - whether these be in the form of speeches or prayers.
A person should be chosen to announce the ceremony planned by the groom and bride. This could possibly be a parent of one of the two, a relative, a close friend, or just someone who speaks well and will do what is requested. He can introduce the music, introduce parents, relatives and guests, introduce any short speeches or prayers, ask the guests if anyone knows why this marriage should not take place, and ask the parents if they agree to this marriage. The couple can be standing in front or seated for this part.
Then the announcer would draw attention to the focal point of the ceremony. The couple should read their marriage agreement (or give speeches if they desire) and affirm them in front of the entire group. (Repeating a token "I do" does not well represent the kind of conviction that is required to keep a marriage together through the storms of life.) The couple may then sign the copy of the marriage agreement that they have written. Various symbolic things could also be done: exchange rings or other items, jointly light a large candle from their individual candles and then blow their individual candles out, etc. The ceremony should culminate with a very brief prayer to God - kneeling if they desire. "God in Heaven, Creator of the Universe, we ask you at this moment, in the presence of these witnesses, to bind the marriage of John Jones and Susan Smith as husband and wife for the rest of their lives, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen." This can be recited or read by the couple, the couple and their families, or printed for the entire group to read. Then the announcer can say: "I now present to you, John and Susan Jones." A kiss, another song, or a receiving line, and many of the usual wedding festivities may follow.
If the couple desires to obtain a state marriage license, they can simply obtain one from a court in just a few minutes sometime before or after the ceremony. This way, they can remember the speaking of their vows before friends, relatives and fellow-believers as their marriage before God and by the authority of God. They can view their trip to the court as the bureaucratic procedure that it is.