The book of ACTS is perfect reading for those contemplating this question of whether there was a governing body of men in the first century. As you read through the book note how many events happen at the direction of the holy spirit without any input from the apostles and older men in Jerusalem.
Jesus is head of the congregation and the book of ACTS shows us that Jesus used whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted, to further the expansion of the good news. His direction did not have to be given via a governing body of men.
The Jehovah's Witness teaching of a governing body of men directing God's people on earth is something that is taught right from the time of studying the bible with someone. The organisation has produced brochures to be used on bible studies to direct interest to the organisation and encourage them to recognize this body of men as representatives of God on earth.
The claim is made that there was a first century governing body and this is based on the scriptural account in ACTS 15 relating to the issue of circumcision. But is this claim valid?
Firstly, let's examine this account in ACTS. By the time that the account in chapter 15 occurred, a congregation had been established in Antioch of Syria, 300 miles north of Jerusalem. This congregation in Antioch became such an important centre for the preaching work that an amazing privilege was granted the brothers there. Please read ACTS 11:19 - 26
Did you see the amazing privilege in verse 26?
"It was first in Antioch that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians."
What an amazing privilege!!! Which congregation received this privilege? NOT JERUSALEM BUT ANTIOCH! Do you realise what this means? This means that the brothers in Antioch must have sent messages to all the congregations at that time including the Jerusalem congregation to let them know about this monumental development - THEY HAD A NAME BY DIVINE PROVIDENCE - CHRISTIANS! (By the way, this is still the name given to us by our Father and thus we can proudly call ourselves Christians! I love saying that to people when I meet them, "I'm a Christian.")
As Jehovah's Witnesses, we were taught that the elders in the congregation in Jerusalem directed everything. If this was so, then why did Jehovah choose to reveal such a monumental directive to the congregation in Antioch?
Now back to the circumcision issue. It was some years later that Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch (it was in Antioch once again that they had received their assignment - see ACTS 13) and here they found visiting brothers from the Jerusalem congregation telling the brothers in Antioch that they must get circumcised to be saved. Obviously these brothers were wrong! Thousands of uncircumcised men were now Christians, starting with Cornelius who became the first Gentile Christian in 36CE and received the holy spirit, obviously showing that Jehovah approved of this uncircumcised man. It was now 49CE - 13 years later - that these men were trying to force the non-Jewish brothers in Antioch to get circumcised. No wonder ACTS 15:2 indicates that Paul and Barnabas disputed with them. It was so obvious that circumcision was not necessary for salvation.
Nonetheless, the issue was obviously still unresolved. So what could be done? Well where had these men come from? Jerusalem. So where would be the obvious place to go to for resolution? Jerusalem. These men were obviously claiming that they had the backing of the apostles and older men in Jerusalem. We can ascertain this from ACTS 15:24 where the brothers wrote back to the Antioch congregation saying,
"Since we have heard that some from among us have caused you trouble with speeches, trying to subvert your souls, although we did not give them any instructions ......"
We all know what the outcome was. The whole congregation in Jerusalem reassured the brothers in Antioch that these men who had entered their congregation were doing so on their own and were out of harmony with Jehovah and Jesus.
So this account is about individual men who were trying to disrupt the peace of the congregation in Antioch and the issue was referred back to their original congregation in Jerusalem and rightly so since that's where these men were from.
This account has NOTHING to do with directing the whole scope of Christian expansion. This was simply a matter between two congregations that arose because of the presence of these troublesome men.
Strong proof that there was no central governing body of men in the first century directing the worldwide Christian congregation is the ministry of the apostle Paul. What an amazing privilege Paul had as an apostle to the nations.
In GALATIANS chapters 1 and 2, Paul emphasizes the fact that his assignment came, not from men but directly from Jesus himself. Please read these two chapters and you will see clearly that the apostles in Jerusalem had no part in directing Paul.