Dr. V V Thomas
professor, History of Christianity Bibewadi, Pune.
There has been a common misunderstanding that the life, ministry, worship and government of the first century Church was perfect and that they were an ‘ideal’ Church.
We often think that the New Testament Churches were perfect without any flaw and weakness. However this is not true. It must be said that the being of the Church, its position in Christ is perfect. ‘We are perfect in Christ’ but the expressions and experiences of our being in Christ is not always perfect.
In fact, the first century Church was far from perfection. For instance, we can see many problems emerging right from the beginning of the Church. The first problem arose probably within a few weeks or months of the Church’s existence when deception took hold of two members, costing them their lives. Acts 5:1-11.
Then the problem of injustice arose over the distribution of food. Acts 6:1. The first Church council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 was called to settle many issues. Even the leading missionaries, Paul and Barnabas had to part ways due to differences of opinion and almost a ‘quarrel’ (Acts 15:36-41). All these incidents only goes to show that the early Church was far from being perfect
When we look at the Church in Corinth, it was plagued with divisions, and moral characterised by the brotherly love of the highest order, moral earnestness, purity, honesty, meekness, and integrity. It was characterised by confident gladness in the love of God, fellowship with God and with one another, experiencing the infilling of the Holy Spirit, certainty of their salvation, their hope the return of the Lord.
At the same time compared to what we see today in our Churches, the first century Church had a deeper desire to know and to love the Lord.
The government of the Church in the first century
1. The office of the Apostles
Right from the beginning of the Church’s life in Jerusalem it was governed by a council of apostles, who guided and gave leadership in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. That was the government with which the church was born.
In the beginning there were no elders, no deacons, no bishops, no synods, districts, parishes, boards, councils, assemblies, or delegates but the Apostles who gave leadership to the new born Church. The primary work of the apostles were to bear witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Further the apostles were to lead the community of believers in faith, to administer baptisms by which a person became a member of the community, to preside at the fellowship meals, and to undertake the laying on of hands by which members were consecrated for special works.
We must remember that the governmental structure and administrative organization of the first century Church developed as the need for these structure arose. We see a good example of this in the appointment of the Seven to take care of the needs of the Hellenist widows, reported in the sixth chapter of Acts. They were selected by the church, appointed and ordained by the apostles to meet a specific need. So the government of the Church arose as the need for it was felt in the community.
2. The office of the Elder
From the very early days of the Church the office of the ‘elder’ came into being in the church which has remained until the present day. The earliest reference to elders in Acts(11:30) speaks of relief for the poor brethren in Jerusalem, relief sent to the elders there by Barnabas and Saul.
In Acts 14:23, we see Paul and Barnabas are reported to have appointed elders in churches they had established on Paul’s first missionary journey. There are various references to elders in the church in later chapters of Acts. Notable among these is chapter 15, which describes the meeting of the Jerusalem council concerning the relations of the Gentiles to the Mosaic law.
Now the question is how did this office come into being? There is no record of its origin in the New Testament. The very first reference to elders, in Acts 11:29-30, assumes their existence as a known and established fact. It is possible that the separate meetings for worship that the believers in Jerusalem began to hold after Pentecost were patterned after the Jewish synagogue. In the synagogue the elder, who was older next to the rulers in authority, occupied a prominent place. It may also be that the members of the Christian community were automatically looked as the leaders, and that later the office of elder became either elective or appointive.
It is concerning the Gentile churches outside Palestine that we read of bishops and deacons. At the beginning of the second century the bishop’s office, as we shall see, received an enlarged meaning. Until then, in New Testament use, bishops are called elders and elders are called bishops; the office is one. Paul addressed his Philippian letter to the entire congregation in Philippi, “with the bishops and deacons.” In 1 Timothy 3:1-13, we read of the character qualifications of bishops and deacons; there are none for elders. This would be a strange omission if elders represented a different office than bishops. Particularly is this so when in the same letter we read: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (5:17). The identity of elder and bishop is even clearer in Titus 1:5-9, which reads: “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might.. appoint elders in every town.. For a bishop… must be blameless..”In each church, therefore, the elders or bishops served as a council of equals, perhaps assisted by deacons, to administer the affairs of the local church.
3. The office of the Bishop
The first clear indication that we have a difference between elders and bishops is in the letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, written about A.D 115. While on his way to Rome as a prisoner – to be put to death because of his Christian witness and leadership – he wrote letters to churches in Asia Minor at Aphesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Philadelphia, to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and to the church in Rome. In all these letters, except in the letter to Rome, which had no bishop, he called for obedience and loyalty to the local bishop. The office of bishop at the time was that of the leading elder in a congregation or that of the head of all the churches in a city. It was this latter position thatIngantius held in Antioch and Polycarp in Smyrna, and other in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Philadelphia. Suchbishop were called monarchical bishops (“monarchical” means rule by one). Their office had a remarkable development, as we shall presently note.
The reasons for the rise of the office of monarchical bishop, in distinction from the elder’s office, are the following;
a. When a community is governed by a committee or board or council, there is always a tendency for one in the governing group to become the leader. This was especially true in the early church because of its circumstances with respect to administration, persecution, and the rise of heresy.
b. Concerning administration, there was a need to centralize the church’s authority. The growth of the church was rapid in many areas, discipline and teaching needed to be well supervised, there were many poor to care for, and there was a need for correspondence between the churches, both near and distant. Such factors invited the rise of a central leader in each significant city or area.
c. The rise of persecution made it necessary for the church to have leaders who could speak and act for the church and her members at all times. Leadership by wise counsel and the example of patience and fearlessness was essential to the church’s survival.
d. The appearance of heresy in the church required authoritative leaders to define and uphold the doctrine of the church and to be its spokesmen in doctrinal disputes. The monarchical bishop was not a church dictator. He was in as a whole in his city or area. As such, he was the representative who was to give leadership in expressing and upholding the common life and faith of the church.
4. The office of the Metropolitan Bishop
It will be helpful in the connection to note the development of the monarchical episcopate, although it will take us beyond the first and second centuries, with which we are concerned in this chapter. In time, the bishop of the church in a capital city of the Roman province came to be regarded as the head of the entire church in that province. He was called the metropolitan bishop (from the Greek word metropolis, metropolitan bishop became known as the patriarch (from the cities were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and the church in the western part of the empire, and he became known as the Pope (from the Latin ‘papa’, meaning father). From the Reformation on, large sections of the Western church have not recognized the authority of the Pope, but he retains the title.
5. The Office of the Deacon
When and how the office of deacon originated is not known. It may well have arisen because of the need the elders felt to obtain help in administering the material affairs of the church. It is, in any case, quite certain that the office did not come into being with the appointment of the Seven mentioned in the sixth chapter of Acts. It is true that the work to which the Seven were appointed is a proper work for deacons. They were not, however, called deacons. There is no record of their continued work in providing for the poor of the congregation. Two of them, Stephen and Philip, receive considerable attention in Acts as preachers of the gospel. In Acts 21:8 Philip is called as evangelist. There is therefore little reason to believe that the office of deacon began with the Seven. In the time of the Apostolic Fathers deacons ranked third after the bishops and the elders. Ignatius writes that the deacons must “obey the bishop as the grace of God and the board of elders as the law of Jesus Christ.” Still later deacons served especially as assistants to the bishops.
6. Temporary and Permanent Offices of the Church.
Besides the apostles, bishops, elders, and deacons in the early church, there were also men – and some women – with special gifts who gave other leadership in the church. Such were prophets, teachers, pastors, and evangelists. They were generally not associated with a particular church but, like the apostles, were in general service. The Didache referred to in the next section gives extensive rules for recognizing and helping travelling prophets and teachers. As these dies (as with the apostles), they were not replaces. Believers with special gifts came more and more under the authority of the bishop and performed only local service. The offices of bishop, elder, and deacon became permanent; each had its own responsibilities and authority, and together they formed the continuing government of the church.
The early Church before it came under the state in the early part of the 4th century, had no empire-wide structure of government. The Church had more of a local character and its authority was also local. There were monarchical bishops in larger cities and they had significant influence on the Churches that came under their spiritual care. There was fellowship and interaction among the Churches in different places. However, there was no common government, no common Church law, no one ‘head’ of the Church other than the founder of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
As Church came under the state the above mentioned characteristics of the pre-Constantine Church changed drastically. Now with the emperor beginning to take control of the situation’ he began to call for synods and councils to deal with different issues in the Church. From now on holding of major Church councils became common in the life of the Church. These councils became important factors in creating common belief systems of the universal Church; it promoted unity of the Church and to some extend some order and regulations within the larger set up of the imperial Church. Another major factor during the post Constantine period was the development of a clear distinction between the laity and the clergy. The laity who were the majority in the Church had no office; the clergy were Church officials who were set apart from the laity by ordination. As time went by the entire function of the Church fell into the hands of the clergy, a situation that made their office more ‘powerful’ with lasing implications. There were now lower clergy, higher clergy, and the episcopate.
The lower clergy consisted of those who would help in the services of the worship and other areas in the Church. They were the sub-deacons who formed the secretarial staff of the bishop. The higher clergy were the deacons and presbyters. The care of the poor, originally entrusted to the deacons, was now discharged by the lower clergy. Deacons became the chief administrative assistants to the bishops. Presbyters conducted services and administered sacraments; they were the spiritual arm of the bishops. Later these presbyters were called as priests.
The episcopate consisted of the bishops of the Church. The lowest in rank was the country bishop. Next in order was the city bishop. Both the country and the city bishop were subject to the archbishop, called metropolitan in the east, who was the bishop of the capital city of province. The archbishops in turn were under the authority of the patriarchal bishops. At the beginning of the 4th century there were three patriarchal bishops via the bishop of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Later when Constantine made Constantinople as the capital of the eastern empire, the bishop of that city became a patriarch. At the council of Chalcedon in 451, the bishop of Jerusalem was similarly honoured and became a patriarch. The patriarch of Rome from the beginning been called the Pope and has been called that way until the present day. This has been the hierarchical order of the Church that was developed which turned into powerful offices that mostly became corrupt as the Church entered into the medieval period.
The first century Church, although not perfect, was led by the Apostles, elders, deacons, presbyters and other Spirit filled leaders. However, that era came to an end when the Church came under the umbrella of the state. Power and authority replaced ‘humility, honesty and simplicity of the first century Church leaders.