Were Early Churches Ruled by Elders or a Single Bishop?

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  • Were Early Churches Ruled by Elders or a Single Bishop?

    Michael J Kruger

    There is a (seemingly) never-ending debate amongst theologians and pastors about the proper form of government for the church. For generations, Christians have disagreed about what leadership structure the church ought to use. From the bishop-led Anglicans to the informal Brethren churches, there is great diversity.

    And one of the fundamental flash points in this debate is the practice of the early church. What form of government did the earliest Christians have? Of course, early Christian polity is a vast and complex subject with many different issues in play. But, I want to focus in upon a narrow one: Were the earliest churches ruled by a plurality of elders or a single bishop?

    Now it needs to be noted from the outset that by the end of the second century, most churches were ruled by a single bishop. For whatever set of reasons, monepiscopacy had won the day. Many scholars attribute this development to Ignatius (pictured above).

    But, what about earlier? Was there a single-bishop structure in the first and early second century?

    The New Testament evidence itself seems to favor a plurality of elders as the standard model. The book of Acts tells us that as the apostles planted churches, they appointed “elders” (from the Greek term πρεσβυτέρος) to oversee them (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2; 20:17). Likewise, Titus is told to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5).

    A very similar word, ἐπι,σκoπος (“bishop” or “overseer”), is used in other contexts to describe what appears to be the same ruling office (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-7). The overlap between these two terms is evident in Acts 20:28 when Paul, while addressing the Ephesian “elders” (πρεσβυτέρους), declares that “The Holy Spirit has made you overseers (ἐπισκόπους).” Thus, the New Testament writings indicate that the office of elder/bishop is functionally one and the same.

    But, what about the church after the New Testament? Did they maintain the model of multiple elders? Three quick examples suggest they maintained this structure at least for a little while:

    1. At one point, the Didache addresses the issue of church government directly, “And so, elect for yourselves bishops (ἐπισκόπους) and deacons who are worthy of the Lord, gentle men who are not fond of money, who are true and approved” (15.1). It is noteworthy that the author mentions plural bishops—not a single ruling bishop—and that he places these bishops alongside the office of deacon, as Paul himself does (e.g., Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-13). Thus, as noted above, it appears that the bishops described here are essentially equivalent to the office of “elder.”

    2. A letter known as 1 Clement (c.96) also has much to say about early church governance. This letter is attributed to a “Clement”—whose identity remains uncertain—who represents the church in Rome and writes to the church at Corinth to deal with the fallout of a recent turnover in leadership. The author is writing to convince (not command) the Corinthians to reinstate its bishops (elders) who were wrongly deposed. The letter affirms the testimony of the book of Acts when it tells us that the apostles initially appointed “bishops (ἐπισκόπους) and deacons” in the various churches they visited (42.4). After the time of the apostles, bishops were appointed “by other reputable men with the entire church giving its approval” (44.3). This is an echo of the Didache which indicated that bishops were elected by the church.

    3. The Shepherd of Hermas (c.150) provides another confirmation of this governance structure in the second century. After Hermas writes down the angelic vision in a book, he is told, “you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church” (Vis. 8.3).Here we are told that the church leadership structure is a plurality of “presbyters” (πρεσβυτέρων) or elders. The author also uses the term “bishop,” but always in the plural and often alongside the office of deacon (Vis. 13.1; Sim. 104.2).

    In sum, the NT texts and texts from the early second century indicate that a plurality of elders was the standard structure in the earliest stages. But, as noted above, the idea of a singular bishop began to dominate by the end of the second century.

    What led to this transition? Most scholars argue that it was the heretical battles fought by the church in the second century that led them to turn to key leaders to defend and represent the church.

    This transition is described remarkably well by Jerome himself:

    The presbyter is the same as the bishop, and before parties had been raised up in religion by the provocations of Satan, the churches were governed by the Senate of the presbyters. But as each one sought to appropriate to himself those whom he had baptized, instead of leading them to Christ, it was appointed that one of the presbyters, elected by his colleagues, should be set over all the others, and have chief supervision over the general well-being of the community. . . Without doubt it is the duty of the presbyters to bear in mind that by the discipline of the Church they are subordinated to him who has been given them as their head, but it is fitting that the bishops, on their side, do not forget that if they are set over the presbyters, it is the result of tradition, and not by the fact of a particular institution by the Lord (Comm. Tit. 1.7).

    Jerome’s comments provide a great summary of this debate. While the single-bishop model might have developed for practical reasons, the plurality of elders model seems to go back to the very beginning.

  • #2
    Even in the days of Moses, that great man of God, was counseled by his father in law, Jethro, that, it is "not good" that "one man" should judge the people of God. He heeded his father in laws advice as if it were from God Himself, and placed many to judge for the people. A plurality of judges. (Exodus 18:14-27)
    Also in Acts, during the dispute of how the Gentiles should be accepted into Christianity. The Judizers said they must be circumcised, while Paul and Barnabus said no, it is by faith alone that the Gentiles shall be accepted. Once again it was from "without", being suggested by the church in Antioch that they should seek more council from the church in Jerusalem on the matter. For it was too weighty for one man or two to judge. Therefore the council in Jerusalem met as seen in Acts 15. But even then it was discussed through many, the "circumcision party" and others as well as Peter, giving his testimony (Cornelius) of how God showed him that what was once considered unclean, the Gentiles, had now been accepted by God through faith. Then and only then after hearing from multiple leaders did James make a "suggestion" based solely upon God's word. A government of the church is vital for many reasons, accountability, discipline etc. two of which today's churches rarely if at all practice. The model for a proper, God honoring church can be clearly seen in those two portions of Scripture above.
    Last edited by Jason T V; 07-15-2015, 03:07 PM.
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    • #3
      Bishops are not mentioned in the bible,
      we're did they come from?
      Comment>

      • #4
        Originally posted by phil boyce-bottoms View Post
        Bishops are not mentioned in the bible,
        we're did they come from?
        1Tim 3:1 (KJV) This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.

        Bishop is the anglicized Latin word for overseer. The Roman Catholic Church has a narrower definition.

        Regarding the topic, it's practically impossible for any organization to run without a single person at the top. Although, all good governments, corporations, and churches have boards, a number of men, who can override the single leader. And, that person at the top might not have much power at all. Every denomination, every church, and every marriage has one person at the top.
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        • #5
          1Tim 3:1 (KJV) This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.

          Bishop is the anglicized Latin word for overseer. The Roman Catholic Church has a narrower definition.

          Regarding the topic, it's practically impossible for any organization to run without a single person at the top. Although, all good governments, corporations, and churches have boards, a number of men, who can override the single leader. And, that person at the top might not have much power at all. Every denomination, every church, and every marriage has one person at the top.
          You're right Cornelius but, I may be head of my wife but Christ is head of our marriage. It was not Moses who led the people out of Egypt and through the wilderness, as you know, it was God. Their is only one head of the church and that is Christ. For the Christian husband, and wife, child, and Pastor, Deacon or Elder and any other vocations they do not rightly have the last word. Our every decision is based upon God's Word as the final authority.

          Last edited by Jason T V; 07-16-2015, 04:17 PM.
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          • #6
            Something I've never understood?
            Why do we need churches?
            Why do I need a church to talk to 'GOD '?
            Why can't I talk where I am,
            In the kitchen,
            Walking the dog,
            Riding my bike,
            At work?

            Do I need to prove to others that I believe in 'GOD', because they see me at church?

            I thought 'GOD', omnipresent, everywhere and anywhere, not just in big stone buildings?

            And why do you sing songs at 'GOD'?

            It's like that scene in the Noahs ark film,
            Where Russel crow is in the middle of the ark,
            Then walks up through the ark,
            Steps on to the top of the ark,
            Then talks to 'GOD'?
            Why couldn't he have spoken to 'GOD',
            Where he was in the first place?

            I've never believed in churches,
            My 'GOD/ higher power',
            Lives within me,
            Don't need any building to go to, to talk mine.
            Or fancy words,
            Or songs.
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            • #7
              Originally posted by phil boyce-bottoms View Post
              Something I've never understood?
              Why do we need churches?
              Meeting together is the practice of the early church and the instructions of scripture. Do you live alone, without friends and family? If so, is that they way you like it? If not, then I don't understand your complaint about churches.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Cornelius View Post

                Meeting together is the practice of the early church and the instructions of scripture. Do you live alone, without friends and family? If so, is that they way you like it? If not, then I don't understand your complaint about churches.
                It's not a complaint about churches,
                It's an explanation of why I don't under them,
                And that's why I asked this question.
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                • #9
                  We are to worship God continually, as we go through our day. We are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (i.e., churches) for that is how we worship and fellowship with other believers, and learn from the pastor. But it doesn't end when the service is over. We should walk in Christ all the time, praying, and meditating on his word, and sharing the Gospel with others. Churches which are good (but rare) encourage us and build us up in Christ after a week of the world trying to tear us down. We fight a spiritual warfare, and no warfare can be fought alone.
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