Losing The Faith (11/22)

Development of the Clergy

The Apostolic Direction

The ecclesias, as the apostles left them, were autonomous and self-governing. There were bishops and traveling overseers selected for their duties by the apostles, but there was no provision for the continuation of a hierarchy. Bishops (overseers), elders and deacons appear in the apostolic church, and since qualifications are given for the guidance of the ecclesias in choosing their elders, it must be assumed that they would be assigned to their positions by the will of the membership.

In the New Testament the words bishop and elder seem to be used interchangeably, as in The Epistle to Titus, 1:5-7. “Ordain elders in every city, as I appointed thee … for a bishop must be blameless …” I Tim. 3:1-13 qualifies both bishops and deacons, emphasizing that those who serve the ecclesia must be responsible and dedicated disciples.
The Second Century

At the beginning of the second century the same order prevailed. Presbyters (elders) were elected in some manner by their respective ecclesias. The larger ecclesias would have a bishop who was also one of the presbyters. There were also deacons (and deaconesses) who took care of various arrangements, and looked after the welfare of the individual members. Each of the ecclesias was independent, though they formed a collective body. Letters of exhortation, sometimes containing reproof, were sent between the ecclesias, but one did not exercise authority over another.

The following are New Testament terms when properly used:

Bishop (episkopus) – “overseer,” “caretaker,” (from skopus – “watch,” “sentry”).

Presbyter (presbyteros) – “elder.”

Presbytery – “body of elders.”

Deacon (diakonos) – “assistant,” “one who ministers.”

These terms came gradually to designate a Christian hierarchy far beyond the apostolic intent.

Order of the Meetings

Justin Martyr (AD 110-165) gives a description of the regular meeting arrangement that may be taken as typical. “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles (the New Testament) or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and when our prayer is ended, bread and wine are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks has been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons” (The First Apology of Justin, ch. lxvii). The writer also mentions the collection (a free-will offering) used to support those in need.
Authority of the Bishops

An early contributing factor to the growing authority of the bishops was the prevalence of heresy in the body. Confused ideas and false teachings abounded in the second and third centuries. As a result, the ecclesias were strongly exhorted to follow the lead of their bishops so as not to be led astray. This was good up to a point, when the elders were themselves sound in the faith. But as a result of this attitude the bishops came to exercise a great deal of power and control.

This factor is quite evident in some of the early epistles, especially those of Ignatius (AD 30-107). Understandably concerned about the effect of false teachings on the ecclesias, the bishop of Antioch urges this point more than any other in all of his epistles. “… being subject to the bishop and presbytery;” “we should look upon the bishop even as we would look upon the Lord Himself, standing, as he does, before the Lord” (To the Ephesians); “do nothing without the bishop. Nor let anything appear commendable to you which is destitute of his approval” (To the Magnesians). These statements are typical.

J Banta.

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