Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Hierarchy of the Early Church

In a fine article concerning the early church and its governing structure, Michael Kruger, the dean of the Reformed Theological Seminary and a noted expert in biblical canonical issues, wrote that the early church’s structure was composed of a plurality of elders in each congregation. These individuals were, in the words of the apostle Paul, the overseers of “the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). This was not only the biblical model (see 1 Timothy and Titus), but also a historical fact. The early church understood the guidance the apostles provided about such matters and strove to be faithful to it. But as with so many things in the church, however, this structure did not last.

Irenaeus of Antioch was among the first promoters of the one bishop formula. What this meant was that, although each local congregation retained the formula used by the early church, i.e. a plurality of elders for each congregation, there would be one overseeing elder or bishop in each city. According to Irenaeus, this was necessitated due to the fact that the church was encountering increasing prosecution and heretical pressures from without and within. The new hierarchical structure would allow the church to resist such pressures by having one individual provide guidance to each congregation within his purview. In other words, one individual can provide greater control of what doctrines are taught in several churches than to leave them all independent from each other.

Now, you can certainly understand why the church leaders of the time felt the need to alter the hierarchical structure the way they did. We often make judgments about issues in the past based on our understanding of the current world. That is especially true in a society that is, not only free, but also individual-centered and comfortable. It is very hard for us to identify with a people who were under tremendous pressure to abandon their new found faith at the risk of even their very lives.

That being said, however, the change in the leadership structure of the churches shows that, although these men were godly and had a great desire to please the Lord, they still went astray in some areas just as we all do. There is no doubt that they had good intentions. Their desire to help the church survive at a time when its survival was very much in doubt is understandable and, to a certain extent, commendable. Nevertheless, we have come to see the fruit of that change and the fact that, when we go about changing the God-given structure of the church (or anything else, for that matter), problems will arise. The one bishop formula, or as it has come to be known, the pastor model has created more problems that it has solved. The reliance of many groups within Christendom on that model, has brought about situations where church life is affected negatively. There is a reason why God wants a plurality of elders in each congregation! 

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