April 18, 2021 - Early Church Government

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Today we want to take a look at the early church. Jesus’ resurrection leaves behind a group of followers who are passionate about the good news of what Jesus has done and what it means to them. The very existence of the Church is powerful evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, without which the existence of the Church becomes pretty difficult to explain.

How exactly was the early church put together? There’s a lot of terminology we need to figure out, including words like elder, deacon, bishop, presbytery, minister, pastor, apostle, prophet, and even church itself. (That’s what we do on Biblical Words and World.) We also need to figure out: Was the Church even necessary? Was it an afterthought? Was it an unintended institutionalization of what started out as a good thing but got hijacked by people who spoiled it?

Did Jesus ever intend to start a church? Let’s apply our criteria of authenticity. Multiple independent sources report that Jesus chose 12 followers to be leaders of his movement. Some of the names are men who disappear from the Bible’s coverage on the early church (we have to dig elsewhere to find out much about them), so nobody would have made this up. Why else would Jesus have picked out 12 leaders, if he did not intend to create a community of followers to be here long after he left the earth?

The word “church” is only used 3 times anywhere in our 4 Gospels (all in Matthew). The most important time is at Caesarea Philippi in Matthew 16:18, in the forests at the headwaters of the Jordan River, where Jesus points to Peter and his faith and says, “Upon this rock I will build my Church!” Jesus spoke Aramaic, so the word he used was most likely Knesset, the same word used for the name of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. It means simply “assembly.”

The NT Greek word we translate as “church” also basically means “assembly.” The word is ekklÄ“sia, which gets borrowed straight into English in our word “ecclesiastical.” EkklÄ“sia means “a group that is called out” or “assembled.” Outside the NT, the Greeks used this word for public gatherings of citizens to conduct business (the word is used that way at the end of the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19). In the Greek OT, ekklÄ“sia is used to translate the Hebrew term for assembly or congregation, qahal, which means a gathering of Israel as a whole.

So the “Church” is simply the congregation of God’s people. We use the English term “church” specifically to mean followers of Jesus. (To use the term “church” hundreds of years before Christ is an anachronism.) Several centuries before Christ, the Jews started local gatherings that they could attend in between times when they could attend the big gathering in the Jerusalem Temple. They called them by the Greek term synagogue (which means “gathering together”). Here in local synagogues the Jews did prayers, the reading of Scripture, and teaching. Followers of Jesus adopted a similar model. The Church sometimes would mean the entire body of Jesus’ followers, but the NT also sometimes speaks of “churches” (plural), localized assemblies of believers. Cities like Rome and Corinth had several such groupings in each city, which usually met in homes.

How was Jesus’ church organized? Let’s begin with the one kind of leader Jesus explicitly gave us: apostles. The word apostolos means “one who is sent.” It was the standard Jewish term in Jesus’ day for a person’s authorized representative, a person who has power of attorney to speak for you, make decisions for you, and sign documents in your name. So Jesus gives his apostles power of attorney, the authority to teach and make decisions on his behalf. His apostles unpack and expand Jesus’ teaching in what they have given us in the NT.

But the apostles do not actively manage the NT church. They only spring into action once, in Acts 15, to settle the question of whether Gentiles need to become Jews in order to follow Jesus. Even there, Peter speaks, but James the brother of Jesus (who was not one of the 12) announces the eventual decision, which was made by “apostles and elders” (according to Acts 15). We have no other evidence that the apostles functioned as a governing board.

Part of the crucial role of the apostles is to authenticate the genuine teaching of Jesus at a time where there were all sorts of claims about what Jesus said and did. The Church needed trustworthy witnesses to sort out reliable reports from rumor and outright baloney. We owe our 4 canonical Gospels to the word of the apostles. That’s why there were strict qualifications for finding a replacement for Judas in Acts 1; they had to find someone who had been with Jesus all the way from the time of John the Baptist through Jesus’ resurrection.

There is no evidence that Jesus intended the office of apostle to continue beyond the 1st century to the Next Generation church. In fact, the death of Judas Iscariot is the only case we know of where an apostle is ever replaced, and only 2 men qualified. There is no record of James son of Zebedee being replaced when he was killed in Acts 12. And we are never told how James the brother of Jesus becomes an apostle. Why wasn’t he nominated to take Judas’ place? (Actually, James didn’t qualify; he apparently was not with Jesus to witness his entire ministry.) The best explanation is that this office was never intended to be ongoing, but provisional.

The NT also speaks of other apostles beyond the 12. Paul regularly speaks of himself as an apostle. Luke says that Barnabas was an apostle (Acts 14:14). Paul speaks of both himself and Silas as apostles in 1 Thessalonians 2:6. Paul even speaks of Andronicus and Junia as being “among the apostles” in Romans 16:7. In these cases, it seems like the term “apostle” is being used loosely. Paul even says that Epaphroditus was an “apostle” from the Philippian church to him (Philippians 2:25) – our Bibles say “your messenger and minister to my needs.”

So we see that the term apostle comes to also mean “missionary,” someone who is sent to carry out a mission such as extending God’s church where it has never been planted before. We are free to use the word apostle with this looser meaning today as well, as long as we make a clear distinction between Jesus’ authorized representatives, and missionaries whom God may raise up today. The Next Generation Church quits using the term apostle as an ongoing office of the church after 100 AD. By then, the apostles had finished the job for which Jesus sent them, which was to complete the delivery of God’s authoritative word to us.

In Luke 10:1 (and only here), we are told that Jesus also sends out 70 others as advance agents wherever he was about to appear on tour. First, let us note that a large number of copies of Luke read “72” instead of “70.” One of the 2 earliest copies of Luke reads “72,” as do half of our earliest complete NT’s from the 300’s AD. If the number 70 was original, where did 72 ever come from? Which reading is more likely to have been changed to the other?

Some have argued that Jesus was creating a standard office for his Church when he sends out the 70. We have no evidence that such a permanent office ever existed in the NT church. Could this plain and precious teaching have been removed, if it was an original part of the data base on Jesus? In our third broadcast, I argued that no, no vital piece of data like this could have been removed without leaving evidence of such a change. We see it right here in the way our evidence preserves the fact that there was confusion about the number whom Jesus sends out – nobody successfully covered that up. So we have no solid reason to believe that Jesus chose these 70 or 72 as any more than temporary advance agents for his missionary tour.

Notice that the NT Church is not led by a prophet or prophets. As I have written in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith, there are prophets in the NT church, such as Agabus (in Acts 11 and 21), and Judas and Silas (in Acts 15). But prophets in the NT church are never said to be in leadership, and five of those prophets mentioned are women: Anna (Luke 2:36-38), and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). Prophets in the NT church simply act on their own. They deliver words from God whenever they receive them, and their words have to be tested and confirmed by those around them, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14.

Indeed, even in OT times, prophets did not function in top leadership, other than Moses and a few of the judges, the best examples being Samuel and a woman named Deborah. Otherwise, prophets tended to be backseat drivers, while kings were the leaders, and priests performed sacrifice and taught God’s law to the people. Prophets were sent by God whenever the occasion demanded, to call priests, kings, and people to repent whenever they went astray. Prophets tended to be loose cannons who often had to challenge those who were in power. They had authority simply because people sensed they were channels of God’s word for the moment.

Instead, as I also wrote in my book, local churches in the first century AD were led by teams who were called “elders” (presbyteroi) by the Jews, but were called bishops or literally “overseers” (episkopoi) by the Gentiles. We see the proof in Acts 20, where Paul asks the elders from Ephesus to come to him, and when he speaks to them in verse 28, he says that the Holy Ghost has made them “overseers.” It’s the same word translated “bishop” in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3. Notice that at a small church like Philippi, they had both bishops (plural, meaning “overseers”) and deacons.

So panels of elders/overseers led each local church. In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul reminds Timothy, “Neglect not the gift that was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of hands of the presbytery.” Does your church have presbyteries? Mine does – your church might have presbyteries by another name. The word (presbyterion) simply means “council of elders.” In Paul’s day, each local church was led by such a council. The word is used 2 more times in the NT. In Acts 22:5, it is translated “estate of the elders.” In Luke 22:66, it is translated “council.” In both places, it’s talking about the Jewish Supreme Court, which was a body of elders.

The word elder (presbyteros) means literally “older person.” Nowhere in the early church do we find “elders” making up a majority of the active male membership ages 18 and up. Even Timothy, when he is put in charge of the church at Ephesus, was probably at least 30 years old (the rabbinic age for authority), and Paul tells Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth.”

In the second century, the episkopoi (the non-Jewish term for “elder”) became solo leaders resembling what we call “bishops” today. Only later do we see the term “bishop” or “overseer” being reserved for regional leaders, who eventually become known as archbishops. Local church leaders become what most churches call pastors or ministers.

Deacons are a NT office. Paul describes them in 1 Timothy 3. Their qualifications are as high as he lists for elders. He also speaks of “the women” who are deacons (which can also be translated “the wives”). Was there an office of “deaconess”? By 120 AD, such an office clearly existed; the Roman governor Pliny tortures some “deaconesses” to find out what Christians believe. Some see this office of deacon as starting in Acts 6, where the apostles choose 7 highly qualified believers to put them in charge of serving practical needs in the Church, specifically the distribution of food to widows in poverty. One of those chosen for this job is Stephen, who also proves to be a highly effective proclaimer of God’s word.

The Greek word diakonos means literally “servant.” It is also translated “minister.” Several times Paul refers to himself as a diakonos or “minister” of Christ. (He also calls himself a doulos or “slave” of Christ, but that’s a different term, and no one claims that to be an office in the church.) Interestingly, Paul uses the same word for “minister / servant / deacon” for Phoebe in Romans 16:1. He does not use the feminine “deaconess.” Phoebe appears to be in charge of the house church in a suburb of Corinth. Whatever Paul means when he speaks of himself as a minister or servant, so is Phoebe. (On our next broadcast, we’ll be talking more about the question: can women serve as ministers or even leaders in God’s true church?)

The NT’s blueprint for church government is given to us in practical terms. God gives us freedom to organize the earthly Church in any way that is faithful to God’s Biblical blueprint. It doesn’t matter what we call the offices. Each church needs one or more authoritative teachers, a qualified council of leaders, and people who serve. Whether we call the local spiritual leader a pastor, a minister, or a bishop (meaning “overseer”) does not matter and is not a matter of Biblical authority. In fact, the one office that is specified in the NT is an office that had a 1st-century term limit and no longer exists: apostle.

God may give us prophets here and there, but we should be careful not to elevate any of them to the level of God’s authorized prophets found in God’s word. God has not appointed any prophet to lead the body of Christ as a whole, and like we find in 1 Corinthians 14, any local prophets who receive messages from God need to be tested for their reliability; never should their words be put on a par with the Old and New Testaments.

What we don’t find in the early church is a priesthood. Strictly speaking, Christ is our one and only priest, the only one capable of offering a once and for all sacrifice that takes away our sin and puts us right with God. We’ll talk more about temples and priesthood a few weeks from now. However, in a broader sense, the apostle Peter declares that all believers are “a holy priesthood,” both men and women. All of us are authorized to proclaim the Gospel and to be Christ’s agents to lead the world to be reconciled with God.

So there is no one right way to run a church. Some argue that God’s true church must be organized in a specific way, or it is not authorized by God. Wrong! Several churches claim to have a chain of succession by their leaders going straight back to Jesus through his apostles. Whether or not they do does not matter; such chains can easily be broken by people who never should have been ordained to office, or by false teaching in that church. And whether Jesus ever intended such an ongoing chain of leadership is wide open to question.

It does not matter whether God’s Church is divided into many different units that are organized with different forms of government. God appears to have planned it that way, to give us all places to belong in his body that best fit our understanding on issues where God has not been specific. God has given us unity on our belief in one triune God, the Bible as our ultimate authority, and salvation through faith in the cross of Christ alone. As for all the nonsense we hear about supposedly over 30,000 different and hopelessly incompatible churches out there who are all at war with each other, let me point you to my blog post called “Mythology About Church Disunity.” You’ll find it on both of our websites.

God’s true Church is defined, not by how it’s organized, but by faith: what it teaches, and whether its members truly believe. I am convinced that the true Church is invisible, and is not a carbon-copy of the visible organized Church and those who belong to it. There are some who believe the truth and who know Christ as their Savior who are not on the rolls of any church, or may be even belong to false churches (they are part of the invisible Church), whereas there are others who may belong to the visible Church but will hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.”

God has given us practical instruction on how to run a church. God has not given us official details on how it must be done. Again, each church needs one or more authoritative teachers, a qualified council of leaders, and people who serve. But are both men and women qualified to serve in all offices of the Church? We’ll take a closer look at that question next time on Biblical Words and World.