Early Church History - 1

Someone recently posed a question that prompted me to reread some early church history. What happened in the centuries after the apostolic age is a fascinating subject both instructive and cautionary concerning human tendencies.

One of the earliest departures from the NT pattern for local churches was the creation of a manmade hierarchy. The Lord made provisions that each local congregation should have a plurality of elders or overseers to provide spiritual guidance and wisdom. Each elder, regardless of age, education, personality, financial status, etc., was to be co-equal with the others in influence and duty. We can clearly see the carnal fruit born by domineering ambition in the affairs of men, a primary reason for the structure that Jesus put in place (cf. Mt 20:20-28; 23:5-12; Ac 14:23). Note the following observations from The Church in History by B.K. Kuiper:

“In the early Church the presbyters, as we shall now call the elders, were all of the same rank. But it was natural that in each congregation one of the presbyters should take the lead. He would be president of the board of presbyters, and he would lead in worship and do the preaching. The presbyters were also called overseers. The Greek word for ‘overseer’ is episcopos, from which we get our word ‘bishop.’ The title of bishop was given to the presbyter who in course of time became leader of the board of presbyters. So the other presbyters gradually became subordinate to the presbyter who was their overseer, or bishop, and the bishop came to rule the church alone …

“Just exactly when the Church came to have bishops we do not know. The development of the episcopal form of church organization or government came about gradually ... It came about in some cities sooner than in others. Churches in certain cities had monarchical bishops before the church in Rome had such a bishop. Around the year 110 the church in Antioch, from which city Barnabas and Paul had set out on their first missionary journey, had a bishop by the name of Ignatius, and Smyrna had Polycarp as its bishop. Both of these men are said to have been personal disciples of the apostles, and both of them are reckoned among the Apostolic Fathers. The first bishop of Rome seems to have been … Anicetus. He was a bishop of Rome from 154 to 165. By the middle of the second century practically all churches had monarchical bishops.

“The bishops were supposed to be the successors of the apostles. That idea helped immensely to clothe the bishops with great authority. Ignatius considered the bishop to be the great bond of church unity and the great defense against heresy …

“For a long time the churches in the various cities were only very loosely connected with each other. By the year 200 they had become welded into one compact whole. The struggle of the churches with the Gnostic and Montanist heretics had done much to bring this about … All the churches now had in common the Apostles’ Creed, the canon of the New Testament as authoritative Scripture, and the episcopal form of church government” (54-55).

J.W. Shepherd observes: “The clergy claim for themselves the prerogatives, relations and authority of the Jewish priesthood. Such claims advanced in the third century by Cyprian, were a great departure from the original spirit and model of the Church derived from Christ and the apostles. It was falling back from the New to the Old Testament, and substituting the outward for the inward spirit. It presented the priesthood again as a mediating office between man and his God … The clergy, by this assumption, were made independent of the people; their commission and office were from God; and … they soon began to claim an independent sovereignty over the laity. ‘God makes the priests’ was the darling maxim of Cyprian …

“No change, perhaps … can be … more destructive to the primitive constitution of the Church, or more disastrous to its spiritual interests. ‘This entire perversion of the original view of the Christian Church,’ says Neander, ‘was itself the origin of the whole system of the Roman Catholic religion – the germ from which sprang the popery of the Dark Ages” (The Church, the Falling Away, and the Restoration 55).

Note the following:

1) Most church historians admit that the NT only provides for elders and deacons. There are no other positions or terms to describe them. But Kuiper says, “it was natural that … one of the presbyters should take the lead.” And therein lies the seed of apostasy. When we do what comes naturally to us, carnal principles and procedures dominate and must be rationalized in the absence of NT teaching. If we are going to be the “church of Christ,” we must follow the teaching of Christ.

2) Some of the first departures arise from men converted and taught by the apostles themselves. This shows how quickly apostasy can take root, and it illustrates how important it is to repeatedly teach the truth and adhere to it against unauthorized innovations.

3) The elders at Centreville want no part in corrupting this divine arrangement. Neither Jim nor Rick have any personal ambitions that would place one above the other or would serve themselves above the congregation. Centreville is the Lord’s church, not “our” church or any other man’s, and it is our intention to honor and glorify Him by leading as many people into eternal fellowship with Him as possible. No more, and no less.