Early Church History - 2

Last week we noted the early corruption of elevating one elder in a local church to a higher status above the others: “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. The Greek word for a man who rules alone is ‘monarch.’ For that reason these bishops, who came to have all the authority in a church, were called monarchical bishops” (B.K. Kuiper, The Church in History 54).

This change paralleled another departure from the original apostolic pattern: the independence and autonomy of the local church: “Churches were first established in the cities. From the cities Christianity spread among the heathen, or pagans, in the country. The converts from the country would attend church in the city. The city with its surrounding country district was called a diocese. Then the man who at first was bishop only of the city church became bishop of the diocese, and was called a diocesan bishop.

“There was also … a further development in the organization of the Church … Every diocese had its bishop. At first all bishops were of the same rank. No bishop had any judicial power over any other bishops … Gradually … one bishop, the bishop of Rome, acquired power over other bishops and in that way became pope.

“First of all the bishops of big churches in the large cities came to be looked upon as being of higher rank than the bishops of smaller churches. They came to be called metropolitan bishops. Then in the course of time, the churches of five of the cities came to be regarded as having very special importance. These cities were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. The bishops of the churches in these cities came to be called patriarchs. The first four cities were all in the eastern and Greek part of the Empire. Rome alone was in the western and Latin part of the Empire.

“Now the bishop of Rome began gradually to have more influence than the other four. All the churches … held the church in Jerusalem in very high regard. That church was located in the city where Christ had been crucified, had died and risen again … A church had been there when as yet there was no church anywhere else … The church in Jerusalem … was among all the churches unique. Gradually, however … Jerusalem was eclipsed by new churches established in other cities.

“Entirely different was the case of the church in Antioch. There the followers of Jesus had first been called Christians … There the work of missions among the gentiles had its beginnings. The center of gravity … had shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch. The church in Jerusalem had become a grandmother, but the church in Antioch was the mother of a multitude of churches in Asia Minor and Greece. Antioch had many notable bishops, and it had become the seat of an important school of theological thought.

“Although the church in Alexandria could not claim apostolic origin … it was the second city in the Empire, the greatest seat of learning and culture, and for centuries far more splendid than Rome itself. There, too, flourished a famous theological school, in which Origen, the greatest scholar of the Church up to that time, had taught.

“Byzantium was an ancient town situated on the Bosporus … Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, had changed his residence from Rome to Byzantium. Then the town was renamed in his honor and called Constantinople. The church there could claim neither apostolic origin nor great antiquity. It owed its importance entirely to the fact that it was located in the city which had become the residence of the emperor.

“Rome was the first city in the Empire. Not only had Paul labored there, but according to tradition the church in Rome had been founded by the apostle Peter. To that apostle Christ had entrusted the keys, and it was claimed that Peter had transmitted the power of the keys to the bishops of Rome. In almost every controversy the churches – east as well as west – had appealed to the bishop at Rome … In all the western part of the Empire there was no church that could even begin to think about rivaling the church in Rome. As far back as around the year 185 Irenaeus had written in his book Against Heresies, that every church must agree with the church in Rome … There was strenuous opposition sometimes to the claims of the bishop of Rome, but in the end the churches in the West acknowledged his supremacy ... The papacy had come into existence” (ibid 82-84).

1. There is absolutely no organizational structure in the NT beyond a local church – not a diocese, convention of churches, mother church, national headquarters, etc. The networking of churches and centralization of power is human-based and completely counter to God’s intent for His church.

2. Part of the prestige of city-churches was often a school of theology populated by eloquent scholars. Such men were given undue respect and to them was surrendered the thinking of the masses (more on this next week).

3. The overall effect of carnal rivalries, abdication of autonomy, deference to “intellectuals” and the attraction to dynamic, confident leaders was the creation of a massive church bureaucracy ambitious for centralized control. The same tendencies exist among so-called Christianity today.