A major concern of the Apostle Paul was “the care of all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Christians, though called out of the world, are still human. They do have a nature that constantly causes problems. These problems often affect the Church and its membership. The Church that Christ built would never die (Matt. 16:18), but it would not be perfect. Paul warned the Ephesian elders: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29-31).
The Church and the ministry are important in bringing Christians to perfection (Eph. 4:11-14). Did Christ make provision for this? Is there someone physically responsible for nurturing the Church?
Directing the Church
Jesus told Peter: ” . . . I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). This instruction was expanded to include all the Apostles (Matt. 18:17). Christ added: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 18). Jesus made plain that there was to be direction in His Church.
Examples of binding are clearly seen in the book of Acts. The Apostles, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, chose Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:26). Gentiles were accepted on equal terms as Christian brethren (Acts 11:18). Gentiles were not required to practice many customs of the Jews (Acts 15:10-21).
In the matter of retaining sins, consider the following examples. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:4-10). A fornicator was excommunicated from the Corinthian Church (1 Cor. 5:5). Hymenaeus and Alexander were delivered to Satan for their blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:17). Paul told the Corinthians who had sinned, ” . . . if I come again, I will not spare” (2 Cor. 13:2). Timothy was instructed: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). He admonished Titus: “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man [disregard] thee” (Titus 2:15). Paul wrote to the Hebrews: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God (v. 7).
Who Is the Head?
Paul wrote of Christ: “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18). The Apostle Peter referred to Christ as the chief Shepherd: ” . . . And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Pet. 5:4). Does this mean that Christ only directs the Church? Of course not! Else why would He have inspired examples of supervision by the ministry?
While Peter played a dominant role in the early New Testament Church, he was not the head. Jesus Christ was! Peter disappeared from the scene after Acts 12, and later the Apostle James-the physical brother of Christ-exercised the predominant role in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13, 19). So there are physical servants of God who make decisions. While Peter was a pillar, he was one of a group of Apostles who were given jurisdiction by Christ. The word “apostle” means “one bearing authority.” The Apostle Paul fulfilled this capacity as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Early traditions testify that most of the Apostles, mentioned only a short time in the book of Acts, went to all parts of the earth.
With the betrayal and death of Judas Iscariot, a replacement was needed. The Apostles appointed two candidates to take his office. Both met the stringent qualifications they had set. “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias” (Acts 1:21-23). Since the Apostles could not be sure of God’s choice, they cast lots. “And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, translated and edited by W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, page 436, shows that the words ” they gave forth their lots” should be rendered “they gave them (the candidates) lots.” The Apostles determined who the candidates should be, and God made the decision known by means of lots.
In Acts six we see an example of the manner in which the Apostles chose deacons. A problem arose because Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in their daily needs. “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy [Spirit] and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:2-3). The Apostles determined who should be qualified for this office, but allowed the believers to choose the ones they knew were the most responsible.
The Apostles said:
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:4-6)
The Apostles at Jerusalem also exercised a pecuniary responsibility. “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:34-35).
In some Church areas it became the responsibility of the Apostles to make administrative decisions. See, for example, Acts 19:22, Ephesians 6:21-22, and Philippians 2:19, 25 where ministers were transferred, moved, or shifted about in order to take care of the needs of the Church. Paul often relied on the advice of the brethren when making various decisions (I Cor. 16:3).
The above examples illustrate that while Christ is the Head of the Church, He did delegate responsibilities of oversight and decision-making to men who were chosen as His servants. What is obvious is that those who were appointed to offices by the Apostles did exercise responsibilities.
Was There a Rank System?
The only ordained ministerial offices we find in the Apostolic Church are those of apostles, evangelists, and overseers [elders, bishops]. What about the belief that Ephesians 4:11 describes a descending rank system, with Apostles at the top and teachers at the bottom? Were there preaching elders, local elders, local-local elders, and deacons included in this pyramid structure of Church government? Does the New Testament teach this concept?
Jesus admonished His disciples as follows: ” . . . Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20:25-27). The end result of a ministerial rank system is “lording it over others.” Jesus said this must not be done (1 Pet. 5:3).
Ephesians 4:11 should be read in context. In Ephesians 4:8 we read: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.” What were these gifts? “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). These offices do not reflect ministerial ranks but appointees who possessed various abilities used to further the Work of God. In 1 Corinthians 12:28 we read: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” All of these “administrations” [services] were for the benefit of the Church. Peter, himself an Apostle, said he was an elder (1 Pet. 5:1), and Paul referred to himself as a preacher, apostle, and teacher (1 Tim 2:7).
The Apostles were chosen directly by Christ (Mark 3:14, Luke 6:13). Later, Christ chose Paul. In Antioch certain prophets and teachers were active in the Church. While the Holy Spirit directed Barnabas and Paul to begin the work in the Gentile world, before departing they had hands laid on them (Acts 13:2-3). In the Bible, the laying on of hands often signifies an ordination. Apostles ordained evangelists, and elders, or overseers, as well as overseeing the work of evangelists-ministers who traveled and evangelized (2 Tim 4:5, 1 Thess. 3:2). Evangelists, also, often ordained elders (Titus 1:5). Sick brethren often went to elders to be anointed for healing (Jas. 5:14). It follows then that these offices refer to responsibilities rather than to rank.
Origin of the Rank System
Since the New Testament shows there was no rank system, as we know it today, where did it come from? History tells us that the Emperor Constantine was largely responsible for the establishment of a vast ecclesiastical government.
What does history say about a rank system within that government? Note the following:
The investigation up to this point places us in position to see there is in the New Testament no warrant for ecclesiastical grades in the ministry of the churches, by which there may he created an ascending series of rulers who shall govern the churches merged into one vast ecclesiastical organization called “the church.” So also we are in position to see that there is no warrant for an ascending series of courts which may review any ‘case’ that originates in a local church. We may see, on the contrary, that to each local church has been committed by Christ the management of its own affairs; and that He had endowed every such church with ecclesiastical competency to perform every function that any ecclesiastical body has a right to perform. . . . While each local church, according to the N. T. is independent of every other in the sense that no other has jurisdiction over it, yet cooperative relations were entered into by N.T. churches. (International Standard Bible Encvclopedia., art. “Church Government”)
In the above statement the author is considering nearly a 300-year period. What is excluded in his analysis is what took place during the first five decades of the Christian Church. These five decades are recorded in the book of Acts and in Paul’s epistles. After that period we have little history, except scant secular sources, as a basis for evaluation. This article will prove that while the early New Testament Churches often acted independently in the administrative sense, supervision was established which clearly regulated doctrine, unity, and cooperation.
In this same source we read:
The middle of the third century witnessed two changes in the ministry of the church. One was multiplication of orders and the other the growth of a hierarchy; and while many causes went to produce these changes it can hardly be doubted that they were at least partly due to the imitation of pagan temple usages where persons who performed corresponding services were included among the temple ministry and had due share of the temple revenues. In the institution of a graded hierarchy including metropolitans and patriarchs, the churches probably followed the example of the great pagan organization called forth by the Imperial cult of the Divi and Divae. (The (Church and the Ministry, Lindsay. p. 335ff)
The authority Mommsen remarks, “The conquering Christian Church took its hierarchic weapon from the arsenal of the enemy (Intl. Standard Bible Ency., art. “Ministry”).
The Church that Jesus built did not establish a hierarchical system of ministerial ranks. This was an addition to what remained of the original Church during the third and fourth centuries AD.
The New Testament Ministry
Christ appointed the Apostles. Acts six relates the first New Testament ordinations apart from the Apostles. This was the ordination of the seven chosen as “deacons,” though the word deacon is not used, and nowhere are they called deacons. Because the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in their daily needs, these men were given the responsibility of “waiting on tables,” that is, they were placed in charge of seeing that the needs of these widows were taken care of. But these men may have been ordained for responsibilities beyond that of waiting on tables, as Stephen performed miracles and was an ardent preacher (Acts 6:8, 10). Also, Philip was instrumental in bringing many of the Samaritans to conversion and later he is called an evangelist (Acts 8:5-6; 21:8). The words deacon/deacons, used only a few times, refer to an office (1 Tim. 3:10, Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim 3:8). Take a look at the word “deacon.” It is from the Greek word diakonos, which means “one who renders service,” “an attendant,” “servant,” “one who executes a commission,” “a deputy.” Contrary to what reference works may say deacons were not commissioned ministers or preachers of the gospel. While this view was applied to the seven in Acts 6, this is by inference only since they are not called deacons. With its various cognates, diakonos is used widely in the New Testament, and even Christ and Paul are referred to as belonging to the diakonate, as were Timothy and Tychicus. Scholars have used the word to apply to the ministry. Since ordinations require the laying on of hands, such a responsibility as preaching the gospel would certainly require the approval of the supervisory ministry.
In Ephesians 4:12, we find that gifts or offices were given “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry [diakonias], for the edifying of the body of Christ.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article “Bishop,” states: “Indeed there appear to have been many degrees of ministry in the infant church . . . For this reason, while the different persons who composed the body of Christian ministers did not overlap or infringe on each other’s work, yet the relative rank or priority of each minister was not clearly defined.” 1 Timothy 3:8-13 indicates a service that was less than that of a bishop. In verse eight, rather than the word deacon, the translation should simply read, “those who serve.” The reader should be aware that the Authorized Version was translated many hundreds of years after a hierarchical system had been established in the visible church, and this is the reason the word deacon is applied to the seven in Acts 6. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article “Deacon,” states “the obvious conclusion is that the seven may be called the first deacons only in the sense that they were the earliest recorded helpers of the twelve as directors of the church, and that they served in the capacity, among others, of specially appointed ministrants to the poor.”
Overseers or Elders
Overseers or elders held a ministerial office. The terms elder and bishop are used interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28, Titus 1:5,7). What is clear is that they served in local areas and did not travel, as did evangelists. Apostles or evangelists appointed (ordained) them. 1 Peter 5:1 applies the term elder in a broad manner. While the Apostle Paul said that one who desired to be a bishop desired a good work, there were stringent requirements.
This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim. 3:1-7)
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1:5-9)
Elders had to be apt to teach and to be men of faith, as they often anointed the sick in order for them to be healed. They often participated in Church decisions (Acts 15:2), but their responsibility came from Apostles or evangelists and was limited to their local areas.
How Was the Church Supervised?
Apostolic authority is incontrovertible. But let us take a look at the diakonate. This broad term was applied to a number of men who served in various capacities. Members of the diakonate such as Timothy, Titus, Tychicus, Mark, Crescens, Demas, and others, often accompanied Paul and were given supervisory capacity in local areas. Titus, for example, was instructed: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5). Paul wrote Timothy “As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine,” (1 Tim. 1:3). Timothy functioned as an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5). Not everyone within this general class of servants had the same responsibility. An apostle designated this charge. Supervisory, administrative, and organizational authority were exercised by those empowered by either Apostles or evangelists. So was the responsibility of selecting, instructing, and correcting elders (1 Tim. 5:17, 19-20, 22). The lines of control went from apostles to specifically selected members of the diakonate (evangelists), and then to elders. Elders were to rule (superintend), as we read in 1 Timothy 5:17. But they were under the direction of apostles or evangelists. Deacons, of course, would serve under the supervision of elders. The Bible emphasizes that deacons ” . . . well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13).
The highly structured hierarchical ladder employed by numerous churches today is not found in the New Testament. There is no evidence that one could ascend a hierarchical ladder. The ladder of spiritual success in the New Testament Church was dedication to service, not to office. Those who minister were to “wait on ministering” (Rom 12:7). Members of the diakonate often received a divine call (1 Tim. 1:12, 18, Acts 20:24), and any change in responsibility was made clear by divine revelation (Acts 13:1). Both Paul and Barnabas were originally designated as prophets or teachers, but later were called apostles (Acts 14:14). Success in service to God was a lifetime of service and devotion to the Work of God.
Instruction to the Church
In the Apostolic Church members were zealous for the Work of God. This, of course, required teamwork. There was a bond of peace and cooperation. Over a period of time, however, problems developed. Sometimes these problems required direct intervention on the part of the ministry. There are three areas that are of major concern. The ministry has the responsibility of preventing or stopping heresy. It has the responsibility of maintaining peace among the brethren and preventing divisiveness. And it is the responsibility of the ministry to put a stop to any blatant sin that may be occurring among the members.
We have already seen that control was established in the Church (Matt. 18). Also the Church was expected to bind and loose, and to remit or retain sins (John 20:23). But this binding and loosing must be in accordance with God’s Word. In the matter of disputes between brethren, Christ gave explicit instruction. He stated that if the difficulty could not be resolved between the parties, it should be brought before the Church. This does not mean before the membership. Many issues are of a personal nature and do not directly concern the members. If the difficulty is not resolved, the matter should be taken to the ministry for a solution. The ministry is responsible for maintaining peace and order (Matt. 18:17).
There were times when the Apostle Paul had to exercise the authority he possessed. Some of these admonitions were mentioned earlier in this article. He wrote to the Corinthians: “What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). “I told you before, and foretell you, as if I were present, the second time; and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare” (2 Cor. 13:2). He instructed Timothy: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). And he wrote Titus: “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee” (Titus 2:15).
The members of the Church have a responsibility also. Here is what Paul instructed the Romans: “Now I beseech you, brethren, [take note of] them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). A member in the Corinthian Church had to be put out of the Church. Paul instructed them: “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Later, upon the man’s repentance, Paul asked the Church to reinstate him (2 Cor. 2:6-11).
Paul also instructed the Corinthians:
I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. (1 Cor. 5:9-11)
In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul addresses another problem. “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are [disorderly] ” (v. 14).
In 2 Thessalonians 3 Paul admonished:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us . . . . For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. (vv. 6, 10-12)
In Titus 3:10, Paul wrote: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.”
And in 1 Timothy 6:3-5 we read:
If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself. (1 Tim. 6:3-5)
The above instructions are clear-cut. Keeping order in the manner directed is not a pleasant duty for the ministry. Many times it is painful.
Perhaps this is why Paul wrote:
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:12-13).
“Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their [conduct]” (Heb. 13:7).
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb.13:17).
“For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9).
“I beseech you, brethren, (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,) That ye submit yourselves unto such, and to every one that helpeth with us, and laboureth” (1 Cor. 16:15-16).
The information given in this article, and the many biblical examples, demonstrate the need for supervision and organization in the Church. They also demonstrate the responsibility of the brethren, and the commitment to be a help and inspiration to the ministry, not a burden and heartache. Let us follow the Apostle Paul’s admonishment: “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11).