If contemporary pastors were absent from the early church, where did they come from? And how did they rise to such a prominent position in the Christian faith? The roots of this tale are tangled and complex, and they reach as far back as the fall of man.
With the Fall came an implicit desire in people to have a physical leader to bring them to God. For this reason, human societies throughout history have consistently created a special caste of revered religious leaders. The medicine man, the shaman, the rhapsodist, the miracle worker, the witch doctor, the soothsayer, the wise man, and the priest have all been with us since Adam's blunder." And this person is always marked by special training, special garb, a special vocabulary, and a special way of life."
We can see this instinct rear its ugly head in the history of ancient Israel. It made its first appearance during the time of Moses. Two servants of the Lord, Eldad and Medad, received God's Spirit and began to prophesy. In hasty response, a young zealot urged Moses to "restrain them" (Numbers 11:26-28, nasb). Moses reproved the
Hanson, Christian Priesthood Examined, 34-35.
This word is the spelling into English letters of the Greek word for "elder" (presbuteros).
The terms overseers and servants were ecclesiasticized into the words bishops and deacons (Smith, From Christ to Constantine, 32). Christian Smith, Going to the Root, ch. 2-3: Jon Zens, The Pastor (St. Croix Falls, W(: Searching Together, 1981); Jon Zens, "The 'Clergy/Laity' Distinction: A Help or a Hindrance to the Body of Christ," Searching Together 23, no. 4 (1994). * "Christianity ... learnt from the example of pagan religions that most men find it difficult to understand or approach God without the aid of a man who in some sense stands for God, represents Him, and feels called to devote himself to this representative ministry" (Hanson, Christian Priesthood Examined, 100).
Walter Klassen, "New Presbyter Is Old Priest Writ Large," Concern 17 (1969): 5. See also W. Klassen, J. L. Burkholder, and John Yoder, The Relation of Elders to the Priesthood of Believers (Washington, DC: Sojourners Book Service, 1969).
young suppressor saying he wished all of God's people could prophesy. Moses had set himself against a clerical spirit that had tried to control God's people.
We see it again when Moses ascended Mount Horeb. The people wanted Moses to be a physical mediator between them and God because they feared a personal relationship with the Almighty (Exodus 20:19).
This fallen instinct made another appearance during the time of Samuel. God wanted His people to live under His direct headship. But Israel clamored for a human king instead (1 Samuel 8:19).
The seeds of the contemporary pastor can even be detected in the New Testament era. Diotrephes, who "love[d] to have the preeminence" in the church, illegitimately took control of its affairs (3 John 9-10). In addition, some scholars have suggested that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans that Jesus condemns in Revelation 2:6 is a reference to the rise of an early clergy.'
Alongside humanity's fallen quest for a human spiritual mediator is the obsession with the hierarchical form of leadership. All ancient cultures were hierarchical in their social structures to one degree or another. Regrettably, the postapostolic Christians adopted and adapted these structures into their church life as we shall see.
Up until the second century, the church had no official leadership. That it had leaders is without dispute. But leadership was unofficial in the sense that there were no religious "offices" or sociological slots to fill. New Testament scholarship makes this abundantly clear."
In this regard, the first-century churches were an oddity indeed.
F. W. Grant, Nicolaitanism or the Rise and Growth of Clerisy (Bedford , HA: MWTB, n.d.), 3-6. The Greek word nicolaitane means "conquering the people." Nikos means "to conquer over" and laos means "the people." Grant believes that Nicolaitans are those who make "laity" out of God's people by raising up "clergy" to lord it over them. See also Alexander Hay, What Is Wrong in the Church? (Audubon, NJ: New Testament Missionary Union, n.d.), 54.
■ See Banks, Paul's Idea of Community. These sources demonstrate clearly that "offices" have no analog in the Greek New Testament when referring to Christian leaders. We read these conventions of human sociological organization back into our New Testament.
They were religious groups without priest, temple, or sacrifice. 14 The Christians themselves led the church under Christ's direct headship. Leaders were organic, untitled, and were recognized by their service and spiritual maturity rather than by a title or an office.
Among the flock were the elders (shepherds or overseers). These men all had equal standing. There was no hierarchy among them." Also present were extra-local workers who planted churches. These were called "sent ones" or apostles. But they did not take up residency in the churches for which they cared. Nor did they control them." The vocabulary of New Testament leadership allows no pyramidal structures. It is rather a language of horizontal relationships that includes exemplary action."
Church leadership began to formalize at about the time of the death of the itinerant apostolic workers (church planters). In the late first and early second centuries, local presbyters began to emerge as the resident "successors" to the unique leadership role played by the apostolic workers. This gave rise to a single leading figure in each church1.8 Without the influence of the extra-local workers who had been mentored by the New Testament apostles, the church began to drift toward the organizational patterns of her surrounding culture.'
Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) was instrumental in this shift. He was the first figure in church history to take a step down the slippery slope toward a single leader in the church. We can trace the origin of the contemporary pastor and church hierarchy to him. Ignatius elevated one of the elders in each church above all the others.
James D. G. Dunn , New Testament theology in Dialogue (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 123, 127-129. (n the writings of the early church fathers, the words shepherd, overseer, and elder are always used interchangeably, as is the case in the New Testament. F. F. Bruce states, "That the language of the New Testament does not allow us to press a distinction between the Greek word translated 'bishop' (episkopos) and that translated 'elder' (presbyteros) need not be argued at length. Paul could address the assembled elders of the church of Ephesus as those whom the Holy Spirit had made bishops. Later, in the Pastoral Epistles (those to Timothy and Titus), the two terms still appear to be used interchangeably" ( The Spreading Flame [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19581 65). In fact, bishops, elders, and shepherds (always in the plural) continue to be regarded as identical in the writings of 1 Clement, the Didache, and The Shepherd of Hermas. They were seen as identical up until the beginning of the second century. See also Mackinnon, Calvin and the Reformation, 80-81; Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 169-173. See Viola, Reimagining Church for details.
1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:9; 1 Timothy 4:12: 1 Peter 5:3.
Ferguson, Early Christians Speak. 172.
IH In his book To Preach or Not to Preach? David Norrington gives an in-depth discussion of how hierarchical structures and ecclesiastical specialists began to emerge in the church (pp. 24-25).
The elevated elder was now called the bishop. All the responsibilities that belonged to the college of elders were exercised by the bishop.'
In AD 107, Ignatius wrote a series of letters when on his way to be martyred in Rome. Six out of seven of these letters strike the same chord. They exalt the authority and importance of the bishop's office!'
According to Ignatius, the bishop had ultimate power and should be obeyed absolutely. Consider the following excerpts from his letters: "Plainly therefore we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself. . . . All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father. . . . Wherever the bishop shall appear, there will the people be; even as where Jesus may be. . . . It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love feast; but whatever he shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God. . . . It is good to recognize God and the bishop. He that honors the bishop is honored of God. . . . Do nothing without the bishop. . . . Therefore as the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united with Him, either by Himself or by the Apostles, so neither do you anything without the bishop and the presbyters. . . . You should look on your bishop as a type of the Father.'
For Ignatius, the bishop stood in the place of God while the presbyters, or elders, stood in the place of the twelve apostles." It fell to the bishop alone to celebrate the Lord's Supper, conduct baptisms, give counsel, discipline church members, approve marriages, and preach sermons."
The elders sat with the bishop at the Lord's Supper. But it was the bishop who presided over it. He took charge of leading public prayers
Ferguson, Earty Christians Speak, 173. a Bruce, Spreading Flame, 203-204.
-- Epistle to the Ephesians, 6:1; Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8:1-2; Epistle to the Philadelphians, 7:1; Epistle to the Magnesians, 7:1; Epistle to the Trallians, 3:1. Ignatius's epistles are replete with this sort of language. See Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Dorset Press, 1968), 75-130.
Edwin Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 18951, 106, 185; Early Christian Writings, 88. Hatch's book shows that the gradual evolution of the organization of the church and various elements of that organization were borrowed from Greco-Roman society. ^ Robert M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, vol. 11 (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), 58, 171.
and ministry." Only in the most extreme cases could a layman take the Lord's Supper without the bishop present." For the bishop, said Ignatius, must "preside" over the elements and distribute them.
In Ignatius's mind, the bishop was the remedy for dispelling false doctrine and establishing church unity." Ignatius believed that if the church would survive the onslaught of heresy, it had to develop a rigid power structure patterned after the centralized political structure of Rome." Single-bishop rule would rescue the church from heresy and internal strife.'
Historically this is known as the "monoepiscopate" or "the monarchical episcopacy." It is the type of organization where the bishop is distinguished from the elders (the presbytery) and ranks above them.
At the time of Ignatius, the one-bishop rule had not caught on in other regions.' But by the mid-second century, this model was firmly established in most churches.' By the end of the third century, it prevailed everywhere."
The bishop eventually became the main administrator and distributor of the church's wealth." He was the man responsible for teaching the faith and knowing what Christianity was all about.' The congregation, once active, was now rendered passive. God's people merely watched the bishop perform.
In effect, the bishop became the solo pastor of the church35—the professional in common worship." He was seen as the spokesperson
R.Alastair Campbell, The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994), 229. Hatch, Organzation of the Early Christian Churches, 124. Ibid., 100.
Kenneth Strand, "The Rise of the Monarchical Episcopate," in Three Essays on Early Church History (Ann Arbor, Mk Braun-Brumfield, 1967); Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 175. '' Hanson, Christian Priesthood Examined, 69; Early Christian Writings, 63-72.
* Bruce, Spreading Flame, 66-69; Niebuhr and Williams, Ministry in Historical Perspectives, 23-25. When Ignatius wrote his letters, the one-bishop rule was being practiced in such Asian cities as Ephesus, Philadelphia, Magnesia, and Smyrna. But it had not yet reached Greece or cities in the West, such as Rome. It appears that the one-bishop rule moved in a westward direction from Syria across the Empire.
Hanson, Christian Priesthood Examined, 67; Bruce, Spreading Flame, 69.1. B. Lightfoot's "The Christian Ministry" in Saint Paul's
Epistle to the Philippians (Wheaton, IL Crossway, 1994) offers, in Frank's opinion, the most satisfactory explanation of the historical evidence of how the bishop gradually developed out of the presbytery.
Niebuhr and Williams, Ministry in Historical Perspectives, 25.
S.L Greenslade, Shepherding the Flock (London: SCM Press, 1967), 8.
Hanson, Christian Priesthood Examined, 68.
Hatch, Growth of Church Institutions, 35.
White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 65-66.
and head of the congregation and the one who controlled all church activities. In short, he was the forerunner of the contemporary pastor.
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