Early Church Government

Dr. Brian Allison

This paper will briefly treat the nature of the early church government. My method will consist of examining some of the early church documents. I will cite extensively the relevant statements which pertain to the topic, and provide some analysis and commentary. My objective is to reasonably determine, by this brief treatment, how the early church government was structured and administered. Consequently, this study may serve as a criterion and informative as we consider our current forms of church government, especially that form with which we are personally associated and to which we ministerially adhere.

Perhaps the earliest extra-Biblical church document which refers to church government is Clement's "First Epistle to the Corinthians" (c. AD 95)1. In this epistle, Clement refers to church leaders as presbyters. They were to rule over the flock of Christ, and "the flock of Christ [was] to be at peace with its duly appointed presbyters" (36). Yet, in providing the background teaching for the recognized offices in the church, Clement uses the term 'bishop'. He states, "So preaching everywhere in country and town, they [apostles] appointed their first- fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons" (31). Clement uses the terms 'presbyter' and 'bishop' interchangeably, and seems to suggest that there are only two sanctioned offices in the church - the episcopate and the diaconate. For Clement, the presbyters (elders) occupied the office of the episcopate (overseer). He informs:

Moreover, from his statement that 'the consent of the whole Church' was required for the And our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the name of the bishop's office . . . Those therefore who were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered unblameably to the flock of Christ in lowliness of mind, peacefully and with all modesty, and for long time have borne a good report with all - these men we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration. For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have offered the gifts of the bishop's office unblameably and holily. Blessed are those presbyters who have gone before, seeing that their departure was fruitful and ripe; for they have no fear lest any one should remove them from their appointed place. For we see that ye have displaced certain persons, though they were living honourably, from the ministration which had been respected by them blamelessly (32) (italics mine).

Moreover, from his statement that 'consent of the whole Church' was required for the installment of personnel to the episcopate, Clement suggests that each local congregation had its own episcopate. The 'whole Church' could not possibly mean the universal church.

The epistles of Ignatius (c.35 - c.108 AD) were written near the end of his life.2 In referring to church government, Ignatius uses both the terms 'presbyter' and 'bishop', but he indicates that each church has only one bishop, yet a plurality of presbyters. In writing to the Philadelphians, he states, "[W]hich church I salute . . . more especially if they be at one with the bishop and the presbyters who are with him . . . there is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants" (79f.). Seemingly, for Ignatius, each local congregation, rather than a diocesan of churches, should have one bishop and a plurality of presbyters.3 So, in further writing to the Philadelphian church, he remarks:

[I]t hath been reported to me that the church which is in Antioch of Syria hath peace, it is becoming for you, as a church of God, to appoint a deacon to go thither as God's ambassador, that he may congratulate them when they are assembled together, and may glorify the Name . . . Now if ye desire it, it is not impossible for you to do this for the name of God; even as the churches which are nearest have sent bishops, and others presbyters and deacons (81) (italics mine).

For Ignatius, the bishop, together with the assistance and support of the presbyters, is to rule over the church. Thus, he exhorts the church of Ephesus, "[T]hat being perfectly joined together in one submission, submitting yourselves to your bishop and presbytery, ye may be sanctified in all things . . . For your honourable presbytery, which is worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as its strings to a lyre" (64); and in his epistle to the Trallians, he writes, "For it becometh you severally, and more especially the presbyters, to cheer the soul of your bishop unto the honour of the Father [and to the honour] of Jesus Christ and of the Apostles" (75).

Ignatius has a extremely high regard for the bishopric. He avers, "Let us therefore be careful not to resist the bishop, that by our submission we may give ourselves to God . . . Plainly therefore we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself" (64f.); again, "Do nothing without the bishop" (81). Though Ignatius distinguishes between the bishop and the presbyters, the distinction appears to be essentially one of position, and not one of function. He indicates a parity between them. In writing to the Magnesians, he commends the deacon Zotion "for that he is subject to the bishop as unto the grace of God and to the presbytery as unto the law of Jesus Christ" (69); and further commends the presbytery for "not tak[ing] advantage of the youthfulness of the bishop, but rather giv[ing] place to him as to one prudent in God; yet not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, even to the Bishop of all" (69). For Ignatius, the bishop has the responsibility to preside over the affairs and life of the church as "one whom the Master of the household sendeth to be steward over His own house" (65), providing practical headship,4 and the presbyters have the responsibility to work harmoniously with the bishop as they both rule together. So he writes:

Seeing then that in the aforementioned persons I beheld your whole people in faith and embraced them, I advise you, be ye zealous to do all things in godly concord, the bishop presiding after the likeness of God and the presbyters after the likeness of the council of the Apostles, with the deacons also who are most dear to me, having been entrusted with the diaconate of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the worlds and appeared at the end of time (70).

This parity of function is clearly suggested by Ignatius when he states, "Let there be nothing among you which shall have power to divide you, but be ye united with the bishop and with them that preside over you as an ensample and a lesson of incorruptibility" (70) (italics mine). In their presiding function, for Ignatius, the bishop and presbyters have universal authority. He instructs, "Therefore as the Lord did nothing without the Father, [being united with Him], either by Himself or by the Apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and the presbyters" (70). Ignatius similarly writes to the Trallians, "For when ye are obedient to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, it is evident to me that ye are living not after men but after Jesus Christ . . . that ye should do nothing without the bishop; but be ye obedient also to the presbytery, as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope" (73). The language Ignatius uses of the bishop and presbyters seems interchangeable, though a practical distinction exists between them.

For Ignatius, the relationship between the bishop and the presbyters is likened to that of Jesus Christ with His disciples, but this analogy seems to be a loose one. In writing to the Smyrnaeans, he exhorts, "Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal Church" (84). Yet, he also exhorts, "In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church" (73). Ignatius' use of this analogy is not to emphasize the authority relationship between the bishop and the presbyters, but rather to emphasize the authority relationship between the leadership and the congregation. The leadership that presides over the congregation has the structure of a president and a "council" (81), but the president assumes a directive status, not a monarchial one; the president has a special and privileged role in providing practical headship for the congregation and peculiarly representing the church before God. Therefore, Ignatius states:

Let no man do aught of things pertaining to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be held a valid eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God; that everything which ye do may be sure and valid (84).

Moreover, in writing to the bishop Polycarp, he instructs, "Let nothing be done without thy consent; neither do thou anything without the consent of God, as indeed thou doest not" (87). The bishop also was to give his consent to believers who wanted to be married in order for the marriage to be "after the Lord" (87).

The structure of the church, for Ignatius, consisted of three positions, not necessarily three offices, the bishop, the presbyter, and the deacon. He writes, "Give heed to the bishop and the presbytery and deacons" (80f.); and in writing to Polycarp, he exhorts, "Give ye heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. I am devoted to those who are subject to the bishop, the presbyters, the deacons" (87). The bishop and the presbytery occupied the same office, the episcopate, with the former assuming the role of a presidency and the latter that of a council.5 However, it seems that over time the concept of the episcopate, as well as the term 'bishop', became peculiarly identified with the leading or directing presbyter,6 though this was not the case during the New Testament period.7 There is a practical hierarchy.8 However, the church is to "obey the bishop and the presbytery without distraction of mind" (68), "submitting [itself] to the bishop as the commandment, and likewise also to the presbytery" (75); and to do nothing "without the bishop and presbyters (70)."

Polycarp (c.69 - 155 AD), in his epistle to the Philippians, suggests an alignment between the bishopric and the presbytery, though he, like Ignatius, seems to make a distinction between the two.9 He begins his epistle by: "Polycarp and the presbyters that are with him unto..." (95). Polycarp seems to identify only two offices in the church. He teaches, "Wherefore it is right to abstain from all these things, submitting yourselves to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ" (97). He presents qualifications pertaining to each of these offices, and he includes himself among the presbytery. He states, "And the presbyters also must be compassionate, merciful towards all men . . . If then we entreat the Lord that He would forgive us, we also ought to forgive" (97).

The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) is a church manual of primitive Christianity.10 It was written about 145 AD. In this church manual, only two church offices are mentioned, namely, the episcopate and the diaconate. The unknown author instructs, "Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord . . . for unto you they also perform service of the prophets and teachers" (128). Now, if this manual was employed to guide local church practices, this unknown author seems to contradict Ignatius by teaching the validity, and even necessity, of a plurality of presbyters. This seeming contradiction is resolved if it is true that, generally speaking, the terms 'bishop' and 'presbyter' may be used interchangeably. Presbyters are bishops, but for the sake of orderliness and decency one presbyter was apparently appointed as the bishop, providing practical and administrative headship.

In the ancient work The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140 AD), there are a number of references to church government.11 For Hermas, "the elders . . . preside over the Church" (169). In referring to the various officers in the church, Hermas makes reference to two, namely, the deacon and the bishop (236f.). The implication that can be drawn is that for Hermas, bishops were elders or presbyters.

Irenaeus (c.130 - c.202 AD) offers a rather illuminating statement for consideration in his Against Heresies.12 In countering the heretics' failure to adhere to the Scriptures and tradition, he impugns:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth . . . It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times . . . For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men (italics mine).13

For Irenaeus, the succession of presbyters is synonymous with the succession of bishops. The bishop of the church was apparently a presbyter who had been appointed to a special role which entailed particular responsibilities.

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c.213) also uses the terms 'bishop' and 'presbyter' interchangeably.14 Eusebius makes reference to Clement's discourse, entitled "What Rich Man is Saved?" in which these terms are used. Clement states:

When he [apostle John] came, therefore, to one of those cities, at no great distance, of which some also give the name, and had in other respects consoled his brethren, he at last turned towards the bishop ordained [appointed], and seeing a youth of fine stature, graceful countenance, and ardent mind, he said, "Him I commend to you with all earnestness, in the presence of the church and of Christ." The bishop having taken him and promised all, he repeated and testified the same thing, and then returned to Ephesus. The presbyter taking the youth home that was committed to him, educated, restrained, and cherished him, and at length baptized him (italics mine).15

A number of conclusions can be drawn from this brief treatment of the nature of the early church government. First, the terms 'bishop' and 'presbyter' were generally viewed as being interchangeable. Second, the term 'bishop' came to be particularly used for the presiding presbyter. Third, presumably each church had one bishop and a council of presbyters, along with deacons. Fourth, both the bishop and the presbyters were to preside over the affairs and life of the congregation. Fifth, the bishop was to provide practical headship or direction for the church. Sixth, the government of the early church was autonomous in practice, presbyterian in administration, and episcopal in structure.





1Clement (c.30 - c.97 AD) was the third bishop of the Roman Christians. This Clement is apparently the one referred to by the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:3. The occasion for the writing was that some envious and jealous people had stirred up strife and dissension in the congregation, causing a schism, so that some of the church members had become seditious against their presbyters. Clement writes, "It is shameful, dearly beloved, yes, utterly shameful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ, that it should be reported that the very steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians, for the sake of one or two persons, maketh sedition against its presbyters . . . Ye therefore that laid the foundation of the sedition, submit yourselves unto the presbyters and receive chastisement unto repentance, bending the knees of your heart." J. B. Lightfoot, "The Epistle of S. Clement to the Corinthians," The Apostolic Fathers, ed. J. R. Harmer (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1976), pp. 33,37. Subsequent page references will be noted by insertion in the actual text. All other references to the Apostolic Fathers' writings will be taken from Lightfoot's work.

2Ignatius was most likely a native of Syria. He was probably a pupil of the apostle John. He became the second (possibly the third) bishop of Antioch in Syria. He was arrested in the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 - 117 AD) and was taken to Rome as a condemned prisoner. He was martyred there by wild beasts in the colosseum. On his way to Rome, Ignatius wrote seven epistles to different churches and Polycarp. In these epistles, Ignatius endeavoured to counter the errors of the Judaizers and Docetists. He warns of spiritual perils and exhorts to unity.

3Williston Walker, construing the function of the bishop in monarchial terms in the writings of Ignatius, observes, "The monarchial bishopric is not yet diocesan, it is the headship of the local church, or, at most, of the congregations of a single city." A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons), p. 42. Roland Bainton notes that "the Apostle Paul in his oversight of the new congregations exercised the functions of the later diocesan bishop. The term 'bishop' in the early period was not applied to a general superintendent but to the pastor of a local congregation." Early Christianity (Malabar: Robert E. Krieger Pub. Co., 1984), p. 39. W. H. C. Frend maintains that the monarchial episcopacy, as well as apostolic succession began with James, the half brother of Jesus Christ, who presided over the Jerusalem Church. The Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 39. Eusebius (c.260 - c.340 AD) states, "James being the first that received the dignity of the episcopate at Jerusalem, from our Saviour himself, as the sacred Scriptures show that he was generally called the brother of Christ." Ecclesiastical History, tr. Christian Frederick Cruse (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1955), p. 289.

4cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, pp. 141f.

5Frend remarks, "Just as each synagogue had its ruler, or board of rulers, so each church had its bishop or perhaps a board of presbyter-bishops, among whom there must always have been a president." Early Church, p. 40.

6Roland Bainton states, "Pastoral care might be exercised by several persons, and there are indications that in certain churches a collegiate government was administered by men who were known a presbyters, or elders, because of their age, or as bishops, or overseers, because of their function. But only one person at a time could preside at the Lord's Supper, and it was perhaps out of this need that there arose the institution of a single bishop in one community." Christendom, Vol. I (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966), p. 56.

7For instance, Luke records, "And from Miletus he [the apostle Paul] sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders [i.e., presbyters - presbuterous] of the church. And when they had come to him he said to them, "...Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [i.e., bishops - episkopous], to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:17,18a,28).

8In his section entitled "The Book of Martyrs," Eusebius makes an interesting statement. He records, "After this, on the fifth of the month Dius, on the nones of November, Roman style, in the same city, Silvanus, who was yet a presbyter, became a confessor, and not long after he was both honoured with the episcopate, and finally crowned with martyrdom." Ecclesiastical History, p. 360. A presbyter became eligible for the special role in the episcopate.

9Polycarp was born at Smyrna. Apparently, he was personally instructed by the apostle John at Ephesus. He was a friend of Ignatius and a teacher of Irenaeus. He became the bishop of Smyrna. He was martyred by burning at the stake during the reign of Antoninus Pius.

10This book provided regulations and procedures for church practice and discipline. It was mostly likely written in Egypt or Syria.

11All that is known about the author is the autobiographical references in the work itself. Hermas is the narrator in the composition. The Shepherd is the divine teacher who communicates spiritual truth to Hermas who is to disseminate it by way of instruction to the Church. Apparently, the work was considered inspired by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian.

12Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons. His early Christian training was under Polycarp. Against Heresies is a polemical work mainly against Gnosticism, written in about 180 AD. In this work , Irenaeus deals specifically with the episcopate, in reference to guardianship over the interpretation of Scripture, in order to counter the claims of the Gnostics to the possession of secret oral traditions.

13lrenaeus, "Against Heresies," The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1987), III, 2, ii; III, 3, i.

14Clement was a Christian theologian and apologist, and became the second known leader and teacher of the catechetical school of Alexandria.

15Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, p. 105.