If there is one thing that is consistently inconsistent amongst the various denominations, it is Church government. It would be very time consuming to look at each denomination and point out the errors or to define their governmental systems, so I will speak generally and not specifically. The traditional Church has at least three tiers of ordained leadership. (Bishop, Priest, and Deacon) Most fundamentalist denominations subscribe to a two-tier system. (Elder and Deacon.) Some have a pseudo-three-tier system and have Pastor/Senior Elder, Elder, and Deacon. Most fundamentalist churches are congregational in style. That is, one congregation is (supposedly) independent from another congregation. That is why that some of the denominations that are ultra-congregational have churches that are only a few blocks from one another if not right across the street from one another. (Yes, I have seen this.) The traditional Church is territorial. That is, a bishop or bishops will oversee several congregations in a geographical area most often called a diocese, though on very rare occasions, territories will overlap. The majority of fundamentalists shun the diocesan system. They say that this style of government is inconsistent with the testimony of scripture. In particular it is the traditional office of Bishop that comes under attack. This goes back to the earliest days of the reformation. Many (not all) of the first reformers rejected the office of Bishop as unscriptural or anti-scriptural. Many felt bishops to be power hungry, gluttonous, condemned oafs. And indeed after the American Revolution there was an anti-bishop sentiment. They had just rid themselves of the Monarchy and the bishop was a reminder of that system.
Many who are opposed to the traditional concept of bishop will usually point to a few verses of scripture to make their point. First will is I Timothy Ch. 3, in which the qualifications for "bishop" and "deacon" can be found. They point out that only two offices are mentioned. Next will be over to Titus Ch. 1 where Paul instructs Titus to "ordain elders in every city" he then goes on to describe this office as "bishop" giving us an equation of the two offices. Elder=Bishop. Next will be over to Philippians where Paul greets the congregation with "the bishops and deacons," again only two offices. Next, will be over to Acts 20:17&28 in which Paul calls the assembled elders "overseers or bishops" Thus many who oppose the traditional view of bishop will say that a bishop is only an elder and a few will go on to say that traditional bishops have usurped their power from the eldership.
Well, I think if we want to get to the bottom of this we will have to start from the beginning. On the day of Pentecost the Church had only one ordained office, that of Apostle. The origin of this office can be seen in this verse
And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, Mark 3:14
After the death of the Apostle Judas, it was deemed that his apostolic office was to continue.
For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. Acts 1:20
Matthias was chosen to take the place of Judas.
And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. Acts 1:26
One can also see from this that the Apostleship was to continue at least temporarily.
The next development came when the Church grew so much that it became impossible for the Apostles to oversee all their responsibilities. They deemed that deacons were to be ordained to assist them with the more menial tasks.
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 Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 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 6:2-6
Now we have two offices, Apostle and Deacon. As the Church grew even more, it became necessary to establish local rule over the spreading Church.
And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. Acts 14:23
So by roughly fifteen years after the day of Pentecost, we have three tiers of Church offices, Apostle, Elder, and Deacon. I think it prudent now to interrupt our time line and look at the words that describe these Church offices. First is "episkopos," which is translated bishop or overseer in the King James Version. Our English word "bishop" is a descendant of "episkopos." Next is "presbuteros," which is commonly translated "elder" in the KJV. Our English words presbyter and priest are descendants of this word. Lastly is the word "diakonos," translated deacon, minister, or servant in the King James. All are common Greek words. The New Testament writers were not kind to us in the sense that every time one of these words appears, it does not mean the same thing every time. As I stated above, some will equate "bishop" with "elder" in the New Testament writings. Many will also offer this as proof that the traditional office of Bishop is fictitious. The problem using an algebraic style equation with regards to "bishop & elder" is that scripture uses the term "bishop" to describe many things, not just one. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to make some more equations from scripture and see what we come up with.
Bishop=elder (Titus 1:5-7). Bishop=Apostle (Acts 1:20) Bishop=Messiah (I Peter 2:25)
Hopefully you can see the faultiness of making an algebraic equation of Elder=Bishop but if you are still hard headed we can have some more fun.
Apostle=Elder (I Peter 5:1) Apostle=Deacon (Ephesians 3:7) Apostle=Angel (Galatians 4:14)
I hope you can see how silly this is getting. By using our friend’s equation system, I can claim that if I am ordained a deacon, I automatically am ordained an elder, bishop, apostle, angel, and Messiah. Who’d a thunk it?
The problem is, we simply cannot make assumptions of the office being spoken of by the word used to describe that office or person. It may very well not even be an office at all that is being spoken of. All the words used to describe Christian offices are common words, generally used. In general a bishop (episkopos) is anyone who oversees. Not just an ordained person. A modern equivalent could be the word "boss." At work I have a boss. My boss may also have a boss over him. And if you throw in words like "manager" and "supervisor" depending the company, they can mean different things and be different positions. Company "A" may have a manager over a supervisor and company "B" it may be vice versa and each of these people can be called a boss. So we must look beyond simple equations if we are to govern our churches in the way God intends us to. Having said this, I think the testimony of scripture shows that there were indeed three offices. I Timothy Ch. 3 shows that two offices (Bishop and Deacon) existed and Titus Ch 1 shows us an equation of bishop=elder. Acts Ch. 15 gives us several examples of "Apostles and Elders" thus giving a distinction between the two offices. Though it must be noted that occasionally the term "elder" is used of both Apostles and elders. All in all though we are left with a testimony of three offices.
I will categorize them as such.
Anyway, let’s back to our history lesson. The next notable event in our time line is the ordination of Paul and Barnabas as apostles.
As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. Acts 13:2-3
And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Galatians 2:9
This is significant because this shows a true second generation of Apostle. Were Paul and Barnabas Apostles in the same sense as the twelve? I think the book of Acts will bear this out. The word "apostle" comes from the Greek word "apostolos," which commonly means messenger and thus can apply to an ordained Apostle as well as anyone who functions as a messenger. I will compare Paul to Phillip who is called the evangelist. I quoted Phillip’s ordination to the Deaconry above in Acts Chapter six. He later went and traveled the countryside preaching the Gospel and baptizing people. In a general sense he was an apostle, but was he an Apostle in the ordained sense? If you pay attention in Acts 8, you will see this passage.
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. Acts 8:14-17
Apparently Philip did not have the same privileges as the Apostles did. Though he baptized with water, he did not have the power to bestow the gifts of the Spirit. But if we look at Paul we should note this passage.
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. Acts 19:5-6
This testifies that Paul was indeed like the Twelve Apostles for he did have the power to bestow the gifts of the Spirit. Our next stop will be the Epistles.
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1:1
Paul, Silvanus, and Timotheus are recorded as authors of I Thessalonians. This is important because it testifies that along with Paul, these men spoke and wrote with the authority of the Holy Spirit. This trait is generally attributed to an Apostle. And indeed if we read on we’ll see.
Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ. 1 Thessalonians 2:6
So the testimony of Scripture is indeed that these men were Apostles in the same context as Paul and thus a third generation of Apostles is recorded. To me this is important because we must ask, was the office of Apostle to continue or was it to end? To me, the evidence of a third generation of Apostle in Scripture testifies that it indeed was to continue. So why are there no Apostles today? I will submit that there are indeed Apostles today and they are the traditional Bishop. This takes us to the detested doctrine of apostolic succession. Before I take off into this, I wish to issue a challenge to our friend’s systems. If congregationalism or its similar forms are closer to the Biblical system, then I will ask, what was Timothy doing in Ephesus? Huh? I will ask again, if the congregational system is the one testified to in scripture, does the Church at Ephesus conform to this doctrine? Having said this, lets look at the history of the Church at Ephesus. These dates are from the NIV Study Bible and as far as I know they are unattested. The Church at Ephesus was founded somewhere between AD 49-52. It was a well-founded Church because indeed Paul was there at least two years. (Acts 19:10) Indeed, it stayed a healthy Church because Paul calls for and commends the Elders at Ephesus some five years later. (Acts 20:17& 28) If we look on to I Timothy we find proposed dates for its authorship anywhere from AD 62 to AD 67. So at the least, Timothy was in Ephesus 10 years after the church there was founded if not up to 18 years. Ten to eighteen years is plenty of time to establish an independent church. So what was he doing there? We read in I Timothy that Timothy was sent to oversee the Church there. He was to oversee doctrine and ordination. These duties are most commonly associated with a "bishop". We also see that he was ordained. (I Timothy 4:14) and that gifts were bestowed upon him at this ordination. His duties are somewhat different from what is commonly viewed as an Apostle but his authority testifies to his Apostleship and Scripture confirms this. The new twist is that now the authority is over a well established church. This shouldn’t be all that unusual for it is congruent with the testimony of James in Acts 21: 18.
And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. Acts 21:18
And James is spoken in context of Apostleship.
But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Gal 1:19
Also consider the testimony about James in Acts 12:17, I Corinthians 15:7, and Galatians 2:9. I think that James functioned as a bishop over the Church at Jerusalem. Thus we have two possible examples of local administrators who functioned with authority over the eldership. If we look over to the book of Titus we find many similarities to I and II Timothy. We see that Titus is also given the authority to ordain, (Titus 1:5) as well as the authority to teach doctrine (Titus 2:1). Indeed, like Timothy, he was an Apostle/Bishop for the Isle of Crete (a diocese?) Also refer to II Corinthians 8:23 in which Titus is Identified as an Apostle. The last place I will take you is the Book of Revelation. In the opening chapters John addresses an "angel" in each of the seven towns he writes to. It is common doctrine that many code words are used in the Book of Revelation. One reason for this is that possibly if any of the letters fell into the wrong hands, it could mean further and more severe persecution to those it was addressed to. A common "code word" would be "Babylon" for the City of Rome. Babylon at that time had been long abandoned so it would be unlikely that John meant the Actual City of Babylon when he was writing his Revelations. His addressees would have well known that he was speaking of Rome. When John addresses the "angel" of a particular city, I do not think he is addressing a mystical or spiritual being but an actual person. If we look at the definition of "Angel" we find that in Greek it means "a messenger" which is almost identical to the definition of "apostle." which also means "messenger." St. Paul called himself an angel. (Galatians 4:14) I think that John is addressing the Apostle/Bishop of each of the towns he writes to. This brings us to the end of the testimony of scripture but history does continue. Before I go on with history, I would like to address whether or not the apostolic age was to come to an end. Most fundamentalists have some form of doctrine about the end of the apostolic age. Basically that with the writing of the Book of Revelation thus the closing of the cannon and the Death of John, the apostolic age came to an end. As proof they will site I Corinthians 13:10.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 1 Cor 13:8-10
You may recall that this verse was quoted in my chapter about scripture. With this in mind, I will not use the same argument that I used in that chapter. If we look at this passage as presented, then an end of an apostolic age could seem possible. Prophesy, tongues, and Spirit-inspired knowledge are all associated with apostolic ministry. Paul teaches that these will truly come to an end. This will happen "when that which is perfect is come." So what is Paul speaking of here? Our friends will have us believe the "That which is perfect" is speaking of the completion of the canon of the New Testament. I think I should point out that a recognized closed canon was not something that was specifically agreed upon in the early Church. St. Athanasius first recognized the cannon that we recognize today late in the fourth century. And the first official recognizing came at the council of Carthage in AD 395, three hundred years after the Book of Revelation was written. This is an aside, though, and I will stick to scripture. If we read on, we will read this.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Cor 13:12
I think that we still see through a glass darkly. If everything was clear, then why can’t anyone agree on anything, I ask myself. Do I know as I am known? The answer is a resounding "no." I can boast of no such ability. Many, many things are still a mystery to me. I think that if anyone can boast of such ability, they are severely misleading themselves and others. When I consider the phrase "face to face", as stated in my chapter on scripture that when this occurs in the New Testament, it is always a personal term. Not a person and an inanimate object or a person and a concept. I think the "face to face" is speaking of the return of our Savior, who will return in the flesh. This issues in the true New Age. Otherwise we will have to acknowledge that a minor dispensation has occurred with the passing of the Gifts. I shy away from anything that reeks of a minor dispensation. If you need more convincing then I would suggest you go back and read my chapter on scripture where this same verse and topic is discussed.
Now back to our history lesson. I left us at the testimony of the Book of Revelation. Most scholars have the Book of Revelation written on or about 95 AD. If we go to the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, some ten to twenty years later, we will find the three-tiered system of government not only mentioned but also asserted and indoctrinated.
"I believed, then, that I saw your whole congregation in these people I have mentioned, and I loved you all. Hence I urge you to aim to do everything in godly agreement. Let the bishop preside in God’s place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council, and let the deacons (my special favorites) be entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ who was with the Father from eternity and appeared at the end [of the world]." (Ignatius Epistle to the Magnesians)
This is one of many examples in Ignatius’s writings that testifies and indoctrinates the three-tiered system. This one is merely the first example in my book of his writings. There are many, many more. I have read in fundamentalist literature that it was at this point in history that the Church diverted from the true scriptural system and allowed the office of bishop to evolve. I think I have shown that the system Ignatius confirms is consistent with the witness of Scripture. Others will assert that even though a three-tiered system is attested to here, that it was congregational and not territorial (i.e. a diocese). Indeed, we see that Ignatius uses the word "congregation" in this passage. I think it prudent to go back to the scriptures to find an answer to this challenge.
When the word "church" is used in scripture it can mean at least three different things. It can mean the Church universal, (Matthew 16:18, Acts 2:47, 5:11, Romans 16:23, I Corinthians 12:28, 15:9, Ephesians 1:22, 3:10, 5:23 etc.) It can also mean the Church in a particular city or town, (Philippians 4:15, Colossians 4:16, I Thessalonians 1:1, II Thessalonians 1:1, etc), and it can mean a particular congregation. (Romans 16:3-5: I Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 1:2,) I will ask you to compare these two verses.
And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. Acts 14:23
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
We see two similar assertions with regard to ordination, one that says "city" and another, which says "church." The concept of "Church" can be used of the body of Christ in a particular city. If you took the time to look up the verses I cited on particular congregations you will note that early Christians met in houses, and although it is true that there were some wealthy converts who could have had larger houses that the early Christians could have congregated in, the truth is that the majority of early Christians came from the lower and slave classes. If early Christians met in houses, logistics would dictate that the majority of congregations would have been small in number. The large mega-churches of our day would have been unknown in the first century. If one resided in a large metropolis, it would not be unreasonable to assert that there would be a necessity for many individual congregations. Yet with the concept of the "Church" being the body of Christians in a city, it would not be unreasonable that they would share a common bond besides their common belief. Consider the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was the principle city of the province of Asia. It was a major port and was estimated to have had a population of about 250,000. If one half of one percent of the population were Christian, then you would have had 1,250 Church members there. Could they all have fit in a single house, even if the homeowner was wealthy? It would not be unreasonable to say that a large house church would have probably accommodated 20-50 worshipers. This would necessitate 25-60 congregations. So when Paul sent Timothy to oversee the Church at Ephesus, he was not sending him to pastor a single congregation but to oversee a multitude of congregations. I think it would be safe to say that Paul was not a Congregationalist. Timothy was in Ephesus because his overseership was needed to ensure that all the particular congregations taught a consistent doctrine. (I Timothy 1:3) Indeed the same duty of the modern day bishop.
It is often charged that the "monarchal system" evolved because certain men with influence desired to keep and increase the power that was bestowed on them. Though I will acknowledge that power does tend to corrupt, the system of a single overseer over several congregations was not developed as a result of power hungry-bishops vying for territory. It was developed to combat heresies. Heresy has been a factor in the Church since the first century and if you read the epistles of Ignatius you can see that heresy was still a factor. This is one reason he instructs those he writes over and over again to heed their bishop. As far as bishops and corruption by power are concerned, the congregational churches are not free from this syndrome either. I could easily give many examples of power-hungry officers from the fundamentalist ranks that were exposed and shown to have done great harm to those under their oversight, but this is something that I have vowed not to do in this book. Likewise they will make a similar charge against the doctrine of apostolic succession. It is charged that late second century bishops developed this doctrine to further ensure and solidify their positions of power because it put them on par with the Apostles. The historical record of this doctrine is found in the writings of Irenaeus. At the time of Irenaeus there was a heretical sect that was part of the Gnostic heresy. These heretics claimed to have secret revelations from the Apostles, thus they had apostolic authority that those in the traditional Church did not enjoy. Irenaeus directly confronts this charge by showing that he and other bishops had apostolic heritage that the Gnostics could not claim. He then goes on to describe his own heritage linking himself to the Apostle John and then goes on to give the heritage of the bishop of Rome, linking him to Peter and Paul. So the historical record is not one of a power hungry bishop vying for more power, but a defender of the faith combating heretics.
In closing, I will summarize that congregationalism is linked to weak scriptural interpretation and bad if not revisionist history. A three-tiered territorial system is consistent with scripture and history. The latter system is embraced by Church tradition and is closely linked to the Apostles. Paul teaches.
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. II Th 2:15
I think that I have shown that the three-tiered territorial system is closer to the traditions of the Apostles, both written and unwritten. Thus I will assert that this is the system that the Church of Christ should embrace.