From Presbyterian to Monepiscopacy in Early Christianity

My earliest memories in a church were with my grandfather at New Hope Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. I often napped during worship, being younger than eight, and when granddad sang with the choir, a sweet elderly lady had charge over me. When they built a new state-of-the-art facility, we went from the quaint and charming church to the larger sanctuary, where eventually a full-on band would become a regularity. In the old building, we had but a piano, and that was it. There were drums, congas, and various other instruments and performances in the new building that seemed to dominate the service before too long. 

Fast-forward to when my mother met and married my stepfather, I was around nine or ten, and he attended a church of Christ. It was a culture shock. No instruments. No choir. The focus was more so on the sermon than the music. Very different. As a pre-teen, I attended church camp, and one of my uncles sat me down and talked to me about the gospel, sin, and salvation. At Taylor Christian Camp, I confessed Christ and was immersed in the creek, and became a follower of Jesus. An imperfect one at that, but a Christian.

When my (now) wife and I began dating at sixteen, I’d attend mass with her at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Madison, TN, and she would attend services with me. I found the Catholic Church interesting because it was unlike anything to which I’d been accustomed. I had questions. She had questions. We explored our belief in Jesus and what our respective churches did and taught. Still, we ultimately agreed that Scripture would have the final say. When she was seventeen, she confessed Christ as her Lord and was immersed at church camp of all places.

She had already resolved never to attend church as an adult because it was forced on her child, so she believed. Because we agreed that Scripture, not the clergy, should guide our walk with Jesus, she concluded that her christening as an unconsenting child wasn’t faith. Faith is necessary to salvation. As Paul told the Ephesians, we are saved by grace through faith, and the obedience that follows is our yielding to Jesus and His way, the Way. However, something began troubling me. Why were there so many different versions of Christianity? Why was what we did right and others wrong, assuming that was true? Were we even correct to start with? What if, as my wife had concluded, I’d been wrong for so long?

For context’s sake, my wife’s family was predominantly Catholic, and that’s all she had known. My family, however, was an assortment of various beliefs. We were Baptist but had aunts and uncles that were sort of charismatic—Church of God. I had cousins that were Mormons and other kin that were Methodists. My wife’s family was Catholic, and now I’m “church of Christ,” as one might say. What’s right? I began an exploration of this topic. What does the New Testament teach, and when did things start to change? That’s what I wanted to find out. Thankfully, a dear friend and mentor pointed me to Everett Ferguson’s work. Specifically, his book, Early Christians Speak, and so began my love of church history. I’d actually write my doctoral dissertation on Christian hospitality in the early church into late antiquity. I absolutely love history. It has been a great aid in determining why I believe what I believe and still believe.

Looking to the Top

I came to learn about first-century Christianity that many people couldn’t read. Only a few had access to the writings that now make up the New Testament because not every church had a complete Old and New Testament in them. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves how the church functioned without a New Testament. Obviously, in the first century, there were apostles, prophets, teachers (1 Cor. 12:28), evangelists, and pastors (Eph. 4:11). These people led the church and guarded sound doctrine (orthodoxy) and, in turn, passed it on to others who would take up their mantle (cf. 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2). Congregations weren’t relegated to a building on the local level as we tend to envision Christianity in America. It was typically by locale. House churches were dispersed throughout a city or province, with elders appointed over the saints in those areas (Acts 14:23). They guided, taught, and shepherded God’s people, and a part of their position was to guard sound doctrine among the saints (Titus 1:5–9).

In the New Testament, the terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” were used interchangeably of the same ministry (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–4). No one man had the title and oversaw a congregation, but a plurality of such men (cf. Phil. 1:1). They were responsible for those among them (1 Peter 5:2), so their oversight couldn’t have spread to other areas over which they knew little. The apostles, however, were leaders of the church in its universal sense. They could order and rebuke as the Lord willed. The elders of those congregations throughout the ancient world were to maintain what the apostles taught. Since we lack the apostolic presence today, this is why we rely upon Scripture. Moreover, the ancient church saw the apostles capable of imparting a measure of the Holy Spirit that would have proved beneficial to the congregations through spiritual gifts such as prophecy and the like. We lack such miraculous means today, but we do have the Scriptures, and they are sufficient.

Aiding the pastors in their works were deacons. The term “deacon” sounds churchy, but it means to minister or serve when translated. Deacons were often paired with elders (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3) and subordinates. Timothy was regarded as a deacon despite our English Bibles translating the word as “minister” (1 Tim. 4:6). What’s likely is that he was regarded as something other than just a deacon because of the particular task given to him among the Ephesians. Just as one term can have several different meanings, it was given a different meaning to Timothy.

In such a case as Timothy being a minister, this would constitute the third class of church leadership behind the elders but seemingly equal to the deacons. Timothy was gifted and appointed by the elders and endowed with a measure of the Holy Spirit’s gifts by Paul (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). I think that it would be safe to say that such men didn’t wear the clerical dress (Matt. 23:5), equated themselves with God (cf. Acts 10:25–26), and bore no religious titles (Eph. 6:21; Phil. 2:25; Col. 1:7; 4:7). It might be safe to say that those who led the church in orthodoxy, service, and ministry were relatively simple and faithful as many would endeavor to be in the years that followed. However, circumstances would arise that would bring about changes in the way the church operated. These changes would eventually result in the Western Church departing from the apostolic polity of the church.

The Second Generation of Christians

Do you remember the biblical story when Jesus brought a child before His apostles and urged that they become like the child to see the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1–5)? Later tradition claims that the child later became a leader in the church. His name was Ignatius, and he served in the Antiochene Church. There’s a little dispute around when he was a bishop of Antioch. If we follow the Orthodox ecclesial history, Peter was the first bishop. Evodius or Ignatius was the second or third bishop following Peter. Regardless, in or around 69 CE, Ignatius became a church leader in his mid-thirties or early forties. Before this time, he had been a disciple of the Apostle John with a dear friend and brother, Polycarp.[1]

Ignatius was martyred between 98–117 CE, with 108 being a rather popular date. As he journeyed to Rome from Antioch in Syria, he and the soldiers guarding him made some stops along the way. Ignatius would write several letters during visits as he headed for his martyrdom. We see in them a change in the polity of the church. Consider that Ignatius was the second generation of Christian leaders, so he wasn’t as concerned with being a “New Testament Christian” because such wasn’t a blip on the radar then. He was concerned with maintaining orthodoxy among the churches. In the local church, he believed that the bishop, an elevated elder with ties to an apostle, was the one to do just that.

Since, then, I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas you most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow-servant the deacon Sotion, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to the bishops as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ, [I now write you].

Ignatius, Magnesians 2

This is among the earliest letters when the ministry of elder (presbyters) and bishop are separate rather than a particular position in the New Testament. As the letters go on, the views become more evolved.

For when you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ’s way, who for our sakes suffered death that you might believe in his death and so escape dying yourselves. It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ …. Those too who are deacons of Jesus Christ’s “mysteries” must give complete satisfaction to everyone. For they do not serve mere food and drink, but minister to God’s Church.

Ignatius, Traillians 2.1–3

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist [Lord’s Supper] which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitle also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

Ignatius, Smyrneans 8

Now, if Ignatius introduced something new, evidence should exist that supports my earlier conclusion, right?

One source that dates to the sixties acknowledges bishops and deacons (Didache 15.1), while another that dates to the last decade of the first century does as well (1 Clement 42.4–5). Even Ignatius’ contemporary and fellow disciple under John, Polycarp, saw the church as administered by presbyters and deacons (Philippians 5.2; 6.1). Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians was written around Ignatius’s death and after his letters. Still, for some reason, Christianity adopted his threefold structure. The early fifth-century scholar Jerome wrote that a presbyter and bishop were the same things. The distinction came in, he writes, in Alexandria during Mark the Evangelist (c. 49–74 CE)—author of the gospel. Jerome wrote that the presbyters elected a bishop from among them to hold a more exalted position just as an army elects a general (Letter 146.1). The conclusion about elders and bishops being one and the same, as I mentioned earlier, is the same position that Jerome took a few centuries after Ignatius and others ran with the Ignatian structure. Upon further studying Jerome’s views on the matter, church historian Philip Schaff wrote that Jerome believed this to have been a “custom of the church” to root out heresies.[2]

Final Thoughts

As changes such as these began, the greater authority would be vested in those holding official positions in the church. The result would be two classes of Christians: clergy and laity. The clergy would emerge as the authoritative figures. Therefore, what the clergy said, went. Heresies that arose in the first and second centuries were the impetus to the tripartite congregational polity, but it wouldn’t stop there.


[1] See Andrew Stephen Damick, Bearing God: The Life and Works of St. Ignatius of Antioch the God-Bearer (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publications, 2017).

[2] In George Park Fisher, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 52.

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