Apostolic Church Government


The constitution of the Church under the apostles exhibits both a hierarchical and a democratic principle. As the apostles were the first appointed officers of the Church, so also they were its highest authority, and the starting-point from which all subordinate authority was derived. This was the hierarchical principle. But in the manner in which the apostles used their authority, as also in the prevalent conception of the Christian priesthood, a democratic principle came into operation. The apostles administered the Church much in the spirit of Peter's instruction to the elders, "not as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock" (1 Pet. v. 3). So far as was practicable, they acted in co-operation with the Christian congregation. Hence, we find the congregation apparently sharing in such a matter as the election of a member to the apostolic college in place of Judas; and as respects the first deacons, the apostles did not so much as claim the prerogative of nomination, but left the selection to the free choice of the assembly, and simply ordained the candidates presented. A similar respect was shown to the will of the congregation in the appointment of presbyters. Their ordination was ordinarily the function of an apostle or the delegate of an apostle; though it would appear that presbyters themselves were competent to take part in, if not indeed to execute, the ordination ceremony [In the Alexandrian Church, even down to the beginning of the fourth century, it was an established custom that the body of presbyters should ordain the bishop. See Lightfoot on the Epistle to the Philippians, Dissertation I.] (1 Tim. iv. 14). Perhaps, also, in case of less competent and experienced churches, the apostles may have nominated presbyters; but it was no doubt the general custom to employ the vote of the congregation, and to give it practically a determining power. Clement of Pome testifies that the ministry were appointed " with the consent of the whole church." [Epist. ad. Corinth., xliv.] The Coptic constitution of the Church of Alexandria witnesses to the existence of the right of election at the middle of the second century, a fact strongly indicative of the existence of the right from the beginning." [Pressensé Apostolic Era, Book II., chap. v.] Even in a matter of discipline, we find Paul addressing, not a select corps of officers, but the whole Corinthian Church. In short, the apostles treated their fellow-Christians as citizens, rather than as mere subjects. All were regarded as belonging to a royal priesthood (1 Pet. ii. 9). Liberty to teach and to participate in the worship was limited only by the talents of individual members, and by the demands of good order (1 Cor. xiv. 23-26).

As the more important officers of the Church, the following classes may be enumerated: (1) apostles, (2) prophets, (3) evangelists, (4) presbyters, or bishops, (5) deacons. The first three classes were general officers, the last two local. The pastors and teachers mentioned by Paul (Eph. iv. 11) may be regarded as embraced in the fourth class. The form of the original suggests that these two words were meant to denote the same group of officers. [So Lightfoot end others.] The presbyters, to be sure, may have occupied at the outset more distinctively the position of pastors, or administrators, than that of teachers; but certainly teaching came very soon to be regarded as an important part of their oflice. This is sufficiently indicated by the qualifications which Paul emphasizes' in his later Epistles (1 Tim. iii. 2; Titus i. 9).

The New Testament seems to indicate that for the apostolic office two qualifications were counted essential: first, that the incumbent should have been a witness of the facts of the gospel history, especially the resurrection; and, secondly, that he should have received a positive call from Christ to the office (Acts i. 21-22; 1 Cor. xv. 8; Gal. i. 1). In case of the original eleven, both of these conditions were evidently fulfilled. They were also fulfilled in the case of Paul. In virtue of a special manifestation of the ascended Christ, he was enabled to mention himself among the witnesses of the resurrection. His call also was so direct and positive that he could write: "Paul an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ." Concerning Matthias, we have a less direct and formal assurance. He was a witness of Christ's resurrection, but as to his call we have only the account of his election by the Christian assembly. As this election took place before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, some have entertained the suspicion that Matthias was an apostle by the will of man rather than by the will of Christ. Certainly if the apostolate was limited to the number twelve, this is the explanation that must be accepted. But there is no need of affirming such a limitation. That Christ should speak of only twelve thrones (Matt. xix. 28), just corresponded to the number of apostles who were then with him. That the Revelator should represent that just twelve names were engraved on the foundations of the wall of the New Jerusalem (Rev. xxi. 14), is sufficiently explained by the Jewish preference for round numbers, and the association of Jewish thought with the tribal number twelve. How little such phraseology compels us to limit the number of the apostles to twelve, is shown by the case of the tribes themselves. These were continually spoken of as the twelve tribes, whereas thirteen tribes settled in Palestine. Still the apostolate, if not strictly limited to the number twelve, is to be regarded as a limited office Its first incumbents were few; and they had, properly speaking, no successors. They were designed for a special work of foundation which needs not to be repeated. The qualifications which the New Testament associates with their office bar out the idea of its transmission. Official substitutes to a certain extent, or as respects some parts of their functions, they may have bad, but not successors proper.

The office of the prophets was connected with teaching, rather than with administration. As inspired preachers of the truth, they exercised their gifts more or less at large in the Church. Paul's companion, Silas, together with Agabus and Judas, are examples. The evangelists had similar functions; and some, indeed, belonged to both classes. They served as itinerant missionaries and vicegerents of the apostles, and labored under their direction in varied fields. Timothy, Titus, Luke, and John Mark belonged to this class.

The presbyters, or elders, were the highest local authority in a church. With them rested the chief responsibility, both for the government of the Christian society and for the provision of suitable instruction. The common mention of thern in the plural shows that a number were elected to the office in each church. They formed a presiding council analogous to the board of elders in the Jewish synagogue. It was from the synagogue that the name presbyter, or elder, was borrowed. The episcopal title, on the other hand, the name overseer, or bishop, was of Gentile origin, having been used among the Greeks to indicate an ofIice involving a species of oversight. Originally both names related entirely to the same office The New Testament recognizes no distinction between them. The words presbyter and bishop are used interchangeably. In the twentieth chapter of Acts, Paul calls the same body, in one instance presbyters, in another bishops. In his Epistle to Titus he directs him to ordain presbyters; but, when he goes on to mention the qualifications of these officials, he uses the word bishop. In the opening of his Epistle to the Phillipians, the apostle salutes the bishops and deacons, making no mention of the presbyters, whom he evidently would have mentioned had he not considered them identical with the bishops. Likewise, in the First Epistle to Timothy, he passes directly from bishops to deacons (chap. iii.). Peter also addresses the presbyters in a way that implies that they were the highest local authority in the several churches, and acknowledged no officer between them and the apostles (1 Pet. v. 1-2). It is possible, indeed, that, before the death of the Apostle John, in many congregations, one of the presbyters, as president of the board of presbyters, became distinguished from the general body, and ranked as primus interpares. Such a development would have been entirely natural, and would have served as a suitable means of transition to those local bishops who appear after the apostolic age. But the New Testament does not inform us of the growth even of this distinction. It nowhere raises one presbyter above the rest, and clothes him with a special dignity as bishop. The angels of the Asiatic churches whdm the Revelator addressed are no exception. Language so highly figurative affords no definite information on church constitution. The angel might be regarded as an ideal representative of the church addressed, or as a personification of its government, however that was constituted. A bishop in the later sense nowhere appears within the New-Testament horizon. Evangelists, like Timothy and Titus, were remote from that type of officer. They were simply trusted friends and ministers extraordinary of the apostle, no more like the bishops of the second century than a special ambassador is like a permanent governor of a specified district. The position of James in the church at Jerusalem was nearer that of a bishop. But similarity is not identity. James held a commanding place by the twofold title of his personal character and his essentially apostolic dignity.

Traces of the original identity of presbyters and bishops appear in the phraseology of post-apostolic writers, as will be shown in another connection. Eminent expositors, like Jerome and Theodoret, acknowledged such identity in the most explicit terms. [Epist., Ixix., Ad Ooeanum; cxlvi., Ad Evangelium (Migne's Patrologia); Ad Phil., i. 1.] In the present, the same is very largely the verdict of enlightened scholarship, at least on the part of those accepting the genuineness of the Acts and the Pastoral Epistles. Bishop Lightfoot speaks for: a large class when he says of the terms bishop and presbyter, "In the apostolic writings the two are only different designations of one and the same office." The same author concludes that the elevation of the office of bishop above that of presbyter was a thing of gradual accomplishment, and was effected, in its more essential features, between A.D. 70 and 120. "It is clear," he says, "that at the close of the apostolic age, the two lower orders of the threefold ministry were firmly and widely established; but traces of the third and highest order, the episcopal, properly so called, are few and indistinct. For the opinion hazarded by Theodoret, and adopted by many later writers, that the same officers in the Church who were first called apostles came afterwards to be designated bishops, is baseless." [Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, Dissertation I.]

No specific account is given of the origin of the presbyterate. When first mentioned (Acts xi. 30), it appears as an already existing institution. Some have supposed that it was contained in the diaconate; or that is commonly called the diaconate; in other words, that the enlarging demands of the Church caused that a subdivision should be made of the duties, which were primarily devolved upon the seven who were set apart for special service, as represented in the sixth chapter of Acts. [Lechler, Apostolische und Nachapostolieche Zeitalter, pp. 306-308; Döllinger, First Age of the Church, Book III., chap. i.] The greater probability, however, lies with the theory which assigns to the presbyterate a separate sphere, even at its initiation. At the time that the deacons were appointed, the apostles, still residing in Jerusalem, mere in condition themselves to perform the functions of a board of presbyters. But as they were dispersed by persecution, or went forth on their missionary tours, a substitute for their personal supervision was naturally sought in a local board of officers. And, as the first Christian churches were closely allied with the synagogue, the latter readily supplied the name, and to a large extent the pattern, of the new board of administrators.

The deacons were concerned with the collection and distribution of funds, and in general with the temporal affairs of the Church. Preaching was not an essential part of their office; and, when it was engaged in by them, it followed from a special charism, rather than from their official standing. Still, the pastoral elements in their work tended to make them spiritual guides of the people, and to encourage the use of their preaching talents. As is narrated in the sixth chapter of Acts, the order arose out of a special exigency. Some, indeed, are inclined to deny that we have here an account of the original institution of the order, and imagine that a hint of an earlier origin is found in the young men who carried out the bodies of Ananias and Sapphira. To be sure, the seven are not called deacons (), but their service (which is called () was such as has always been associated with the office of deacon. Moreover, tradition favors the supposition that the election of the seven was the beginning of the order. Irenaus was fully persuaded that this was the proper account of the matter. [Cont. Hær., i. 26. 3; iii. 12. 10; iv. 15. 1.] Such, too, was plainly the belief of the Church at Rome near the middle of the third century, when it adhered to the number seven for its deacons, though its presbyters at the same time were no less than forty-six. [Euseb., vi. 43.] Even at a considerably later date, as appears from the testimony of Sozomen, [Hist. Eccl., vii. 19.] the Roman Church felt bound to follow the primitive model, and allowed but seven on its board of deacons. The council of Neo-Cæsarea, about 315, took a like view of the subject, assuming that the seven appointed under the apostles were veritable deacons, and that their number was not to be transcended in ally congregation.

A vocation similar to that of the deacons was fulfilled by an order of women. Paul appliesthe name of deacon to Phebe (Rom. xvi. 1), and mentions in several instances women who had labored in the Lord (Rom. xvi. 12; Phil. iv. 3). From the instructions given in the First Epistle to Timothy (v. 9, 10), some have inferred that the apostle regarded aged widows as among the most suitable candidates for the position of deaconess. But the reference here may be simply to the standing of widows entitled to receive support, and rendering certain services in return. That others than widows were early received into the office of deaconess, is sufficiently certain. Those holding this office supplemented the work of the deacons, carrying to the women of the congregations ministrations which men could not appropriately render, or even render at all, under the social conditions largely prevalent in Greek and Oriental communities.