Since the beginning of the early church, men have fought hard against the simplistic and servant-oriented church blueprint installed by the apostles. From the earliest days of the church, she has been plagued by power plays and factions, all attempting to use the church as a means of political, social, or economic power. Over a short period of about a century, Biblical church government had been abused, challenged, and eventually deposed.
It was some time between the first and second century, when the Roman Catholic Church established their own power structure, that the original apostolic church had been rendered irrelevant for the first time. It is unclear, and much debated through history, whether the Catholic Church was directly responsible for the uprooting of the original church, or whether it had simply picked up the pieces that were left after it had been decimated. What is clear, however, is that the blueprint of a church in today’s culture – whether catholic or not – has abandoned much of the original blueprint.
The first landmark event against the church on record took place at Corinth somewhere around 95AD, and was documented by Clement, believed to have been an elder at Rome. Clement writes about a “vile and profane faction” forcibly removing the elders of the Corinthian church (1 Clem 3:2-4), replacing them with their own. Clement wrote a lengthy letter to the Corinthian church urging them to reinstate the original leaders. For a long time, Clement’s epistle was read as canonic scripture. Today it is considered a credible historic account.
“It is shameful, loved ones, exceedingly shameful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ, that the most secure and ancient church of the Corinthians is reported to have created a faction against its presbyters, at the instigation of one or two persons” 1 Clem 47:6
Clement described the original leadership of the church as those who had either seceded or been instated by the original apostles; the original church. They were described as those who “have ministered over the flock of Christ blamelessly and with humility, gently and unselfishly, receiving a good witness by all, many times over.” (4:3). Regardless of who was responsible, the final result was a formal establishment of the church as an organization, under the authority of what shortly thereafter became the Catholic Church.
Church as an Establishment?
Prior to the takeover of the church by such factions, it was much less organized in the original form. In fact, it was more of a shindig than a church. If the word shindig sounds a bit sacrilegious, this is likely because we’ve already been conditioned by 1900 years of culture to see the church as something it’s not. In reality, the early churches were more like shindigs than how we see them today as well-respected organizational establishments or political powers to be reckoned with. The word church originated from a Greek word classically translated to mean a regular assembly. It has widely been used in the New Testament to describe what we call a church, however prior to Modern Greek, the word was less of a moniker and more a common word in its time. Among its uses were to describe legislative assemblies, political debates, juries, and other similar gatherings. It was a noun (ekklesia) as well as a verb (ekklesiadzo – to “hold a meeting”), and even in describing the meeting’s attendees (ekklesiastes) and their pay, if applicable (ekklesiastikos). You’ve heard the term “time to do church” – it’s linguistically accurate. The original church literally equated to getting together. Churches, as we know them in biblical times, were by and large informal gatherings of believers. The original church was very distributed and not centrally regulated, as we’ll explore later.
The type of church government we use today is more Roman in nature, and much more hierarchical. The internal government is very different, and some denominations, in an effort to maintain an authority structure, even go so far as to appoint their own apostles who are given authority to govern a body of churches under their jurisdiction. While the original church was primarily autonomous in nature, today many churches are members of governing bodies, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, or governed directly through a leadership exoskeleton, such as the Catholic Church. This greatly exaggerated the apostle’s function (as we’ll see later) and turned it into a babysitting service for churches that would have otherwise been governed by bodies of elders and deacons. Over time, organizations like this transformed “a church” into “the church”, and changed what was originally a meeting that existed only through the participation of believers into an organization that existed in spite of the participation of its believers. It was considered heretical by many, and organizing the church wound up being used to push political agendas, which included making power plays against the government for recognition. This finally took place in the year 311 when Galerius, a Roman Emperor who previously persecuted the church, ordered religious tolerance for all, legalizing Christianity. This predated Constantine’s Edict of Milan by two years, which gave additional freedoms specifically to the Christian church, this time using the church as a political poker chip to help ensure Constantine’s rule would be preserved.
Many argue, however, that the church was never intended to be wielded as a political weapon, and that it was in fact an egregious abuse of the church. Throughout the development of the early church, its sheer numbers had already begun showing a sense of control (or at least balance) in curbing the Roman military’s brutality (Acts 5:26), and as Christianity continued to win new converts, the people themselves had made considerable leeway in spreading the gospel in spite of the government, rather than with its help. Organizing and regulating the church has since been at the core of how church government has operated since, and ultimately how the original, apostolic church found herself finally deposed. Some 1900 years later, we recognize the church as a ‘non-profit organization’, complete with tax-exempt status. Rather than a living body of believers working apart from government, the church today is an entity, a corporation, working alongside it and even lobbying it. Regulated churches have gained in political power, at the expense of becoming docile and politically cooperative.
The Original Blueprint
So what did the original organization structure look like? The apostles created a blueprint for the church, and set them in motion by assigning leaders to oversee their basic conformity and adherence to sound teachings (1 Cor 4:14-17, Titus 1:5, 1 Cor 11:6). It’s obvious that each church was not a simple cookie-cutter mold, though, and eventually took on their own personalities as they matured. Some churches even had different sets of giftings (Acts 13:1). While they adhered to the same basic teachings and way of life, the letters to the churches in John’s Apocalypse makes it clear that each church had their own issues. Much less formal, the original church was far from an establishment, and in fact could cease to exist should its members all disappear. The apostles knew that God’s new temple was no longer made of stone, but rather inside the believers themselves (2 Cor 6:16). Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes the church as the body of Christ. In contrast, the church today as an entity can legally purge all of its members, and still exist on paper. Its executives can erase everything and go back to the drawing board without losing their corporate church status, bank account, or even their church building. But the church didn’t used to be an establishment. There was no tax status, physical building, or any property to be owned by “the church”.
In short, God’s plan for the original church was concerned more with the heart and growth in Christ than in formal, corporate government. Isaiah made it clear that, since the beginning of time, God has been more interested in the state of the heart than orthodoxy:
The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” Isaiah 29:13-14
This theme is also present in Psalm 40:6-8, cited in the New Testament:
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). 9 Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. Hebrews 10:8
So if the church didn’t function as an establishment, how did they operate? The original church lacked the corporate ownership of any property and insisted on meeting in homes (Col 4:15, Phm 1:2, 1 Cor 16:9, Acts 2:46) and on public property (Acts 2:46, 5:12). They clearly had the financial resources, and even the land, to build a dedicated facility (Acts 4:34-37). With 5,000+ men in the church early on, and people being added daily to their numbers, it would have made sense to us, today at least, to build a mega-church – but this didn’t happen.
Some argue this was because of persecution, but persecution would not begin until the stoning of Stephen much later, and at this point in history, the church was very well respected and even revered by the community (Acts 5:13-16). In spite of this, there is no record of abandoning home churches or public gatherings for a dedicated facility during the time of the original apostles. Perhaps they were too busy preaching the gospel to be concerned about a building project, or perhaps they continued meeting in public venues so they could be among the people. All we know is that they had resources and opportunity, but remained a non-entity.
In fact, the apostles had already learned that the Kingdom of God wasn’t about building out infrastructure long before there even was a church. The first building program on record started and ended with Peter, whom God Himself abruptly shut up while babbling on about building shelters for Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration (Mat. 17:4). A pastor once commented on this event saying, “it seems that every time there’s a move of God, someone wants to start a building program”. It’s interesting to consider that the church was founded upon Peter, who, after that experience, would have been the least likely to build the church out as an organization.
Apart from the location of the early church’s gatherings, the original church government seemed team-ministry based, consisting of a body of elders and body of deacons (1 Tim 3) to govern the affairs of the local body of Christ within each town (Titus 1:5). Elders are commonly referred to as overseers, and the term overseer translated literally through the Greek (it’s where we get the word ‘episcopal’ from). There was no senior pastor, nor any one set man in charge. Instead, Phm 1:1, 1 Pet 5:1, and other key verses show the existence of multiple elders over the churches Paul wrote to.
Home churches were common, but were not typically autonomous. Home churches were usually led by one family, such as Priscilla and Aquilla, Philemon, and a woman by the name of Nympha who led one in her house (Col 4:15). Leading did not necessarily mean they were elders or deacons in the church, however. They would have lacked a full leadership body within the home church, but must have acknowledged the authority of the larger congregation’s elders and deacons on a town level as Paul gives the nod to Nympha in Col 4:15, who, in this time period, would have been considered a heretic to presume her own authority in Colossus. A body of elders was appointed for each town, and so it is likely that the body in each town constituted one autonomous church. We see this present also in John’s Apocalypse. Contrary to popular belief, the apostles did not continue to babysit the elders, but committed them to the Lord (Acts 14:23). Paul’s greeting to the Galatians shows multiple churches residing in that province, and so each body of elders and deacons likely constituted a single corporate church. Public meetings would have brought together all of the home churches under the leadership of that town. The elders were charged with the spiritual affairs of the church, quite literally “caring for the church” (1 Tim 1:5) and the deacons were responsible for addressing the physical affairs (Acts 6:2-4). Prior to the appointment of deacons, the apostles themselves were bussing tables (Acts 6:2).
Titles and hierarchies weren’t likely present in the original church, as Jesus himself had taught specifically against such things (Mat 23:8-12), and at this time the leadership was likely elected with participation of the entire body (Acts 6:3, 1:23) so there wasn’t much room for self-exaltation.
The idea of an authority structure flowing down from senior pastors is incorrectly attributed to Jesus’ exchange with a Centurion (Mat. 8:85-13). We see later on in Mat. 20 Jesus telling his disciples that this behavior was exactly what not to do:
20:24 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave. Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The congregation’s participation in this model would have been so critical, that this may very well explain why there were so few complacent churches – they would simply cease to exist. Today’s model lends itself to government existing in spite of the congregation, and so many churches exist today that should have otherwise become extinct.
Pastors could be better described as caregivers. Their function is described in Ezekiel 34, describing God’s judgment on shepherds, symbolically laying the groundwork for Jesus being Christians’ direct priest.
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
The Five-Fold Ministry
Chapter 4 of the letter to the Ephesians adds five-fold ministry gifts to the equation. These are mistakenly applied to the definition of leadership, but it’s apparent in the book of Acts that five-fold ministry gifts were apportioned, by God, to any mature Christians within the church as God saw fit – whether they were elders, deacons, or neither. Leadership roles didn’t indicate any difference in spiritual maturity from the rest of the congregation, and in fact many leaders may not have been elders at all. In spite of the commonly misconstrued link between five-fold ministry and church eldership, the church’s non-leaders were very active in five-fold callings:
- Disciples frequently led churches in their homes, not necessarily with any presence of elders or deacons (Col 4:15, Phm 2)
- Philip was still a deacon  at the time he cast demons out of a crowd (8:7) and performed many miraculous signs (8:13). As a deacon, he even performed baptisms (8:30).
- Ananias, a disciple, was used by God to not only heal Paul’s affliction (9:18), but also baptized Paul (9:18).
- Paul was trained up in the gospel by disciples, and not by the apostles or any other mentionable leadership (9:19), and then immediately went out to preach. It wasn’t until he went to Jerusalem that he even met the apostles (9:27).
Paul’s conversion ended much of the persecution that started after Stephen’s stoning (9:31) and happened without a single apostle, or any mention of church leaders!
Five-fold ministry appointments were given specifically for the purpose of raising all of the church’s believers to the same level of maturity, unity, faith, and knowledge of Christ (Eph 4:13). Essentially, each church or church community was a tiny Bible College. Granted, many could not read and write during this time, and so our idea of education does not line up with theirs. But at this point in Acts, the entire church was still Jewish, consisting of either Grecian or Hebraic Jews. As the Jews had become accustomed to, much knowledge was passed down orally and scripture was often committed to memory. Lay people were never in the original blueprint, and in fact we probably couldn’t hold a candle to the very first church in terms of cumulative knowledge and faith – their weakest member could have been a leader in most of our churches today!
The churches also would have needed to work together to achieve this purpose, as some early church bodies were apparently incomplete in themselves. Acts 13:1 takes special note that there were prophets and teachers in Antioch. This suggests that there may have been other churches where there were not prophets and teachers. Rather than rush to manufacture the full spectrum of five-fold ministries within each local church, however, this obviously didn’t phase them. This gave birth to what ended up being a significant undertaking of itinnerant ministers, being sent to various towns to share and impart their gifts, as well as to teach.
Eph 4:12-13 [The five-fold ministry was] – to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
What percentage of our congregations today fills that bill? The original blueprint called for the entire church to be an expert in the gospel. This wouldn’t be possible, given the size of the congregation, if five-fold appointments were reserved for the small roles of church government.
The stark contrast between the original church and today’s is this: the early Christians took their faith seriously and to the death, far more concerned about their faith than politics. After all, what’s more important than Jesus Christ in the life of a Christian? Of course a Christian should be made fully mature and attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Christ was their life, their salvation! Nothing else mattered. When you’ve got an environment like this, the need for a power structure fades into the background. There wasn’t a need for a senior pastor because the mature body of Christ as a whole was the leadership and participated in many important services we today reserve exclusively for leadership. It was the responsibility of the entire congregation to know Christ fully and participate fully.
The elders and deacons were given the authority to care for the affairs of the church, as shepherds, and clearly we can see from the scriptures that they were to be those regarded as recognized leaders among the church. Even they were instructed, however, to lead by example and not by authority; to realize that their function was as a leader, but that they were among their peers:
1 Pet 5:1-3 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
1 Tim 5:1-2 Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
Not surprisingly, many considered this too altruistic, and we see even in the small window of history covered by the scriptures that political agendas are already beginning to rise. Diotrephes, who was an elder in a church somewhere in Asia, was an ambitious and proud man who had somehow managed to become powerful in his church. He refused to acknowledge the authority of the original apostles, and excommunicated any believers who would even show hospitality to their disciples. We don’t know anything more about him other than he had obviously maintained some power play, perhaps with the support of the other elders.
Apostleship and the Written Word
The authority of the original apostles clearly superceded Diotrephes’, but many men and leadership structures have appointed themselves apostles in an attempt to hijack this same authority. It’s important to contrast the original apostles’ authority from the concept of apostles today, or even senior pastors. The original apostles were given something that no one today has: the authority of the written word. Moses had originally received the first written word in the law, and the Pharisees had exchanged it for a power structure in which they could maintain their political power with Rome. Because they neglected the written word given by Moses, Jesus told them that Moses himself would be their judge (John 5:45-47).
In the same way, God gave the written word of the gospel to the apostles. Many leaders today brush off the written word and establish their own doctrines, or go beyond the word against the apostle’s warnings not to – and in doing so, they violate the authority of the original apostles. To deviate from their written word would be both out of order (1 Cor 4:6) and subject us to judgment as well (Gal 1:8-9). The authority given to the original apostles was to write down and instantiate God’s vision for the church. They alone had the authority to shape the church and church government into what God intended it to be, and the churches were charged with maintaining that design. The apostles carried the blueprint, while the elders and deacons were responsible for maintaining it.
Marks of an Apostle
Many self-proclaimed apostles want to do both jobs today, just as some of the original apostles did. Many in this day and age are quick to assume the authority of the apostles, but fail to bear any of the marks of an apostle. It used to be that the apostles laid hands on new apostles who would secede them, but much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church and even some evangelicals, no record of succession can be definitively established.
How, then, can true apostles be proven? Paul teaches that the marks of an apostle are signs, miracles, and wonders performed in public (2 Cor 12:12). The original apostles also seemed to place emphasis on the apostleship having seen the resurrected Jesus, either in person, or in a vision, as was the case with Paul. (1 Cor 9:1, Acts 1:21-22). There was a supernatural power marking the true apostles (2 Tim 1:6-7, Acts 4:33). It’s easy to dub one’s self an apostle, or even be elected as an apostle by a church leadership, but that does not make it genuine, nor does it guarantee one’s calling as such. False apostleship, in fact, has been going on since the original church:
2 Cor 11:12-14 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
There are certainly many who have the heart of an apostle, and even a calling to function in the capacity of an apostle – namely, carrying the gospel to un-reached places and planting churches (Rom 15:20, 1 Cor 3:10-11, Gal 1:6-10). To walk in the authority and title of an apostle, however, and to command the same rites of an apostle (such as access to church finances) requires an authentication only God himself can give. I’ve seen long lines of apostleship established in modern churches, but they ultimately trace back to an illegitimate apostleship starting with one man who lacked the apostolic marks, or was given some form of sainthood after he died, indirectly authenticating anyone he apprenticed. It’s easy to establish a form of structure with the appearance of authority, but without validation by means of the scriptural litmus tests for an apostle, it all comes down to effective persuasion.
Certainly God still places it on people’s hearts to plant churches and spread the gospel, and spiritual giftings obviously need to be grown into (2 Tim 1:6). It seems fit that those who would seek to be apostles should at least live as the apostles lived. This means absolute humility, and willingness to live in poverty if necessary (Acts 4:9-13), rather than preaching prosperity sermons, which Paul called a doctrine by men of corrupt mind (1 Tim 6:5). The apostles built the church and set her into motion, but were for the most part martyred in the end. The apostles promoted unity, and in fact even facilitated the financial support between different churches. The Corinthian church and the churches in Galatia were both financially supporting the church in Jerusalem, most likely due to a famine occurring at the time (1 Cor 16:1-4). Above all, one should keep to and not go beyond the written word (1 Cor 4:6).
If someone were an apostle, what is apostolic authority anyway? True apostles had direct authority from God to blueprint the church; is that relevant today any more? In order to walk in an apostle’s authority, the original apostles had to step outside of the same pharisaical power structure that could have overtaken them in the same way. They had authority from God, but it was to build up the church and not to lord over it – they were given authority, not lordship. They knew that the church had to be autonomous, and they themselves became the men who set God’s plan for the church in motion. Once the church had been established, we see the apostles stepping back to lead by exhortation more so than authority. Even the major crisis of the circumcision party showed the apostles in an advisory role, alongside the church elders during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:2, 15:6).
Some would-be leaders can adopt a somewhat twisted view of this type of authority. Offices of church government, including the apostleship, involved serving more than lording, and involved leadership by example and exhortation. One common misconception about the apostles is that they had outright power over every affair of the church. The Jerusalem council is a good example of how this was not the case.
How Diotrephes was handled is another. In 3 John 1:10, John makes the statement that he may come to visit the church. Does he state that he will forcefully remove Diotrephes from power? Does he give instruction to the church to find a replacement? The answer to both is no. Instead, John states that he will expose Diotrephes and call attention to what he’s doing. The apostles were given authority, as Paul says, to ‘build up the church’ (2 Cor 10:8, 13:10) but not to run it. The apostles planted and set into motion new churches wherever they went, and as their final act would appoint elders to lead. Today’s modern apostolic structure still has regional managers acting as apostles to lord it over the affairs of multiple churches. This couldn’t be further from what the true apostles would have wanted.
Of all the things apostolic authority is, it certainly isn’t taking charge over the church.
There are churches and individuals today who love to hijack God’s church and make it their own personal calling. In our culture, it’s become perfectly acceptable to let one man sit in the seat of authority and run the whole show. In fact, if it weren’t for the complacency of the modern Christian today, the acceptance of such an unbiblical practice wouldn’t even be tolerated. The original leadership structure called for Christ to be the living head of the church, and for the most mature, well-revered members of the congregation to serve as stewards of her affairs (Acts 6:3); this as a team, not a dictatorship. The original church leadership represented her own body, and many in the body were the ones operating in the areas of the five-fold ministry.
We can learn this lesson from the Old Testament. God provided judges first so that his people would govern themselves and depend directly on God. But the Jewish leadership didn’t want judges – they wanted a king. This angered God, because their hearts weren’t right; really what they wanted was someone else to have a relationship with God and just tell them how to live. God gave them kings instead and they regretted it. Now, Christ has restored this balance by providing himself as the head king – the single mediator to whom we can receive from; and earthly judges in elders and deacons. But many churches have rejected the idea of self-government and have set a senior pastor or their own “apostle” up as the set man to represent their own king.
We’ve become needy in the church, looking to those more spiritual than us to guide our lives so we may avoid being spiritual ourselves. The real church was their own leadership – and this, because there weren’t complacent, unmotivated lay people in it. New believers would be trained up to the same level of knowledge and maturity as everyone else. Imagine the body knowing as much and being as spiritual as the senior pastor in today’s church, or beyond. Sadly, many churches will continue to let their leadership tell them they are supposed to stay dumb so they can maintain their position. But the Church was never meant to have such a separation between body and clergy. God used plain old non-leadership church members in ministering, teaching, and even baptizing! As long as we stay dependent on a few elite individuals to do our jobs, the rest of the body will never grow into their calling.
This balance of dependence vs. power is the common failure that leads to all kinds of problems in the church, and can ultimately be the first step toward cult-type organization. Jonestown and Waco, TX are two very good examples of how one set man in charge can control the entire flock, and how one set man with a loyal leadership team can coerce the mass-suicide of nearly a thousand people. No, the church was meant to be governed by her own.
The Biblical authority structure will only be restored when the church leaders lay down their self-proclaimed authority and start fulfilling their commission to collaborate as one of the body, building up the body of Christ. Similarly, the body of Christ will only become the leadership when they stop letting themselves be spoon-fed. Its no wonder the church is full of lay people; we’ve been keeping them that way for hundreds of years!
The authority of the written word overrules any leadership’s decision on how to do things. Recognizing this and restoring church government to a biblical structure is the first step in the right direction.