The Organization of the Church, Part 1


The History of Christianity #71

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Acts 20:28 which reads: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Clement of Alexandria. He said: “Many women have received power through the grace of God and have performed many deeds of manly valor.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Christian Life” (Part 8) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Organization of the Church (Part 1)

It is clear that early in the second century there were three distinct positions of leadership in the church: bishop, presbyter — or elder — and deacon. Some historians have claimed that this hierarchy is apostolic in origin; but the extant documents would seem to point in an opposite direction. Although the New Testament does refer to bishops, presbyters, and deacons, these three titles do not appear together, as if they were three clearly defined functions or offices that always existed together. In fact, the New Testament would seem to indicate that the organization of local churches varied from place to place, and that for a certain time the titles of “bishop” and “elder” — or presbyter — were interchangeable. There are also some historians who are inclined to believe that some churches — Rome among them — were not led by a single bishop, but rather by a group of leaders who were sometimes called “bishops” and sometimes “presbyters.”

As has already been explained, the emphasis on the authority of bishops and on apostolic succession was in response to the challenge of heresies in the late second and early third centuries. As the church became increasingly Gentile, the danger of heresies rose, and this in turn led to a greater stress on episcopal authority.

The roles of women in positions of leadership in the early church deserves special attention. It is clear that by the end of the second century the official leadership of the church was entirely masculine. But the matter is not quite as clear in earlier times. Particularly in the New Testament, there are indications that women also had positions of leadership. Philip had four daughters who “prophesied” — that is, who preached. Phoebe was a female deacon in Cenchreae, and Junia was counted among the apostles. What actually seems to have taken place is that during the second century, in its efforts to combat heresy, the church centralized its authority, and a by-product of that process was that women were excluded from positions of leadership. But still in the early years of the second century, Governor Pliny informed Trajan that he had ordered that two Christian female ministers be tortured.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Organization of the Church in Christian Life.


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