On top of all the other things that were going on that was to form Christianity, there were two other problems developing. The question of who would be the supreme leader was beginning to emerge from the Christian strongholds of Rome, Asia Minor and Carthage. The idea of a “monarchal” bishop (one bishop over all the churches of a city or area) was being forwarded also.
Ignatius was the monarchal bishop of Antioch and he offered the earliest description of monarchal bishops and he exalted the authority of local monarchal bishops in the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia and Smyrna. He believed that a central bishop as a focal point was good for unity. He based his beliefs on the fact that Paul called the bishops to Miletus, so he said this idea was nothing new (Acts 20.17). However, these bishops were not “monarchal” bishops according to this false concept. They were “zekenim” (elders) according to the Hebraic concept.
How this idea arose is uncertain but the churches were fighting Gnosticism, the Montanists, and they felt they needed a strong, central leader. Apostolic succession was said to be established from the apostles and along with “tradition” it would supersede Scripture. A biblical congregation was a different story and so we will take a look at how they were organized.
There will be terms used across the board in Christianity. The idea of a pope, cardinals, bishops, presbyters, elders, deacons, priests, ministers and pastors took on a different meaning than what the Scripture put forward. In the first century congregations, there were terms used to designate the functions.
Elders were called “zekanim” and in Greek “presbyter” and they were also called “overseers” or bishops. These all had the same function. Three elders (bishops, presbyters) were required in any congregation. A congregation was seen as having at least ten members, based on two portions of scripture that can be found in Ruth 4 and Gen 18. Elders cannot be employees of the congregation because they were not to be influenced by money or have their ministries threatened by those who wanted them removed. They were not “hirelings.”
By the end of the second century, Gentile dominated congregations paid their leaders and still do today. There have been people in Bible schools who base where they go on what they will be paid, not on where they feel God is sending them. In a biblical congregation, there was a board of elders. One person was the spokesman but he was not the “chief” elder. He is equal to the others, or even less in authority to the others. He votes to break a tie in what was to be done. He would have a vote in financial matters also. The elders do the voting, not the congregation. The requirements for an elder are listed in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1.
The Talmud listed the same requirements. In synagogues, the Torah was the guide, and the elders had to know the Torah in order to lead. In the developing Christian churches, the Torah was not followed and they did whatever they thought was right. They made the rules up as they went along. Remember, Marcion edited the “pastoral” epistles and “cut out” any Old Testament references or anything that contradicted his views in his “canon” because Christian churches were already moving away from what they had to say anyway.
In 1 Pet 5.1-4, Acts 20.17-32 and Eph 4.11, we see what overseers were to do and it can change depending on what the needs of the people were. Deacons were called a “chazzan” or “shammashim” in Hebrew and these were interchangeable terms. Today, the chazzan in Rabbinic Judaism is the cantor (sung the prayers) but anciently that may not have been the case. The shammash is a servant in the congregation.
Every congregation had a responsibility to take alms to the poor and to feed the poor. We see this in action in Acts 6.1-6. The first century congregations were evangelistic and they had feeding programs for the needy. This was attended to by the shammashim/chazzan. The shammash is discussed in 1 Tim 3.8-13 and he was the only one that was paid. He was like the “jack of all trades” and there is a possibility that women functioned as shammashim as well (1 Tim 3.11; Rom 16.1).
Where it talks about “one wife” in 1 Tim 3.2, it does not mean that he never had a divorce. When you do a study on the terms found in the New Testament, it will tell you that “one wife” means that the shammash should not be in a polygamous relationship, which was still practiced in the first century. It could also mean that they are “faithful to one wife” and a similar term is used for widows in 1 Tim 5.9. In this case, it cannot mean “polygamous” because women were not allowed multiple husbands.
This was the “mold” for congregations in the first century and it was the context they understood and wrote about. As Gentiles come into the congregations, they are of equal status as “God-fearers” and there was a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish elders, shammashim and any other function. By the second century, this blueprint was abandoned and new rules were developed. This made it ripe for different people to rise to power and influence.
The great tyrants of history rose to power during times of chaos and confusion and they would have never risen to power in a stable environment. So, as Christianity developed during chaotic times, these strong leaders gave people a stability and that took the place of doing what was right. These men rose in Christianity because there was no blueprint anymore and the concept of the monarchal bishop took hold. They became “the voice” against Gnosticism and Montanism and they “defended the faith” to emperors and heretics. They defined Christianity and the Bible didn’t.
The question was, who was going to be dominant among the dominant and what city was going to be the focal point. Orthodox Christianity began to be called “catholic” (meaning universal) with Ignatius and he wasn’t naming Christianity that, it was more of a description. It came up again around 156 AD with the death of Polycarp. Catholic became another group along with the Gnostics and the Montanists.
During the years of 160 to 190 AD, the “catholic” church developed some distinguishing characteristics like the power of bishops and individual churches were knit together for a more “perfect union” as they say. We also begin to see a collection of Scripture being put together for an authoritative New Testament.
What we are going to discuss will be seen by Christians as acceptable but it is heresy. Why did they get into so much false teaching? It was because they negated the Tanak (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim) or Old Testament through allegory and they did whatever was right in their own eyes. Creeds (a formal statement of Christian beliefs) were developed and communion changed. Apostolic succession (method where Christianity is said to be derived from the apostles by continuous succession) was developed to give validity to what they were doing, even though, in reality, the apostles would have been against such a thing.
In Part 7 we will pick up here by discussing the Catholic Church and the idea that it was the depository of Christian doctrine and truth.