How was the early church organized? With different interpretations of the Scriptures, what light does the early church writers shine upon how churches organized? Did each church have one presbyter? Was there one bishop, who oversaw an area of church presbyters? How many presbyters and bishops were in each church?
Apparently by the 4th c., the catholic church met in councils of bishops over individual churches with presbyters. Yet, what is found in the early church writings is different than this church organization? First, presbyters and bishops were the same position of leadership in the early church, and each congregation had a plural number of presbyters. Presbyters comes from the Greek, which literally means “elders” (Lat. senatus). Bishop is translated for the Greek word, episkopos, which means overseer.
What do the early church writers say? All of the 1st and 2nd century writers on the organization of the Church of Christ. Each congregation had a plural number of elders (presbyters). These were the overseeing bishops and the shepherding pastors of each congregation. There is no hierarchy or supervising organization about these men. Even their meetings did not count as a ruling council.
Clement of Rome to the Corinthians stated that the Apostles only appointed bishops and deacons, and with an emphasis on only bishops and deacons from prophecy (42:4-5). Why not presbyters since according those, who believe in a hierarchy, believe that bishops are a type of presbyter? Later, Clement also used ‘presbyters’ (elders) as a synonym to bishops (44:4). Then Clement mentioned the ancient Corinthian church having “presbyters” (47:6). Since those who believe in a hierarchy do not usually have plural presbyters/bishops at churches, this is one of the most confident evidences of an autonomous congregation. Clement again refers to the Corinthian congregation to whom he is writing having plural “presbyters” (54:2, 57:1). Ironically just as today, Clement also presented that the Apostles knew there would be strife over ‘the name of the Bishop’s office (44:1). Clement also only instructed to honor elders with no mention of another office (21:6).
In “Against Heresies”, Irenaeus wrote of the succession of presbyters “in the congregations” established by the Apostles (3.2:2), then he calls these presbyters “bishops” and also says that these are “in the congregations”. Again, these are the autonomous governments of the congregations where plural numbers of bishops/presbyters were in congregations and for which they had their succession. There is also another reference to elders and bishops being the same (4.26:2).
Polycarp and presbyters write to the church at Philippi (1:1). Some may read into Polycarp’s greeting as though he is a bishop over these presbyters, but that would simply be an assumption. The young men are instructed to submit to presbyters and deacons with no mention of bishops or a bishop (5:3). Polycarp presented qualifications like the Scriptures do only for presbyters and deacons (6:1). If one believed in the hierarchy, they would simply make another assumptions that this would include the hierarchy. He also mentions a man named Valens who was a ‘presbyter’ (11:1). Another source, the Didache instructs to appoint bishops and deacons with no mention of elders (15).
Among other sources, I did see the progression to having a bishop separate and apart from the elders, but no great father/bishop over the whole Church is mentioned in all the writings. Differing from the Apostles instruction in Scripture, Ignatius does present a separation between bishops and elders. As I believe that you already know, the Apostles selected elders for each congregation (Acts 14:23). Then the Apostle Paul referred to all the elders as being bishops (Acts 20:28). Again, Philippians is written to bishops and deacons with no mention of elders (presbyters) being a separate body of government (1:1). Titus as well was instructed to appoint elders (presbyters) who are also called ‘bishops’ (overseers) to meet specific qualifications, so in this, it again is clear that elder and bishop are the same office (1:5-7). Then the elders are instructed by Peter to oversee, which is the verb form of bishop (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Apparently, Christ’s Church consists of congregations who each have a plural number of elders in their ideal state. These elders are also called “presbyters”, “overseers”, and “bishops”, who are the ones who pastor (shepherd) the congregation with no hierarchy other than Christ Himself. Let us restore Christ’s elders to all congregations. Some claim that there were bishops ruling over presbyters in the Bible. Yet, it is usually very hard for anyone to refute anything that neither exist nor is mentioned in any part of the Bible especially a hierarchy. For example, some claim other hidden Christian practices like praying to “saints”, infant baptism, and bread only “Eucharist” for “laity”, which again these are not present in the Scriptures.