The Elder’s Oversight of Churches of Christ is More than Scriptural

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.

About Scott J Shifferd

Minister, church of Christ in Jacksonville, FL. Husband and father of four. Email: ScottJon82[at]
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7 Responses to The Elder’s Oversight of Churches of Christ is More than Scriptural

  1. Matt Wallin says:

    I agree that it’s sometimes a waste to “argue”. (But only because most people go into an argument to win, not to uncover truth, right?) Hopefully we all go in hoping to get to truth, even if we are a little fiery about it.

    However, isn’t it worse to say, “I’m done arguing, let’s just agree to disagree.”? That means at least one person is wrong, and that’s a pretty dangerous thing to just give up on. Discussions with Christians and non-Christians alike should be to help them. What help are we if we are indeed right, and we just decide to stop talking about it?


  2. Scott says:

    I don’t think that Braden is speaking of church government, but I don’t know what is referring to, so I’ll refer to him further by e-mail.

    Regarding men leading the Assembly, men leading in worship is presented in Scripture though it should not be vicariously and on this I agree. First Corinthians 14:16-17 show one leading prayer for the whole congregation. In verse 15, you can see the usual link of praying and singing in assembly, so it is not a stretch to have a song-leader though such could be just a song-starter from his seat. In verse 30, sitting is the common posture in assembly while someone else is speaking, and this again shows the leading of the Assembly from the front, center, and/or midst of the congregation. Evidently, the Corinthians’ assembly was not decent and orderly (14:40) having some speaking out of order at the same time or in different languages, and this again shows leadership from front, center, and/or in the midst of the congregation. In verses 27 and 31, the speakers were to speak one by one and again leaders leading the congregation. The reading and preaching is like this as well in other places in Scripture (Col. 4:16, 1 Cor. 4:17, 7:17, 1 Thes. 5:27, 1 Tim. 4:13). This is all to say that though a congregation does not have to have their speakers move to the front (though in the midst) and buildings do not have to be facing strictly toward the front, these are not wrong. I think much will change in our generation toward more social congregations with seating being more in a circle with men leading from the midst of the congregation as is possible. I excited to see this day.


  3. Scott says:

    Erik and Matthew,

    Christ debated and refuted error. The Scriptures teach that we should expose and refute error over and over again.


    “If you died with Christ from the elements of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to ordinances, Handle not, nor taste, nor touch (all which things are to perish with the using), after the precepts and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:20-23).


  4. Matt Vaughan says:

    I think Eric is on to something here. Lent should be revered.

    And where do these silly little debates get us?


  5. Erik says:

    Yes, I have given up. As Lent approaches, I realize that I should not be fighting my brothers and sisters. I realize that this is the same mindset I had while in the Churches of Christ (that I am right and everyone else is wrong and I must prove that I am right). So, in the name of Christian unity, I am giving up challenging people now. Jesus prayed His church would be one, not divisive.


  6. Braden says:

    You know, I finally finished Radical Restoration by F. LaGard Smith. I gotta tell ya, he’s on to something there.

    I can’t say I agree with ALL of his arguments, but he makes an extremely compelling case for a complete restructure of the church. This business of sitting in pews facing a stage where we have leaders vicariously “lead” us in worship reeks of denominationalism.

    I think the church got the doctrine right, but we got the structure wrong. We’ve thrown this doctrinal mantle over a denominational form way too long. And now, it’s starting to catch up with us. I believe this model we’ve taken to has been the real undercurrent of so much of the strife that faces the church today. Maybe I’m out in left field on this, but I think we need a restorational shakeup in order to truly defeat the problems that are facing us today.


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