In a previous post, we discussed what the Roman Catholic Church claims about the founding of the church and the implications of that founding upon the identity and leadership of the church. It is important to pay attention to the details of the claim. Rome does not merely state that churches must have bishops, nor does it only say that these bishops must have some connection to the original apostles. Rome claims that Jesus founded a particular kind of episcopal institution, granting Peter a position of monoepiscopal hierarchy and placing all other congregations under his jurisdiction. Peter conferred his own authority and its succession to the see of Rome, and thus that episcopal jurisdiction in particular rules and governs all other congregations. Practically, this means a hierarchical institution with unchallengeable authority at the top. And this claim is made as a matter of dogma, pressing it into the essence of the church.
These are very strong claims, and they are contested by a great many Christians, including both scholars and churchmen. Even other federations of churches which claim ancient pedigree and apostolic heritage reject these claims. It is only reasonable to ask whether these claims can be substantiated by the evidence of the Scriptures or the early centuries of the church. Many who do accept these claims do not actually do this, instead arguing that a great many of Rome’s doctrines are present in the early church, and thus a more universal benefit of the doubt is granted. Others simply argue that Rome’s claims are epistemologically or politically necessary in order to secure some goal already deemed to be attractive. However, these claims bring great danger, as we have seen. They bind men’s consciences, but they also place them under other kinds of danger when scenarios of abuse arise. To truly ask people to believe that Rome is the one true church from which no one can leave requires a bold and thorough defense of Rome’s foundational claims, and it is entirely irresponsible to shrug off this duty.
So now let us compare those claims with what we see in the early church.
It is important not to skip the actual New Testament evidence when we look for the “early church.” Many wrongly assume that the New Testament is either silent or too obscure to be of much use in debates over later contested tradition, but this already grants certain leverage to one perspective. And indeed, if the passages from Matthew 16 and John 21 can and have been employed to defend a particular idea of church government, then other passages ought to also be examined.
John 21:15-19 contains Jesus’ reaffirming of Peter as an apostle. Jesus there asks Peter if he loves Him and then says, “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.” This does not tells us anything specific about the nature of Peter’s ministry, nor its relationship to the other apostles. It does tell us that Peter is being restored to apostolic ministry, and it would reinforce the teachings of any other previous passage about Peter’s ministry.
And so it is Matthew 16:13-19 where we must go to learn about Peter’s ministry and authority. There we read:
When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah,for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
This is the primary, and perhaps only, passage where one could establish that Peter was given a singular governing primacy over the other apostles and subsequent Christian churches. The key statements are, “on this rock I will build My church… and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” The Greek term is petra, and so the rhetorical implication, as one major argument would have it, is that Jesus is saying that Peter is the rock–Petros is the petra–and thus Jesus will build His church on Peter. Further, Jesus says that he will give Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and these keys will enable Peter to “bind” and “loose” in heaven. These keys then symbolize church authority and government.
There is long history of interpretation of this passage, and there are many different perspectives, even in the church of the first four hundred years. Robert Gagnon provides a concise summary of that history here. However, for the sake of our present argument, let us grant that Jesus is naming Peter a sort of “foundation” from which the church will be built, and let us also grant that the keys of the kingdom are some sort of ordinary pastoral governance that has true spiritual efficacy. What we still need to discover is whether Peter has a universal and singular authority over the other apostles, over the various churches founded by other apostles, and over the men ordained to the ministry by other apostles. These matters are simply not present in Matthew 16. Jesus does not make them explicit. One might perhaps argue that they could be implied from what Jesus does say– that “keys” symbolize universal and total power– but this is not at all obvious. So we will have to look to other portions of the New Testament to see if a particular model of episcopal authority is made clear.
The book of Acts gives us a few examples of church leadership under the direct oversight of the apostles. In its opening chapter we do see Peter presiding over the first 120 disciples (Acts 1:15). But when he proposes the selection of a replacement for Judas, he proposes something of a conciliar method: “And they proposed two… And they cast their lots…” (Acts 1:26). Each of the 11 apostles has his own lot. Peter does not dictate the decision, nor is there any effort made to show that he gave final approval. Rather, the 11 lots are presented together, as equally significant, and charismatic significance is given to the ritual itself. What seems to be most important is the retention of the number of 12 for the apostolate.
The next significant act of church government appears in Acts 6. There “seven” are chosen to an office that has subsequently been identified as the office of deacons (though the specifics are frequently disputed). Acts 6:2 says that “the twelve” carried out the governing action, as “the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples.” The twelve then ask the multitude to select seven men from their own ranks, according to personal reputation and charismatic gifting (Acts 6:3). After being selected, the seven were brought to the twelve and ordained. The most natural reading would indicate that the twelve were the ones who did the ordaining, but some scholars argue otherwise.
This example is helpful in showing that the apostles did carry out a direct governing function over ordinary ministerial affairs. They recommended a delegation of certain activities, requested input from the laity, and then (probably) performed the final action of ordination, through the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6). And yet this example is not a monoepiscopal one, with Peter acting as head. We see no claims of Petrine primacy and certainly none of Petrine immediacy. Instead, a collegium of apostles ordain men who have been selected by the people.
The next relevant passage in the Book of Acts is the ordination of the Apostle Paul. Having been miraculously converted by God on the road to Damascus, Paul (then called Saul) has hands laid on him by an otherwise unknown “disciple” named Ananias (Acts 9:10, 17). This takes place in Damascus, and there is no mention of Ananias having a connection to any other apostle or even being ordained himself. This laying on of hands restores Paul’s sight, but it also fills him with the Holy Spirit. Immediately after his encounter with Ananias, Paul begins to preach (Acts 9:20).
Paul does not go to meet with the other disciples until “after many days were past” (Acts 9:23). All the while he continues to preach. In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul says that three years passed before he met with the other apostles in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:17-18). Acts makes no mention of the apostles laying hands on Paul again, and Paul himself rejects any argument that his ordination came through the mediation of other apostles:
for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do. (Gal. 2:6-10)
Notice that Paul denies that anything was “added” to his ministry when he met the “pillars” of the church. In fact, Paul draws a parallel between his apostolic authority and Peter’s; “they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles.” Peter may have an apostleship to Jewish believers, but Paul receives his apostleship to Gentiles directly from God. This is important for what immediately follows in Galatians 2, as Paul confronted and corrected Peter.
Returning to the history of church in Acts, Paul leaves Jerusalem and returns to Tarsus, where Barnabas finds him later (Acts 11:25). Barnabas brings Paul to Antioch, where the two minister together. The church at Antioch is described as having “prophets and teachers,” and these prophets and teachers do commission Paul and Barnabas for particular missionary work (Acts 13:2-3). This is presented as a group action, though the Scriptures are clear that it was led by a revelation from the Lord. Thus we see two leading apostles (Barnabas is called an apostle in Acts 14:14, even though he is not one of the original twelve apostles), governing alongside a group of teachers and prophets.
Perhaps the most important picture of early church governance is found in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. This council was called to deal with the question of circumcision and was decisive for setting the course of Christianity as distinct from Judaism. But it can also show us how the apostolic church organized its leadership and how it made decisions for faith and morals.
Acts 15:2 says that “they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” Thus Antioch’s two apostles, along with a small representative group, went to a group of “apostles and elders” in Jerusalem. There is no mention of Petrine singularity or primacy here, and indeed the council is presented as a college of apostles and elders. Peter is one of the first to speak at this council (Acts 15:7), but he is followed by Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:12). Importantly, it is James who gives a “judgment” (Acts 15:13, 19). This fits with the tradition that James acted as bishop of the church of Jerusalem. After the council itself deliberated, James made the governing decision: “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God…” The letter written to chronicle the council’s ruling is attributed to “the apostles, the elders, and the brethren” (Acts 15:23). Thus one could argue that the Jerusalem Council was a decision of the body as a whole, or it was a council which was decided by its leading episcopal authority, the apostle James. The option that is not available is that Peter ruled over the other apostles and delegated his personal episcopal authority to them.
Immediately after the Jerusalem Council, something happens which also provides helpful perspective. Paul and Barnabas come into a dispute over John Mark, and Barnabas takes John Mark with him and begins a separate ministry (Acts 15:36-39). Paul retains Silas (15:40), but very soon afterwards selects Timothy as something of a replacement for John Mark (Acts 16:1-3). What we learn from this series of events is that Paul does not submit such activities to Peter or indeed any higher council. Paul can even recruit and ordain (Timothy is said to have been ordained by Paul in 2 Tim. 1:6) without conferring with other outside authorities. Thus, a man who denies that his own ordination came from Peter, and who says that his own apostleship is equal to and parallel with Peter’s, ordains new successors independent of Peter or any others of “the twelve.” As is made more clear in 1st and 2nd Timothy, Paul will also send Timothy out to ordain more elders, and, again, no mention is made of any higher authority or outside ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
Acts provides a few more helpful occasions of church formation and ordination. At the end of Acts 18, we are told that Apollos took up a kind of impromptu ministry without any formal oversight from other apostles and even with incomplete doctrinal knowledge. Nevertheless, he preached with power and won many converts in Ephesus. Aquila and Priscilla helped to educate him further (Acts 18:26) and “the brethren” wrote to “the disciples” and encouraged them to “receive” him (Acts 18:27). Apollos seems to have helped found the church at Ephesus, because when Paul arrives, he discovers that the disciples there have only heard of John’s baptism (hence they have only been taught by Apollos). Paul then baptizes the believers anew and lays hands on them, but this is explained as being necessary because Apollos had not yet proclaimed the message of the Holy Spirit and had not administered Christian baptism.
Indeed, when Paul makes mention of Apollos in 1 Corinthians, he speaks of him as a sort of equal, alongside even Peter (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4-6, 22; 16:12). Importantly, Paul says that the three names are equally irrelevant compared to the content of the gospel, the actual transformation of the Spirit, and the higher unity of the Church– a unity not found “in” Peter or “in” Paul (or any other minister) but rather the content of the preached gospel, a unity in the cross of Christ.
This Ephesian church grew, and by Acts 20 we see that it has elders. Acts 20:17 says that Paul called for “the elders of the church.” The church is singular, and yet the elders are plural. In vs. 28, Paul says that the Holy Spirit has made these elders “overseers” (episkopous) who should “shepherd” the church. The word used for shepherd literally means “to feed or tend a flock of sheep.” Thus, the church of Ephesus had multiple elders who were also bishops, tasked with the pastoral ministry. If there is any singular episcopal rule, Paul would have been that bishop, and yet when he departs Ephesus, he does not leave any singular successor. Instead he leaves a plurality of elders/bishops who are collectively told to act as pastors for the church. Vs. 30 makes it clear that this was the last time Paul was present at Ephesus.
As Paul begins his final trip to Jerusalem, we are told that Philip was “one of the seven” (Acts 21:8), a reference back to Acts 6. There are also various “prophets” mentioned in Acts 21, indicating that multiple kinds of unique “orders” were in existence at the time. There are the original “twelve,” the “seven” appointed to serve on a more local level in place of the Twelve, the Apostle Paul, and various prophets– not to mention the plurality of elder-bishops in Ephesus. When Paul does arrive at Jerusalem, he goes to see James, who is described as something of a local elder-bishop presiding over a college of elders: “On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18). This continues the impression that James held the highest “office” in Jerusalem, just as we saw in Acts 15.
Interestingly, the Book of Acts concludes with Paul in the city of Rome. We are told that “the brethren” are present there (Acts 28:15), but no other names are given. Paul chooses to go to the Jewish leaders and preach to them, but there is no mention of an established Christian church or hierarchy.
Among the Pauline literature, there are two major passages which address church office. 1 Tim. 3:1-13 mentions “a bishop” and “deacons.” Both are presumed to ordinarily be married, and the major difference between the two offices seems to be that the bishop is “able to teach” (vs. 2). The other major passage is Titus 1:5-9, where “elders” are mentioned. Titus is commanded to “appoint” elders in every city (vs. 5). These “elders,” however, are also called “bishop” in vs. 7, leaving the impression that the terms are largely interchangeable, something we also saw in Acts 21. These elder-bishops operate on a city level, and Titus is sent to Crete to appoint these officers throughout the island. Thus this would create a collegium of elder-bishops working together for the church in Crete.
There are a few more passages in Paul’s writings which give some information about church governance in his time. These are largely only passing references, and it is difficult to make conclusive statements about them. Many of the letters are actually said to be written by Paul and Timothy together, thus showing how Timothy has taken on a sort of “successor” role. Philippians 1:1 is addressed to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” This further confirms the idea that “elders” and “bishops” are functionally equivalent offices, both working on local ministry. 1 Tim. 5:17 again mentions “elders,” and it distinguishes some elders who “rule well” from some who “especially… labor in the word and doctrine.” Thus it may be the case that a smaller subsection of “elders carry the primary burden of “word and doctrine” ministry. This could explain why some pictures of “elder-bishops” have one leading figure surrounding by a group of others, all bearing the same title.
Ephesians 4:11 names a number of what appear to be “offices” of the church, saying, “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” The word order and arrangement seems to indicate that “pastors and teachers” exist together as one class, while “apostles, prophets, and evangelists” exist together as another class, but this is not definitive. (Back in Acts 21, Philip was identified as an “evangelist” ((Acts 21:8)). “Prophets” are also mentioned in Acts 21:9-10). “Prophets” will also appear in 1 Corinthians 14. In one section Paul gives rules of order for how prophesying should take place in the worship, and he says, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). The immediate context also included rules for interpreting and judging prophecy– “let the others judge” (vs. 29). This indicates that there is some publicly recognized body of “prophets” who were tasked with maintaining order and judging prophecies in the church. The existence of “prophets” as a kind of local church office will appear in at least one post-apostolic source, and so Paul’s description here is important.
Paul also mentions various ministers by name. Romans 16 includes a great many names, though not Peter’s. Some of these names appear in other places in the New Testament. Priscilla and Aquila were present in Acts and they also show up in 1 Cor. 16:19 and 2 Tim. 4:19. It seems likely that some of the various other names might be pastors of some sort, but Paul does not identify them as such. Colossians 4:7 names Tychicus as a “faithful minister.” Mark and Luke are also present with Paul during his writing of Colossians (Col. 4:10, 14)). Onesimus, Aristarchus, Epaphras, and Demas (Col. 4:9, 10, 12, 14) appear again in Philemon vs. 24, and there they are called “fellow laborers.” This could indicate that they all held a kind of ministerial office. Philemon and Archippus also appear to be pastors (Philemon vs. 1-2). Some of these same names appear in 2 Tim. 4:9-12, and so it would make sense that these were assistants to Paul who would later go on to hold church office. Demas, however, is singled out as having abandoned the ministry (2 Tim. 4:9). Still, at no point does Paul identify these men’s offices with any particularity, nor does he presume any necessary burden for establishing their credentials or lineage. There is no larger ecclesiastical structure to be identified, neither “the twelve,” nor “the seven.” When Paul justifies his own ministerial credentials, he appeals to a divine revelation and the actual fruit of his ministry. As we saw above, in Galatians 1 and 2, Paul rejects any notion that his apostolic ministry should be subordinated to or mediated through the original Twelve Apostles.
While as not as thorough as Acts or the Pauline literature, the remaining portion of the New Testament does contain some evidence for early church organization and government. The Epistles to the Hebrews identifies “rulers” in the church (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). It does not name them with any more specificity. James mentions “teachers,” but says nothing more about the nature of the office (James 3:1).
Peter mentions “elders” in 1 Peter 5:1, and he identifies himself as such an elder. Peter also tells these “elders” to “shepherd the flock of God… serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2). The word translated as overseer is the same as bishop, and so Peter is describing the organization of the church in the same way that Acts 21 did. Multiple elders are given the job of bishops, and these work on the local level.
Peter also calls Mark “his son” (1 Peter 5:13). Thus Mark is a kind of successor to Peter. This parallels the relationship between Paul and Timothy (Paul calls Timothy his son in 1 Cor. 4:17 and 1 Tim. 1:2), and so any succession from these apostles would reasonably go from Peter to Mark and from Paul to Timothy. Peter also states that Mark is with him “in Babylon,” which many have taken as a reference to Rome (1 Peter 5:13). Given the rest of the New Testament usage, however, an argument could also be made that “Babylon” is a prophetic indictment of Jerusalem or the hostile Jewish religious community (see Revelation 11:8). If Peter is writing from Rome, however, then Mark is there with him and operating as his natural successor.
Moving to the Johannine literature, we can see a few more small pieces of information relevant to church leadership. John calls himself “elder” in the first verse of 2 John and first verse of 3 John. 3 John vs. 9-10 seems to indicate that Diotrephes was attempting to hold a position of church leadership, even in opposition to John, and John rebukes him. 1 John 2:18-19 indicates that some false teachers were claiming to be from the apostles but were instead “antichrists.” What marked them out as antichrists, however, was their teaching, denying that Jesus is the messiah and has come in the flesh (1 John 4:30, 2 John vs. 7). In Revelation, John writes to seven churches, and he addresses the letters to “the angel of the church.” These “angels” would seem to be church officers of a sort, as John’s letters contain instructions to exercise church discipline.
The New Testament offers a somewhat diverse picture of the early church’s leadership. Jesus commends Peter in some way and gives him “keys to the kingdom,” but the Book of Acts shows that the work of the church in ordination, governance, and discipline was carried out by groups, first by “the Twelve” and then by collections of elder-bishops. There are also “the Seven,” as well as various “prophets ” who hold some sort of office. James appears to hold a position of seniority in Jerusalem, and he delivers the final judgment at the Jerusalem Council.
Paul is called and ordained immediately by God, without an act of any other ecclesiastical structure, and he defends his authority and independence on these grounds. He says that Peter has an apostolate to Jews and that he has an apostolate to Gentiles (Gal. 2:8). Paul appears to identify Timothy as his own personal successor, and Peter, it would seem, names Mark as his, though neither Timothy nor Mark are given the title of apostle. Instead, the ordinary title which develops is “elder” which is also sometimes called “overseer” or “bishop.” The titles of elder and bishop are overlapping if not identical titles in the New Testament, though there are occasions where one or more elders assume a leading rule within a college of elders. A second class of office also appears as “deacons.” Both elders and deacons are local church offices, and multiple elders can be present at churches in the same region.
The laying on of hands is present as a means of ordination, though no explanation is given. None of the apostles appeal to their ordination rituals or formal credentialing in any explicit manner, and when Paul is challenged, he rejects these standards as being definitive and instead appeals to a special diving revelation, as well as the fruit of his own ministry.
There are no cases of anyone appealing to Peter or the see of Rome in the New Testament. No church necessarily appears to have any priority or authority over the other churches, and there is no clear larger episcopal structure organizing the development of new congregations. In the one event where Peter and Paul come into direct conflict, it is Paul who rebukes Peter, and the subsequent history of the canon of Scripture and of Christian theology has vindicated Paul in this action.
Thus, the distinctive Roman Catholic claims about the founding of the Church are not present in the scriptures of the New Testament. In fact, certain facts which contradict those claims are present, and the overall ecclesiastical structure is quite different. Instead of a monoepiscopal hierarchy uniting the entire church, the New Testament shows a collection of regional churches existing through their connection to particular “elders” and “bishops,” some of whom were direct descendants of multiple apostles, and who possess more or less equal stature and authority, while working together.
We will next look to the historical evidence from the following centuries to see how the New Testament material was carried on in the developing churches and if any consistent picture can be discerned.