Segment Four, Part One
In the introduction, we proposed a question: “what is the purpose of the church?” We have covered this subject and hopefully answered that question. We now propose another question: “how was the first century church as local bodies organized?” It would seem obvious that as with any assembly, there must be leaders and some kind of proper organization. There was. To see this, we return again to a previously quoted passage in Ephesians. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
“And he [Jesus] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;…” Paul, in this letter, is explaining to this assembly the how and why of living and learning as Jesus had taught. He explains that some will have responsible positions and why they are necessary, “for the unity of faith” of believers. These positions are needed “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:” and to give them proper doctrine that they be not deceived.
In the next several post, we will examine some of these positions and how they impacted the early church. As the body of Christians grew and expanded, so also did the responsibilities of some positions. We will list and explain some of what the early churches did as they became larger and included other regions.
Segment Four, Part Two
To fulfill the purpose of the church, local bodies of believers must 1) edify the body of Christ, and 2) teach and explain proper doctrine. In Segment Three, Part One, we introduced a “short list” of activities that leaders of local bodies were responsible for doing. The first item listed was to “teach doctrine as set forth by Jesus (John 7:16) and his disciples.” Teaching the local body correct doctrine was the highest priority of a local body leader. This function could not be done by just anyone. It had to be done by a “first” line leader. In the next several posts, we will list and explain several key positions.
We refer again to a previously quoted passage in Ephesians. (Ephesians 4:11-13) This passage gives us a list of leadership positions. These are pastors, elders (or bishops), teachers, deacons, evangelist, and apostles. We will start with the last in the list—apostles—because it is critical to understand this position and its impact upon the collective church body.
Before we proceed with “apostles” we must digress and give some input upon what was seen as a “local” body and the “body of Christ” as a whole. The church in its early formative period was just many times a small group meeting in a believer’s home. The organization was loose and responsible leaders few. We read in Acts how the body of believers grew and multiplied in towns, cities, and major regions of the Roman Empire. Paul gives us much insight into this growth and how positions were introduced as part of the local body. (Acts 14:23) We see this in his epistles to the churches and to his students, Timothy and Titus. He instructed the churches and his newly assigned church leaders on how to fill the needed positions within those local bodies of believers. As we proceed, we will flesh out each position and its function.
Segment Four, Part Three
The position of “apostle” was a key and critical position. (1 Corinthians 12:28) Why? In many of the early church bodies, an important function was the reading of Apostles’ writings to the churches. The “apostles” were a specific and select group composed of the disciples that Jesus chose and taught. There were originally twelve, but with Judas betrayal and death, that left eleven. The twelfth position (Acts 1:26) was later filled by lot from those who were intimately familiar with Jesus’ teachings. By his Damascus road conversion, Paul was also added to these apostles. Thus the “apostles” were an important and key source of teaching the doctrines of Jesus. Beyond these twelve (plus Paul), there is little scriptural evidence for the existence of other “apostles.” This group was the primary source for the teachings and doctrine of the early church.
Because their writings were read and passed on from church to church, it was important for the leaders of local bodies to know and authenticate the Apostles’ writings. Like Timothy and Titus, and other hand-picked church leaders, they all recognized the apostolic writings of Peter, John, Jude, and Paul. Many of these hand-picked leaders were called pastors or elders in their local assemblies. The apostles were also elders, but were most often called apostles as designating the position of authority. Many of the first hand-picked leaders would eventually also hand-pick their successors. Thus the position of “elder” came to be known as the first-line source of authority in a local body or church. This position of elder could also be one who was a pastor of that body. The pastor would be the one to bring the message or read the apostles’ writings to their congregation. When a local assembly or congregation grew big enough, many times those who were gifted in teaching would also be chosen. A note here: elder was also known as “bishop” a word (episkopos) that comes from the Greek language and is used to designate an overseer. An elder was the responsible leader of that church.
In the next post we will explain the position of deacon. This too was an important person in a local body.
Segment Four, Part Four
The position of deacon was first needed and recognized by the early church in Jerusalem. The twelve found themselves being pulled in many directions and could not perform the work that they were supposed to do, i.e. that of teaching “the word of God.” Because of this early crisis, the apostles asked “the multitude of believers to choose seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom whom we may appoint over this business.” (Acts 6:2, 3) These men were to “serve tables” and other administrative duties. These first “servers” eventually became known as deacons.
In his letters to Timothy, Paul gives some specific instructions as to select and train to be deacons. (See 1 Timothy 3:10, 12) Those selected had to meet the criteria to “prove” their fitness for the office of deacon. Paul used two distinct criteria for those to be selected: 1) prove them to be blameless, and 2) be the husband of one wife, and rule their own houses well. They had to be honest and trustworthy men because they were responsible for serving the needs of that local body or church. Families depended on them to handle their duties fairly.
Deacons in the early churches were limited in their authority and responsibility. Scripture does not elaborate on their total scope of duty, but most were second tier servants in the churches. As time has progressed, this office has been redefined and added duties assigned by many church denominations. The early deacons served at the need of that local body. Next, we will touch on other positions in the early church.
Segment Four, Part Five
A couple of other positions were in the early church. This included that of pastor, teacher, evangelists, and prophet. For these positions, we rely upon what is covered in several key scriptures. (See 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 2:20 and 4:11) History of the early church and a couple of other scriptures give us a glimpse of what these positions were, but are not well defined. Let’s see what we uncover.
The position of pastor and that of the teacher are simply listed without any reference to their duties, but from what we know, they are simple enough. A pastor was the preacher or lead shepherd of a local church and he also might be a teacher. Eventually they came to be separate positions. Acts 13:1 give us a little info on some of the prophets and teachers at Antioch. What they taught is not covered, but we assume they taught doctrine of the church and maybe some church history.
The evangelists were disciples or gifted believers that traveled about from town to town preaching the gospel. Acts 21:8 tells us about Philip the evangelist who was chosen as one of the seven early deacons. He and other evangelists were responsible for going to various communities and spreading the Good News.
Last, but by no means least, were the prophets. There is much controversy surrounding this position. Is the position of prophet still a viable office in the church today? This debate still rages, however, it seems that a prophet was necessary for the early church to discern certain future events that they would meet. As the first century drew to a close, it is not certain that the position of prophet was continued. We must remember that the Apostles were gifted with being able to discern future events so they could meet the challenges of the early church. Beyond that, things about this position are a little hazy. The position of prophet was most important for God to get the message out in the O.T. But, is this position still important for the New Testament church? It is debatable.