Corruption in Church Organization

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

Text: Acts 20:17-35


I.         Equality of members (first century)

            A.        The early church was marked by the equality of its members - Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11

            B.        As Jesus prayed, the desire was for all Christians to be one - John 17:20-21

            C.        There were different duties, but the people were seen as equals

            D.        There was no separate priesthood, as under the Old Law because all Christians are priests - I Peter 2:5, 9

                        1.         Notice that the people (laos - laity) make up the priesthood

                        2.         But one of the pulls was to imitate what the Jews once had

                        3.         Not only the Jews, but the idolatrous religions also had priests separate from the common people

            E.        Paul warned of departures from the faith starting in the eldership - Acts 20:29-31

II.        A head in an eldership was called the bishop (second to third century)

            A.        “During the second century, however, the single bishop, distinguished from the presbyters, gradually achieves precedence (cf. Ignatius of Antioch). While providing stronger leadership, this system tends to produce authoritarian bishops in direct antithesis to the recommendations to elders in 1 Pet. 5:2-3.” [Hermann W. Beyer, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 248].

                        1.         We find Ignatius, bishop of Antioch of Syria, writing early in the second century concerning the importance of “unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons.” [“Letter to the Philadelphians”, T

                                    a.         But notice that the bishop is separated from the rest of the elders.

                        2.         Worse, the bishop is considered superior to the elders: “Your bishop presides in the place of God,, and your presbyters in the place of the apostles, along with your deacons." [Magnesians 46:1].

                        3.         This is not to say that Ignatius came up with the ideas. His writings provide proof that it existed.

            B.        Notice that synonymous terms are split. Bishop (overseer) and elder refer to the same duty - Titus 1:5, 7

                        1.         “Yet the bishop is always in the singular and the presbyters are always plural (even in Tit. 1:5ff). Already, then, there may be a tendency for a leading presbyter to take over administrative functions within the presbyterial college - the probable starting point for the later development of the monarchial bishop” [Günther Bornkamm]

                        2.         The argument is false.

                                    a.         Both in Acts 20:28 and Philippians 1:1 overseer appears in the plural.

                                    b.         Elder is in the singular in I Timothy 5:19

            C.        “The elevation of monarchial bishops within local churches is hardly surprising in light of human nature. As the Israelites clamored for a human king, so do many Christians. What is interesting is how early this worldly phenomenon was manifested in the church. Within only years of the death of its last apostle, the church saw the initial emergence of an ecclesiological system which was to have devastating consequences. The creation of a new caste of Christians was not far behind” [Mark M. Mattison, The Rise of the Clergy].

            D.        By the third century, we find “The bishop, he is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit. He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate; he is, next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honoured by you....let the bishop preside over you as one honoured with the authority of God, which he is to exercise over the clergy, and by which he is to govern all the people” [Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 2.26].

                        1.         Notice direct conflict with Christ’s teachings - Matthew 23:8-10

III.       Regional bishops (second to third century)

            A.        During the persecution during the second and third century, bishops coordinated with each other in making decisions. This resulted in further separation of the leadership from the common people.

IV.      Separation of clergy from laity (third century)

            A.        “We have to wait until the beginning of the third century before encountering the term kleros used to describe a limited group within the Christian community. It was only then that certain Christian ministers became clergy. It was also at that time that the term "layman" came to be employed again.” [Alexandre Faivre, The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church, p. 5-6].

            B.        Cyprian (third century) argued that clergy should not be made executors in wills because “every one honoured by the divine priesthood, and ordained in the clerical service, ought to serve only the altar and sacrifices, and to have leisure for prayers and supplications.” Citing how the Levites were the priests under the Old Law, Cyprian applied it to the church, “Which plan and rule is now maintained in respect of the clergy, that they who are promoted by clerical ordination in the Church of the Lord may be called off in no respect from the divine administration, nor be tied down by worldly anxieties and matters; but in the honour of the brethren who contribute, receiving as it were tenths of the fruits, they may not withdraw from the altars and sacrifices, but may serve day and night in heavenly and spiritual things” [Cyprian, Epistle LXV].

V.        Monks to priests (third to fourth century)

            A.        “As the church became more hierarchical and bureaucratic - in a word, more worldly - many Christians responded by embracing monasticism. Created in the fourth century as a "lay" movement, it soon precipitated the very thing Tertullian had feared - a special class of Christians within the church from whom "the clergy" could recruit its members. Monk-priests began to fill the ranks of "the clergy," touting their asceticism and questioning family values. As "the clergy" continued to drift apart from "the laity," the church's hierarchy continued to evolve. The church catholic was rapidly becoming the Roman Catholic Church” [Mark M. Mattison, “The Rise of the Clergy”,]

            B.        This is different from the early church where preachers in a church trained people - II Timothy 2:2

VI.      Bishops from major cities called archbishops (fourth century)

            A.        As Christianity became accepted in the Roman world , it received legal benefits, such as tax exemption, making being a church official rewarding

            B.        The result was that people were attracted to larger churches with more wealth. The large churches in regions became the prestigious ones.

            C.        “It was but a short step to the recognition that the monarchial bishops of some churches were more important than others. The exaltation of the monarchial bishop by the middle of the second century soon led to the recognition of the special honor due to the monarchial bishop of the church in Rome” [Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 124].

VII.     This early departure strongly influences the various denominations

            A.        During the reformation, groups pulled out of the Roman Catholic church, but they didn’t make a clean break from all the ideas present in Catholicism. A distinction between leadership and the common people remained.

            B.        The organization is altered slightly. Most denominations have a tendency to model their organization on the popular government at the time of their formation.

                        1.         The Roman Catholic organization is similar to Imperial Rome

                        2.         Anglicans use a parliamentary system

                        3.         More modern denominations use a representative democracy style, such as the Southern Baptist or the Christian Church

                        4.         Some model businesses with a board of directors, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons

            C.        But what remains is that the clergy is separated from the common people and that control exists beyond the local congregation and is in the hands of a few people.

            D.        Instead of monasteries, we see seminaries from which the denominations educate and draw people for their clergy.

            E.        We need to follow the pattern laid out by God and not the traditions of men - Matthew 15:7-9

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