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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Church Government

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CHURCH GOVERNMENT . 1. The general development seems fairly clear, though its later stages fall beyond NT times. The Apostles were founders of churches, and therefore regulated and supervised the first arrangements; then were added sundry local and unlocal rulers; then the unlocal died out, and the local settled down into the three permanent classes of bishops, elders, and deacons. The chief disputed questions concern the origin of the local ministry, its relation to the other, and the time and manner in which it settled down under the government of (monarchical) bishops.

2. Twice over St. Paul gives something like a list of the chief persons of the Church. In 1 Corinthians 12:28 he counts up ‘first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then powers; then gifts of healing, helps, governments, kinds of tongues.’ It will be noticed that all the words after the first two plainly describe functions, not offices. A few years later ( Ephesians 4:11 ) he tells us how the ascended Lord ‘himself gave some as apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the work of service’ ( diakonia ) they are all of them ‘deacons’ ( diakonoi ), whatever more they may be.

3. At the head of both lists is the Apostle . The Apostles were not limited to the Eleven, or to the number twelve, though twelve was always the ideal number ( 1 Corinthians 15:5 , Revelation 21:14 ; perhaps Acts 2:14 ; Acts 6:2 ). Whether Matthias remained an Apostle or not, Paul and Barnabas were certainly Apostles ( e.g. Acts 14:14 ), and so was James the Lord’s brother ( Galatians 1:19 ). The old disciples Andronicus and Junias (not Junia) were ‘notable’ Apostles ( Romans 16:7 ). On the other hand, Timothy seems excluded by the greetings of several Epistles ( e.g. 2 Co.), and Apollos by the evidence of Clement of Rome, who most likely knew the truth of the matter.

The Apostle’s first qualification was to have seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:22 , 1 Corinthians 9:5 ), for his first duty was to bear witness of the Resurrection. This qualification seems never to have been relaxed in NT times. A direct call was also needed, for ( 1 Corinthians 12:28 , Galatians 1:1 , Ephesians 4:11 ) no human authority could choose an Apostle. The call of Barnabas and Saul was acknowledged ( Acts 13:8 ) by a commission from the church at Antioch; and if Matthias remained an Apostle, we must suppose that the direct call was represented by some later Divine recognition.

Therefore the Apostle was in no sense a local official. His work was not to serve tables, but to preach and to make disciples of all nations, so that he led a wandering life, settling down only in his old age, or in the sense of making, say, Ephesus or Corinth his centre for a while. The stories which divide the world among the Twelve are legends: the only division we know of was made (Galatians 2:8 ) at the Conference, when it was resolved that the Three should go to the Jews, Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles. With this preaching went the founding and general care of churches, though not their ordinary government. St. Paul interferes only in cases of gross error or corporate disorder. His point is not that the Galatians are mistaken, but that they are altogether falling away from Christ; not that the Corinthian is a bad offender, but that the church sees no great harm in the matter. He does not advise the Corinthians on further questions without plain hints ( 1 Corinthians 6:5 ; 1 Corinthians 10:14 ; 1 Corinthians 11:14 ) that they ought to have settled most of them for themselves.

4. Next to the Apostle comes the shadowy figure of the Prophet . He too sustained the Church, and shared with him ( Ephesians 2:20 ; Ephesians 3:5 ) the revelation of the mystery. He spoke ‘in the spirit’ words of warning, of comfort, or it might be of prediction. He too received his commission from God and not from men, and was no local officer of a church, even if he dwelt in the city. But he was not an eye-witness of the risen Lord, and ‘the care of all the churches’ did not rest on him. Women also might prophesy ( 1 Corinthians 11:5 ), like Philip’s daughters ( Acts 21:9 ) at Cæsarea, or perhaps the mystic Jezebel ( Revelation 2:20 ) at Thyatira. Yet even in the Apostolic age prophecy ( 1 Thessalonians 5:20 ) is beginning to fall into discredit, and false prophets are flourishing (1 John, 2 Peter, Jude). This may be the reason for the marked avoidance of the name ‘Apostle’ by and of St. John.

5. It will be seen that St. Paul’s lists leave no place for a local ministry of office, unless it comes in under ‘helps and governments’ on ‘pastors and teachers.’ Yet such a ministry must have existed almost from the first. We have (1) the appointment of the Seven at Jerusalem ( Acts 6:1-15 ); (2) elders at Jerusalem in the years 44, 50, 58 ( Acts 11:30 ; Acts 15:8 ; Acts 15:22 ; Acts 21:18 ), appointed by Paul and Barnabas in every church about 48 ( Acts 14:23 ), mentioned James 5:14 ; at Ephesus in 58 ( Acts 20:17 ), mentioned 1 Peter 5:1 ; (3) Phœhe a deaconess at Cenchreæ in 58 ( Romans 16:1 ), bishops and deacons at Philippi in 63 ( Philippians 1:1 ). Also in the Pastoral Epistles, Timothy at Ephesus about 66 is ( 1 Timothy 3:1-16 ; 1 Timothy 4:1-16 ) in charge of four orders: (1) bishops (or elders) ( 1 Timothy 5:1 ); (2) deacons; (3) deaconesses ( 1 Timothy 3:11 ) (‘women’ [in Gr. without the article] cannot be wives of deacons); (4) widows. With Titus in Crete only bishops are mentioned ( Titus 1:5 ). To these we add (5) the prominent quasi -episcopal positions of James at Jerusalem in 44 ( Acts 12:17 ), in 50, and in 58; and (6) of Timothy and Titus at Ephesus and in Crete.

To these we must not add (1) the ‘young men’ ( neôteroi ) who carried out Ananias ( Acts 5:6 ). [The tacit contrast with presbyteroi is of age, not office, for it is neaniskoi who bury Sapphira]; (2) the indefinite proistamenoi of 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and Romans 12:8 , and the equally indefinite hçgoumenoi of some unknown church shortly before 70 ( Hebrews 13:7 ; Hebrews 13:17 ). [If these are officials, we can say no more than that there are several of them]; (3) the angels of the seven churches in Asia. [These cannot safely be taken literally.]

6. The questions before us may be conveniently grouped round the three later offices of Bishop, Elder, and Deacon. But bishop and deacon seem at first to have denoted functions of oversight and service rather than definite offices. The elder carries over a more official character from the synagogue; but in any case there is always a good deal of give and take among officials of small societies. If so, we shall not be surprised if we find neither definite institution of offices nor sharp distinction of duties.

(1) Deacons . The traditional view, that the choice of the Seven in Acts 6:1-15 marks the institution of a permanent order of deacons, is open to serious doubt. The opinion of Cyprian and later writers is not worth much on a question of this kind, and even that of Irenæus is far from decisive. The vague word diakonia (used too in the context of the Apostles themselves) is balanced by the avoidance of the word ‘deacon’ in the Acts ( e.g. Acts 21:8 Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven). Since, however, Phœbe was a deaconess at Cenchreæ in 58, there were probably deacons there and at Corinth, though St. Paul does not mention any; and at Philippi we have bishops and deacons in 63. In both cases, however, the doubt remains, how far the name has settled into a definite office. See art. Deacon.

(2) Elders . Elders at Jerusalem receive the offerings in 44 from Saul and Barnabas. They are joined with the Apostles at the Conference in 50, and with James in 58. As Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in every city on their first missionary journey, and we find elders at Ephesus in 58, we may infer that the churches generally had elders, though there is no further certain mention of them till the Pastoral Epistles and 1Peter . Probably James 5:12 is earlier, but there we cannot be sure that the word is official.

The difference of name between elders and bishops may point to some difference of origin or duties; but in NT (and in Clement of Rome) the terms are practically equivalent. Thus the elders of Ephesus are reminded (Acts 20:28 ) that they are bishops. In the Pastoral Epistles, Timothy appoints ‘bishops and deacons’; Titus, ‘elders and deacons,’ though Timothy also ( 1 Timothy 5:17 ) has elders under him. The qualifications of the elder, as described to Titus, are practically those of the bishop as given to Timothy, and it is added ( Titus 1:7 ) that the elders must be such ‘because the bishop must be blameless,’ etc. which is decisive that the bishop’s office was at least as wide as the elder’s. Moreover, in both cases the duties implied are ministerial, not what we call episcopal. If the elder’s duty is to rule ( 1 Timothy 5:17 ), he does it subject to Timothy, much as a modern elder rules subject to his bishop.

(3) Bishops . See Bishop.

H. M. Gwatkin.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Church Government'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/c/church-government.html. 1909.

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Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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