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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Church Government

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Christ left a small body of disciples under the direction of the apostles, with a charge to convert the world; but He gave nothing which can be called either a constitution or a code, and He explained the commandments as giving principles, not rules. About the development of a constitution we know little; but the Pastoral Epistles and 3 John, which must be placed early, whoever wrote them, show that the process began soon and continued rapidly, when it became clear that Christ’s return might be long delayed. The process and its rapidity probably differed somewhat in different centres. At first the camps scattered about the eastern half of the Mediterranean had each its own tentative regulations. When the camps became a network of fortifications, spreading westward and inward and communicating with one another, the regulations became more settled and uniform. Thus the Christian organization developed until it became an object of suspicion and dread to the Roman Government, which at last it vanquished. Then the Christian organization did for the Empire what the Roman organization with all its statesmanship and military discipline had failed to do: it gave it cohesion and unity.

The first line of distinction is between the apostles and the other believers; and this line is continued as a distinction between rulers of any kind and those who are ruled-the Seven, elders, deacons, etc., on the one side, and the laity on the other. The great commission was given by the risen Christ to the whole Church and not to any select body in it. Yet this primary fact does not quite justify the phrase, ‘the priesthood of the laity.’ What the NT gives us is the priesthood of the whole Church without distinction between clergy and laity (1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6; Revelation 5:10; Revelation 20:6), and no individual can exercise it without the authority of the Church. All Christians are priests alike; but, inasmuch as it is by the Spirit that the whole Church is consecrated to the priesthood, so the special ministers need a special consecration by the Spirit. The NT speaks clearly of special functions which are confined to a select minority and are not shared by the rest. It was by the Spirit that the ‘charismatic’ ministries worked. This is manifestly true of the apostles and the Christian prophets. It might or might not be true of those whom St. Paul or his deputy (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5) chose for their capacity for governing. These derived their authority from the Spirit (Acts 20:28), but they did not necessarily possess the gift of prophecy or even of teaching. But officials chosen to do spiritual work in a spiritual community needed spiritual gifts of some hind; and what these men received in ordination was a spirit of power and love and discipline (2 Timothy 1:7) (see Westcott, Ephesians, 1906, p. 169; Swete, The Holy Spirit in the NT, 1909, pp. 103, 317, 320).

We are accustomed to think of the first Christians as having no government, other than that of ‘Peter with the Eleven’ (Acts 2:14). Harnack (Const. and Law of the Church, p. 20f.) has pointed out that they had a number of authorities, to be loyal to all of which was sometimes perplexing. They had inherited from Judaism the ordinances of the Jewish Church. To administer these there was the Sanhedrin. There were the known commands of Christ, which included the authority of the whole community to forgive and to punish offenders. There were the occasional promptings of the Spirit (Acts 6:3; Acts 6:10; Acts 8:29; Acts 10:19; Acts 11:12; Acts 11:28; Acts 16:7). There were also the brethren of the Lord, who had some kind of authority. Perplexity might arise as to reconciling Jewish ordinances with the commands of Christ, and there might be differences between the Twelve and the Lord’s brethren. We know that there was collision between the Divine commands and the decrees of the Sanhedrin, and that of course it was the latter that were disobeyed (Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29; Acts 5:32). Nevertheless, none of these provided a constitution, and the common view that the germs of one are to be looked for in the Twelve is not far from the truth.

The Twelve left the selection of the Seven, which was a first step towards development, to the whole body of Christians, most of whom were Palestinian Jews. These showed their liberality by electing men, all of whom bear Greek names and were presumably, but not certainly, Greek-speaking Jews, who would be more acceptable to the murmuring Hellenists. One of the Seven was only a proselyte, and we have here a very early illustration of the expansive power of the Church. St. Luke’s silence about elders in this connexion is the more remarkable, because distribution of the means of life was one of their functions (Acts 11:30). The common identification of the Seven with the deacons is questionable. Probably they were temporary officials, scattered by the persecution which was fatal to Stephen, and never re-established. See Deacon.

The apostles’ plan of leaving the choice of the Seven to the community was perhaps followed by St. Paul in his earlier work. In Romans he mentions no body of commissioned clergy. We cannot be sure from this that the Church in Rome was not yet organized: possibly there was no need to mention officials. In 1 and 2 Cor. there is no trace of a sacerdotal class; and it is possible that there and elsewhere the Apostle was trying the experiment of a Christian democracy without any hierarchy. Corinth had its charismatic ministry, and this seems to have sufficed for a time. The charismatic ministry came to an end very quickly there and elsewhere. There is little trace of it later than the Didache (a.d. 100-150). While it lasted, it supplied teachers, not rulers. The infant Gentile churches seem to have governed themselves under the direction of the Apostle who founded them. The Apostle does not address his letters to any official at Thessalonica, Corinth, or Rome. He leaves it to the congregation to punish and pardon offenders, to manage the collection of money, and to decide who shall take charge of the fund. These Gentile churches have gifted persons who take the lead in public worship, ‘apostles, prophets, and teachers’ (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11; cf. Romans 12:6-8), but they form no part of the permanent organization of the local church. They do not govern, nor are they tied to one community; they may go from one local church to another. They are not classes of officials each with special duties; they are individual believers with special gifts, with which they edify congregations. They are ministers of the word, proclaiming and explaining the gospel, and their business is to convert and instruct rather than to rule. They are ‘spiritual’ men (πνευματικοί), endowed by the Spirit (πνεῦμα) with powers (χαρίσματα) which are not common to all Christians; and their authority depends not upon election or appointment by others, but upon these personal endowments, exercised with the consent of the congregation.

Yet it is scarcely credible that the infant Gentile churches remained very long without rulers of any kind. Congregations which consisted chiefly of Jewish Christians had ‘elders’ analogous to ‘elders’ among the Jews; and in the Gentile communities something similar would grow up, with or without the suggestion of the Apostle who founded the church. The converts who were senior, whether by standing or age, and persons of social position or secular experience, would naturally be looked upon as leaders; e.g. ‘the elder brethren,’ which is the true reading in Acts 15:23. There are similar leaders at Ephesus. St. Luke calls them ‘the elders of the Church,’ but he does not report that St. Paul in his address to them does so (Acts 20:17-35). Except in the Pastorals, St. Paul does not mention ‘elders.’ In the earliest of his letters (1 Thessalonians 5:12) he exhorts his Gentile converts ‘to esteem exceeding highly them that labour among you and guide (προϊσταμένους) you in the Lord and admonish you.’ F. J. A. Hort (Christian Ecclesia, 1897, p. 126) points out that although προϊσταμένους cannot be the technical title of an office, standing as it does between labouring and admonishing, yet the persons meant seem to be office-bearers in the Church. The words which follow, ‘Admonish the disorderly, etc.,’ appear to be addressed to these guardians. But here again these guides, like the ‘apostles, prophets, and teachers,’ seem to owe their appointment to personal qualities. The difference is that they guide and admonish rather than teach. But no strict line would be drawn between leading and teaching. The same man would often have a gift for both, and would be specially influential in consequence. When official appointments began to be made, persons with this double qualification would be chosen, and they became ‘presbyters’ or ‘elders’ in the technical sense.

There seems to be a transition stage between the purely charismatic and the official ministry in Acts 13:1-4, about a.d. 47. There is a fast and a solemn service conducted by prophets and teachers at Antioch. During the service, the Spirit (through one of the prophets) says: ‘Since you desire to know (δή), separate for me Barnabas and Saul,’ who were present. There is another fast and service, and then the two are separated by the laying on of the hands of the other prophets and teachers. This ordination was for mission work, but ordination for the work of ruling congregations was probably similar. In 1 Timothy 4:14 Timothy is reminded of the gift (χάρισμα) which was given him by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. ‘By prophecy’ probably refers to utterances of prophets which marked him out for ordination (1 Timothy 1:18) as a helper of St. Paul; and the presbyters of the local church joined with St. Paul in ordaining him. Here for the first time ‘presbytery’ is used of a body of Christian elders. In Luke 22:66 and Acts 22:5 it is used of the Sanhedrin. ‘In none of these instances of the laying on of hands is there any trace of a belief in the magical virtue of the act. It is simply the familiar and expressive sign of benediction inherited by the Apostles from the Synagogue and adapted to the service of the Church’ (Swete, The Holy Spirit in the NT, p. 384). The laying on of hands was used in blessing; and the person who blesses does not transmit any good gift which he possesses himself: he invokes what he has no power to bestow, but what he hopes that God will bestow. When this symbolical action was used by a minister in connexion with an appointment to the ministry, the idea of transmission naturally arose. But the action is a symbol, not an instrument of consecration. The gift which Timothy received at his ordination was just such as was required for ruling infant churches: it was ‘a spirit of power, and love, and discipline’ (2 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:7). Cf. article Ordination.

Permanent local officials were required in the first instance for the regulation of public worship. St. Paul gives the earliest directions respecting this, and what he lays down for the Corinthians is based on principles which can be applied everywhere. He gives no directions as to special ministers, but he recognizes them where they exist (Philippians 1:1). He and Barnabas appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). It is here that the influence of the synagogue is so marked. ‘Elders’ are borrowed from it. The ritual which Jewish and Christian elders regulate is similar-praise, reading of Scripture, exposition, and prayer. The discipline exercised by both is similar; they deal with much the same kind of offences, and the chief penalty in both cases is excommunication. When Christians were told not to take their disputes into Roman civil courts (1 Corinthians 6), that involved the growth of Christian civil law, which the permanent officials had to administer; and here the influence of Roman legislation came in to develop what was derived from Christ’s teaching and that of the OT.

The development of Church organization and the complete separation of the clergy from the laity were the work of the post-apostolic age. The remark that ‘no soldier on service entangleth himself in the affairs of this life’ (2 Timothy 2:4) contributed to this separation, for it was interpreted to mean that the clergy must abjure secular occupations. Already in apostolic times the clergy had three distinct rights: honour and obedience (1 Thessalonians 5:12); maintenance (1 Corinthians 9:4-14); and freedom from frivolous accusations (1 Timothy 5:19). Before the end of the 2nd cent. most of the elements of the later development were already found in the Church.

Certainty is not attainable, and there is nothing approaching to it in favour of the theory that Christ gave a scheme of Church government to the apostles, and that they delivered it to the Church. There is little evidence to support either of these propositions. The far more probable theory is that Church government was a gradual growth initiated and guided by the Spirit, to meet the growing needs of a rapidly increasing community. This theory is supported by a good deal of evidence, and it is in harmony with what we know of God’s methods in other departments of human life.

Literature.-See works mentioned under Apostle and Bishop; C. Gore, The Church and the Ministry, London, 1888; R. C. Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood, do. 1897; J. Wordsworth, Serapion’s Prayer-Book, do. 1899, The Ministry of Grace, do. 1901; T. M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, do. 1902; A. W. F. Blunt, Studies in Apostol. Christianity, do. 1909; A. Harnack, Constitution and Law of the Church, Eng. translation , do. 1910; Robertson-Plummer, 1 Corinthians, Edinburgh, 1911, pp. xl-xlvi, 278-284; C. H. Turner, Studies in Early Church History, Oxford, 1912, Essays i. and ii.

Alfred Plummer.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Church Government'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/church-government.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, August 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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