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The Evolution of Church Leadership

The New Testament concept of what constituted church leadership (non-hierarchical, plural, co-equal, and indigenous) did not last much past the apostolic era. As early as A.D. 95, just years before John the Revelator was believed to have died, Clement of Rome wrote in his Epistle to the Corinthians,

"The high priest has been given his own special services, the priests have been assigned their own place, and the Levites have their special ministrations enjoined on them. The layman is bound by the ordinances of the laity."

Here we have Clement of Rome coming up with the grand idea of applying the Old Testament Levitical Priesthood to the Christian churches. Here, as early as A.D. 95, we have the introduction of the concept that church leadership ought to be that of priesthood, with the inevitable resultant distinction being made between "priest" and "people." The clergy/laity divide, which has dogged Christianity for two millennia, didn't originate with either Jesus or his apostles, and is therefore nothing whatsoever to do with the teaching of the New Testament. It rather originated with a guy called Clement who took church leadership, as set up by the apostles, and turned it into a priesthood quite separate from the laity.

Fifteen years later, in A.D. 110, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote the following to the Ephesians,

"Your reverend presbytery is tuned to the Bishop as strings to a lyre....Let us be careful not to resist the Bishop, that through our submission to the Bishop we may belong to God....We should regard the Bishop as the Lord Himself..."

To the Magnesians:

"I advise you to always act in godly concord with the Bishop, presiding as the counterpart of God, and the presbyters as the counterpart of the council of the Apostles....As the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by Himself or by means of the Apostles, so you must do nothing without the Bishop and the presbyters."

To the Trallians:

"...respect the Bishop as the counterpart of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of the Apostles: without those no church is recognized."

To the Smyrneans:

"Let no-one do anything that pertains to the church apart from the is not permitted to baptize or hold a love-feast independently of the Bishop. But whatever he approves, that is also well pleasing to God."

Notice where we have come? The presbytery (this is where the English word priest comes from) is now a reverend presbytery. It is growing both in importance and spiritual authority. (And of course this is how the designation of Reverend as a title for a church leader originated.) Moreover, non-hierarchical co-equality is gone too, and this "ordained ministry" is now headed up by a Bishop. Note too the astounding authority ascribed to the Bishop. He is to be looked upon, "as the Lord Himself." (At least they were still having love-feasts, even though you had to get permission from the Bishop first.)

In A.D. 200 Tertullian wrote:

"The supreme priest (that is the Bishop) has the right of conferring baptism: after him the presbyters and deacons, but only with the Bishop's authority. Otherwise the laity also have the much more is the discipline of reverence and humility incumbent upon laymen (since it also befits their superiors)...It would be idle for us to suppose that what is forbidden to PRIESTS is allowed to the laity. The distinction between the order of clergy and the people has been established by the authority of the Church."

Another ninety years have now passed and we have a full-blown priesthood, under the authority of a Bishop, with said priests considered the superiors of the mere laity, and with the Bishop regarded as supreme. In his statement that the clergy/laity divide, "has been established by the authority of the Church," we can see how Tertullian and the other church leaders of the day are claiming divine authority to sanction their own system. Church leaders are now, in effect, beyond question or challenge.

Fifty years later you might be amazed to discover that this priesthood has developed even further and is now considered to be an actual sacrificing one. It is thought to be actually mediating between God and those who are not priests. Writing of the Lord's Supper, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, in A.D. 250 declares:

"If Christ Jesus our Lord and God is Himself the High Priest of God the Father, and first offered Himself as a sacrifice to the Father, and commanded this to be done in remembrance of Himself, then assuredly the priest acts truly in Christ's place when he reproduces what Christ did, and he then offers a true and complete sacrifice to God the Father, if he begins to offer as he sees Christ Himself has offered."

What eventually became the full-blown Catholic Mass is here in germinal form as early as A.D. 250. And of course the supremacy of the Bishop over the priesthood soon led to even more layers of priestly hierarchy developing; culminating, of course, in the very Bishop of Bishops himself. Ladies and gentlemen, may we please hear it for the Pope!

And so we see how, little by little the Early Church Fathers took Christian churches from being a proliferation of little localized extended families, and made them instead into a worldwide hierarchical religious corporation. It is evident too how this first error, which I refer to as their foundational one, made it inevitable that more errors would soon follow. This wrong teaching about the very nature of the leadership and government of the church gave Christian leaders, in the form of Priests and Bishops, such authority that whatever else they ended up teaching was accepted virtually automatically as being from the Lord. It was indeed a seed-bed in which grew various other plants of error and deception.

It would take another 1,250 years, on the arrival of Martin Luther in the early 1500s, before this divide between clergy and laity was challenged. (Martin Luther introduced the concept of "the priesthood of believers," in which both clergy and laity alike are priests; and so essentially we "are all brothers.") Even then, Christianity, in the form of Protestantism, has never fully rejected this false divide between clergy and laity.

We must be clear that it is not only churches that practice leadership by priesthood which are in error. The essence of the wrong teaching introduced by the Church Fathers was that of hierarchy and institutionalism, priesthood just happened to be the particular form it took. So whether you have Catholics and Anglicans at one end of the spectrum with their hierarchical priesthoods, or Baptists and Pentecostals at the other with their churches led by the Pastor or Minister, who is not only imported and in charge, but also titled and referred to as the Rev. so and so, the error is precisely the same. The nature of church life, with all the anti-Biblical rigmarole of led services and religious buildings, and all the trappings of institutionalism, is still fundamentally changed and made into something the opposite of what it should be. Indeed, many so-called house churches with pyramid structures with their elders and senior elders under the authority of some hierarchically positioned apostle are merely yet another variation on the same old tired erroneous theme. So, whether it's Priest, Pastor or Senior Elder, or any of the myriad other variations around, it's still not what the New Testament teaches.

So just where have we come? Well, we have gone from the Christian Church being a family to it becoming a franchise. We have gone from organism to organization; from charismatic community to ecclesiastical, Multi-national Corporation; from God-led to man-led; from divine inspiration to mere human machination. In short, the Lord has been moved out of His home, and an alternative and un-Biblical way of doing things moved in instead and took His place.

It was inevitable too that, in time, Spirit-led open and interactive worship and sharing in which all could take part would replaced by religious services led from the front by the priests, by the professionals and the experts. Inevitable too was the Lord's Supper as a full meal, eaten together as God's extended family, being replaced by a "bread and wine service," tagged on to the newly created more general "church services." And of course finally believers' homes gave way to religious edifices donated by the Roman Emperor for the express purpose of holding said "religious services." The change was complete. The transformation was accomplished and the metamorphosis eventually finalized. Within mere decades of the death of the apostles the churches, as established and taught by them, were no more; destroyed and replaced by a monstrous alternative which went systematically against virtually everything those churches had been.

(The above is a condensing, reworking, and adding to the article, "The Early Church Fathers - The Heart of the Problem!" For the full text go here)