Historical developments that started while the Apostles were alive began to accelerate with their deaths. The structure of church government on which the apostles agreed, that is, a Presbyterian system in which the people elected elders to conduct the business of the congregations and to stress the interdependency of the local assemblies, began to show subtle signs of decay. The apostles and the elders they trained and ordained, including the men who succeeded the apostles, like Timothy and Titus and Polycarp, understood the importance of maintaining the gospel message and the testimony of the churches in the godly behavior of their members.
During the latter part of the first century, however, and throughout the centuries that followed, various factors influenced the rise of a much different governmental structure. In his letters to the churches of Asia Minor that take up two chapters in the Revelation of Jesus Christ at the end of the New Testament, the Apostle John, writing for Jesus Christ, referred to “the Nicolaitanes” in addressing Ephesus and Pergamos. In Revelation 2:6, Christ referred to “the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.” In Revelation 2:15, Christ referred to “the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.”
History reflects that there was a movement in the post-Apostolic period to create a clearer distinction between those who held ministerial office in the church and those who did not. Ultimately, that distinction led to the development of a priestly class, the clergy, that became increasingly the source of authority and action in the church.
The logic of this development rose out of the increasing attacks on the sound doctrine of which the apostles wrote. Whether the continuing presence of the philosophical ideas of the Gnostic heretics with their inherent antinomianism (lawlessness), or the equally alarming persistence of the Judaizers who stressed that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians, or the stoic emphasis on asceticism (the source of monasticism), the trends in the post-Apostolic period were away from the focus on the way of salvation through Christ alone. Those who were the successors of the apostles began to suggest that there needed to be a stronger and more centralized teaching office in the churches to guard the people against those trends.
At the same time, confidence in the people’s discernment to choose the right men to be their elders began to erode among those who had the teaching responsibility, and their solution to the problems they faced was to create a different path for the church’s government that departed from the Presbyterianism of the Apostolic period. Using the language of the New Testament that presented the teaching office in the guise of a bishop or overseer, a function that always belonged to the elders, the leaders of the churches began to look to greater authority that bypassed the voice of the people in distinction to the voice of the clergy.
Against heresy-inspired immoral behavior in various churches, the church leaders spoke more of what it meant to be Christian instead of what it meant to be a Christian. The shift in emphasis to ethical and moral matters above theological ones reflected the desire to urge the preservation of the conduct of the church’s members more than to defend the content of the church’s message. To achieve that shift of emphasis, however, required a much greater top-down approach to church government that tended to freeze out almost completely the idea of the people being able to elect their own representatives as officers.
The reasoning behind the drift away from the Presbyterian structures of the Apostolic period appeared to be that much more forceful administration was the only approach that would protect the church from the incursions of heresy. What was not as apparent was that the transition from Presbyterianism to the rise of what became monarchical bishops was part of the departure from the truth that lay at the base of the efforts of the Apostles and those they trained to establish an enduring testimony in the world. Still, the lingering influence of basic Presbyterian ideas appeared in the elections, even in the third and fourth centuries, of bishops who took the leadership of collections of churches in specific regions. What tended to lose significance was the ability of lay elders to occupy an equal position of prominence and authority in the church.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West late in the fifth century and the continuing presence of the emperors in the East at Constantinople, the class of monarchical bishops moved to fill the power vacuum that the political dissolution of the Western Empire left behind. Even as those circumstances were developing, the bishops were beginning to look to a second century letter from Ignatius of Antioch to the bishop of Rome as indicating at least deference to the primacy of the bishop of Rome. Without addressing the suggestions from other church fathers, such as Irenaeus of Lyon, who wrote late in the second century that Peter and Paul founded the church of Rome and set up the first of the bishops there, those who find their teaching authority in the Bible have to argue forcefully against episcopacy. The government that operated in the churches during the Apostolic period bore little resemblance to the government by bishops who traced their authority, not to the election by the people and the recognition of those choices by the presbytery, but to the imagined succession by which existing church leaders determined who the men were who would claim responsibility for the direction of the churches.
By the late sixth century, the power of the bishop of Rome became overwhelming. Thus, the guardians of the heritage of first-century Presbyterianism found themselves increasingly marginalized and the gospel message that the first-century Presbyterians proclaimed, namely of justification by grace alone through faith alone in the merits of Christ alone, tended to sink underneath the apostate religion that stressed the works of people as the way of salvation. That tendency left some longing for a time when God would revive His work and reassert the government that Christ’s apostles instituted in the church.
Rev. David G. Mook is the minister of Phoenix Free Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Arizona. He serves as clerk of the presbytery of the FPCNA, chairman of the Constitutional Documents Committee, and is an adjunct professor in the field of practical theology at Geneva Reformed Seminary.