The Early Church: A Dynamic, Progressive, Organic Community?

 As I mentioned in my last post (something I’m sure many of you know), there is a huge movement in the broader American/Western church which rejects all church authority.  The Jesus-figure in The Shack clearly hints that office and authority structure in the church get in the way of one’s relationship with himself.  Evangelical church-goers also sometimes have the same mindset, saying that one finds God outside of the church, that elders and pastors are of no real help to the Christian. 

What’s worse – probably – is that some of these “church-institution-rejecters” cite the early church as their model, as if the early church was a homey, dynamic, organic commune with no real leadership structure.  They blame later bishops and pastors for foisting a hierarchy on the church, which made it institutional.  Well, to be blunt, that is just wrong.  The early church didn’t float around without officers, elders, bishops, and deacons.  For one example, 1 Clement, one of the earliest post-NT epistles, was written from Christians in Rome to Christians in Corinth (c. 95 AD). 

In the opening, the church at Corinth is praised for her piety, hospitality, and love of truth.  Then, they are commended for living “in accordance with the laws of God, submitting yourselves to your leaders and giving to the older men (presbuterois) among you the honor due them” (1 Cl 1.3).  Later in the letter, the Roman Christians address some sort of revolt/schism that happened in Corinth (about which scholars arm-wrestle).  Here’s their advice.

“You…who laid the foundation of the revolt must submit to the presbyters (presbuterois) and accept discipline leading to repentance, bending the knees of your heart.  Learn how to subordinate yourselves, laying aside the arrogant and proud stubbornness of your tongue.  For it is better for you to be found small but included in the flock of Christ than to have a preeminent reputation and yet be excluded from this hope” (1 Cl 57.1-2).

Notice that last line, which is huge.  It is a commentary on Hebrews 13.17 – to not have leaders watching over one’s soul is not a good thing; there is not much hope outside of the elder-led flock.  One more:

“Let the flock of Christ be at peace with its duly appointed presbyters (presbuteron). ….These are things that those who live as citizens of the commonwealth of God – something not to be regretted – have done and will continue to do” (I Cl 54.2, 4).

Later, Cyprian would say similar things, just to name one other father who knew what church order and institution meant.  I find it quite odd that these “leave-church-as-institution” people always talk about kingdom, but fail to realize that kingdom is polis langauge, and where there is a King, there is order, leadership, and submission.  This is God’s order, not something foisted onto the church by some unChristian brutes a long time ago.

NOTE: For similar authority language as 1 Clement above, see Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, 2.2, 4.1, 5.3; Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians ch. 2, 13.2; Ignatius’ Epistle to the Trallians ch. 2; and his Epistle to Polycarp 6.1.  Finally, check out Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians 5.3b.

(Above quotes taken from Michael Holmes’ fine editorial work in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition [Grand Rapid: Baker, 2007])

shane lems

sunnyside wa

7 thoughts on “The Early Church: A Dynamic, Progressive, Organic Community?”

  1. I think that the “leave-church-as-institution” people ought to think more deeply about the fifth commandment and how it ultimately teaches us that we are to honor and submit to all authority placed over us (including the church!).

    We are all under some form of authority for our entire lives in one way or another and we are always under the highest authority, God himself. When we understand this properly it’s not so difficult to love the institutional church… because then we understand that God rules over us through his duly appointed office bearers in the church.

    Claiming to be submitted to Christ the Lord but not his church is mind-bogglingly hypocritical and entirely inconsistent with the nature of the biblical Christian life.

    At the end of the day, Christians in North America are more about autonomy than submission to authority (not a new concept to the readers of your blog here)… I suppose that this is yet one more indicting piece of evidence that the Western Church is plagued by a theology of (glory) self and has abandoned the theology of the cross.

    I really appreciate your super-hero reading skills, Shane. I always benefit from your posts. If I was the Borg collective from Star Trek, I’d assimilate you and read every book that has ever been printed since the beginning of time. =)


  2. One cannot read the scriptures and dismiss the importance of leadership. However, Jesus’ exhortation regarding leadership in Matt.20:25-28 and Matt.23:8-12 make it clear that leadership is servanthood and funtional rather than authoritarian and positional. The words used in most Bible translations denoting positional authority such as office, rule over, etc. are mistranslations not found in the original language. Elders were those older in the faith who led mainly by example and there was no such thing as a senior pastor. Much of the church today has become an institution with an heirarchical leadership structure that runs an organization and manages people. It seems to me that what we call church today no longer resembles a royal priesthood of believers who live true community and function in the “one anothers.” Maybe if each one of us recognized the authority we have in Christ to administrate his love and grace we would become a river in our neighborhoods, schools, work places, etc, rather than remaining a pond subject to stirring by pond keepers. Whether we’re in an organic, simple, house, emerging, or institutional church pond, we’ll grow stagnant if we concentrate on the place, the gathering and the pastor rather than on Christ and on the people he places in front of us every day.


    1. Thanks guys.

      David – it is true that there is much “extra” stuff today with regards to the institutional, organized church. For example, parachurch ministries and societies can distort what it means to have elders, pastors, and deacons in a church. It is a valid critique of the American church to note that many pastors are CEOs or the like, point well taken.

      At the same time, I think a biblical balance would be to focus on the people and the place – i.e. the organization and the institution. Paul charged Timothy (i.e. pastoral charge) and he charged the people – that’s the balance we should strive for rather than shucking the whole “place” concept of the church, the institution.

      Maybe I’ll discuss this in a later post, but I do disagree with your “mistranslation” note above.

      thanks for the comments,


  3. Shane, I’m not quite understanding your reference to the people as “organization” and the place as “institution.” My understanding is that Paul exhorted a younger apostle regarding his stewardship of people. Timothy was instructed to appoint elders in every city who functioned in plurality in some of the ways that a solo pastor does today, but there is no indication that Timothy was a senior pastor. Christians obviously gathered in homes (places) and Paul gave instructions regarding gatherings, but neither of those aspects drew the main focus. The point I sought to make in the post above, perhaps poorly, is that being the church all week long seems to be lossed in the over-emphasis of buildings, THE SUNDAY MORNING SERVICE, and what a wonderful pastor we have, as if those aspects create the spiritual center of our lives. I will be interested to hear your comments on mistranslation.


    1. David – thanks for the cordial tone. I’ll try to duplicate it.

      Terms (sorry for not defining them): organization = organism, the communion of believers. Institution: the mother of believers which utilizes the means God has prescribed to create and strengthen faith. Basically, the church as institution is the means to an end, that the church as organization be built up. In case the terms are still cumbersome, simply put, the elders, pastors, and their duties (institutional church) are for the good and edification of the people of God (church as organism). See Eph 4.8-14 for the biblical foundation. I meant to say there should be a balance here.

      Concerning the solo/senior pastor, thanks for the clarification. Ultimatly the meeting place doesn’t matter – the gathered assembly is the “place.” In old-school Presbyterian church polity, there is a plurality of leaders – i.e. the “solo” pastor does not have higher authority than the elder, they simply have a distinct calling/office. So in a good Presbyterian system, the pastor is certainly no “Moses” or CEO or ultimate decision maker. Do you think that it is possible some Emergent types are reacting against the mega-church “senior” pastor concept and assuming presbyterian-type churches have the same thing? Just wondering…

      Anyway, you’re right, the focus of the church isn’t on the leaders, but on Christ. The leaders – and Sunday assembly/worship! – exist so that the body looks to Jesus more and more. Paul’s instruction to install godly elders in the churches, and Hebrews’ call to “not forsake the assembly” are certainly things God instituted for the church to keep focused on Jesus day-to-day.

      Thanks again for the cordial tone; I realize blog comments are less than ideal for such a good discussion. One serious book on this very topic you may want to consult is “People and Place” by Mike Horton. Though you may not agree with his Reformed/Presbyterian conclusions, I promise you the book will challenge you and you won’t hate it, since Horton interacts with so many different models of “church” today, praising the good and pointing out the bad.



  4. Shane,
    Thanks for defining your use of the terms..what you’re saying makes a whole lot more sense when placed in the context of church as an organism. I have a good friend who has been a Presbyterian minister at a mega-church for many years and do understand the reason it’s called Presbyterian.

    Having been a pastor for many years I did my best to utilize Sunday morning and every other meeting for the purpose of encouraging people to grow in their relaionship with Christ, and for a minority, it accomplished that purpose. As years went by I realized that it always remained but a small core that lived as community. Although we had a large discipleship program, reached extensively into the neighborhood, pioneered a unity movement among churches in the city and were involved with missions in several countries, our over-all impact seemed minimal in comparison to the time and energy invested.

    Although I preached constantly on the nature and purpose of the church, I found that church still remained in the minds of the people as something they “attended” and “did” rather than what the were. What I had taken to be mere symantics of speech such as “going to church, we do this at our church, how many do you have in your church, where is your church located, etc, turned out to be what people believed at an emotional level.

    According to my research and that of others, the above seems to be the case in the great majority of churches everywhere.

    Thanks for the book reccomendation.


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