The Trajectory of Leadership Language in the First Christian Century

Shortly after the close of the New Testament canon (110 AD), the early church father Ignatius describes a three-part system of leadership that had developed by his time:
“You must all follow the bishop (episkopos), as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery (council of elders– presbuteros) as you would the apostles; respect the deacons (diakonos) as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop or whomever he himself designates is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic (universal) church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid.” (Ignatius, Letter to the Church at Smyrna, 8:1-2. Translation taken from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, second edition, edited and translated by J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 188-191. Material in parentheses is mine.)

In many ways an outline like this is more structured and defined than the realities exhibited in the New Testament. For the New Testament offices were a means to an end, not the ends themselves. For Ignatius, on the other hand, each office has a fixed place in a hierarchy with an overseer (bishop) at the head with a council of elders subordinate to him and a group of deacons serving both. The question to be addressed here is when such a structure developed and what stages led from the charismatic leadership of the earliest church to the situation described by Ignatius around 110 AD. The primary body of evidence for the situation of the first century church is in the New Testament itself.

The earliest church began with a charismatic leadership made up of apostles and prophets, who emerged naturally through giftedness or a direct appointment from Jesus or the original twelve. As the church grew and the apostles spread out or died off, a non-charismatic leadership of appointment was soon required. To be an overseer or a deacon was also based on a “gift” (Rom. 12: 7-8; 1 Cor. 12:28), but these gifts could only be exercised after a person was elected and called by the community to a position of leadership.

While the first century cultural context was preoccupied with titles of office, Paul often refers to the leaders of churches without any reference to titles, and does not mention the term “elder” until fairly late. There seems to have been a concern not to encourage pride in leadership and hierarchy and to emphasize the Christ-centered nature of Christian leadership. Nevertheless, offices and titles came to be needed within a generation of the church’s first leaders.

One thing to keep in mind when assessing church organization in the first century is that most Christian gatherings occurred in private homes and were fairly small, even in urban settings. A city like Rome or Ephesus might have hundreds of Christians but they would be scattered in groups of 10-50 all over the city (compare Rom. 1:7 with 16:5). The fact that an important qualification for the position of “overseer” is to be able to handle one’s own family is a natural consequence of the house-church reality (1 Tim. 3:4-5). House churches were not much bigger than an extended family.

In developing offices and titles, the earliest churches had three major models of leadership to choose from in defining their own patterns of leadership: 1) what they had experienced  in Judaism and the synagogue, 2) those displayed in the Greco-Roman family system, and 3) patterns of governance observed in the Greco-Roman state and society. We have observed evidence that the New Testament writers deliberately avoided the leadership language and titles associated with the Greco-Roman political and social environment. Such titles and language were considered inappropriate to the servant model they had observed in Jesus Christ.

The Ignatian pattern, therefore, seems to have resulted from a somewhat awkward  merging of the other two models of leadership, those found in the synagogue and the home. The well-to-do Greco-Roman household had an overseer, usually the patriarch of the family and it also had a number of servants, who cared for the physical needs of the household. In a spiritual context, this could have given rise to the positions of overseer and deacon in a typical house church. From Judaism and the synagogue, the church inherited the concept of “elder” and a council of elders, although, as we have seen, there were analogies to the positions of overseer and deacon as well.

Andrew Clarke, building on the work of R. Alastair Campbell, surmises that each house church might have come to be run by an overseer/elder. Over time, cities with multiple house churches would have developed a council of elders made up of the overseers of all the house churches. Eventually, in the absence of apostles, the council would select one of its members to be the overseer of the whole group of churches in a given city or region. This hypothesis is supported by 1 Timothy 5:17, which indicates that all elders had a ruling role, but not all elders were teachers.

Since Paul does not use the title “elder” in his earlier letters, only in the later letters to Timothy and Titus, the household model seems to have held sway at first in the Pauline churches, linking up with the synagogue model only toward the end of Paul’s lifetime. By the time of Ignatius, some forty years later, the process seems to have reached a settled conclusion.

The kind of structure the church developed by the beginning of the second century was not the result of perverse decisions, it was the natural development of a process where one decision leads to another and the outcome is often unforseen. The question that remains is how those who know the New Testament today should do leadership differently as a result of that knowledge.

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