Friday, October 03, 2008

The Leadership Structure of Earliest Christianity-- Was it Hierarchial?

Clement of Rome is an interesting figure in early Christian history, not least because he had contact with some of the original Christian eyewitnesses, apostles and their co-workers. Hermas mentions this Clement (Shepherd 8.2) as a leader in the church in Rome to whom he sent a book, who was then to "distribute it to churches in other locations, for that is his commission". Tertullian in fact says he was the second (or third?) bishop/overseer of the church in Rome ordained by no less than Peter himself (Prescription 32). Origen (Comm. John 6.36) says he was the sometime companion of Paul which comports with Phil. 4.3 which suggests Clement is with Paul in Rome. Indeed, what Phil. 4.3 says is that Clement is a co-worker of Paul in the Gospel. It is thus important that we take with absolute seriousness what Clement says about the leadership structure of early Christianity from the time it began right on through the first century. Most scholars date 1 Clement to the last decade of the first century, though it may be from the 80s. It is a letter that reflects that the author knows well Paul's 1 Corinthians and the way the church was structured there, and he is writing a further letter to the same house churches to further correct the ongoing problems there. Here below is the crucial passage of importance for our discussion from Chapter 42 of 1 Clement:

"The apostles were given the gospel for us by the Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. Thus Christ came from God and the apostles from Christ. Both things happened then in an orderly way according to the will of God. When therefore the apostles received his commands and were fully convinced through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and persuaded by the Word of God, they went forth proclaiming the Good News that the Kingdom of God was about to come, brimming with confidence through the Holy Spirit. And as they preached throughout the countryside and in the cities, they appointed the first fruits of their ministries as bishops/overseers and deacons of those who were about to believe, testing them by the Spirit. And this was no recent development. For indeed, bishops/overseers and deacons have been mentioned in writings long before. For thus Scripture says in one place (Isaiah 60.17 LXX) "I will appoint their bishops/overseers in righteousness and their deacons in faith."

Several points are of importance here. Firstly, Clement is perfectly clear that there is a hierarchial leadership structure in the early church which was set in place by Christ himself when he picked the Twelve, and then they and other apostles went out and picked leaders from their earliest converts in various local areas. Clearly, this is a top down structure. Clement ought to have known whether this was a recent notion in his own day in the latter half of the first century, but he quite specifically denies that it was. And if the tradition is correct that he was ordained by Peter in Rome in the 60s, he certainly was in a position to know the truth about this matter going all way back to the 'first apostle' Peter who is indeed the key bridge figure between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the early church. Secondly, Clement believes that the OT prophet Isaiah forsaw such a structure for the eschatological community. Clement here takes the Greek translation of the OT to be Scripture and authoritative in this matter (N.B. the Greek differs some from the Hebrew of Isaiah here). Clement does not assume a radical disjunction between the sort of hierarchial leadership structures found amongst the OT people of God, and that found amongst the NT people of God. Clement does however reflect a period of time when the terms episkopos and presbyteros were closely associated (see 1 Clement 44). That is, all 'overseers' were also elders, but not all elders were also overseers/bishops. What Clement also reflects is the fact that he is thinking in terms of a process of ordination and appointment from apostles to local leaders and so on, and when he uses the terms episkopoi and presbyteroi he is not merely talking about functions (though that is included), he is talked about ongoing roles that some persons were appointed and anointed to carry out in the local church. Among other things, he assumes this is the structure that Paul set up in Corinth as well, as his use of 1 Corinthians throughout 1 Clement makes very clear.

What conclusions should we draw from this important authentic early Christian document from the first century A.D. written by a co-worker of Paul's?

Firstly, the notion that there was no leadership hierarchy in the earliest period of Christian history is an absolute myth. The evidence, both Biblical and extra-Biblical insofar as it discusses such a matter confirms this fact. Secondly, the notion that everyone was called to take up leadership roles in the early church is also a myth. No, there were specific persons called to do this. Thirdly, the hierarchy existed not only in general between the linked house churches, but within them as well, from what we can tell. This is definitely what Clement believes if you read 1 Clement carefully. Fourthly, this sort of structure should not be blamed on the growing pagan influence on the church as time went on. This too is absolutely false. Clement sees it rather as a continuation of the Jewish leadership structures both spoken of and prophesied in the OT. As an associate of both Peter and Paul, Clement was in a position to know what the mind of Peter and Paul was on the issue of leadership structures in a way that we certainly are not.

Ergo, we do not assume such structures are later and pagan developments, any more than the very Jewish Christian author of the Didache did. To the contrary, this is precisely the sort of ordering of the church that the apostles themselves had in mind and put in place, and which Peter believed Christ himself had inaugurated in the first place, when he gave him the keys to the kingdom and the power of binding and loosing in the first place.


Friar Tuck said...

This is a very helpful post. Thank you. My question is, does that mean that such a structure is called for today, or is leadership structure something that is culturally bound?

Also, how does this relate to the reformation concept of priesthood of all believers?

Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Ben - your logic seems irrefutable! What do you make of Hans Küng's struggle for freedom? What does hierarchy mean in terms of obedience to the curia? Should we all then be subject to the Petrine ministry? Is the binding and loosing really a singular item attributable only to Peter?

Do we have a new hierarchic priesthood?

I wish I could say I find logic helpful here - it seems to me that it is not.

mikeheaneysa said...

Good point on leadership Ben. What is the implications for the church today, ie also churches in Reformed tradition?

Mike Heaney

William said...

Howdy Sir Witherington,

I never cease to learn something new when I read your blog.

Could you point me in the right direction to finding the writings of the early church fathers in either a single volume or multiple volumes?

Mucho thanks

The Happy Sparrow said...

wow. fantastic, to-the-point read. thanks ben.

Glen said...

I agree is an error to blame all the hierarchal structures of the church on pagan influence. A good deal of the influence came from Judaism, the same source of the Judiazing heresy that Paul had to fight against in the early church. Very few reject the concept of God ordained leadership within the church. To interpret the New Testament in a way that gives all believers equal calling or gifting is clearly wrong. Leadership is clearly ordained by Jesus. However, the means by which leadership is obtained and the levels of hierarchy in the Church is not clear in the New Testament. From Clement of Rome onwards, we see a clear development of a hierarchy which eventually reachs that seen later in the Roman Catholic Church. If we accept the validity of the Protestant Reformation, we cannot accepts that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is God's only design. When we accept the Protestant Reformation, we must also accept that it's impact on of the radical reformers such as the Anabaptist movement was also a valid moving of God. So at this point we find ourselves asking, if we want a hiearachy which one are we going to chose.

If we look only at the New Testament model, we cannot see any clear hierarchy. There is never any specific mention of the Twelve Apostles approving of Paul's apostleship. The other additional apostles mentioned, no matter what position we might want to read into their authority, is not clearly stated. The use of words such as diakonos, presbuteros, and episkopos in the New Testament, give us no clear hierarchal structure. When the apostles Paul and Peter use these terms in reference to themselves, there is rather a sense of practical operation of different positions according to different situations. We have no record of Paul assuming authority over congregations that were not part of his pioneering work. The elder James, who is clearly a leader in the Jerusalem church as seen in Acts 15, did not seem to be under the 12 apostle anymore than Paul was.

Why we want to find hierarchies is more telling of our human tendencies than divine ordination. I would rather compare the evolution of the church hierarchy to the coronation of the king of Israel as found in I Samuel 8. It was not according to God's plan, but God not only accommodated it but blessed it greatly. When we find ourselves in a developed ecclesiastical hierarchy would it not be better to be content is realizing that the development of that movement has been blessed by and used by God, rather than trying to force the later developments of that movement into the New Testament text.

Jay and Milka said...

Is there a hierarchy evident in the following quote?

"the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God"

If this is a hierarchy than I guess I agree that the New Testament church had an hierarchy too.

James Garth said...

I agree that 1 Clement is a wonderful book and, along with the Didache, is an extremely important letter that ought to be more widely read in evangelical circles.

His advice concerning the appointment of suitably qualified, seasoned and anointed leadership seems sensible and we would be wise to heed his advice.

I think it's also fascinating that in 1 Clement 58.2 we have a simple, clear trinitarian formulae of sorts, again well before the end of the first century AD.

The only portion of 1 Clement that perplexes me somewhat is 25.1-5, where it seems evident that Clement accepts and believes the myth of the Phoenix, arguing that it is a type of special creation that points beyond itself towards the promise of a resurrection.

In the context of what he's arguing, this error isn't critical, and indeed it is understandable, given the myth's widespread acceptance in the ancient world.

However, this passage had a rather large impact on me personally, as it was in part responsible for forcing me to review my previously held views regarding the inerrency of ancient apostolic letters. I now tend to think 'inspiration' is a more helpful classification, for both the NT letters, and for the letters of early figures like Clement.

I'd be interested to know your thoughts on 25.1-5, if you've come across it before.


Tim Good said...

Thanks for the research and thoughts Ben. It is always interesting to read what the other early christian writers had to say (on what is now the history of the early church). It make so much more sense than filling in the blanks on what Paul didn't explain or describe in the NT. I appreciate your ongoing attention to the truth found in history

Rob said...


I find this, together with Ignatius of Antioch's "Do NOTHING without the bishop," quite disturbing. Ignatius was a contemporary of Clement, and apparantly a student of John the Apostle, giving him similar credentials and perspective. I come from a baptist and non-denominational background, where the emphasis is on the priesthood of all believers, who are all annointed with the Spirit for the work of the ministry. I had previously dismissed the early Fathers as being quickly corrupted in their thinking. However, more recently I'm beginning to doubt that point of view.

The question then is, are we not lead to the idea that to be a bishop, one must have been ordained by a bishop? And given the obvious theological and moral corruption of the Catholic church through the centuries, what has become of the succession? Where does the non-Catholic Bible believing church find authority for it's overseers?

Also, where does it leave the "laity?" Can they really not preach, or baptize, or lead a small group in communion on their own? Not according to Ignatius in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans. I quote: "It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. . . . He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil."

Ben, I'd sure appreciate your thougts on those questions.

Rob Bailey

Ben Witherington said...

Wow-- lots of excellent comments. First on resources--- the Loeb Classical Library published by Harvard U. Press gives you both the English and the Greek on facing pages. The volumes you want are called the Apostolic Fathers (translator Ehrman). Secondly, the concept of the priesthood of all believers in 1 Peter and Revelation and elsewhere has nothing to do with what Protestants call ministry roles, in the usual sense. Since Christians have neither priests nor temples nor literal sacrifices it couldnot have to do with the major ministry roles OT priests fulfilled. Only Christ, our high priest did and does those things for us. Notice in fact that according to Revelation (quoting Numbers) we are all both priests and kings! This does not mean we should all be running governments either! The priesthood of all believers has to do with: 1) our all presenting ourselves as living sacrifices to God (see Rom. 12), and our all interceding in prayer for our selves and others (see Hebrews). In other words it has to do with the ordinary and generic sacerdotal roles that anyone can and should perform. It does not have to do with who is gifted and graced to teach, preach etc. on an ongoing basis in church.

The crucial thing for any and all churches is: 1) the passing on and living by the apostolic tradition and the sacred Scriptures; and 2) ordination which is done in a proper Biblical fashion. Ideally of course wewould like all the church to be united worldwide,not just spiritually but structurally, however the church is composed of sinners, and there have been split-offs and theological and practical defections ever since this first happened with the Coptic Orthodox split, and then the Greek Orthodox split.

There is no pure apostolic church today, truth be told, not even the Reformation ones. This is in part why we have ever-present and ongoing attempts to start over again and be more 'biblical', for example in the recent house church movements.

What is the way forward: 1) to recognize there is a spiritual and bodily union that exists, whether we know it or not, between all Christians, which transcends our messing with the structures; 2) tp recognize that no church has pure apostolic polity and ecclesiology. We have all fallen some distance from the tree. 3) to work ecumenically with all true Christians to save the world, saying with Wesley 'if you love the Lord and your heart is as my heart in this matter, give me your hand'.

As for no evidence that the apostles in Jerusalem needed to approve of Paul's ministry and give him the sign of approval, you need to read Gal. 1-2 again.



phil said...

The concept of a hierarchy, or working from the top down, I think was a consistent method of how Jesus went about advancing the Kingdom of God. Sure, he associated himself with the low people, but he was the king of kings associating himself with low people. What seems consistent to me is that Jesus was trying to proclaim that when those at the top (the rich, the educated, the elitist) helped those at the bottom, then the scale of social justice begins to balance itself out a little more and before we know it the kingdom of God has broken in. Think about Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler…

Working from the top down seems to be how the leadership in the church was first established, but I think it goes beyond that and rings true for how the Kingdom of God was to come to this earth. Great post Dr. Witherington, I hope I stayed relevant.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Just today, it was reported in the paper that a 7 year old trial is underway about French sale of arms to Angola. Needless to say that the powers that be in France, corruption from the get go, are preying upon "opportunity". This is an organized crime of sorts and real organized crime gets you hierarchal forms of governing seem to be the case...

Sin boldly, while Paul said not to sin that grace may abound...that is an interesting one...huh, especially when we can't get around "sin" and in light of Methodism "holiness" message...It is each man's conscience or the "laws of the land" or what?

Philip said...

As an alternative to Bart Ehrman, Michael W. Holmes also has edited a couple of collections of the Apostolic Fathers, one with Greek and English, the other in English only.

You can also read the Apostolic Fathers online (for free):

Angie Van De Merwe said...

OOPS! I wrote a response to the on the wrong blog site...I was responding to another blogger who had written about Luther's sinning boldly....
In regards to leadership, I am really tired of hearing about leadership in America, esp. amongst Christians, because it only leads to an attitude of seeking position, in a heirarhcal structuring. I recognize that organizations must organize by this method. So, I am learning that I am too idealistic and must get real about life. I hadn't understood the seeking leadership to be the message of the Gospel...But then I am wondering what the Gospel is, truely...

愛丁堡.四十不惑 said...

I am sorry to say that, the argument in the post here does prove that there is a leadership structure but I am not quite sure if it shows evidence of hierarchical one. May be I missed something here.

On the hand, Paul and Jesus were both very cautious about leadership issue. For even a measurement of faith (Rom. 12:3) for execution of one's faith could be something to be claimed for self-regard if it is not understood probably as a gift from God.

Bill said...

Ben, I'm so glad to see this issue continues to hold your interest. I've not read the extra-canonicals yet, but I can say I see nothing in that Clement quote that adds to our knowledge from the NT. Here are my objections to your reflections today:

1) A chain of communication is not the same as a chain of command.

2) We already knew there were overseers in the NT. Your Clement quote still doesn't tell us what those men actually did.

3) I've recently noted some vagueness in the popular use of this term "hierarchy". Simply having an overseer does not automatically denote my responsibilities toward him. (See points 1 & 2.) In that regard, I find your use of the word seems to connote some particular functions but you (and the excerpt from Clement) seem to focus your defense on position. (Sorry to generalize "function" and "position", but I trust you get my meaning.)

4) The title of your post seems to beg the whole question. I suggest dialing it back to "Was there a Leadership Structure in Earliest Christianity?" (Hierarchy, as I just noted, seems synonymous to you.)

5) For that matter, I think you could do a bit more to spell out how much you're implying with the words "Leadership Structure".

Overall, you seem to assume that "Leadership" is synonymous with "Overseeing" and that the exercise of executive authority is an automatic given for anyone who was an overseer. Yet this aspect of your view is never supported by the arguments presented here. (I believe I recall sensing the same disconnect in your previous posts.)

To be clear, I do not find these assumptions supported in the NT.

On the positive side, Ben, I'm honestly and suddenly much more interested to know a lot more about Clement's situation. So thanks for that. I dearly hope you have much more to post about Clement's text and background.

Most of all, as always, thanks so much for continuing to grapple with the issues of how the early christians may have governed themselves.

Please keep it up...

Ben Witherington said...

Nice response Bill

Clement however isn't merely talking about a chain of commmuncation he is talking about an authorized chain of communicators which is the whole point of that interesting quote from the LXX Isaiah which speaks of 'appointing' the overseers/episkopoi and deacons. 'Appointing' in the Greek has nothing to do with merely communicating information. It has to do with assigning someone a role or a task.

If you read all of 1 Clement you will see the point of this. There were no authority structures in early Christianity that were not hierarchial to one degree or another. The failure to take seriously the appointing of Peter and other apostles for specific roles and functions by Jesus himself is a pretty serious oversight.

What Clement adds to that notion is that the apostles turned around and did the same sort of appointing of their converts in various locales. Now it is indeed possible that these structures developed at different rates and in different ways in different places, but what is notable is Clement assumes that there were the same sort of church offices or roles of episkopoi and diakonoi everywhere. I don't think you can explain this away, and I assuming you wouldn't accuse Clement of lying about these things.


Ben W.

Bill said...

Thanks very much, Ben. But I still feel you're missing my central point. I'll try one more response and attempt to spell out more clearly where I think we may actually agree in some spots:

Re: assigning someone a role or a task - Absolutely. I agree. But what role(s)? What task(s)? That is my central question. Authorized and appointed, fine? But for what? I know what the NT says. But does Clement mention any specific duties the Apostles gave to any of the overseers or diakones they appointed?

Re: no authority structures in early Christianity that were not hierarchial - I can't disagree with that because I'm still not clear on your definition of that word. But my question is, were those men [who filled the roles which you see as hierarchical] especially and constantly active in exercising executive command authority? Or were their corporate oversight duties of a largely passive nature more often than not? Obviously I favor the latter interpretation, but I hope you at least see we agree that these guys did exist.

Re: there were the same sort of church offices or roles of episkopoi and diakonoi everywhere - Almost everywhere, but of course. I never disputed that. Instead, my dispute is over the nature of the activity involved with that role. I feel like a broken record, but my question is: What did the men in those offices actually DO?

I still think your arguments assume quite a lot about the functions involved with these offices. It seems to me the practical activities of a NT elder or overseer were very much different than the job description of most professional protestant ministers today.

Now, clearly "overseer" starts with "over", so that's one degree to which I'll admit there is a certain kind of "hierarchy". But I don't think any good supervisor constantly directs. That is, I don't think NT "shepherds" actively led or presided over every group meeting of the church.

May I be personal? This summer you blogged about parasailing with your grown son. As his father, you're in permanent "hierarchy". But I'll bet you were pleased for him to make many of the decisions that day. Since he's grown, I'll hope and trust he wasn't your total subordinate, practically speaking.

However, in my experience of the organized, institutional version of God's ecclesia, the "Leaders" always make all the decisions. That may or may not fit our definitions of "hierarchy", but it certainly doesn't fall within the boundaries of "oversight". It also defies the long-term vision of Epehesians chapter 4. If the "pastor" always directs, the body never grows up.

I hope I'm coming through more clearly that my focus is on action. And practically, therefore, I think you're way off base if you mean to equate Leadership with Oversight, as it seems you often do. They are simply not synonymous.

Somewhere between Paul's day and Constantine's, Leadership became the exclusive property of Overseers and Ministers. I don't know about Clement (yet) but I see no evidence for such activity in the NT.

I hope you're reading me loud and clear. If I belabored my points this time it was purely in that interest.

Thanks again, brother Ben. If you truly "get me" this time and acknowledge these points, I'll take back every dirty, mean thing I ever said about you to my friends.

I'm kidding of course. I mean I'll take back most of it. ;)

Carrie Marie said...

This is helpful Dr. Witherington, thank you.

I have been wrestling with one issue that has to do with this topic. So, would you say then that God calls one man to lead over a church. God would give that man the vision, and the obvious rules in scripture to set up the proper leadership structure for a church. But that God would have specifically called that one man, and not a group of pastors/overseers?


Ben Witherington said...

Carrie I am not sure I would say that God calls only one man or woman to lead over a congregation. There may well be several ministers in a congregation working as a team. The point however is that there are leaders, 'steerers' as Paul dubs them in 1 Cor.

Bill you have every right to ask for a job description, and one is given in several places. The job description given to Peter is binding and loosing (which probably refers to binding certain commandments on a group of people, and loosing them from others, though it is possible this also has to do with the forgiveness of sins). His job description is further described in John 21 in terms of shepherding-- leading, feeding, and tending the sheep. This would be perfectly clear in a first century agricultural culture. It involves a fulltime job of oversight, of protection, of feeding (i.e providing spiritual food). There never comes a time when the sheep outgrow the need for the shepherd as leadership in the form of tending and feeding is always needed. Shepherding is a full time occupation, not an occasional activity shared with everyone, nor an occasional intervention when starting a congregation nor when crisis intervention is required.
This whole shepherdin thing is the background both to the episkopos language of oversight, and the language of pastor as well. We do indeed have something of a job description give for elders as well in the Pastorals, and teaching is including. More importantly the key terms in Ephesians refer to pastor-teachers, probably to two different roles and functions. The job of the pastor-teacher is indeed to equip the saints for ministry, not to do all the ministry. But this does not mean he or she ceases to be pastoring and teaching. There are always more persons to be equipped and more in depth training to be done.

We can get more of a job description if we look as well at the Petrine literature, and some of the other early Christian literature like 1 Clement and the Didache. We of course could wish for fuller job descriptions, but since they all knew what Peter or Paul or others were talking about, they have not told us everything we would like to know. What is clear is that leadership for local congregations was appointed by the apostles and there co-workers and it involved specific people who, as Clement says, were seen to be imbued by the Spirit with the necessary gifts and graces for the tasks.


Ben W

Bill said...

Well now we're on the same page. Of course, now it's a whole new debate... for another day, perhaps. ;)

Thanks very much for the conversation, Ben. :)

areopa said...

My two cents here:

Carrie Marie said...

Hi Dr. Witherington!
Thanks for your comments. "Steerers"...I like that. Thanks.

Also, do you have any book recommendations on church leadership. I would be interested to know what you like. Thanks!

Don said...

In my understanding there are certain leadership ministry gifts from the Spirit, the 5-fold who can teach and the deacons who may not. The 5-fold are variously called elders/shepherds/overseers and are apostles, prophets, evangelists pastors and teachers, the last might be together to make it 4-fold.

The intent is if you do not have the gift you are not confirmed by a congregation as one of their elders or deacons.

But the hierarchy is flat, there are just elders in a congregation, some of which might be apostles and sent out to start new churches.

John said...

Concerning Clement: Irenaeus writes a short biography of Clement confirming his sub-Apostolic status (Adv. Haer. III, iii, 3). Also, Clement seemed to derive information from both apostolic succession AND actual written N.T. material. For an evaluation of Clement's use of Materials deriving from the Synoptic Gospels please see: