The History of the Office of Elder (4): After the Apostolic Age

Previous article in this series: November 1, 2012, p. 58.

Tracing the history of the office of elder in the Old and New Testament eras, we have seen that the office of elder in the New Testament church is rooted in the institution of elder in Old Testament Israel and in the office of elder in the synagogue. In tracing this history, we have also noted what God re­vealed regarding the qualifications, work, and honor of the office. This revelation of God is the norm to which the church must conform her view of the office.

We turn now to the history of the office after the time of the apostles and the completion of Scripture. Our question is this: how close to God’s norm regard­ing the office of elder did the church of Christ adhere after the time of the apostles? We begin answering this question in this article, by studying the period from about AD 100 to the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

The Office Disappears

The early church started well by ordaining quali­fied elders in every church and viewing them as those through whom God ruled the church. Worthy of note is that the church understood the words “bishop” and “elder” (presbyter) in the New Testament Scriptures to refer to one and the same office.¹ As one evidence of this, the document known as the Didache (“Teaching,” short for “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”), which was composed sometime before AD 150, says: “Ap­point, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.”² Here, as in Philip­pians 1:1, “bishops” refers to the elders of the church, and is used in the plural because each congregation had more than one elder. Even into the fourth century, the church father Jerome defended the position that in the Bible, “presbyter” and “bishop” refer to the same office.³

Even though the early church began well, she soon deformed the office of elder.

This deformation was a process. It progressed over time—decades and centuries. It went faster in some places, slower in others. Some resisted it, striving to be faithful to Scripture.

(The reader must understand that, in speaking of three aspects of this deformation, I am trying to relate a complex matter very simply, and trying to compress centuries of history into a few paragraphs.)

This deformation began when the church adopted the view that the two words in the New Testament Scriptures, “bishop” and “elder” (presbyter), referred either to two different church offices, or to a distinc­tion within the one office. Bishops and presbyters were both elders, but the bishop was a higher elder, and the presbyters were lower elders. This view is manifest in an early document called “The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles.” Written probably in the middle 300s, this document was later than, but partially based on, the document to which we already referred, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” But the “Constitu­tions” repeatedly indicates that a bishop and presbyter are not one and the same, and exalts the bishop. We have space for only one quote:

The bishop, he is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit. He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate; he is, next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honored by you.4

After speaking in lofty terms of the bishop’s office, the document continues in the same section to speak of deacons, deaconnesses, and presbyters—the latter in distinction from bishops.

This deformation continued as the church changed her view of what constituted the real work of the presbyter. This work had been that of rule; it became that of offering a sacrifice. Along with this, the church dropped the word “presbyter” and began to use the word “priest” instead. “Presbyters conducted services and administered the sacraments; they were thus the spiritual arm of the bishop. Later they were called priests.”5 To this day, Rome does not have elders or presbyters; she has a pope, bishops, and priests.

This deformation developed further as the rule of the church was transferred more fully to the bishop. Even if every church had one bishop, this would still be deformation in the office, for Christ assigned the rule of the church to a body of elders in each congrega­tion. But, over time, a bishop came to be a man who had authority and rule over a number of churches in a geographic area. Eventually certain bishops emerged as more prominent, and finally the Bishop of Rome came to be considered the Pope, the successor of the apostles. As such, not only is he the supreme teacher of the Rom­ish church, but he is the ultimate elder as well.

The church began by deforming the office of elder, but ended by removing the office of elder. With this exaltation of the bishop, and with the development of the papacy, the office of elder “fell into disuse” and “disappeared.” As a consequence, the office did not merely need reformation, which term presupposes that it existed in a deformed state; rather, it needed “restoration.”6

With regard to the scriptural mandate that each congregation have elders (plural) to rule over them, the church departed from the scriptural norm.

Two Related Departures from the Norm of Scripture

In the process of this deformation and disappear­ance of the office of elder, the church set aside two other scriptural mandates regarding her officebearers.

The first regards what kind of men may hold office. As already noted, Titus 1 and I Timothy 3 require the church’s elders to meet certain criteria with regard to their personal life, family life, and spiritual life. But, over time, the church ignored these qualifications. This is seen in two respects.

First, while at first priests were permitted to marry, later the church forbad priests to marry or be mar­ried. My purpose now is not to trace the history of the development of this idea in the early church but to state it.7 This prohibition to marry goes contrary to I Timothy 3:2, 4 and Titus 1:6, which clearly permit an officeholder to be married.

Second, the church became so spiritually corrupt that she permitted her clergy to continue in many sins and unbridled lusts. She also permitted men to enter office without any regard to their spiritual qualifica­tions. Instead, her criteria for deciding whom to put into office included such things as a man’s high rank in society, his having bought the office (the sin of simony), and his being related to other officeholders. Again, these are broad and general statements. Not every clergyman was immoral; not every parish toler­ated immorality in their clergy; yet during the period from AD 400 on, immorality was widespread. Philip Schaff notes that many early church councils made statements showing “the earnestness and rigor with which the church guarded the moral purity and dig­nity of her servants.” Yet, “the frequent repetition of warnings against even the lowest and most common sins, such as licentiousness, drunkenness, fighting, and buffoonery . . . yield an unfavorable conclusion in regard to the moral standing of the sacred order.”8 To restate Schaff’s words in my own: the church warned her clergy against many vices that were prevalent among the clergy, but many of the clergy ignored the warnings, and continued in both their sins and their clerical offices.

The second departure from the norm of Scripture regards how men are appointed to office. The Bible indicates that the church may and should choose her of­ficebearers: the first deacons were chosen by the church (Acts 6:3). One reason why the whole church is given to know God’s will regarding who serves as pastor, elder, or deacon (I Timothy 3, Titus 1) is so that the church can select those whom God brings to her attention as qualified.

At first the early church followed this principle, but over time the bishops, if not civil governors, began appointing the officebearers in the church. Schaff says, “The traditional participation of the people in the election . . . of the episcopal office, still continued, but gradually sank into a mere formality, and at last became entirely extinct. The bishops filled their own vacancies, and elected and ordained the clergy.” 9

Calvin’s Analysis of This History

My analysis of the history of the office of elder, based on the writings of the church fathers and of his­torians such as Philip Schaff, is essentially the same as that of John Calvin.

Calvin presents his analysis of this history in the fourth book of his Institutes of the Christian Reli­gion. Having developed the doctrine of the church in the first two chapters of the fourth book, in chapter three he presents the biblical teaching regarding the officebearers of the church: which offices Scripture requires, and how men are called and ordained to office. In this chapter he emphasizes both the qualifications that God sets forth for officebearers and the right of the people to choose their officebearers. In chapter four, Calvin treats the history of the church’s offices—including that of elder—in the first few centuries after the apostles. And in the fifth chapter, he demonstrates how “the ancient form of government was completely overthrown by the tyranny of the papacy.”10 What I present in quotes is in fact the title of this fifth chapter. The first two points he makes in chapter five are that those who held office were by and large corrupt, and that the people were deprived of their right to elect their bishops.

I do not cite from Calvin, but I do refer the interest­ed reader to his treatment of the history of the office of elder. Calvin’s analysis is significant for the Reformed view of the office of elder—for he not only witnessed firsthand the effects of the degeneration of the office of elder, but he and other reformers of his day were also used by God to restore the office to its rightful place in the church.

Evaluating This History

Some historians present this history positively. That the church set aside the requirements of Scripture regarding the office of elder does not concern them greatly; rather, they point out that these changes in the office of elder, and the rise of the bishops as the rulers of the church, were necessary for the church at that time. It helped unify the church in an outward, visible way. It centralized the church’s administration and authority. It put the church’s funds under the oversight of the bishop, which was supposed to safeguard them. And it provided spokesmen and leaders for the church to help deal with the two main troubles she was facing—persecution and heresy.

Having expanded on these reasons, Phillip Schaff concludes that, whether or not one thinks the origin of the “episcopate” (the exaltation of the bishop) to be good, “no impartial historian can deny its adaptation to the wants of the church at the time, and its historical necessity.”11 The Roman Catholic historian Thomas Bokenkotter also concludes that this exaltation of the position and authority of the bishop satisfied needs in the church at the time.12

Our evaluation of this history is fundamentally dif­ferent. Answering the question with which we began this article, we say that the church departed far from the scriptural norm, the will of God, regarding the of­fice of elder. This was departure in so basic a matter as God’s will for how the church is governed. It is not surprising, then, that the church also departed from Scripture in her teaching and her worship. Church reformation—the church’s return to the pattern God Himself gave in the Scripture, regarding what she must be and do—required not only a rejection of false teach­ing and idolatrous worship, but a return to right church government. Such a reformation God worked through the reformers. Next time, God willing, we will consider that era of the history of the office of elder.

Meanwhile, let us be reminded that the form of church government that we use may not be determined by practical considerations. God prescribes that there be a body of elders to rule in each congregation in which Christ’s one, universal body is manifested. Any other form of church government is contrary to His will.

We thank God for the office of elder in the church, and for the men whom He has provided to fill that of­fice!


¹ In the KJV, “bishop” translates the Greek word episkopos, which means “overseer,” and refers to the work of the office; while “elder” translates the Greek word presbuteros, which refers to an aged man, and so to the honor of the office.

² “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles,” chapter 15, The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), vol. 7, p. 381.

³ The interested reader can consult the book edited by David Hall and Joseph Hall, Paradigms in Polity: Classic Readings in Reformed and Presbyterian Church Government (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1994), pages 57-60, to read original writings of Jerome that support my state­ment.

4 “The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” section 24, The Anti-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, p. 410.

5 Harry R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1976), p. 136.

6 I borrow wording from three different authors who are substan­tially agreed that the office of elder was essentially lost by the time of the Reformation. “Fell into disuse” is the wording of Samuel Miller in An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (General Books [www.General-Books.net], 2009), p. 35. Miller’s work, originally published in 1831, is worthwhile reading, and includes copious cita­tions from the post-apostolic fathers regarding the office of elder in the early New Testament church. The General Books reprint, however, is a scanned copy of the original, in which copy many scan­ner errors were not fixed, making it difficult to read, therefore not recommended for the general reader.

“Disappeared” is the wording of Gerard Berkhoef and Lester DeKoster in The Elders Handbook: A Practical Guide for Church Leaders (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press 1979), p. 227. And the need for “restoration” is the wording of W. M. Henry Roberts, A Manual for Ruling Elders and Church Sessions (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1918), p. 61. In both of these works, the history of the office of elder is treated with extreme brevity.

7 The interested reader can consult Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989, reprint), vol. 3, chap. 5, section 50, for an overview of this history; or find information online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy (Accessed on 3/27/2012).

8 Schaff, History, vol. 3, pp. 256-257.

9 Schaff, History, vol. 3, p. 264.

10 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans­lated by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, p. 1,084.

11 Schaff, History, vol. 2, p. 144.

12 Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, revised and expanded edition (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 32.