Please give serious consideration to our appeal. After all, this is really not our appeal. It is God's. Please have the strength and courage to abandon man-made traditions and doctrines so that we may be united in our service to God. Don't accept the excuses given for failing to follow God's guidelines. We are expected to obey God's instructions as they are recorded in the New Testament. The Bible is not a human invention, and it has not been contaminated by human biases or interference. God's will does not evolve to keep pace with changing times. God is specific in His instructions about religious authority and salvation. And the Bible is clear in it's unchanging doctrine concerning church organization.
Before anyhing else, we must recognize that Jesus is the sole head of the church.
"And Jesus came up," we read in Matthew 28:18-20, "and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'"
"And He put all things in subjection under His feet," Paul writes of Jesus in Ephesians 1:22-23, "and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all."
"To me, the very least of all saints," Paul notes in Ephesians 3:8-10, "this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly {places.}"
But what was the church like in the beginning? Surprisingly, it is not all that difficult to uncover the practices of the early church. Even though leaders of various religious groups may agree on little else, there is very little disagreement about various practices of the first-century Christians. As we did last time, we will be quoting a large number of sources outside the Bible. We want to make it clear once again that these are not authorities when it comes to spiritual matters. Only the Bible can fill that role. They do, however, express what they have discovered through the study of history, the Greek language and the Bible.
What do we know about the organization of the early church? It was composed of autonomous congregations, each under the oversight of a plurality of men. No single man controlled any congregation, and no congregation exercised authority over another.
In Acts chapter 15 the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem meet to discuss an important matter. Even when they reach a decision and communicate it to congregations in another area, it is entirely in the form of a suggestion. It should also be noted that, according to verse 28, these men are guided by the Holy Spirit. And we must observe that the whole matter involves, not giving an order, but rather clarifying the fact that they have not given certain instructions.
"Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with {their} words, unsettling your souls," they explain in Acts 15:24-25, "it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul."
In Acts 14:23 we read about elders being appointed in every congregation started by Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Paul gives instructions in Titus 1:5 for the young evangelist to do the same thing in Crete. It is foreign to the New Testament to talk about one man over a congregation or one congregation over others.
Men who were placed in this office were known as elders (or presbyters), bishops (or overseers), and pastors (or shepherds). The Greek word for "overseer" is "episcopos." The choice of the word depended on what language was being used and what part of the office was being emphasized. In the early church these titles were used to apply to the same office. The terms are used interchangeably in Acts chapter 20.
"And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church," we note in Acts 20:17.
"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock," Paul says to these same men in verse 28, "among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood."
In his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul lists the qualifications for this office. The early church followed these instructions in selecting these men.
"It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires {to do}," Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. "An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. {He must be} one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); {and} not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside {the church,} so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil."
"For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward," Paul instructs in Titus 1:7-9, "not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict."
Peter, who according to the New Testament was married, was not the first pope.
"And when Jesus had come to Peter's home," we note in Matthew 8:14, "He saw his mother-in-law lying sick in bed with a fever."
"Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, Paul wonders in 1 Corinthians 9:5, "even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas (or Peter)?
Remember that one of the requirements for an elder is that he be the husband of one wife.
By Peter's own description he was one of a group of elders in a single congregation.
"Therefore," he instructs in 1 Peter 5:1-3, "I exhort the elders among you, as {your} fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to {the will of} God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock."
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, the idea of regarding Peter as the first bishop of Rome did not come about until many years after his death.
"In the late 2nd or early 3rd cent. the tradition identified Peter as the first bishop of Rome," the dictionary notes. "This was a natural development once the monarchical episcopate, i.e. government of the local church by a single bishop as distinct from a group of presbyter-bishops, finally emerged in Rome in the mid-2nd cent." (Kelly, 1986, p. 6)
"What Linus's actual functions and responsibilities were can only be guessed," the dictionary adds of the man listed as the second pope, "for the monarchical, or one-man, episcopate had not yet emerged in Rome." (Kelly, 1986, p. 7)
Although it is possible that Peter spent his last years in Rome, there is no mention in the Bible of Peter ever setting foot in the city. Tradition places him there until his death in the middle or latter part of the sixth decade. A legend from the third century has his stay lasting 25 years.
Paul's imprisonment takes him to Rome in the early 60s. When Paul arrives in the closing verses of the book of Acts, there is no mention of Peter. The Jewish leaders seem eager to discuss Christianity with Paul, indicating that the church is not yet well-established there. If Peter has been there for 20 years, he certainly has been silent about his presence.
"For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established;" Paul writes the church in Rome in verses 11 and 12 of the first chapter of his letter to them, "that is, that I may be encouraged together with you {while} among you, each of us by the other's faith, both yours and mine."
The early church consisted of autonomous congregations, each under the oversight of a plurality of elders.
In contrast to modern trends, the early church did not place women in leadership roles.
"Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness," 1 Timothy 2:11-12 observes. "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet."
"Let the women keep silent in the churches;" 1 Corinthians 14:34 states, "for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says.
There are those who claim that Paul is merely expressing his own opinion in these verses.
"If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual," Paul responds with prophetic foresight in verse 37 of this same chapter, "let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment."
Those who suggest that this is an instruction particular to the situation in Corinth should take time to read the passage. Verse 34 is preceded immediately by a statement that these instructions are the same for all the churches.
Modern philosophy can do nothing to change the fact that this was the church of the first century. This is how it was organized.
There is one thing we must always remember. Human ideas bind us into human organizations. Won't you join us in our effort to shun man-made traditions in favor of the simple truth? Only the truth will set us free.
Kelly, J.N.D. (1986), The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprint).