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Where Are The First Century Churches?
Published On : April 8, 1998
Last Updated : May 9, 2011
First Century Home Churches, The Communal Church, Financial Plan And Sharing, First Century Disciples Had No Interest In Constructing Church Buildings, Jewish And Roman Persecution, The City Church, John Writes To The Seven Churches In Asia, Antioch Church Sends Help To Jerusalem, The Financial Plan, Leadership Structure Of The First Century Church, Husband Is Head Of The Family And Home Church, Women Who Usurp Authority Over Husbands, Peter And Paul's Advice Concerning Christians Remaining With Unbelieving Spouses, Electing Church Elders, Distinction Between Apostles And Elders, The Origin Of The Presbyterian Church, Respect For Wisdom Of The Patriarchs And Elders, Foolishness Of Rehoboam, God's Divine Foresight, Office Of A Bishop, Origin Of Episcopal Church, The Deacon
As I concluded in part five, according to Christ's teachings, a Church can consist of as few as two or three members, and that includes a Christian family which chooses to worship in the privacy of their own home. This is a Home Church, or a House Church, and it is precisely what we saw in part two, where I shared the following verses with you:
"Likewise greet the Church that is in their house. Salute my wellbeloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ."
Romans 16:5, KJV
"The Churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the Church that is in their house."
1 Corinthians 16:19, KJV
"Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the Church which is in his house."
Colossians 4:15, KJV
As we likewise saw in part three, in some cases, the Apostles probably inherited large homes from some of the new converts. Rather than sell them all, some of these homes may have been kept and used to accommodate several family units, and maybe a few other individuals as well. Perhaps these became what we may refer to as Communal Churches because the Disciples lived communally. As we learned in part four, the members of these Communal Churches would forsake their personal belongings, or else they would give the money which they had gained through selling their possessions to the Apostles. The Apostles would then share the money they had received amongst the Disciples in the city, so that every one's needs were met.
I would guess that Communal Churches consisted of perhaps a few dozen people at best; but there could have been a lot of these Communal Churches in the same city. That may explain how the Apostles were able to accommodate several thousand new converts in one day. In other words, perhaps they would simply divide up the new converts into groups, and assign them a place to stay. Some might remain as individual Family, or Home, Churches, while others would be moved into Communal Churches.
I haven't found any Scriptural evidence to support the idea that thousands of these new converts all camped out together on someone's property, although that is one possibility. If we take into consideration the level of persecution that the First Century Disciples were forced to endure at the hands of the Jewish Elders, and then later at the hands of the Roman authorities, such a large gathering of people would have no doubt been viewed as a threat to established authority. Thus, smaller Home Churches and Communal Churches were probably the norm, in my view.
As I mentioned before, there were no large, central, concrete buildings with a tall steeple, soft padded pews, organ music, stained-glass windows, air-conditioning, plush wall-to-wall carpet, etc., to house hundreds or thousands of new converts. Do you honestly believe that the hard-hearted Jews, who were spread out all over Europe and the Mediterranean area, would have allowed the First Century Disciples to actually construct such a towering structure that would pose such a clear threat to synagogue attendance? Obviously not. Such a building would have been an easy target for the Jewish religious authorities. Furthermore, as I explained previously, contrary to what we find happening a few centuries later when the Roman Catholic Church came to power and began a campaign of empire-building, the First Century Disciples were not the least bit interested in constructing church buildings.
Following the Home Church and the Communal Church, the next ecclesiastical level, as far as physical size was concerned, was probably what we can refer to as the City Church. As its name implies, the City Church would have been comprised of all of the local Home Churches and Communal Churches in any given city. In other words, the City Church represented the full assembly of Christian converts, or Body of Believers, who dwelt in any particular city, regardless of with whom or where they fellowshipped and lived. One example of this can be found in the Book of Revelation, where the Apostle John was instructed to write a letter to each of the seven Churches in Asia, as we see here:
"John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne . . . Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea."
Revelation 1:4, 11, KJV
As the previous verses demonstrate, and as chapters two and three of Revelation also reveal, John addressed each Church by the name of the city in which it was located, showing that he was addressing all of the local Churches which had been established within one particular city. In other words, John was addressing the whole Christian Body, or assembly, within that city.
During the First Century, a Church in one city would often share their surplus with a needy Church in another city. One clear example of this can be found in the following verses from Acts chapter eleven, where Paul and Barnabas were sent to take some relief to the Church in Jerusalem. Notice that the Disciples from each of the Churches within the city of Antioch contributed what they could -- or "according to his ability" -- and then it was collectively sent to Jerusalem:
"And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul."
Acts 11:27-30, KJV
This again confirms the First Century Church financial plan, which we first discussed in part four. You will recall that we read that "distribution was made unto every man according as he had need". Evidently then, this financial plan was not only instituted between the members of a local City Church, but also between different City Churches as well.
Based upon my examination of the Scriptures, the City Church appears to have been the highest organizational level of the First Century Church. To my knowledge, there is no Biblical evidence to support any organizational structure higher than this. Beyond the City Church, it seems that the Lord views the entire Body of Believers as His Worldwide Church; or as the Apostle John describes for us in the Book of Revelation, as His Bride. That being the case, let's take a look now at the leadership structure of the First Century Church; that is, at the men who were chosen to govern the Lord's Church on these various ecclesiastical levels.
To begin with, as the Apostles Peter and Paul inform us in their Epistles, the spiritual head of each family, or Home Church, is the husband, as we see here:
"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing."
Ephesians 5:22-24, KJV
"And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them."
Colossians 3:17-19, KJV
"In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression."
1 Timothy 2:9-14, KJV
"Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands:"
1 Peter 3:1-5, KJV
In actuality, Peter and Paul were not really saying anything new. While some modern feminists enjoy pointing the finger at Paul and accusing him of being a woman-hater, the fact of the matter, is that this is actually the family structure which the Lord Himself has ordained, since the Fall from Grace by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden thousands of years ago. Please carefully consider what the Lord says to Eve following her deception by the Serpent:
"Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."
Genesis 3:16, KJV
It is clear then that just as Christ is the Head of the Body and the Church, so too, the husband is the spiritual head of the family, or Home Church. Therefore, for any woman to usurp this position from her husband, is contrary to the Doctrine of Christ and the First Century Church. You will specifically notice that Paul writes that a wife is to subject herself to her husband "in every thing" and "with all subjection".
Are there possibly exceptions to this rule? Again, Paul says that a woman is not "to usurp authority over the man". Some feminists will argue "Well, what if my husband is not a man of God? What if he doesn't even believe in Jesus?". While I can certainly understand what a difficult position this may be to find yourself in, please note that in such a situation, Peter writes that women are still to "be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives". In other words, the hope is that an unbelieving husband will be won to the Lord through the wife's example of submission. Furthermore, as the Apostle Paul also writes in his first Epistle to the Corinthians:
"And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?"
1 Corinthians 7:10-16, KJV
In short, Paul's counsel is that husbands and wives should endeavor to remain together, even if one of the two is an unbeliever. Similar to Peter, Paul informs us that not only is the unbelieving spouse sanctified by the believing spouse, but the unbelieving spouse may possibly be won to the Lord by the example of the believing spouse. However, Paul also notes that in the case where one of the two leaves the other on a permanent basis, the other is no longer "under bondage". What Paul means is that they are no longer bound by marriage laws, and are free to marry again. However, in this same chapter, Paul also states that in the case of a separation, the ideal situation is for the spouse to remain single thereafter, in order to dedicate themselves wholly to the Lord.
Continuing with our discussion regarding the leadership of the First Century Church, the Book of Acts informs us that if several families and single individuals happened to live together in a Communal Church, it would sometimes become necessary to choose Elders from amongst all of the adult male members. These Elders would counsel together in order to resolve any matters which might arise. Thus, within one particular city, depending upon its size, there might exist several different Churches -- Home Churches and Communal Churches -- and each of these would have their own Elders. It is also possible that from amongst these Elders of each Home and Communal Church, they may have chosen City Elders. We find a clear example of choosing Elders in the following verses that are found in Acts chapter six:
"And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them."
Acts 6:1-6, KJV
Another possibility is that the aforementioned incident was not an election of Elders, but rather of Deacons. I will explain this term more fully in a moment. From reading the Scriptures, one thing we do know is that while the Apostles at Jerusalem sometimes referred to themselves as Elders, an Elder was not always necessarily the same as an Apostle. For example, the Apostle Peter referred to himself as an Elder in the following verse. His reference to "ye younger" may be implying biological age, or it could also be a reference to spiritual maturity. In either regard, what Peter is saying still holds true:
"The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed . . . Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble."
1 Peter 5:1, 5, KJV
In most cases, the Elders are clearly mentioned as being separate from the Apostles; and we can assume, below the Apostles in spiritual status. In the following verses, we clearly see Paul and Barnabas ordaining Elders in each of the City Churches that they visited:
"And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained them elders in every Church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed."
Acts 14:21-23, KJV
Having read the above verses in which Elders are appointed over each City Church, compare them to the following verses where we see the terms "Apostles" and "Elders" mentioned in the very same verses. The distinction is quite obvious. Luke is clearly indicating that they are not always referring to one and the same thing:
"When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question . . . And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the Church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them . . . And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter . . . Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole Church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:"
Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23, KJV
"And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem."
Acts 16:4, KJV
As a matter of clarification, allow me to point out that the Jewish religious leaders of the Sanhedrin were also referred to as Elders. However, this is not what the previous verses are referring to. These verses describe the leaders of the First Century Christian Church. As we have already seen, the Jewish Elders of the Sanhedrin were bent on destroying the power and the influence of the Christian Elders. This word "elder" finds its origin in the Greek word "presbuteros". As you may presume, it is from this Greek word that we derive our English word "Presbyterian", which signifies a church that is governed by a council of Elders. My Thayer's Greek English Lexicon provides us with the following information concerning this Greek word:
----- Begin Quote -----
1) elder, of age,
1a) the elder of two people
1b) advanced in life, an elder, a senior
2) a term of rank or office
2a) among the Jews
2a1) members of the great council or Sanhedrin (because in early times the rulers of the people, judges, etc., were selected from elderly men)
2a2) of those who in separate cities managed public affairs and administered justice
2b) among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or Churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably
2c) the twenty four members of the heavenly Sanhedrin or court seated on thrones around the throne of God
----- End Of Quote -----
As can be seen, not only were these Elders the spiritually older and more mature members of the First Century Church, but they were also the physically older members as well. In both early Jewish and Christian society, these old men were normally respected for their great wisdom, spiritual insight, and understanding of God's Word. One can only imagine what considerable wisdom Noah and his sons, and the antediluvian -- or pre-Flood -- Patriarchs must have acquired after having lived for such a long time. Whenever the younger generation failed to abide by their wise advice, it often resulted in serious consequences. We find a perfect example of this in the story of foolish King Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon. Rather than follow the advice of the old men -- the Elders of Israel -- Rehoboam listened to the counsel of his younger friends. As a result of his foolishness, the Lord rent the kingdom of Israel from him. Consider the following verses:
"And king Rehoboam consulted with the old men, that stood before Solomon his father while he yet lived, and said, How do ye advise that I may answer this people? And they spake unto him, saying, If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever. But he forsook the counsel of the old men, which they had given him, and consulted with the young men that were grown up with him, and which stood before him: And he said unto them, What counsel give ye that we may answer this people, who have spoken to me, saying, Make the yoke which thy father did put upon us lighter? And the young men that were grown up with him spake unto him, saying, Thus shalt thou speak unto this people that spake unto thee, saying, Thy father made our yoke heavy, but make thou it lighter unto us; thus shalt thou say unto them, My little finger shall be thicker than my father's loins. And now whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions."
1 Kings 12:6-11, KJV
As I mentioned a moment ago, and explain more fully in such articles as "The Fruits Of Disobedience", it was not long after this event occurred, that ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel rebelled against Rehoboam, and he was only left with Judah and Benjamin. The Old Testament informs us that this development was a curse upon Rehoboam that resulted from his father Solomon's sins of not only marrying foreign women, but also of encouraging the worship of their false gods in the land of Israel. It is safe to say then, that the Lord obviously knew ahead of time exactly how Rehoboam was going to respond to the wise counsel of the Elders of Israel. As we are told in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
"Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:"
Isaiah 46:9-10, KJV
In addition to Elders, the New Testament also informs us that each First Century City Church had an Elder who was known as a Bishop. Our English word "Bishop" is derived from the Greek word "episkope". Pronounced ep-is-kop-ay', it is from this word that the Episcopal -- or Anglican -- Church derives its name; obviously because it is governed by a body of Bishops. Turning again to Thayer's Greek English Lexicon, we find the following definition for this word:
----- Begin Quote -----
1) investigation, inspection, visitation
1a) that act by which God looks into and searches out the ways, deeds character, of men, in order to adjudge them their lot accordingly, whether joyous or sad
1b1) overseership, office, charge, the office of an elder
1b2) the overseer or presiding officers of a Christian Church
----- End Of Quote ----
As the previous definition reveals, a Bishop was basically a travelling Elder who was responsible for both overseeing and visiting the Churches in his immediate area. The following New Testament verses confirm that a bishop would visit and inspect the Churches within his town or city. Under special circumstances, a Bishop's jurisdiction might extend somewhat further, as in the case of Titus and the island of Crete:
"The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen. [The second epistle unto Timotheus, ordained the first bishop of the Church of the Ephesians, was written from Rome, when Paul was brought before Nero the second time.]"
2 Timothy 4:22, KJV
"All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith. Grace be with you all. Amen. [It was written to Titus, ordained the first bishop of the Church of the Cretians, from Nicopolis of Macedonia.]"
Titus 3:15, KJV
Notice that Timothy's jurisdiction was only Ephesus; while Titus' only jurisdiction was Crete. These are the only two verses in the entire New Testament which describe the scope of a bishoprick, as the office is called. Thus, under normal circumstances, as I noted a moment ago, it would seem that a Bishop's responsibilities were limited to the Churches that were located in his own city. Part of a Bishop's job was to maintain spiritual and doctrinal unity between the Elders of each of the Churches within his jurisdiction. When John wrote his seven letters to the Churches in Asia, it's possible that those Epistles were first received by the Bishops, and then passed down the line to the various Elders of each individual Church, who then shared them with their flocks.
Thus far, we have examined the responsibilities of husbands, Elders, and Bishops, with a brief mention of the Apostles as well. I will be fully addressing the office of the Apostle in the final part of this series. Another position which we find mentioned in the pages of the New Testament is the office of the Deacon. Our English word "deacon" finds its origin in the Greek word "diakonos". Pronounced dee-ak'-on-os, it refers to a minister or to a servant. Thayer's Greek English Lexicon provides us with the following information:
----- Begin Quote -----
1) one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master,a servant, attendant, minister
1a) the servant of a king
1b) a deacon, one who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the Church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use
1c) a waiter, one who serves food and drink
----- End Of Quote -----
From the previous definition, we are given the understanding that the Deacon may have been an assistant to the Bishop, who helped the Bishop to perform his tasks. In other words, the Deacon may have been the Bishop's right-hand man. His primary responsibilities appear to have been to oversee the physical aspects of the City Church, so that the Bishop could devote himself to more important spiritual matters, such as prayer, study of the Word, and counseling the different Elders of his city. Perhaps this teamwork developed from the fact that Paul usually had one or more men accompanying him on his various missionary journeys, such as Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, Luke, Mark John, etc. The idea of Bishops and Deacons working as teams may be indicated by the following verse. In fact, it is difficult to tell if Paul is greeting the Church at Philippi on behalf of the Bishops and Deacons, or if he greeting the Bishops and Deacons in Philippi, thus indicating that there may have been more than one Bishop and Deacon in each of the City Churches:
"Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:"
Philippians 1:1, KJV
The only other verses in the New Testament where the word "deacon" is found, is in the following. Regardless of the Deacon's precise position within the First Century Church hierarchy, given the serious tone of Paul's comments, it appears that the office of a Deacon was only given to men of the highest calibre:
"Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus."
1 Timothy 3:8-13, KJV
Before concluding part six of this series, allow me to make one final point. You will notice that in the explanation that is provided by Thayer's Greek English Lexicon, it states that the word "diakonos" also refers to "a waiter, one who serves food and drink". It's for this reason that I previously noted that in the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts, the men who were selected may have been Deacons, and not actually Elders. More specifically, the Apostles stated during that incident, "It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables."
Please go to part seven for the continuation of this series.
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