This is indeed a most interesting subject. We can distinguish, as far as the government of the Church is concerned, between the episcopal and Presbyterian forms of church government. Incidentally, we have the Presbyterian form of church government. It is surely worthy of note that the episcopal form of church government characterized the life of the church of God until the Reformation. What do we mean by these two forms of church government? The Presbyterian form of church government is characterized by the rule of or by the elders, the consistory. The word “Presbyterian” or “presbyter” is derived from the Greek word which means “elder.” The episcopal form of church government is characterized by the rule over the church by the bishops or bishop. We probably recognize the word “bishop” in the word “episcopal” The word “episcopal” is derived from the Greek word “episkopos,” and this word , means “overseer.” Also this word appears in holy writ as designating the elders of the church. The apostle, Paul, addressing in Acts 20 the elders of the church at Ephesus upon the island of Miletus where this meeting of the elders with the apostle occurred, calls them overseers, using this word, and we quote: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.”
At the outset or beginning of the Church of God in the New Dispensation when churches were being organized through the labors of the apostles, the organization of the churches was very simple. The officers or office bearers of the churches were simply the elders and the deacons, the elders, of course, being entrusted with the rule over the church. Sometimes these elders were simply called “elders” in Holy Writ, inasmuch as the older members were generally elected to this office. In other passages of the Bible they are called “presbyters” or overseers, inasmuch as this really constituted the essence of their office or labors in the church. They must be overseers over the church of God, have the rule over the people of the Lord. At the outset or beginning of the Church of God in the New Dispensation, we have already observed, the organization of the churches was very simple. Churches were organized and the office bearers (the elders and deacons) were duly elected. Of this we read in a passage such as Acts 14:22-23, and I quote: “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.”
However, this soon changed. The Presbyterian form of church government was soon replaced by the episcopal form of church government. The rule over the church by the elders was soon substituted by the rule of one of the elders. Terms such as: monarchical bishops, diocesan bishops, and metropolitan bishops, soon became common in the early New Dispensational Church. In the early Church, we will remember, the presbyters, or elders, were all of the same rank; the one did not stand higher in authority than another. At a very early time, however, one of the elders assumed the lead and was recognized as having authority over the others. He would be president of the consistory, lead in worship, and do the preaching. We have already made the observation that these elders of the Church are also called “overseers” in the Bible. The word “overseer” is the Greek word “episcopos,” and from it our word “bishop” is derived. The title of bishop was given to the overseer who in course of time became the leader of the board of presbyters or consistory. So the other presbyters gradually became subordinate to the presbyter who was their overseer or bishop, and this bishop soon ruled over the church of God alone. It is for this reason that these ruling overseers or bishops came to have all the authority in the church and were therefore known as: monarchical bishops. We recognize the word “monarch” in the word “monarchical” and readily understand why these ruling bishops assumed this name.
The rapid development from monarchical to diocesan bishop, once the office of monarchical bishop had been established, is easily understood. We realize, of course, that churches were first established in the cities. As long as the various congregations were limited to the, cities, the office of monarchical bishop was not expanded. From the cities, however, Christianity spread among the heathens, or pagans, into the country. Consequently these Christian communities thereby developed and expanded from city to district communities. At first the various members of the congregation would attend the church in the city. This, we understand, expanded the authority of the monarchical bishops. Later these members in the rural communities would become separate congregations, but they would continue to recognize the authority of their city bishop. And thus, we understand, the monarchical bishop had become a diocesan bishop, a bishop who exercised authority, not only over a city church, but over a district or diocese as well. He thereby became a diocesan bishop, a bishop whose rule and authority extended over a district rather than over merely a city.
A third development in this rise of the episcopal form of church government is expressed by the term: metropolitan bishop. The word “metropolitan” speaks for itself. The metropolitan bishops were those bishops in charge of the churches in the large cities or metropolises. These were five in number, namely: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. We will not at this time discuss the rise to power of the bishop of Rome, the development of the papacy. We will have opportunity to do this in a later article. It is not difficult to understand why the bishops of these metropolitan communities became such great powers in the early Christian Church (the reader will understand that when I speak of the early Christian Church I refer to the Church of God, which has existed from the beginning of time, in the days of its New Testament infancy). The development of this episcopal form of church government was principally made when one elder assumed authority in a consistory over another. The rest of this story follows automatically. We can certainly understand why the bishop of the church at Jerusalem should be recognized as one of the leading bishops in the early Church. Jerusalem was famous for its historical background. That had been the City of God throughout the Old Dispensation. There Christ had been crucified, the Spirit had been poured out into the Church on Pentecost, and the Church of God as of the New Dispensation had had its beginning. Jerusalem had been the mother church. There the Christians had first been persecuted and there the first church council had been held. The church in Jerusalem had something no other church had. It was surely unique among all the churches.
Another metropolitan bishop resided in Antioch. Antioch (in Syria) was also famous because of its unique history. This early Christian church had been the first missionary church. Antioch had been the place of the labors of Barnabas who was later joined in that city by the apostle, Paul. And from Antioch they had been sent out by the church on their first missionary journey. Besides, returning from their missionary journeys the apostles would always return to the church at Antioch and submit their reports concerning the wonderful things which the Lord had done through the instrumentality of their preaching. Moreover, Antioch had many notable bishops, and it had also become famous because it had become the seat of an important theological school. Finally, next to Alexander, Antioch was the largest and most important city in the east. Hence, that the bishop residing in Antioch should be recognized as having considerable authority is easily understandable. The strategic location of this city and the fact that all other churches looked upward to this church as their mother church must, of course, not be minimized.
A third metropolitan bishop resided in the city of Alexandria. The church which had been established here had also become famous in its own right. In the first place, it was the second largest city in the Roman Empire, next to Rome. The city bore the name of that famous conqueror, Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great was completely “in love” with Greek art and learning and Alexandria became the greatest seat of learning and culture. In fact, for many centuries it was far more splendid than Rome itself. There, too, a famous theological school flourished, a school in which Origin, the greatest scholar of the Church up to that time, had taught. This city, too, occupied a most strategic position and it is not difficult to understand why the bishop residing in it should be regarded with considerable veneration and esteem.
The last of the great Eastern cities to which we would call attention is Constantinople. This great metropolis certainly could not claim the antiquity which the other metropolises could rightfully claim. However, it was later to become the seat of the Eastern Empire. In fact, its name was changed from Byzantium to Constantinople in honor of Constantine the Great whose right to the title: “the first Christian emperor”, may be seriously disputed. This emperor had changed or removed his residence from Rome to Constantinople. And we can easily understand that the very fact that Constantinople was the residence of the emperor contributed to the high esteem in which the bishop of the church there was held.
We will have occasion to refer to Rome in later articles. We simply purposed to trace, briefly, the rise to power of the bishops of the early Christian Church. In our following article, the Lord willing, we will attempt to explain this rise of the episcopal form of church government already present in the post-apostolic period.