What is a Church? | The Traditions of the Early Church Fathers

Part 2 - The Foundational Error!


Let me introduce you to the six Early Church Fathers whose teachings will now be occupying our attention. And just so as to give you an idea of the chronology and historical backdrop to what we’re going to be seeing, bear in mind that Paul the apostle died around AD 64, and that John, the longest surviving of the apostles, probably went home to be with the Lord somewhere around AD 95.

(All quotes concerning the Early Church Fathers are taken from “The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius” by Henry Bettenson (Translator). Oxford University Press, September 1969. Used with permission.)

Clement of Rome
Clement was one of the early leaders of the church in Rome. He wrote a letter to the Corinthian Church, as Paul had once done, about AD 95, to which we will be referring. He died in AD 100.

Ignatius - Bishop of Antioch.
He wrote 7 letters to different churches, some of which we will give attention to, whilst travelling to Rome where he was eventually martyred around AD 110.

Justin Martyr
Justin wasn’t a church leader in quite the same way some of the others were, but was rather an apologist and philosopher - the C S Lewis of his day, so to speak. He was martyred in Rome around AD 165.

Irenaeus
Irenaeus studied under Polycarp, the famous Bishop of Smyrna, and became Bishop of Lyons in France in AD 177.

Tertullian
Another apologist/philosopher, Tertullian was converted in AD 193. His many writings date from AD 196-212. He lived in Carthage in Africa.

Cyprian - Bishop of Carthage
Cyprian lived in the same place as Tertullian, but some years later. He became a Christian in AD 246 and was made Bishop within two years.
We are going to concentrate on several of their wrong teachings, but will start with a detailed study of what was the first and most serious. I tend to refer to it as their foundational error; the seed-bed, so to speak, from which it was inevitable that other false teachings and practices would grow and flourish. And this foundational error is their completely erroneous understanding of the subject of the nature of government and leadership of churches. It was this that subsequently, and inevitably, led to the redefining and transformation of the very nature of the Christian Church itself.

We have already seen from the New Testament that churches were established to be led by a plurality of co-equal male elders, referred to also as bishops or overseer, and pastors or shepherds. These men were home grown and arose from within the body of the particular church they were to lead. This arrangement was completely non-hierarchical, and they were simply thought of as performing a function as opposed to holding an office. No positional distinction whatever existed between ‘leaders and led’ in New Testament churches. We saw too that this governing of churches by such elders was consensual, and that church meetings were such that all were expected to play their part in building up and encouraging the gathered assembly and in sharing together from the Word of God. No-one led the proceedings, not even the elders, and each person was responsible to respond to the leading of the Lord Himself through the working of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the main thrust was precisely that there would be no big chief, the whole arrangement being designed precisely to preclude and prevent such from ever arising. Why? To safeguard churches against deception and the abuse of authority, and to uphold the fact that every believer is meant to be a channel through whom the Lord moves and speaks! So what were the teachings that the Early Church Fathers developed and propagated which so undermined, and then replaced, this apostolically established mode of church government?

Clement of Rome - Epistle to the Corinthian Church in AD 95:
"The high priest has been given his own special services, the priests have been assigned their own place, and the Levites have their special ministrations enjoined on them. The layman is bound by the ordinances of the laity."

Around the very same time that John the apostle is very likely putting the finishing touches to the Book of Revelation on the Isle of Patmos, we here have Clement of Rome coming up with the grand idea of applying the Old Testament Levitical Priesthood to the Christian churches. Here, as early as AD 95, we have the introduction of the concept that church leadership ought to be by priesthood with the inevitable resultant distinction being made between ‘priest’ and ‘people’. The clergy/laity divide, which has dogged Christianity for two millennia, in no way originated with Jesus or his apostles, and is therefore nothing whatsoever to do with the teaching of the New Testament and nowhere found in its pages. No, it rather originated with this guy called Clement who took church leadership, as set up by the apostles (non-hierarchical, plural, co-equal, indigenous elders/bishops or overseers/pastors or shepherds), and turned it into a priesthood quite separate from the laity. (I wonder what the high priest of his quote will turn into?)

Let’s go to the next phase and move forward some 15 years:
Ignatius - Bishop of Antioch AD 110

To the Ephesians:
"Your REVEREND presbytery is tuned to the Bishop as strings to a lyre...Let us be careful not to resist the Bishop, that through our submission to the Bishop we may belong to God...We should regard the Bishop as the Lord Himself..."

To the Magnesians:
"I advise you to always act in godly concord with the Bishop, presiding as the counterpart of God, and the presbyters as the counterpart of the council of the Apostles...As the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by Himself or by means of the Apostles, so you must do nothing without the Bishop and the presbyters."

To the Trallians:
"...respect the Bishop as the counterpart of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of the Apostles: without those no church is recognised."

To the Smyrneans:
"Let no-one do anything that pertains to the church apart from the Bishop...it is not permitted to baptise or hold a love-feast independently of the Bishop. But whatever he approves, that is also well pleasing to God."

Notice where have we come? The presbytery (this is where the English word priest comes from) is now a reverendpresbytery. It is growing both in importance and spiritual authority. (And of course this is how the designation of Reverend as a title for a church leader originated. Every church Minister there is, regardless of which denominational flavour, puts Rev in front of his name because of the writings of Ignatius.) Moreover, non-hierarchical co-equality is gone too, and this ‘ordained ministry’ is now headed up by a Bishop. Note too the astounding authority ascribed to the Bishop. He is to be looked upon, “…as the Lord Himself.” (At least they were still having love-feasts, though you had to get permission from the Bishop first.)

Tertullian - AD 200
"The supreme priest (that is the Bishop) has the right of conferring baptism: after him the presbyters and deacons, but only with the Bishop's authority. Otherwise the laity also have the right...how much more is the discipline of reverence and humility incumbent upon laymen (since it also befits their superiors)...It would be idle for us to suppose  that what is forbidden to PRIESTS is allowed to the laity. The distinction between the order of clergy and the people has been established by the authority of the Church."

Another ninety years have now passed and we have a full-blown priesthood under the authority of a Bishop, with said priests being considered the superiors of the mere laity, and with the Bishop regarded as supreme. In his statement that the clergy/laity divide, “…has been established by the authority of the Church”, we can see how Tertullian and the other church leaders of the day are claiming divine authority to sanction their own system. Church leaders are now, in effect, beyond question or challenge. Doctrine and practice is tested now not by the Word of God, but by the teaching of Christian leaders.

Cyprian - Bishop of Carthage AD 250.
Fifty years later you might be amazed to discover that this priesthood has developed even further and is now considered to be an actual sacrificing one. It is thought to be actually mediating between God and those who are not priests. Writing of the Lord's Supper, Cyprian declares:

"If Christ Jesus our Lord and God is Himself the High Priest of God the Father, and first offered Himself as a sacrifice to the Father, and commanded this to be done in remembrance of Himself, then assuredly the priest acts truly in Christ's place when he reproduces what Christ did, and he then offers a true and complete sacrifice to God the Father, if he begins to offer as he sees Christ Himself has offered."

What eventually became the full-blown Catholic Mass is here in germinal form as early as AD 250. And of course the supremacy of the Bishop over the priesthood soon led to even more layers of priestly hierarchy developing which culminated (yes, you guessed it) in the very Bishop of Bishops himself. Ladies and gentlemen, may we please hear it for the Pope!

And so we see how, little by little (though I’m actually more inclined to say lottle by lottle,) the Early Church Fathers took Christian churches from being a proliferation of little localised extended families and made them instead into an eventual worldwide hierarchical religious corporation. It is evident too how this first error, which I refer to as their foundational one, made it inevitable that more errors would soon follow. This wrong teaching about the very nature of the leadership and government of the church gave Christian leaders, in the form of Priests and Bishops, such authority that whatever else they ended up teaching was accepted virtually automatically as being from the Lord. It was indeed a seed-bed in which grew various other plants of error and deception, and we will turn our attention to those in the next article.

However, a question arises, and it is simply this: How on earth did they get away with it? Here we have people redefining and changing (indeed, virtually completely re-inventing) the very nature and essence of the Christian Church and turning it into something utterly foreign to, and totally at variance with, the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. So how could they have done something that monumentally and seriously mistaken and still get away with it? And the answer - and I’ve hinted at it already - is that they claimed to have a theological justification for what they were doing. They introduced a concept that later came to be known as the Doctrine of the Apostolic Succession.

Remember, the Christian Church was facing all manner of problems with heretical teachings about Jesus and salvation, all of which claimed the inspiration of God. The most ridiculous ideas were being put forward by varying heretics who were all vying for converts in the market place of religious dogma. Some taught that Jesus was really an angel and therefore neither God nor man. Others claimed Him to be truly God, but taught that He only looked like a man and was really just a very solid looking Divine spectre. Obviously, as spectres cannot die, His death on the cross was mere appearance too, and therefore not actually or physically real. Yet others claimed He was merely a man, but one on whom the ‘Divine Christ’ descended from Heaven at his baptism, only to depart again at the crucifixion just before the ‘merely human Jesus’ died. The idea of salvation by faith was obviously under attack too with some postulating it was rather through secret knowledge and the revelations of particular ‘prophets’ and men of special and unique spirituality. And of course all this demonic deception came from people who were claiming to be led by the Spirit, and therefore to therefore be speaking the inspired Word of God. Remember as well that, unlike us, the believers were without the fully compiled and available New Testament. We can do no better than to here return to Dr John Drane (Lecturer in practical theology at Aberdeen University. Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, California. Visiting Professor at Morling College, Sydney):

"It is important to realise that the movement towards a more authoritarian church hierarchy originated in the fight against unacceptable beliefs. At a time when Gnostics were claiming a special authority because of their alleged endowment with the Spirit it was important for the mainstream church to have it's own clear source of power. It was of little practical use for the church's leaders to claim - even if it may have been true - that they, rather than their opponents were truly inspired by the Spirit. They needed something more than that, and they found it in the apostles. In the earliest period supreme authority had rested with them. So, they reasoned, anyone with recognised authority in the church must be succeeding to the position held by the apostles. They were the Apostle's successors, and could trace their office back in a clear line of descent from the very earliest times. They stood in an apostolic succession."

(“Introducing the New Testament“. Chapter 22 and the section on The Institutional Church on page 397, and a sub-section entitled “Authority“. Published by Lion. Revised 1999 Edition)

The Early Church Fathers claimed, in effect, the same authority as had the original apostles; and so they argued that what they taught was therefore necessarily correct. Now this was, arguably, fine where they were right (and they were right about a great many things), but it was not so good where they were not. In fact, it was completely and unutterably disastrous! We can see them actually argue this:

Clement of Rome:
"The Apostles have received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ was sent forth by God and the Apostles by Christ. Both these appointments were made in an orderly way according to the will of God...The Apostles appointed the first-fruits of their labours to be bishops and deacons for those who would believe."

We must remind ourselves here that, by bishop, the apostles and the Fathers meant completely different things. As far as the apostles were concerned bishop was simply one of the words used to describe the function of an elder (pastor or shepherd), whereas to the Fathers it denoted a high ranking religious figure in an organized ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Ignatius - Bishop of Antioch:
To the Magnesians:
"I advise you to always act in godly concord with the Bishop, presiding as the counterpart of God, and the presbyters as the counterpart of the council of the Apostles...As the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by Himself or by means of the Apostles, so you must do nothing without the Bishop and the presbyters."
Irenaeus - Bishop of Lyons:

"By knowledge of the truth we mean: the teaching of the Apostles: the order of the church as established from the earliest times throughout the world: the distinctive stamp of the Body of Christ preserved through the episcopal (bishops) succession: for to the Bishops the Apostles committed the care of the church which is in each place, which has come down to our time, safeguarded without any written documents."

Cyprian - Bishop of Carthage. (Writing on the procedure for choosing a Bishop):
"Therefore we should be careful to observe and keep the procedure we received from the Divine Tradition, and from the practise of the Apostles which is kept among us."
So the argument basically goes like this:

  • God sent Jesus. Therefore Jesus carried the same authority as His Father in Heaven. (Absolutely correct!)
  • Having been sent by God, Jesus then sent the apostles. Therefore the apostles were divinely inspired and authoritative. (Thus far no problem. The argument is quite sound and fully in keeping with the Word of God.)
  • Having been sent by Jesus, Who had Himself been sent by God, the apostles then sent the leaders who came after them (i.e. the Early Church Fathers). Therefore the Early Church Fathers were inspired and infallible in their teaching just like the apostles of Jesus were. (Nought out of ten. Couldn’t be more wrong!)

And of course that is where things went so badly awry, because the last part of the sequence doesn’t necessarily follow in the slightest. It’s rather like the progression of logical thought that goes like this: All cats have four legs! Butch has four legs! Therefore Butch is a cat! But of course not necessarily! Butch may actually be a dog, or any number of other four legged creatures.

The Fathers’ mistake was that they completely missed the fact that God’s plan was to eventually have a black and white written, and therefore objective, record of the teaching of both Jesus and the apostles. This written record, the New Testament, would be the final yardstick against which everything would be tested in order to ascertain what was true or false, right or wrong. That book, and most emphatically not the teaching of the Early Church Fathers, was intended to be the final authority in the life of believers and in the Christian Church.

And of course once it was eventually realised that this New Testament, this written record of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, was at variance with the way things had turned out under the teaching of the Fathers, then the decision should have been made to make the necessary changes and to bring into line anything that didn‘t square with it. Everything, including church life and practice, should have been tested in the light of this newly and wonderfully available and inspired document containing all that they needed to know. But of course things didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, the leaders of the religious organisation that the Christian Church had by then become decided that the New Testament was rather to be interpreted in the light of the teaching of the Early Church Fathers. And I can’t help but wonder if here we have the reason why the blatantly and overwhelmingly correct course of action to take, testing everything by the New Testament, proved too difficult for them. I wonder if it is simply that the power, prestige and authority vested in the position church leaders by then had, and which they were so used to exercising and enjoying, was just too much for them to give up. Could it simply be that the corrupting influence of that power had just gone too deep for too long? I have to say that I rather think so!

Ironically, the very dangers that the teaching of the New Testament concerning leadership was designed to help avoid happened, and with a vengeance too! None of the safety features built in to the specifications of the blueprint given in the Word of God for church life were there to come into play. Indeed, those specifications had now been changed beyond recognition, and so the when the ‘accidents’ against which the specifications were designed to protect happened, severe, yet completely unnecessary, damage was done again and again and again. Against all the counsel of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, too much power and influence was given to individuals, and the result was the inevitable emergence of spiritual pride and arrogance, the perfect soil and climate in which deception and error naturally flourish. Church leadership, originally functioning along the lines of simple function and servant-hood, was not only transformed into being an official position, it was turned into an official position of spiritual prestige and hierarchical power!
We would do well to remind ourselves how the apostles (they got their ideas straight from Jesus) understood church leadership. Under the guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit they set churches up to be led consensually by plural, male, co-equal, non-hierarchical, home grown elders, referred to synonymously as bishops or overseers, and pastors or shepherds. These elders simply performed a function without in any way being seen to hold a position. They further did so within the context of a small group of believers who shared their lives together as an extended family, meeting in each others homes to eat and worship and build each other up, and doing so without anything of ‘services’ or ‘up front’ leadership. The simple fact of the matter is that the Early Church Fathers could not have got this more wrong; and of course the challenge for us today is to start getting it right again.

We must be clear too that although priesthood and clericalism are the extreme form of their wrong teaching and practice, it is not only churches that practice leadership by priesthood which are in error. The essence of the wrong teaching introduced by the Fathers was that of hierarchy and institutionalism, priesthood just happened to be the particular form it took at that time. So whether you have Catholics and Anglicans at one end of the spectrum with their hierarchical priesthoods, or Baptists and Pentecostals at the other with their churches led by the Pastor or Minister (who is not only imported and in charge, but also titled and referred to as the Rev. so and so) the error is precisely the same. The nature of church life, with all the anti-biblical rigmarole of worship ‘services’, religious hierarchy and buildings, and trappings of institutionalism, is still fundamentally changed into the opposite of what it should be. Indeed, even many so-called house churches, with their pyramid structures and authoritarian elders and senior elders under the authority of some hierarchically positioned apostle, are just another variation on the same tired old error. The issue, as we will go on to see, is not how far down the wrong road any church is regarding anti-biblical church practice, it’s that any church is on the wrong road of anti-biblical church practice at all. Churches should be entirely on the right road, and nothing less will do. Whether it’s Priest, Pastor or Senior Elder, or any of the myriad other variations around, it’s still not what the New Testament teaches. It is not what the Lord has revealed to us through scripture that He wants. No, it’s merely the traditions of men which go completely against and make void the Word of God.

We will move on in the next section to look at the other wrong teachings and practices which came from this foundational, this seed-bed one; and we shall see too how the transformation of churches from what they should have always been into what they should never have become was finally completed. But I’ll finish here with a quote that might make more sense to you now than it might have done before you read this. Ray Simpson is an ordained Anglican priest. He is evangelical and Spirit-filled, and worked with the Bible Society for some years. In the May/June 1988 issue of a magazine called 'Prophecy Today'’, edited by Clifford Hill, he wrote:
"I can justify staying in the Church of England because it is committed to the teaching of the Bible and the Early Church
Fathers
."
(Italics mine.) (Used with permission.)

Do you see what he is saying there? Indeed, it sums up everything we have been seeing! If you are committed to both the teaching of the Bible and of the Early Church Fathers, then which do you go by when you discover all the things on which they don’t happen to agree? And remember, I have shown you that no biblical scholar or historian would claim that they do agree, because they most obviously and blatantly do not.

As for me and my house, I am convinced that we should go solely, and only, by the New Testament. However, for the last eighteen hundred years the Christian Church has existed on the basis that we should go by the Early Church Fathers. What do you think?

 

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