One Pastor per Church?

Most any reading of the earliest period of the followers of Jesus, say from 30-50 AD, reveals a more charismatic ordering of a local church. Most any reading of the 3d Century church reveals what many call a Monarchial bishopric, where we have an authoritative teacher “ruling” the local church. How did this happen?

Everett Ferguson, in his The Early Church and Today (vol. 1: Ministry, Initiation, and Worship) maps various moves in the rise of the monarchial bishop. Ferguson operates with an almost “cessationist” theory, namely, that apostles and prophets particularly died out and the church was then ruled by local bishops and elders.

What do you think of this development? Was it inevitable to become more organized and administered or was it a “fall”?

First, a time of extraordinary inspired ministers. Here he sees three primary gifts, found in 1 Cor 12:28: “apostles, prophets, and teachers.” His definitions of each are standard: special call and plenary inspiration for apostles; prophets had a less abiding inspiration. Teacher had a word of knowledge and locally exhorted and instructed.

Second, a time when both inspired and “uninspired” (he means something special here) dispensed the Word. He sees Ephesians 4:11 as a time of transition: evangelists (universal gift) and pastors (local churches). These did not require a miraculous gift (this is what he means by “uninspired” — though I think this choice of terms is not helpful). Pastors are elders or bishops.

Third, a time when the uninspired became permanent. Here he points to 1-2 Timothy and Titus. The inspired gifts are dying out and we get “offices.” Churches are ruled by presbyter-bishops (elders). This is a permanent feature of the church after the inspired apostolic, prophetic era of revelation. Women were teachers but he thinks they were not permitted to teach in the public assembly. [I disagree with Ferguson here because it seems to me he’s got a more rigid sense of church assemblies than I would have.]

Fourth, a time when there was a decline in universal and missionary work so that local officers ruled the entire church. Fifth, single bishops (episcopos) arose in distinction from local elders (presbyters). Sixth, the monarchial bishop was established.

This 4-6 period is when “apostle” is used almost exclusively for the Twelve. “No one called a contemporary, not even the bishops who were regarded as successors of the apostles, by the title ‘apostle'” (28). I must add here that I find the present use of “apostle” by some groups to be flat-out weird and uninformed. The prophetic order, Ferguson argues, also dies out at this time. He speaks of the “extinction of the prophets” (28). Teachers appear but he finds the inspired teaching gift fading and was submerged under “episcopal domination” (29). In other words, leaders were called “bishops” not “teachers.” Evangelists fade, too, and he sees this as a problem complicated by the growth of local church ministries.

The result was that one man was recognized in each local church as the bishop. He is the chief among equals at first but eventually gains status to become the single bishop of the monarchial bishop.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • DMH

    “Ferguson operates with an almost “cessationist” theory”
    Am I right to assume he is saying all this is a good thing?

    I tend to view these developments as a bad thing. Just seems like the Holy Spirit has left the building and what we are left with is a static revelation from 2000 years ago aided by one rather uninspired man.

  • davidhimes

    I’m sure Ferguson does not personally support singular ruling bishops. It’s completely counter to everything he has ever taught on the subject … and I’ve taken some of his courses.

  • truthisfree4u

    Correct, same here. 4-6 are seen as diversions from the teachings and practices of the apostles (12).

  • T Freeman

    From start to finish, that’s one of the saddest things I’ve read in a while.

    I completely agree with the logic; but completely reject the cessationist premise it stands upon and thereby the justification of sola pastora. But yes, women lose big time when we embrace cessationist thinking, as does mission, as do the lost, as do we all.

  • Rick

    Some thoughts:
    1) Was this wrong, or was this the best system for that time? Did adapting the more government structure of that time help spread the faith, in that context?
    2) Does it mean that it cannot be changed now?
    3) What of the streams of Christianity (Anglican for example), that treat that ecclesiology as almost on par (if not equal) to the theology/Christology/creeds of the time? If God was involved in structuring the faith during that time, was this ecclesiology part of the package?

  • T Freeman

    What do you think?

  • Rick

    Depends on the day ;^)
    But today, for #1: I cannot say that God did not use it. In the same way, I cannot say that God is not using certain popular lead pastors of today (Hybels, Warren, Stanley, etc…).
    For #2: Although I lean towards paleo-orthodoxy, I don’t think the structure is in stone. However, we do need to consider why the early church fathers went that route.
    Finally, for #3: I am concerned that steams such as Anglicanism will not be as flexible, and it will become a stumbling block to unity.

  • T Freeman

    I wouldn’t let the fact that “God uses it” be much of a justification. God uses *a lot* that is far from his ideal. To me, this is a question of whether scripture is going to bow to tradition or vice versa. They are far apart on this one.

  • Rick

    Good thoughts. I agree on the Scripture and tradition ranking on this one, although I doubt streams such as Anglicanism would say “they are far apart on this one”.

  • DMH

    Also on a practical level this kind of structure doesn’t seem to encourage anything other than being a spectator. It seems to work against what we want.

  • Phil Miller

    Finally, for #3: I am concerned that steams such as Anglicanism will not be as flexible, and it will become a stumbling block to unity.

    Anglicans are generally not nearly as dogmatic about these things as many other Evangelical churches are. The structure of Anglicanism is actually relatively flat, at least in America.

  • Rick

    I think the more protestant/reformed/evangelical Anglicans are more flexible, but the more “catholic” Anglicans put tradition on a much higher (too high?) level.

  • tedstur

    The language in the post is depressing to me.

    I don’t think the way that we typically use the word “rule,” for example, is a good translation of the Biblical term when applied to an elder (ESV uses this in 1 Tim 5:17). Jesus? Yes, he rules like a king. A church elder? Hmmm…. Another term I have questions about in modern parlance is “pastor.” As I read the text the term “pastor” is best seen as a spiritual gift, not an office, and certainly not as a “ruler!” Redefinitions like these make me think that the early form of church has, in fact, ceased to exist in most church traditions. I don’t believe the Bible sets forth a command to duplicate the early church in structure, but certainly the spirit of the structure should be considered.

    With the exception of the simple church crowd I see little effort to empower the average believer and instead see plenty of “sola pastora” in our local churches today. My sense (and I don’t think we can be too dogmatic about it) is that the most common New Testament form of church was to have a good number of house churches meeting in a given area (i.e. in the city) under the elder care of a team who moved from house to house as need be. In a sense, it was a network of house churches under a shared leadership team of elders. That model (if, in fact, that is what happened) has certainly ceased to exist as a common form of church structure.

  • davidhimes

    Knowing Ferguson, I’m sure he’s just reporting what he finds from history. He does not believe in singular bishops.

    But I also think this development is the somewhat natural influence of worldly thinking into spiritual matters.

    We seem to naturally think things need to be organized and led. There are some good things that happen as a result of that tendency … and some less than ideal things.

    Personally, I am unconvinced that the “church organization” as we see it today is what Jesus sought for his body. But he reigns, in spite of such organization, not because of it.

  • Sangjin Lee

    Reading church history, I get the distinct sense that fending off rising heresies played a part in this. Fighting sects like gnosticism led to emphasizing the authority of the church as the holder of the truth, and having strong central authorities in the church was not far behind. Would that have been a factor?

  • Rick

    I agree that this was a factor, especially during the period in which the canon of Scripture was still being put together.
    Once that was put together, as Scot has said (correct me if I am misquoting), the N.T. becomes our apostolic tradition.

  • davidhimes

    We must also recognize the political pressure applied by the Emperor Constantine, to create the canon, thus contributing to the “certification” of who was orthodox and who was not, and also solidify the role of the “leading” bishops of the day.

    A pretty huge example of how worldly thinking was superimposed upon Christians thru political influence of the day.

  • BradK

    “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

  • danaames

    Well… I have read in Ignatius of Antioch (taught by the Apostle John, so out of place in Ferguson’s time line…) that where the episkopos and the people are, there is the wholeness of the church. (The word “catholic” is a transliteration of the Greek word that primarily means “according to the whole”.) It’s an iconic representation of the Lord and His Body, showing an organic relationship in which, in those days of handing teaching on mostly orally, the bishop was responsible for handing on the teaching and experience of the church correctly, according to what was taught by the Apostles (“apostolic” not merely indicating a line of successive ordination). This was depicted as an organic unity, not monarchy/subjects.

    The word in scripture is episkopos, not poimenas “pastors” (which occurs only once in the NT as regards people serving in the church, as I recall). Whatever these overseers were, they were not “pastors” in our modern sense of the term; they may have done some of the same things, but the responsibility they held was of much greater import, because the early church was in fact far more liturgical and sacramental than Evangelicals want to believe. For +20 years, I believed roughly what Scot is saying Ferguson teaches. Then I actually read the Apostolic Fathers – and for a time I still discounted much of what was written there. Then a few years later I went back to the Ap. Fathers for a second look…

    For a comparison between the RC and EO views of church organization, see “Church, Papacy and Schism” by P. Sherrard.


  • danaames

    And, for T, the Orthodox Church has never been cessationist.


  • tedstur

    Dana, I am not so sure about statement “the early church was in fact far more liturgical than Evangelicals want to believe.” Certainly there are earlier churches more liturgical but I don’t think anybody can say with much authority what the 1st or 2nd century church was really like. The description of the Corinthian church in the NT doesn’t seem too ordered to me! I think your statement about liturgy can be made authoritatively as things progress past the 2nd and into the 3rd century, but not before. I am more than ready to be corrected but I understand the issue at hand is about the changing nature of the early church.

  • danaames

    Ted, there is very little in scripture that describes exactly how the first Christians worshiped. We know that Peter and John kept attending Jewish afternoon prayer for a time at least (Acts 3.1), so they did not forsake Jewish liturgical worship before the Jews who believed in Jesus and the Jews who didn’t parted ways.

    As to the Corinthian church, we don’t know how their worship was structured, either – whether the things described happened on Sunday morning or another time during the week. We do know from Paul that the Eucharist seems to have been celebrated weekly on Sunday. We have records in the Apostolic Fathers and Justin Martyr (before AD 150 and back into C1) that basically describe the structure of a Jewish prayer service, but with the prayers/readings/preaching centered around Jesus, and appended to that, the celebration of the Eucharist (which, until Zwingli, was always believed to be truly the body and blood of Christ).

    The short answer is that if you trace the RC Mass and the EOrthodox Liturgy back and back and back into history, you see that that’s how Christian worship has always been done; each element means something and is connected to the rest, and they proclaim things about Jesus. Lex orendi, lex credendi. Certainly it was “thinner” at the beginning and some things were added as time went on, but the core is the same, and it had a specific pattern that was liturgical and sacramental. This would be expected if Christianity emerged from Judaism.

    That may not be “authoritative” enough for you. That’s okay. I refer you to the work of Margaret Barker; many of her articles and book chapters can be found on line. She is an English Methodist whose area of study is Jewish temple worship. The connections between the meanings the Jews ascribed to the different aspects of temple worship and (especially) the meanings the Orthodox Liturgy demonstrates and proclaims are astonishing – and this with her having never been to an O. Liturgy until late in her career.


  • tedstur

    Dana, we will have to disagree on this. Seems a bit strong to say “that’s how Christian worship has always been done.” We don’t know that.

    I am currently in the midst of Meeks’ work “The First Urban Christians” and what is striking to me is the lack of detail we have about actual practice in the early church, even though he does a bang-up job of destroying a number of historical myths that I have heard and believed. The little evidence we do have establishes the stark break that the early church made with the synagogue system very early on, let alone the Temple system in Jerusalem. He refutes the argument that there was no ritual at all in the early church. However, he also suggests that the little knowledge of ritual we do have is similar to RC and Eorthodoxy liturgical practices in only the broadest of strokes.

    Getting back to the issue of “one pastor,” though, the liturgical practice of the priesthood is one reason why I am not a lover of liturgical systems. In many of these governance models only the ordained can practice certain aspects of worship. This resembles the CEO-Leader model of church governance in American Evangelicalism in which a dominant leader rules the roost. We are all priests, after all, no? The spirit of radical priesthood is what I see recaptured in many of the fast growing movements in the non-Western church. I say, “bring it!”

  • danaames

    Fine, I’m okay with agreeing to disagree. Just want to you know that in EO the pattern is not CEO, but collegiality/conciliarity. No one priest or bishop was/is the ruler of the roost, and the radical priesthood of believers has been active historically in thwarting heresy when some bishops were all for it (heresy, that is).

    All the best to you.


  • Brian J Henry

    While we are all priests (hiereus), we are not all presbyters (from which the english word priest comes from)/elders (presbyteros).

  • tedstur

    So true! Which should point us back to the original question concerning why we lean so heavily on sola pastora.

  • BryantIII

    Dear Scott,

    I sense that there is confusion. PRESBYTEROS is used in I Timothy 5:1, 2, 17 & 19; Titus 1:5 for elders, while EPISCOPOS is used in I Timothy 3:1 & 2; Titus 1:7. The key is the Titus passage which equates the two offices of PRESBYTEROS and EPISCOPOS.

    I also sense that there is not a clear understanding of APOSTWLOS. It is quite clear from Acts 1 that an Apostle was one who had been with Jesus from the baptism of John to His Ascension. NO ONE meets that qualification today; therefore, there no more apostles. The question of Paul as an Apostle is found in the fact of the Damascus Road Incident in Acts 9 and related on numerous occasions in Acts and Galatians 1-2.

    There is also the fact that as long as the Apostles were alive, then an appeal to an Apostle over the Pastor, Bishop, Elder, etc. could be made. BUT, once the Apostles had died, then the Pastor, Bishop. Elder, etc. was the prominent seat of authority in the local church. Furthermore, the Montanist Controversy was actually a rebellion by Montanist and cohorts against the authority of the Pastor by using the issue of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” The use of POIMENH & cognates show that “shepherd” (Acts 20; I Peter 5) is the correct translation and that it was used as equivalent term with EPISCOPOS (I Peter 2:25), but seems to emphasize the “caring and feeding” of the congregation as its roles. Thus, each word is used to refer to a particular role and also type of rule. Service is the role. Servant is the rule. Jesus emphasized on a number occasions in the gospels when speaking to the disciples.

    One must resist the attempts of some to place Constantine as the one who got the church to make or declare what was the canon of the NT. It is obvious from the Muratorian Canon, et al, that the Canon of the NT was pretty much observed and promotted by the various local churches BEFORE the 4th Century and Constantine. All that was done was to confirm what was already in existence. See Michael J. Kruger at who has discussed this issue at length on his blog and book, Canon Revisited.

    Finally, one must resist the temptation to use Galatians 3:28 out of its context. The context regards salvation being applied to all equally without regard to status, race or ethnicity. It does not speak regarding the equality of roles.

  • T Freeman

    You need to re-read regarding apostle. Yes there was something special about the 12, but there are closer to 17, if I recall different people referred to as apostles. Barbara’s was set apart with Paul, and it goes on from there, not that this makes much difference to the thrust of this post.