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Church Government in the Apostolic Age

CHURCH GOVERNMENT IN THE APOSTOLIC AGE. This article is restricted to the Biblical teachings concerning the organization and government of the Church during the Apostolic period. The writings of the Fathers, such as those of Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch and others, as well as The Didache or Teachings reflect later traditions. Consequently, no reference is made to these sources.


Christ’s teaching concerning the Church and its government

The first NT use of the word church in a generic sense was by Jesus Christ. Christ’s teaching concerning the Church was both explicit and implicit. His inferences regarding the future ministry of His disciples as a body and the propagation of the Gospel through them were more abundant than His specific teachings about the Church. (See Matt 18:23-35; 22:1-14; 25:1-13, 14-19; Luke 13:24-30; 19:11-27; 24:36-53; etc.)

Christ’s statement to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18), is perhaps His most specific teaching concerning the Church. Christ taught that His Church (ecclesia) would be built and that the powers of evil would be unable to prevail against it. Christ also taught that men, the apostles (18:18-20) and Peter (16:18), would share in the administration of the spiritual authority promised to the Church (16:19). Later in His ministry, Christ referred to the Church or ecclesia as the setting for the arbitration of spiritual problems which could not be settled otherwise (18:15-20). In the same passage He implied that His disciples, particularly the Twelve, would exercise authority in such disputes and in their subsequent settlement.

Some have stressed the fact that the term ecclesia was used in several ways and can refer to any congregation or assembly of individuals, such as Christ’s immediate followers, as well as the church in the NT sense of that word. It is clear that Peter understood these vv. with respect to his fellowship with Christ’s followers (18:21, 22). However, the principles taught in this passage apparently were followed in the settlement of disciplinary cases in the Early Church (1 and 2 Cor). Numerous less explicit statements, which some interpret as applying to the Church, occur in the four gospels. Yet, attention is given here only to explicit teachings of Christ about the Church or ecclesia.

It appears that Christ taught the following about the Church: (1) His Church would be built; (2) that its spiritual power would be invincible; and (3) it would be marked by human leadership and jurisdiction. Peter’s confession of Christ as the Son of the living God is one of the basic tenets of the Church. It was not until after the Day of Pentecost that the Church began to fulfill its ministry as predicated by Christ, although the exercise of apostolic authority and ministry was evident earlier.

The organization and government of the Early Church

Following the Ascension of Christ into heaven, the Church emerged as a spiritual fellowship under the immediate direction of the apostles and gradually developed into a flexible but reasonably structured organization. It seems that as long as the Church was predominantly Jewish and located in Pal., its organization was relatively simple. As the Church began to grow in size and spread throughout the Rom. empire, its organization became more complex and more clearly defined. Nonetheless, even at the close of the apostolic period, the organization of the Church remained relatively simple.

The Hebrew-Christian Church.

The first group meeting of the followers of Christ after His Ascension was in an upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13). In this small assembly, Peter served as spokesman for the group. At that time a decision was made concerning a replacement for the office in the Apostolate vacated by Judas Iscariot. This decision was reached by means of casting lots (Acts 1:26). This particular approach with respect to finding the will of God by casting lots was not practiced after the Day of Pentecost. However, the act indicated a concern to find the will of God in matters relating to the staffing of the apostolic ranks. Following the descent of the Holy Spirit, church offices were filled by individuals who gave evidence of divine appointment by the possession of spiritual gifts or charismata and who possessed the qualities of life required for the offices involved. It should be mentioned that prerequisites for the filling of the vacancy created by Judas, such as being a witness to the Resurrection, were not overlooked in the use of lots. After Pentecost the role of the Spirit in the bestowal of gifts was given preeminence and the use of such procedures as the casting of lots diminished and evidently lost favor in the Church (Acts 6:5, 6; Eph 3:7, 8).


Administrative and governmental functions in the earliest phases of the church’s history were predominantly in the hands of the apostles. These men served as preachers and administrators in the Early Church (1:15-26; 2:14-36, 41-47; 5:1-11).

As the church grew in size, the apostles delegated certain administrative tasks to other men in the Church (6:1-7). These men, seven in number, were chosen on the basis of their manner of life and were said to be “full of the Holy Spirit.” Several of these men, Stephen and Philip, for example, were active in the preaching of the Gospel and in the baptism of converts (6:8-7:60 and 8:26-40). Evidently the ministration of the ordinance of baptism in the Early Church was not restricted to either the apostles or to the deacons; as Ananias, a disciple, not specifically mentioned as either an apostle or as a deacon, baptized Paul (9:10-19). The laying on of hands, a Jewish custom, was evident in the practices of the Early Church. This custom was practiced on several occasions such as at baptisms and in the setting apart of the leaders of the Church for special tasks (6:6; 8:17-19; etc.).

In adition to the apostles and deacons who served in various capacities as preachers, teachers and evangelists, mention is made of prophets (11:27, 28) and elders (11:30) in the early period of the church’s history. Prophets evidently possessed the gift of prophecy and were recognized accordingly by the Church. Such individuals seemed to function as spokesmen for God to the churches and to individuals. Although no mention is made of the precise role of elders in the earliest phase of the Church’s history, this office was recognized in the Jerusalem Church. Apparently these elders were in charge of the distribution and oversight of the physical properties of the Church and were involved in certain additional administrative duties in the Jerusalem congregation. The precise relationship between “deacons” and “elders” at this stage in the development of the church is not clear.


The government of the Palestinian Church seemed to be defined less clearly than that of the Church at later stages. The apostles apparently exercised authoritative roles in the Early Church (4:32-5:11; 2:41-47). Their authority was not questioned and was apparently well-accepted by the early believers. As the Church grew, the apostles delegated some of their administrative authority, but remained the final authorities under God in spiritual matters (6:1-7; 8:14-25; 9:26-31). One of the first instances recorded in the NT wherein apostolic authority was questioned was in regard to whether or not Peter should minister the Gospel to the Gentiles. It appeared that factions existed at this early date and it seems that the “brethren” along with the apostles were beginning to exercise a greater voice in the government of the Church (11:1-18). Apparently by the time that the Gospel began to spread to the Gentiles, the decision-making procedures followed by the Early Church included the interaction of the apostles and brethren, with the apostles retaining their traditional authority in spiritual matters. It seems that in all decision making and administrative procedures, the apostolic and/or congregational authority was heavily dependent upon the revealed will of God.

The expanding Church.

As the Church expanded into the various parts of the Rom. empire, its organizational structure retained its early form and adjusted to the demands of its changing environment.



The Early Church continued to recognize the final authority of the apostles even as it spread beyond the region of Pal. (1 Thess 1:6; 2:13-16; etc.). However, the apostles delegated the government of local churches to the individual congregations and to those gifted individuals in their midst who possessed gifts of leadership (1 Cor 12; 14; Phil 1:1; Col 1:7; etc.). Many of the epistles of the NT reflect an interaction between the apostles and the churches. Frequently the apostles would write the churches expressing their views on matters of discipline and church polity. (See, for example, the Galatian and Corinthian correspondence.) The execution of church discipline and the government of local churches was largely a function of the local congregations of believers. These local congregations exercised authority with respect to the following matters: (1) admission to membership; (2) the exercise of church discipline; (3) the administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper and related minor matters which did not require decisions of a higher nature which were generally the function of the apostles. The precise nature of the interaction between the leaders of the local churches, the apostles, and the “brethren” or members of the churches is not absolutely clear. Various groups within the Christian Church have stressed either the role of the congregation or the role of the elders, and other local church leaders with regard to decision making in the local churches. It seems that the corporate life of the Early Church was marked by an interaction of all of the above mentioned groups. However, final authority in spiritual matters was predominantly in the hands of the apostles during the period covered in the NT. The widespread effusion of the Holy Spirit following the Day of Pentecost resulted in an increased activity among the “brethren” or members of local churches with respect to the exercise of prophetic gifts and other revelatory gifts or gifts of exhortation (see 1 Cor). The increasing participation of the members of local churches in the congregational life of the church at times led to disputation. However, the local churches were in the habit of appealing to the apostles or to their written directions in what is now the NT as the final authority in such matters.

Leadership in the Early Church.

The New Testament mentions several distinct offices. These offices were functional in nature in that they were designed for a practical purpose, the building up of the body of Christ or Church.

The apostolate.

In the NT the term apostle is used in two different senses. First, the term is used to refer to the twelve apostles who were appointed by Christ during His earthly ministry. Paul seemed to consider himself on a plane equal to the Twelve although he referred to himself as the least worthy of all the apostles for this high calling (1 Cor 15:9). The Twelve were recognized as leaders of the Early Church and Christ included them in several special promised blessings (Matt 19:27-30; Luke 22:28-30). The Twelve also are referred to as being related vitally to the founding of the Church and are promised blessings in accordance with their roles (Eph 2:20; Rev 21:14). Their views were held in high esteem by the churches and they were instrumental in the writing of major portions of the NT. Paul writes that these apostles and certain other church leaders evidently were entitled to receive material support for their service in the churches. However, Paul and Barnabas, who also were considered apostles, engaged in secular work of their own free will. Apparently no restrictions were placed upon the apostles as to such activities (1 Cor 9:6-18).

Second, the term apostle was used in the NT (and also in the Didache, although not cited here) to refer to certain individuals such as: Barnabas (1 Cor 9:5, 6); James the brother of Christ (Gal 1:19) and Andronicus and Junias (Rom 16:7) who were not among the original Twelve. Some believe that these “apostles” were individuals who were called to perform foundational work in the Early Church period. Paul referred to Barnabas in this light. It may be possible that the term apostle used in this general sense denotes the particular role which special messengers, or apostles, performed in the forming of the Early Church congregations (1 Cor 9:1-18). Apostles, possibly apostles in this second sense of the term, were tested by the local churches in order to ascertain the validity of their credentials (Rev 2:2). However, no mention is made in the NT of a specific testing of the Twelve. Also, no mention is made of such apostles enjoying the same honors afforded to the Twelve and Paul. (See previous references in this article to the Book of Acts and Rev 21:14.) Once accepted by local churches, these apostles exercised spiritual leadership among the churches along with other duly appointed local church leaders. It seems that their ministries were frequently itinerant in nature (Acts 11:22-30).

Leadership in the local churches.

The NT epistles make reference to certain individuals who assumed positions of leadership in the local churches. Such leaders were expected to meet various conditions regarding their personal lives and to possess the spiritual gifs prerequisite to their ministries (1 Tim 3:1-13; 4:14-16; 5:17-22).



The Gr. term for deacon (διάκονος, G1356) describes an individual who ministers or who acts as a servant. The first mention of the appointment of individuals to serve as assistants in the ministration of community properties is recorded in Acts 6. No mention is made at this time of the term deacon, although the ministry of the seven men appointed by the Early Church at this time, generally is cited as the first function of deacons in the NT. By the time Paul wrote his First Epistle to Timothy, the ministry of deacons was recognized in the Church and the qualifications for service in this capacity were fairly well defined (1 Tim 3:8-13). When Paul addressed the church at Philippi, he greeted the overseers and deacons (Phil 1:1).

Deacons were proved or tested prior to official recognition by the churches. They were expected to be upright in character, faithful, monogamists, or husbands of one wife, and men who directed the affairs of their own homes with discretion. Their wives were expected to be sober-minded and faithful. The precise relationship between elders and deacons is not clear, but bishops or pastoral overseers are considered as distinct from deacons toward the close of the apostolic period.


Other leaders.

In addition to the ministries cited above, a number of additional offices existed in the Early Church. Several of these functions were assumed by the leaders cited earlier, that is, the apostles, elders and deacons. Prophets were evident in the Early Church and seemed either to reside in certain localities or to minister in an itinerant fashion as the need arose (Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32 and 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14). These prophets were respected by the churches and were active in the setting aside of individuals for specific ministries. They seemed to serve as the spokesmen for God. Yet, their utterances were not considered infallible and were subject to human error (1 Cor 14:29-33). Prophets were considered to rank second in the Pauline hierarchy of ministerial gifts (12:28). Not all believers were considered prophets, even though the gift of prophecy was abundantly present in the Early Church.

As mentioned, deacons, apostles and pastors or elders seemed to possess various spiritual gifts and served often as prophets, evangelists, or proclaimers of the good news, and as teachers. While all believers were in possession of one or more spiritual gifts, not all apparently possessed gifts which would enable them to minister the Gospel as preachers, or evangelists or apostles; nor did all believers possess spiritual gifts which would enable them to lead or administer the affairs of the Church. Certain spiritual gifts of a lesser rank are referred to by Paul, that is, the gift of helps, and the ability to govern. It is possible that such gifts were closely related to ministries of elders, deacons and other church leaders. In the NT church emphasis was placed upon the possession of spiritual gifts as a necessary condition for ministerial leadership.

The churches and the Church

From the outset of the church period, it was evident that an interrelation was present between the churches. The earliest center of church authority was Jerusalem. No particular authority was vested in the Church at Jerusalem, but rather in the apostles who resided there. As the Church expanded, greater attention was given to the authority of the apostles or their written correspondence than to any particular geographical center.

Early Church councils.

The earliest church councils were held in Jerusalem. Mention is made of a group meeting in Jerusalem to decide the issue of Gentile admission to the Church (Acts 11). Later, in Acts 15, a similar meeting is recorded in Jerusalem at which time the matter of circumcision of Gentile converts was discussed along with related matters. These are perhaps the two most important church meetings recorded in the Book of Acts. No other mention is made of special church councils which included delegates from the existing churches throughout the empire. Such convocations, however, were not uncommon in the period following the apostolic era.

It was evidently the practice of the churches to communicate with one another and with the apostles whenever doctrinal and practical decisions necessitated the same. No mention is made in the NT of communication between the local churches and some central or mother church such as the Jerusalem church.

Gradually recourse to apostolic convocations such as those in Jerusalem seemed to be replaced by recourse to their inscripturated teachings recorded in the New Testament epistles and the four gospels. No mention is made of the convening of church councils after Acts 15, although Christians did turn to such practices following the close of the apostolic period. No directions are provided in the NT instructing the churches to turn to some central authority for direction; rather, churches are exhorted to rely upon the Word of God as their source of final authority (2 Tim 3:14-17; 4:1-4; Titus 1:7-9). It seems evident that such references to the Word of God are synonymous with the Scriptures.

Cooperative endeavors.


M. Goguel, The Primitive Church (1964), 95-254; H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, (9th ed.) 1958; J. H. Moulton, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (1949), 70, 149, 535; A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age (1920), 1-112 and 645-672; F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (1914), 76-91, 189-217; J. B. Lightfoot, Dissertation on the Apostolic Age (1892), 137-246. This list is necessarily selective and does not represent an exhaustive list of sources on the subject.