From an Apostolic (Oneness Pentecostal) perspective, what form should the church take in the twenty-first century? To answer this question, an Apostolic hermeneutic requires that we examine the New Testament church in the first century.

When we do, we find principles of organization, authority, and fellowship to guide us today. At the same time, however, we do not find detailed instructions or descriptions for the structuring of local churches or the connection of local churches to one another.

Since the Bible is inspired of God, we conclude that this lack of specificity is intentional. While God has given principles to guide us in being the church and doing church, He has given us broad discretion and liberty to operate in ways that are most suited to our own social, economic, political, and cultural context. In God’s plan, the precise form of doing church can vary with circumstances, preferences, and pragmatic considerations. This diversity extends across both time and space and even to the local level.

Therefore, we will not look for one right way to do church, but we will look for principles to apply. All churches must find ways to implement these principles and operate according to them. Finally, we consider some challenges that the twenty-first century church faces in light of these principles. The purpose of this paper is not primarily to give definitive answers but to provide a springboard for reflection and discussion.

Organization in the New Testament Church

The church is the body of people who believe and obey the gospel of Jesus Christ—people who have been called out from the world around them, have been born again, and are endeavoring to live a holy life. The church is not synonymous with, or limited to, any human organization. Membership in a particular denomination is not a prerequisite to salvation. At the same time, God has blessed human organizations, and they have done much to advance the gospel.

God has instituted organization and authority in His church. He has ordained relationships among believers, and He has established a framework for fellowship.

From the beginning, the church has had some structure. Jesus personally chose and trained twelve apostles to be leaders of the church, and He appointed Judas to be the first treasurer of the group (John 13:29).

God has placed gifts of administration in the church (I Corinthians 12:28). He has given to the church the fivefold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). He has also endowed people in the church with gifts of prophesying, serving, teaching, exhorting or encouraging, giving, leading, and showing mercy (Romans 12:4-8).

The Book of Acts records a history of organized effort, recognition of leadership, unified decision-making, and fellowship.

In Acts 1:15-26, the 120 founding members of the apostolic church met to choose a successor to Judas. Peter apparently chaired the meeting. The group established qualifications for the office of apostle, nominated two men, and ultimately chose Matthias by lot.

After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the people “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (Acts 2:42).[2] They acknowledged the leadership of the Twelve—including Matthias, whom they had chosen—in doctrinal teaching and in maintaining fellowship. They also acknowledged the apostles’ leadership in the collection and distribution of church funds (Acts 4:35).

In Acts 6, the Twelve once again called a meeting of all believers to institute a system for taking care of church business matters. The assembly chose seven men to administer business affairs under the leadership of the apostles, so that the latter could devote more time to prayer and preaching. The apostles first stipulated that the men be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Then the assembly chose the seven, and the apostles prayed and laid hands on them. Laying on of hands is one of the basic doctrines of the church (Hebrews 6:2), and it is administered so that God will bless, heal, or anoint someone for a special purpose. In this instance, it showed that God, through the leaders, had authorized and approved the election of these men.

Philip, one of the seven, later brought the gospel to Samaria. When revival broke out there, the apostles sent Peter and John to investigate, oversee, and help. Under their leadership, the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).

In Acts 11, the apostles and brethren of Judea asked the apostle Peter to report to them. He had just preached to Cornelius, a Gentile, and the leaders wanted to find out if his actions were valid or not. Even though Peter had been the most noticeable leader up to this point, had received the keys of the kingdom from Jesus, and had received direct orders from the Lord to preach to Cornelius, he still submitted to the authority of the church. He was examined, criticized by some in the meeting, and answered those in authority.

The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate the growth of the church there, which they had not founded (Acts 11:22-30). His mission was to provide teaching and leadership. Barnabas stayed in Antioch, later bringing in Paul as his assistant. Prophets also came from Jerusalem to help. Soon afterwards, the Antioch church took up a collection for the needy in the Jerusalem church and sent the offering to the Jerusalem elders by Barnabas and Paul.

The Antioch church grew and developed prophets and teachers of its own. God called Barnabas and Paul to missionary work, revealing this call not only to them but also to the leadership in Antioch. The Antioch ministry then prayed for them, laid hands on them, and appointed them as missionaries (Acts 13:1-4). They went out, establishing churches and ordaining ministers to take charge of them (Acts 14:23).

Acts 15 records the next significant meeting of the church. By this time, the church had grown tremendously. It was no longer just a local congregation in Jerusalem, but it had spread all across Judea, Samaria, and the Gentile nations. In what we could call the first general conference of the church, leaders and ministers from various local congregations gathered in Jerusalem to discuss a hotly debated issue. The question was whether Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and had to keep the law of Moses. There was much discussion and disputing, with Paul, Barnabas, and Peter taking the position that the Gentiles did not have to follow these rituals. Certain believing Pharisees took the opposite point of view. James, the brother of the Lord, chaired the meeting and announced the decision that the majority supported.

After the decision was made, the church united behind the result and chose representatives to communicate it to local churches. The church exercised its authority to decide what was binding on Gentile believers. (See Matthew 18:18.) Specifically, they decided that Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or obey the ceremonial law except for four specific teachings, because “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us” (Acts 15:28-29).

After this meeting, Paul became the major figure in the Book of Acts. Although his position had been vindicated, Paul came to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey to give a report to James and the other leaders in Jerusalem. They rejoiced to hear his report but then advised him to take certain Jewish vows in order to appease the Jewish Christian community. He followed their advice in order to foster unity and in submission to their authority (Acts 21:18-26).

The Epistles provide further evidence of a healthy, close-knit organization for the purposes of fellowship, establishing ministerial standards, and collecting offerings. James, Peter, and John were pillars, or general leaders, of the church (Galatians 2:9). This fact did not prevent Paul from rebuking Peter and others when they did wrong (Galatians 2:11-14). Under Jewish pressure, Peter had withdrawn from fellowship with Gentiles. Consequently, he “was not straightforward about to the truth of the gospel.”

Paul was the overseer of a number of churches that he had founded on his missionary journeys and to which he wrote letters of instruction, encouragement, and admonition. He appointed overseers and ministers to work under him. Timothy became the overseer in Ephesus (I Timothy 1:3). Titus was the overseer of the island of Crete and had responsibility for ordaining ministers in that area (Titus 1:5).

To aid these two ministers in organizing their respective areas, Paul gave them a list of qualifications for the office of bishop/elder (pastor) (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-16). Paul also gave qualifications for deacons, leaders who assist pastors in church affairs (I Timothy 3:8-13), probably modeled after Acts 6.

Paul sent Titus and another brother to Gentile churches to receive offerings for the Jerusalem church (II Corinthians 8:16-24). Among various churches, he promoted a plan of receiving offerings every Sunday, and he asked the Corinthian church to recommend someone to bring an offering to Jerusalem (I Corinthians 16:1-3). Paul himself received offerings for his missionary endeavors (II Corinthians 11:8-9; Philippians 4:10-19).

In his letters, Paul endorsed various ministers and recommended them to local churches. Examples are Titus and Mark (II Corinthians 8:23; Colossians 4:10). He also announced spiritual discipline and gave warnings concerning ministers who had fallen into false doctrine or sin. Examples are Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus (I Timothy 1:19-20; II Timothy 2:17-18). He described a procedure for investigating accusations against ministers and pronouncing public judgment if needed (I Timothy 5:19-20).

The apostle John sent a letter of recommendation for a minister named Demetrius along with a warning not to accept Diotrephes (III John 9-12). Jesus and Paul outlined procedures for settling disputes in the church, judging sinners in the church, and withdrawing fellowship from members if necessary (Matthew 18:15-18; I Corinthians 5:1-13). Paul warned the elders in Ephesus about false prophets (Acts 20:28-30), and the Lord commended that church for discerning and testing false apostles (Revelation 2:2).

These passages of Scripture show that there was close cooperation among the churches, ways of handling problems, and lines of authority. At the local level we find elders (pastors) in charge of the local churches, assisted by deacons. Then there were overseers in charge of regions or groups of churches, such as Titus in Crete. In turn, Paul supervised Titus as well as some churches Paul had founded. His special ministry was directing the missionary outreach to the Gentiles (foreign), even as Peter directed the outreach to the Jews (home) (Galatians 2:7-8). Peter was a major spokesman and representative of the early church, while James was apparently the chief leader in Jerusalem.

Thus, each church and each minister operated under the authority of leaders. Even the highest leaders such as Peter and Paul exhorted each other and were subject to the church as a whole. Both of them gave reports to and received advice from the assembly of ministers that gathered in Jerusalem. These examples show that church government supersedes personal positions, even ministries ordained by God.

Authority in the New Testament Church

The church is founded upon the Word of God, and all authority in the church is subject to the Word of God. Each person is responsible to believe and obey God’s Word, and each person is responsible for his or her own salvation. We cannot follow leaders into false doctrine, sin, or unethical practices. (See I Corinthians 11:1; Galatians 1:8.) While leaders have authority regarding biblical teachings and principles, they cannot insist upon personal opinions; their authority must be based on the Bible (II Timothy 3:15-17; 4:2).

The Bible teaches us to respect and obey godly leadership (Hebrews 13:7, 17). These principles apply to all Christians at every level, to leadership among churches as well as leadership within local churches, for the Bible does not restrict them to a category called “laity.”

We are to discern the character of leaders, follow their genuine faith, and esteem them highly for their labor (I Thessalonians 5:12-13). While we recognize that all humans are fallible, we respect the offices that God has given them. We esteem people in authority because God has given them authority to do their jobs. This principle applies generally in society (Romans 13:1-7) and more particularly in the church (I Timothy 5:17).

The purpose of leadership in the church is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12). The job of a minister is to “convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (II Timothy 4:2). The New Testament warns against people who reject or despise authority and speak evil of dignitaries (Jude 8; II Peter 2:10-13). One of the signs of the end time is an erosion of God-given authority in the home, society, and church (II Timothy 3:2, 8).

Church leaders should seek to serve others, not to exercise authority over others (Matthew 20:25-27). Pastors are to be examples, not dictators (I Peter 5:1-3). Two qualifications for the exercise of authority are obedience to authority and service to others (Matthew 8:8-9; John 13:3-4).

Local Church Government in the New Testament

It is God’s will for everyone to associate with a local group of believers (Hebrews 10:25). As we have seen, it is also God’s will for each local congregation to operate under the authority of a God-called ministry.

The New Testament indicates that each local congregation was responsible to govern itself, that they were under the oversight of elders (pastors), and that they were accountable and submitted to the authority of the broader church.

Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthians illustrates the reality of local church government. Although Paul had founded the church and had spiritual authority over them, he did not simply command the church to take certain actions, but he instructed them according to principles and then advised to them to take appropriate action.

On matters of doctrine and praxis, he exercised apostolic authority to tell them what was right. Thus, his instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper and the doctrine of the resurrection were absolute (I Corinthians 11:33-34; 15:24-14).

On church governmental matters, however, he recognized their own local authority and responsibility and appealed to them to do what was right. In the case of a man who was committing incest, Paul stated strongly that the man needed to be disciplined, but instead of unilaterally pronouncing the discipline, he said it was the church’s responsibility to do so (I Corinthians 5:4-5). In the case of a leader who had opposed him, he affirmed the church’s disciplinary action but then advised them to be merciful and promised to support their decision (II Corinthians 2:5-11). He asked the Corinthians to give an offering to the church in Jerusalem, but this action was in their discretion (II Corinthians 8:7-12; 9:1-5).

Local churches were led by elders, people called by God to the ministry of preaching, teaching, leading, and overseeing the church. In the New Testament, the titles of elder (presbuteros, “elder, presbyter”), bishop (episkopos, “overseer”), and pastor (poimen, “shepherd”) are used interchangeably for the spiritual leader of a local congregation. Acts 20:17, 28 says elders (presbuteros) are overseers (episkopos) and are to feed the church, literally, “to tend as a shepherd” (poimaino). Titus 1:5-7 equates elder with bishop. I Peter 5:1-4 describes the work of elders as shepherding the flock (poimaino) and taking oversight (episkopeo). I Timothy 5:17 similarly describes elders as ruling.

The New Testament speaks of “elders” in the plural when describing local churches. We must remember that there were no church buildings in the first century. All believers in a city were considered members of one church, but there was no one building in which all could meet together. Instead, they met in various house churches. In this context, it appears that the elders of the city were the council of leaders of house churches—what we would consider to be pastors of various churches within a city. Another way to view them would be as a ministerial staff or team of a large church.

This explanation reveals how closely the ministers in a city worked together, considering themselves as ministers of one church. From it we can learn some important lessons about unity, mutual accountability, and team leadership. However, nothing in this concept would contradict the idea of a senior pastor or head of the team, which is God’s typical plan throughout the Bible

In the Old Testament, for instance, we find many examples of teamwork (e.g., Moses and Aaron, Deborah and Barak), delegated authority (e.g., the seventy elders), and mentoring (e.g., Elijah and Elisha). At the same time, God typically anointed senior leaders in charge of significant groups, institutions, and endeavors. Examples are Moses, Joshua, the high priests, the judges, Samuel, the kings, and the prophets.

Nothing in the New Testament concept of a plurality of elders precludes an individual elder from being responsible for a local house meeting. (See Appendix for a more detailed examination of local church leadership in the New Testament as well as historical analysis from first- and second-century Rome.)

Biblical Principles for the Church Today

From this survey, we see the importance of fellowship and unity. (See also Psalm 133:1.) By working together in a fellowship that operates with biblical accountability and authority, we enjoy God’s protection, blessing, and guidance. Good organization promotes evangelism and outreach. It facilitates joint efforts, the pooling of financial resources, and the pooling of talent. It reinforces beliefs and convictions. It enables missionary work, as in the early church, and it enables each local assembly to take part in the great commission.

Organization offers protection against the infiltration of Satan and sin. As in the early church, it provides a means of knowing those who labor among us and distinguishing between true and false leadership. It provides a means of having fellowship with people of like precious faith, of establishing biblical qualifications for leadership, and of maintaining guidelines for Christian living.

When faced with new situations, the body can seek the leading of the Spirit, as the church did in Acts 15. “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). “Two are better than one . . . and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). God honors the collective decision of His church, and He can use this method to implement His will (Acts 15:28).

All believers, including ministers, need to operate within a system of godly authority and fellowship. A large fellowship helps to keep local groups in the mainstream of God’s will. The diversity of viewpoints keeps the whole group in balance. It also keeps the whole body invigorated and progressive in outlook.

Ministers should be the best example of all of servant leadership and submission to authority: “Nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:3). No one is exempt from authority, but everyone can profit from encouragement, counsel, advice, warning, and if necessary, rebuke. The church as a whole will profit from strong leadership that safeguards and promotes precious truths.

Everyone should submit to God-given government and authority. For this reason, it is dangerous to operate independently. Those who work independently still need to have a system of authority and accountability. They still need to meet biblical qualifications.

Leaders who do not want to work with others need to examine themselves. Often, there is an unwillingness to submit to biblical authority. Some ministers insist that their church members submit to their authority, but they themselves refuse to submit to any kind of church government. They emphasize that people should pay tithes, and some maintain complete personal control over the tithes, but to whom do they pay tithes and to whom are they accountable financially? They exercise strong control over people, but from whom do they accept advice and leadership?

Based on the evidence in Acts and the Epistles, it is God’s plan for each local congregation and minister to associate with a larger group of believers. In most cases, it is not advisable to switch churches or work independently. If, after prayerful consideration, a change is needed, it is still important to have fellowship with a group of true believers, to be accountable to the body, and to follow godly leadership.

Every group will eventually have fellowship with someone, and it is important to have fellowship with people of proven character, doctrine, and convictions. God is at work among many different religious groups, but it is dangerous to enter indiscriminately into close fellowship with everyone that God is trying to lead to greater truth. We can be friendly toward them and seek to influence them in a positive direction, but if we have close fellowship with them we could weaken our own beliefs and lifestyle.

Frequently, an independent group finds fellowship with people who do not have strong beliefs or accepts people with unknown or questionable backgrounds. The result can be a conglomeration of people, many of whom are disgruntled, hypocritical, or rebellious. It is difficult for an isolated group to maintain a strong position of holiness and doctrinal purity, but in unity there is strength.

Government should be present in the local church and also extend beyond it. There is New Testament precedent for the general church body to send leaders to inquire about local congregations, send missionaries to establish new churches, send ministers to teach local congregations, resolve doctrinal disputes, organize collections of money, send recommendations for evangelists, withdraw fellowship from ministers who persist in false doctrine or sin, warn local churches concerning false prophets, and judge false prophets among them.
The general church body has authority to make a decision on new issues that may confront it from time to time. By means of a general conference, the early church established guidelines for the conduct of Gentile believers, based on scriptural precedent and the principles of the gospel. The early church also set forth qualifications for apostles, missionaries, ministers, and deacons, and it chose eligible people to fill these offices. Jesus did not explicitly address many of these issues in His earthly ministry, but He gave authority to the church to handle these matters. No individual took it upon himself or herself to make and promulgate these decisions, but the general church did.

In summary, we find at least ten important biblical principles for the church in every age, including the twenty-first century:

1.      The importance of fellowship, community, and unity (Acts 2).

2.      The importance of giving locally and internationally (Acts 2; I Corinthians 16; II Corinthians 8-9).

3.      Spiritual authority in the church (Acts 2, 5, 15).

4.      Participatory decision-making, including conferences (Acts 6, 15).

5.      Mutual accountability, including meetings, investigations, reports, and assistance (Acts 8, 11, 15, 21).

6.      Ministerial commissioning and qualifications (Acts 13; I Timothy 3, Titus 1).

7.      Ministerial recommendations (credentials) and discipline (epistles of Paul and John).

8.      General leadership and organized outreach (Acts 15; Galatians 1-2).

9.      Organization and oversight at various levels. In the New Testament, we can discern at least four levels in certain cases: local church, regional (Titus), founding or overseeing missionary (Paul), international council of apostles and elders.

10.  Self-governing local church with leadership of elders including senior pastor.

Five Challenges for the Church in the Twenty-first Century

In our day, the church faces circumstances that were unknown in New Testament times. It has authority and responsibility to respond to new conditions, applying scriptural principles to modern situations. At the same time, we recognize that only Scripture is our infallible authority; all human decisions are potentially fallible and subject to correction or change.

For the sake of reflection and discussion, we can identify five challenges for today’s church:

1.      Shared commitment to principles of organization and authority. How can we achieve greater agreement and commitment to the biblical principles we have identified? How can we become more consistent in applying these principles at all levels and locales?

2.      Exercise of spiritual authority to address modern needs, circumstances, and challenges. What authority does a local pastor have to modify doctrinal expressions and praxis? What responsibility does he or she have to the general body in this regard? What authority does the general body have? How can the body respond to cultural conditions with new doctrinal expressions, practical applications, and methods of operation while remaining faithful to biblical teachings and principles? What procedures could aid this process?

3.      Shared responsibility for the unity of the body. How can we encourage greater commitment to the general body? Under what circumstances is it scriptural and ethical for individual churches and ministers to withdraw from the body? What are appropriate ways to handle disagreements without destroying scriptural unity? What are effective ways for the general body to address those who undermine unity by unilateral changes in doctrine and praxis?

4.      Mutual accountability. How can we build greater accountability for ministers? Without undermining pastoral authority and initiative, how can pastors be accountable to their congregation, peers in ministry, spiritual leaders, and the general body?

5.      Team leadership and cooperative approach to church planting. How can we be more effective in church planting and church growth through teamwork and cooperation? How can we plan and operate more strategically? In the past, we have relied primarily upon an entrepreneurial, pioneer model that has been effective in many ways but can also foster isolation, kingdom building, turf protection, independence, lack of accountability, and abuse of authority. How can we develop a team model of planting many churches in an area so that diverse ministries can reach more people? Such an approach might resemble that of a business such as McDonalds or Starbucks that seeks to increase its outlets. By multiplying locations, the company increases exposure, name recognition, and desire for what it offers. It thereby grows its customer base and benefits all its stores. Are there detriments to such an approach, and if so, how can we avoid or minimize them?

In short, how can the twenty-first century church have first-century apostolic revival?

Appendix: Local Church Leadership in the New Testament

Let us examine each biblical book that describes the New Testament church in existence (Acts through Revelation) to glean evidence concerning local church leadership, particularly the concept of a senior pastor.

Acts: While the twelve apostles were the supreme leaders of the church, James the brother of the Lord, who was not one of the Twelve, became the chief elder or senior pastor in Jerusalem. (See Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18.)

Romans: Paul mentioned at least three and probably five house churches in Rome with their leaders. (See Romans 16:3-5, 10, 11, 14, 15.) Priscilla and Aquila apparently served as the pastors of the church in their house.

I and II Corinthians: Corinth may fit the model of a council of elders with no strong central leader. However, it was a new church, and it appears that, as the founder, Paul was still functioning as their senior pastor in a transitional phase while depending on local leadership.

Galatians: This letter was written to a group of churches in a region, so there is no identification of a senior pastor.

Ephesians: It was probably a circular letter written first to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, but also meant for the other churches in Asia. (See Acts 19:10, 26.) This could explain why Paul elsewhere referred to a letter to Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), why Ephesians contains no references to individual saints in Ephesus, and why many manuscripts omit the recipients in Ephesians 1:1. If this letter was written to a group of churches, then again, we would not expect mention of an individual pastor.

Philippians: Paul apparently addressed the senior pastor in Philippians 4:3, asking him to mediate a dispute between two female ministers in the church.

Colossians: It seems that Epaphras was the senior pastor (Colossians 1:7), and he was on a trip to Paul at the time, perhaps to discuss the heresy in Colosse against which the letter was written. He also had responsibilities for other churches in the area (Colossians 4:12), so he may have been a regional leader. Nymphas was apparently the pastor of a house church in neighboring Laodicea (Colossians 4:15).

I and II Thessalonians: Paul wrote to the church not long after he founded it, and they still looked to him as their senior pastor (I Thessalonians 2:11, 17).

I and II Timothy: Timothy was the designated leader in Ephesus to help establish the church doctrinally and organizationally (I Timothy 1:3).  He was under the authority of the apostle Paul.

Titus: Titus was the designated leader in the island of Crete, charged with organizing churches and ordaining elders in the various communities under his care (Titus 1:5). He was under the authority of the apostle Paul.

Philemon: Philemon had a church in his house in Colosse, and it is likely that Apphia was his wife and Archippus was his son (Philemon 1-2). If so, Archippus may have been the ministerial leader of this house church (Colossians 4:17).

Hebrews, James, I and II Peter, I John, Jude: These are general letters to the church as a whole or to a region or group, so it is not surprising that they would not mention any local pastor.

II and III John: They were written to local churches. It may be that II John 1 addresses a lady pastor, or perhaps John just addressed the church generally. In III John, Gaius and Diotrephes may have been neighboring pastors of house churches, with Diotrephes wrongly trying to assert authority over the whole region or city (Ephesus). In the biblical sense they were members of the same church of the city. Or they could have been leaders who attended the same house church, in which case we see a team leadership under the direction of John, the apostle who had charge of that area as the senior leader.

Revelation: In Revelation 2-3 we find seven letters to the “angels” of seven churches. The Greek word angelos literally means “messenger”; this is the alternate translation provided by the NIV. In this context it does not seem possible that they would be spirit beings, because Jesus gave a message to John to transmit to the seven messengers. Would Jesus tell John to write letters to angels rather than Jesus communicating with them directly? If so, why would John need to write in Greek to angelic beings? How would he deliver letters to these angels? What were the angels supposed to do in response to the messages? The messages counsel believers to repent, be faithful, and walk in holiness. How could angels cause human churches to fulfill these admonitions? It seems clear that these seven letters were written to seven individual human messengers whom God held responsible to communicate His Word to their respective churches. In other words, they were the seven senior pastors of seven churches in Asia Minor.

Recently, Peter Lampe, professor of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, conducted an unprecedented scholarly study of local church organization and government in the first two centuries in Rome, the city for which we can glean the most information. Here is a summary of his findings.[3]

“In the pre-Constantine period, the Christians of the city of Rome assembled in premises that were provided by private persons and that were scattered across the city (fractionalization).” Nevertheless, “people writing from outside of Rome could address the Roman Christians as a unity.” At the same time, “a plurality of presbyters leads Roman Christianity.”

“All presbyters are at the same time ‘bishops,’ and the latter designation specifies one of their special duties…. The worship leader always is at the same time also in charge of taking care of the poorer members in his liturgical assembly. Each presbyter in Rome apparently leads a worship assembly in a house community and therefore also takes care of needy fellow Christians there…. Each individual group was presided over by its own presbyter-bishop.”

“For a house community in the second century one has to reckon most probably with only one presbyter. Two or three presbyters for a single house-church community can only be established at the earliest for the third century.”

“On a level above the individual house communities occasional conventions of presbyters took place…. All this points to conventions at which the presbyters of the city’s individual communities, which acknowledged spiritual fellowship with each other, gathered together.”

[1] Some portions are adapted from David Bernard and Loretta Bernard, In Search of Holiness, rev. ed. (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 2006).


[2] Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.

[3] Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 364, 398, 400 & n. 8, 401.

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