Church Polity from the New Testament to St. Ignatios

[Note: Lengthy post. Updated (4:00pm CDT) with links to the message board discussion I refer to.]

I come from a church tradition which very strongly believed that for a church or group to claim that they were (a part of) the Church of Christ, they had to look, act, and believe like the New Testament Church. Thus, with respect to Church polity (it’s organization and structure), in the Restoration Movement churches in which I grew up, trained for ministry, and whom I served for a time as a minister, we believed that there ought be no church organization higher than the local congregation, and that the leaders of the church were men who served as elders and deacons. We rejected any notion of the ministry of a bishop, or the very ancient practice of the Church being led by bishops, priests and deacons.

Recently, I engaged some members of the Restoration Movement on one of their message boards about this very thing. (The thread is about something else–as always happens on message boards–but the discussion I’m referring to turns to the topic under consideration in this blog post right about here. My comment precipitating the ensuing discussion is the second one from the bottom.) I was challenged to present a case that the first century, New Testament Church was indeed governed by bishops, priests and deacons. So I did. And I want to share this with you all today.

My argument is essentially this: In the New Testament there is a clear association of the ministry of apostle and bishop, and further that these roles were associated with the Lord’s Supper. Further, in the New Testament the Lord’s Supper is presented not only sacramentally, but sacrificially. Church leadership grows out of this association with the Lord’s Supper.

As I understand it, the contention has been that St. Ignatios’ ecclesiology is alien and an imposition on the NT. I claim that this assertion is false. I think it is based on a fundamental error, which is the fairly singular (not necessarily exclusive) reliance on the appearance/use of the terms for bishop/presbyter/deacon and on explicit delineation of Church structure.

I think this is mistaken for the following reasons:
1. The NT strongly suggests (as I will show) a much different account of local Church polity than that of presbyters and deacons, and that the beginning of the distinction between bishops and presbyters had already begun within the lifetime of the Apostles, and, indeed, that in the first century, the predominant term for one group of leaders in the local Church was that of bishop.
2. One element–often overlooked in these discussion–of Church leadership in the NT revolved around the sacrifice of the Lord’s Supper, which is tied to Jesus’ heavenly service.
3. Further, the continuity between these ideas revealed in the NT and then in the Didache, and then in St. Clement and then in St. Ignatios reveals a fairly clear historical pattern in which what began in the NT developed fully by the end of the first century (minimally at least in Asia Minor).

I am not arguing that St. Ignatios’ monoepiscopal structure is explicitly mentioned in the NT. But there is, I maintain, a very clear line tracing right back to the NT which serves as the foundation for what St. Ignatios talks about.

In other words, it is the will of God, as revealed in his written word, that the sacrificial sacrament of the Lord’s Supper be the foundation for the organization of his Church around bishops, priests and deacons.

What follows then, expanded and slightly revised, is the evidence for my case.

The New Testament

Consider the following brief points.

1 Peter 2:25: Jesus is called our bishop
Acts 1:20: The office of the bishop is tied to the Apostles.
Acts 13:2: When the prophets and teachers in Antioch were ministering (lit. “liturgizing”) the Holy Spirit indicated that Paul and Barnabas should be set apart for the work God had for them.
Hebrews 8:7: Jesus is our minister (lit. “liturgist”) in the heavenly tabernacle (cf. Romans 15:16 below)
Hebrews 10:11: speaks of Old Testament “liturgizing”; i. e., offering the sacrifices.
Romans 15:16: St. Paul refers to himself as a minister (lit., “liturgist”) who ministers the Gospel as a priest (lit. “priest-working”) (cf. Hebrews 8:7 above).
Acts 20:7: St. Paul meets with the Church at Troas specifically to observe the Lord’s Supper.
1 Corinthians 11:34: St. Paul says, in specific reference to the Lord’s Supper and its proper observance, that he will come and set things in order (or appoint, ordain, etc.).
1 Corinthians 10:16-21: The Lord’s Supper is explicitly tied to sacrificial offerings, both Old Testament and pagan, and the “table” of the Lord’s Supper is clearly depicted, in context, as an altar.
1 Corinthians 11:17ff: In conjunction with 1 Corinthians 10:16-21 above, the elements of the Lord’s Supper are united with the Body and Blood of Jesus
Hebrews 9:12-15; 10:10: Through the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood we have a new and better covenant; which in conjunction with the 1 Corinthians passages above indicates a sacrificial understanding of the Lord’s Supper.
Acts 20:28: Some or all of the elders at Ephesus are said to have been made bishops by the Holy Spirit
1 Timothy 3: the office of bishop is described
1 Timothy 5:17: certain elders are said to have ruled well, and as such are said to be worthy of “double reward”; which may indicate remuneration
1 Corinthians 9:1ff: the Apostles were known at times to have received remuneration for their work
1 Peter 5:1-2: presbyters were told to exercise oversight (be a bishop) over their flocks.

In the New Testament it already is seen that we have the Lord’s Supper observed as a sacrifice of the altar, that the office of the Apostle is seen in a priestly typology with Christ, that bishops were tied to the office of the Apostles, and that a single Apostle (and thus bishop?) presided over the Lord’s Supper when it was observed. This is amazingly aligned with what St. Ignatios and St. Clement, and, surprise, the Didache say.
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