The Process of Institutionalization of Christianity



By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., matters had reached the point where a council of bishops, called together and presided over by the emperor of Rome, Constantine, could produce a creed to which all Christians everywhere were expected to subscribe. But what were the transitional factors that made possible the altering of the nature of the early Christian community, transforming it in a few centuries from a simple brotherhood into an authoritarian church system? Christ himself had founded the Christian congregation on himself and on his apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 2:20-22) Why, then, had it deviated — so far and so quickly — from the teaching and spirit that he and the inspired Christian apostles and prophets had conveyed?

Reading from the writings of Christian authors of the second and third centuries, I was impressed by the heavy stress that certain men began to lay on human authority within the early congregation. The history of the period revealed, in the teachings advanced, a gradual elevating of men to ever greater control and power in congregational affairs, and a slow but constant movement toward centralization of authority.

The claim is that after the Christian congregation extended beyond the limits of Jerusalem and Judea, a governing body operated organizationally as a centralized authority, exercising direction internationally from Jerusalem over all those first-century congregations.

In neither Biblical nor religious history did I find anything to back up that claim. From the apostle Paul’s blunt, forceful statements in his letter to the Galatians, it was clear that he did not consider Jerusalem to be the divinely appointed administrative center for all congregational activity earth wide. If a Christ-appointed “governing body” had existed, surely following his conversion Paul would have contacted it promptly, submissively seeking its guidance and direction, especially so in view of the weighty responsibility conferred on him by Christ to be “an apostle to the Gentiles.” (Acts 9:15; Romans 11:13.) If a “governing body” had existed, he certainly would have been concerned to coordinate his work with its members. To fail to concert his activity with, and submit to the direction of, a Christ-appointed “governing body” would have shown a grave “lack of respect for Theocratic order.”

But Christ said absolutely nothing to Paul (Saul) about going to Jerusalem. Instead of sending him back to Jerusalem, from which city Paul had just come, Christ sent him on to Damascus. He gave what instructions he had for Paul through a Damascene resident named Ananias, clearly not a member of some Jerusalem-based “governing body”. (Acts 9:1-17; 22:5-16.) From the very start of his letter to the Galatians, Paul himself took great pains to make plain that neither his apostleship nor his spiritual direction proceeded from or through men, specifically including apostolic men at Jerusalem. (Galatians 1:1, 10, 11) He stressed the fact that after his conversion he did not turn to some human seat of authority, saying:

I did not go at once into conference with flesh and blood. Neither did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles previous to me, but I went off into Arabia, and I came back again to Damascus [in Syria]. (Galatians 1:16, 17).

It was not until three years later that Paul made a trip to Jerusalem. And he states specifically that at that time he saw only Peter and the disciple James, but no others of the apostles during his fifteen-day stay. He was therefore at no “headquarters seminar” receiving instructions in some kind of daily sessions directed by a “governing body”. Just how seriously he viewed this issue is seen by his saying, “look! in the sight of God, I am not lying.” (Galatians 1:18-20).

Thereafter Paul made his base in Antioch, not Jerusalem. He engaged in missionary journeys and it was the congregation of Antioch that sent him out, not Jerusalem. Even though he was relatively close to Jerusalem (Antioch is in the coastal region of Syria), it was a very long period of time before Paul saw any reason or occasion for a return to that city. As he says, “Then after fourteen years I again went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking also Titus along with me. But I went up as a result of a revelation.” (Galatians 2:1, 2) From the description given, this may have been at the time of the council on circumcision and law-keeping, recorded in Acts chapter fifteen. Paul states that he went to Jerusalem then only “as a result of a revelation.” This shows that Christians did not customarily and routinely look to Jerusalem as a seat of centralized authority for all Christian congregations, the place where questions of any and all kinds were decided upon. It took a divine revelation to cause Paul to make this particular trip there.

The account of Acts chapter fifteen shows why Jerusalem was the logical place to go for this particular issue. The account nowhere indicates that Jerusalem was the location of some kind of international administrative body. Rather, it was primarily because Jerusalem itself was the source of the troublesome problem that Paul and Barnabas had encountered in Antioch where they were serving. Things had been relatively peaceful in Antioch until “men from Jerusalem” came down and caused trouble by their insistence that Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the Law. (Acts 15;1, 2, 5, 24) The Christian congregation had had its beginning in Jerusalem. Judea, with its capital of Jerusalem, was where strong adherence to law-keeping prevailed most intensely among persons professing Christianity, that attitude continuing even for years after this particular council was held. (Compare Galatians 2:11-14; Acts 21:15, 18-21.) The troublemakers in Antioch were Jerusalem-based men. These factors, and not solely the presence of the apostles, made Jerusalem the natural site for discussion and settlement of the particular problem. The presence of divinely selected apostles was obviously a factor of weight. Yet that circumstance was due to end as the apostles died and left no successors — no one with apostolic gifts and authority. So the situation at the middle of the first century involved factors that were not of a permanent or continuing nature and thus that are simply not applicable in our time.

Moreover, the fact remains that, even when the apostles were alive and in Jerusalem, the apostle Paul clearly did not view that apostolic body at Jerusalem as a “governing body” in the sense of an international administrative center, a “headquarters organization”.

Weighing that position back then, it is evident that if a “governing body” had existed as a central administrative body in the early congregation then there should be some evidence beyond just a single meeting in Jerusalem to support this. Nowhere in the rest of the Scriptures did this appear. In all the writings of Paul, Peter, John, Luke, Jude or James, not one indication could be found that men in Jerusalem, or any centralized body of men, exercised supervisory control over what went on in the rest of the many places where Christians were located. Nothing to indicate that the activities of Paul or Barnabas or Peter or any other person were carried out under the direction and supervision of a “governing body.” When the Jews revolted against Roman imperial rule and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., where did the supposed Christian “governing body” operate from thereafter? Again, it seemed reasonable that there should be at least some indication of this if it was indeed God’s arrangement, if such a centralized administrative body was the divine instrument of Christ Jesus for directing his congregation earth wide.

The only Scriptural writings subsequent to Jerusalem’s fall evidently are those of the apostle John. He apparently wrote them all toward the close of the century, hence decades after Jerusalem’s destruction. None of his letters gives the slightest hint of a centralized administrative body operating toward Christians in his day. In the book of Revelation, his visions portray Christ Jesus as sending messages to seven congregations throughout Asia Minor. (Revelation chapters 1 through 3) In none of these messages is there any indication that such congregations were under some outside direction other than Christ’s own. There is no sign of any direction by Him through some earthly, visible “governing body.”

Writings of early Christian authors of the second and third centuries are available for scrutiny, but these likewise reveal nothing to indicate the existence of any centralized administration for supervising the numerous Christian congregations. The history of the period reveals something quite to the contrary. It shows that such a centralized authority base was the product of a post-apostolic and post-Biblical development. By a gradual process covering centuries of time this eventually resulted in the kind of centralized control by a visible organizational leadership.

The Development of Centralized Control

While the historical sources are not numerous, the evidence indicates that the first stage of centralization came with a change of view, actually a distortion, of the role of the bodies of elders or “presbyters” (the Greek term for “elder” being presbyteros). In place of being viewed simply as elder brothers serving among brothers, as in a family, the claim came to be made that these elders occupied a special relationship with God and Christ, distinct from and superior to that of the rest of their fellow Christians. In describing the original state of affairs in the Christian congregation, Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, page 124, makes this acknowledgment:

The New Testament knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls all believers ‘saints,’ though many fell far short of their vocation. Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity. It knows only one high-priest, Jesus Christ, and clearly teaches the universal priesthood, as well as universal kingship, of believers.

Each Christian had a personal relationship with God through Christ as High Priest, without any other human intervening or being needed to serve as mediator. For each Christian was himself part of a “royal (kingly) priesthood.” (1 Peter 2:5, 9; 5:3; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).

Christian elders had Scriptural authority, true. It was, however, authority to serve, not to subordinate others; to assist, counsel, even reprove, but never to dominate or dictate to. Where error arose, the way to deal with it was by refutation, by truthful argumentation, by persuasion, never by coercion or intimidation — the tyranny of authority. (Matthew 20:25-28; 23:10, 11; 2 Corinthians 1:24; Titus 1:9-13; 1 Peter 5:1-5.) “For you have only one Master and you are all brothers.” (Matthew 23:8) That principle given by the Master himself must be kept ever in mind when reading any statement found in the Christian Scriptures. At Hebrews chapter thirteen, verse 17, for example, the exhortation is given:

Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive [defer to them, NEB], for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account; that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to you.

Does this imply a virtual automatic submission to direction from persons taking the lead? No, for Christ’s injunction was not simply against being called “leaders,” but against anyone’s assuming to exercise the position or office of leader, assuming to exercise that kind of authoritarian control. (Matthew 23:10, NW, TEV). Of the Greek word (peithomai) from which comes the rendering “be obedient,” the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged Edition) says:

This word has such senses as ‘to trust,’ ‘to be convinced,’ ‘to believe,’ ‘to follow,’ and even ‘to obey.’ (Page 818.)

Note that the rendering “to obey” is only one of several possible translations and here is listed last. The inspired writer of Hebrews has, in fact, already qualified matters by making plain that what “those taking the lead” were to be speaking was, not their own views or interpretations or injunctions, but “the word of God.” (Hebrews 13:7) As the well-known Bible scholar Albert Barnes observes, the term “those taking the lead” (or, in many translations “leaders”) actually carries the sense of “guides,” or teachers who serve as guides and shepherds. (Barnes’ Notes (Hebrew to Jude), pages 317, 322.) As long as the guidance given harmonized with the teaching of Christ, and as long as the shepherding manifested his spirit, a positive response would be the right and good course, for it would be submission to his teaching. Even in matters not specifically dealt with in Scripture, the Christian would cooperate freely insofar as compliance was not contrary to his or her conscience. But there is nothing indicating an automatic, subservient, even unquestioning submission, as to a superior authority with the right to command obedience, with the threat of expulsion hanging over any who fail to comply.

As has been seen, the basic sense of the Greek term used (peithomai) itself implies that the Christian’s compliance would come as a result of first having ‘trusted’, having been ‘convinced,’ and having ‘believed’ what proceeded from such Christian brothers and on that basis he or she would respond positively. As Christian brothers and sisters, they had drawn together in a voluntary association of believers, and it is a free and willing response that is urged here, on the basis of kind consideration — because it will make the shepherding efforts of such men more joyful, and because to do otherwise would bring no advantage to themselves, the ones served. It is not rendered as an obligation which some organizational “authority” had the right to exact of them.

A Growing Emphasis on Human Authority

Even as the apostle had foretold, some elders gradually lost sight of the principle stated by the Master governing all Christian relationships. (Acts 20:28-30.) Instead of giving full emphasis to the unique authority of God and Christ, the evidence is that they now began to emphasize more and more their own authority (constantly reminding the congregations, of course, that this authority was derived from God and Christ).

Why were they successful in doing so? For the simple reason that many persons, perhaps most, prefer to let others bear the responsibility that is rightly their own. They even take a certain pride in having over them men of power. That is true today and it was true then. Thus, to persons in Corinth who boasted in men who presented themselves as some sort of “super-apostles,” Paul wrote:

If a man tyrannizes over you, exploits you, gets you in his clutches, puts on airs, and hits you in the face, you put up with it. And we, you say, have been weak! I admit the reproach. (2 Corinthians 11:20, 21, NEB.)

With regard to these words, one Bible commentator says:

The idea is, doubtless, that the false teachers set up a lordship over their consciences; destroyed their freedom of opinion; and made them subservient to their will. They really took away their Christian freedom as much as if they had been slaves… the false teachers really treated them with as little respect as if they smote them on the face. In what way this was done is unknown; but probably it was by their domineering manners, and the little respect which they showed for the opinions and feelings of the Corinthian Christians. (Barnes’ Notes [1 Corinthians to Galatians], pages 232, 233.)

The apostle John gives an example of the way this attitude of self importance had already surfaced in his lifetime. He writes of a certain Diotrephes, describing him as one “who loves to be first” and who expelled from the congregation those who did not conform to his position. (3 John 9, 10). Generally, however, the process seems to have begun with a quite subtle elevation of human authority. In the writing of Ignatius of Antioch (who lived from approximately 30 A.D. to 107 A.D., dying as a martyr), we begin to find exhortations like these:

And be ye subject to the presbyters [elders], as to the apostles of Jesus Christ. Your presbyters [preside] in the place of the assembly of the apostles. [Be] subject to the presbytery [body of elders] as to the law of Jesus Christ. (Ignatius’ “Epistle to the Trallians,” chapter II; “Epistle to the Magnesians,” chapter VI; the same epistle, chapter II.).

This, in effect, robed the elders with authority equivalent to that of the apostles and equated subjection to them with subjection to Christ’s law. But the fact is that they were not apostles, they had not been chosen as such by God’s Son, hence they did not have apostolic authority and it would be a mistake to view them in that light. Such admonitions actually were subtle extensions of certain exhortations found in Scripture, they had a plausible sound to them, but they carried serious implications. Viewing matters from the standpoint he set out, Ignatius argued that anyone doing anything without the approval of the overseer and the body of elders and deacons “is not pure in conscience.” (Ignatius, “Epistle to the Trallians”, chapter VII.).

Teachings such as these mark the early beginnings of a clergylaity distinction. They also mark the equally subtle invasion of personal conscience by human religious authority. The men urging ever greater submission to such authority did not, as others had previously done, endeavor to establish legalistic control through advocating the imposition of circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic law. But though their methods differed, the final result was an equally dangerous erosion of the Christian freedom of people as individuals.1

A Monarchical Arrangement

A further step in this process of developing a visible centralized authority was the elevation of one member of the body of elders to a superior position, a status of greater authority than his fellow elders.

The evidence is that originally the terms “overseer” (episkopos) and “elder” (presbyteros) were interchangeable, one describing function, the other the mature quality of the person. It may, of course, have been the customary practice for one of the elders to act as a sort of chairman at their gatherings and discussions. In time, however, it was decided to have one man among the elders hold preeminently the position of “overseer,” so that eventually the term came to apply solely to this individual, not to all elders. Why was this done?

The concentration of greater authority in a single individual was evidently viewed as a “practical” step, one that could be justified by circumstances as a means to a proper end. Jerome, who made the first translation of the Bible into Latin by about 404 A.D., confirms this. First acknowledging that originally elders and overseers were the same, he then says:

… gradually all the responsibility was deferred to a single person, that the thickets of heresies might be rooted out. (Jerome, as quoted in Lightfoot’s commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, pages 229, 230.).

The introduction of false teachings, as perhaps also the waves of persecution being experienced, caused the elders to feel it practical to concentrate more authority in the hands of a single person, who now became THE overseer, the sole overseer among the elders. Since the term “bishop” is derived from the Greek word for “overseer” (episkopos), this marked the start of the office of bishop. It is true that there were different erroneous viewpoints and teachings surfacing in the congregations of Christians. Had those rendering shepherding service relied on Scriptural truth, including the teachings of Christ and his apostles, as the spiritual weapon for combating these, they would have demonstrated faith in the power of truth to ‘overturn reasonings and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God,’ as the apostle Paul expresses it. Instead, men now turned to a fleshly weapon, resorting to an elevation of human authority as the means to maintain Christian unity and, supposedly, doctrinal purity. (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5) In this regard, Ignatius had urged overseers, “Have a regard to preserve unity, than which nothing is better.” (Ignatius’ “Epistle to Polycarp”, Chapter I) The appeal unfortunately took the focus away from love and truth as the means to unity, directing it rather to submission to religious leaders. Thus we find Ignatius’ writings advancing the view that unity with God was dependent upon ‘harmonious cooperation with the Overseer.’ (Ignatius’ “Epistle to the Ephesians” chapter VI; “Epistle to the Trallians,” chapter II. In his “Epistle to the Philadelphians”, chapter III, he writes: “For as many as are of God and Christ are also with the bishop [overseer].”) As one eminent scholar observes, the office of bishop (overseer) now came to constitute “a visible centre of unity in the congregation.” (Lightfoot’s commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, pages 234, 235.).

All of which reminds one of the human reasoning that led Israel, faced with internal problems and external attacks, to seek a king as a visible head around whom to rally and to whom to look for direction. God, though granting them Saul as king, characterized their action as a rejection of His own invisible rulership, as an act owing, not to faith, but to a lack of faith. He warned them of the burden this would mean for them, the limitations it would place on their freedom. But they persisted in their desire for visible rulership over them. (1 Samuel 8:4-20). The same lack of faith continues to cause persons to this day to desire and look for some “visible center of unity,” rather than by faith focusing on the invisible headship of Christ Jesus.

The bonds uniting Christians initially had been their common faith and hope, their mutual love as members of the Christian family. They had gathered together in their individual cities and towns as free individuals, not dominated or controlled by any overarching authority structure. Within half a century of the death of the apostles, this was now radically changing. The direction in which the church was going in the second century A.D., and the forces moving it in that direction, are set out in Schaff’s history:

… the whole church spirit of the age tended towards centralization; it everywhere felt a demand for compact, solid unity; and this inward bent, amidst the surrounding dangers of persecution and heresy, carried the church irresistibly towards the episcopate [congregational government by a single overseer]. In so critical and stormy a time, the principle, union is strength, division is weakness, prevailed over all… Such a unity was offered in the bishop [overseer], who held a monarchical, or more properly a patriarchal relation to the congregation. In the bishop was found the visible representative of Christ, the great Head of the whole church. In the bishop the whole religious posture of the people towards God and towards Christ had its outward support and guide. (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, pages 56, 57.).

Calls for loyalty and submission to this visible authority were voiced by various early Christian writers. In the Clementine Homilies, the following is said to an overseer:

And your work is to order what things are proper, and that of the brethren is to submit, and not to disobey. Therefore submitting they shall be saved, but disobeying they shall be punished by the Lord, because the president [the presiding overseer] is entrusted with the place of Christ. Wherefore, indeed, honour or contempt shown to the president is handed on to Christ, and from Christ to God. And this I have said, that these brethren may not be ignorant of the danger they incur by disobedience to you, because whoever disobeys your orders disobeys Christ, and he who disobeys Christ offends God.2

This simplistic reasoning — that the presiding overseer represented Christ and that therefore whatever he instructed should be received as though it came from Christ—exercised coercive force over congregation members, shackling them. It notably fails to qualify the exhortation by including the question of whether the overseer’s instructions harmonized with those of Christ or were, instead, contrary to Christ’s instructions. In the latter case they deserved to be disobeyed. Even though not directly contrary, they might deserve to be questioned as instructions that nonetheless went beyond what the Scriptures required and therefore that could be submitted to or not as personal conscience and judgment might dictate. This authoritarian injunction was an apparent attempt to clothe imperfect humans with honor that belongs only to the perfect Master. If accepted in the absolutist form in which it is stated, with the subsequent suppression of personal judgment, it would make persons the disciples of men, followers of men, even as the apostle Paul had forewarned. (Acts 20:30) However plausible or appealing the argument, it was pernicious, the result of perverted thinking. Yet virtually the identical argument is used in much the same way and with the same effect to this day.

A similar call for implicit congregational obedience to, and reverential respect for, human authority, is found in Ignatius’ writings, in the early second century, as he employs this argument:

For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sent to be over his household, as we would Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop [the sole overseer] even as we would upon the Lord himself. (Ignatius’ “Epistle to the Ephesians”, chapter VI.).

Compare this second-century exhortation regarding submission to the bishop with these words (critical words underlined):

To abandon or repudiate the Lord’s chosen instrument means to abandon or repudiate the Lord himself, upon the principle that he who rejects the servant sent by the Master thereby rejects the Master.

The latter quotation is from the twentieth century, from the May 1, 1922, edition of the Watch Tower, which sought thereby to induce loyalty to the teachings of the first Watch Tower president, Charles T. Russell. The material went on to say:

Then to repudiate him and his work is equivalent to a repudiation of the Lord, upon the principle heretofore announced.[underlining added].

Eighteen centuries intervene between the writings of Ignatius and that of the Watch Tower. Yet the argument is identical; the same plausibility of reasoning, the same pernicious effect of making persons the followers of humans. The same argument continues to be used today. The only difference is that loyalty to Russell is now transferred to “the organization”, presented as “the Lord’s chosen instrument” which can be disobeyed only at the cost of being guilty of repudiating Christ. It is somehow thought that because such high authority and honor is assigned to a collective group rather than to an individual, this makes it proper. This is specious reasoning which, even as was true in the second century, succeeds in influencing many, who seem unable to discern its fallacy.

Ignatius, equating obedience to the bishop [overseer], the presbyters [elders], and the deacons with obedience to Christ “who has appointed them,” correspondingly said that disobedience to them was also ‘disobedience to Christ Jesus.’ He allows for no possible right motive in failure to conform, saying:

For he that yields not obedience to his superiors is selfconfident, quarrelsome, and proud. (Ignatius’ “Epistle to the Ephesians,” chapter V.).

This negative labeling of any not conforming to the dictates of religious authority also has its twentieth-century correspondences, with virtually the same language employed. Speaking of those who disagree with the Watch Tower Society’s claims concerning Christ’s “presence” since 1914, the Watchtower of August 1, 1980 (pages 19, 20) describes them as “adopting a law-defying attitude toward ‘the faithful and discreet slave,’ the Governing Body of the Christian congregation and the appointed elders,” and then says of anyone disagreeing with that “theocratically appointed” authority:

He thinks he knows better than his fellow Christians, better also than the “faithful and discreet slave,” through whom he has learned the best part, if not all that he knows about Jehovah God and his purposes. He develops a spirit of independence, and becomes “proud in heart… something detestable to Jehovah.” (Prov. 16:5).

These are, again, words remarkably similar to those of Ignatius in his effort to magnify the importance of episcopal authority.

In Ignatius’ writing, the burden of submissiveness was placed unequally on the congregation members. The reasoning employed again ignored the prior responsibility resting on any man who claimed to be a representative of Christ to demonstrate personally his own full submission to Christ by presenting the Master’s own message, unadulterated by human additions and alteration. The responsibility rested on him to supply the proof that what he gave as instruction to the congregation was genuinely from God and Christ, founded firmly on the inspired Scriptures. Such representatives could not be “examples to the flock” unless they themselves showed humility, modesty and lowliness of mind, rather than simply demanding it of others.

Reviewing this whole process of escalating emphasis on human authority, Biblical scholar Lightfoot observed:

It need hardly be remarked how subversive of the true spirit of Christianity, in the negation of individual freedom and the consequent suppression of direct responsibility to God in Christ, is the crushing despotism with which this language, if taken literally, would invest the episcopal office.[underlining mine] (Lightfoot’s commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, page 237.).

The evidence is that such words have indeed been taken literally, both in the past and in modern times, with resulting denial of individual freedom and suppression of a sense of direct, personal responsibility to God and Christ on the part of the individual.

The inclination was now to view “appointed” men as bearing much of that responsibility for them. With increasing vigor Christians of the post-apostolic period were being urged to believe that the way to stay in God’s good graces was simply to be submissive to, and stay in harmony with, the overseer or bishop and the congregation leaders. These men, professing to represent God and Christ, should be trusted and followed as one would trust and follow the apostles of Christ, yes, as one would trust and follow Christ himself. When they spoke, it was as if God had spoken. The need for testing all teaching, for arriving at individual conviction of truth, for exercising individual Christian conscience and the need to feel a keen sense of personal responsibility to God for one’s beliefs, acts and course — these were played down in favor of emphasis on submission to the constituted human authority, the “visible center of unity”.

How much, then, Christians of that time needed to keep close to heart the apostle’s exhortation:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, NIV.).

From Centralized Congregational Authority to Centralized International Authority

The post-apostolic centralizing process began as an internal congregational matter with the formation of a monarchical episcopacy, but it did not end there. It went on to become inter-congregational. This step was accomplished as a result of the presiding overseers (bishops) of different cities beginning to meet together in a conference or council. This is often referred to in history as a “synod” (a term which one dictionary defines as referring particularly to “a religious governing body” – The Merriam-Webster Dictionary [1975 Pocket Edition], under “synod.”) The propriety of such councils or synods was based upon the account in Acts chapter fifteen and the council in Jerusalem there described.

That account, however, did not lay the foundation for any holding of such synods on a regular basis, nor for the establishment of a permanent council to render decisions on doctrinal and congregational matters as a form of religious court. In his commentary, nineteenth-century scholar Barnes points this out, saying:

This council has been usually appealed to as the authority for councils in the church as a permanent arrangement, and especially as an authority for courts of appeal and control. But it establishes neither, and should be brought as authority for neither. For, (1) It was not a court of appeal in any intelligible sense. It was an assembly convened for a special purpose; designed to settle an inquiry which arose in a particular part of the church, and which required the collected wisdom of the apostles and elders. (2) It had none of the appendages of a court. . . . Courts of judicature imply a degree of authority which cannot be proved from the New Testament to have been conceded to any ecclesiastical body of men. (3) There is not the slightest intimation that anything like permanency was to be attached to this council, or that it would be periodically or regularly repeated. It proves, indeed, that when cases of difficulty occur — when Christians are perplexed and embarrassed, or when contentions arise — it is proper to refer to Christian men for advice and direction. . . . but the example of the council summoned on a special emergency at Jerusalem should not be pleaded as giving divine authority to these periodical assemblages… (4) It should be added that a degree of authority (comp. ch. xvi.4) would of course be attached to the decision of the apostles and elders at that time which cannot be to any body of ministers and laymen now. Besides, it should never be forgotten — what, alas! it seems to have been the pleasure and the interest of ecclesiastics to forget — that neither the apostles nor elders asserted any jurisdiction over the churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia; that they did not claim a right to have these cases referred to them; that they did not attempt to “lord it” over their faith or their consciences. The case was a single, specific, definite question referred to them, and they decided it as such… they enjoined no future reference of such cases to them, to their successors, or to an ecclesiastical tribunal. They evidently regarded the churches as blessed with the most ample freedom, and contemplated no arrangement of a permanent character asserting a right to legislate on articles of faith, or to make laws for the direction of the Lord’s freemen.3

The evidence bears out the points above expressed, all of which demonstrate the frailty of the Watch Tower position regarding a permanent and continuing “governing body” functioning down through the years. Had there been some kind of centralized “governing body” already operating from the start of Christianity onward, such councils would not be anything new, would not be an innovation. If the council involving Jerusalem and Antioch described at Acts chapter fifteen was to be an ongoing example and policy, then even after Jerusalem’s fall in 70 A.D. such councils would have continued. To the contrary, Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, page 176, states:

…we have no distinct trace of Councils before the middle of the second century… when they first appear.

Thus it is at least one hundred years after the events of Acts chapter fifteen that we first have evidence of another such council being held.

History shows, moreover, that these councils were originally open to any congregational members, the people of the community where the council was held being able to attend and in some instances to make their influence felt. In time, however, attendance at and participation in the synods became restricted. Schaff says:

But with the advance of the hierarchical spirit, this republican spirit [that is, the allowing attendance, not only of bishops or overseers, but also of elders and ordinary congregation members] gradually vanished. After the council of Nicaea (325) bishops alone had seat and voice… The bishops, moreover, did not act as representatives of their churches, nor in the name of the body of believers, as formerly, but in their own right as successors of the apostles. (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, page 178.).

Initially sporadic, the councils gradually became more frequent and their authority, in the forms of decisions reached, received heightened emphasis.

By the time of Cyprian (A.D. 200-258), these synods or councils and the conclusions, policies and positions arrived at, were stressed as vital. Cyprian maintained that the unity of the Church consisted in the unanimity of the overseers or bishops. (“The Treatises of Cyprian,” Treatise I, paragraph 5.) The presiding overseer or bishop eventually becoming the sole participant of his congregation at the council, he thereafter conveyed the council’s decisions to the congregation members. As Lightfoot notes, the bishop or overseer had become the “indispensable channel of divine grace.” (Lightfoot’s commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, page 243.).

Any not accepting what came through this “channel” were denounced by Cyprian, who said that they were guilty of the sin of “Korah, Dathan and Abiram,” who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Compare this approach with the following:

We must show our understanding in these matters, appreciating our relationship to the visible theocratic organization, remembering the fate of those like Korah and Achan and Saul and Uzziah and others who forgot the theocratic order.

These words in the February 1, 1952, issue of the Watchtower magazine (page 79) mirror the language of Cyprian. (See also the Watchtower, September 1, 1982, page 13.) Lightfoot notes that Cyprian used Old Testament analogies (like that of Korah) again and again in his arguments and he observes that such claims “are urged moreover… as absolute and immediate and unquestionable.” This means that Cyprian did not need to prove that his analogy was correctly applied, that these persons were indeed doing the same as those rebels of Moses’ time — he only needed to make the assertion that this was so and all were expected to agree.

This too finds a precise parallel in the modern-day organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Identical analogies are applied to any failing to conform to the organizational “channel’s” pronouncements and, in words like those of Ignatius, nonconformists are portrayed as “self-confident, quarrelsome and proud.” The organization merely needs to say that an analogy with rebellious persons of the past applies and all are expected to believe that this is so.

Salvation Only In and Through the Religious Organization

The congregation or church was now seen, not in the simplicity of a brotherhood, united by common faith and mutual love, but as a religious institution with defined boundaries, beyond which institutional boundaries one could not move without disastrous consequence. Thus Cyprian wrote:

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If anyone could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who was outside the church.4

In this way, the Scriptural teaching that salvation results from faith in the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ was now added to, enlarged upon, extended beyond what the Scriptures themselves say. No one could be saved, it was now said, who was not within the church organization, subject to the overseer or bishop. The exclusive role of God’s Son as the means of salvation was no longer exclusive. Men now entered into that role; the overseers and the church institution or organization shared Christ’s life-giving role as also being essential for salvation.

Words now came to take on a different meaning. The Greek term ekklesia, generally rendered “church” or “congregration” in translations, simply means “an assembly or gathering.” In common usage in the Christian Scriptures it referred simply to a gathering of persons who met together as fellow believers. They were an “assembly” because they assembled or gathered together. With the exception of the initial period when they were still welcome in synagogues, the gathering was done principally, in fact almost exclusively, in private homes.(Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2). It was the act of assembling or congregating that made them a congregation, not formal membership in some constituted or “organized” group. The term ekklesia referred to them as a gathered people, an assembly of people, either locally or viewed as a collective body forming the people of God, the assembly of the firstborn.(Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 16:1, 19; Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18; Hebrews 12:23.) They were a “community,” that is, a people having common interests that joined them.

While the term did not cease to be used in these senses, in the following centuries a different meaning came into play. As the quotations already made from the period show, the term “church” (ekklesia) came to refer in fact to the religious authority expressed in the men who exercised ever greater control over those congregating. Loyalty to the “church” now meant, not simply loyalty to the Christian community, but more particularly loyalty to the leadership and its direction. Similarly, when the “church” spoke, it was not the community speaking but the religious authority speaking.

All of this represented a subtle, though substantial, change in focus as to the duty of Christian loyalty and adherence. It changed the focus from the head, Christ, to the body — or, in reality, to those professed members of his body who were more vocal, who claimed to speak with authority for the body. It is not that Christians should not feel deep concern for their fellow body members, for they should all “have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:25, 26) But what assures this united spirit is primarily loyalty and adherence — not to the segment of professed body members who have gained positions of control — but to the genuine Head, to Christ. Where that proper loyalty and adherence is strong, the Christian will never fail in showing care for his fellow body members.

The effect of the change wrought in the early post-apostolic period is clearly evident today. Though all drawn directly from the Greek ekklesia, such words as our English term “ecclesiastical,” and the terms for “church” in French, Spanish, Italian (église, iglesia, chiesa), for example, rarely convey to people’s minds the idea of an assembly of persons but rather that of a church organization (or else a church building).

An International Organizational Headquarters

Despite the periodic councils held, there still existed no one centralized direction over the Christian congregations, no international “governing body” exercising authoritative control over all Christians in all places. But it eventually came.

The same motivation that had earlier led to a monarchical arrangement in the congregation, with one member of the body of elders becoming the sole Overseer (or bishop) — someone around whom the congregation could unite as a “visible center of unity” — and which later led to the holding of synods or councils for a particular area, now “pressed on towards a visible center for the whole church,” on an international basis. (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, page 155.). 

The councils of overseers initially exercised influence only over a particular area, province or region. However, with the holding of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) a universal, all-embracing aspect began to appear. The emphasis on human authority that had first begun as something intra-congregational and thereafter was inter-congregational, ultimately became international. The Nicene Council was convoked by the (unbaptized) Roman emperor Constantine, principally to produce a unified position among Christian bishops (overseers) with regard to the relationship between Christ and God, arguments over which were sharply dividing many. The issue was not as to Christ’s divinity, an accepted fact, but whether he should be identified with the supreme divine, the Sovereign of heaven and earth. Of the occasion, Socrates (380-450 A.D.), a lay historian wrote:

The situation was exactly like a battle fought by night for both parties seemed to be in the dark about the grounds on which they were hurling abuse at each other. (Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History, I. 23, quoted in The Rise of Christianity, by W. H. C. Frend, page 498.).

Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-339), states that by the direct personal intervention of Constantine in the council deliberations a formula was adopted declaring that Jesus was “begotten not created, one in being [Greek homoousios] with the Father.” Revealing the power that the decision of this international body now had, Yale University historian Jaroslav Pelikan, in his book, Jesus Through the Centuries, page 53, writes:

Once the Council of Nicea had accepted these formulas, they became the law not only for the church but for the empire.

According to Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History, 1.9, to the church of Alexandria (Egypt) Constantine wrote that “the fearful enormity of the blasphemies which some were shamelessly uttering concerning the mighty Savior, our life and hope,” had now been condemned and suppressed; “for that which has commended itself to the judgment of three hundred bishops cannot be other than the doctrine of God.”

It says something about the mindset that had developed among professed Christians that they would accept and believe this, believe that simply because a large number of religious leaders voted as a governing body in favor of a certain position this assured its being right, made it in fact “the doctrine of God.” Yet the same mindset prevails today, even with less impressive numbers involved.

The centralization process led in time to the formation of a Catholic (meaning “universal”) church and the formation of a central church government. The process was helped along by the political power of the Roman empire.5

It took a few centuries, but the constant insistence that unity of belief and harmony of action made imperative each progressive increase of human authority eventually produced the final result: direction and control of congregations internationally from a centralized authority. It also opened up an ever-increasing number of positions of prominence as each successive step in the development produced additional areas and levels of authority, ultimately a hierarchy.

The proclaimed goal of uniformity of belief could now be accomplished, the price being the loss of individual Christian freedom. Questions as to the Scripturalness of certain teachings, rules or arrangements could now be overcome, not by the convincing power of truth, but by the crushing application of authority.

The eighteenth-century scholar quoted at the beginning of this chapter, having pointed out that authority had been the means that Jews and Gentiles had used to fight against the good news in the first century, goes on to say that, ironically,

… when Christians increased into a majority, and came to think the same method to be the only proper one for the advantage of their cause which had been the enemy and destroyer of it, then it was the authority of Christians, which, by degrees, not only laid waste the honor of Christianity, but well-nigh extinguished it among men. (McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopaedia, Volume I, page 553, under “Authority.”).

The authority to serve and to build up was perverted into authority to subordinate, to control, to dominate, a process destructive not only of Christian freedom but of the very spirit of Christianity and of the Christian brotherhood.

When discussing, against the background of history already presented, the position of any man who serves a congregation in any capacity, scholar Lightfoot observes that, throughout Scripture,

… his office is representative and not vicarial. He does not interpose between God and man in such a way that direct communion with God is superseded on the one hand, or that his own mediation becomes indispensable on the other. (Lightfoot’s commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, page 267.).

Which is to say that men can never properly claim that, ‘Because we are undershepherds of Christ you should treat us as if we were the Shepherd himself; you should not question our instructions any more than you would his. It is through us that you have relationship with God and Christ and you should therefore remain submissive to our direction in all things if you desire God’s approval and blessing. Be grateful to us for whatever we give you and be quiet.’ To say that is to go directly contrary to the apostle Peter’s urgings to fellow elders, saying:

Not tyrannizing over those who are allotted to your care, but setting an example to the flock. And then, when the Head Shepherd appears, you will receive for your own the unfading garland of glory… Indeed, all of you should wrap yourselves in the garment of humility towards each other, because God sets his face against the arrogant but favours the humble. (1 Peter 5:3-5, NEB.).

Every individual Christian has the obligation to assess the genuineness of whatever message is presented to him. He must make a personal decision as to its validity, doing this no matter what claims may accompany the message, no matter with what trappings of authority it may come. This is obvious from Jesus Christ’s own words when, speaking of his true sheep, he said:

… the sheep follow him [the true Shepherd], because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.(John 10:4, 5, NEB.).

Clearly, the “sheep” must themselves judge whether it is genuinely Christ Jesus who is talking to them in the message they hear. The exaltation of men, with accompanying authoritarian speech, dogmatism, and a legalistic approach that suppresses tolerance and compassion, will rightly have a foreign sound to the “sheep” when presented by persons claiming to represent their Shepherd. Rather than take the view sometimes heard today, “Even if wrong, go along,” Jesus said that his sheep would put whatever distance they could between themselves and those who, by a domineering approach, show themselves to be strangers to the spirit of Christianity. There is sound reason for avoiding these, since the lessons of history leave no question as to the inborn tendency of men to seek to impose their will and their way upon others, thereby supplanting to one degree or another the will of God and his good Shepherd.

Summarizing what history reveals, Lightfoot writes:

The Apostolic ideal was set forth, and within a few generations forgotten. The vision was only for a time and then vanished… From being the representatives, the ambassadors, of God [men] came to be regarded His vicars [that is as His substitutes, standing in his place]. (Lightfoot’s commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, page 268.).

I personally believe that this development, with its exaltation of human authority and concentration of such authority, is related to the apostle Paul’s expressions about the appearance of a “man of lawlessness,” as recorded in Second Thessalonians chapter two, verses 3-12. Of that “man” he writes:

He opposes and exalts himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, and even sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (NIV).

I see no reason to believe that the coming of this “man” predicts the appearance of one particular, surpassingly lawless, individual any more than the “woman” called “Babylon” refers to a particular woman. Nor do I believe that the fulfillment of the “man of lawlessness” is found in any one religious system. The term “man” here would seem to refer to a type or archetype, descriptive of all persons manifesting the characteristics of that type. Paul’s expression about the coming of such a “man” is much like John’s statement “you have heard that the antichrist is coming,” and that the man denying Jesus is the Christ “is the antichrist.” (1 John 2:18, 22, NIV.) The context shows that John does not limit the term to any one individual but applies it to all who fit the description. So, too, it would seem with the “man of lawlessness.”

There could be no greater “lawlessness” than that of attempting to infringe upon, even usurp, the position and authority of the Sovereign God. And that is what the evidence shows religious men have done, not only in past history but in the present as well. Since the Father has vested “all power and authority” in Jesus Christ, and has ordered that “all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father,” any attempt at occupying Christ’s position and exercising the headship that rightfully pertains only to him would qualify as lawlessness of equally grave nature. (Matthew 28:18; John 5:23). In what way, then, can it be said of any doing this that they ‘sit in the temple claiming to be God’?

The temple at Jerusalem was the symbolic dwelling place of God, the place where he dwelt among his people, presiding over them, giving his laws and responses to them. The Christian congregation since has become God’s temple, his people among whom he dwells. (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4, 5). The sitting in the temple by the “man of lawlessness” would apparently indicate his claiming the right to exercise divine authority in the Christian congregation like that exercised by God in his temple in Jerusalem, acting as though he were the source from which authority proceeds.

Of his ‘exalting himself over everything called God’ and even claiming “to be God,” Biblical scholar Barnes writes:

Any claim of a dominion over conscience; or any arrangement to set aside the divine laws, and to render them nugatory [inconsequential or inoperative], would correspond with what is implied in this description. It cannot be supposed that any one would openly claim to be superior to God, but the sense must be that the enactments and ordinances of the “man of sin” would pertain to the province in which God only can legislate, and that the ordinances made by him would be such as to render nugatory the divine laws, by appointing others in their place… This does not necessarily mean that he actually, in so many words, claimed to be God, but that he usurped the place of God and claimed the prerogatives of God.6

The key issue is clearly that of authority and an arrogation of authority that rightly belongs only to God and his Son. Whenever men call upon others, whether openly or by implication, to accept their own word and their religious rulings — teachings and rulings which are not clearly stated in Scripture — as if these came from God, then they would surely seem to manifest the characteristics of the “man of lawlessness.”


In Search of Christian Freedom – Chapter 3 (Adapted).


1 Respected nineteenth-century church historian Augustus Neander in his work General History of the Christian Religion and Church, pages 194 to 201, points out the way in which the Christian church, in many respects, did revert to Old Testament positions. In place of a universal priesthood of all believers, a separate priesthood gradually appeared, distinct from the main body of Christians, and acting in a mediatorial way for it in its relation to God. Tertullian (c. 145-220 A.D.) even referred to the congregational overseer or “bishop” as the “chief priest,” as he also refers to those not among the overseers, elders or deacons, as “laymen.” (“On Baptism,” Chapter XVII.) On the effects of this, Neander comments: “This title presupposes that men had begun already to compare the presbyters [elders] with the priests; the deacons, or the spiritual class generally, with the Levites… When the idea of the universal Christian priesthood retired to the background, that of the priestly consecration which all Christians should make of their entire life, went along with it… Christ had raised the entire earthly life to the dignity of a spiritual life… the new notions respecting the dignity of the clerus [meaning, the selected or appointed ones], led men to believe that what had hitherto been regarded as the free gift of the Spirit to all or to individual Christians, must be confined to a particular office in the service of the church… Now, the free working of the Spirit was to be confined to a formal, mechanical process.”

2 “The Clementine Homilies,” Homily II, chapter 66, 70. Though attributed to Clement of Rome, the Clementine Homilies are of uncertain authorship and date, though evidently of no later origin than the third century A.D.

3 Barnes’ Notes (Acts, Romans), page 235. In view of Barnes’ affiliation with the Presbyterian Church his candor on these points is all the more notable. Even though that denomination has a permanent synod called the “General Assembly” he did not hesitate in showing that such an arrangement is a matter purely of church choice, not something divinely authorized.

4 The Treatises of Cyprian, Treatise I, paragraph 6; Schaff (History of the Christian Church, page 174) comments, “The Scriptural principle: ‘Out of Christ there is no salvation,’ was contracted and restricted to the Cyprianic principle: ‘Out of the (visible) church there is no salvation.’” Watch Tower publications use virtually the same argument as Cyprian with his reference to being in the “ark” in their arguing for salvation’s depending on one’s being within the “visible organization” and its “spiritual paradise.” Compare You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, pages 192, 193; the Watchtower, November 1, 1974, pages 667, 668.

5 This centralization later was affected by a struggle for dominance and supremacy of authority between the western segment of the church, represented by Rome, and the eastern part thereof, represented by Constantinople. Today such division is seen between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church.

6 Barnes’ Notes (Ephesians to Philemon), pages 82-84. While Barnes would apply this identification primarily to the Catholic Papacy, there is certainly reason to view the matter as of far broader application.

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