After the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70), key Christian leaders migrated to Asia Minor and so to the churches established by Paul. Of these, John, Andrew (Peter’s brother), Philip, John the Elder (a disciple of Jesus), and Aristion (another disciple) all went to Ephesus or a place nearby. The three prophetic daughters of Philip, two of whom live into old age also went and ministered in Asia Minor. Ephesus and the surrounding area therefore become the apostolic hub during the years of AD 70–95.
One fascinating feature is that this migrated apostolic church formed a school that trains and produces some of the key leaders of the next generations: Polycarp of Smyrna, Papias of Hierapolis, and many other unknown leaders. Another notable feature is that the apostles themselves set up an episcopal model of the church that has already become common in the 90s.
By saying “episcopal model,” I need to immediately qualify that I do not mean something like the late antique episcopal models. Rather, I mean something akin to the role of a senior pastor in an evangelical church.
A number of sources from the 100s attest to how John and the other apostles served in Asia Minor, setting up bishops over the churches. For example, Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp (himself a disciple of John), explains that the Apostles ordained Polycarp into the bishopric, while Tertullian specifies that it was John who did so.
Ignatius, the pastor of Paul’s sending church and one influenced by the Asian apostles and disciples, likewise affirms and assumes an episcopal model in which each church, or city, has a bishop who leads the institution.
It is worth quoting J.B. Lightfoot here who summarizes John’s influence in particular during the late first-century:
The author of the Muratorian fragment, for instance, speaks of this Apostle as writing his Gospel at the request not only of his fellow-disciples, but also of his ‘bishops.’ Clement of Alexandria again, among whose teachers was one from this very district, and probably of this very school , represents him as going about from place to place in the neighbourhood of Ephesus, appointing bishops and providing in other ways for the government of the Churches. (1893: 218–9).
The history here seems unambiguous. The major problem, however, is the possibility of anachronism. It is easy to reproject a later form of episcopacy into the earliest church. Yet that would be to say too much.
What we can say is this: the apostles and disciples of Jesus in Asia Minor supported and existed in a system of government that maintained a single bishop over a church as well, it seems, as elders.
The New Testament
Should this affect how we read the ecclesial texts of the New Testament? I think so because we catch a glimpse of how apostles and disciples of Jesus applied these teachings to their local settings in obedience to the risen Christ. And they surprisingly seem to either affirm or even institute a model of bishops, elders, and possibly deacons as discrete roles. Likely, this is because the size of churches grew, and a more specific application of the dominical instruction needed to be applied.
And before the fall of Jerusalem, the teachings of Jesus with the Old Testament and then current Jewish structures of worship in the synagogue integrated easily into new church settings. But after the fall of Jerusalem, it seems that the Jewish model fell away and even, in some ways, the Old Testament precedent of having, say, elders rule the people of Israel on behalf of Moses seems to have disappeared.
Instead, we find the apostles and Jesus’s disciples creating or affirming an episcopate in application of New Testament type teaching. And even Ignatius, a pastor of Paul’s sending church likely some 20 or 25 year after Paul died, affirms an episcopal model.
If they faithfully applied apostolic teaching, then we may at the very least want to revisit our understanding of the Acts and the letters of Paul when they discuss bishops, elders, and deacons. If the first-century audience of these texts (some of whom were apostles) applied the understanding of bishops, elders, and deacons in such a specific way, would they not have better insight into the first century understanding of the original apostolic teaching? Would they not have greater insight into the intent of the ecclesial structures that the apostles proposed in what we come to know as the New Testament?
I think they would. And I think this should at least give us pause, and we should revisit the documents of the first century. We may discover an immediate apostasy (unlikely), a different understanding of the church’s orders (possible), or a broader understanding of what the apostles desired by establishing those orders (even more possible).
In the end, we may not be able to define the most biblical form of ecclesiology nor even exactly what the apostles did, although we have some strong indications in writings like the Didache or in early architecture.
We should also give some thought to apostles themselves, to the disciples of Jesus, and to the second generations—i.e., the disciples of the apostles (Polycarp, etc.). I suspect they faithfully followed the apostolic teaching, and I think they suggest that we (I speak as a baptist) may in some areas too narrowly define ecclesiology (or may not!).
Again, as a Baptist, I find myself in a rather interesting situation. Many of our churches have elder or deacon boards alongside a Senior Pastor. Now, I have to just wonder if we have not followed a biblical and apostolic pattern here.