1. Early Foundations

Article 1 on the series: The Hierarchy System of Church Government

1.  Early Foundations
Series:  The Hierarchy System of the Church

Wherever and whenever there is more than one person gathered together, there must be some sort of organizational structure, having leadership and discipline. It doesn’t matter whether it is a nation, state, city, corporation, church body or a family.  How that leadership is set up is the key to positive or negative organizational structure and its influence on those they lead.  This first article in the series of the Hierarchy System of Church Government centers on the various governmental structures of Judaism and the early Church. Its purpose is to show the background roots and dangers of the Hierarchy System of Church Government.  As we examine its dangers, we will also look at how Jesus commanded His Church to set up its leadership structure.  But first, let's examine the various forms of governmental structure that have shown up in history.

Govermental structural systems

The Greek words “archy” means “rulership,” and the “cracy” means power. From these suffix words have come the various forms of governmental structures that have shown up in history. These structures, just to name a few, have ranged from anarchy (no structure), aristocracy (nobility ruled), monarchy (one ruler - dictator), bureaucracy (civil servants), and democracy (by the people). The ideal is theocracy (God) ruled.

During the time of the New Testament when the Church was being formed, the people throughout the Roman Empire, which included Israel, were ruled under Roman power, which was a dictatorial form of government ruled under the emperor. Within that form of government there were ranked positions in leadership under the emperor. The higher the rank, the more superior one was viewed, having authority and power over those underneath. Each rank underneath was submissive to the one above. The lowest rank included those who had no authority and was forced to be submissive to everyone above them. This setting formed the basis of what would one day become known as the Hierarchy System of church government.

The governmental structure of ancient Judaism

Theocracy through monarchy rule:  Throughout its history, Judaism has had a variety of governmental structures. As listed in Numbers 11:16, their first structure was originally given to Moses by God under a theocracy rule. Moses chose 70 elders to    assist him in this structure while governing over the Jewish people throughout their wandering in the wilderness. In religious matters, the position of high priest was given to Moses’ brother Aaron, with the men of the tribe of the Levites to assist him. Moses was then succeeded by Joshua who followed God’s rule when they entered their land of promise.

Period of the judges

Having no one person to succeed Joshua, God’s theocracy changed to that of being ruled by judges. There were several who reigned over various territories of the Israelites. The period of the judges lasted around 400 years. Some were good judges who led their people according to God’s ways. Others led according to their own ways. In time, the Israelites began to desire a king like that of their neighboring countries. When they cried out long enough, God gave them their ways. Saul became their first king.

Kingdom ruled

In time, Israel split into two different kingdoms, each having their own king. Judea had only four righteous kings in the succession of many, and Israel did not have any. When the kings were righteous the people turned back to God. When a wicked king reigned, the people served other gods and became like those who ruled over them. In time wickedness overtook them and they were conquered by other nations. In time, each kingdom was forced into exile under foreign rule.

Foreign rule

While in exile the Jews were forced to serve under foreign wicked kings. As a result, many Jews melted into a culture of foreign gods. Their temple, meant for worship and sacrifices, was gone. Small pockets of Jewish communities were found throughout the exile and synagogues arose as places of social and worship communities. Instead of sacrifices, as was performed at the temple, the synagogues became places of the study of the Scriptures.

Judaism under the return of the Jews

When the Jews were allowed to return back home in 538 A.D., Ezra, who was the Jewish high priest at the time, established a council of 70 elders called the Great Synagogue. Its purpose was to reunite the Jewish people under God’s rule again, having one governmental system. The Great Synagogue was allowed to function as the Jewish Supreme Court as long as the Jews were subordinate to the ruling Persian power above them.

Kingdom rule during the Hasmonian Dynasty

During the Hasmonian Dynasty, which was during the 160 years prior to the birth of Christ , Israel again was ruled by kings, supported by the high priest, as it lived under continuous warzone conditions from neighboring enemies. It was during this period of time when the Sanhedrin Council was established as the Jewish senate and highest native court in both civil and ecclesiastical matters under the reigning king. Whether the Sanhedrin Council was a continuation of Moses, 70 elders, the priesthood, along with the establishment of the Great Synagogue, is a matter of theological debate. Regardless, the Sanhedrin Council was governed by the high priest and 70/71 elders. There were also inferior local courts set up in all Jewish cities, which were referred to as the Sanhedrin Council as well. [i]

Roman rule

In 63 B.C. Rome conquered over Persian territories and became the world power. The Hasmonian Dynasty was about to end and a new dynasty to begin for Israel. Herod, a Jew from Idumaea (southern Israel), was a descendent from Abraham through Isaac and Esau instead of Isaac and Jacob. He saw himself as Jewish, participating in God’s covenant with Abraham, but their ancestors had not gone to Egypt with Joseph and returned with Moses and Joshua. [ii] As a descendent, through marriage, to the Hasmonian Dynasty, Herod believed himself to be royalty. He, however, was also a loyal supporter of Rome. He was able to convince Rome to make him king over the Jews. In turn, he promised to bring Israel under Roman rule. Within three years, Herod had conquered Israel for Rome. [iii] There, in Jerusalem, Herod set up his kingdom as king over all of Israel, which promptly ended the Hasmonean Dynasty and began the Herodian Dynasty. Under the rule of Rome, Herod allowed the Sanhedrin Council to rule “under him” in matters involving legislation, administration, and justice. He was a harsh king, having fear, anger, and depression that ruled within him.

The entrance for Jesus

These were the conditions in which Jesus of Nazareth was born and later served in ministry. Governmental structure consisted of Israel having a Jewish king, yet loyal to and under Roman rule. Israel’s religio-political parties were represented with the Sanhedrin Council – the Sadducees, being the major, who favored Rome, and the Pharisees of the minority, who strongly opposed Roman power. The high priest was a Sadducee who favored Rome. Israel’s ecclesiastical structure consisted of orthodox rituals with the Sadducees and Pharisees each having their rigid beliefs. The Sanhedrin Council was given religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction; however, c apital punishment decisions had to go to higher governmental Roman courts.

The Sanhedrin Council disappeared with the fall of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D.

Christ’s teaching on the governmental structure of the Church

Jesus has given us many examples in His teaching about how His body, meaning the Church, should be governed. While Jesus did not give step-by-step organizational structure, He did command and teach, His disciples how “not” to run the Church. He was careful to state that the Church should "not" be run like the governmental rulers that were presently over them.

Matthew 20:25-27 "But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant"

Mark 10:42-43 "But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister"

Jesus’ example of leadership

Jesus pointed out to His disciples that the way the leadership of the Gentiles was governed -by lording themselves over the people and exercising a top-down chain of authority - was wrong.  He then stated that this kind of leadership was not to be a part of the Church. In other words, the ones in the church who desire to be great over others were to become the servant to all. Jesus pointed out that giving out to others should be exercised through service and humility. He used himself as an example – He came to serve with a humble spirit.

Another example of church governance that Christ set before the church is shown in John 13 where Jesus washed His disciples' feet. He showed this example as an act of submitting in humility to those to whom He was serving. Serving others was never meant to have ranks of authority in the church - only offices of duties. All are equal in the sight of God and should be in the sight of man.

Jesus gave another governance example when He said the Kingdom of God, and entrance into His Kingdom, is through having the heart of a little child.

Matt 18:3-4 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. KJV

These scriptures are not just for the "lowly" brethren, but all believers, including its leaders. Everyone must have a heart of humility like that of a little child.

Jesus taught His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, who some were hypocrites. While not all Pharisees were hypocrites, Jesus centered on the ones who were. With them, Jesus classed the chief priests and officials of the temple together with the recognized teachers in the Synagogues. He declared they had corrupted the truth of God with the doctrines and ordinances of men.

Paul’s example of leadership

When the Apostle Paul set up churches on his missionary journeys, he used the example of humility, like Jesus, to serve and work for the needs of each of the churches. He served the people and did not set himself up to be served.

He used himself as an example when he wrote to the various churches in his written epistles. He continuously called himself a servant or slave of Jesus Christ. His mission was always to serve others so they could become all that God called them to be and do.

1 Cor 1:26-31 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." NIV

Peter’s example of leadership

The Apostle Peter exhorted the elders to be an example to the flock they are watching over - not to serve the church as hirelings working for money, or lording it over others, but use their office of ministry as overseers, watching out for the people’s spiritual growth and safety.

1 Peter 5:1-3 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. KJV

Leadership led by the Holy Spirit

Christ’s desire to lead, govern, and rule should not be done by the power of man, but the power of His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the “helper,” sent from God to help His people. A leader within the church, therefore, is a servant of God, and the Holy Spirit that lies within him or her is meant to help the church, and not use it as an office to lord over them.

A true elder, or overseer, directs the people’s attention to Christ and not themselves. He or she is led by the God's Spirit to those they minister to so they can beware and spot the dangers of sin, evil influence, false teachings, heresies, half-truths, and false ministers who lead the flock astray.

The earliest signs of the Hierarchy System

Gnosticism and the Nicolaitans:  While Jesus had given instruction to the leadership of the Church to be humble servants, the type of governmental leadership, as well as the religious belief of the gods of the Gentiles, crept into the Church under what would later become known as the Hierarchy System of Church government. While this name wouldn’t become known until the 2nd century, its earliest signs crept in under the cult of Docetism (later grew to become known as Gnosticism) and the Nicolaitans.

The Nicolaitans were a heretical sect of Gnosticism which gravely affected the churches at Ephesus and Pergamos in the Lycus Valley in Asia Minor in the 1st century A.D. A man named Cerinthus began spreading Gnostic beliefs in some of the churches, claiming that Jesus did not come in the flesh, and what was seen of Him on earth, which included His death and resurrection, was a figment of one’s imagination. In other words, they believed that Jesus had always remained as a spirit who roamed in the heavenlies as God, very much like the Greek/Roman mythical gods of the Gentiles. This obviously nullified the physical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which nullifies salvation through Christ. Gnosticism carried many sects; however, the primary Gnostic beliefs claim that salvation could only be attained through a special kind of “knowledge.” Some sects practiced and taught impure and immoral doctrine, such as the community of wives – meaning committing adultery and fornication were not sinful, and that eating meats offered to idols was lawful. This doctrine was similar to the doctrines of Balaam and Jezebel of Thyatira. [iv] This then gave many Gnostic believers, claiming to be Christian, permission to lead licenscious, immoral lives. In addition to erroneous heretical beliefs, the Nicolaitans were pompous and arrogant, believing themselves superior over other Christians.

Greek “nikao” means to conquer or overcome
Greek “laos” means people, which the word “laity” comes from

The two Greek words that form the word “Nicolaitans” portrayed those leaders within Christianity who considered themselves superior over their congregation of people, known as the laity. Their desire was to conquer over them. This created spiritual pride, filled with control, manipulation, domination over those they led, as well as created intimidation and ultimately rebellion within those who followed.

Scriptural warnings against the Nicolaitans   The Apostle John had warned all of the churches in the Lycus Valley in Asia Minor against and sought to remove the heretical teachings of Gnosticism and behavior of the Nicolaitans through his preaching and his scriptural writings of I, II, & III John. In his writings in the Book of Revelation, he also points out Jesus’ words regarding them.

To the Church at Ephesus  Revelation 2:6 "But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." NIV

To the Church at Pergamos   Revelation 2:15 "Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans, which I hate." NKJV

In these writings, Jesus, although He did condemn some of the behavior of the Church at Ephesus, He did commend them for hating the “behavioral practices” of the Nicolaitans. Jesus also condemned the Pergamos Church for accepting the “heretical doctrine” of the Nicolaitans. In other words, Jesus came down on the Nicolaitans for their erroneous doctrine and abusive hyper-authoritarian practices of religious domination.

The growth of the Nicolaitan control over laity

According to the writings of two early Church fathers, Irenaeus and Hippolytus, Gnosticism, for the most part, left the Church in the latter half of the 2nd century A.D.; however, the behavior and practices of the Nicolaitans, having control over the laity, grew to become more prevalent under what would later become known as the “Hierarchy System of church government.”

The vast majority of theologians today agree that the perverse "precepts" promulgated by the Nicolaitans precipitated the early Church’s plunge into the spiritual apostasy, of which later brought on a 600+ year history of the Dark Ages. It only stands to reason, then, that the Church-at-large today must understand th nature of these heretical doctrines and practices in order to avoid them so they may bring the Church back to 1st century practices as Jesus set up for the Church. [v]

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End Notes

[i] http://scriptures.lds.org/en/bd/s/19
[ii] http://www.sundayschoollessons.com/herod.htm
[iii] http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/p_greetham/wisemen/wmsoc9.html
[iv] Dakes, Finis. Dakes Annotated Bible. Pg. 304 (v. 6, 14-15, 20)." (p. 304)
[v] http://www.slm.org/pubs/synopsis/ccbook-3.html

Written by Pastor Joyce A. Erickson

Believers Bible School, Founder https://believersbibleschool.com/