2. Church Structure Through the Centuries

Article 2 on the series - The Hierarchy System of Church Government

2.  Church Structure Through the Centuries

The last article centered on the background development of the Hierarchy System of church government. It began as a carry-over of the governmental structure that was already in place under Roman rule.  As early as three decades after Christ’s death, signs of this system began to display itself in the cultic spread of Gnosticism, which was in doctrinal error, and the behavioral practices of arrogance and control from a group called the Nicolaitans.

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

As brought forth in the last article, the Nicolaitans belonged to a heretical cult of Docetism (which formed the basis for Gnosticism) which claimed 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 mystical Greek/Roman gods of the Gentiles. This obviously nullified the physical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which nullifies salvation through Christ.  According to them, salvation could only be obtained through a special kind of “knowledge,” which they were privileged to possess.  Some Gnostic sects also taught and practiced immoral behavior, which led to licentious living. Between their doctrine and behavioral practices, this brought on a pompous arrogance, and they believed themselves superior over other Christians.  This created spiritual pride, filled with control, manipulation, and domination over those they led, as well as created intimidation and ultimately rebellion within those who followed.

Hierarchy System of church government

Sadly, Gnosticism continued to grow as the 1st century drew to a close. We can see that evident through the epistle writings (1, II, & 3rd John) of the Apostle John, as he actively warn the churches to avoid such heretical beliefs and practices. As the 2nd century came upon the horizon, Gnosticism grew even stronger. We need to be reminded that the Church was no longer overseen from Jerusalem or Antioch by Jewish (Eastern) Christian leaders, as it had been in the 1st century A.D., but was now overseen from Rome where the seat of pagan power governed the empire. As a result, the headquarters for the Church grew in the midst of pagan power by Christians of the Western culture thinking in an empirical society that was already living under an established chain of command system of Roman government.

The establishment of Roman Catholicism

Gnosticism spread by leaps and bounds until around 140 A.D., until Marcion, a church leader, offered the Roman Church enormous sums of money to begin a church of his own. When the Roman Church discovered that he was propagating Gnostic beliefs, they tried to stop him. Sadly, by now there were more Gnostics within the Western Church than those who were following the teachings of the original apostles.  The Church-at-large was in grave danger of being extinguished. To stop Gnosticism from spreading further, the Roman Church established a new name - Roman Catholic, meaning those who followed the teachings of the original apostles. (See the articles on Church History for details). In an effort to protect the Church-at-large from such heresy, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church took over the Western Church by force – thus the name of Hierarchy System of Church Government was formed.

Roman Catholic Hierarchy System of Church Government

The Hierarchy System within the Church is viewed like a triangle, having two spiritual classes of believers – the clergy and the laity. Power and control begins at the top with one person, or persons, with various ranks underneath. Each rank underneath is submissive to the rank above, with all being submissive to the top. The higher the rank, the more superior one is viewed. The lowest rank is the laity (parishioners or congregation), who have no authority, and is submissive to everyone above them. The various ranks of clergy are responsible for the worship, counsel, teaching, and are the ones who enforce the rules of the church with those under them, as governed by the highest rank. The lowest class, or rank, must obey the clergy in all spiritual matters, as well as other matters in which the Church designates.  "Hierarchy" is a religious word that is synomous to a secular governmental structure which operates on a top down chain-of-command system.

Again, it must be reminded that throughout the Roman Empire everyone lived under Roman dictatorial rule in a society that was primarily Gentile in religious beliefs. Christianity had left the world of Judaism where many Jewish believers were literate and educated in their faith. It had now entered into a Gentile Western world where illiteracy was the norm among the common people. As a result, illiteracy became the norm within Western Christianity. The Holy Scriptures were kept in the hands of the educated Greek and Hebrew scholars of that day and the ordinary Christian believer came to believe that the accuracy of the Scriptures belonged only to the leaders of the Church.

In a pagan society that was already run on a chain-of-command empiric rule, having different ranks of people, and illiteracy the norm of the common people, it was only natural that this kind of governmental structure would enter into the Church. We must remember, however, that the original intent of these early Western leaders of the Church were pure, simply wanting to protect the Church and preserved true  doctrine according to the teachings of the original apostles and have its members grow in their faith.

Protecting the Church from Roman pagan empiric power

As Gnosticism decreased and Roman Catholicism increased, persecution and oppression of Western Christianity increased by the ruling of various emperors of the Roman Empire who wanted empiric worship.  By the early 3rd century A.D., the Hierarchy System of Church government was in full force in an effort to preserve the Church-at-large from extinction.  No longer, however, was the fear of extinction from Gnosticism, but the fear came from Roman pagan empiric power. [1]

The Hierarchy System of Church government under Constantine

This kind of Hierarchy System of Church government was reinforced stronger under the reign of Constantine in the 4th century A.D. as he purposed to end persecution for the Christians. (Some historians say he became a Christian believer.)  As an act of his power and control, he became the Roman emperor and appointed himself “bishop” over the Church. (The word “bishop” would later become known as the “pope.”) Under him, this Hierarchy System of Church government became more elaborate as tradition and doctrinal errors grew to change the Church from its original doctrine of Truth as Jesus set up on the Gospels. These changes came into conflict from the original Roman Catholic Church leaders who only two centuries earlier tried to preserve and protect what was Truth. (Refer to the series on Church History.)

The Hierarchy System of Church government under the Reformation

The Hierarchy System of Church government was also supported by those of the Reformation period who, like others before them, had pure intentions of changing the Church back to what it was like in the 1st century A.D. Many Protestant reformers followed suite as efforts were made to preserve the truths of Christianity in a world that was now controlled by Roman Catholicism, which by now had become a powerful, authoritative, wealthy religious machine that survived on truth mixed with error.  As reformers developed followers, eventually denominations of believers, by-laws, policies, procedures, doctrinal statements, discipline and finances became the controlling force, run by governing central points, with individual churches being submissive to its authority.

Roman Catholicism/Episcopal/Anglican - Hierarchy System of Church government today

Today, the Hierarchy System of Church government remains strong within Roman Catholicism, Episcopal, and Anglican churches. Down through the centuries, however, some Protestant denominations have swayed from the strong control of the Hierarchy System of Church government, while still remaining Episcopal in governmental structure. The ranks are limited to pastor, elders, and deacons, with the laity in the lower class; however, cleric no longer carries the superior title or an office of power and control as was done in centuries past, but is viewed simply as a function within the Church.

Three types of organization structures within the Church-at-large today 

Within the Church-at-large worldwide today, there are basically three types of organizational structures, often called church government or polity: (1) Episcopal, (2) Presbyterian, and (3) Congregational.

1. Episcopal: A transliteration of the Greek word for “bishop or overseer,” where all local churches, or denominations, are ruled from a central point. Examples are Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Anglican, and some Protestant churches. Each has its headquarters and governing body regarding doctrine, discipline, and finances. Some of these churches today that follow this form of church government have a hierarchy system in place.

2. Presbyterian: A transliteration of the Greek word “elder or presbyter,” where a group of men and women, chosen from within the congregation, rule the congregation in all matters. Some have a three tier organization where the elders are over the pastor, who are in turn over the congregation. The pastor is a servant to the congregation rather than a leader and is submissive to the elders. The Presbyterians and some reformed churches follow this type of church government. Many Presbyterian governing churches also have a central point over them to where they may be accountable in some areas of doctrine and/or finance. This form of government structure is less hierarchal.

3. Congregational: Every member has an equal say in church government. Most of the church buildings are owned by the local church. Examples are Congregational, Baptist, some Pentecostal, and Brethren. Some of the congregational governing church bodies; however, may have a governing central point over them to where they may be accountable in some areas of doctrine and/or finance, but are congregational in its governin structure.

While there can be dangers in each of these three organizational structure, each also has its benefits, which help govern the church in a disciplined manner.

A birth of a new Hierarchy System of Church government

Over the past few decades, there have been many independent churches, particularly in the charismatic realm, that have been birthed. They are generally inter-denominational or non-denominational in nature. They range from house churches, community churches, and mega churches. Most of these kinds of churches are good churches, having a board or ministerial association over them to which they are responsible to their congregation in their doctrine and finances. There are, however, some independent churches which have chosen to follow the Episcopal form of church government, as well as the Hierarchy System of Church government, but "with a new twist." This new twist carries the belief that all Christians within the church MUST have a covering. Taught by Asian Christian author Watchman Nee, the belief is that each individual must be in obedient submission to someone else; that is, each individual must be "covered" by another. This implementation of a "covering" is meant to protect individuals and the entire church from bad decisions and demonic infiltration. Through this hierarchy chain of command, the people below are protected by those above. A spiritual covering then, according to them, is considered the divine pattern to maintain accountability.

This new kind of Hierarchy System of Church government carries strong roots in the old, by which it is still divided into two spiritual classes of believers – the clergy and the laity. They are generally, however, self-run under one head pastor, who has ranks of authority under him, and the laity is seen at the bottom. The higher the rank, the more superior one is viewed. Each rank underneath is submissive to the one above. Generally, the lower ranks must submit to the higher ranks in all spiritual matters, as well as other matters in which that particular church, which is run by the head pastor, designates. No matter how many ranks are involved, this system tends to be based on the premise that one can work his or her way up the ladder through these ranks to gain superiority over those underneath them. It becomes an unspoken belief that a few will reach the levels of authority, power, and control over those below them. [2]  In other words, there is a "spiritual corporate ladder" to climb.  Often those leaders who are climbing that ladder are willing to be totally submissive under that Hierarchy System of Church government, as well as indoctrinated under the beliefs of that particular church.

Most of these church leaders, like those before them, have begun their ministry with pure intent to preserve the Word of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit, as was practiced in the 1st century A.D. However, over time, particularly some of higher ranks, again like those who have gone before them, have changed as they considered themselves superior over those underneath them.  They have run the risk of becoming hyper-authoritarians, demonstrating egocentric leadership; thus, creating a church that has become a power machine of control and toxic cultic behavior.

The next article in this series will discuss the kinds of cultic behaviors in these kinds of churches.


Click here to go to article III of this series

End Notes


[1] Encyclopedia Britannica. 1911 ed.
[2] http://www.geocities.com/restministries/about.html REST Ministries Ron Henzel

Written by Pastor Joyce A. Erickson

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