How the first Christian Churches were organized
info This commentary was written by a volunteer for our Bible translation project. It’s not an official view of our project; we are not a religious denomination and we do not establish doctrine. These commentaries reflect a variety of views and some disagree with each other.
- Arranged by ‘Gifts’
- Messengers of the Good News (Evangelists)
- Teachers (and Preachers)
- Angels or Messengers
Arranged by ‘Gifts’
While most Christian religions claim to pattern their organizational structures after First-Century congregations, we are aware of none that follow it to the letter.
Here we will discuss how the Bible tells us that such congregations were arranged and governed. For since there are no written historical records about this other than the Bible (all written histories start from the Second Century), we will trust its record as the source.
The one thing that we do know is that the early Christian Church was patterned very much after the Judaic form of worship, which involved an entire way of life.
We know this to be true, because Christians used the same words in their religion as were used in the Jewish arrangement.
The group was referred to as a congregation, the places where they met were called synagogues, they formed their own religious courts (sanhedrins), congregations were under the direction of elders, and both groups did proselytizing.
The commonality of such terms was to be expected, of course, because early Christians (especially those that lived in Judea) viewed Christianity not as a new religion, but as a fulfillment of the existing form of worship.
We learn much about the arrangement of the early congregations from Paul’s description at Ephesians 4:11, where he wrote:
‘Some are Apostles, some are Prophets, some are messengers of the good news, and some are shepherds and teachers.’
He also wrote at 1 Corinthians 12:28:
‘First the Apostles; second the Prophets; third the teachers; then [those with] powerful works, or the gifts of healing, or performing helpful services, or the ability to direct, or speaking different languages.’
From this, we can see a clear order of gifts, responsibilities, and duties.
However, recognize that each of these functions were based on gifts that came from God; for from the texts you can see that none of these gifts came to them because it’s what they chose for themselves.
The word Apostle is a combined form of two Greek words, apo (from) and stello (withdraw), which everyone understood to mean someone that is sent. And for a fact, Jesus’ Twelve Apostles were the first ones that he sent out to preach.
However, thereafter he sent along seventy others to preach that weren’t referred to as apostles, they were just called disciples (gr. matheteuo – students or followers).
So when Jesus chose someone to be an Apostle, this obviously had a greater meaning than just being sent out to preach. For it appears as though the Twelve Apostles ‘of the Lamb’ in particular became the same as what the twelve family heads of Ancient Israel were to that nation… the foundation blocks upon which the nation was built.
So, just as each of the twelve tribes of IsraEl was known by the name of its family head, all that come under the New Sacred Agreement apparently become part of a ‘tribe’ that is known by the name of and is under the headship of one of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb (see Revelation 7:4-8 and Revelation 21:12-14).
Yet others that were not of this special group were also later called apostles. For it appears as though the term referred to those that were sent out to form and strengthen the new Christian Congregations.
For example, Paul (though not an Apostle of the Lamb) was called an Apostle, since he was sent by Jesus to form congregations. In fact, he became the apostle of most that are reading this Bible, the nations or gentiles (gr. tas ethne – the foreign peoples).
And there were others among First-Century Christians that were also recognized as apostles, for Paul mentioned some of them at 2 Corinthians 8:23, where he wrote:
‘Or if [there are any questions] about [the rest of] our brothers, they are apostles to congregations and a glory to the Anointed One.’
These likely included such men as Luke, Titus, Timothy, and BarNabas; for notice that BarNabas was specifically referred to as an apostle at Acts 14:14.
So then, are there apostles in the Christian Congregation today?
Although we are sure that not many true apostles would be so arrogant and self-assuming as to refer to themselves as such; the fact that Paul listed them among those that would be found in the church indicates that there have likely always been apostles whose job is to go out and build congregations. And if Jesus called them to this work, they are in fact his apostles.
‘Missionaries’ is probably what we would call them today.
Since Paul listed Prophets second in priority, they also held a high position in the Christian arrangement. The word means, someone that sees things before they happen. And we know that there were First-Century Prophets that saw things in advance, and that not all were males (see Acts 21:8, 9)… so women could also hold such a lofty position.
Paul, for example, was also a Prophet, because he foresaw the problems that he would encounter when he returned to Jerusalem the last time (see Acts 20:22, 23), as did other Christian brothers were referred to as Prophets (see Acts 11:27).
Are there Prophets today?
If there are those that are moved by God’s Breath to unerringly speak of things that will happen, they prove themselves to be prophets. Yet, thousands whose ‘divine revelations’ have proven untrue still claim this lofty position. And making such a claim of oneself is approaching a slippery slope, for Jesus warned at Matthew 7:15-20:
‘Beware for false prophets that come dressed as sheep,
But on the inside, are just hungry wolves.
You’ll recognize them by the fruit that they bear…
For you don’t pick grapes from a brier,
And you don’t pick figs from a thistle.
‘Good trees produce fruit that is good,
While the rotten trees give fruit that’s bad.
A good tree will not bear bad fruit,
And a rotten tree will not bear what is good.
Then the trees that don’t bear good fruit
Will be cut down and thrown in a fire…
So you’ll recognize them by the fruit that they bear!’
He also said (at Matthew 24:11):
‘False prophets will come and mislead many people.’
And again, in verse 24:
‘Because, false anointed and false prophets will arise and they will perform great signs and omens to mislead (if possible) even the elected.’
Messengers of the Good News (Evangelists)
The Greek words that we translated as messengers of the good news are tous de euaggelistas.
In English, this can be translated as, they of good/message, or, good angels. Euaggelista is also where we derive the English word evangelist.
Notice that Paul listed evangelists ahead of shepherds and teachers, so this office isn’t open to all. And like the office of an Apostle or Prophet, it comes as a special assignment by Jesus.
What does this mean?
Well, it appears as though many early Christians had this gift and assignment, and theirs was a job similar to that of a missionary (see Acts 21:8). They were to go out (as they were led by the Breath of God) and tell the good news about Jesus and the Kingdom first throughout Judea, and then to the rest of the world. They differed from apostles in that their main purpose was to preach publicly and to make converts.
Where did the First-Century evangelists preach?
Well, although some would argue that they traveled from house to house (note the mistranslation of Acts 20:20 in some Bibles); the most effective use of their time was to speak in public places.
When Paul and Peter entered a town (and yes, apostles could also be prophets and evangelists), the records show that they started at the place where they would reach the most people and where they would most likely have the greatest success, in the local Jewish synagogues.
However, they also converted many gentiles (where the greatest success was eventually gained) by speaking in public squares and in places where discussions were held, such as in the AeroPagus (see Acts 17:19).
Recognize that Christians and Jews alike have always spoken to others about their God and the things they believe in, which seems to have resulted in the greatest influx of converts. However, the lack of their having received a special commission (which is required for evangelists, the same as for apostles and prophets) means that not all that preach to make new converts are evangelists.
Such chosen ones have a unique ability to do this well, which comes from God.
A shepherd is, of course, one that tends sheep. And a shepherd in the Christian Congregation is one that tends the flock of God.
Shepherds are often those whom we would refer to as overseers, elders, and bishops; and their divinely-appointed position is to care for and watch over individual congregations.
A similar word that some preachers have assumed as a title for themselves, is Pastor.
Jesus said of himself at John 10:11:
‘I am the good shepherd; and a good shepherd will give his life for the sheep.’
He also told Peter (at John 21:16):
‘Shepherd my little sheep.’
Therefore, Apostles were also shepherds.
Then Peter, in turn, wrote to elders (at 1 Peter 5:1-4):
‘I encourage the elders among you (my fellow elders and witnesses of the sufferings of the Anointed One who will share in the glory that’s soon to be revealed) to shepherd the flock of God that has been entrusted to you.
Don’t [do this] just because you have to, but because you want to. Don’t do it to make a lot of money, but [do it] because you want to help.
Don’t [set yourselves up as] rulers over those that have been trusted to your care, but become examples to the flock. Then, when the Chief Shepherd is revealed, you will walk away with the enduring crown of glory.’
So was Peter saying that all elders are shepherds? No, he was urging elders to become shepherds and to seek this special ability that comes from God.
Recognize that through the ages, many men from all religions have accepted oversight of churches or congregations that weren’t good shepherds. Some have even misled and fleeced the sheep!
But as is true with the choosing and receipt of the other gifts listed above, any righteous person can pray for and seek the greater gift.
So, the God-given ability to shepherd God’s flock is something that no one can just claim for himself.
Teachers (and Preachers)
Ah, teachers! How many there claim to be, but how few there truly are, not just in the Christian Congregation, but also everywhere in life!
Though this gifted assignment is listed last, teachers are the ones that reach hearts. And though this gift was listed last by Paul, teaching is listed third among the gifts he spoke of at 1 Corinthians 12:28.
Teachers are often confused with preachers, when it comes to religion. But the Greek word for teachers is didaskalous, and the Greek word for preacher is kerux… so the two words carry different meanings.
And while both gifts are very important, a kerux (a preacher) is one that proclaims or spreads God’s truth, while a didaskalous (teacher) is one that can later explain it simply, but in depth.
So, preaching is a broad way of spreading God’s word, while teaching is best done in small groups with people that have the time and circumstances to pay close attention.
And doing either effectively must be recognized as gifts from God.
Though Paul didn’t mention the position of servants in the congregation (since this doesn’t appear to be a gift but an assignment); it appears as though all that had positions of oversight in the early Christian Church were considered servants.
The English word servant is translated from the Greek word diakonos.
Dia means through, and konos means household dust. So it implies a household servant, not an exalted position.
The first servants appointed were mentioned in Acts 6:3, where responsible men were assigned to distribute food among the needy in the congregation. And there we read:
‘Brothers, find seven qualified men among you who are filled with wisdom and the Breath [of God].’
So as you can see, those that are chosen for this position must have proven their worthiness and their choosing by God.
In this first recorded instance of such an assignment, the responsibility was given just to males. However, there is one mention of a woman that appears to have later held such a position. We find record of this at Romans 16:1, which says:
‘I recommend our sister Phoebe to you, who is also a servant in the congregation at KenKreae.’
In Greek, this reads:
‘ousan kai diakonon tes ekklesias tes en Kenkreais,’
'being also servant of/the congregation the/one in KenKreae.’
Angels or Messengers
Also within the congregational arrangement (which was derived from the Judaic arrangement), there was a position called the shaliah (Hebrew for emissary, messenger, or angel).
This was not an office or title, but simply the job description of a person who served that function. For it doesn’t appear to have always been exclusively assigned to the same individual.
As was true of other positions of oversight in the Judaic arrangement; the job was shared among many, with each person serving perhaps annually, on a rotating basis; or, they could have been chosen by lot.
Notice how in the Revelation vision (Revelation 1:20), Jesus identifies the seven stars as the seven messengers (or angels) of the seven congregations.
Such a function closely matches the same function in Jewish synagogues at the time; for the shaliah oversaw the teaching services, perhaps served as the investigator of wrong conduct, and served as the emissary and overseer of the congregation.
So the seven messengers of the seven congregations were those that would receive Jesus’ message through John and then dispense it to rest in the congregations.
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