Church Government 

The constitution of the medieval Roman Catholic Church was top-down autocracy:

"Catholic Faith insists. . .that the constitution of the Church is monarchical, that the ordaining of priests and bishops is made from above so that without communion with the Pope, its supreme head, one is schismatic and that no schismatic priest legitimately can perform a holy service, and that no true faithful  may attend his service or receive his blessings without committing a sin." (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, Volume I, p. 167).

It took quite a lot of history, quite a few 'reforms,' to mutate the polity of the early church into this state. Whether it is possible to improve upon primitive perfection is one disputed point. Some Catholics acknowledge that their church structure does not track with the early church polity, but feel this is no problem.

The ideal form of church government itself remains a disputed point. The earthquake in the church known as the Reformation inaugurated a great debate upon this topic of church governance. What was the primitive and apostolic form of church government? The New Testament offers little guidance in the form of direct prescription, though concrete problems arising within the early church elicited several illustrative models. Adding the historical evidence of the early church clarifies the picture, though these sources of information are not inspired or authoritative. Various ways of doing business are presented below:

Bible Testimony Paul and Timothy
Quench Not Elections
Cyprian Synagogue
Ecclesia The Theory
Bad Government French Revolution

Ilya Repin, Golgotha (The Crucifixion of Christ)

Bible Testimony

The New Testament records a doctrinal dispute: 'Do Gentile converts to Christianity have to keep the law of Moses?'— and its manner of resolution:

And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.  But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
“And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets. . .Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
“Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles.” (Acts 15:1-33).

They held a meeting. They took a vote. James, the Lord's brother, served as moderator. Hmmm. . .how could they possibly have known how Baptists do business? Or maybe it works in reverse, and the churches who practice a congregational form of government took the idea from the church of the apostles. "Congregationalism is the Republicanism of the Church; and it is fitting that the people themselves should exercise their right of self-government in that most important particular, the choice and settlement of a minister." (Charge to Theodore Parker, Parker, Theodore. Works of Theodore Parker (Kindle Locations 4494-4496). The Perfect Library.) The congregationalists, even in decline, continued to maintain the form of church governance they had borrowed from the early church. Or, since this occurrence was a gathering of the whole church, maybe the conciliarists should take comfort from the precedent!

Paul and Timothy

Paul and Barnabas appointed church leadership for their missionary plantings. Did they have a free hand, or were the candidates presented to them by a vote of the membership?:

"And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained [χειροτονησαντες] them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed." (Acts 14:21-23).

The word the King James Version here translates as 'ordained' is χειροτονεω, 'cheirotoneo,' a word with a long history in classical Greek, meaning to vote by a show of hands:

χειροτονεω. . .to stretch out the hand, for the purpose of voting, Plut., Luc. II. . .to vote for, elect, properly by show of hands, Ar., Dem.:—Pass. to be elected, Ar., etc.; (Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, p. 885).

In a similar vein, χειροτονητος means elected by show of hands, χειροτονια means a voting or electing by show of hands, etc. The Greek word 'χειρ,' 'cheir,' means 'hand,' and the Greeks, like us, were in the habit of voting by raising their hands. Does the word mean, in the New Testament, what it means in classical Greek? Young's Literal Translation takes this approach:

"Having proclaimed good news also to that city, and having discipled many, they turned back to Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting to remain in the faith, and that through many tribulations it behoveth us to enter into the reign of God, and having appointed to them by vote elders in every assembly, having prayed with fastings, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." (Acts 14:21-23 YLT).

Other translators, however, seem to want to conform the New Testament meaning of this word to a different concept, that of 'laying hands on,' i.e. to ordain. Paul writes to Timothy about ordaining church leadership:

"Lay [επιτιθει] hands [χειρας] suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure." (1 Timothy 5:22).

The 'laying on of hands' here referenced is not punching him in the nose, but,

"And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them." (Acts 6:1-6).

In this case the candidates were selected by the church as a whole, the 'multitude,' who then were ordained by the laying on of hands. This is to impart the Holy Spirit: "Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost:. . .Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost." (Acts 8:15-17).

Something similar was done under the old covenant: "And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the LORD commanded Moses." (Deuteronomy 34:9). This is how Timothy received his special gift for service: "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery [πρεσβυτεριου, 'body of elders']." (1 Timothy 4:14).

Some readers of these passages see a 'top-down' structure, where the travelling apostles and their associates appoint whomever they please to the ministry, whether as the pattern for missionary plantings which have not yet stood on their own feet, or as the general rule for all churches. Others see the normal New Testament procedure, of a popular vote followed by ordination.

John Calvin, a still-influential author whose own prescribed church polity was not entirely democratic, nonetheless is one of these latter, freely admitting that the early church practiced perfect democracy: "For Luke relates that presbyters were appointed through the churches by Paul and Barnabas; but at the same time he notes the manner, or means, when he says that it was done by votes—'presbyters elected by show of hands in every church,' he says [Acts 14:23]. Therefore, these two apostles 'created' them, but the whole group, as was the custom of the Greeks in elections, declared whom it wished to have by raising hands." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 2, Book IV, Chapter III, Section 15, pp. 1065-1066). Some people blame the decline of ancient civilization into the Dark Ages on Christianity. However, inasmuch as the church itself began as a pure democracy which suffered the same general tug of the age away from freedom and towards hierarchy, until by the medieval period there was no freedom left at all, the church was a fellow victim, with society, of the baleful trend of the age rather than the perpetrator. Exactly what caused this trend is unclear, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the two loudest and longest-resounding voices left from antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, were both anti-democrats.

Quench Not

Pastors are ultimately supplied by God the Holy Spirit. One caution the church early heard is that, whomever God raises up to perform an assigned task, must not be stifled:

"Quench not the Spirit.  Despise not prophesyings.  Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).

Ideally divine calling and human endeavor converge in this job search: "And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding." (Jeremiah 3:15).

If the majority of the electorate are believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit, then democracy is a pragmatic and practical way of implementing theocracy. If however they partake of the spirit of this world, then it is a means of solidifying Satan's reign.



Whatever talking points can be argued back and forth between Episcopalians and Congregationalists on the basis of the slender Bible evidence, the situation clarifies itself in the centuries to come. Bishops were elected by the clergy and laity of the place, at Rome and elsewhere. These were contested elections, with multiple candidates vying for the position:

  • "We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry." (Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians, Section 44).

  • "In the first place, therefore, I Peter say, that a bishop ordained is to be, as we have already, all of us, appointed, unblameable in all things, a select person, chosen by the whole people, who, when he is named and approved, let the people assemble, with the presbytery and bishops that are present, on the Lord’s day, and let them give their consent. And let the principal of the bishops ask the presbytery and people whether this be the person whom they desire for their ruler."
  • (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8, Section 2, Chapter IV, p. 959 ECF 0.07).

  • “About the same time it happened that another event took place at Milan well worthy of being recorded. On the death of Auxentius, who had been ordained bishop of that church by the Arians, the people again were disturbed respecting the election of a successor; for as some proposed one person, and others favored another, the city was full of contention and uproar. In this state of things the governor of the province, Ambrose by name, who was also of consular dignity, dreading some catastrophe from the popular excitement, ran into the church in order to quell the disturbance. As he arrived there and the people became quiet, he repressed the irrational fury of the multitude by a long and appropriate address, by urging such motives as they felt to be right, and all present suddenly came to an unanimous agreement, crying out ‘that Ambrose was worthy of the bishopric,’ and demanding his ordination: ‘for by that means only,’ it was alleged, ‘would the peace of the church be secured, and all be reunited in the same faith and judgment.’.”
  • (Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, Book IV, Chapter 30).

  • "About this period Liberius died, and Damasus succeeded to the see of Rome. A deacon named Ursicius, who had obtained some votes in his favor, but could not endure the defeat, therefore caused himself to be clandestinely ordained by some bishops of little note, and endeavored to create a division among the people and to hold a separate church. He succeeded in effecting this division, and some of the people respected him as bishop, while the rest adhered to Damasus."
  • (Sozomen, Church History, Book VI, Chapter 23).

  • "Nearly about the same time, Martin was called upon to undertake the episcopate of the church at Tours; but when he could not easily be drawn forth from his monastery, a certain Ruricius, one of the citizens, pretending that his wife was ill, and casting himself down at his knees, prevailed on him to go forth. Multitudes of the citizens having previously been posted by the road on which he traveled, he is thus under a kind of guard escorted to the city. An incredible number of people not only from that town, but also from the neighboring cities, had, in a wonderful manner, assembled to give their votes. There was but one wish among all, there were the same prayers, and there was the same fixed opinion to the effect that Martin was most worthy of the episcopate, and that the church would be happy with such a priest. A few persons, however, and among these some of the bishops, who had been summoned to appoint a chief priest, were impiously offering resistance, asserting forsooth that Martin’s person was contemptible, that he was unworthy of the episcopate, that he was a man despicable in countenance, that his clothing was mean, and his hair disgusting. This madness of theirs was ridiculed by the people of sounder judgment, inasmuch as such objectors only proclaimed the illustrious character of the man, while they sought to slander him. Nor truly was it allowed them to do anything else, than what the people, following the Divine will, desired to be accomplished."
  • (Sulpitius Severus, Life of Martin of Tours, Chapter 9, p. 19 ECF 2.11).

  • "The city of Caesarea was in an uproar about the election of a bishop; for one had just departed, and another must be found, amidst heated partisanship not easily to be soothed. For the city was naturally exposed to party spirit, owing to the fervor of its faith, and the rivalry was increased by the illustrious position of the see. Such was the state of affairs; several Bishops had arrived to consecrate the Bishop; the populace was divided into several parties, each with its own candidate, as is usual in such cases, owing to the influences of private friendship or devotion to God; but at last the whole people came to an agreement..."
  • (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 18.33).

  • "Thus, and for these reasons, by the vote of the whole people, not in the evil fashion which has since prevailed, nor by means of bloodshed and oppression, but in an apostolic and spiritual manner, he is led up to the throne of Saint Mark, to succeed him in piety, no less than in office..."
  • (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 21.8).

  • "When therefore the choice of the chief priest is taken in hand, let him be preferred before all whom the unanimous consent of clergy and people demands, but if the votes chance to be divided between two persons, the judgment of the metropolitan should prefer him who is supported by the preponderance of votes and merits: only let no one be ordained against the express wishes of the place: lest a city should either despise or hate a bishop whom they did not choose, and lamentably fall away from religion because they have not been allowed to have when they wished."
  • (Leo the Great, Letters, Letter 14, To Anastasius, Section VI.)

  • "So he went to the church. And when he was addressing the people, the voice of a child among the people is said to have called out suddenly: 'Ambrose bishop.' At the sound of this voice, the mouths of all the people joined in the cry: 'Ambrose bishop.' Thus, those who a while before were disagreeing most violently, because both the Arians and the Catholics wished the other side to be defeated and their own candidate to be consecrated bishop, suddenly agreed on this one with miraculous and unbelievable harmony."
  • (Life of Ambrose, by Paulinus, Chapter 3).

  • "A cycle of two hundred and eighty-five years from the incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had rolled round, when the venerable Theonas, the bishop of this city, by an ethereal flight, mounted upwards to the celestial kingdoms. To him Peter, succeeding at the helm of the Church, was by all the clergy and the whole Christian community appointed bishop, the sixteenth in order from Mark the Evangelist, who was also archbishop of the city."
  • (The Genuine Acts of Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, as interpreted by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, p. 273, Ante-Nicene Library, Volume XIV).

  • "Of bishops. A bishop should be elected by all the people, and he should be unimpeachable, as it is written of him in the apostle; in the week in which he is ordained, the whole people should also say, We desire him; and there should be silence in the whole hall, and they should all pray in his behalf, and say, O God, stablish him whom Thou hast prepared for us, etc."
  • (Canons of the Church of Alexandria, p. 536, ECF 0.05).

Certainly people prepared to riot to get what they want, feel passionately about the matter and think it is their business! Adherence to Robert's Rules of Order is better though. People in the top-down churches sometimes suggest voting is a modern thing, and people in antiquity did not much care how the candidate came to office: "Most people in the ancient world, in fact, not just Jews, would have supposed that legitimacy came, ultimately, from what you did in office, not from the method by which you got there." (N. T. Wright, How God Became King, p. 170). Should you believe it? When we call candidates 'candidates' from the white togas they wore? They cared! Democracy was invented in antiquity, extinguished in the dark ages, and the church was on board from the outset.



This Carthaginian bishop, who ended his career in martyrdom, came to office riding a wave of popular enthusiasm:

"For the proof of his good works I think that this one thing is enough, that by the judgment of God and the favor of the people, he was chosen to the office of the priesthood and the degree of the episcopate while still a neophyte, and, as it was considered, a novice. . .Moreover, I will not pass over that remarkable fact, of the way in which, when the entire people by God's inspiration leapt forward in his love and honor, he humbly withdrew, giving place to men of older standing, and thinking himself unworthy of a claim to so great honor, so that he thus became more worthy. For he is made more worthy who dispenses with what he deserves. And with this excitement were the eager people at that time inflamed, desiring with a spiritual longing, as the event proved, not only a bishop, for in him whom then with a latent foreboding of divinity they were in such wise demanding, they were seeking not only a priest, but moreover a future martyr. A crowded fraternity was besieging the doors of the house, and throughout all the avenues of access an anxious love was circulating. Possibly that apostolic experience might then have happened to him, as he desired, of being let down through a window, had he also been equal to the apostle in the honor of ordination. It was plain to be seen that all the rest were expecting his coming with an anxious spirit of suspense, and received him when he came with excessive joy." (The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr, by Pontius the Deacon, Section 5, pp. xvii.-xviii., Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Writings of Cyprian, Volume I).

Cyprian later reminded the people that it had been their favor which elevated him to this position, against the opposition of some of the 'professional' clergy:

"By my letters I say, dearest brethren; for the malignity and treachery of certain of the presbyters has accomplished this, that I should not be allowed to come to you before Easter-day; since mindful of their conspiracy, and retaining that ancient venom against my episcopate, that is, against your suffrage and God’s judgment, they renew their old attack upon me, and once more begin their sacrilegious machinations with their accustomed craft." (Cyprian, Letter 39, Section 1, ECF p. 653).

  • "To whom we have once given this reply, nor shall we cease to command them to lay aside their pernicious dissensions and disputes, and to be aware that it is an impiety to forsake their Mother; and to acknowledge and understand that when a bishop is once made and approved by the testimony and judgment of his colleagues and the people, another can by no means be appointed." (Cyprian Letter 40:2, ECF p. 659).

  • "Moreover, Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of the people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men..."
  • (Cyprian, Letters, 51:8)

  • " one, after the divine judgment, after the suffrage of the people, after the consent of the co-bishops, would make himself a judge, not now of the bishop, but of God."
  • (Cyprian, Letters, 54:5)

  • "But — I speak to you as being provoked; I speak as grieving; I speak as constrained — when a bishop is appointed into the place of one deceased, when he is chosen in time of peace by the suffrage of an entire people, when he is protected by the help of God in persecution, faithfully linked with all his colleagues, approved to his people by now four years’ experience in his episcopate...when such a one, dearest brother, is seen to be assailed by some desperate and reckless men, and by those who have their place outside the Church, it is manifest who assails him..."
  • (Cyprian, Letters, 54:6)

  • "...while the Bishop Cornelius was ordained in the Catholic Church by the judgment of God, and by the suffrages of the clergy and people..."
  • (Cyprian, Letters, 66:2).

Someone may wonder, is it possible this democratic form of church governance was adopted later, after the apostolic era? Surely it must be conceded that one possible explanation for why the early church elected their bishops through democratic vote is that they had always done so. There were changes in church governance during those years: the early explosion of house-churches gradually came under the control of a single, 'monarchical' bishop. Given that the trend was for more top-down control rather than less, it is not clear why elections would have been introduced at that time had they not always been in the picture. The Greek Orthodox Church still conserves the form of episcopal election, though without its substance. The congregation is expected to shout 'axios,' 'worthy,' in approval of a pre-selected candidate. This is too reminiscent of elections in the old Soviet Union, where little thought was given to affording the people alternatives in the event they did not find the candidate 'worthy.' As the reader has seen, the early church system allowed impromptu candidates to be roped into office, in like manner as William Jennings Bryan was named the nominee after his 'Cross of Gold' speech galvanized the convention. These personnel choices were not pre-programmed, nor restricted to a menu of one.


This practice of electing the leader of the congregation should not be surprising, because the synagogue had done the same thing:

  • “All the rulers of the Synagogue were duly examined as to their knowledge, and ordained to the office. They formed the local Sanhedrin or tribunal. But their election depended on the choice of the congregation; and absence of pride, as also gentleness and humility, are mentioned as special qualifications.”
  • (Alfred Edersheim, 'The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,' Book III, The Ascent, Chapter X, The Synagogue at Nazareth, [2105] .

There is an element of continuity in church governance along with novelty. The word 'bishop' is found in the Old Testament as in the New:

"And these were the children of Benjamin...And Joel son of Zechri was overseer ['episkopos' LXX] over them: and Juda son of Asana was second in the city. (Nehemiah 11:7-9 Benton Septuagint).

"And Jehoiada made a covenant between the LORD and the king and the people, that they should be the LORD’S people; between the king also and the people. . .And the priest appointed officers ['episkopos' επισκοπος] over the house of the LORD." (2 Kings 11:17-18, LXX).

When the word 'elder' occurs in the New Testament, it is as likely to refer to an office of the old dispensation as the new:

"Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread." (Matthew 15:2).

For that matter the word 'church,' 'ecclesia,' meaning assembly, is found often in the Septuagint:

"And the king turned his face, and blessed all the congregation ['ecclesia'] of Israel: and all the congregation ['ecclesia'] of Israel stood by." (2 Chronicles 6:3 Benton Septuagint).

"And the king turned his face, and the king blessed all Israel, (and the whole assembly ['ecclesia'] of Israel stood:)..." (1 Kings 8:14 Brenton Septuagint).

...translating 'qahal,' 'congregation.' There would be less confusion on these points if the New Testament's 'ecclesia' were consistently translated as 'congregation' or 'assembly,' rather than the discordantly novel 'church.' 'I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly ['ecclesia'] I will sing praise to You.'” (Hebrews 2:11-12), quotes from the Messianic psalm 22, "I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You." (Psalm 22:22). In the Septuagint the words "in the midst of the assembly" are 'εν μεσω εκκλησιας,' in the midst of the 'ecclesia.'

Jesus mentions His 'ecclesia' in Matthew 18, pointing out the 'exit' sign over the door, and Matthew 16:

"Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." (Matthew 18:15-17).

"And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18).

The Old Testament congregation is called an 'ecclesia' in Acts 7:38:

"This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us. . ." (Acts 7:38).


'Ecclesia' means 'assembly.' What was an 'assembly' in the political parlance of the day?

"But the citizen whom we are seeking to define is a citizen in the strictest sense, against whom no such exception can be taken, and his special characteristic is that he shares in the administration of justice, and in offices. . .Now of offices some are discontinuous. . .others have no limit of time — for example, the office of a dicast or ecclesiast. ['ecclesiast' = member of the ecclesia or assembly of the citizens.] . . . Let us not dwell further upon this, which is a purely verbal question; what we want is a common term including both dicast and ecclesiast. Let us, for the sake of distinction, call it 'indefinite office,' and we will assume that those who share in such office are citizens. This is the most comprehensive definition of a citizen, and best suits all those who are generally so called." (Aristotle, Politics, Book 3, Chapter 1).

All citizens of the polis are ecclesiasts, i.e., assembly-men. In civil polity this unfortunately did not include women or slaves, only freeborn men. The rights of citizenship include even common meals, similar to the love feasts:

"As to common meals, there is a general agreement that a well ordered city should have them; and we will hereafter explain what are our own reasons for taking this view. They ought, however, to be open to all the citizens." (Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, Chapter X).

Christians likewise are citizens of a city, one not made by hands: "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ..." (Philippians 3:20); ". . .for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. . .Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:10-16); "Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. . ." (Ephesians 2:19). It is no great innovation to ascribe to Christians those things which go along with citizenship in a city. A citizen, as seen above, is one who belongs to the assembly. What Christians mean by their 'assembly' is not held captive to the political usages of the ancient world. But there is no great novelty in ascribing to citizens of a city those rights citizens naturally enjoy, such as membership in the assembly. And what do assemblies do? They vote.

The Theory

Bishop Cyprian, as cited above, simultaneously describes the bishop as chosen by popular suffrage and also as chosen by God: ". . .so that, for the confusion and beating down of heretics, the Lord might show which was the Church — which is its one bishop chosen by divine appointment — which presbyters are associated with the bishop in priestly honor — which is the united and true people of Christ, linked together in the love of the Lord’s flock — who they were whom the enemy would harass; whom, on the other hand, the devil would spare as being his own." (Cyprian, Letter 57:3, p. 729 ECF); "That we, with the rest of our colleagues, may steadily and firmly administer this office, and keep it in the concordant unanimity of the Catholic Church, the divine condescension will accomplish; so that the Lord who condescends to elect and appoint for Himself priests in His Church, may protect them also when elected and appointed by His goodwill and help, inspiring them to govern. . ." (Cyprian, Letter 44:4, ECF p. 666). How could these two things simultaneously be true? Surely the people are not God. What is the theory behind this form of church polity?

Several trains of thought have been advanced to explain the historical fact that the early church chose its leadership via democratic election of the clergy and laity of the place. For one thing, this practice was culturally engrained in the Roman empire. Although the secular governing system was autocratic one-man rule at the top, the various cities throughout the Mediterranean region had long traditions of government by self-governing assembly, i.e., 'ecclesia.' Believers' concerns to submit the government under God's rule is another consideration. Polling those thought to be filled with the Spirit is one way of querying the Holy Spirit:

"Accordingly, we ratify with our sanction your good deed, brethren, in unanimously, on the death of Hilary of holy memory, consecrating our brother Ravennius, a man well approved by us, in the city of Aries, in accordance with the wishes of the clergy, the leading citizens, and the laity. Because a peace-making and harmonious election, where neither personal merits nor the good will of the congregation are wanting, is we believe the expression not only of man’s choice, but of God’s inspiration." (Leo the Great, Letters, Letter 40, To the Bishops of the Province of Arles).

One way of candidate selection not familiar to us: choice by lot, and another very familiar,— vote by popular election,— were both taken to be, by both Christians and pagans, ways of constraining God to mark His ballot. An Old Testament theory behind the practice is offered by Cyprian of Carthage:

  • “Which very thing, too, we observe to come from divine authority, that the priest should be chosen in the presence of the people under the eyes of all, and should be approved worthy and suitable by public judgment and testimony; as in the book of Numbers the Lord commanded Moses, saying, “Take Aaron thy brother, and Eleazar his son, and place them in the mount, in the presence of all the assembly, and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and let Aaron die there, and be added to his people.” God commands a priest to be appointed in the presence of all the assembly; that is, He instructs and shows that the ordination of priests ought not to be solemnized except with the knowledge of the people standing near, that in the presence of the people either the crimes of the wicked may be disclosed, or the merits of the good may be declared, and the ordination, which shall have been examined by the suffrage and judgment of all, may be just and legitimate. And this is subsequently observed, according to divine instruction, in the Acts of the Apostles, when Peter speaks to the people of ordaining an apostle in the place of Judas. “Peter,” it says, “stood up in the midst of the disciples, and the multitude were in one place.” Neither do we observe that this was regarded by the apostles only in the ordinations of bishops and priests, but also in those of deacons, of which matter itself also it is written in their Acts: “And they twelve called together,” it says, “the whole congregation of the disciples, and said to them;” which was done so diligently and carefully, with the calling together of the whole of the people, surely for this reason, that no unworthy person might creep into the ministry of the altar, or to the office of a priest. For that unworthy persons are sometimes ordained, not according to the will of God, but according to human presumption, and that those things which do not come of a legitimate and righteous ordination are displeasing to God, God Himself manifests by Hosea the prophet, saying, “They have set up for themselves a king, but not by me.” For which reason you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces; that for the proper celebration of ordinations all the neighboring bishops of the same province should assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct. And this also, we see, was done by you in the ordination of our colleague Sabinus; so that, by the suffrage of the whole brotherhood, and by the sentence of the bishops who had assembled in their presence, and who had written letters to you concerning him, the episcopate was conferred upon him, and hands were imposed on him in the place of Basilides.”
  • (Cyprian, Letters, 67:4-5).

Roman Catholic historians freely admit the Bishop of Rome was originally chosen by the suffrage of the clergy and laity of Rome:

"Originally, the pope was chosen in a public meeting of the clergy and laity of Rome...Gradually, with the growth of the importance of the cardinals as advisers to the Holy See, their role in the election expanded. But it was not until 1059 that Pope Nicolas II decreed that in the future only the cardinals would participate." (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1965, 'Sacred College of Cardinals').

The later system of election by the College of Cardinals was instituted during the dark ages. It is sometimes described as a reform, but the change from democracy to oligarchy is a giant leap backwards, not a reform:

"The most significant event of the papacy of Nicholas II was the decree of this Roman synod of 1059 regulating choice to the papacy...In theory, the choice of the Pope had been, like that of other bishops, by the clergy and people of the city of his see. This was termed a canonical election...The evident purpose was to put the election into the hands of the cardinals, primarily of the cardinal bishops...This was, indeed, a revolution in the method of choice of the Pope, and would give to the office an independence of political control not heretofore possessed." (A History of the Christian Church, Revised Edition, Williston Walker et al, p. 206).

In practice, powerful politicians had intervened in these elections before, and so this 'reform' was intended to free the church from the control of the state; but in the process it also freed the church from the apostolic and Biblical control of the people. There were push-backs against the anti-democratic tendency, seeking to return the church to its apostolic foundation, as did the imperial diet under Louis in 817: "Finally, the diet sought to give the church more autonomy by reverting to the old custom of allowing bishops to be elected by the people and the clergy." (Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, p. 317). But this went against the prevailing tide, which was towards consolidation and hierarchy. Nor was this tendency operative in isolation. The church had ceased to be a fellowship of self-governing assemblies, in much the same way as the state had ceased to be an association of free men. Just as today, in the third world, in low-security environments, warlords rise to seize power and offer 'protection,' so after the collapse of the Roman empire, it became imperative for formerly free men to choose whom they would serve:

"The situation was clearly defined: each one must look out for himself . In a regularly organized society individual safety is assured through the protection of the laws and the police. In the new state of things brought about by the invasions, there was no safety except in 'commendation,' which placed the poor and the weak under the protection of the richer and the stronger. The threshold of feudalism had been reached. An edict of Charles the Bald (Mersen, 847 [A.D.]), by declaring that every freeman should choose a seignior, legalized this system." (Charles Bemont, Gabriel Monod, Medieval Europe, 395-1270, Kindle location 2915).

The barbarian hordes who had overwhelmed the civilized world did not, like the Greeks and Romans, cherish any conception of the rule of law. These plundering bands, organized along military lines, knew no concept of authority beyond personal allegiance. This transformation in society followed their inherited preference; the church did not lead, but was swept along with everything else:

"At first he [Nicholas II] assembled a council at the Lateran (1059). There it was decreed that henceforth the right of electing the sovereign pontiff should belong exclusively to the cardinals; that is to say, to those who were either bishops in Roman territory , or priests and bishops in the parishes of Rome; the people and clergy should only give their consent." (Charles Bemont, Gabriel Monod, Medieval Europe, 395-1270, Kindle location 3585).

This was a momentous occasion and the final, long drawn out death of the apostolic church. When the people elect their bishop, the bishop cannot rule over the people in an overbearing manner. "The ordinary process of the choice of a bishop by the middle of the third century was a nomination by the other clergy, especially the presbyters, of the city; the approval of neighboring bishops, and ratification or election by the congregation." (A History of the Christian Church, Revised Edition, Williston Walker et al, p. 83). Clerical tyranny did not descend until the dark ages. The U.S. Constitution provides for a strong executive, yet the American people do not feel themselves oppressed, because they elect the person who wields the power of the Presidency. So did the early church.

The second century saw the rise of the 'monarchical bishop.' For the first time, it was understood there was to be one bishop in each city. In the New Testament, the offices of 'elder' and 'bishop' are not differentiated. In time these offices came to be elaborated into a hierarchy. It would have been better for the church to retain its primitive and apostolic ordinances. More and more power migrated up the ladder until there was a 'hierarchy' of clergy ruling the laity as if a conquered, subject people. This was not the original plan.

In the New Testament, the offices of 'bishop' and 'presbyter' (elder, priest) are not yet distinguished; they are one and the same:

  • “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons,. . .Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
  • (Acts 2o:17-28).

Russian Icon

This crowd of "elders" (presbyteros) were also "bishops" (episkopos). Paul called the "elders" (verse 17), and then tells them the Holy Ghost has made them "overseers." This one office had not yet bifurcated into two.

During the century after any of the apostles were living, the two offices of 'bishop' and 'presbyter' diverged into a hierarchy. Instead of the many house-churches at Rome that Paul addressed in his letter to Romans, there came to be one bishop in a city, presiding over many elders. Some authors nevertheless still read the Bible evidence with clear eyes:

  • “‘For a bishop, since he is God's steward, must be blameless.’ [Titus 1:7]
  • “A presbyter and a bishop are the same; and before the urging of the devil gave rise to factionalism in religion, so much so that it was being said among the people, ‘I am of Paul, I of Apollo, I of Cephas,’ the churches were governed by a joint council of the presbyters. After it was seen that each, when he was baptized, thought that he now belonged to the one baptizing and not to Christ, it was decreed throughout the world that one chosen from among the presbyters should be placed over the others, and the total care of the church should pertain to him. Thus were the seeds of schisms destroyed. If it be supposed that it is merely our opinion and without scriptural support that bishop and presbyter are one, the latter term speaking of age while the former is the name given to an office, examine again the words the Apostle addressed to the Philippians: ‘Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi with the bishops and the deacons, grace to you, and peace,’ etc. Now Philippi is but one city in Macedonia, and certainly in one city there could not have been numerous bishops. It is simply that at that time the same persons were called either bishops or presbyters.”
  • (Jerome, Commentaries on the Epistle to Titus, 1.5, quoted p. 194, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 2, William A. Jurgens).

This was noticed later, "For with S. Paul a bishop and a priest are one and the same thing, as witness also St. Jerome." (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, III. 14, Volume II, Kindle location 1389). Even once these two offices, formerly one and the same, had diverged into two rungs of a hierarchy, this process of elaboration was not yet finished. In time, there would even be bishops above other bishops, though this was as yet unknown as late as the third century:

"It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another." (The Seventh Council of Carthage, A.D. 256, p. 200, Treatises of Cyprian, Volume II, Ante-Nicene Christian Library).

So this first elaboration into hierarchy, wherein the bishops were propelled upwards to a higher rank than presbyters, remained stable for a time. Worse things yet were in store.

Silly Season

People talk about 'memes' as self-replicating ideas which, like a parasite feeding off a host organism, seek to implant themselves within a victim and shed little duplicates out into the world to colonize new hosts. In some ways these 'memes' seem patterned after Platonic ideas, creative, fructifying and formative blue-prints whose sketchy noetic outlines are filled in with meat, making the material world as we know it, a material world which cannot be accurately described without importing ideas accessible only to the intellect. Would that this web-site could infect the viewer with the 'Trinity meme,' once implanted, never to be excised! If the ideas are true, then those are happy who are infected.

Some successful 'memes' however seem more devalued and barren than Plato's resplendent gallery of beautiful, self-sufficient paradigms. Some appeal more to the "itching ears" (2 Timothy 4:3) of Paul's warning than to the critical mind. A case in point is Elaine Pagels' 'Gnostic Gospels.' Roman Catholics school-children are taught to regard the 'early church' as the 'Roman Catholic Church.' Even realizing medieval institutions like the papacy did not exist in apostolic times, they nevertheless squint to see these institutions in embryo, awaiting the later 'development' that would lift them out of hidden darkness into the light of day. People who have no commitment to the Roman Catholic system, even secular atheists, get infected with this 'meme' and shed virus abroad. Even realizing that Protestants seek to recover and return to the apostolic church, they assume the Protestant experiment a total failure, and insist upon 'seeing' the medieval Catholic church in the early church. My own Baptist church elects its leadership in the belief the early church did the same; Baptists want to do what the early church did. How foolish we are, the 'meme' retorts: the early church was Roman Catholic, and though it was not yet governed from above, the Holy Spirit still being the only guarantor of church unity, isn't it past being obvious that it inevitably would be, given enough centuries to wear away the early church democracy?

This woman wrote a book revealing that her three arch-villains: Tertullian, Irenaeus and Hippolytus of Rome,— polemicized against the gnostic heresy, not for the reasons they stated,— this author has discovered it is silly to care whether there is only one God or five hundred,— but in order to build up the institutional might of Rome, which they foresaw in their crystal balls because it did not actually yet exist. Of the three, two: Hippolytus the anti-pope and Tertullian the Montanist, were not even in fellowship with the church of Rome. Both condemned the Roman bishop in the Roman Catholic papal succession list, Callistus I, as a heretic; but never mind. This 'meme:' that the early church is Rome, and Rome is the early church, is so powerful it sweeps like a tsunami away all evidence and reason out of its path.

The reality is different. While the Bible does not lay down any single template for secular governance, the scriptural prescription of democratic governance for the church did 'bleed' over into the secular realm: "Yet Knox went further, transferring to the political sphere ideas that Calvin had limited to the sphere of church government. Taking the idea of representative government characteristic of Calvin's Reformed churches — that is, communities led by elected elders or 'presbyters' — Knox applied this democratic principle at the political level — locally, regionally, and nationally. This amounted to a virtual inversion of the traditional top-down, hierarchical model that had hitherto prevailed." (Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea, p. 99). The church can't be blamed for a bad idea that wasn't its own or any part of its original constitution. Some claim credit for the church, for America's democracy:

"Through all the centuries, presbyters, priests, bishops, and popes had ruled in religious matters; but these men of Scrooby rejected all such authority, and made their declaration to the world — The people alone have the right to rule!" (Coffin, Charles Carleton. Sweet Land of Liberty: Old Times in the Colonies (Kindle Locations 1175-1177). Johnsonian Publications. Chapter VII, The Pilgrims).

Strictly speaking, what the church's example proves is that the (church) people have the right. . .to rule the church. Not that I'll ever contest the slogan, 'Power to the people!'


Bad Government

It is heart-rending to watch this devolution in church government, 'reformed' away from democracy to top-down hierarchy, interact with real, flesh and blood people who got in this rolling juggernaut's way:

  • “It was [Pope] Innocent III who initiated measures which dealt the decisive blows against the dissidents...The outstanding lord in Southern France, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, evaded Papal efforts to induce him to take positive action and Philip Augustus, the King of France, hesitated further to complicate his own difficult problems, including his chronic troubles with England, by risking a prolonged internal war to enforce the Papal commands. Then, in 1208, the Papal Legate, Peter of Castelnau, was murdered in Raymond's domains and perhaps at his court. Innocent took advantage of the widespread horror evoked by the crime to call forth a crusading army. Religious zeal represented in an outstanding leader of the crusading armies, Simon de Montfort, combined with quite secular motives, sectional jealousies, and the desire of the nobles of Northern France to reduce the power of the South and to profit by its wealth.
  • “Years of warfare followed, with wholesale destruction. It is said that when one of the first cities to be taken, Beziers, was entered, and the Papal Legate was asked whether the Catholics should be spared, the latter, fearing that the heretics would feign orthodoxy to save their lives, commanded: 'Kill them all, for God knows His own.'”
  • (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I, pp. 456-457).

Tyranny always produces the same bitter fruit. What autocracy brought to the church is no different from what it brings to a commonwealth. These are not the fruits of the gospel, which works by persuasion:

  • “But this modern and accursed heresy, when it is overthrown by argument, when it is cast down and covered with shame by the very Truth, forthwith endeavors to coerce by violence and stripes and imprisonment those whom it has been unable to persuade by argument, thereby acknowledging itself to be anything rather than godly. For it is the part of true godliness not to compel, but to persuade, as I said before. Thus our Lord Himself, not as employing force, but as offering to their free choice, has said to all, 'If any man will follow after Me,' and to His disciples, 'Will ye also go away?'”
  • (Athanasius, 'History of the Arians,' Part VII, Section 67).

The New Testament proposed the 'penalty' for heresy of shunning, that the heretic should not be welcomed into the community of faith. As democratic self-governance was lost in the church, this principle of toleration was lost as well. The nadir of religious toleration was reached with Mohammed ibn Abdallah's religious 'reform.' Though at first hopeful that he would be accepted as a prophet by both Christians and Jews, Mohammed bitterly realized in the end that his predecessor monotheists were his most determined enemies. Thereupon, following the principle, "Whoso desireth any other religion than Islam, that religion shall never be accepted from him, and in the next world he shall be among the lost." (Koran Sura 3:79), Muslim regimes to this day will not allow free Christian preaching.

The children of Israel demanded a monarchy, and God acceded to their wishes, while warning them, "But you have today rejected your God, who Himself saved you from all your adversities and your tribulations; and you have said to Him, ‘No, set a king over us!’" (1 Samuel 10:19). In spite of such sayings, some readers continue to believe the Bible must somewhere, somehow, endorse autocracy, because the Middle Ages happened. Secular Bible scholarship continues to share its insights with grateful readers: their slow-witted astonishment at the discovery early church governance is not in accord with Roman Catholic norms joins now with Bart Ehrman's ground-breaking discovery that there was no governance in the early church:


The French Revolution

Protestants are not the only people who have sought to re-institute clerical elections; so did the French Revolution, which came to be dominated by Deists and atheists. Since the organization of the Roman Catholic Church is monarchical, with authority flowing downward from the pope on top, the majority of French clerics refused to sign the loyalty oath demanded of them consenting to this state of affairs. The fate that then awaited these non-juring clerics was exile, imprisonment, or the guillotine. While some of the measures the Revolutionists took resemble the Reformation, there are certainly differences: no Christian church which elects its leadership has ever invited pagans and atheists to take part in these elections, but the Revolution made the electors of the clergy all the citizens of the place who were otherwise qualified to serve as electors, even if they were not Catholic nor even Christian:

"The people now, in effect, choose their own ministers, as they do in the Presbyterian church; the bishop is appointed by the electors of the department, the cure by the district electors, and, what is an extraordinary aggravation, these need not be of his communion. It is of no consequence whether the electoral Assembly contains, as at Nimes, Montauban, Strasbourg, and Metz, a notable proportion of Calvinists, Lutherans, and Jews, or whether its majority, furnished by the club, s notoriously hostile to Catholicism, and even to Christianity itself. The bishop and the cure must be chosen by the electoral body; the Holy Ghost dwells with it, and with the civil tribunals, and these may install its elect in spite of any resistance." (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, Volume I, pp. 169-170).

What would follow was even worse: all citizens, lay or clerical, were obligated to take a loyalty oath, losing their right of suffrage if they would not, and faithful Catholics in conscience could not. Therefore, "The result is that scrupulous Catholics are excluded from every administrative post, from all elections, and especially from ecclesiastical elections; from which it follows that, the stronger one's faith the less one's share in the choice of a priest. What an admirable law, that which, under the pretext of doing away with ecclesiastical abuses, places the faithful, lay or clerical, outside the pale of the law!" (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, Volume I, p. 171). Their totalitarian political principles reduced society down to two actors: the all-powerful state, and private individuals. A voluntary association like the church can have no independent existence in that kind of police state.

The aim of the Revolution was to regenerate human nature, which had proven refractory and unsuited to the glorious ideal Republic: "'It is necessary,' says Billaud-Varennes, 'that the people to which one desires to restore their freedom should in some way be created anew, since old prejudices must be destroyed, old habits changed, depraved affections improved, superfluous wants restricted, and inveterate vices extirpated.'" (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, Volume 3, p. 45). The "prejudices" to be "destroyed," unfortunately, included Christianity. They said it and meant it: "'We will make France a cemetery,' says Carrier, 'rather than not regenerate it our own way.'" (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, Volume 3, p. 46). Things got even weirder: