Church History # 5 - Movement Toward Centralization

The Movement Toward Centralization


1.        Departure from the NT Pattern: The Movement Toward Centralization

            a.         We looked at the NT church and the simple organizational structure.

                        1)         Elders (plural) in each church.

                        2)         Each church autonomous and independent from others.

                        3)         No regional, national, or international church government.

                        4)         But all that was to change – slowly but surely – over time.


b.         Remember, the apostles had warned that there would be departures from the

faith (and it happened just as they said).

Acts 20:29-30 – “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”

1 Tim. 4:1-3 – “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons…”

2 Tim. 4:2-4 – “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

            c.         From 100 AD (end of the apostolic age) to the time of Constantine (early 300s),

                        changes would definitely begin.

                        1)         Remember, this is 200 years of time, and things can change greatly in

                                    200 years.  (Just think of how our nation has changed in 200 yrs.)

                        2)         The church by 300 is not the full-blown Catholic Church of later years,

                                    but changes in organization and doctrine have definitely taken place.   

I.          Pressures Against Pure New Testament Christianity.

A.         “Generic pressures” against the truth.

                        1.         Greek philosophy made impressions on the minds of church leaders,

                                    thinkers, writers, Christians generally. 

                        2.         Internally, the church was torn by different interpretations in dealing

                                    to Judaism. 

                        3.         Desire for preeminence, pride, struggles for power.

            B.         Specific Heresies

1.         Marcionism

                                    a.         At different times there has been the danger to turn the gospel

                                                of Christ into a legalist system; to exalt the letter of the law above the spirit of the law.

                                    b.         Marcion was reacting to this problem, but he overreacted.

                                    c.         Wanted to throw out the Old Testament completely.

                                                1)         Said the God of the OT was a different God than the God

of the NT (a God of justice vs. a God of love and mercy). 

                                                2)         Said Paul was the only apostle to understand the gospel.

                                    d.         The church at Rome withdrew from Marcion in 144 and he and his followers formed a new church.

                        2.         Gnosticism

a.         Height of influence was 135-160 A.D., although its influence lasted much longer (Walker 51).

b.         “Gnosticism professed to be based on “knowledge” (gnosis), but not as that word is now commonly understood.  Its knowledge was always a mystical, supernatural wisdom, by which the initiates were brought to a true understanding of the universe and were saved from this evil world of matter.  It had a fundamental doctrine of salvation.  In these respects it was akin to the mystery religions.  Its mot prominent characteristic, however, was its syncretism.  It took unto itself many elements from many sources, and assumed many forms.  It is, therefore, impossible to speak of a single type of Gnosticism” (Walker 52).

c.         Gnosticism spoke of a dualism that said that the material world was evil and the spiritual was good. 

d.         To get to the spiritual, a man must go through a hierarchy of intermediate beings of which Christ is only one.

                                    e.         Through special knowledge (Gnosticism from the Greek word

ginosko, “to know”) one may rise above the sinful, material world.

f.          A man must buffet his body through asceticism (self-denial, extreme abstinence).

                        3.         Montanism

                                    a.         Montanus taught in the mid 100’s (about 135-175 A.D.)

                                    b.         Montanus was reacting to the growing formalism and reliance

on human leadership in the church.

                                    c.         But instead of emphasizing the Scriptures and apostolic authority,

he espoused a belief in the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.

1)         Said the promises of Jesus to the apostles concerning the HS applied to him.

2)         Said he was the first to receive the HS in its completeness.

3)         His movement has been compared to the modern Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.

II.         Irenaeus’ Answer to Heresy Sowed the Seed of the “Authority of the Church”

            (Irenaeus’ two-fold argument)

A.         Irenaeus claimed that nothing Gnostic could be found in the NT (Walker 58).  He should have started and ended his argument on this sound scriptural principle.

B.         But he went further, when the Gnostics claimed that the apostles had passed along private teachings which had come down to them.  “This Irenaeus denied.  He argued that, had there been such private teaching, the Apostles would have entrusted it to those, above all others, who they selected as their successors in the government of the churches.  In these churches of apostolic foundation the apostolic teaching had been fully preserved, and its transmission had been guaranteed by the orderly succession of their bishops… Every church must agree with that of Rome, for there apostolic traditions had been faithfully preserved as in other apostolic churches” (Walker 58).

C.         “Irenaeus went further.  The church itself is the depository of Christian teaching: “Since the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth.”  This deposit is especially entrusted to “those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth,” i.e. to the heads of the churches.  To agree with the bishops is therefore a necessity.  This argument was not peculiar to Irenaeus, it was that of the leaders of Catholic teaching generally” (Walker 58).

III.        Departure in Organization

            A.         The Monarchial Episcopate.

                        1.         Definition:  The term monarchial episcopate refers to a bishop

                                    (ἐπίσκοπος, bishop, overseer) who rules like a monarch (one-man rule).

                                    **  Remember, the terms elder, bishop and shepherd (pastor) were used interchangeably in the NT.

                        2.         Early Steps:  “Presiding” Elders (“President”)

a.         “However, as the elders had their meetings to discuss the work of the church someone had to be chairman of the meeting.  This chairmanship apparently became a permanent position and the word bishop was reserved for the one who occupied the position.  He was sometimes called the “president” of the church and gradually assumed the responsibilities that had originally rested upon all the elders.  This position, by the year 150, had developed into the monarchial bishop arrangement.” (Mattox 109)

b.         This arrangement continued for about 100 years, without change. One elder would be selected by the other elders to serve as the “bishop.” Thus a distinction of office between the two terms was established.  As one was elevated above others, it would be natural for that one to have more authority and assume control of matter that before had been decided by the whole of the eldership.

3.         Large City Bishops Overseeing Smaller Country Churches.

a.         Over time, the bishops of large city churches would assist in starting new congregations or counseling them in some way.  These smaller churches came to be under his authority. 

b.         “After the year 150, synods began to be called.  The large city bishops were the men of greatest influence and in these meetings their preeminence was increased.  It was not long before the city bishops began to oversee the work of the country bishops who in turn began to disappear.”  (Mattox 109)

c.         Various questions and problem would arise and it was thought necessary for the bishops and presbyters or elders to meet and discuss them.  This gave rise to the practice of calling occasional conventions.  This idea grew until these conventions took on the nature of permanent institutions and were known as Synods and councils.  They were called synods by the Greeks and councils by the Latins.  Those who attended these meetings gradually became legislative bodies with the power to decide issues and make decrees for the churches.”  (Cox 27)

d.         The Councils and Synods were presided over by the bishops of the church from the chief cities.  This naturally augmented the power of these Bishops. The position of president of a council soon came to be regarded as an office within itself.  The situation called for a name to distinguish this officer from other bishops in the church.  So a new name in church organization was added to the already growing list of unscriptural offices and officers.  Those who presided over the councils were called ‘metropolitans’” (Cox 27-28).

                        4.         Succession of Bishops back to Apostles?

a.         “By the time of Irenaeus (185) there was some interest in trying to establish a succession of bishops back to the Apostles.” (Mattox 109)

b.         Mattox notes that many of the men listed were nothing more than elders as we know them in the NT.

5.        Cyprian of Carthage

a.         “Cyprian of Carthage (195-268) is said to have done more to establish the hierarchy than any other individual.  He followed the thought set forth by Ignatius that apart from the bishop there is no church.  These bishops were the successors of the Apostles, Christ overseeing their selection and given them a special measure of the Holy Spirit.  They constitute an episcopate and the unity of the church rests upon them” (Mattox 111).

b.         “In Cyprian’s teaching the tendencies illustrated in the development of the “Catholic” church received their full expression.  The church is the one visible orthodox community of Christians.  “There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one church, and one chair (episcopate) founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord.”” (Walker 67).

           c.         “There is no salvation out of the church.” (Walker 67)

d.         “The church is based on the unity of its bishops, “whence ye ought to know that the bishop is in the church and the church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the church.”” (Walker 67)

e.         “The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one in its entirety.” (Walker 67)

5.         By the early 200’s the bishops were seen by many as “the divinely appointed guardians of the deposit of the faith, and therefore those who determine what was heresy.” (Walker 81)

6.         By 250 A.D. the office of monarchial bishop was almost universally established (Mattox 110).  


Cox, John D. A Concise Account of Church History.  Dehoff Publication, 1951.

Mattox, F. W. The Eternal Kingdom.  Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1961.

Walker, Williston.  A History of the Christian Church. 3rd Edition. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970.