Did the Early Christians Have a Church Hierarchy?

As I’ve started graduate Theology classes, it’s been amazing to see how Church History is relevant to today, how the Catholic Church has stayed fundamentally the same since the time of the Early Church. I understand that many issues I mention will be controversial for non-Catholics, and while I respect and often admire other Christians, I wish to share the truth that I truly believe the Catholic Church is the very same as the early Christian Church founded by Christ.

The question today is: “Did the Early Christians Have a Church Hierarchy?” As Catholics, we trust the authority of the Church, of the Pope and the Bishops, not merely by faith, but because we can trace a direct line from the Bishops of the Catholic Church back to the Apostles. Only the Apostles could appoint Bishops, who were the only ones who could appoint other Bishops, etc., passing on the Faith on until today. We can see this confirmed not only in the Bible, but in the history of the early church.

Biblical Evidence: Christ’s Appointment of Peter as Pope

We can trust God’s Church and the Pope, first of all, because it is in the Bible. In Matthew chapter 16, we see where Christ elected Peter as the first Pope and promised that the Church would not be overpowered by the Devil and his lies:

“And so I say to you, you are Peter [which means rock], and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

(I could discuss this passage in more detail, but for now I just want to give you an overview).

Furthermore, after Christ asked Peter to be head of the Church, in John 21 he asked Peter if he loved him and told him, “Feed My lambs” and “feed My sheep” (John 21:15, 17). He was saying that Peter, out of love for Him, should take care of His flock: His church. We believe as Catholics that this was Christ confirming Peter as the first Pope, and then the apostles would be the first bishops.

But how do we know that we interpret this correctly? Can we confirm, not just believe by faith, that the Catholic Church is the same church founded by Christ, that we can trust her authority? It is important to look at not only the Biblical, but also the historical evidence, looking at the structure of the early church and the roles of the bishops during this time (yes, they did have bishops and priests in the early church, though they were not called by those exact titles at first). From the Acts of the Apostles and the writings of the early church fathers, we can see that the structure of the early church is essentially the same as it is today (though on a smaller scale back then), that the roles of the bishops were the same as the apostles, and that the early church acknowledged their leadership and trusted in their authority.

The Early Structure of the Church

In the very early church, as stated in the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles established a “community of believers [who] was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). They were united by their sharing of possessions; but what’s important to note here is that the apostles acted as leaders to unite this community, to take charge of the Church community’s property and distribute it throughout the church to those who needed it:

“There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4:33-35).

This is similar, though of course on a smaller scale, to how bishops today have charge over a diocese which they care for and distribute its resources according to the needs of the churches; while, of course, priests now take the role of caring for the needs of the members of their individual church.

Furthermore, Laux notes in his Church History that “Wherever Paul founded a Christian community, he placed a body of presbyters (elders) at its head, he himself retaining the overseership (episcopal authority) over all. There was as yet no clear-cut distinction made between priests (presbyters) and bishops; that came only after the death of the Apostles” (18). Again, this is like the structure of the bishop over a diocese and priests under their authority (although because of the smaller size of the church at the time, there was not yet a need to distinguish priests from bishops). It seems, during the period of the apostles, the bishops appointed by the apostles were under the apostles’ authority, though they had a similar role as the apostles over their presbyters. Thus, when the apostles died, it makes sense that the bishops would take the role of the apostles as the church leaders, with the Pope (successor of Peter and bishop of Rome) retaining leadership over the whole church.

The Council of Jerusalem

Another important indication of the apostles’ and bishops’ role as leaders in the early church was their meeting for the Council of Jerusalem. When the first large controversy broke out, regarding whether gentiles should be circumcised, the Church turned to the authority of the Apostles, who met with the “presbyters” (later to be known as priests, who at the time were not distinguished from bishops since the church was so small) to discuss it. They had to meet to discern how to act in this situation because it was not something that Christ had directly taught them about.

As it says in Acts chapter 15:

“Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.’ Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question.”

Acts 15:1-2

Here, also, we see Peter (as the head of the church) take charge of the situation, stand up with authority, and the rest of the Christians “fell silent,” obviously respecting his authority on this matter:

“The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter. After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. … Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.’ The whole assembly fell silent.”

Acts 15:6-12
Painting depicting the Council of Jerusalem

This was the first of several councils throughout history where the Pope (Peter and his successors) met with the bishops to make a decision regarding faith and morals not explicitly taught by Christ. Evidently, the early church trusted in the council of bishops’ and especially the Pope’s authority.

St. Clement’s Letter to Corinth

Within the first century after Christ, around A.D. 98 (just over 60 years after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension), Pope Clement I wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, speaking to the church members who were actually arguing about who should have the authority there:

“It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters.”

Clement of Rome, “First Epistle,” ch. 47
Depiction of St. Clement I, the 4th Pope, A.D. 88-97

As mentioned above, these presbyters at the time were not yet distinguished from the bishops. And Clement continues to emphasize further, saying:

“Ye therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.”

“First Epistle,” ch. 57

It is evident from this letter that the early Church understood that its members needed to respect the authority of its presbyters or bishops—that was the only way for the Church to preserve its peace and unity in teaching and practice.

Thus, we can see how this shows that the early church structure is the same as the Catholic Church today, that the early Christians trusted in the Church’s authority, and that the Catholic Church is the very same Church of the apostles founded by Christ. While this evidence is certainly not comprehensive, I pray that Catholics who read this will be strengthened in their faith by this and that both Catholics and non-Catholics will be inspired to further research the early church fathers and what the early church really believed.

Please also see some further historical evidence that the Early Church taught an oral tradition that was passed down from the apostles through the bishops, rather than the Bible alone.

(P.S. If you have any questions about the Catholic Faith, please feel free to ask me–kindly and respectfully–in the comments section).

God bless you and keep you!

~Beloved Dreamer~

Works Cited

New American Bible: Revised Edition.

John Laux, Church History (Charlotte, NC: TAN, 2012).

Clement of Rome, First Epistle. Trans. Roberts-Donaldson. EarlyChristianWritings.com. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-roberts.html.

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