Who Chose Bishops/Elders/Pastors in the Early Church?
- Alan Knox Blogger, Developer, and PhD Student
- 2014 23 Jun
Before you jump on me for my title, I’m using the traditional nomenclature. I’d prefer to simply use the term elders, which is the normal term in Scripture. However, for many among the church today, “elders” are different than “bishops,” and both of those are different than “pastors.” So, if you feel they are different, then you can assume that I’m talking about all three in this post.
In Scripture, there are only two passages related to “choosing/appointing” bishops/elders/pastors:
When they [Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23 ESV)
This is why I [Paul] left you [Titus] in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you… (Titus 1:5 ESV)
On the surface, it looks like Paul and Barnabas personally chose “elders” among the churches of Galatia (in Acts 14:23) and that Paul instructed Titus to personally choose “elders” among the churches (in each town) in Crete. And, that would definitely be a valid interpretation.
When we turn to later Christian writings, the interpretations become muddled:
Therefore, choose for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord… (Didache 15:1)
Those [elders] therefore who were appointed by them [apostles], or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole church… (1 Clement 44:3)
In the Didache, the author(s) definitely expected the church to choose “bishops” for themselves. There is no mention of bishops, elders, or deacons being appointed by others for the church.
Clement, meanwhile, seems to say that apostles and then later others appointed “elders.” However, he adds that little phrase “with the consent of the whole church,” which again muddles the answer. Was this just the apostles who chose “elders”? Was it later just “other men of repute” who chose elders? What does it mean that the whole church consented?
(Interestingly, while Ignatius has a lot to say about “the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons,” he does not mention who appointed or chose them. Likewise, Polycarp mentions “elders,” but he does not say who chose them.)
Of the four texts above (Acts, Titus, Didache, and 1 Clement) written by four different authors, is there any way that all four authors related the same way of choosing “bishops” and “elders” (or “pastors” if you prefer, although that term wasn’t used until much later).
Is it possible, though, that Luke did not intend to indicate that ONLY Paul and Barnabas were involved in appointing elders for the churches of Galatia? Is it possible that Paul did not intend to indicate that ONLY Titus was to appoint elders for the churches of Crete?
(By the way, within about 100 years of the texts listed here, the standard practice was for ONLY bishops to appoint bishops and elders, a practice which became known as successionism. But, as you can see, it was not that clear in the earliest Christian texts.)