Periodical Review

by James T. Bartsch


"I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false;"
(Revelation 2:2)

Can an Ecclesiology Be Biblical and Not Apostolic?

Written by Michael J. Svigel

Department Chair  and Professor of Theological Studies

Dallas Theological Seminary

Article appearing in

Bibliotheca Sacra 176

(January-March 2019): 62-80

The abstract of Professor Svigel's article reads as follows (p. 62):

The fixed but flexible apostolic model of church order found throughout the Christian world at the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries challenges some popular evangelical reconstructions of church order allegedly drawn from "Scripture alone." The apostles themselves established this church order with a mandate for permanence. The apostolic model consisted of a team of elders (evangelists, pastors, teachers, overseers) – including a presiding elder – and deacons (ministers) assisting the elders in the work of the ministry.

Immediately following his abstract, Svigel goes on to assert the following (p. 62):

Many, if not most, evangelical attempts at establishing a "New Testament ecclesiology" fail to carefully, critically, and constructively incorporate the valuable insights of late first- and early second-century historical sources that would help sketch a more complete picture of apostolic ecclesiology. This has resulted in evangelical ecclesiologies that are, paradoxically, "biblical" but not apostolic. That is, the resulting picture of the church fits a grammatical – but not always  historical – interpretation of the New Testament texts.

Svigel is well aware of the divide that exists in ecclesiological literature between those who believe in the sufficiency of Scripture and those who believe "the Bible must be supplemented by an appeal to tradition." He takes what he believes to be a mediating approach, that in matters of "apostolic church order," one must rely on a careful, critical, and constructive reading of first- and early second-century writings that are not part of the canon" (p. 63). He continues, "There is simply no other way to establish the historical context of the apostolic writings" (emphasis mine). To make the matter absolutely clear, he adds, "In fact, one cannot affirm a 'grammatical-historical' hermeneutic while disallowing testimony from the written sources necessary to establish the historical context" (p. 63).

Evaluating Svigel's presupposition. Implicit in Dr. Svigel's opening statements is the premise that an historical background is important in understanding what the Scriptures say. That certainly is true in a great many cases. But there is a hidden assumption in his premise. His hidden assumption is that, to gain an historical understanding of New Testament ecclesiology, the history must post-date the New Testament era, not precede it. That, I believe is a fundamental error.

A study of the NT Greek term presbuteros (4245), "elder," reveals very quickly that there are competing groups of elders in the NT era. (See my article, "Biblical Eldership.") There are elders of NT Israel, and there are elders in the church. It is self-evident that the NT Church did not invent the office of elders. The Apostles borrowed it from their own culture, the culture of the nation of Israel. The elders of NT Israel, in turn, also did not invent the office of elder. They borrowed it from OT Israel. So if we want to understand the office of elder in the New Testament Church, it is far more important that we analyze it from its NT and OT roots than that we assume the first- and second-century church accurately modeled what the Apostles believed. In fact, the most prolific Apostle of all, Paul, tearfully warned the Ephesian elders that from among their own number elders would arise, "speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30). I submit to you that that is exactly what happened. There arose many instances of unbiblical, non-Apostolic, power-wielding elders who sought to draw churches after themselves. Svigel will, unwittingly, corroborate my interpretation in his lines of evidence that follow.

Supporting Evidence

1 Clement

In support of Svigel's thesis he quotes from 1 Clement 44:1-5, which he dates at AD 95 (p. 64). He cites Clement of Rome as supporting the office of bishop. Here is what Clement wrote in 1 Clement 44:1-2:

Our apostles likewise knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the bishop's office. For this reason, therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the leaders mentioned earlier and afterwards they gave the offices a permanent character; that is, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.

Svigel states that "Clement of Rome indicates that the apostles established a permanent church order intended to endure beyond the death of the apostles" (p. 64). This order includes bishops (episkopoi, 1985) and deacons (diakonoi, 1249) (p. 65). Svigel writes, "First Clement 42.1-3 establishes a line of order and authority: from God, to Christ, to the apostles. In verse 4 this authority comes from the apostles to the bishops and deacons of the church" (p. 65).

In response to Svigel, I reply that all that 1 Clement establishes is that there was already in his day an unbiblical attempt to elevate the office of bishop (episkopos, 1985) over that of elder (presbuteros, 4245). An incremental diversion from the NT practice, carried on over decades, would eventually lead to an unbiblical, non-Apostolic practice.

Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3

Svigel believes the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2:1-3:22 give support for the existence of an individual leader (p. 66). Each letter is addressed to the second person singular "messenger" (ággelos, or ángelos, 32) of a particular church. The risen Lord instructs John to write to the messenger (that is what the Greek noun means) of the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1), of Smyrna (Rev. 2:8), of Pergamum (Rev. 2:12), of Thyatira (Rev. 2:18), of Sardis (Rev. 3:1), of Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7), and of Laodicea (Rev. 3:14). Svigel believes these messengers in Rev. 2-3 refer to human, rather than supernatural angelic messengers (p. 63). I agree. Svigel goes on to say that "The singular messenger (aggelos) of each church is held responsible for the welfare of the local church body" (p. 67).

I disagree slightly with that conclusion. More accurately the singular messenger of each church is held responsible to pass the message he has received on to the church on behalf of which he is the messenger. Moreover, even the reader bears a responsibility. Each letter incorporates the following exhortation, "The one having an ear, let him understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22, author's translation).

But Svigel goes too far, I believe, when he concludes, "So aggelos most likely refers to a human leader in the local church who exercised oversight among the elders (see especially Rev. 3:15, 17, 19)" (p. 67). How does Svigel know that? The Scriptures he cited (Rev. 3:15, 17, 19) do not confirm what he alleges they confirm. Svigel sounds to me like a scholar desperately searching for a Scripture that will confirm his interpretation.

Let me argue against Svigel's view. (1) The church officer identified as presbuteros (4245) ("elder") does not appear a single time in Rev. 2:1-3:22. That is exceedingly strange if John the author, or Christ, the one instructing John to write, by using the term aggelos, meant to refer to a leading elder who had oversight over other elders. In fact, the title presbuteros does not appear at all in the book of Revelation until chapter 4. Then it appears always in the plural in Rev. 4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3, 19:4.

(2) Moreover, the particular term for church officer Svigel is trying to justify as having oversight over the other elders, the term episkopos (1985) ("overseer"), does not occur a single time in the entire book of Revelation!

(3) It makes much more sense to me to conclude that the reason Jesus told John to write to the "messenger" of the respective churches is that these messengers were supposed to relay the message to the whole church of that particular city. Is it so strange to conclude that the primary task of a messenger is to deliver a message? If the messenger is a human (and I believe he is), say a pastor / elder / overseer, or some other representative, is it the messenger himself whose practice is questioned or whose merits are applauded? Or is he simply the representative of the church? Obviously, the messenger is expected to relay this message to the people of the church. It would seem, then, that while the singular noun and verb forms used here are addressed to the messenger, they are meant to apply to the (singular) church as a whole.

In conclusion, Svigel's explanation of the messengers of the churches in Revelation 2-3 does not support his thesis, that even in the first century, churches were governed by quasi-monarchical bishops.

The Didache

Svigel conveniently dates The Didache between AD 50 and 70 while he acknowledges that, for much of the twentieth century, scholars dated the writing in the early part of the second century (page 71, see especially footnote 21). But reciting what modern scholars believe is worthless unless the author also gives us the reasons for the change in dating. I personally do not automatically accept as true what "scholars" say. Every scholar's conclusions must be weighed on the basis of cogent evidence. Nevertheless, let us examine what Svigel believes to be the pertinent message of The Didache.

One point he makes is that "...Didache 15 seems to lend support for local autonomy of daughter and sister churches, not a process of congregational governance" (page 2). I do not particularly disagree with Svigel. I think it is far easier to argue an elder-led local church than a congregationally-governed church from the data of the NT. But Svigel does not stop there. Citing Didache 4.1, he argues that "the passage refers to a single person who regularly proclaims God's Word" (page 73). Of course Svigel uses this to support his model of a single presiding elder.

To me, his logic is a bit strained. Are we to give more credence to The Didache than we are to the New Testament? The NT clearly states that one qualification for an overseer (episkopos, 1985) is that he be "able to teach" (didaktikos, 1317) (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24). For an elder or overseer not to be using his gift of teaching regularly seems highly unlikely to me. It is true that Paul later wrote to Timothy, "The elders (plural, not singular) who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). The "double honor" seems to refer both to respect and to remuneration (1 Tim. 5:18). But to argue from this that there was a presiding elder in each church goes beyond what the NT states or requires.

In Paul's letter to Titus, he informed his assistant that elders (plural) must be appointed in every city (Tit. 1:5). Moreover, he continued, each individual overseer (Tit. 1:7) must be characterized as "holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict" (Tit. 1:9). This was a general qualification for each elder / overseer, not descriptive of a presiding elder.

In short, The Didache does not trump the Apostolic evidence of the NT. No matter when it was written, The Didache was not written by an Apostle, so it cannot be considered to engender authority that goes beyond that which we know for certain the Apostles wrote. The New Testament is Apostolic. The Didache is not.

Ignatius of Antioch

Svigel does not waste any time coming to the point. He subtitles this discussion by referring to Ignatius as "The Overseer among Elders" (p. 75). He then begins the discussion with his conclusion:

By the end of the apostolic period the stable and consistent local church order consisting of a plurality of episkopoi/presbuteroi with a presiding episkopos/presbuteros and assisting diakonoi was widespread throughout the entire Christian world, a situation to be expected if the apostles did, in fact, establish this order in their own generation.

Under the heading, "The Role of Overseer" (p. 76), Svigel cites the letters of Ignatius (ca AD 110) which demonstrate that the order of presiding elder -- now called "overseer" (episkopos) -- fellow elders, and deacons, was widespread throughout Asia Minor. He cites as further proof the existence of "a certain Onesimus [who] was overseer of the church in Ephesus."

In Svigel's mind, he has demonstrated clearly that, while the office of presiding elder cannot be found in Scripture, subsequent first- and early second-century church practice demonstrate that the policy was certainly apostolic.

I disagree with Svigel. Here is my position: (1) The Apostles manifestly did not establish a presiding episkopos/presbuteros in the literature of the New Testament. Explicit statements that they did are nowhere to be found there. (2) The conclusion that Svigel makes, using Ignatius and Onesimus for his evidence, is not at all proof of the Apostolic model. Rather it is sobering proof that Paul's worst nightmares were taking place -- that elders were arising whose goal was to centralize more and more power and drag away disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30). The New Testament is Apostolic. Ignatius of Antioch is not.

Svigel ends his article by concluding about those evangelicals who argue for a "fluid and formless ecclesiolgy," "These ahistorical readings of the New Testament have led to evangelical ecclesiologies that are, as strange as it may sound, "biblical" but not apostolic."

It is not my purpose in this review to argue for or against a particular ecclesiology, whether it is more presbyterian or more congregationally-oriented. I am arguing against Svigel's conclusion that the only way we can know what "Apostolic" means is to presume the correctness of early church history. Roman Catholics fully appreciate that sentiment. I do not. The only way we can know for certain what an Apostolic Ecclesiology looks like is to examine the pages of the New Testament. If we allow church history to define apostolicity, we are agreeing with Roman Catholicism that church tradition trumps the Scriptures. (I know Catholics do not say that, but that is the conclusion to which their position inevitably leads.)

I would answer Dr. Svigel's question, "Can an Ecclesiology Be Biblical and Not Apostolic?" with a resounding "NO." And sadly, the position at which Dr. Svigel arrives is neither Biblical nor Apostolic.

(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB.)

Background and Button Image Credit

Search here.

Published in its entirety June 9, 2019

Updated November 17, 2019