Was there a governing body of Elders in the first century who oversaw the Christian congregations?

Some use this claim to say that their modern structure is the same as the first century and suggest that this comparison indicates that they have the one true faith.

Claim. That there was a first century governing body who oversaw the work of the Christian congregation. Some organizations make this claim as the basis for suggesting that their current organizational structure is similar to the first century.

As the work of the first century Christians spread out from the area of Jerusalem there came a moment when the various traveling Christians realized that they were unclear on some of the points that they were being challenged with when they visited different cities. Bear in mind that there were a lot of Jews in the ancient Roman world who were very familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures that we find in the Bible today. These ones naturally had deeper questions than would a gentile person who was newly acquainted with the message about Christ.

So the Christians returned to Jerusalem and met with the apostles and older men who were still based in that city. Following some discussion they gave direction to the traveling Christians who again went on their way with a greater degree of clarity and the ability to spread a consistent message about the Christ. The instructions that this group of apostles provided contained orders which meant that they carried a certain degree of authority. Based on this meeting some have drawn the conclusion that these apostles served as the governing body in the first century and that they had authority over the preaching message and the congregations that were established throughout the ancient Roman world. See Acts chapter 15. Is it true that there was a governing body?

There are two difficulties in understanding the Bible which need to be mentioned at this point. While the Bible itself is a very large book, in almost every historical discussion contained in the Bible the account is necessarily brief. A number of details are left out of the Bible so that the accounts are giving an overall discussion as opposed to necessarily focusing on specifics. So for example we have virtually no historical information about the early life of Jesus between the age of two and the age of 30 when he commenced his ministry apart from the fact that we know that he worked as a carpenter and there was the famous account where he visited the temple in Jerusalem with his parents. The same basic truth applies to just about every Bible account and some in fact are so amazingly brief and yet cover such vast topics that the reader has to be very careful not to read into or imagine something that is not in fact in the account.

The second difficulty with the Bible account is a reliance on specific wording. The specific wording in the Bible found in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek is different from the way words are written in other languages. There is also historical evidence that shows from one manuscript to another that there were attempts on the part of one copyist to improve the wording or convey the idea of the wording in a slightly better way than the document being copied. You might for example imagine a person who is working as a translator between one person asking questions and another person answering the question. In this context you can imagine that the translator listens to the words in the foreign-language and tries to express them in a way that the person who doesn’t understand this foreign-language will make sense of. There is always a degree of personal interpretation or nuance that creeps in. You have to be very careful not to fall into the trap of considering the specific wording versus the actual context and content.

Is there any evidence that these brothers functioned as a governing body? Following this single meeting there is no further reference to these apostles exercising authority over the work in the Christian congregations that were established throughout the realm of the Roman Empire. In fact the Bible refers to Jesus appointing the apostle Paul as his apostle to the nations. If you consider all of the instructions on how congregations should function as well as the way that elders should work and ministerial servant should be appointed then you can see that all of this was left in the hands of the single traveling apostle Paul. He did not refer back to a governing body in Jerusalem.

Members of the apostles began to be executed. There was an intense period of persecution and despite the fact that apostles were executed there is no further reference to the concept of replacing members of the apostolic group. Instead the apostle Paul is seen appointing men to care for various groups of congregations. For example, the apostle Paul appointed the man Timothy who is referred to in the books of first and second Timothy. Timothy was given the authority by the apostle Paul to appoint elders and to sort out matters in various congregations. The apostle Paul is the one now providing the orders and exercising authority. But he did not have overall authority as is illustrated by the fact that we have the letters of James, Peter, Jude and also the apostle John. Various letters were sent to the congregations and in some of these letters it is apparent that there was some degree of deviation occurring in the congregations. Apart from the original message regarding the importance of Christ there were those that were bringing into the congregation teachings that were familiar to people in general and drawn from Greek culture as well as Roman culture. By the end of the first century it is evident that Christian congregations still retained the central idea that Christ was mankind’s savior, but by the same token they were not working along with any governing body but they had appointed individuals within their own region who gave direction.

The only feature that provided support for the various congregations were letters that they received from Christian overseers such as for example the apostle Paul as well as the gospel accounts that were circulated in read so that people got to know more about Jesus.

Clearly there was no first century governing body. The Christian congregations developed unique characteristics. Jesus himself described the way that things would unfold when he referred to a field sown with wheat that was also over sown with weeds. The Christian congregation would develop in this manner with a mixture of fine wheat and weeds. Jesus then said that during the harvest there would be a sorting work. At that time it would become apparent who were genuinely trying to follow the Christ and who were not. This harvest work is obviously yet to occur as Christianity in the 21st century is a mass of conflicting ideas and views.

For any organization to base their structure on the idea that there was a first century governing body and therefore that there needs to be one today is entirely a personal view. There is nothing in scripture that suggests such a body.

The words governing body do not appear in the Bible. It was the apostle Paul along with the apostle Peter and the apostle John who independently provided much of the direction to the Christian congregation in the first century with the apostle Paul taking the lions share. Jesus used individual faithful overseers to send letters and instruction to the congregations instead of a governing body. Interestingly, we do know just a little of what was contained within the letters sent by the group of apostles in Jerusalem. Some of the content is referred to in the book of Acts. However the letters themselves were not preserved in the Bible account. If they were so important would you not conclude that the letters in total would have made a part of the Bible account?

The claim is clearly false.

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