Lectures and Discourses

More Lectures and Discourses from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.

New Testament Presbyteries

by Rev. James Moir Porteous

In the preceeding article we included an extract from our publication "Jesus Christ King of the Church," a republication of a comprehensive examination of the competing systems of church government by a Free Church minister from last century. Under the heading "Churches of a Locality" Porteous shows, with reference to six churches named in the New Testament, that in each case there was a number of congregations under one government composed of associated elders; or, in other words, a presbytery. There is one visible church on earth and it is quite proper to use the term 'church' to refer to it or to any branch or section of the whole.

This article was published in thePresbyterian Standard, Issue No. 14, April-June 1999.

M ENTION is made of 'the Church in Jerusalem', 'the Church at Antioch', 'the Church of God which is at Corinth', 'the Church of Ephesus', 'the Church in Smyrna','the Church in Pergamos', and in various other places. Were these simply single congregations, or were there more than one in the same locality? In several instances there appears to have been a plurality of congregations under the common government of associated elders, and under the title of the Church of that locality. Let us see whether this view is confirmed by the circumstances in which the first churches were placed. If so, the fourth application of the term Church is, a plurality of congregations under one common government.

1. Jerusalem

The first organised was 'the Church which was at Jerusalem' (Acts 8:1), and, doubtless, on the model there produced, other churches were formed. In that Church there were a larger number of disciples and teachers than can be conceived possible in one congregation.

Firstly, Take the statements as to disciples. At the election of Matthias, there were one hundred and twenty names in Jerusalem. Paul declares that the risen Redeemer was seen in Galilee of about five hundred brethren, but these may have been gathered from various parts of Palestine, therefore they may be left out of account. On the day of Pentecost, there were added to the hundred and twenty about 'three thousand souls', and daily the Lord added to the Church. The apostles continuing to preach in the temple, 'many of them which heard the word believed, and the number of the men was about five thousand' (Acts 1:15; 2:41-47; 4:4). Let these numbers be put together, and it will be found that there were, at the least, eight thousand one hundred and twenty in Jerusalem. Or, let us suppose that the five thousand include the former numbers yet we have various large numbers to add. As 'many signs and wonders were wrought, believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.' Again, 'the Word of the Lord increased, and the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith' (Acts 5:12-14; 6:7). These multitudes, and disciples who multiplied greatly, go to augment the five thousand. But deduct them if need be, and still it must be asked, how five thousand people could be profitably organised, and assemble together regularly, to participate in divine ordinances, as one congregation, and in one place? This supposition is further confuted, when it is stated, after the dispersion by persecution, that there were still immense multitudes of believers in Jerusalem: 'Thou seest, brother, how many thousands (myriads) of Jews there are which believe' (Acts 21:20). The proper reading is myriads, or ten thousands. There were many of these still in that city; but let three, at least, be supposed: here are thirty thousand believers. This statement indicates that the former numbers do not include each other, but should be added together. Where and how the former eight thousand, or these myriads, could unite together as one congregation in divine worship, is something inexplicable. The temple could not contain them. It was only used on the occasions referred to by sufferance. Being under the control of the Jewish priests and elders, the apostles were speedily laid hold of, and prevented preaching there in the name of Jesus. Even at the first, they not only 'continued daily with one accord in the temple', they broke bread 'from house to house', praising God, and having favour with all the people. Until debarred, the temple was the resort for preaching to all who assembled. But those who believed met house by house for acts of worship, instruction, participation of sealing ordinances and discipline. They had no buildings such as are now designated churches or chapels. The large four-square Eastern houses, with their open courts, galleries, and flat roofs, formed a fitting substitute. But none of these could accommodate the thousands of worshippers embraced in the Church at Jerusalem. Convenience of residence, vast numbers, diversity of language, and close fellowship, rendered it imperative to have separate assemblies or congregations. Companies of the called breaking bread and praising God from house to house, explains the difficulty otherwise insoluble. There were several Congregations in this one Church. In other words, the churches at Jerusalem were under a common government, and thus united, were termed 'the Church.'

Secondly, Preachers were numerous. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, were constantly employed. If the seventy sent forth by Christ be included, there could not be less than one hundred. But getting them aside as being probably in the country, the others cannot possibly be supposed to have been engaged in ministering to one congregation. That they were all fully employed is evident from the appointment of the seven deacons. This was in order that the ministers might give themselves continually to spiritual and public exercises. It is not improbable that some of the great company of the priests who believed might also be so engaged. That all were perpetually occupied with one congregation is inexplicable. Their number strengthens the conclusion arrived at. Several companies met house by house for the service of God, having a full supply of ministers. Still they were one Church, having a common government.

2. Antioch

Next to Rome and Alexandria, Antioch was the greatest city of the then known world. Here the gospel took root and spread. From this city Christians and Christianity went forth to subdue the nations of the earth. Persecuted believers came hither from Jerusalem, who 'spake unto the Grecians, and preached the Lord Jesus', 'and the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed.' When Barnabas was sent thither, 'much people were added to the Lord.' Thereafter, he and Saul 'a whole year assembled themselves with the Church, and taught much people.' And 'the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch' (Acts 11:20-26). These expressions – a great number, and much people – twice repeated, point out a very numerous body of Christians. Besides men of Cyprus and Cyrene, Barnabas and Saul, prophets and other teachers, were all labouring there, and with marked results of their several and united labours. The term 'Christian', there first bestowed, implies that believers abounded. From that great work of God, the presence of so many eminent servants, and that amongst a numerous body of Christians, the inference seems fairly warrantable that there must have been more than one congregation at Antioch. Still, they were one Church. When the famine, predicted by prophets, came, the relief sent to the suffering brethren in Judea went from a united body. Though not to the same extent, the same elements are here as in Jerusalem. These lead to the same conclusion. The Church at Antioch must have had a plurality of congregations. These constituted one Church and therefore were under a common government.

3. Corinth

When the Apostle Paul was repressing the disorders that had broken out in the Church at Corinth, he deals with the abuse of female preachers, and adducing the practice of all the Churches of the saints, he commands, 'Let your women keep silence in the churches.' As in the whole of Christendom, so let silence be enforced on your women in all the churches in Corinth. These churches were not widely scattered, for these ladies were evidently at home. Further direction is given them rather to be disciples than teachers: 'If they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.' Silence is to be enforced in the 'churches', which is the 'Church' (1 Cor. 14:33-35).

Writing from Corinth to Rome, and in the commendation of Phebe incidentally showing how devout women may serve Christ and His Church, succouring very many – Paul speaks of 'the Church which is at Cenchrea' (Rom. 16:1). Corinth was situated on a narrow isthmus having two ports. Cenchrea was the sea-port that lay towards Asia. It was usually embraced in the city of Corinth.

As at Jerusalem and Antioch, Corinth had a numerous body of believers, and a large supply of officers, richly furnished with spiritual endowments. For a year and six months, Paul, Silas, and Timothy, laboured there. After 'many of the Corinthians, hearing believed, and were baptised', the Holy Spirit assured the apostle, 'Be not afraid, …for I am with thee; …I have much people in this city' (Acts 18:8-11). The supposition, 'If therefore the whole Church be come together' (1 Cor. 14:23), cannot be held to assert that there was only one congregation. The same expression might be employed regarding an assembly convened in any of our capitals, from all parts whither the Church has spread. Such general terms might be employed, although portions or representatives of the Church alone could be present.

Were there no express statements on which to found, those that declare that much people were added to the many who had believed, with the large number of teachers, would strengthen the probability, as in the case of Antioch. Here, however, the plurality of congregations in this one Church cannot be questioned. Not only was there a Church in that seaport of Corinth, and one in the city proper, but that one is expressly divided by the pen of inspiration into a plurality. And yet that plurality was governed by one united body of elders, and was addressed as 'the Church of God which is at Corinth.'

4. Ephesus

Internal evidence proves that the first Epistle to the Corinthians came from Ephesus. Paul there writes, 'I will tarry at Ephesus till Pentecost' (1 Cor. 16:8). The appendages to the Epistles were the production of a later and corrupt age, and are consequently untrustworthy. That epistle was not written at Philippi but at Ephesus. From thence Paul sends the salutations of Ephesian Christians to those of Corinth. In this connection he states, 'The Churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the Church that is in their house' (1 Cor. 16:19). The reason of this strong salutation is found in the fact that Aquila and Priscilla had recently come with Paul from Corinth to Ephesus (Acts 18:18,19). Their occupation was tentmaking. They required large apartments for their business, and these, wherever they sojourned, were opened as a regular place of meeting for Christians. In their house a company of believers met together as an organised company in the name and service of the Lord. The salutation from the Church that was in their house at Ephesus,was evidently from a regular society assembling there. It was not from a religious family, which in New Testament usage is ever termed 'a household.' It could not be from stray individuals, who came once and perhaps never again. If so, the Corinthians could not tell from whom the salutation came. This, then, was one congregation, however small, in the house of these tentmakers.

But that could not be the entire Church of Ephesus, which was one of the most flourishing of apostolic times. To Ephesus, one of the chief centres of Eastern heathenism, came the Apostle Paul on his second missionary tour. On his third journey he remained three months, disputing and persuading concerning the kingdom of God. After the separation of the unbelieving Jews, he disputed daily in the school of one Tyrannus. Thus 'by the space of three years' Paul 'ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears; teaching not only publicly, but from house to house.' Ephesus was highly favoured: in addition to those already mentioned, Apollos, Timothy, Tychicus, and some twelve other gifted men, there sowed the good seed of the kingdom. It is also supposed that Ephesus was the chief residence of the Apostle John in his latter days. The seed thus sown found in Ephesus a kindly soil. Notwithstanding the most determined opposition, its roots struck deep. A large and flourishing Church was there established. The success was so great that Demetrius declared to his fellow-workmen, 'Not only this our craft is in danger, but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised; 'then, the whole city was filled with confusion.' And no wonder; for 'this Paul persuaded and turned away much people, saying, that they be no gods which are made with hands' (Acts 19:7,26-29). These statements evince – First, That the silver shrinemakers were filled with reasonable alarm, in which the population sympathised. Their idolatry was in danger of being overthrown. And, secondly, That such a numerous body of believers could not fully carry out the purposes of a Church of Christ, unless organised in separate companies.

Then, it must be noted again, that in his address to the elders of the Ephesian Church at Miletus, Paul exhorted them 'to take heed to all the flock, and to feed the Church of God.' These elders were recognised as possessing a joint-oversight in or over the whole Church. No other overseers or bishops are recognised or charged as divinely authorised to govern the Ephesian Church but these elders. How far the Ephesian Church extended is another question. The epistle of Paul, though addressed primarily 'to the Church in Ephesus', contains so little that is peculiar to that Church, and so much that is common to all the Gentile Churches, that it is generally believed to have had a much wider range. If so, then the Ephesian Church comprehended more than the residents in the city, and of necessity there must have been several congregations as the combined 'flock over the which the Holy Ghost' had constituted that body of elders the governors. But leaving this question out of sight, there remains, as in former instances Firstly, The high probability that the Ephesian Church consisted of a plurality of congregations, from the large number of its members and teachers. And, secondly, The fact that one flourishing Church was recognised as 'the Church in Ephesus', while there was another Church in a house. Manifestly here a plurality of congregations constituted one Church under one administration.

5. Laodicea

One passage brings the whole matter as to this place into a focus. Writing to the Colossians, Paul exhorts, 'Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the Church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the Church of the Laodiceans' (Col. 4:15,16). Three parties are here saluted – (1.) The Laodicean brethren; (2.) Nymphas; (3.) The Church in the house of Nymphas. The close connection of the passage shows that this Church in the house existed in Laodicea. Thus, One church or congregation, the brethren in Laodicea, is distinguished from another in the dwelling of Nymphas; and then both together are spoken of as 'the Church of the Laodiceans', in which the Epistle to the Colossians is expressly ordered to be read. A plurality of congregations constituted that Laodicean Church.

6. Rome

Aquila and Priscilla had gone to Rome. There, as at Ephesus, they opened their dwelling for the assemblies of the company of the faithful. Possibly in these times of difficulty and danger, these zealous and loving ones went thither for that very end. Paul wrote of them, 'to all that be in Rome', the 'beloved of God.' In his epistle, he sends greeting to Aquila and Priscilla, declaring that they were his 'helpers in Christ Jesus, who have for my life laid down their own necks, unto whom not only I give thanks, but all the Churches of the Gentiles.' Then comes the greeting to 'the Church that is in their house' (Rom. 16:3-6). But that could be only a portion of the early Church of Rome' whose 'faith was spoken of throughout the whole world.' In addition to that assembly of Christians in that dwelling, Paul sends special salutations to some twenty-four believers of note at Rome. He further salutes two households, 'brethren which are with' (five persons), 'and all the saints which are with' (other five) (Rom. 16.) These salutations evidently are for the members of the larger Church at Rome. Whether these brethren which were with Asyncritus, etc., and all the saints which were with Philologus, etc., were two distinct congregations, as is probable, the Church at Rome was at least composed of two congregations – that in the dwelling of the tentmakers, and that to which these other parties were attached. If they had comprised but one fellowship, there would have been no necessity for saluting them with such distinctions. The small congregation is carefully distinguished from all the persons addressed. Thus, in Rome also, particular Churches were included in the government of one united Church.

There is, then, evidence that in various localities there were small stated assemblies of Christians in private dwellings, which were regarded as regular churches or congregations, and that these were regarded as portions of the larger body. The whole are addressed as 'the Church' of that one locality, and particular directions are given to each, implying the common associated government of the eldership or presbytery. This evidence is not only highly probable, as in the case of Antioch, rising up almost to perfect certainty, as in Jerusalem, but the fact is plainly stated. In the Churches of Corinth, Ephesus, Laodicea, and Rome, that plurality under one government is clearly and fully presented. These four instances remove any doubt as to the two former, and present the principle applicable to all the apostolic Churches, and the precedent on which all other Churches are to be organised and modelled. Apart from some such arrangement, it is impossible to escape from a feeling that these large bodies of professing Christians must have been masses of confusion and perplexity. Let us receive these plain statements of Scripture, and this feeling is completely removed. Every Church, however large in each locality, is now beheld illustrating the truth that 'God is not the Author of confusion, but of peace', and that this is specially manifest 'in all the Churches of the saints.'