Let it not be forgotten that we have now ascertained that presbyter and bishop were, in their first origin, only different names for the same ecclesiastical office-bearer. Enough has been found in the Scriptures to satisfy us that bishops were elders, and that elders were bishops, in the Apostolic Church. We are warranted, therefore, to regard this fact as fully substantiated, while we proceed to the discovery of a third principle.
The fourteenth chapter of Acts describes a missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. There was an attempt made to stone them at Iconium, but they fled to Lystra and Derbe. When Paul made a cripple at Lycaonia leap and walk, the priest of Jupiter brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and it was with some difficulty the people in their pagan ignorance were restrained from paying divine honours to the two preachers. But so fickle are the sentiments of the multitude that, shortly afterwards, the great Apostle was stoned nearly to death at the very place where he had been almost worshipped as a god. Barely escaping with his life, Paul and his companion revisited Derbe, and Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, preaching the Gospel, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith.
And the sacred historian, in the narrative of this evangelistic tour, informs us of this important fact, that they appointed elders in every Church. His words are – “And when they had chosen for them, by suffrage, elders in every Church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23).
We have seen already that a Church in Scripture signifies any assembly of Christians, however great or small. It was the primitive practice to call the believers residing in any town, however large, or in any village, however small, the Church of that place. Many of these societies, collected from among the heathen by these pioneers of Christianity, organised in the face of difficulty, and thinned by intimidation, must have been weak in point of numbers. Still, the two Apostles were not satisfied with appointing one elder or bishop in each society, however small in numbers; but as we are taught by the Holy Spirit, they appointed elders in every church. If, then, the Evangelist Luke, speaking as he was moved by the Holy Ghost, is a true witness, there were more elders than one in each congregation of the Apostolic Church. How many, whether two, three, or more, we are not informed, but that in each Church there was a plurality of elders is clear.
We proceed once more to the twentieth chapter of Acts. Here Paul is represented as travelling from Greece on his way to Jerusalem. Having stopped a week at Troas, he went upon his onward way, sometimes by sea and sometimes by land, striving to reach the Jewish capital before Pentecost. Having touched at Miletus, a seaport of Ionia, thirty-six miles south of Ephesus, he sent a message to that city for the elders of the Church. The words of inspiration are: “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the Church” (Acts 20:17). From this, it appears the Church of Ephesus had not only one elder, but more, and we have already seen that, in verse 28, its elders are called bishops. Unless language mean nothing, and the statements of Scripture be as unintelligible as the leaves of the Sybil, there was a plurality of elders or bishops in the Church at Ephesus.
Still farther. Philippi was a city on the confines of ancient Thrace. To the classic reader it is known as the place where Augustus and Antony wrested from Brutus and Cassius, in a pitched battle, the empire of the world; to the Christian it is remarkable as being the first spot in Europe where the banner of the Cross was unfurled, and sinners listened to the Gospel of Jesus. There the heart of the seller of purple was opened to attend to the things that were spoken of Paul. It was there that, for casting the spirit of divination out of a soothsayer, Paul and Silas were beaten by the magistrates, and had their feet made fast in the stocks. It was there at the dead hour of the night, when the foundations of the prison shook, and every door in the jail flew open, and every man’s chains fell from his arms, that the keeper of the prison asked two of his prisoners the most important question that was ever put by a sinner to a minister of God – “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
In this town of Philippi a Church was organised, though in face of determined opposition; and, some ten or twelve years after Paul’s first visit, he thought it right to address to this Church a letter. This letter has been preserved. It finds a place in the Word of God. It is that known to us as the Epistle to the Philippians. One has some curiosity to read what an apostle thought it good to write to a Church, at the head of whose roll of members stood the names of Lydia and the Jailer. As might be expected, it is full to the brim of precious and consoling truths; but, what is more to our purpose at present, we find these words in the first verse of the first chapter: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”
Philippi was, no doubt, a considerable town; but, in point of population and importance, it was no more to such a city as Dublin or Liverpool than a parish is to a diocese. Yet, in modern times, one bishop is thought sufficient even for London, where professing Christians are numbered by millions, whereas a single Christian congregation gathered out of a heathen population, possessing ecclesiastical existence only for ten or twelve years, exposed to contumely and suffering for Christ’s sake, and located in a contemptible town on the outskirts of Macedonia, had a plurality of bishops. Paul, in writing to that Church, addresses his epistle to the bishops and deacons.
Let the candid reader glance again at the ground over which we have passed. He sees that Paul, in writing his epistle to the Church at Philippi, addressed it to the bishops. He sees there were elders in the Church at Ephesus when Paul sent for them to Miletus. He finds it stated that Barnabas and Paul ordained elders in every Church. How is it possible for him to resist the conclusion that, in Apostolic days, there was in each congregation a plurality of elders, or what we have seen amounts to the same thing, a plurality of bishops?
This leads us to the third principle of Apostolic government – that in each church there was a plurality of elders.