In the discussion of church unity, there is a core issue that we have not yet touched on, which is actually central to the entire discussion. That issue revolves around the question of how the church is led. For most of the time that the church has existed, she has been bound by false representations of leadership. This has greatly hindered the effectiveness of the church over the centuries. In the early church, there was a specific apostolic pattern of leadership that was passed on to the church. I would like to examine the issue of leadership in two spheres: First, the inter-church relationships with respect to primacy, and secondly, the internal leadership of the church on the congregational level.
Leadership amongst the Churches
The inter-church relationships and roles developed slowly in the early church. The first church in Jerusalem, was apparently, the only church for several years. It wasn't until the church extended out to Antioch that the disciples even called themselves "Christians". (Acts 11:26). Up to that point, the converts of the disciples still had close identification with the Jewish rites and temple worship. As the young church began to fan out throughout Judea, Samaria, and beyond, it became evident that there would be a need to define polity on who was ultimately going to make ecclesiastical decisions. And here, in this simple supposition, we have the root of the problem that has caused the largest splits in Christendom for the last 2,000 years. Who will be the head of this organization? This was the heart of the issue in the split between the Eastern and Western churches in the Dark Ages, and the issue still divides Christian communities everywhere, and in every creed. The early apostolic church had a solution to this problem. It was not to declare Jerusalem to be the corporate headquarters. Nor would it mean to eventually make Rome or Constantinople the headquarters. The simple solution was that Christ declared that only HE was the head of the church (Eph.1:22, 5:23, Col. 1:18). The apostles realized that it would be usurping Christ's rightful place as head of the church if a person or particular church was designated as the head of the universal or "catholic" church. The church, after all, is not an organization, it's an organism. A single "Man" of which we are members (ie. limbs and organs) and Christ is the only head.
Each apostle then, as co-members of Christ’s body had an equal and comparable position before Christ. We see none of the jockeying for position in the first church that the apostles had been prone to during Christ’s ministry. There was no debate as to "who was the greatest" (Mark 9:34) The sons of Zebedee, once desirous of thrones, now were content with humble service in ministry. The relationship between the churches the various apostles founded, then, was one of collegiality, inter-dependent upon each other, and all submitted to the head, even Christ. As we look through the Bible, one can see this autonomy of the different churches very evident. No single church pontificated by-laws and regulations down as if it were the "headquarters". It is true that the first council was held in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem's bishop, James the Just, dictated the ruling; but the church at Jerusalem never directed the affairs of the other local assemblies. As a matter of fact, the essence of the ruling from that first council was that the "motherchurch" at Jerusalem would "not burden" the other churches, beyond some simple common-sense and explicitly biblical precepts.(Acts 15:28-29). In doing so, the apostles demonstrated that the church was not to be controlled and "micro-managed" in a rigid fashion from even the apostles themselves.
Even in the days of the apostles, however, certain individuals were trying to make a distinction in leadership and give allegiance to one. In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he addresses the contentions of some who were trying to identify an individual as the head of the church.
What I mean is this; One of you say "I follow Paul"; another "I follow Apollos"; another "I follow Cephas (Peter)"; still another "I follow Christ". Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Where you baptized into the name of Paul?
( I Cor. 1:12,13)
Paul would have none of this sectarian squabbling. This is the same mentality that fuels the denominational system. Many of us humans seem to really want an individual to Lord over us. We can see a parallel in the story of the Israelites deciding that they wanted a king. Up to that point in their history, they had a company of prophets that helped them walk in God's will (I Samuel 8:5-20). Eventually, Israel wanted a king to lead them, so they could be like the nations around them. God let them have their king, although he let them know that it would only be second best to the form of government that He had given to them. As far as the church is concerned, our current denominations work, but I believe that they fall short of God's intention. We would all probably agree that we would rather give our allegiance to Christ alone, than a corporate headquarters, or a recently concocted creed, or doctrinal statement.
One of the most interesting facts about this is that idea of Peter being the first Pope or bishop of the first church is completely absent in early history. The historians Josephus and Eusebius, as well as virtually all of the Christian writers for the first two centuries give the role of the first bishop to James "brother of the Lord". There is a number of biblical texts mentioning of Jesus' brothers (Matthew 12:46; 13:55; Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19; John 2:12; 7:3-10; Acts 1:14 ) James is the one who gets the most individual attention in the scriptures ( Acts 12:17; 15:12-21; 21:17-25; Galatians 1:19; 2:9) and is also mentioned quite commonly by most of the histories of the early church. Just to be clear, there is no indication that the role of overseer of the church (bishop) was not meant to be a substitute for Christ as head. The early church did use the term "Vicar of Christ" meaning one who rules in Christ’s stead, but that term was applied to the Holy Spirit! (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics XXVII). It wasn’t until many centuries later that the title was usurped by one particular bishop. So the role of James, although the first bishop, is not to be understood in the artificial and novel role of "Pope".
The first mention of James outside of the Bible is in the writing of Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian. He actually speaks more of James than he does of Jesus. This supports the fact that early Christianity, particularly in the first church in Jerusalem, was certainly under the auspices of James. In fact, the first mention of Christianity in the Jewish Talmud only refers to the new church as "the heresy of James". Josephus’ remarks concerning him are nearly fully contained in the citation from Eusebius, which will be following.
As for Christian authors, Ignatius, in the early Second Century, mentions James several times in his epistles. Ignatius would have heard about James from the apostle John, who was an eyewitness to James' life and ministry. In context, Ignatius says in his epistle to that we are to imitate the pure and blameless ministry to the bishop of each church, as
Stephen did to the blessed James, Timothy and Linus to Paul, Anicletus and Clement to Peter. (Ignatius to the Trallians).
Notice the order the church leaders are mentioned in, with James being listed first, then Paul and Peter. The inference is that James has priority before the other two. James also receives the adjective "blessed" which is lacking for Paul and Peter. The most positive thing in this text to support any Roman claim is that by mentioning "Anicletus" with Peter, this becomes the earliest witness to the fact that Peter actually was in Rome.
The priority of James is consistent with Paul’s account in Galatians 2:9, when he says that he went to meet those who seemed to be pillars, and lists them as James, Peter and John. This is also consistent with the Books of Acts, where James presides over the first Council in Jerusalem. (Acts 15:13) In this case, both Peter and Paul make testimonies regarding the work of the Spirit among the Gentiles, and James makes a ruling and dictates the letter that becomes essentially, the first apostolic epistle. The fact that James was the first bishop and had priority was no secret in the early church. It was universally accepted for at least the first 200 years. Besides the testimony of Eusebius, Josephus, and Hegesippus which will be shortly supplied, we have this very succinct statement of Eusebius', commenting on Clement of Alexandria
Now Clement, writing in the sixth book of Hypotyposes, makes this statement. For he says that Peter, James and John, after the savior’s ascension, though pre-eminently honored by the Lord, did not contend for glory, but made James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem.
Furthermore, it was accepted quite readily that James the Just, as well as Jude (sometimes referred to as "Judas"), were half-brothers of Jesus. The Apostolic Constitutions, although not written in their final form until perhaps the 4th century, still conclude the entire book with the personal benediction from James of Jerusalem. He says,
I, James, the brother of Christ according to the flesh, but his servant as the only begotten God, and one appointed bishop of Jerusalem by the Lord Himself, do ordain thus.
Qualifying the statement of "brother of the Lord" and the apparent practice by both Jude and James to call themselves as "servants" or "slaves " of Christ, rather than risk any possible self-aggrandizement because of their family connection, Clement had the following to say in Comments on the Epistle of Jude:
Jude, who wrote the Catholic Epistle, the brother of the sons of Joseph, and very religious, whilst knowing the near relationship with the Lord, yet did not say that he was a brother of the Lord, but what said he? "Jude, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ"-of Him as Lord; but "The brother of James". For this is true; he was His brother, a son of Joseph."
The only divergence from this opinion that James, Jude and the others were half-siblings of Jesus was variant tradition from the apocryphal writings that purported that James and the others were children of Joseph’s by a previous wife, who died before he was betrothed to Mary. This causes obvious problems, since that would require that the Biblical narrative of the Journey to Bethlehem would then require all of Joseph’s other children to be with them, which finds no mention in the Bible. The oft-ridiculed Proto-Evangelium of James tries to rectify the situation for those want to avoid the obvious conclusion that Mary had other children by rewriting the Christmas story, but this time having two of Joseph’s sons present during the delivery of Jesus. The other major problem with concept is that the statement from Apostolic Constitutions makes James a brother "according to the flesh". Since Christ derived his "flesh" from Mary alone, and not from Joseph, this rules out any possibility that James was merely offspring of Joseph.
Another work which stresses James' priority is Hippolytus' Concerning the Seventy Apostles, where he lists the seventy that followed Christ and where they served. The first on the list is "James, brother of the Lord, bishop of Jerusalem."
Encapsulating the whole issue of James’ place in the church, and the universal acceptance of his place is the following extended quote from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. The whole chapter (chapter 23) is here reproduced, in length since it cites many of the other historical records of James.
The Martyrdom of James, who was called the Brother of the Lord
But after Paul, in consequence of his appeal to Caesar, had been sent to Rome by Festus, the Jews, being frustrated in their hope of entrapping him by the snares which they had laid for him, turned against James, the brother of the Lord, to whom the episcopal seat at Jerusalem bad been entrusted by the apostles. The following daring measures were undertaken by them against him. Leading him into their midst they demanded of him that he should renounce faith in Christ in the presence of all the people. But, contrary to the opinion of all, with a clear voice, and with greater boldness than they had anticipated, he spoke out before the whole multitude and confessed that our Savior and Lord Jesus is the Son of God. But they were unable to bear longer the testimony of the man who, on account of the excellence of ascetic virtue and of piety which he exhibited in his life, was esteemed by all as the most just of men, and consequently they slew him. Opportunity for this deed of violence was furnished by the prevailing anarchy, which was caused by the fact that Festus had died just at this time in Judea, and that the province was thus without a governor and head. The manner of James’ death has been already indicated by the above-quoted words of Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows: "James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him. Now some of the seven sects, which existed among the people and which have been mentioned by me in the Memoirs, asked him, ‘What is the gate of Jesus? and he replied that he was the Savior. On account of these words some believed that Jesus is the Christ. But the sects mentioned above did not believe either in a resurrection or in one’s coming to give to every man according to his works. But as many as believed did so on account of James. Therefore when many even of the rulers believed, there was a commotion among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said that there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Christ. Coming therefore in a body to James they said, ‘We entreat thee, restrain the people; for they are gone astray in regard to Jesus, as if he were the Christ. We entreat thee to persuade all that have come to the feast of the Passover concerning Jesus; for we all have confidence in thee. For we bear thee witness, as do all the people, that thou art just, and dost not respect persons. Do thou therefore persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Jesus. For the whole people, and all of us also, have confidence in thee. Stand therefore upon the gate of Jesus.’ And he answered with a loud voice,’ Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.’ And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another,’ We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ And they cried out, saying, ‘Oh! oh! the just man is also in error.’ And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, ‘ Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.’ So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.’ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, ‘I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, ‘Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth for you And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them."
These things are related at length by Hegesippus, who is in agreement with Clement. James was so admirable a man and so celebrated among all for his justice, that the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them immediately after his martyrdom for no other reason than their daring act against him. Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says, "These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man." And the same writer records his death also in the twentieth book of his Antiquities in the following words: "But the emperor, when he learned of the death of Festus, sent Albinus to be procurator of Judea. But the younger Ananus, who, as we have already said, had obtained the high priesthood, was of an exceedingly bold and reckless disposition. He belonged, moreover, to the sect of the Sadducees, who are the most cruel of all the Jews in the execution of judgment, as we have already shown. Ananus, therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead, and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrim, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James by name, together with some others, and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned. But those in the city who seemed most moderate and skilled in the law were very angry at this..." These things are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistles. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the epistle that bears the name of Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called catholic epistles. Nevertheless we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in very many churches.
All the historical sources Eusebius was aware of unanimously agreed that James took over the leadership of the first church. According to Josephus, the only of the historian who was an eyewitness to this, even says that Jerusalem was marked for judgment by God on account of the martyrdom of James, rather than a rejection of Christ..