In the 20th chapter of the Book of Acts, Saint Paul, that glorious Apostle to the whole world, calls together the Elders of the Church in Ephesus to offer final words to encourage and strengthen the flock.
Note:Terms are very important here as we consider the development of the Church. As such, the term elder translates into Greek as presbyter. Also consider the usage of the term Deacon as well as overseer, which translates into Greek as Episcopos – from which the word Bishop is derived.
Later in the chapter we read some striking words. Saint Paul addresses a part of THE CHURCH. Already we can see in this assemblage of the faithful, a hierarchy developing and clear teaching for we read:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. Acts 20:28-32
Fierce wolves will attempt to join the Church and speak twisted things, strange teachings, uttering words contrary to teachings of the Church, ie. the words and traditions received from the hands of the Apostles.
From this passage, among many, many others, we can conclude that the Church existed early on with clear teachings. Personal interpretation was NOT an Apostolic teaching. The Church was not left without leadership and authority. Some may claim that The Lord did not give authority to the Church. How do they interpret our very Lord’s words in the 18th Chapter of Matthew when He was asked about forgiveness:
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
If the person is obstinate and refuses to heed the admonition and acquiesce to the authority of the Church, they are to be cast out and left to the judgement of God. Again, The Lord refers to an established community of the Church. Further, this community has authority in judgement.
Another example is warranted concerning this point. In the first chapter of Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle urges the Church to beware of divisions:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
This sameness of mind is regarding dogma as well as governance. Personal interpretation can be a cause of danger to a community in that it opens the door to discord and divisions. The history of the Church is filled with many cases of false or erroneous teaching, which led to division. The Church of Christ cannot be divided. This blog has stated often that the greatest evil in schism and heresy is the division it causes. We are in danger when we put our will, our ideas, our beliefs before the teachings of the Church.
When we have brethren in our midst who sow the seeds of discord, we must approach them with love and humility, gently admonishing them in their incorrect belief. When this fails, we raise their case to the Church’s judgement. If they continue in their deeds to damage the harmony of the Church, they have indicted themselves in acting against the Gospel of Christ and it becomes necessary to cease any further discussions, leaving their state up to the mercy of God.
Brethren, these are fearful words. May we ever seek our Lord’s mercy, for it is great and boundless, placing all of our trust therein.