A Brief History of Ecclesiastical Preeminence

18And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. Colossians 1:18

The above verse is the primary context for preeminence. Violation of this preeminence involves those who usurp the preeminence of Jesus Christ by attempting to take possession of that preeminence for themselves. The historical focus for preeminence is during the church period, however it does not start there. A look at various instances from the beginnings of Biblical history will reveal its perpetual destructive grip.

Old Testament up until King Herod in the New Testament

The first record of preeminence takes place in the Garden of Eden where both Adam and Eve aspired to a position of knowledge they were forbidden to pursue. Later, the Bible reveals that one third of the angels in heaven had been cast out of heaven for their preeminent action, led by the angel Lucifer. There are many more instances. Here are a just a few more:

  • King Saul’s action of engaging in a preeminent priestly position that was not allowed resulted in God declaring his position as King was to be taken by another. He refused to surrender to God’s decree and instead fought to maintain preeminence both for himself and for his son Jonathan.
  • David’s son, Absalom desired to take the throne by killing his father. Instead, Absalom was killed in battle.
  • King Herod was told by the magi that the prophetic King had been born. He feared that he would lose his preeminent kingship and decreed that all babies in the region of Bethlehem up to two years of age were to be killed.
  • Thousands of Old Testament false prophets used deception to get their following.

Jesus' Earthly Ministry Period

This is a special period regarding preeminence as we are dealing with the only one who should be preeminent, and that is Jesus Christ. Yet, he amazingly set the stage for dealing with preeminence, especially when he took upon himself the mantle of a meek sacrificial servant.

It is important to understand the word “meek”, as we often associate it with weakness. Rather, it is from a position of restrained power and in the case of Jesus an unimaginable restraint in power. We see a glimpse of that when Peter took up his sword when Judas came with armed religious officials to take Jesus away.

52Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. 53Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? Matthew 26:52-53

 In Jesus’ amazing meekness, that power was restrained as his sacrificial servanthood ran its course. Looking at Jesus is the key to understanding how important it is to acknowledge his preeminence and how to deal with those who usurp his preeminence.

Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. Romans 9:5

The position of the Lord Jesus today is walking in the midst of the churches. He is the chief shepherd, the overseer of the Church. And in this dispensation the chief shepherd guides the sheep, leads the sheep, seals the sheep through the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Ghost. Oliver B. Greene, The Revelation; page 189

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:11

Only Jesus is preeminent, whereas every believer is equal with one another.

22And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, 23Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. Ephesians 1:22-23

All things are under Christ, including his church. He is the head of that church and he has never relinquished that position to anyone whether the entire Body or any local assembly of believers. No one can fill that position. He is the fullness and filleth all.

1Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 2Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: 3All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. 4For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 8But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus clearly and aggressively condemns religious preeminence.

  • Condemns their preeminent hypocrisy (saying one thing and doing another or nothing at all).
  • Condemns their preeminent vanity.
  • Condemns their lack of servanthood.
  • Condemns their preeminent credentials.

42But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. 43But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: 44And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. 45For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Mark 10:42-45

12So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? 13Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. 14If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.  John 13:12-15

Preeminence should be soundly resisted among all Christians according to the example of the King of kings. Jesus clearly displayed this by placing himself into the place of a lowly servant as he washed the disciple’s feet. It was not a showcase ceremony as we see put on by the elite of today. It was an example for all believers to follow, of humbly serving one another, in recognition that only Jesus is our true Master.

24And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. 25And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. 26But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. 27For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. Luke 22:24-27

33And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? 34But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. 35And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. 36And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, 37Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me. Mark 9:33-37

Jesus makes it clear that believers are not to have authority over others as the Gentiles, but as servants to serve or facilitate one another.

41Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. 43And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. 44But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. 45And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. 46And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. 47And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. 48And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. 49And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? Luke 2:41-49

13And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. 14But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. 15Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. 16And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them. Mark 10:13-16

A true fellowship should receive even little children, but the preeminent ones suppress all outside of their elite circle. Just think what they would do if Jesus came as a child in contrast with what we see how the Jewish religious body received Jesus as a child.

1Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. 2But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. 4And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. 5And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. 6This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them. 7Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. 9I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. 10The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. 11I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. 12But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. 13The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. 15As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. John 10:1-16

Any religious leader that puts himself in the place of the Shepherd as referenced by these scriptures is clearly a usurper of Christ’s preeminence. Jesus is clear and emphatic in verses 11 & 14 that “I am the good shepherd”.

Religious leader like to think of themselves as the shepherd of their flock. Jesus makes it clear that they are usurpers, as there is only one shepherd. All others are thieves and robbers and will never give their lives for the sheep as does Christ. If instead, they properly went through the sheepfold door they would be just as all the other sheep; equal in their relationship with Christ and one another.

42But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. 43I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive. 44How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only? John 5:42-44

For the past 1,600 years fellowship has degenerated as believers received men as their leaders rather than Jesus Christ. By doing this, they honor man over God. Instead of being Christocentric, they become humanistic.

And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. John 10:16

Man-ordained ecclesiastical personages, who claim they are shepherds are usurpers of the one and only true shepherd – Jesus Christ. In the verse above, Jesus talks into the future about bringing the Gentiles into his fold. He never mentions other shepherds, only himself. Jesus is the one and only shepherd of one combined fold: Jews and Gentiles.

Early Church Until the Industrial Age

The early church was rife with problems. There was no Shangri La nor will there ever be until the physical return of Jesus to this earth. What set that church apart from today is who was in charge of dealing with these problems. Today, it is those in preeminence. Then, Jesus was in almost full charge. Leading the way for that reality were the Apostles, who faced many of their own preeminent temptations, but provided the pathway to avoid the many preeminent pitfalls.

By today’s standard this early church would appear crippled. The New Testament was being formed with various inspired letters and narratives, with their copies passed around from church to church. Travel was difficult, diseases took their toll, governments were often cruel and oppressive, and they were dealing with a wide variety of languages, which often made communication exceedingly difficult. Despite all these negatives, Christianity spread like an uncontrollable fire.

This early period was heavily marked by its struggle with persecution up until the Roman Emperor Constantine, when Christianity was declared legal in 313 A.D.  Preeminence would have been stifled by the various persecutions. During this persecution we see the Apostle James being executed, Peter being arrested and imprisoned as well as Paul on many occasions. Few desired to take a preeminent position as that would make them a prime target. The Christian Watchman Nee went through harsh persecution in China during the time of Mao Tse-tung. While imprisoned, he quoted this ancient Chinese Proverb  ̶  “He who raises his head above the heads of others, will sooner or later be decapitated.” (Watchman Nee Man of Suffering; Barbour Books; 1998; Page 143)

The New Testament does record one person who boldly took a preeminent position. His name was Diotrephes. This is what the Apostle John said about this situation:

9I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. 10Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. 3 John 1:9-10

We have no record of what took place when John confronted Diotrephes. It is reasonable to assume John was able to topple Diotrephes from his elite position because preeminence did not become a big issue until nearly 300 years later.

1Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; 2I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: 3And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. 4Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. 5Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. 6But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. Revelation 2: 1-7

The progression of preeminence was prophesied, beginning with the church of Ephesus, which reflects the predominant church during the first one hundred years.

The word Nicolaitans comes from nikao, which means “to conquer,” and laos, which means “the people” (the laity). This most likely was the name given to those who attempted to conquer or control the believers; in other words, those who tried to assume preeminence.

The church of Ephesus was commended for hating their deeds. The damage was stymied most likely by the Apostles, like we see with John concerning Diotrephes, and after their deaths most likely by those who lived after who had been directly influenced by the Apostles. We see this faithfulness in the Old Testament with the elders who succeeded Joshua in Joshua 24.

Following the period came the time of heavy persecution, reflected in the church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11. As mentioned earlier, the threat of execution most likely kept the usurpers at bay.

Following this period, the Nicolaitans reemerge, this time, finding a fertile ground as we see with the next church period: that of Pergamos.

12And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; 13I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. 14But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. 15So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. 16Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. 17He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. Revelation 2:12-17

This was the period which began with the Emperor Constantine. By the time of his reign, Christianity had grown to become the most dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Religious freedom took away the fear of being targeted for anyone rising to a place of preeminence. It was becoming more and more a place of position and prestige. Then, when the Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., being in a position of church preeminence came with a rising degree of political power.

It was ripe for the Nicolaitans to reemerge and begin their power grab by usurping the preeminence of Jesus Christ. This time, ecclesiastical preeminence took hold and increasingly became the norm. As the official Roman religion, lavish buildings of Rome’s previous gods now were at their disposal.  The elite readily embraced these structures as a visible manifestation of their elevated status. Throughout the centuries, preeminence was completely cemented into its culture. Even the Reformation of 1517, led by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther, addressed a myriad of abuses within the church, but never the central issue: the established church elitism that usurped the preeminence of Jesus Christ.

The Reformation, regarding preeminence, merely fractured the church into a myriad of religious factions, all with their preeminent structures.  History does not reveal those who tried to tackle this systemic problem. There were probably many who challenged ecclesiastical preeminency, but without a platform and with preeminence so culturally engrained, they were most likely shunned or executed for heresy.

Modern Church

The Modern Age, beginning at the Industrial Age, has magnified the destructiveness of preeminent suppression. Prior to this, people were more social, and this helped to dampen the effect of the preeminent clergy. People would cross paths at the marketplace, pubs, homes, etc. and often engage in religious discussions. These were mini fellowships where the usurping preeminent ones were usually absent. In a patchwork kind of way, this allowed God’s work to move forward, lessening the negative impact of the preeminent elite.

But with technological progress came an increase in isolation. Our home as our castle (seemingly equipped with a moat and drawbridge) makes it difficult to know even our closest neighbors. Cars, trains, buses, and planes drastically cut back on social interaction. Every interaction became more and more boxed in. Today, with computers and cell phones, the isolation grows to where we can practically live our lives completely free of any personal interaction outside of one’s family. You can order practically anything online and usually the items are dropped at your front door without so much as a “Hi” to the deliverer.

That also means most people hardly know those who go into a church because there has been practically little social interaction outside. Many can be surrounded by hundreds of people and the only personal interaction is when the preeminent ones request you do something like “passing the peace” to those around you. Of course, with Covid-19, even this slight bit of interaction has in most cases been completely shut down.

14And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; 15I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. 16So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. 17Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: 18I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. 19As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. 20Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. 21To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. 22He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. Revelation 3:14-22

Since the early church period, Christians have been warned about the degradation of the church to the point of it predominantly being like the church of Laodicea as seen in the book of Revelation.

If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do? Psalm 11:3

This is a period where the foundations have been nearly destroyed, leaving a difficult pathway to reformation. A key element that fosters this foundational destruction is divisions. I hesitate to include a joke about this as it might make light of the issue. However it does capture some of the seriousness.

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

“Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over. Emo Philips; The Guardian, Thursday 29 September 2005

… Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. Luke 11:17

This shattering of the church is not condoned by Christ but is a product of those who have usurped Christ’s preeminence down through the ages and into our current day.

That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. I Corinthians 12:25

10Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. 12Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. 13Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I Corinthians 1:10-13

Today, few raised in a church denomination understand why there was ever a split. This lack of knowledge helps establish the elite, who it is assumed are aware of the reasons, and are guiding them from the dangers that lurk outside their group. Their “superior” knowledge is often looked upon with deep spiritual reverence.

Every breakup was guided by those who desired or rose to preeminence; a preeminent one for this faction and a preeminent one for another faction. This splitting apart cascaded through the centuries, sometimes over issues that were frivolous.

When man leads God’s people, Jesus is forced into near silence. Fellowship becomes almost non-existent as dialogue is shut down.  The people become mere spectators or puppets guided by the preeminent forces. Many things bolster this static form that might have the appearance of glorifying God, but in essence glorifies man and his way, thus usurping Jesus Christ and his perfect way of guiding his people.

Reformed Church

Is it too late – too difficult for a reformation to take place? Have too many Christians given up and resigned themselves to the comfort of just sitting back and being a spectator? Or is this a time of rebirth? A time to rise and actively become a part of making the true church all it can and should be, all that we the people demand it to be? And that demand is for Jesus to be in complete preeminent control and for those who desire or attempt to usurp Jesus as the true Shepherd to either repent or scurry away upon hearing Jesus say to them:

Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Matthew 16:23

To each of us, who are living extremely close to the end of the church age, Jesus is saying:

20Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. 21To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. 22He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. Revelation 3:20-22