It is important to understand the cultural context surrounding the scriptures, particularly during the early church period. The earliest known complete list of the 27 books of the New Testament is found in a letter written by Athanasius, a 4th-century bishop of Alexandria, dated to 367 AD. Later, the 27-book New Testament was first formally canonized during the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) in North Africa. Wikipedia

Prior to the formal canonization of scripture and the solidification of ecclesiastical preeminency, the written word was distributed and copied in a seeming random fashion, but within the control of Jesus Christ. We do not know how easily accessible these 27 books were, but the cost of reproducing them was detrimental.

There were also other writings as Christians would have been profusely writing to many people, which would have included much scriptural reference. Ultimately, only 27 writings were deemed to be completely inspired by God.

Prior to the canonized scriptures, the early church’s methodology for the propagation of Biblical truth is so foreign to us today, that it can be exceedingly difficult to comprehend. It was a living dissemination, through believers who reflected and then verbalized the living truth.

2Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: 3Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. 4And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: II Corinthians 3:2-4

This passing on of the scriptures was primarily through it being completely internalized. This critical need for internalization was compounded due to the fact that most believers during this time frame were illiterate, thus requiring verbalization and the need to follow by example. So, we constantly hear Paul stressing believers to follow his example and the examples of his traveling companions.

Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. I Corinthians 11:1

6Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. 7For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; 8Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: 9Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. 14And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. II Thessalonians 3: 6-9, 14

15For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. 16Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. I Corinthians 4:15-16

13Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. 14That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us. II Timothy 1:13-14

That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Hebrews 6:12

The pattern in the early church first started with the Apostles and their fellow missionaries who presented themselves as examples in word and deed. Those they ministered to were called upon to hold fast to the teachings of these living epistles. The Holy Spirit would solidify these things into their character in sanctifying them and shaping them to become living epistles. Then these followers in turn became examples to others, eventually spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Those who were bad examples were to be avoided. Jesus set it up like the poles of a magnet. Believers were to focus and be drawn to the positive examples and avoid the negative examples. This cycle was to become a church tradition.

5For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake. 6And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: 7So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. 8For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. I Thessalonians 5:6-8

Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe: I Thessalonians 2:10

This amazing, personalized process touched the lives of people in a powerful way, spreading quickly as mentioned above throughout Macedonia and Achaia. However, to be truly reflective of Christ and his living word required a differentiation between being a good example and a bad.

Paul was guided by Jesus to establish a certain criteria to what would be considered good examples. And to those who met the criteria, Paul said to “mark them”.

14I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. 16Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing. 17Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. Philippians 3:14-17

Understanding this cultural phenomenon of dissemination by example, particularly during the early church period is crucial in understanding that “marking” certain ones was not an establishment of certified preeminent positions. Rather, it was pointing out those who were reflective of being living epistles and exhorting believers to carefully listen to them and to follow their example.

1This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; 3Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; 4One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; 5(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) 6Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.8Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; 9Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. 10And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. 11Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. 12Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. 13For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. I Timothy 3:1-13

Elders (Bishops) and Deacons are covered in a later theme. What is important, within the cultural context, is the criteria for those who are designated as Elders or Deacons. Without the written word widely available, there needed to be those who reflected God’s word both verbally and by example. The listed characteristics that needed to be proven would reflect being living epistles. If Paul and those with him found within a fellowship 20 out of 100 to meet the criteria of an elder or deacon, he most likely would have “marked” (designated) those as examples for the other believers to listen more closely to and to emulate their behavior.

Those would have been the ones “marked” for believers to go to if in need of counseling. If their children were well behaved, it was highly likely they followed God’s guidance in the scriptures. If they had one wife, they most likely would not compromise scripture in areas of divorce, fornication, and adultery. If not given to much wine and therefore sober, alcohol would not negatively affect their behavior or their thinking.

Everything in that list in I Timothy chapter three would indicate you can trust the truth coming from them in word and example even if there were no actual scriptures available for them to read. And this is especially so when there is no preeminent person influencing things, which means Jesus would be guiding the fellowship and utilizing these elders and deacons to further his work, in helping to draw every believer to fit the criteria where you ultimately would like to see every person reflecting the high character of an elder or deacon.

These are the people you should want your sons and daughter to be like. New believers should be pointed to them as reflective of the character of Jesus Christ. If not, then you would have to say it’s okay to look up to those who had more than one wife; are covetous, impatient, brawlers, greedy, inhospitable, drunkards, double tongued. Or for new families just starting out for them to emulate those couples who have unruly kids. These were critical examples as living epistles that helped in the furtherance of Christianity in a powerful way during the early church period.

Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God. III John 1:11

Later, particularly after the Reformation, when the Bible was widely distributed among the common people, the criterion for all believers was evident in written form. These living examples should have continued according to scriptural guidelines. However, the church ended up making deacons, elders (bishops) and other designations into titles that supported the system of preeminence. As the centuries passed, fewer and fewer church organizations ever followed the scriptural requirements for deacons and elders. Rather they became titled positions in an organizational structure. Deacons often became primarily custodians over the buildings and other material things. Elders were mainly part of a business structure for voting on different things and making sure certain ecclesiastical duties were performed. The word bishop was separated from being synonymous with an elder and ended up being considered a very elite ecclesiastical position.

The main point to glean from all of this regarding preeminence is that these are not elevated positions that lead to and justify preeminence. Rather they are criteria to help in the pure propagation of the gospel, through those who elicited the pureness of the epistles written in their hearts, when the fullness of the scriptures was not available, particularly during the early church period.

Before closing on this theme, I want to make a few observations concerning Martin Luther as the Protestant Reformation was so pivotal. First, Luther’s biggest contribution was making the availability of scripture to the German common people. Secondly, during a time when school often was limited to the sons of the wealthy, Luther argued for compulsory education for all. His main reason: education was necessary so that Christians could read and understand Scripture for themselves. In a 1524 pamphlet, Luther urges city councils in Germany to establish schools for both boys and girls.

“One of the reasons Luther is approaching the city fathers is he wants the primary responsibly for education to be grasped by those men and taken away from the ecclesiastics in the towns,”

This observation concerning taking away certain powers of the ecclesiastics shows Luther had a glimpse of the suppressive danger of those in preeminent positions. However, he never appeared to see that same danger in himself. Therefore, Protestantism continues to carry on preeminence into our current age.

By Lori Harwood, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, April 4, 2017