Are the seven angels in Revelation 1:20 the "bishops" (head elders) of the churches? Where did the doctrine of the head elder/bishop come in?
Why did the Christian Church begin to use a single pastor, elder, or
leader in the second century, as opposed to the original leadership model
used by the first church where several leaders, pastors, or elders
governed each church? Was this switch a prelude to the clerical system? It
appears likely. My search for answers began when my pastor commented that
the seven stars were the seven angels, and these seven angels were single
pastors that supposedly headed the seven churches. The Holy Spirit told me
this didn’t sound right, so I began researching the subject.
Using the Believer’s Bible Commentary by William MacDonald and my Faith in
Action Study Bible, I don’t find support for the pastor’s statement that
the seven angels are the single pastors of the seven churches. In the
Believer’s Bible Commentary on pages 2354 and 2355 the following comments
are made, “Various explanations of the angels have been offered. Some say
that they were angelic beings who represented the churches, just as angels
represent nations (Dan. 10:13, 20, 21). Others say that they were bishops
(or pastors) of the churches, an explanation that lacks scriptural
support. Still others say that they were human messengers who picked up
the letters from John in Patmosand delivered them to the individual
churches. The same Greek word (angelos) means either angel or messenger,
but in this book the first meaning is very important.”
My King James study Bible says the seven angles are single pastors of the
seven churches, but since the Bible was written under a monarchy and the
Anglican Church which was controlled by the same monarchy, the motivation
for the translator and commentator to claim they are individual pastors is
After searching BibleGateway.com and the commentary on Rev.1:20, I found
it also supports what I have read in the Believer’s Bible Commentary in
every way. They also mentioned that there is a real question as to whether
churches were headed by a single pastor by that time, lending credence to
my understanding that the original church had no single pastor at its
head. It also lends credence to the possible, and likely motivation, of
pastors that want to follow the Moses model for running God’s church.
BibleGateway.com did not state that the Greek word angelos had two
possible meanings (angel, or messenger), it just stated that the Greek
word angel meant messenger. Here is an excerpt from Biblegateway.com:
“A problem most of us have with the book of Revelation today is that the
explanations provided within the text are often as difficult to understand
as the images they are supposed to explain. For example, it is not much
help to know that the seven stars in Jesus’ right hand are the “angels” of
the seven churches unless we know what role angels have in relation to
churches. The word angel means messenger, and some (for example, Tenney
1957:55) have theorized that these “angels” were actually human messengers
of God, either the minister or the pastor of each church–assuming
churches had a single leader by this time–or a prophet, or perhaps the
public reader of John’s letter to the assembled congregation (see 1:3).”
My research, although not that in-depth, indicates the single pastor
heading a church did not begin until the second century and certainly was
not how the original Christian Church was governed during the apostles
time. Why was this the way given to us by the Lord abandoned, and why is
the other way continued? I think the answer to the last part of the
question is obvious and probably answers the first part of the question.
Why isn’t this spoken about more, or at all?
If single pastors heading churches was not the way of the original church,
and not established as the way churches were be governed at the time Jesus
gave John these visions, how could the seven angels possibly be single
pastors? It makes no sense at all. Perhaps you can lend some insight?
I believe I am in general agreement with you that the idea of a single
dominant bishop over the local body of elders is not a structure described
or conceived by the writers of the New Testament.
The idea that the seven angels in Revelation 1:20 are the seven head
bishops of those seven churches is very bad Bible interpretation. This is
a classic and blatant example of fishing the Bible to find support for a
pre-conceived doctrine. Those who do such things generally do so for two
reasons. 1. Because the case for their doctrine is otherwise weak. 2.
They have not been trained in solid Biblical interpretation (or they
willfully violate that training).
That the seven angels are the seven bishops is such obvious bad
interpretation that it hardly deserves a response, in my opinion.
Historically, it is extremely doubtful that the single bishop over a
lesser body of elders practice was even in place when the book of
Revelation was written (ca 75-85 AD). This teaching is disproved by
history as well as by reasonable biblical interpretation.
You say; My King James study Bible says the seven angles are single
pastors of the seven churches, but since the Bible was written under a
monarchy and the Anglican Church which was controlled by the same
monarchy, the motivation for the translator and commentator to claim they
are individual pastors is clear.
I agree completely with your analysis of this.
So what were the seven angels? That is an open question. I am sure you
are better off reading the experts than asking me on this one. They may
well not stand for any single actual human being. I will let the experts
speak, but I can say with confidence that they were not the “bishop” of
that church, who was in no way a messenger from God to men anyway.
About the historical root of the single bishop, it is possible that you
are trying to move it forward a bit too far in time. Ignatius wrote
letters to the churches in about AD 115 in which he warns them again and
again to listen to the bishop. Apparently the move toward having a single
presiding bishop over a body of elders was evolving already by about AD
100 and perhaps even into the late first century. Why? My guess is that
it was developed as a way to defend the church against heretical teaching.
Judaizers and especially Gnostics, as well as other false teachers were
arising in the churches. It seemed expedient to have a single head bishop
in a church. If a false teacher arose, the bishop could dismiss that
person. If the false teacher was the bishop, someone from outside could
come in and displace that bishop. This expedient may have been wise at
the time. I do not mean to defend false doctrine. I believe that the
model of a plurality of elders is in line with New Testament teaching.
However, in my opinion, there is a fair amount of room for variation in
our leadership structure in the church. It is an exaggeration to say that
there is one single leadership structure rigorously prescribed by the New
Testament. If a church, as an expedient, chooses to appoint a head elder
in a local congregation for their own purposes on a temporary basis, I
have no problem with that. The problem is not that there was a head
elder. The problem is that this practice developed into a pervasive
tradition which developed into a full-blown “teaching of man.” It is my
opinion that we will not gain by teaching the doctrine that it was sinful
and flat wrong for there to be a single head elder in a particular
congregation. I believe it is more helpful to describe what the Bible
teaches and suggest reasons for caution about moving in the dire
ction of a
head elder. Rather than being dogmatic about church structure, we ought
to admit that the New Testament gives principles but leaves a fair amount
of room for expediency.
So, I think from the point of view of church history, we have something to
learn from what happened here. Is the point that a single head elder is
an ungodly and unbiblical form or organization the main thing? In my
opinion, that is not the main lesson. The principle lesson is that when
we move in a debatable direction for reasons of expediency, we always need
to use the scripture as the normative means of determining what is right.
The move from acceptable expediency to tradition of man is subtle, but
its effect in the long run can be devastating to the church.
That is my view of it. Good job of studying out the issue carefully, by
the way. It seems you did not particularly need my help!