I know in 1054 AD, the Catholic & Orthodox churches had split - creating the great schism, but I'm curious to learn about the earlier history of the church.

Are there any historical sources which discuss the earlier structure of the church around the time of the Nicene Creed - specifically, the years 300 AD - 500 AD?

Was the church split up like in 1054 AD, or was it more consistently gathered together?

  • You may wish to amend the question to after 313 AD when the Edict of Milan was promulgated and gave Christians their freedom.
    – Ken Graham
    May 3, 2019 at 10:54
  • I've widened the scope from 300 AD to 500 AD, i'd love to hear how Christians communed before that edict was given too :)
    – Oliver K
    May 3, 2019 at 23:49
  • Your question's scope has changed considerably from pre Nicea to post Nicea. Perhaps revise this to your original question and then ask about a second time frame.
    – SLM
    May 4, 2019 at 3:36

2 Answers 2



The early church had a church polity that had evolved through several centuries from being apostolic to presbytery culminating to predominantly being mono-episcopate.

FIRST CENTURY (1 to 100 A.D.)


The most ancient church leaders were the apostles. The preeminent of these was Peter, having been the first one to confess the true faith that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (Matt.16:18). By his confession of the faith, Peter was called Cephas (''rock'') by the Lord Jesus. However, in his role of establishing the church , the Lord Jesus equally shared this to the other apostles (cf. Matthew 16:19; 18:18). Paul was clear and emphatic that the foundation of the early church were the apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20).

Only Catholicism teaches that the Roman bishop should be the new 'rock' (Peter) to lead the church of the next generations.

It is noteworthy that the Roman bishop did claim this to himself whilst the church disagreed. We have Cyprian (200-258 A.D.) , bishop of Carthage, in the 3rd century very explicit that he was against papacy.

7th Council of Carthage: http://www.ccel.org... remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, 4675 nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. 4676

Cyrian believed that the the other apostles were the same as Peter in regards to both honour and power:

Treatise 1, Chapter 4 http://www.ccel.org...... He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity.3110 [Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs1 designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.”]

However, in his Treatise I: On the Unity of the Church , Cyprian did believe in the primacy of Peter referring to the chair of Peter (cathedra Petri) as the source of that oneness or unity by which the church existed. Take note that the primacy of Peter (being held by Orthodox and some Protestants) is very different from papacy.


The New Testament had the original polity of presbytery (''πρεσβυτερίου' - I Tim. 4:14). This church government is the ruling of bishops over a local church. In the earliest days of the church, bishop and elder are synonymous. The elders were functioning as bishops (''overseers'').

In Acts 20, Paul's ministry was going to finish soon when he gave a final word of exhortation to the church in Ephesus. He began in verse 17 by addressing the πρεσβύτερος (elders) of the church, yet a few verses later in the passage, Paul referred to these same men in verse 28 as ἐπίσκοπος, or overseers. He described the same group one time as presbuteros and a second time as episkopos. Paul considered these two words to be synonyms for church leaders.

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 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,[e] which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:17-28 ESV)

We also have the Didache, a 1st century Christian document (ca. 65-80 A.D.) affirming this New Testament polity of elders/bishops.

"Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers." (Didache Chapter XV. -Bishops and Deacons; Christian Reproof.)


As early as the first century, churches had a polity that evolved rapidly from the presbytery to monoepiscopacy. In the New Testament, we had seen that such polity existed already in some churches notably of John's.

I wrote somewhat unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. (3 John 1:9 ASV)

We see in this passage that Diotrephes abuses his authority as leader in his local church. He loved more his position of being first rather than loving the family God has given him.


Diocesan Monoepiscopacy

The church polity has evolved to having a bishop ruling not just his local church but other local churches as well. An instance is the bishop of Rome in the second century.

The first bishop to exercise jurisdictional authority was Victor I of Rome (r. ca 180 A.D.).

''Victor’s actions were more characteristic of a pope than those of preceding bishops of Rome.'' (Source)

"Councils and Dioceses. We first hear of the bishops from local congregations in the same province meeting for consultation in the second half of the second century in connection with the problem posed by Montanism. These meetings were first held in connection with common problems but became regular gatherings. As churches in the large cities grew, presbyters (elders) were assigned to particular assemblies within the city. Earlier all congregational functions had been under the supervision of the bishop. Increasingly these had to be assigned to the presbyters. Christians living in outlying areas would not have their own bishop but would look to the city church for leadership. Thus the basis was laid for the bishop to preside over several assemblies, although in theory all remained one church. The territory presided over by a bishop is now called a diocese." (Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, p 16)


The Metropolitan bishops

The church polity has evolved further and now we have a bishop ruling not just local churches but every local church in a city (metropolitan bishop).

The bishop of the capital city of a province (the metropolis) or of another principal city began in the third century to assume a leading position among the bishops of the province. He presided at the provincial councils, gave his approval for the ordination of bishops, and often was the principal ordainer himself when a new bishop was installed. The metropolitan bishops of the ancient church were forerunners of the medieval archbishops in the western church. The idea of councils of bishops led to the calling of ecumenical councils (world wide) to represent the whole church, the first of which was summoned by the emperor Constantine for Nicaea in 325. The council at Nicaea recognized the churches at Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch as having jurisdictional authority extending beyond the usual provincial limits. This was the germ of the patriarchal system. Eventually five patriarchs were recognized: the bishops of the above three churches and Constantinople and Jerusalem. When the division between the Greek (or Eastern) churches and the Latin (or Western) churches occurred, the Greek Church continued to hold to the patriarchal theory of church organization, whereas the Latin Church had recognized the bishop of Rome as the single pope thus giving it a monarchial organization." (Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, p 16)

FIFTH CENTURY (401-500 A.D.)

The Patriarchs

In the fifth century, the church polity had evolved even further. Now we have a bishop ruling over a geographical site (i.e. nation). Such is called the Patriarch. In this century, there are five major patriarchs. One from the West. Four from the East: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Jerusalem.

"The first ecumenical council of Nice, in 325, as yet knew nothing of five patriarchs that would be fully established in 451 AD, but only the three metropolitans (Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome), confirming them in their traditional rights." (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, book 3, chapter 5)


The church polity from fourth century to fifth century was the same. Only Catholicism claimed that the traditional primacy of the bishop of Rome was really a Papacy or jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome over all churches both in the east and the west.

The East–West Schism of the 11th century was a product of centuries of differences (whether when to celebrate Easter, priests should be celibate, rules on fasting and of authority) between the Latin and Greek speaking churches. The bishop of Rome and the bishop of Constantinople had excommunicated each other due to the fact that the former dogmatically asserted his papacy over all bishops while the latter refused to acknowledge his papal authority.


The church structure from 300 A.D. to 500 A.D. was the same in both the East and the West. They were having monoepiscopacy that had evolved from metropolitan to patriarchy. Today the Orthodox remained the Patriarchy while in Roman Catholicism it was the Papacy.

  • Year 1 to 100AD you described the Church as presbytery, Are you ignoring the Council of Jerusalem in year 47 to 51AD that defined the Primacy of Peter to resolve issues in the Church mission.Isn't the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic from 33AD up to present? And it's core structure never change despite disagreement among the bishops, the Primacy of Peter was upheld by the Catholic Church for 2000 years. May 5, 2019 at 11:38
  • @jongricafort Maybe it would be worth attempting to answer the question yourself so we can obtain a greater understanding of your perspective - but please be careful to cite historical sources to substantiate your position :)
    – Oliver K
    May 5, 2019 at 23:34
  • @Oliver K Council of Jerusalem is solidly etched in bibilical history thats why I am asking clarification on Radz C.Brown answer if she ignored it as it would be impossible and unthinkable for her to described the Church without a Chief Shepherd of Christ Flock overseeing all the apostles, bishops and presbyters.Include in your question that you are looking for Catholicism point of view, then i will answer. May 6, 2019 at 2:03
  • @jongricafort No problem - I never indicated i'm only looking for protestant perspectives, i'm solely interested in the history. If you have history to substantiate the Catholic position regarding the early church, i'm all ears. Thanks for your time to comment!
    – Oliver K
    May 6, 2019 at 2:14
  • Oliver K that will not suit CSE as they will restrict it to one best particular view and not mix the answer with other perspective..this thread will be possibly put on hold if you want an answer from different perspective. May 6, 2019 at 2:19

There were basically two structural changes in the body of Christ from Christ's ascension to Nicea. They were similar in the sense of who asking who is in charge, but specifically, from how the church was at first organized locally after the Acts example of elders and deacons, yet while the church universal itself was organized as one faith, one baptism wherever she may be found in the body of believers.

Elders and Deacons

From the ascension until Nicea, the church was structured as one faith in various locations led by elders with deacons assisting. With see this structure beginning in Acts, which in turn sources back to Moses.

Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we [apostles] may appoint over this business. Acts 6:3

Apart from scripture, there are at least four subsequent very early church documents (Didache, Clement's letter from Rome, Polycarp's letter, and Hermas) showing this structure of elder (perhaps defined as overseer or bishop) and deacon. The sole exception to this structure is a couple of Ignatian letters with a tri-fold leadership of bishop, priest, deacon, but given the preponderance of evidence, these were obviously later interpolations.

Church Universal

We also know from the same or other documents that the structure of the church consisted of equal city churches, such as the Church at Rome or the Church at Smyrna. They communicated, but there is no early sense, even from Clement of Rome, of a superiority complex at one random location.

The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, -Clement's letter-

Not to be naive, but there is a sense of one leader attempting to rule over all that is found very early on beginning about 175. Many yet still rejected this notion based on scripture and tradition. For example, Polycrates of Ephesus and the others in Asia Minor rejected Victor of Rome's power grab. Firmilian and Cyprian rejected Stephen of Rome's assertion that baptism by devils were on par with the church's baptism.

  1. But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them.1695 He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him. -from Eusebius-


What finally happened at Nicea in 325 to change this structure was the "marriage" of the Church and State. The Church at Rome had heretofore lacked authority to enforce its point of view, its usurpment of the headship, but with Constantine as the guarantee, it rose to dominance. The fomenting issue was over the observance of the days and dates of the death, burial, resurrection of Christ Jesus.

and I have been guarantee for your consent, that you would accept it with joy, as it is followed at Rome, in Africa, in all Italy, Egypt, Spain, Gaul, Britain, Libya, in all Achaia, and in the dioceses of Asia, of Pontus, and Cilicia. -Constantine Letter-

To be sure, the other issue at the time was about the nature of the Son. Was He created as Arius claimed or eternal? They rightly asserted eternal.

First of all, then, in the presence of our most religious Sovereign Constantine, investigation was made of matters concerning the impiety and transgression of Arius and his adherents; and it was unanimously decreed that he and his impious opinion should be anathematized, together with the blasphemous words and speculations in which he indulged, blaspheming the Son of God, and saying that he is from things that are not, and that before he was begotten he was not, and that there was a time when he was not, and that the Son of God is by his free will capable of vice and virtue; saying also that he is a creature. All these things the holy Synod has anathematized, not even enduring to hear his impious doctrine and madness and blasphemous words. -ibid, previous chapter-

But the point was the Church now had an enforcer of things doctrinal in question.

In addition, the idea of the church being led by one ruler whose train consisted of bishops, priests, and deacons are also most clearly found about this time.

Let them [deacons] receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them. -Canon XVIII-

Prior to this the deacons were serving the Eucharist to the priests and bishops.


In sum, the two major changes to the structure of the church were intertwined as regards authority. From one body in various places led by elders and deacons, it morphed into different bodies in various places led by bishops, priests, and deacons as some clung more closely to scripture and tradition.

Subsequent to Nicea, the rest is well-known history.

  • Who presided at the Council of Nicea? Isn't the Pope presides at the Council not bishops as all of them are bishops who will unite and presides over the Council? May 6, 2019 at 16:44
  • @jongricafort the emperor convened and led the council. Both sides to an issue spoke. Oddly perhaps, Constantine ruled that scripture rule the decisions. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea
    – SLM
    May 6, 2019 at 17:37
  • I wish i could give +50 to your answer too, thanks so much for taking the time to answer :)
    – Oliver K
    May 7, 2019 at 22:35
  • @OliverK thanks. much of the +50 and my answer were similar. Hopefully I added a bit to the conversation.
    – SLM
    May 8, 2019 at 0:54

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