Probably towards the end of the first century the church of Corinth deposed its leaders. Clement of Rome then wrote to them to urge them to re-instate their elders. The shock that Clement expresses in his letter suggests that it was rare for churches to turn against their leaders. Indeed, Clement's words imply that it was expected (and perhaps the norm) for church leaders to remain in office until death.
And as they [the apostles] went through the territories and townships preaching, they appointed their first converts (- after testing them by the Spirit - to be bishops and deacons for the believers of the future. (42:4)
Similarly, our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full foreknowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these should fall asleep, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office. (44:1-2)
How happy those presbyters must be who have already passed away, with a lifetime of fruitfulness behind them; ... (44:5).Continuity of leadership is not surprising. In the early days of the movement, those who took prominent positions within the churches risked persecution, so it is reasonable to suppose that they were dedicated to the cause. It therefore seems unlikely that the apostles, who appointed the leaders, would later replace them with other leaders.
Also, the numbers of Christians grew dramatically in the early years, and we know from the writings of Ignatius and Polycarp that Paul's churches continued to flourish. This suggests two things. Firstly, apostasy cannot have been common. Secondly, while divisions within churches were inevitable, they cannot have been so serious as to have jeopardized the viability of the churches. Continuity of leadership is therefore to be expected.
The first leaders of the early church were Peter, James, and John. It is no coincidence, I think, that these were the first, or among the first, disciples of Jesus (Mark 1:16-20; John 1:40-42). These were the "firstfruits" of the Jesus movement and they retained their leadership roles until they died, as far as we can tell. It may also be significant that when Peter becomes the first to declare that Jesus was the Christ, he is immediately appointed to a permanent position of leadership (Matthew 16:16-19).
The disciples decided to appoint someone to replace Judas (Acts 1:21-22). Their criterion is interesting. The candidate had to have accompanied Jesus since the time of the baptism of John. Only an early convert was suitable for the role. Now, it is true that James the brother of Jesus became the leader of the Jerusalem church even though he was not a follower of Jesus before the resurrection. However, he seems to have been given the leadership at the time when Peter had to go into hiding in ~44A.D. (Acts 12:17), after he had been within the fold for more than 10 years (Acts 1:14).
Acts 13:1 gives the names of 5 "prophets and teachers" in Antioch in about 46 A.D.: Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul. Barnabas was a believer already in the earliest days of the movement (Acts 4:36-37). Lucius was from Cyrene and was therefore probably among those from Cyrene who came to Antioch from Judea following the death of Stephen (Acts 11:20-21). He therefore probably came to the faith before Paul (Saul). Manean and Simeon had Hebrew/Aramaic names and Manean had been
During the "first missionary journey" Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church (Acts 14:23). I doubt that Luke would have gone to the trouble of mentioning this if elders such as these were appointed for only a short time and were soon replaced by others.
Paul's letters also show that it was considered an honour to be an early convert. In 1 Cor 16:15 Paul commends the household of Stephanas for being the "firstfruits ( of Achaia". Similarly Rom 16:5 celebrates Epaenetus for being the "firstfruits ( of Asia", and in Rom 16:7 Paul recognizes Andronicus and Junia for being in the faith before he was. Also, in 1 Cor 15:8-9 Paul shows that he was "the least of the apostles" by pointing out that Christ appeared to him "last of all". Furthermore, Luke honours his host, Mnason, by writing that the was a disciple of long standing (Acts 21:16).
It is generally acknowledged that Euodia and Syntyche were leaders of the church of Philippi (Phil 4:2-3). They were probably also among the earliest converts there because Paul writes that they had "struggled beside me in the work of the gospel". This probably refers to Paul's first visit to Philippi because:
a) the struggle referred to here may allude to the persecution that Paul suffered in Philippi at that time (1 Thess 2:1; Acts 16:22-23),
b) on the assumption of an Ephesian provenance Paul had visited Philippi only once,
c) the "work of the gospel" may refer to the evangelization of Philippi.
Therefore Euodia and Syntyche were probably early Philippian converts who had leadership roles there after several years.
In summary, all the data suggests that Clement was right. Those who were first to believe commanded the respect of later converts and retained their leadership roles. We should not suppose that new converts could attain positions of leadership in the church (except of course in new churches when all the local believers were new converts). Experience mattered. Being filled with the Spirit was not enough.
Implications for the identities of Crispus, Sosthenes, Gaius, Titius Justus, Stephanas, Jason, Aristarchus, Timothy, and Luke
We have seen above that prominent early converts were appointed to permanent leadership positions so it would be natural for them to be given new names to reflect their new identities and roles. Thus Jesus gave new names to his "firstfruits", Simon (Peter), and James and John (Boanerges) (Mark 3:16-17), in accordance with the OT practice of renaming those who were given a new calling. Did Paul, likewise, give new names to his "firstfruits"? I have made the case in detail on this blog and I will not repeat the arguments here. I will merely show that the observations about church leadership above lend a little support to the renaming hypotheses.
I argued in Tyn Bul 2005 p111ff that Sosthenes (Acts 18:17; 1 Cor 1:1) was Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor 1:14) renamed. He was an early convert in Corinth and therefore had the respect of the Corinthian believers. This, and his role in the conversion of many Corinthians, explains why Paul includes him as his co-sender of 1 Corinthians. His name added authority to Paul's letter.
Gaius was the host of Paul and the whole church of Corinth (Rom 16:23), yet in Acts Paul preaches from the house of Titius Justus (Acts 18:7). It is often supposed that Paul used Titus Justus's house during his first visit to Corinth, but switched to Gaius's house later. However, our findings on the continuity of church leadership makes this less likely. This supports the view that "Gaius" was the praenomen of Titius Justus.
In 1 Cor 16:15-16 Paul urges the Corinthians to be submissive to the household of Stephanas, the "firstfruits of Achaia". Is he promoting the leadership of Stephanas at the expense of Gaius and Crispus? Again, this would conflict with the evidence that changes of leadership were rare. The problem is resolved by the realization that Stephanas was Gaius Titius Justus renamed (see here for the evidence), and that Crispus was Sosthenes, who was no longer in Corinth (1 Cor 1:1).
Jason (Acts 17:5-9; Rom 16:21) was the earliest known convert in Thessalonica and host of Paul. He was Paul's firstfruits in the city and therefore, in light of our findings above, he probably became a leader of the church there. Indeed, Luke mentions him as if he is already known to the audience of Acts. This supports my view that he was probably renamed "Aristarchus", which means "best leader". See here.
Acts 16:1-2 tells us that in Lystra Paul found Timothy, who "was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium". Paul then appointed Timothy to be his fellow-missionary (Acts 16:3; 1 Thess 3:2; 2 Cor 1:19 etc.). Now, if Timothy was a resident of Lystra he could have been converted no earlier than Paul's first missionary journey. He would then have been a relatively new convert at the time that he joined Paul's traveling team. This is unlikely, given the importance placed on being a Christian of long standing. Why would Paul appoint a novice from Lystra rather than an experienced believer from Antioch? It is more likely that Timothy was an earlier convert and that Paul had sent him as his emissary to the churches of south Galatia, including Lystra. This explains why the believers in Lystra and Iconium commended Timothy: he had fulfilled his duties as Paul's envoy well. So, while Luke does not say so explicitly, the implication is that Timothy was in Paul's orbit in Antioch prior to the "second missionary journey". This supports my contention that he was Titus renamed.
So, it seems to me that the observations about continuity of leadership in the first century church strengthen the cumulative case that Paul gave new names to his prominent early converts.
It is often suggested that Luke was from Troas, simply because the first "we passage" in Acts starts there (Acts 16:8-10). It is, however, unlikely that Paul would recruit someone who would have been so new to the faith. This supports my view, which I have argued on other grounds, that Luke had joined Paul's team in Syrian Antioch and had avoided first person narrative for the land journey for stylistic reasons. See here. He may have been Lucius of Cyrene (Acts 13:1).
Let me know if I have missed any arguments, for or against.