"The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who know the truth, for the sake of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love." (2 John 1-3)John writes as "the elder" using the particular Greek word which is often transliterated as presbyter. Oversight in the early churches was given into the hands of elders who had both wisdom and a depth of the Spirit to guide, protect, and govern the church. Later on, the term "presbyter" would come to be synonymous with the church office it represented, but at this point in the church, the word "presbyter" still retained its original meaning as an elderly person. John wrote with weight, not from a position of authority as a presbyter, but from a position of influence as and elder who could be trusted and depended on. When my grandfather was alive, he was the patriarch of a family of almost one hundred souls. At one point he informed us that he was fasting and praying for all of us because be believed that a special time of testing was coming upon our family. He wrote as the elder of our family and we respected and received his encouragement, not because he held some office as presbyter over the family, but because he was the elder of the family and God had placed within him wisdom and experience that we all respected, needed, and wanted in our lives. In much the same way, John is addressing the church in his letter.
It is also interesting to note that John was writing to a specific church and not the church universal. At the end of the letter he closes with, "your chosen sister greet you." (2 John 13) At such an early date in Christian history, while there was a universal brotherhood of believers, there was not yet a church universal. The forces urging the creation of one universal church with a universal and ultimate head were still many centuries away from achieving their goal. In the end, such efforts would leave the Body of Christ severely divided and at enmity with one another. Nearly two thousand years latter, these divisions still remain in the Body of Christ; separating believers from believers.
Finally, we see that the early believers saw themselves unified in what ever place they existed as one corporate bride of Christ. While they existed as individuals, they saw themselves as a whole. They were more than members of some club. They were more than citizens of a common society. They were together one Body of Christ and one unified expression of Christ to the world and to each others. Much of their since of unity came from their acknowledgement of a common birth. They had together one Father in heaven and were born of the same mother on Earth. Polycarp, a disciple of John, wrote, "And when [Paul was] absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, 'is the mother of us all.'" (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 3) Later, when a friend of Justin Martyr was being examined by the Perfect of Rome he said, "Christ is our true father, and faith in Him is our mother." (The Martyrdom of Justin Martyr, Chapter 3) The early church was united by their common Father in heaven and their common faith through which they were born anew. A few hundred years later, they would begin speaking of the church as their mother and, a few centuries later, of Mary as the exulted mother, but for now they were united in God and in a common faith.
The early church was a church with little structure, few rules, and great power. We have now become a church of rigid structures, many rules, and little power. It remains to be seen if we have fallen to the depths where we can no longer ascend to our former glory, power, and greatness. However, either way, perhaps it's time that we rethink church as we have come to know it.