Also See The Church Then and Now
ON THIS PAGE
How Quickly The Rot Set In
The Ecumenical Councils
Evangelical Defense of The Earliest Councils
The Very Catholic Backdrop to The Council of Nicaea
The Decidedly Catholic Presence At The Council
At the time of Nicea most basic Catholic doctrine was well established and being taught by many of the so called "fathers".
How The New Testament Structured the Church
How The Structure of The Church 'Evolved'
The Absolute (And Unbiblical) Power of The Bishops
The First Official "Patriarchs"
The Power of The Bishop of Rome
How Quickly The Rot Set In
Regardless of how esteemed we believe early church doctrines to be the fact remains that as the apostles began to die out, the church strayed further and further away from the Gospel established by Christ and fought for by the first apostles. Historian and Methodist clergyman, Jesse Hurlbut, says of this time of transformation: (Emphasis Added)
"We name the last generation of the first century, from 68 to 100 A.D. 'The Age of Shadows,' partly because the gloom of persecution was over the church, but more especially because of all the periods in the [church's] history, it is the one about which we know the least. We have no longer the clear light of the Book of Acts to guide us; and no author of that age has filled the blank in the history... For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul". 
At about the same time John was penning Revelation on the island of Patmos, forces in the church were already reverting back to the Old Testament priesthood. The leaders, rapidly moving away from dependency on the Holy Spirit, sought to establish their own authority by claiming that they were legitimate successors to the apostles therefore what they taught was God's truth. In time, it was taken for granted that they were the only ones who could correctly interpret the Bible, and hear what the Spirit was saying.
The Ecumenical Councils
The word "ecumenical" means universal, i.e. concerning the Christian church as a whole.
In early church history the Ecumenical councils or synods were meetings of the bishops of the church who met to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. The first four of the seven ecumenical councils held between the fourth and eighth century were the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381, the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
All seven were convened by Christian Roman Emperors in the attempt to reach a consensus on various issues and establish a unified Christian theology. The emperors often enforced the decisions of those councils throughout the empire.
Unlike Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches Protestants do not accept the authority of these councils but accept their teachings - (especially regarding the nature of Christ and the Godhead) because they believe that the councils did not create new doctrine but merely clarified and formalized those already found in the Scriptures.
Evangelical Defense of The Earliest Councils
In fact, the first two (the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople) are held in great esteem by most modern day evangelicals. It is unfortunate that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, so many present day evangelicals deny the Catholic leanings of the councils. Many also hold that the common doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic Church were not prevalent in the church of the day. James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries says, (Emphasis Added)
Excepting the apostolic council in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15, the Council of Nicea stands above other early councils of the church as far as its scope and its focus. Luther called it "the most sacred of all councils" 
See Martin Luther
In our haste to put people on pedestals we have completely overlooked several facts. Although it is beyond dispute that Martin Luther's reforms helped empower peasants and gave rise to Protestantism as we know it however, not many Martin Luther devotees seem to be aware that his idea of Grace and Faith alone was quite different from what we imagine them to be and that several Catholic doctrines remained firmly entrenched in his belief system. Besides which Luther's vitriolic and vicious polemics against those he considered to Be 'enemies' of the faith are abhorrent. Additionally, misconceptions about the content of Luther's theses abound. In fact, historical accuracy has given place to popular legend and over simplification.
He adds, (All Emphasis Added)
For those who struggle with the idea that it was not "Roman Catholicism" that existed in those days, consider this: if one went into a church today, and discovered that the people gathered there did not believe in the papacy, did not believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Bodily Assumption of Mary, purgatory, indulgences, did not believe in the concept of transubstantiation replete with the communion host's total change in accidence and substance, and had no tabernacles on the altars in their churches, would one think he or she was in a "Roman Catholic" church? Of course not. Yet, the church of 325 had none of these beliefs, either. Hence, while they called themselves "Catholics," they would not have had any idea what "Roman Catholic" meant. 
If this is true I wonder why Pope Gregory I (540 to 604 A.D.) said he venerated the "first four Ecumenical Councils equally with the Four Gospels (sicut quatuor Evangelia)" . The point being (if one were to give it a modicum of thought) there had to be very good reason that a sixth century pope so approved of the first four councils.
And so there was.
Although James White denies that basic Catholic doctrine was alive and well at the time of Nicea, an examination of the writings of early church leaders and many of the decisions the council came to show that well before the fourth century the church had already acquired a decidedly Roman Catholic slant and most basic Catholic doctrine was flourishing. Besides which, as you will see in Chapter 2 believers who were once led by the Spirit now found themselves in an increasingly inflexible institution governed by an elite hierarchy who put into place dozens of rules and regulations that governed every conceivable aspect of their beliefs and practices.
The Very Catholic Backdrop to The Council of Nicaea
At the time of Nicea most basic Catholic doctrine such as purgatory and transubstantiation was well established in the church and being taught by many of the so called "fathers".
To begin with note...
The Decidedly Catholic Presence At The Council
'Pope' Silvester, the then bishop of Rome, was represented two presbyters, Vitus and Vincentius at the Council of Nicæa. Hosius (Ossius) the Bishop of Cordova and ecclesiastical advisor to Constantine is said to have presided although in what capacity is not certain.
What is known is that Hosius and the presbyters Vitus and Vincentius were the first signatures on the decrees issues by the council followed by St. Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria. Neither a bishop and certainly not a priest should have signed before a Patriarch. In fact, Hosius' signature should have been lower down where the other Spanish bishops affixed their signatures had he not had a more eminent status at the council .
Additionally, Alexander - bishop of Alexandria - one of the chief players in the council was accompanied by his deacon Athanasius who acted as his spokesman. Athanasius who along with Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory is considered as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church was ordained bishop in 328 AD after Alexander died. He referred to Rome as "the Apostolic throne", and was an early believer in the Real Presence, which means that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ at the consecration.
All of which makes it very difficult to deny that the council of Nicaea was attended and influenced by men who had decidedly Roman Catholic ideas prevalent at the time.
On to the specific points mentioned by James White...
Mary - Immaculate Conception and Perpetual Virginity
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception) was only made ex cathedra by Pope Pius IX in 1854. (Ex cathedra is a Latin phrase that means "from the chair" These statements are considered infallible). However, early writings show that many believed in the absolute purity of Mary. For example...
Hippolytus a 3rd-century theologian said "He (Jesus) was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle (Mary) was exempt from putridity and corruption."
Origen - "This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.” (Homily 1. A.D. 244).
Ephraim the Syrian - 4th century theologian beloved in the Syriac Orthodox Church.
You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is neither blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these? (Nisibene Hymns 27:8 A. D. 361).
[See several article on Original Sin on THIS page]
Gregory of Nazianzus together with close friend Basil and Basil's younger brother Gregory of Nyssa was one of the three 'Cappadocian Fathers' who were very influential in formulating the doctrine of the trinity (See The Trinity). He became Patriarch of Constantinople in 379 and presided over the Second Ecumenical Council at which Arianism was finally deemed to be unorthodox. Gregory called Mary
"the Mother of the King of the universe," and the "Virgin Mother who brought forth the King of the whole world" 
Gregory of Nyssa, also one of the 'Cappadocian Fathers' was a mystic who took the burning bush to be a prefiguration of Mary.
It seems to me that, already, the great Moses knew about this mystery by means of the light in which God appeared to him, when he saw the bush burning without being consumed. For Moses said: "I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision.” I believe that the term "go up closer" does not indicate motion in space but a drawing near in time. What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once an intermediate space of time had passed. As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted. Nor should you consider the comparison to the bush to be embarrassing, for it prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin. 
Note: Although typology was often used in the Scriptures and is a very fascinating study, it never requires one to stretch ones imagination to breaking point to see the connection. See Typology
A perfect example of men making it up as they went along is seen in Ambrose -
archbishop of Milan's writings on Mary, the mother of Christ. HERE
Purgatory (All Emphasis Added)
Tertullian (c. 155/160 - 220),
A woman, after the death of her husband, is bound not less firmly but even more so, not to marry another husband...Indeed, she prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice. 
In short, if we understand that prison of which the Gospel speaks to be Hades, and if we interpret the last farthing to be the light offense which is to be expiated there before the resurrection, no one will doubt that the soul undergoes some punishments in Hades, without prejudice to the fullness of the resurrection, after which recompense will be made through the flesh also. 
Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313 - 386), Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition; next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep; for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn Sacrifice is laid out. 
Gregory of Nyssa After his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice, and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire. (Sermon on the Dead, 383 A.D.) 
Chrysostom (c. 349 - 407), "Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice (Job 1:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them" 
Augustine (c. 354 - 430), "But temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting pains which are to follow that judgment; for to some, as we have already said, what is not remitted in this world is remitted in the next, that is, they are not punished with the eternal punishment of the world to come. (The City of God. Ch. 13.)
Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310/320 – 403), opposed "the heresy of the Aerians (one of the little known minor sects of the day), who, contrary to the usage of the Church, held that there is no difference between bishops and presbyters, and that prayers and offerings should not be made for the dead. 
It seems readily apparent that the early church believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This means that although the bread and wine retain their original appearance and taste they literally become the Body and Blood of Christ at the consecration.
As previously mentioned, Alexander - bishop of Alexandria attended the council of Nicaea accompanied by his deacon Athanasius who acted as his spokesman. Athanasius was ordained bishop in 328 AD after Alexander died and is considered as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church. He referred to Rome as "the Apostolic throne" and was an early believer in the real presence.
Athanasius (c. 295 - 373 A.D.)
You shall see the Levites bringing loaves and a cup of wine, and placing them on the table. So long as the prayers of supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ....Let us approach the celebration of the mysteries. This bread and this wine, so long as the prayers and supplications have not taken place, remain simply what they are. But after the great prayers and holy supplications have been sent forth, the Word comes down into the bread and wine -- and thus is His Body confected. 
Perhaps the clearest, least ambiguous statement comes from..
Cyril of Jerusalem, (313 - 386), was a theologian of the early Church. He is known for the twenty-three lectures given to catechumens in Jerusalem who were being prepared for baptism. The last five of the lectures deal with Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist.
In Lecture 19, he wrote (All Emphasis Added)
"For as the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Holy and Adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, while after the invocation the Bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ, so in like manner such meats belonging to the pomp of Satan, though in their own nature simple, become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit." 
In Lecture 22 (on The Mysteries), he urged the catechumens to be strong in faith, regardless of what their senses told them about the Eucharist.
1. ".... Since then He Himself declared and said of the Bread, This is My Body, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has Himself affirmed and said, This is My Blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His blood?...."
6. "Consider therefore the Bread and the Wine not as bare elements, for they are, according to the Lord's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ; for even though sense suggests this to you, yet let faith establish you. Judge not the matter from the taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that the Body and Blood of Christ have been vouchsafed to you"
9. "Having learned these things, and been fully assured that the seeming bread is not bread, though sensible to taste, but the Body of Christ; and that the seeming wine is not wine, though the taste will have it so, but the Blood of Christ .... " 
Augustine, (November 354 - 28 August 430) pretty much echoed Cyril saying, (All Emphasis Added)
"I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord's Table. . . . That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ"(Sermons 227 [A.D. 411]).
"What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction" (ibid., 272).
But it is time then to approach that fearful table. Therefore, let us all approach with fitting discretion and sobriety. And let no one be Judas any longer; let no one be wicked; let no one possess venom, bearing one thing in his mouth and another in his mind. Christ is present, and He Who set in order that meal of old also sets this one in order now. For it is not a man who causes the elements that are set forth to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but Christ Himself, Who was crucified for our sake. Fulfilling the figure, the priest stands and utters the words. But the power and the grace belong to God. This is My Body, the priest says. These words transform the elements set forth; and just as the words "Increase and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28) were said once, but throughout all time they give our nature the power to beget children, so also from that time until now and until His Coming, these words that were said once accomplish the perfect Sacrifice on each altar table in the churches.” 
Origen (c. 185 - 254 A.D.) was no less clear
We give thanks to the Creator of all, and, along with thanksgiving and prayer for the blessings we have received, we also eat the bread presented to us; and this bread becomes by prayer a sacred body, which sanctifies those who sincerely partake of it. 
Tertullian: (c. 155/160 - 220 A.D.) went as far as to say
they took "the sacrament of the Eucharist" from the hand of none but the presidents, and felt "pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. 
Irenaeus Bishop of Lyons: (c. 125/130 - c. 202 AD) In his work Against Heresies he wrote that
"an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones — that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body... having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; 
Ignatius of Antioch: was martyred around 108 A.D. The only reliable information about Ignatius comes from the seven letters he wrote on his way to Rome to be executed. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, he warned about the Docetists whom he said,
... hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised (from the dead). 
Cyprian was bishop of Carthage in Africa. According to his treatise "On the Lapsed" written in a.d. 251, (chapter xxvi), he says a woman: "when she tried with unworthy hands to open her box, in which was the Holy of the Lord, was deterred from daring to touch it by fire rising from it." 
And then there is...
Canon 18 of the The Council of Nicaea
explicitly states that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ and, not only reminds deacons that they are "inferiors of the presbyters" and cannot even sit among them, but also warns them that they have no right to touch the Eucharist nor administer it to the presbyters. In other words, only bishops and priests can consecrate the Eucharist. The first part of the canon 18 says (Emphasis Added)
It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer.
Zeger Bernhard van Espen, doctor of civil and canon law said in his notes on canon 18, (Emphasis Added)
From this canon we see that the Nicene fathers entertained no doubt that the faithful in the holy Communion truly received "the body of Christ." Secondly, that was "offered" in the church, which is the word by which sacrifice is designated in the New Testament, and therefore it was at that time a fixed tradition that there was a sacrifice in which the body of Christ was offered. Thirdly that not to all, nor even to deacons, but only to bishops and presbyters was given the power of offering. And lastly, that there was recognized a fixed hierarchy in the Church, made up of bishops and presbyters and deacons in subordination to these. 
In the Old Testament the tabernacle was God's dwelling place among the Jews.
In Roman Catholic, Orthodox and as far as I know some Anglican and Lutheran churches the consecrated bread and wine believed to be the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (although its appearance remains unchanged), is stored in an often very ornate, box like container called a tabernacle. Because the change is permanent the Eucharist is securely reserved for services, to take Communion to the sick, and as the focus for meditation and prayer in some churches.
It is impossible to precisely fix the date, but certainly from very early on, a perpetual reservation for the sick was made in the churches. In his first apology, Justin Martyr, writing less than a half century after the apostle John's death, mentions that
"the deacons communicate each of those present, and carry away to the absent the blest bread, and wine and water.” It was evidently a long established custom in his day. .
The necessity of having the consecrated bread and wine for the sick led to their reservation, a practice which has existed in the Church from the very beginning, so far as any records of which we are in possession shew. St. Justin Martyr, writing less than a half century after St. John's death, mentions that "the deacons communicate each of those present, and carry away to the absent the blest bread, and wine and water... St. Chrysostom in writing of the great riot in Constantinople in the year 403, spoke of soldiers bursting into the place "where the Holy Things were stored, and saw all things therein". He added that "the most holy blood of Christ was spilled upon their clothes. From this incident it is evident that in that church the Holy Sacrament was reserved in both kinds, and separately." .
According to the Apostolic Constitutions (the largest collection of ecclesiastical law that has survived from early Christianity probably written in Syria about AD 380)
after the communion of both men and women, the deacons take what remains and place it in the tabernacle
In his first apology, Justin Martyr (c. 100 - c. 165) described what took place on Sunday when Christians got together. The meetings bore quite a similarity to the Catholic Mass and could very well be an early version of it 
The Synod of Laodicea - was a regional synod of approximately thirty clerics from Asia Minor that assembled about 363–364 AD in Laodicea... a mere 40 years after Nicaea in 325, and less than 20 before the first Council of Constantinople in 381. The major concern of the Council was regulating the conduct of church members, to which end they came up with some 60 canons. Canon 19 dealt with the worship of the early church. Following are some excerpts from the Excursus (a lengthy appended exposition of the canon) that should be easily recognized by anyone familiar with the Catholic Mass.
A reader ascends the ambo, which stood in the middle of the church, between the clergy and the people, and read two lessons; then another goes up in his place to sing a psalm. This he executes as a solo, but the congregation join in the last modulations of the chant and continue them. This is what is called the "Response".... The series ended with a lection from the Gospel, which is made not by a reader but by a priest or deacon. The congregation stands during this lesson.
When the lessons and psalmodies are done, the priests take the word, each in his turn, and after them the bishop. The homily is always preceded by a salutation to the people, to which they answer, "And with thy spirit." ....
The deacon gives the outline of this prayer by detailing the intentions and the things to be prayed for. The faithful answer, and especially the children, by the supplication Kyrie eleison (Greek for "Lord, have mercy"). Then the catechumens rise up, and the deacon asks them to join with him in the prayer which he pronounces; next he makes them bow before the bishop to receive his benediction, after which he sends them home.... The bishop washes his hands and vests himself in festal habit; the priests range themselves around him, and all together they approach the altar. This is a solemn moment. After private prayer the bishop makes the sign of the cross upon his brow and begins, (See The Sign of the Cross Below)
"The grace of God Almighty, and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you always!"
"And with thy spirit."
"Lift up your hearts."
"We lift them up unto the Lord."
"Let us give thanks unto our Lord."
"It is meet and right so to do."
"It is very meet," etc.....
now the officiant keeps close to the Gospel account of the last supper; the mysterious words pronounced at first by Jesus on the night before his death are heard over the holy table. Then, taking his inspiration from the last words, "Do this in remembrance of me," the bishop develops the idea, recalling the Passion of the Son of God, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, the hope of his glorious return, and declaring that it is in order to observe this precept and make this memorial that the congregation offers to God this eucharistic bread and wine. Finally he prays the Lord to turn upon the Oblation a favourable regard, and to send down upon it the power of his Holy Spirit, to make it the Body and Blood of Christ, the spiritual food of his faithful, and the pledge of their immortality.... Thus ends the eucharistic prayer, properly so-called. The mystery is consummated.…
The bishop places the consecrated bread in the right hand, which is open, and supported by the left; the deacon holds the chalice - they drink out of it directly. To each communicant the bishop says, "The Body of Christ"; and the deacon says, "The Blood of Christ, the Cup of life," to which the answer is made, "Amen." 
The Sign of the Cross
Tertullian (c. 155/160 - 220 A.D.) stated that "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign (of the Cross).
Incidentally, he also said "We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord's day to be unlawful." (Emphasis Added) 
How The New Testament Structured the Church
The first century apostles would probably be aghast, if not downright appalled at what we call church simply because when they were alive the church referred not to a building or organization but to small groups of local believers. See Who or What is The Church? But as the first century gave way to the second, and the second meandered its way into the third, it was somehow transformed into a huge and organization with layer upon layer of rank, each subordinate to the one above.
They got away with it because then as now, people tend to have a herd mentality, following those who seem to have authority. We rarely stop to ask whether that authority is God-given, or self assumed. Obviously, the Lord had good reason to call us sheep.
The Church Itself: To begin with, most Christians assume "church" means the organization run by ordained clergy that conducts religious ceremonies in brick and mortar buildings down the road. In fact, the situation is so bad that should all the ranked clergy and buildings disappear tomorrow, most Christians would assume they had lost their "church". However, in New Testament times, there was no building that was set aside as a "church", and the entire proceedings were never supposed to be designed and led by the "clergy". The ekklesia, or called out group of believers met in homes -. their spiritual welfare looked after by "elders". These were mature men generally elected on the basis that they were qualified to handle the duties and responsibilities of small churches that were in effect extended families.
The Services: Virtually inactive, mute believers gathered together to listen to a sermon and do nothing else but sit and stand on cue and sing pre-determined hymns would have been totally foreign to the early church. The New Testament clearly showed that gathering together with other Christians was a participatory and interactive event, each person using his God given spiritual gifts for the benefit or building up of the congregation as a whole. But as the church became more and more of a very large hierarchal organization, the believer's God given freedom to contribute to the church meetings was drastically curtailed. No! I take that back. The church meetings became formal liturgical services set in stone by the higher-ups - the believer's God given freedom to contribute to them entirely done away with.
The Leaders: There were literally only two groups of people who were in a position of responsibility in the New Testament church - 1.) The Elders (Also Known as the Overseers or Shepherds) who were ordinary but wise and mature men whose function was to shepherd or tend the sheep. 2.) The Deacons (Gr. diakonos) were those who served. (The word has been translated "servant" in the NT) Their job was to take care of the practical needs of the church, freeing the elders to focus on their primary calling.
Two! That's it. Period!
And, as a by the way, none of the people who held these offices wore expensive embroidered robes and fancy headgear.
Many of the terms we use (bishop, pastor, etc.) originate with the original two or three Greek words. For example, bishops came from overseer i.e. the elder. However, the concept behind the words has changed to a very large degree.
Finally, if you consider that the New Testament Christians meetings were never called a "worship service", simply because they did not gather together for corporate worship (nor to hear a sermon), one is forced to the tragic conclusion that much of the modern church has little or no idea why it exists at all, or what it is meant to do. Much less how the meetings are supposed to be structured and who they are supposed to be led by.
See The Church... Then and Now
How The Structure of The Church 'Evolved'
There is not the slightest hint in the New Testament of one bishop ruling cities or even regions. Yet, as early as the late 1st - early 2nd century the First Epistle of Clement (one of the earliest of extant Christian documents) describes the hierarchy already in place.
There is the high priest to whom Christ's "own peculiar services" are assigned. There are other subordinate priests and a group called "Levites". 
Canon 18 of Nicaea emphasized this already established hierarchy that had Bishops at the top of a man made institution.
It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it]. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them.
Additionally, Canon 4 of the Council of Nicaea says a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province; but should this be difficult, at least three should meet together - the assent of the absent bishops communicated in writing. After which the ordination could take place.
It also added that in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan, who was bishop or archbishop of a metropolis. (the chief city of a historical Roman or ecclesiastical province).
Which brings up the question of exactly how powerful these bishops were.
The Absolute (And Unbiblical) Power of The Bishops
The power and authority of even the first and early second century bishops is clearly seen in the writings of Ignatius bishop of Antioch who was executed around 110 A.D. He stated that without the threefold ministry of bishop, presbytery, and deacons a group cannot be called a church and went as far as to compare the bishop with Christ.
The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians.
Chapter 3. Honour the deacons, etc.
In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church.
Note: This is VERY far removed from what the New Testament deemed a church, the word usually translated from the Greek ekklesia that means "called out" (Christians are called out from the world which is the very definition of holiness) and thus can only apply to people not a building or organization. The ekklesia met in homes - their spiritual welfare looked after by "elders" - mature men elected on the basis that they were qualified to handle the duties and responsibilities of small churches that were in effect extended families. There were literally only two groups of people who were in a position of responsibility in the New Testament church - the elders (Gk. presbuteros) and the deacons (Gr. diakonos) See The Church... Then and Now - Chapter V - The Leaders
Chapter 7. The same continued
He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience. 
The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans.
Chapter 8. Let nothing be done without the bishop
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop... Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude (of the people) also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. 
Chapter 9. Honour the bishop
He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does (in reality) serve the devil. 
And he wasn't the only one to so exalt the bishops.
Irenaeus Bishop of Lyon (c. 125/130 - 202 AD)
...the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.” 
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - 215)
Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel” (Miscellanies 6:13:107:2 [A.D. 208]).
Clement's 1st Epistle to the Corinthians opened with the words "The Church of God which sojourneth at Rome, to the Church of God which sojourneth at Corinth". He wrote,
But if some should be disobedient to the things spoken by him through us, let them know that they will entangle themselves in no small transgression and danger, " 
The First Official "Patriarchs"
According to New Advent, when Diocletian organized the Roman Empire, the most important cities in the East were Alexandria of Egypt and Antioch of Syria (now in Turkey) the third largest city of the Roman Empire in size and importance. See Footnote.
"So the Bishop of Alexandria became the chief of all Egyptian bishops and metropolitans; the Bishop of Antioch held the same place over Syria and at the same time extended his sway over Asia Minor, Greece and the rest of the East". The Bishop of Rome was "Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Primate of Italy". 
The almost universal love of pomp and show, rituals and ceremonies, ranks and titles, led to a bunch of local extended families turning into a huge organization, with layer upon layer of rank, each subordinate to the one above. The temptation to import some facets of the Old Testament priesthood must have been overwhelming to the early leaders, who imposed them on New Testament Christianity.
In fact, even today the designated bishops of the various jurisdictions mentioned in the canon of Nicaea (Alexandria and Antioch) are heads of various orthodox churches who have retained similar powers to the Roman pontiff, although on a smaller scale. In fact, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church is also called a pope.
The Patriarch of Alexandria: It has been estimated that there are 17 or 18 million Copts in Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria holds the title of Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, in the Holy See of St. Mark the Apostle. His name in Greek is Theodoros, which translates to Tawadros in Coptic. Pope Tawadros II is "Pope of Alexandria & Patriarch of All Africa". When he met with Pope Francis, "bishop of Rome and supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church" in Vatican City, in May 2013, it was said to be only the second papal gathering in Italy in 1,500 years. [Wikipedia]. See on Youtube
Patriarch of Antioch : It is believed that Peter established a church at Antioch in AD 37 and was therefore, the first bishop of Antioch. On September 14, 1980, Mor Severius was consecrated the Patriarch of Antioch under the name Ignatius Zakka I. He resides at the Mor Ephrem monastery near Damascus. 
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople
The Patriarch of Constantinople (Greek Orthodox church). Patriarch Bartholomew, the 270th holder of the title, claims to be the direct successor of the Apostle Andrew and is the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world. However, "Turkey's once-flourishing Greek community is fading away. The country is predominantly Muslim and led by a secular government that's had a complicated relationship with the patriarchate. If Turkish laws, demographics and attitudes aren't changed, Bartholomew could ultimately be the last Patriarch of Constantinople... 
And, quite a few other patriarchates have been added in the centuries since Nicaea. For example we now have the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem who ranks fourth of nine Patriarchs in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Also the Patriarchate of Moscow (the Russian Orthodox Church ) which was established in 1589 and ranks fifth - right after the ancient Greek Patriarchates of: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
And on and on... ad infinitum.
The Power of The Bishop of Rome
Mike Oppenheimer, director of Let Us Reason Ministries, says (All Emphasis Added)
The truth is that there was no Roman Catholic Church ruling Christianity before Constantine, because Christianity was an illegal religion and an underground practice. It was not until hundred's of year's later, 5th cent. to the 7th cent, that the first vestiges of this church government rose where there was a Roman bishop as the head of the Church, making it an official Roman Church functioning similar to today's. 
Canon 6 of the Council of Nicaea reads, in part "Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges". About this canon James White says
This canon is significant because it demonstrates that at this time there was no concept of a single universal head of the church with jurisdiction over everyone else. While later Roman bishops would claim such authority, resulting in the development of the papacy, at this time no Christian looked to one individual, or church, as the final authority. This is important because often we hear it alleged that the Trinity, or the Nicene definition of the deity of Christ, is a "Roman Catholic" concept "forced" on the church by the pope. The simple fact of the matter is, when the bishops gathered at Nicea they did not acknowledge the bishop of Rome as anything more than the leader of the most influential church in the West. 
There may not have been a "single universal head of the church with jurisdiction over everyone else" at the time. However, Canon 6 of Nicaea formally acknowledged the first official patriarchs (plural) who had power and authority over the churches in their provinces. And, even at this very early stage, there was a very definite hierarchy among them. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the patriarch of Constantinople as a leader of Eastern Christianity represented a clear challenge to the universalist claims of Rome". 
In support of this, Canon 3 of the second Ecumenical Council held in 381 AD said "The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome", of which Schaff wrote...
"the intention doubtless was to exalt the see of Constantinople, the chief see of the East, to a position of as near equality as possible with the chief see of the West". 
As said in the Catholic Encyclopedia..
"The oldest canon law admitted only three bishops as having what later ages called patriarchal rights — the Bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch... As soon as a hierarchy was organized among bishops, the chief authority and dignity were retained by the Bishop of Rome. The successor of St. Peter as a matter of course held the highest place and combined in his own person all dignities. He was not only bishop, but metropolitan, primate, and patriarch; Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Primate of Italy, and first of the patriarchs. As soon as a hierarchy was organized among bishops, the chief authority and dignity were retained by the Bishop of Rome." .
Amazingly, according to some ancient documents, by the time the curtain rose on the 325 A.D. Council of Nicaea, there had already been more than 30 bishops of Rome. 
Footnote - Antioch
Antioch was the centre of the Seleucid kingdom until 64 BCE, when it was annexed by Rome and was made the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It became the third largest city of the Roman Empire in size and importance (after Rome and Alexandria) and possessed magnificent temples, theatres, aqueducts, and baths. The city was the headquarters of the Roman garrison in Syria, one of whose principal duties was the defense of the empire's eastern border from Persian attacks. Antioch was also one of the earliest centres of Christianity; it was there that the followers of Christ were first called Christians, and the city was the headquarters of the missionary St. Paul about 47–55 CE. 
 Jesse Lyman Hurlbut. The Story of the Christian Church, Zondervan; Reprint edition (September 17, 1967). Pg. 33
 James White. What Really Happened At Nicea? http://www.equip.org/articles/what-really-happened-at-nicea/#christian-books-2
 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Volume 14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Schaff, III. The Number of the Ecumenical Synods. Philip (1819-1893) (Editor). Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
 S. Gregorius Naz., Poemata dogmatica, XVIII, v. 58; PG XXXVII, 485. As quoted in On Proclaiming The Queenship Of Mary (Ad Caeli Reginam). Encyclical Of Pope Pius XII Promulgated October 11, 1954. http://www.catholictradition.org/Assumption/coronation2.htm
 As quoted in Weekly saying from the Fathers. St Gregory of Nyssa, On the birth of Christ
 Tertullian. Monogamy 10:1,4. Understanding Purgatory. https://ourcatholicfaith.org/purgatory.html
 Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul. Chapter 58. Also Understanding Purgatory. https://ourcatholicfaith.org/purgatory.html
 Catechetical Lecture 23. 9-10. 350 A.D. Understanding Purgatory. https://ourcatholicfaith.org/purgatory.html
 St. John Chrysostom, Homily on First Corinthians 41:5. Quoted in The Catechism of The Catholic Church.
http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p123a12.htm#1032 ]. Hom. in 1 Cor. 41,5:PG 61,361; cf. Job 1:5.
 Early Christian Writings. The Post-Nicene Greek Fathers. Epiphanius. copyright © 2001-2014 Peter Kirby
 Father Dennis Billy. The Beauty of the Eucharist : Voices from the Church Fathers. Publisher : New City Press (September 8, 2009). Pg. 133
 The Catholic Encyclopedia. Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lecture 19. First Lecture on the Mysteries. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310119.htm
 The Catholic Encyclopedia. Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lecture 22 on the Body and Blood of Christ. Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310122.htm
 John Chrysostom . Homily on the Betrayal of Judas (St. John Chrysostom) | Mystagogy Resource Center.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia. Origen. Contra Celsus (Against Celsus) Book 8. Chapter 33. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Translated by Frederick Crombie. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04168.htm.
 Tertullian. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III. sacred-texts.com. https://sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/003/0030118.htm#fr_389
 Irenaeus.Against Heresies (Book V, Chapter 2) https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103502.htm
 The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans. Chapter 7. Let us stand aloof from such heretics. From Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885). Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm
 Excursus on the Communion of the Sick. https://sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/214/2140038.htm
 Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers Of The Christian Church. NPNF2-14 (Volume XIV). The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Second Series Edited By Philip Schaff, D.D., Ll.D. And Henry Wace, D.D. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.vi.xxvii.html
 Philip Schaff. NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.vi.xx.html. Just. M. Apol. I. cap. lxv.
 Justin Martyr. The First Apology. Chapter 67. Weekly worship of the Christians. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm
 Excursus on the Worship of the Early Church. (Percival, H. R.: Johnson's Universal Cyclopædia, Vol. V., s.v. Liturgics)The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Volume 14 ( NPNF2-14)Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia. Tertullian. De Corona. Chapter III. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0304.htm OR see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.vi.iii.html
 Clement Of Rome, First Epistle. Letter of Clement to the Corinthians. Ch. 40.
 The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0106.htm
 The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm>
 Irenaeus. Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 3) https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm
 Clement of Alexandria. 1st Epistle to the Corinthian 0:1, 59:1. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-hoole.html
 Fortescue, Adrian. "Patriarch and Patriarchate." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 8 Jan. 2014 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11549a.htm>
 Syriac Orthodox Resources. HH Patriarch Mor Ignatios Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church. http://sor.cua.edu/ChMon/DamascusMEphrem/index.html
 Bill Wunner, The last Orthodox patriarch in Turkey? CNN August 27, 2010 3:13 p.m. http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/08/26/wus.patriarch/index.html
 Mike Oppenheimer. Let Us Reason Ministries. The Nicene Council, what was it really about? http://www.letusreason.org/Trin13.htm
 James White. What Really Happened At Nicea? http://www.equip.org/articles/what-really-happened-at-nicea/#christian-books-1
 Encyclopædia Britannica. Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
 Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers Of The Christian Church. Volume XIV (NPNF2-14). The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Canon III. Second Series Edited By Philip Schaff, D.D., Ll.D. And Henry Wace, D.D. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.ix.viii.iv.html
 Fortescue, Adrian. "Patriarch and Patriarchate." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 8 Jan. 2014 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11549a.htm
 The Catholic Encyclopedia. The List of Popes. (1911). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 11, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12272b.htm 9
CONTINUE ON TO PART II - The Canons of the first four Ecumenical Councils and how they arrived at their decisions HERE