The organization of the Early Church

The precise forms of the Christian community in the first century or so of its existence have been and remain a topic of debate. This is partly because in subsequent generations Christians sought in the organization of early Christianity the authority for the structure of their particular branch of the Church. It is also because the evidence is of such a fragmentary character that on many important issues it does not yield incontestable conclusions.

For the first two or three generations, the Christian community exhibited great variety. There was a consciousness, at least among some of the leaders, of the inclusive unity which, as we have seen, was the ideal set forth in the New Testament. Yet no central administration existed as the instrument for knitting together the many local units of the Church into a single articulated structure. The church in Jerusalem, as the initial centre of the Christian fellowship, endeavoured to exercise some measure of control, especially on the contested question of the degree to which Christians should conform to the Jewish law. To some extent it was heeded, perhaps after the pattern of the respect shown for the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem by the Jewish communities in various parts of the Gentile world, but it possessed no administrative machinery for extensive oversight. Its authority was more that of prestige than of precise canon law. Under these conditions, no comprehensive or uniform pattern of church practice and government existed.

Before the first century of its existence was out, the Church began to display certain organizational features which, developed, have persisted, with modifications, into the twentieth century. We hear of offices and officials. Prominent among them were deacons

(from the Greek StaKovo^ meaning a servant or minister), elders (the English translation of the Greek rcpsoPuTspo^, from which the word presbyter is derived, and from which, in turn, comes the word priest), and bishops (from the Greek sntGKono^, with something of the meaning of overseer or superintendent).

It was early maintained that the precedent for the deacons was to be found in the seven who are described as having been appointed by the Twelve Apostles in the early days of the Jerusalem church to take charge of the daily distribution to the widows from the common store. While the historic continuity between the seven and the later diaconate has by no means been fully demonstrated, and in the New Testament we never have clear mention of deacons in the church in Jerusalem, it is indisputable that within a generation or two in some of the local units, or churches, deacons were regarded as characteristic officers, and it may have been that women as well as men served in that capacity.

The office of presbyter, or elder, may have been suggested by the organization of the synagogue, where elders were a regular part of the structure. In at least several of the local churches there was more than one bishop and the evidence seems to support the view that at the outset in some and perhaps all of the churches the designations of "elder" and "bishop" were used interchangeably for the same office,

Uniformity of structure was far from coming into being at once. In the earliest mention of what appear to be officers or leaders in the great Gentile church in Antioch, we hear of prophets and teachers, but not of deacons, elders, or bishops. In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, where he appears to be naming the offices in the church, Paul says nothing expressly of deacons, elders, or bishops, although some of his words can be so interpreted, but he speaks of apostles, prophets, and teachers. In his Letter to the Romans prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers (perhaps deacons), and rulers are named as what appears to be the order with which Paul is familiar. In another letter the list is apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. In the first generation of the church in Jerusalem, James the brother of Jesus was regarded as its head, but not until later was the title of bishop attached to him. It is also clear that the church in Jerusalem had elders. It is likewise obvious that Paul exercised jurisdiction over the churches which he had founded. Whoever the author may be of the letters which bear the traditional designation of the first and second epistles of John, and this is much in dispute, he calls himself "the elder" and as such writes with acknowledged authority. He also speaks of a certain Diotrephes as loving preeminence in a church and refusing to recognize the power of the author.

In the fore part of the second century the picture began to change. While no single form of structure as yet prevailed, we now hear indisputably of what soon came to be the accepted pattern, a bishop governing a particular church and of at least one bishop, that of the church in Antioch, acting as though it were his acknowledged right to address himself with authority to other churches. In the first quarter of the second century Ignatius, bishop of the church in Antioch, while on a journey to Rome under guard for martyrdom, wrote letters to several churches, most of them in Asia Minor. In these is seen something of the organization of the churches and of the conception which Ignatius had of it. It is clear that in several of the churches which he addressed there was a single bishop. Presumably, although not certainly, there was only one bishop in a city. Ignatius enjoined obedience to the bishop. He spoke of presbyters and deacons as though they were the recognized offi cers in the church and commanded that they also be heeded. He declared that the bishop is representative of God the Father and that the presbyters are the sanhedrin of God, the assembly of the apostles. Nothing was to be done without the bishop and the Eucharist was to be administered either by the bishop or by some one to whom he had entrusted that function. Ignatius held that it was not lawful to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast without the bishop. He declared that he who honours the bishop shall be honoured by God. Ignatius writes as though the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons had come to be essential to the existence of a church. Presumably that was true of such churches as he knew. These, naturally, were in Asia Minor and Syria. In his Letter to the Romans he does not mention any of these officers, but his silence does not necessarily argue that the church in Rome did not have them. The emphatic fashion in which he stressed these officers and respect for them may be evidence that the position which he advocated for them had not yet won general acceptance.

A letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth with which the name of Clement is associated and which may date from late in the first century and be earlier than the letters of Ignatius declares that Christ was sent forth by God, the apostles were sent by Christ, and the apostles, preaching through countries and cities, "appointed their first fruits ... to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe." The letter also says that the apostles gave instructions that when these bishops and deacons appointed by them should "fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry." The letter indicates that the bishops were appointed by the apostles "or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church." It seems to imply that bishops were presbyters and that the church in Corinth had more than one of them. If this is true, the church in Corinth did not have the oversight of a single bishop as did the churches with which Ignatius was familiar. It may be that Clement himself, although the leader of the church in Rome, was only the chief of a group of presbyters in that city. In later lists he is given as one of the bishops of Rome in succession to Peter, but this may be reading back into the first century the institution as it existed before the close of the second century.

Another early Christian document, the Didache ton Dodeka Apostolon, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, describes a church organization which knew of travelling apostles and prophets and of resident prophets and teachers. It instructs the Christians to appoint for themselves bishops and deacons and to hold them in honour, along with the prophets and teachers. There were several bishops, not one, and no presbyters. It has been suggested that here was a transition from an earlier structure of the churches to the later one, either in communities apart from the main centres where old customs lingered, or perhaps mirroring the change in some of the larger urban churches.

In any event, the latter part of the first century and the fore part of the second century still saw variety in the forms of organization of the churches.

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