The Transition of the Ministry in the Early Church

By Joseph Manning

The following paper was presented by me at the Second Annual Student Religious Studies Conference put on by the Midwest Region of the Society of Biblical Literature at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. It was written in November 2007 for a classical studies course at Tulane University taught by Dr. Lawrence Lahey titled “Ancient Christianity.” The course introduced students to the history of the Ancient Christian movement within the Roman Empire. It illustrated the historical developments through the emergence of the canon of the New Testament writings from the second through the fourth centuries.

The paper views the phenomenon of Christianity through a historical lens — specifically the resulting organization that formed around this rapidly developing movement. The paper argues that the “three-fold ministry” of bishops, priests, and deacons was a later development only springing up from an earlier and more primitive “two-fold” ministry comprised solely of priests and deacons (and before even that, an even earlier loose organization centered around charismatics). Of particular interest to some readers may be the parts of the paper relating to the origin of the papacy.

Essentially, this paper tracks the shift of Christianity from inspired religious cult and persecuted movement to the powerful bureaucracy seen in the post-classical era.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’ as he commands his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Matt. 28:19. Having made disciples, the early church faced the problem of how it should be organized.  Traveling apostles were the agents through which the ministry first spread, and Paul in his letter to the Corinthians gives them primacy. See e.g., 1 Cor. 13:27-28. “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers’ then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.”  However, by the end of the second century we see in every church the dominance of a pastoral ministry consisting of presbyters and deacons headed by a local bishop.  This change from a traveling to local authority was made complete within two full generations after Jesus.  Yet, for a while, competition existed. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, 46. There are reasons to believe that this shift was a point of contention among Christians, and the later advent of Montanism perhaps reflects an attempt to return the church to its earlier prophetic roots.  Left unchecked self-proclaimed prophets could threaten the unity of the church by false prophecy in the name of continued revelation.  Divisions would attack the very essence of Christianity. The problem was essentially one of semantic value: “Can Christianity mean anything if it includes both Jewish Christians and Gnostic Christians?”  Joseph B. Tyson, A Study of Early Christianity, 327 (1973). Thus, the authority of presbyters and deacons constituted one of the essential elements of catholic Christianity. Other elements included the canon of scripture and the creation of orthodox ‘rules of faith.’ Id. at 325.  There was a concern among the orthodox for self-regulation, which explains the importance of the presbytery and diaconate, but not necessarily the monarchical bishop.

An image of Manichean priests. “The age of the Gnostics was highly diverse, they seem to have originated in Alexandria and coexisted with the early Christians until the 4th century. . . .”

The church at its earliest stage seems to have been loosely centered on the first three offices mentioned by Paul: apostles, prophets, and teachers. Acts 13:1. These offices were charismatically chosen by way of signs from God. Hans Lietzman, A History of the Early Church, Vol 1, 145.  Nevertheless, the necessities of creating a new society resulted in practical offices appearing. Id. The dealings of finances and the act of meeting in an individual’s home are both instances in which a member, by virtue of his or her practical deeds, might gain positions of authority. Tyson supra at 302. The names of the offices: ‘overseers’ and deacons, Clement of Rome writes, are derived from the Hebrew Bible book of Isaiah. Clement, [First] Epistle to the Corinthians, 42-45 (Henry Betenson’s translation, Early Christian Fathers). These elected officials presided over mundane affairs, and stand in contrast as simple assistants to the divinely selected ‘charismatics,’ who dealt in supernatural utterances and healings. Lietzman, supra at 146. The deacons first appear in the book of Acts to ensure equity in the food distribution, and the subordinate nature of the office is made clear. For example, the disciples, in establishing the diaconate, state: “[i]t is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.  Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint.” Acts 6:2-3.  Later churches, notably the Roman one, would retain this same number of seven deacons. Chadwick, supra at 48. Later, the diaconate would serve as an entry-level position to begin a career rising through the church hierarchy, but this notion was absent in the early church. Id.

These pastoral offices did not consist solely of male participants.  There are some references of early female deaconesses.  The word diakonoi is masculine, but when referencing a group it does not necessarily mean only men.  Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, 4. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchraea.” Romans 16:1-2.  There is also an extant letter of the Roman governor Pliny who claims to have tortured two slave ministrae for information.  The Letters of the Younger Pliny, 10.96. While the Greek word is missing from the account, the Latin makes it clear that these women held the office of deacon.  Furthermore, Pliny likely selected these women for torture precisely because they were office holders and capable of providing valuable information. Consider also the second century text, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which was used to advocate a woman’s right to preach and to baptize. Tertullian, De baptismo 17:5.

Discovered in a cave in Ephesus called St. Paul’s Grotto. This fresco depicts Paul and Thecla. This lovely photograph was taken by  New Testament professor Dr. David J. Lull who writes: “Thekla appears at a window (far left), listening to Paul as he preaches with his raised right hand on an open codex. Behind Paul, stands Theokleia, Thekla’s mother, with her right hand raised in admonition (her eyes and right hand have been scratched out, an indication that someone considered her a heretic).” (For more photos by D.J. Lull see his photostream).

The earliest church may well have expected an immediate return of Jesus, but as this became less certain the maintenance of the church community and its structure took prominence.  Tyson, supra at 143. Paul’s letters contain a gradual de-emphasis of the second coming as the dates of their composition grow later. Loring Batten “Paul and the Parousia,” The Old and New Testament Student 15.1/4 (Sep. – Oct. 1892); 129-144. It is difficult to describe the change more succinctly than J. B. Lightfoot: “As the early fervour of devotion cooled and strange forms of disorder sprang up, it became necessary to provide for the emergency by fixed rules and definite officers.” Lightfoot, Christian Ministry, 5.  The church became more interested in defining and understanding what had been revealed, rather than in introducing new teaching.

This is one of the oldest images of Paul. It dates to around the 4th century. Note his name written out in Greek — the letters PAU above LOS.

The pastoral ministry provided the more appealing option of maintaining leadership while safe-guarding the accepted teachings.  The role of the teachers mentioned by Paul was likely taken over within his lifetime by the presbyters. Consider Paul writing on the requirements to be an elder: “He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trust-worthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”  Titus 1:9. Yet, the presbyters appear to have primarily been an office of governing and only incidentally took up this role.  Lightfoot, supra at 21.They guided the church as a group in the form of an oligarchy.  Paul seems to imply teaching as an adjunct duty when he writes: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” 1 Timothy 5:17.  Not only the teachers, but also the apostles seem to have fallen away before the first century.  The author of the Didache (c. 70-110) appears to conflate the term ‘apostles’ with ‘prophets’ implying that the line between the two was beginning to blur making two offices into one.  The fact that the writing is titled ‘The Teaching of the Apostles’ causes suspicion that the author pseudepigraphically attempted to garner more respect by appealing to a vanished authority.  Eventually the prophets too would fall away, but their continued respect is still evident.  The writer finds it necessary to command the congregations to respect the presbyters and deacons as equals to prophets and teachers. Chadwick, supra at 47. However, a negative connotation has already started to be applied to the position, exhibited by the Didache’s warning of false prophets. The Teaching of the Apostles (The Didache), 11.  (Betenson’s translation, Early Christian Fathers, 51).

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul consistently mentions a two-fold ministry, with no hint of a monarchical bishop.  Despite a large geographic authority, Paul’s Christianity did not have bishops, and, Titus and Timothy, his fellow workers, were not ‘archbishops.’  Lacking textual evidence for even the position of bishop, it would be a large leap to suggest there existed so advanced a system of hierarchy that included archbishops.  Paul himself claimed to be an apostle, not a presbyter or bishop. See, e.g., 1 Cor 9:1 “Am I not free?  Am I not an apostle?” (Therefore, it is likely that Titus and Timothy also possessed some form of apostolic authority). Clyde Votaw, “The Epistles of Paul to Timothy and Titus.”  The Biblical World 7.2 (Feb. 1896): 130, 133.  The wide range of traveling these men made is in keeping with the apostolic modus operendus. See, e.g., Titus 1:5. Thus, the Pauline church was of the apostolic vein, and any claims are baseless that insist the words ‘apostle’ and ‘bishop’ are synonymous and differ only by time period. Lightfoot, supra at 23. The position of bishop originated through ‘elevation’ from the lower order of the presbytery, instead of from a ‘localization’ of the itinerant higher orders. Id. at 25.

Paul and his fellow travelers moved about through much of the Mediterranean region spreading their ideology.

The rise of the bishop from the presbyters took place while the apostolic age was fading. Chadwick, supra at 30. Perhaps it may have been the case that the presbyters had taken on the role of the earlier teachers, while the bishop assumed that of the apostles and prophets. Id.  By the beginning of the second century Ignatius in his correspondences clearly describes the bishop.  Ignatius “betrays no sign that at Antioch any other system had once prevailed.” Id. at 49.  The bishop arose from within the presbytery as a sort of ‘first among equals.’ Id. at 50. But very quickly an extraordinary change in how he was viewed had occurred by Ignatius’ writing.  He writes to the church in Magnesia that the bishop presides as a counterpart to God, with the presbyters as counterparts to apostles. Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 6-8.  (Betenson’s translation, Early Christian Fathers, 42).  This analogy denotes the office of apostles has completely disappeared by the year 115.  Ignatius’ letters give evidence for a wide dissemination of the bishop among churches, but with one notable absence.  His letter to the Romans fails to mention even presbyters. This is a marked contrast to his other letters which mention the bishop immediately with the strong language of authority as seen above.

Around fifty years later Justin Martyr describes the church at Rome and reveals a three-fold ministry. Justin, 1 Apol, 67 (Betenson’s translation, Early Christian Fathers, 62). Even so, there is evidence that the bishop appeared in Rome slightly earlier than this.  Around 140 A.D. a Gnostic named Valentinus came to Rome, and Tertullian writes that he “had expected to become a bishop.” Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianos, 4.2 (ANF Volume 3: Likewise, as early as 130 a wealthy ship-owner from Sinope named Marcion, is known to have been in Rome, and to have given a substantial donation to the church.  This donation was returned upon discovery of heretical beliefs. Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem, ix.  (The amount was 200,000 sesterces).  This all indicates that a newly open and competitive position of bishop was available around the end of the 130s, and the office itself must have existed at least a few decades earlier since it is presumably not novel given that they are applying for it — rather than creating it.  Interestingly, this first concrete evidence of the bishop of Rome appears at the same time multiple heretics were in the city.  Undoubtedly, the arrival of heretical thought solidified the need for a single man of authority and unity within the church.  Chadwick, supra at 49.

The reliance of apostolic succession of the monarchical bishop was an important line of defense for the orthodox.  Irenaeus’ claim of a continued faith practiced by the first apostles reveals an interest in the orthodox with a certain amount of historicity.  This interest stands apart from the Gnostics’ belief of a gnosis that manifests itself presently and independently of previous historical events. Tyson, supra at 328. Similarly, apostolic succession placed an emphasis on the historicity of the apostles who were authoritative due to the fact that they were taught by a historical man Jesus who really existed.  Heretics such as Docetics were, thus, forced to claim the apostles were deceived. Id. As a result of defending against these heretical movements the church was becoming an institution and no longer a movement. Stanley Greenslade, Schism in the Early Church, 109. “By the year 251 the resources of the church in Rome had grown so much that it was supporting from its common purse not only the bishop, 46 presbyters, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, and 52 exorcists, readers and doorkeepers, but also more than 1500 widows and needy persons.” Chadwick, supra at 57. By the middle of the third century the Church at Rome could be described as a bureaucracy.

While the institutionalization of the church was an effective measure against some forms of heresy and schisms, it may have inevitably led to a revivalist backlash.  The dichotomy between ‘immediate inspiration’ and ‘mediated authority’ manifested itself in the schismatic form of Montanism. Id. at 52. This revival arose from the teaching of a man named Montanus and two women, Maxima and Priscilla, in Phrygia.  Despite Montanism’s eventual heretical or schismatic status the movement was in general an attempt to revert to the ‘primitive gospel’ and in practice called only for a stricter morality. “[Montanism] was a revivalist movement which stood for (a) enthusiasm and response to the immediate impulse of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, who was believed to be uniquely present in Montanus and to be revealing new truth through him and the prophetesses, (b) eager expectation of the Second Coming, which was believed to be imminent (c) austerity by fasting and abstinence from marriage, and a rigoristic discipline, (d) freedom of organization.” Greenslade, supra at 223. Tertullian, a convert to Montanism, described the Catholic church as being “constituted by bishops rather than spiritual men.” Chadwick, supra at 53.  He claimed the church was a spiritual organization and therefore no division between clergy and laity ought to exist, since authority belonged to those who possessed the Spirit, which were not necessarily bishops. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 200.  The movement was essentially conservative and at least orthodox at its core.  On one hand, for example, it was hostile to Gnosticism. Chadwick, supra at 52. Yet, on the other hand, Montanism must be understood as a ‘final burst of charisma’ which by nature conflicted with the orthodox ‘canonical norm.’ Laura Nasrallah, “An Ecstasy of Folly”: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity, 160. The result of Montanism was the realization of the end of prophecy within the orthodox church thereby finalizing the very institutionalization it fought against. Chadwick, supra at 53.

Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp. Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna and was burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman emperor. He was a student of John. John, as one of the Twelve Apostles, was a student of Jesus.

The culmination of this institutionalization of the presbytery and monarchical bishop resulted in the first attempts of regional bishops attempting to assert power over others.  This assertion of power appears most notably in Rome.  For example, Tertullian during his struggles with the orthodox over Montanism, writes of a man he describes as a “bishop of bishops.” Id. at 92.  This title was likely assigned to Callistus of Rome, but a bishop of Carthage is also a possibility. Id. Regardless of whether this “veritable pontifex maximus” was a Roman or a Carthaginian, the idea of an ‘archbishop’ of sorts arises shortly after the appearance of the schism of Montanism.  Similarly, around 190, within at least twenty years of Montanus’ first teachings, the bishop of Rome, Victor began to insist in an authoritarian manner that all other churches ought to follow the Roman tradition concerning the controversy of the dating of Easter. Id. at 237. His refusal to regard as Catholic those churches which disobeyed was considered offensive to the rest of the orthodox, and this bid for power eventually failed. Id. at 84. While Victor’s actions did not necessarily react directly against any form of schismatic movement, they should perhaps be viewed within the context of an early Christian orthodox worldview.  From the middle of the second century the church seems to have been manifestly interested in preventing schisms by strengthening the established hierarchies and maintaining the institutionalization of authority.

There were, thus, two parts to the change in the organization of the Christian church.  First, the shift of traveling apostles to the local order, and, secondly, within the local order the appearance of the bishop as the leader of the presbyters.  The first change was inevitable.  In the early Christian communities identity was measured by ecstatic revelation and a direct link to God. Nasrallah, supra at 28. In this regime, God’s will being manifested through direct human agency was a system with too much potential for radical change.  The second change was less foreseeable, and perhaps Tertullian’s fears of the Church as an institution would lead to the Church as a bureaucracy may have been warranted.  Yet, the change occurred sporadically with no predetermination, and it did so within the chaotic environment of competing doctrines.  To view this establishment as the marginalization and usurpation of a “democratic” and “proletarian” movement by the “autocratic” and “bourgeois” officials of the church is a mischaracterization. Chadwick, supra 72. For, “it must be evident that no society of men could hold together without officers, without rules, without institutions of any kind.” Lightfoot, supra at 1.

A floor mosaic depicting a fish decorates what is perhaps the oldest church ever discovered dating to the 3rd or 4th century.


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Filed under Bible, Classics, New Testament, Roman law

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