Friday, April 26, 2013

The Early Church I-2: Organization of the Church

If you haven't read part I-1, you can read it here: History, Morality
You can find I-3 here: Why "Catholic"? 
Section I-4: The Origins of the Pope in Rome, Lessons 
 
(Part II is now out! Since this is part I, I'll just link to II-1. If you're interested and enjoy this series, please see the next parts.)

Part I-2: Organization of the Church

Understanding Christ as the foundation of the Church is of the utmost importance. From there, however, it is important to understand that it was the Apostles, their example and their actions, that laid the bricks of the Church we dwell in today. This is what we mean by “Tradition” most accurately: the beliefs, practices, and precedents left to us by the Apostles and those men to whom they entrusted their ministry. Our “Tradition” is faith in Christ as handed down and protected by the Apostles, the ones whom Jesus personally taught and authorized. For it is written “he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). The Apostles, or the Twelve, were distinguished by name.  
 
The men whom build our Catholic faith firmly upon the foundation of Christ.
(A side note to consider:When Peter calls for the Apostles to choose Judas' successor he quotes Psalm 109 in Greek. While it translates “Let another take his office” the word for office is “episkopein” which became the word for bishop. One could reasonably conceive that the Apostles at this point saw themselves as having a unique office.)

The Acts of the Apostles in Scripture is our best and most explicit source for early Christian life. It says that those who came to believe “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to communal life, to the breaking of the bread, and prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Clement of Rome, in his letter to the Corinthians (written about 96 AD), says “Christ … comes with a message from God, and the Apostles with a message from Christ. … After receiving their instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ … they went forth, fully equipped with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, to preach the good news" (1 Cor, sec. 42)

The earliest Christian communities were founded by the Apostles and Paul. As the early communities grew the Apostles recognized that they could no longer labor alone. Those who followed them began to complain that they were being neglected. The Apostles gathered together and said “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men … whom we shall appoint to this task whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-5). All those present approved and brought forth seven men. It then says that the Apostles “prayed and laid hands on them” (6:6).

This is our foundational story of ordination. While these men were deacons who were called to serve in practical ministries, the Apostles distinguished their own ministry as that of prayer and ministry of the Word above that of a ministry of just service. While the Apostles certain did various ministries among those who believed they felt the need to pray (breaking bread was considered a prayer and ritual), to proclaim the Word, and to teach. As the Church grew more and more the Apostles needed others to carry out their own ministry as overseers of the people of God.

We have indication in Scripture of a gradual progression and understanding of the Apostles and human leadership in the Church. As we just saw, the Apostles were distinguished from the deacons that they appointed. The Apostles conferred authority to those selected from among the people.

Eventually, the Apostles appointed men to be like them, that is to say that these men would be the chief authority in their own assemblies. In the beginning these were the only two offices that were distinct. Communities, while growing, were still local and needed only one bishop and his attendant deacons (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13). Bishops at this early point were also considered “presbyters” which in Greek was typically translated as “elder.” This term was used among the Jews when referring to the elders who were charged with leading and teaching their people.

While many presbyters among the early Christians were older, Paul indicates to us a change occurring in this vocabulary: “Command and teach these things. Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe. … Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate” (1 Tim 4:11-12a, 14). Timothy must have been a younger man, certainly not old enough to be called an “elder” in the traditional sense. Elder, or presbyter, was now changing to refer to the authority and responsibility one had in a community and not simply age. Paul additionally warns Timothy that with his new authority that he may also lay hands upon another and transfer authority to them. Paul says “Presbyters who preside well deserve double honor, especially those who toil in preaching and teaching. … [Do] nothing out of favoritism. Do not lay hands too readily on anyone, and do not share in another's sins” (1 Tim 5:21b-22).

The epistle of James, dated around 90-100 AD, recounts that if anyone is sick “he should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person” (James 5:14). The presbyters were local ministers and performed special tasks with regard to both prayer, authority, and teaching.

While these passages, a few among many more, show how Scripture regards the hierarchy of the Church, we have literature outside of Scripture that helps us understand how the early Christians enacted what the Apostles entrusted to them.

The early bishops also played an important role in establishing themselves as head of their representative churches. Ignatius of Antioch is a pivotal figure in this development. He is believed to be the third bishop of Antioch, to have been taught for a time by John the Apostle, and was martyred around 110-115 AD. He wrote a number of letters to various churches on his way to Rome, the place of his martyrdom. Many have survived the centuries and offer us a keen insight in two ways: the first is the content of the letters themselves since they tell us what Ignatius believed to be important. The second is that these letters survived. In the first centuries of the Church distribution was not only time-consuming but also dangerous since carrying such letters could expose one as Christian to persecutors. Nevertheless these letters became influential across the entire Church in a very short period.
"The proper thing, then, is not merely to be styled Christians, but also to be such--just as there are those who style a man a bishop, but completely disregard him in their conduct. Such persons do not seem to me to have a good conscience, inasmuch as they do not assemble in the fixed order ascribed to them" (Letter to the Magnesians, sec. 4).
Follow the bishop, and he will lead you to God, as Ignatius did.


In one letter he says “It is proper for you to act in agreement with the bishop ...Certain it is that your presbytery, which is a credit to its name, is a credit to God; for it harmonizes with the bishop as completely as the strings of a harp. This is why in the symphony of your concord and love the praises of Jesus Christ are sung" (Letter to the Ephesians, sec. 4)

He says elsewhere “he that does anything apart from bishop, presbyter, or deacon has no pure conscience" (Letter to the Trallians, sec. 7).

He says once more, “Surely, when you submit to the bishop as representing Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are not living the life of men, but that of Jesus Christ, who died for us … It is needful, then … that you do nothing without your bishop; but be subject also to the presbytery as representing the Apostles of Jesus Christ, our hope, in whom we are expected to live forever" (Letter to the Trallians, sec. 2).

Clement of Rome, who will be important in understanding the papacy and Rome in the next segment, wrote that the Apostles “appointed men whom they had tested by the Spirit to act as bishops and deacons for the future believers" (1 Cor, sec. 42). Furthermore, while the Apostles lived “they appointed the men mentioned before, and afterwards laid down a rule once for all to this effect: when these men die, other approved men shall succeed to their sacred ministry" (1 Cor, sec. 44). Note that it says those men approved by the Apostles, and as a rule, those men that the successors approve would inherit that unique authority.
The man whose writing solidified the primacy of Rome and the chair of Peter. The martyrdom of Peter's successors helped also, but their martyrdom was coupled with their knowledge, their leadership, and the seriousness with which they claimed to be the Bishop of Rome.