Saturday, August 10, 2019
Early development. . .
We are not without a written glimpse into the life of the early Church. For example, the seven letters of Ignatius that survive give us a remarkable picture of what the Church looked like within two full generations of Christ on the cross, the written record of the Book of Acts, and the epistles of St. Paul. So what did the congregations and the ministry look like? Alrleady the Church had grown since the days of the apostles and Ignatius saw a Christianity that had spread over a good part of what we know as modern Turkey with congregations in most major towns.
The principal leader of these congregations was called “bishop” (from the Greek episkopos, often translated “overseer”). Ignatius reports on his meetings with these bishops from each sizable town along his journey across Turkey. While they certainly did act as individual congregations, they were also profoundly connected as members together of the Body of Christ. In contrast to the present day when churches are seen as clubs of people who like the same things, the early congregations may have been geographically separated but they were united in doctrine and life and their practices sought to manifest this unity.
The locus or point of this unity was in the office of bishop. Indeed, the letters of Ignatius speak of the office and role of the bishop in ways that both surprise and perhaps shock the modern ear. “It is essential to act in no way without the bishop,” Ignatius to the Trallians. “Obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ” (2:2, 1). “Do nothing apart from the bishop,” Ignatius to the Philadelphians (7:2). Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans: “You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father . . . Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval” (8:1). From these references we can presume the apostles appointed these officers of the Church (as St. Paul himself references). Peter and the apostles at Jerusalem added to these offices by appointing deacons to assist them in the distribution to widows and poor (cf. Acts 6:1-6). St. Paul records those whom he placed in the churches that he founded (Acts 14:23, 2Tim. 1:6). In particular, St. Paul references how these were set in office by the laying on of hands (ordination). This apostolic custom (which does not at all minimize the importance of this rite or its impact on us today) eventually was fleshed out into the forms almost universally known among liturgical churches today.
However, in this early period, the terminology and shape of these ordained officers or ministers was not set but rather fluid. For example, St. Paul spoke of “bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1) but also mentions “apostles,” “prophets,” and “teachers” (1 Cor. 12:29). St. James spoke of “elders” (Jas. 5:14). In the Acts of the Apostles, we also find “elders” or “presbyters” (e.g., Acts 11:30). Sometimes these terms were used interchangeably (bishop and elder). But by the second half of the first century the terminology seems to coalesce around a more consistent form and definition. We see this in the letters of Ignatius where he mentions an order of “bishops, presbyters, and deacons” (Trallians 3:2, Polycarp 6:1). The “bishop” seems to be universally the highest office in each local church and more universal. “Presbyter,” from Greek presbyteros and translated either “elder” or "presbyter" and “deacon” (the Greek diakonos usually translated simply deacon but meaning “servant” or “minister,” were lesser offices. The term “priest” (the Greek hierus) was not used frequently in the earliest days to refer to the presbyter.
Lutherans acknowledge the right of the Church to add offices and to distinguish them as they wish but still affirm that the basic office is bishop understood here not in the modern sense of larger geographical responsibility and authority but primarily in terms of the congregation and the other offices assisting the bishop (pastor). In fact, in Missouri Synod history, there was in the beginning only ever one pastor of the congregation even though other ordained assisted the one pastor.