the Fifth Sunday of Lent
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Use of the Word in This Article
1. The Prophet Ministry
2. The Local Ministry
1. Insistence on Organization
(1) Aid Given in Selecting a Bishop
(2) Bishops and Presbyters
2. Multiplication of Orders: Growth of a Hierarchy
I. The Word "Ministry."
The common New Testament term for the ministry is
Use of the Word in This Article:
In this article the word has to do with the guidance and government of a united community, fellowship, or brotherhood of men and women whose inward bond of union was the sense of fellowship with Jesus their Risen Lord. In all ages of Christianity the call to become the follower of Jesus, while it is the deepest of all personal things and comes to each one singly, never comes solitarily. The devout soul must share his experiences with those like-minded, and the fellowship thus formed must be able to take outward shape, which cannot fail to render necessary some sort of rule and guidance. The very thought of the church with articulate expression of a common faith, administration of the sacraments, meetings and their right conduct, aid given to the spiritual and bodily needs of their fellow-members, implies a ministry or executive of some kind. To endeavor to explain what was the character of the ministry of the Christian church in the earliest centuries of its existence and how it came into being is the aim of this article.
II. Two Kinds of Ministry.
The earliest fact we have about the organization of the Christian church is given in Acts 6:1-15 , where we are told that "seven" men were appointed to what is called a "ministry of tables" (
But it is important to remember that while the two kinds of ministries are thoroughly distinct from each other, the same individuals might belong to both kinds. The "prophetic gift" might fall on anyone, private member or office-bearer alike. Office-holding did not prevent the "gift." Polycarp, office-bearer at Smyrna, was a prophet; so was Ignatius of Antioch, and many others. The "gift" of speaking the Word of God was a personal and not an official source of enlightenment.
1. The Prophetic Ministry:
In the prophetic ministry we find a threefold division - apostles , prophets and teachers . Some would add a fourth, evangelists , i.e. men like the apostles in all respects save in having seen the Lord in the flesh. The distinction may hold good for the apostolic period, though that appears to be very doubtful; it disappears utterly in the sub-apostolic; evangelist and apostle seem to be one class. This triple division may be traced through early Christian literature from 1 Corinthians down to the Clementine Homilies , which can scarcely be earlier than 200 AD. It is hardly possible to define each class in any mechanical fashion; speaking generally, the first were the missionary pioneers whose message was chiefly to the unconverted, while to the second and third classes belonged exhortation and instruction within the Christian communities.
In the New Testament and in the other literature of the early church the word "apostle" is used in a narrower and in a wider sense, and it is the more extensive use of the word which denotes the first division of the prophetic ministry. The Lord selected the Twelve, "whom also he named apostles" (Mark 3:14 , the Revised Version margin), to be trained by personal fellowship with Him and by apprentice mission work among the villages of Galilee for that proclamation of His gospel which was to be their future life-work. Two things strictly personal and excluding every thought of successors separated the "Eleven" from all other men: long personal fellowship with Jesus in the inner circle of His followers, and their selection by Himself while still in the flesh. They were the "Apostles" in the narrow sense of the word. But the name was given to many others. Matthias, who had enjoyed personal intercourse with Jesus both before and after the resurrection, was called by the disciple company, confirmed by decision of the lot, to the same 'service and sending forth' (
Those "apostles," to whatever class they belonged, had one distinguishing characteristic: they had chosen as their life-work to be the missionary pioneers of the gospel of the Kingdom of Christ. They were all engaged in aggressive work, and were distinguished from others not so much by what they were as by what they did. They were wanderers with no fixed place of residence. The requirements of their work might make them abide for long periods in some center (as did Paul at Corinth and at Ephesus, or some of the "Eleven" at Jerusalem), but they had no permanent home life. As the earlier decades passed, their numbers increased rather than diminished. They are brought vividly before us in such writings as the Didache . They were to be highly honored, but as severely tested. They were not expected to remain longer than three days within a Christian community, nor to fare softly when there ( Didache ii. 4-6). The vindication of their call was what they were able to accomplish, and to this Paul, the greatest of them, appeals over and over again.
Prophets had been the religious guides of Israel of old, and the spirit of prophecy had never entirely died out. John the Baptist (Matthew 11:9 ), Simeon (Luke 2:25 , Luke 2:26 ), and Anna (Luke 2:36 ) had the gift in the days of Christ. It was natural for the Samaritan woman to believe that the stranger who spoke to her by the well was a prophet (John 4:19 ). The reappearance of prophecy in its old strength was looked on as a sign of the nearness of the coming of the Messiah. Jesus Himself had promised to send prophets among His followers (Matthew 10:41; Matthew 23:34; Luke 11:49 ). The promise was fulfilled. Christian prophets appeared within the church from its beginning. Nor were they confined to communities of Jewish Christians; prophecy appeared spontaneously wherever Christianity spread. We are told of prophets in the churches of Jerusalem and Caesarea where the membership was almost purely Jewish; at Antioch where Jews and Gentiles united to make one congregation; and everywhere throughout the Gentile churches - in Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica and in the Galatian churches (Acts 11:27; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9 , Acts 21:10; Romans 12:6 , Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 14:32 , 1 Corinthians 14:36 , 1 Corinthians 14:37; 1 Thessalonians 5:20; Galatians 3:3-5 ). Prophets are mentioned by name
Prophecy was founded on revelation; the prophets were men especially "gifted" with spiritual intuition and magnetic speech. Sometimes their "gift" took the form of ecstasy, but by no means always; Paul implies that prophets have a real command of and can control their utterances. Sometimes their message came to them in visions, such as we find in the Apocalypse and in Hermas; but this was not a necessary means. The prophets spoke as they were moved, and the Spirit worked on them in various ways.
The influence of those prophets seems to have increased rather than diminished during the earlier decades of the 2nd century. While the duty of the apostle was to the unbelievers, Jewish or heathen, the sphere of the activity of the prophet was within the Christian congregation. It was his business to edify the brethren. Prophets had a recognized place in the meeting for the public worship of the congregation; if one happened to be present at the dispensation of the Lord's Supper, he presided to the exclusion of the office-bearers, and his prayers were expected to be extempore ( Didache x.7); he had special powers when matters of discipline were discussed, as is plain from a great variety of evidence from Hermas down to Tertullian. From Paul's statements it seems that the largest number of the prophets he speaks of were members of the communities within which they used their "gift" of prophecy; but many of the more eminent prophets traveled from community to community edifying each. When such wandering prophets, with their wives and families, dwelt for a time in any Christian society, preaching and exhorting, it was deemed to be the duty of that society to support them, and regulations were made for such support. According to the Didache (chapter xiii): "Every true prophet who shall settle among you is worthy of his support ... Every first-fruit then of the products of the winepress and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, thou shalt take and give to the prophets ... In like manner also when thou openest a jar of wine or oil, take the first of it and give it to the prophets; and of money and clothing and every possession take the first as may seem right to thee, and give according to the commandment." Only, the receivers were to be true prophets. Each congregation had to exercise the "gift" of discrimination and sift the true from the false; for "false" prophets confronted the true in early Christianity as well as in the old Judaism.
While the third class of the prophetic ministry, the teachers, is found joined to the other two both in the New Testament and in sub-apostolic literature, and while Paul assigns a definite place for their services in the meeting for edification (1 Corinthians 14:26 ), we hear less about them and their work. They seem, however, to have lingered much longer in active service in the early church than did the apostles and the prophets.
2. The Local Ministry:
As has been said, the first notice we have of organization within a local church is in Acts 6:1-15 , where at the suggestion of the apostles seven men were selected to administer the charity of the congregation.
The conception that "the Seven" were a special order of office-bearers, deacons , is a comparatively late suggestion. These men are nowhere called deacons; the official designation is "The Seven." It may be that the appointment of those men was only a temporary expedient, but it is more probable that "the Seven" of Acts 6:1-15 are the elders of Acts 11; for we find those "elders" performing the duties which "the Seven" were appointed to fulfil. If so, we have in Acts 6:1-15 the narrative of the beginnings of local organization as a whole. When we turn to the expansion of Christian communities outside Jerusalem, we have no such distinct picture of beginnings; but as all the churches in Palestine evidently regarded the society in Jerusalem as the mother church, it is likely that their organization was the same. Acts tells us that Paul and Barnabas left behind them at Derbe, Lystra and Iconium societies of brethren with "elders" at their head. The word used suggests an election by popular vote and was probably the same as had been used in the selection of the "Seven" men.
When we examine the records of the distinctively Pauline churches, there is not much direct evidence for the origins of the ministry there, but a great deal about the existence of some kind of rule and rulers. For one thing, we can see that these churches had and were encouraged to have feelings of independence and of self-government; a great deal is said about the possession of "gifts" which imply the presence and power of the Spirit of Jesus within the community itself. We find names applied to men who, if not actually office-bearers, are at least leaders and perform the functions of office-bearers -
It may be said generally that about the close of the 1st century every Christian community was ruled by a body of men who are sometimes called presbyters (elders), sometimes but more rarely bishops (overseers), and whom modern church historians are inclined to call presbyter-bishops. Associated with them, but whether members of the same court or forming a court of their own it is impossible to say, were a number of assistant rulers called deacons . See BISHOP; CHURCH GOVERNMENT;
The question arises, How did this organization come into being? We may dismiss, to begin with, the idea once generally accepted among the Reformed churches, that the Christian society simply took over and made use of the synagogue system of organization (Vitringa, De synagoga vetere ). The points common to both reveal a superficial resemblance, but no more. The distinctive differences are great. When we add to them the decisive statement of Epiphanius ( Haeresis , xxx. 18), that the Jewish Christians (Judaizing) organized their communities with
(1) Evidence abounds to show that the local churches during the apostolic and sub-apostolic age were self-governing communities and that the real background of the ministry was not apostolic authority but the congregational meeting. Its representative character and its authority are seen in the apostolic and sub-apostolic literature from Paul to Cyprian.
(2) The uniquely Christian correlation of the three conceptions of leadership, service and "gifts"; leadership depended on service, and service was possible by the possession and recognition of special "gifts" which were the evidence of the presence and power of the Spirit of Jesus within the community. These "gifts" gave the church a Divine authority to exercise rule and oversight apart from any special apostolic direction.
(3) The general evidence existing to show that there was a gradual growth of the principle of association from looser to more compact forms of organization (Gayford, article "Church" in
(4) We must also bear in mind that the first Christians were well acquainted with various kinds of social organization which entered into their daily life and which could not fail to suggest how they might organize their new societies.
Examples occur readily: ( a ) Every Jewish village community was ruled by its "seven wise men," and it is probable that the appointment of the "Seven" in the primitive Jewish church was suggested by familiarity with this example of social polity. ( b ) It was and is an almost universal oriental usage that the "next of kin" to the founder was recognized, after the founder's death, to be the head of the new religious community founded, and this usage accounts for the selection of James, the eldest male surviving relative of our Lord, to be the recognized and honored head of the church in Jerusalem. James has been called the first bishop; but when we read in Eusebius ( Historia Ecclesiastica , III, 11,1, 2; 32,4; IV, 22,4; III, 20,1-8) how his successors were chosen, the term seems inappropriate. A succession in the male line of the kindred of Jesus, where the selection to office is mainly in the hands of a family council, and where two (James and Zoker) can rule together, has small analogy to episcopal rule. ( 100 ) The relation of "patron" to "client," which in one form or other had spread throughout the civilized world, is suggested by a series of kindred words used to denote rulers in local churches. We find
But while the Christian churches may have learned much about the general principles of associated life from all those varied forms of social organization, it cannot be said that they copied any one of them. The primitive Christian societies organized themselves independently in virtue of the new moral and social life implanted within them; and though they may have come to it by various paths, they all in the end arrived at one common form - a society ruled by a body of office-bearers who possessed the "gifts" of government and of subordinate service embodied in the offices of presbyter and deacon.
III. Threefold Congregational Ministry.
During the 2nd century the ministry was subject to a change. The ruling body of office-bearers in every congregation received a permanent president, who was called the pastor or bishop, the latter term being the commoner. The change came gradually. It provoked no strong opposition. By the beginning of the 3century it was everywhere accepted.
When we seek to trace the causes why the college of elders received a president, who became the center of all the ecclesiastical life in the local church and the one potent office-bearer, we are reduced to conjecture. This only can be said with confidence, that the change began in the East and gradually spread to the West, and that there are hints of a gradual evolution (Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries , 180,183-85). Scholars have brought forward many reasons for the change; the need for an undivided leadership in times of danger from external persecution or from the introduction of Gnostic speculations which disturbed the faith of the members; the convenience of being represented to other local churches by one man who could charge himself with the administration of the external affairs of the congregation; the need of one man to preside at the solemn and crowning act of worship, the administration of the Lord's Supper; the sense of congregational unity implied in the possession of one leader - each or all are probable ways in which the churches were influenced in making this change in their ministry.
This threefold congregational ministry is best seen in the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. They portray a Christian community having at its head a bishop, a presbyterium or session of elders, and a body of deacons. These form the ministry or office-bearers of the congregation to whom obedience is due. Nothing is to be done without the consent of the bishop, neither love-feast, nor sacrament, nor anything congregational. The ruling body is a court where the bishop sits as chairman surrounded by his council or session of elders; and the one is helpless without the other, for if the bishop be the lyre, the elders are the chords, and both are needed to produce melody. Ignatius compares the bishop to Jesus, and the elders to the apostles who surrounded Him. There is no trace of sacerdotalism, apostolic succession, one-man government, diocesan rule in those letters of Ignatius; and what they portray is unlike any form of diocesan episcopacy.
1. Insistence on Organization:
It is interesting to remark how all throughout the 3century and later every body of Christians, even if consisting of fewer than twelve families, is instructed to organize itself into a church under a ministry of office-bearers, consisting of a bishop or pastor, at least two elders and at least three deacons. Should the bishop be illiterate - for character more than erudition determined his choice - the congregation was told to elect a reader, and provision was made for a ministry of women. It was possible to obey such instructions, because the ministry of the early church received no stipends. The ministry were office-bearers, to whom ecclesiastical obedience was due in virtue of their call and election and their being set apart by prayer, and perhaps by laying on of hands, for sacred office; but they were at the same time merchants, artisans, or engaged in other secular callings, and supported themselves. Buildings, set apart for public worship, did not exist until the very close of the 2nd century, and then only in a few populous centers in towns which had felt persecution but slightly. The only property which a church possessed, besides its copies of the Scriptures, its congregational records and perhaps a place of burial, were the offerings which were presented by members of the congregation, mostly in kind, after the Eucharist; and these offerings were distributed to the poor of the congregation. If office-bearers received a share, it was only on account of their poverty and because they were on the roll of widows, orphans and helpless poor.
This threefold congregational ministry has been called by some scholars "monarchical episcopacy," a title as high-sounding as it is misleading. The kingdom over which those so-called monarchs presided might and often did consist of less than twelve families, and their rule was fenced in with many restrictions. We can collect from the Epistles of Ignatius what were the powers and what the limitations ( Epistle to Polycarp ) of the bishop. He administered the finances of the church; he was president of the court of Elders; he had the right to call and presumably to preside over the court of discipline; and he had the regulation of the sacraments in his hands. On the other hand, it is very doubtful whether he, or even he in conjunction with the elders, could excommunicate; that appears to have remained in the hands of the congregational meeting. The bishop might convoke the congregational meeting for the purpose, but it belonged to the meeting and not to the bishop to appoint delegates and messengers to other churches; and the meeting had the power to order the bishop to go on such a mission.
(1) Aid Given in Selecting a Bishop.
From what has been said it is plain that the selection of a bishop became one of the most important acts a congregation was called upon to perform. Accordingly, provision was made for its assistance. It is declared in the Apostolic Canons that if a congregation contains fewer than twelve men competent to vote at the election of a bishop, neighboring, "well-established" churches are to be written to in order that three men may be sent to assist the congregation in selecting their pastor ( Sources of the Apostolic Canons , 7,8). This is evidently the origin of what afterward became the custom and later a law, that the consecration of a bishop required the presence of three neighboring bishops - a rule which has given occasion to the saying that "all Christendom becomes Presbyterian on a consecration day." This custom and rule, which in its beginnings was simply practical assistance given to a weak by stronger congregations, came to bear the meaning that the bishop thus consecrated was an office-bearer in the church universal as well as the pastor of a particular congregation. It is also more than probable that this practice of seeking assistance in an emergency is the germ out of which grew the Synod - the earliest recorded synods being congregational meetings assisted in times of difficulty by advice of experienced persons from other churches.
(2) Bishops and Presbyters.
When a small group of villagers had been won to Christianity through the efforts of the Christian congregation in a neighboring town, they commonly were disinclined to separate from it, and came from their villages into town to join in the public worship. "On the day called Sunday," says Justin Martyr, "all who live in the city and in the country gather together into one place" ( Ap. , i. 67). The earliest collections of canons show that the bishop was able in time of absence or sickness to delegate his duties to elders or even to deacons; and this enabled him, when occasion for it arose, to be, through his office-bearers, the pastor of several congregations. We can see the same process at work more clearly in large towns where the number of Christians had become very large. The bishop was always held to be the head of the Christian community, however large, in one place. He was the pastor; he baptized; he presided at the Holy Supper; he admitted catechumens to the full communion of the brotherhood. By the middle of the 3century the work in most large towns was more than one man could do. No record exists of the number of members belonging to the Roman church at this time, but some idea of its size may be obtained from the fact that it had more than 1,500 persons on its poor-roll; and before the close of the century the Roman Christians worshipped in over 40 separate places of meeting. It is obvious that one man could not perform the whole pastoral duties for such a multitude, and that most of the pastoral work must have been delegated to the elders or presbyters. The unity of the pastorate was for long strictly preserved by the custom that the bishop consecrated the communion elements in one church, and these were carried round to the other congregations. The bishop was thus the pastor in every congregation; the elders and deacons belonged to the whole Christian community; they served all the congregations and were not attached to one distinctively. In Alexandria, on the other hand, something like a parochial system gathered round the bishop, for individual presbyters were set over the separate congregations within the city. But always and without exception the original pastoral status of the bishop was preserved by the fact that one portion of the pastoral duties was invariably left in his hands - the rite of confirmation whereby catechumens were admitted to full communion.
2. Multiplication of Orders: Growth of a Hierarchy:
The middle of the 3century witnessed two changes in the ministry of the church. One was a multiplication of orders and the other the growth of a hierarchy; and while many causes went to produce these changes it can hardly be doubted that they were at least partly due to the imitation of pagan religious organization. Although we find the distinction between those who are to be obeyed and those who are to obey clearly laid down in the Epistles of Paul, we do not find a common term in general use to denote the former class until the beginning of the 3century. In the west the word was ordo , and in the east clerus , from which come our "orders" and "clergy." Ordo was the designation for the municipality in towns or for the committee which presided over a confraternity; and clerus denoted rank or class. The introduction of ministerial stipends and the implication that a paid ministry was expected to give its whole time to the service of the church made the distinction between clergy and laity more emphatic. When we investigate the matter, it is evident that the fact that the clergy are paid complicates the question; for the earliest lists are evidently those who are entitled to share in the funds of the church, and widows and orphans figure as members of the ordo or clerus . Setting this disturbing element aside we find that the earliest division of the ministry in the 3century is into bishops, presbyters and deacons (all congregational); but bishops and presbyters are sometimes said to form the special ordo ecclesiasticus . The earliest addition to those three orders is the reader, and there follows soon the sub-deacon. Then come such persons as exorcists, acolyths, singers, door-keepers and even grave-diggers; and to such the name "minor orders" is given. All are included within the clergy, all receive a proportionate share of the revenues of the congregational funds. The presence of bishops, presbyters and deacons needs no explanation. Readers, as we have seen, were needed at first to assist illiterate bishops or pastors; their retention and the insertion of exorcists have been plausibly accounted for by the idea that they represented the absorption of the old prophetic ministry. But in instituting the other minor orders the Christian church evidently copied the pagan temple usages where persons who performed corresponding services were included among the temple ministry and had due share of the temple revenues. In the institution of a graded hierarchy including metropolitans and patriarchs, the churches probably followed the example of the great pagan organization called forth by the imperial cult of the Divi and Divae (Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry , 335 ff). As Mommsen remarks, "The conquering Christian church took its hierarchic weapons from the arsenal of the enemy."
Synods to begin with were essentially democratic assemblies. They were, in their primitive form, congregational meetings assisted in times of emergency by delegates (not necessarily bishops) from "well-established churches," and they grew to be the instrument by which churches grouped round one center became united into one compact organization. The times were not democratic, and gradually the presence of the laity and even of presbyters and deacons and their combined assent to the decisions of the assembly became more and more a matter of form and gradually ceased altogether. The synods consisted exclusively of bishops and became councils for registering their decisions; and this implied that each local church was fully and completely represented by its pastor or bishop, who had become very much of an autocrat, responsible, not to his congregation nor even to a synod, but to God alone. Before the end of the 3century and onward, synods or councils had become a regular part of the organization of the whole church, and the membership was confined to the bishops of the several churches included within the group. It was natural that such assemblies should meet in the provincial capitals, for the roads converged to the cities which were the seats of the Roman provincial administration. A synod required a chairman, and various usages obtained about the natural chairman. At first the oldest bishop present was placed in the chair, and this continued long to be the practice in several parts of the empire. Gradually it became the habit to put into the chair the bishop of the town in which the council met, and this grew to a prescriptive right. It was then that the bishops of the towns which were the meeting-places of synods came to be called metropolitans. The title was for long one of courtesy only and did not carry with it any ecclesiastical rank and authority. But by the middle of the 4th century the metropolitans had acquired the right to summon the synods and even to exercise some authority over the bishops of the bounds, especially in the matter of election and consecration. When Christianity was thoroughly established as the religion of the empire, the more important bishops secured for themselves the civil precedence and privileges which had belonged to the higher priests of the abandoned Imperial Cult, and the higher ranks of the Christian ministry came into the possession of a lordship strangely at variance with their earlier position of service.
C. Vitringa, De synagoge vetere libra tres , Leucopetrae (Weissenfels), 1726; Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church , 1708-32; Bannermann, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church ; Hort, The Christian Ecclesia ; Lightfoot, Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians (dissertation on the ministry); Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Church , and articles on "Orders" in Smith's Dictionary of Christian Antiquities ; Harnack, The Expositor for January to June, 1887, and Entstehung u. Entwicklung der Kirchenverfassung ... in d. zwei ersten Jahrhunderten (1910) (English translation, The Constitution and Law of the Church ); Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries ; Schmiedel, article "Ministry" in
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Ministry'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​m/ministry.html. 1915.