Changing Forms of Ministry in the Early Church
by Hamilton Hess
from Sexism and Church Law
edited by James A. Coriden 1977, pp. 43-57
published by Paulist Press, New York/Ramsey, N.J./Toronto
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
The Catholic Church of the I970’s is beset with a restlessness regarding the expression of its faith, its ways of worship, the patterns of its life and the forms of its ministry. The mood of restlessness is shared to one degree or another by the majority of Christian Churches. Even as this paper is in preparation, the American Episcopal Church has approved in General Convention the ordination of women to the priesthood. The radical significance of this action in the face of twenty centuries of Christian tradition can scarcely be overstressed.
The current restlessness is born of cultural pressures, of a sharpened historical awareness and of changing aspirations of the human spirit. Restlessness leads to change, and change in the Christian community inevitably finds itself in tension with tradition and in potential conflict with principles which are accounted to be essential to the Church’s message, mission or self-understanding.
This paper is concerned with changing structures in the Christian community and with changing forms of ministry. Its focal point is not change in the present but change in the past. We are concerned with the process which led to the formation of the ecclesial structures and ministerial forms which we have inherited, with the causes of this process, and with the concepts of the Christian community and ministry that are involved. It is hoped that in considering these matters we may more fully appreciate the issues which presently face us and may be assisted in discerning the principles of community and ministry that should apply. The present paper lays no particular claim to originality. For the most part its purpose is to draw together certain findings and conclusions of modern scholarship as they relate to structure and ministry in the early church.
For the Christian Church, the twentieth century is showing signs of being comparable to the fourth. Both are periods of significant and rapid change, rivaled only by the first century as the foundational period and by the 16th century as the age of the Protestant reform. Seen as the focal point of the somewhat broader time frame of 250 to 500 AD., the fourth century is in many ways one of the most crucial periods in the history of the Christian Church. During this time the classical doctrinal formulations common to East and West received their basic shape, the major liturgical rites were fundamentally established and the organizational structure and ministerial functions of the Christian community assumed the form which has essentially persisted up to the present time.
In terms of position in the community and possibilities for service, the consequences of the fourth century changes in ecclesial structure and ministerial form were immense for lay people in general, and for women in particular. A distinctly clerical class emerged within the community and all ecclesial functions effectively passed into its hands. The fact that the class was male precluded Christian females from even the limited participation in leadership and distinctive service within the community which they had previously exercised.
During the first few centuries the local Christian community was served by a variety of functionaries who together carried forward the total life of the Church. The community believed itself to be the arena of the workings of the Spirit of God, and the operations of leadership and service performed within it were regarded as functional charisms received from the Spirit. Some functions were structured within the community and were recognized by ratification or appointment with the laying on of hands. Some were totally unstructured “happenings” in the Spirit, and some were established functions of service recognized or conferred by forms of appointment less formal than the laying on of hands.
While the later distinctions between “ordained” and “non-ordained” may be meaningfully applied to the first and second groups, they do not apply with any precision at all to the third. For this reason, the concept of ordination must be used with care, for a proper understanding of ecclesial functions in the early Church does not allow a clear distinction to be drawn between the first and third groups, nor for that matter does it disallow an overlap between the first and second groups or the second and the third. It is clear, in fact, that no absolute distinctions can be made.
The first group is composed of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and is distinguished from other functions both by formality of appointment and by the pre-eminence of leadership which its representatives exercised within the community. It is this group which has been consistently referred to as the threefold “Apostolic ministry” by Catholic and Anglican writers during the past century, with the assertion of its foundation within the Church by Jesus and the Apostles. It need not detract from either the authority nor the antiquity claimed for the group to point out that during the first century it seems impossible to draw firm distinctions between those who were called bishops and those who were called presbyters, that the specific ecclesial functions under these titles had not yet stabilized, and that the diaconate as a formalized function within the community seems to have been established no earlier than about 70 A.D. Furthermore, we may cite two clear examples of overlap between this group and the second group, which for practical purposes may be said to be composed of prophets and confessors. At least in the Church of Antioch during the late first or early second century, a prophet was entitled to preside at the Eucharist in place of the bishop. (1) At Rome in the late second or early third century a confessor who had suffered imprisonment for his faith, was to be admitted to the office of presbyter or deacon without formal ordination. (2)
The third group was by far the largest and was composed of functionaries who were centrally involved in the life of the second and third century community in capacities both subordinate and auxiliary to the liturgical, pastoral, disciplinary and teaching leadership of the bishops, presbyters and deacons. The members of this group are widows, deaconesses, subdeacons, readers, acolytes, healers, and doorkeepers. They are of particular interest to our study, for their ministerial services were gradually assimilated by the clerical class which emerged during the fourth century. The male functionaries, while surviving in name as clerical novices and trainees, ceased to be significant within the life of the community, and the female functionaries disappeared entirely.
We have noted that the concept of “ordination” must be carefully qualified when applied to ministerial functions in the Church of the first three centuries. This does not mean that concepts of ministerial authority were lacking nor that specific operations of the Spirit were not seen to be focussed in particular ministries. Ignatius of Antioch bears clear witness to these concepts in the second decade of the second century. Concerning bishops, presbyters and deacons, he writes,
I exhort you to strive to do all things in harmony with God: the bishop is to preside in the place of God, while the presbyters are to function as the council of the Apostles, and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ. (3)
All authority regarding the liturgical celebration of the Christian mysteries is committed to the bishop:
It is not permitted without authorization from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape; but whatever he approves is pleasing to God, … Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it. (4)
It has been argued that this Ignation view of ecclesial leadership is anomalously authoritarian and structured for its times. Ignatius may well have been in the vanguard of such developments, but he was not alone, for the Ignatian pattern was already widespread in Syria and Asia Minor and was universally established in the Church within four or five decades of his own time.
Ministry during the first three centuries was, however, understood as a function of service within a spirit filled community in which all members shared in the life of the Spirit, each exercising the particular gifts, or charisms, with which he or she had been endowed. At the end of the second century, Irenaeus is clearly expressive of this understanding as he states,
“For in the Church,” it is said, “God hath set apostles, prophets, teachers,” and all the other means through which the Spirit works. . . For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace. (5)
The ministries which flow from these gifts are, as St. Paul tells us, “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ.” (6) Second century models of the Church such as “the high priestly race of God” or the “brotherhood” strongly reflect this notion of communitarian sharing in the gifts and functions of the spirit.
Although there is no articulation of a theology of the conferral of charisms (in later terms, a theology of ordination), the gifts of the spirit in service to the community seem to have been regarded as both given by God and ratified or authenticated by the community within which they were exercised. Authentication took the form of either recognition alone or supplication for the conferral of gifts upon a person who was recognized as having been called to receive them. In certain situations the clear manifestation of a spiritual charism or gift of service is taken as a sign of divine conferral, and no action is taken by the community. This is the case with the healer in Rome in the early third century, (7) and the prophet and the possessor of the gift of knowledge as well as the healer are given the same recognition in a fifth century Syrian document which reflects earlier practice. (8) We have previously noted this recognition of extraordinary gifts in the confessor who had suffered imprisonment, which qualified him for the presbyterate or diaconate without formal appointment. Concerning virgins, the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus and the Testament of Our Lord tell us that “The virgin is not appointed but voluntarily separated and named. A virgin does not have an imposition of hands, for personal choice alone is that which makes a virgin.” (9) Clearly, the Church acknowledged that some charisms were regularly conferred directly by God without community action and that others (apparently all with the exception of the episcopate) could be so conferred in circumstances of an extraordinary nature. The divine action was, however, understood normally to take place through the cooperative action of the community.
These concepts are illustrated by the ordination prayers for bishops, presbyters and deacons in the early third century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome. The bishop is to be “chosen by all the people,” and the appointment is to take place in their presence, “together with the presbytery and such bishops as may attend.” The bishops are to lay hands upon the chosen one and “All [the whole assembly] shall keep silence praying in their heart for the descent of the Spirit.” Then one bishop “at the request of all” shall lay his hand on the one being ordained and shall pray to the Father:
“. . . and now pour forth that Power which is from Thee of ‘the princely Spirit’ which thou didst deliver to thy Beloved Child Jesus Christ, which he bestowed on the holy Apostles . . . grant upon this thy servant whom thou hast chosen for the episcopate to feed thy holy flock and serve as thine high priest . . . and that by the high priestly Spirit he may have authority to forgive sins according to thy command, to assign lots according to thy bidding . . ,” (10)
The prayer for the ordination of the presbyter calls also for the “power which is from thee, of ‘the princely Spirit’ “, which is in this case identified as the “spirit of grace and counsel, that he may share in the presbyterate and govern thy people in a pure heart.” (11) With reference to the deacon, it is stated that “he does not receive the Spirit which is common to the presbyterate” (the “Spirit of seniority” as it is described by the Arabic version of Hippolytus’ work found in an Egyptian collection.) The prayer at the deacon’s ordination calls upon the Father for “the Holy Spirit of grace and earnestness and diligence upon this thy servant whom thou hast chosen to minister to thy Church.” (12)
Three points illustrated by this material call for our attention. First, the bishop, the presbyter and the deacon are regarded as charismatic functionaries in service to the community to which they are appointed, each receiving a different “spirit”; the bishop the “princely spirit” and the “high priestly spirit,” the presbyter also the “princely spirit” but uniquely this “spirit of grace and counsel,” and the deacon the “spirit of grace and earnestness and diligence,” but explicitly not the spirit common to the presbyters. Second, it is stated of the bishop and deacon — and presumably intended with regard to the presbyter also — that the recipient of the Spirit has been chosen by God, although it is clear that in the case of bishops and presbyters the selection has been made by the ecclesial body. The implicit attribution of divine determination to community choice is indicative that election by the community is itself regarded as the exercise of a corporate charism. Third, the function of the bishop “to assign lots according to thy bidding” is a reference to his powers to ordain or to confer charisms according to the divine will. The term dents (Greek kleros), or “clergy,” which is used in the Apostolic Tradition and elsewhere in reference to major ministerial functionaries, seems to be derived from its use in Acts 1:17, in which this first ministerial appointment of the infant Church, in the person of Matthias, was made by lot (kleros), through which the choice of God was made manifest.
The unique importance of each ministry within the community, and the fact that each was understood as the expression of an individual and separate charism is further illustrated by the custom of the direct appointment of persons to ministerial functions, irrespective of other functions that they may or may not have previously exercised, St. Cyprian, for example, was ordained presbyter and later bishop, without having held a lesser ministry. Although it was common practice at Rome to select the bishop from among the deacons, Pope Fabian (d. 250) was a layman at the time of his election. General custom provided for the selection of candidates for the higher ministries from among those who had proven their worthiness by serving the community in lesser capacities, but any notion of progression through an ascending scale of ministries, each possessing the ministerial powers of the one below it, was not only lacking but antithetical to the concept of a multiplicity of distinctive and complementary charisms operative within the Spirit-filled community.
The ministries which have been described had their place within a communitarian ecclesial structure. It has been argued by scholars of the evangelical traditions that the Church of the earliest decades was virtually without structure, and that the original ideal of the Christian community allowed for the unhampered freedom of the charisms of the Spirit. Structure, ministerial offices, and the establishment of a lineage of leadership, it is argued, were false to the unhampered freedom in the spirit by which the Christian movement was characterized.
On the contrary, it would seem that the followers of Jesus very quickly structured their communal life, and that they used the organizational model which was familiar to them as Jews and which would quite naturally be utilized by those who considered their religious movement to be the fulfillment of Judaism and themselves to be the New Israel. Their organizational model was the synagogue congregation under the leadership of a board of elders (presbyters) who were chosen from the membership of the community and who were ultimately responsible for all aspects of its life. While Paul does not mention presbyters in his epistles, the salutation to the bishops at Philippi in Philippians 1:1 is probably a reference to ruling elders, and there is no reason to dispute the account of Paul’s farewell address to the presbyters of Ephesus in Acts 20:17. These allusions would indicate an established presbyteral structure in these churches in 60-63 A.D., and as early as 52 A.D. Paul refers to the rulership in the Church at Philippi as “those who are over you in the Lord.”
The list of charismatic functionaries which Paul gives in Corinthians 12 (52-55 A.D.), Romans 12 (58 A.D.) and Ephesians 4 (early 60’s) are instructive. Not only do we find those gifted with the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing of spirits, speaking with tongues, the interpretation of tongues, service, exhortation, and financial contribution, but we are also told that there are apostles, evangelists, teachers, helpers, pastors, and administrators. The latter three in particular represent functions of authority and reflect an organizational structure within which the more spontaneous charisms can operate in cooperative interrelationship.
The Church of the first three centuries continued to be characterized by the synagogal structure as well as by the charismatic concept of ministry, but a number of subtle and gradual changes were taking place throughout this period which were in fact preparing the way for a radical shift from the charismatic concept and communitarian structure to a different understanding of ministry and the application of a different organizational model.
Evangelical Christian critics of the “early Catholicism” exhibited in the Pastoral Epistles and in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch are correct in their discernment of a gradual crystalization of ecclesiastical offices from an earlier plasticity of function within the Christian community. The eucharistic presidency and sacramental and pastoral ministry which appertained uniquely to the bishop on a universal basis by 150 A.D. had presumably been previously exercised severally among the ruling presbyters of the Christian congregation. The diaconate seems to have been universally established as a formal ministry by 70 A.D., with the drawing together of a number of services, liturgical and otherwise, which had previously been provided by a greater number of persons within the community. The public reading of scripture in the Christian assembly was evidently practised from the beginning of the Church’s liturgical life, but it was not until the latter part of the second century that the office of lector became established. The subdeacon, as designated assistant to the deacon, first appears in about 250, as does the acolyte, to whose office a variety of minor liturgical tasks were assimilated.
The trend is clearly one of the upward absorption of ecclesial functions to increasingly prestigious and frequently powerful ministerial offices. By the fourth century, for example, the deacons wielded immense influence as immediate assistants to the bishop. Canon 18 of the Council of Nicea indicates that at least in some regions deacons rivaled presbyters in prestige and honor, and they are bidden to observe the duties and prerogatives of their own station. Common tendencies toward organizational complexification and toward an inflation of the authority of established offices are apparent throughout the pre Nicene period.
Before we consider other factors leading to the fourth century shifts in ministry and ecclesial structure, it is appropriate to consider the early ministries of deaconesses and widows. Not only do they appertain directly to the theme of this symposium, but in the widow especially we find an example of a communitarian function which grew in prestige as a specific ministry in the second and third centuries and which eventually disappeared as a result of the shifts of the fourth and the fifth.
Both the deaconess and the widow occupied positions and performed functions within the community which were analogous to those of male counterparts but which were at the same time modified in accordance with the generally inferior position of women in contemporary culture. The prestige and functional roles of the female minister seem to have varied from area to area. Such variations presumably resulted from subcultural differences and modifications of custom resulting from local circumstance and the influences exercised by specific personalities.
Women ministers who gave service (diakonid) within the community are described as early as c. 58 A.D. in the reference to Phoebe in Romans 16:1. I Timothy 3:11 witnesses to “the women likewise” who with male deacons must be serious, temperate and faithful. The earliest description of the duties of the deaconess are given in chapter 16 of the Didascalia Apostolorum, written as a book of ground-rules for a community in Syria in the early third century. The appointment and duties of deacons and deaconesses are treated together. The bishop is instructed: “Those that please thee out of all the people thou shalt choose and appoint as deacons: a man for the performance of most things that are required, but a woman for the ministry of women.” Women deacons are to be sent to minister to believing women in pagan households, they are to anoint women in baptism and to instruct women in keeping the baptismal seal, they are to visit the sick and to minister to those in need. (13) Deaconesses seem generally to have shared the deaconal ministry with men except for the functions performed by male deacons in the Eucharist, although certain liturgical duties also were performed by deaconesses in the Nestorian and Monophysite churches of the fifth and sixth centuries. The eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions, presumably representing fourth century Syrian practice, gives an ordination prayer for the deaconess which is quite parallel to that for the deacon, and, as with the deacon, she is to be ordained with the laying on of hands in the presence of the presbyters and deacons (and in her case, the deaconesses). (14)
The widowhood seems to have been confined throughout its existence to membership by those who were widows indeed. In I Timothy 5:9-10 it is stated that only those are to be “enrolled” as widows who are sixty years of age or more and well proven in good deeds and piety. Their position in the community is apparently that of worthy and respected recipients of charitable assistance. A century and a half later, the Syrian Didascalia shows widows to have taken on a specific role with the community. As elder women of proven character and devotion, they are respected intercessors for those who contribute to their support and for the whole Church. They pray over the sick and also lay hands upon them. Widows are not to curse anyone, “for they have been appointed to bless,” and are grouped in this function with the bishop, the presbyters and deacons. However, they are to be subject to the deacons as well as to the bishop, and as with all women (presumably including deaconesses) they are not to teach. (15) The roughly contemporary Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome speaks of the widow in analagous fashion. She is not to be ordained because she does not have a liturgical ministry. She is “appointed for prayer, and this a function of all Christians.” (16) The early fourth century Egyptian Apostolic Church Order directs that three widows be appointed, “two to devote themselves to prayer on behalf of all who are tempted, and to revelations to whatever extent is necessary, and one to succour women who are sick.” (17)
The details of their position are not as important as the fact that the widows have risen as a class to exercise functional roles within the community which is fundamentally derived from their prestige as its female senior members. This suggests a position analagous to that of the presbyter, and this suggestion is borne out by a number of sources in the third and fourth centuries. Origen, preaching in Palestine during the earlier part of the third century, links bishops, presbyters, deacons and widows as “ecclesiastical dignitaries,” (18) and his contemporary, Tertullian, writing in Roman North Africa groups these four classes of functionaries together as “the clergy.” (19)
The fifth century Testament of Our Lord, written in Syria, shows the widowhood at the apparent apex of its development. It directs that there are to be thirteen widows “who sit in front,” meaning in the seats reserved for the clergy. During the celebration of the Eucharist they are to stand “immediately behind the presbyters on the left side of the bishop,” while the deacons stand behind the presbyters on the right hand side of the bishop. The Testament provides an ordination prayer for the widow in which it is asked that God may send the “spirit of strength upon this thy servant and strengthen her in your truth, that fulfilling your precepts and laboring in your sanctuary, she may be an honorable vessel”; further on in the same prayer it is asked, “give to her, Lord, the spirit of humility, virtue, patience and kindness, that taking up your yoke with unspeakable joy she may persevere in her work.” (20) Her “work” is described in the Testament as prayer and spiritual ministry and leadership among the women.
The widow’s role is significantly parallel to that of the presbyter. Both are the elder spiritual dignitaries of the Christian community, and it is from this that their ministries derive. As we shall note below, the presbyter’s function did not inherently involve a liturgical or sacramental ministry, although he increasingly exercised these roles during the third century. Similarly, the widow is frequently found to be performing duties of the deaconess, such as assisting at the baptism of women, but these are not associated with the charisms of the Spirit which are given to her. The presbyter leads through governance and has an overall responsibility for the welfare of the Christian community. The widow leads through prayer and has an overall responsibility for the women of the congregation. She is the “altar of God” (21) to the community, fulfilling a ministry of prayer and Christian example. The roles of both the presbyter and the widow will disappear as the Church takes on a new organizational structure.
We have noted the gradual upward absorption of ecclesial functions during the pre-Nicene period from an initially broad base of participation within the Christian community to a relatively small number of officially designated ministers. This is one of the preparatory factors underlying the shifts of the fourth century. Other factors must be discussed as well.
The first of these is the gradual decline of the sense of the charismatic which is evidenced from the early second century onward. The magnificent statement of Irenaeus quoted above concerning the Spirit in the Church is paralleled by other late second and third century writers, but the Church of the second century lacked the sense of the dynamism of the Spirit in the community that is present in the first, and this decline is even more evident in the third. Enthusiasm and spontaneity within the Christian movement inevitably became tempered with time, and the discernment of authentic manifestations of the Spirit became a problem. (22) The Montanist movement in the late second century was partially a revivalist trend which was attempting to recapture the spiritual enthusiasm of earlier decades. Ironically, Montanism itself caused the further suppression and institutionalization of the Spirit as the main stream of Christianity reacted against its excesses.
The diminished sense of the dynamic presence of the Spirit within the Christian community inevitably led to a shift of attention from the charisms expressed in its varied ministries to the ministries themselves, and from the Spirit whose charisms they were to the offices within which they were exercised. Ministry gradually came to be viewed as a function of the Church rather than as a function of the Spirit who chooses his own functionaries as he wills, both through the action of the community and independently from it. In the middle of the third century Cyprian develops a theology of the episcopate considerably beyond that of Ignatius when he writes:
Thence have come down to us in course of time and by due succession the ordained office of the bishop and the constitution of the Church, forasmuch as the Church is founded upon the bishops and every act of the Church is subject to these rulers. (23)
Here the continued existence of the Church itself becomes dependent upon the episcopate. Cyprian further expresses the notion of the episcopate as a foundational office when he states, “The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole.” (24) The theological model of ministry has been altered from operational charisms within a Spirit filled community to the exercise of the ministry of Jesus Christ by delegation from those whom he has sent. This was certainly not a new idea,” but in becoming the dominant model it provides a theological foundation for the hierarchical structuring of ministerial offices in the century to follow.
The growth of the Church’s membership and the spread of Christianity from the cities and larger towns to the smaller towns and villages during the latter part of the third and early fourth centuries brought conditions which resulted in rapid organizational change. In the Church of the second and third centuries, each local congregation was led by its own bishop and college of presbyters. The bishop was the celebrant of the Eucharist and sacraments, and this ministry was not normally shared by presbyters, who had their own specific functions of governance. There is evidence for the occasional celebration of the Eucharist by presbyters in the bishop’s absence, but this seems to have been by specific delegation rather than by prerogative of office. (26) As daughter churches began to multiply in the regions surrounding the original Christian communities, bishops were appointed to preside over them. In both Asia Minor and in the West in the early fourth century we hear of “country bishops” and the problems connected with them.
The alternative which was rapidly adopted in both East and West was the delegation of presbyters on a regular basis to serve as eucharistic and sacramental ministers, and soon as permanent pastors in the outlying congregations. This entailed radical changes in organizational structure and ministerial function. The presbyter was no longer a ruling elder within a community exercising his own unique function and the bishop was no longer the pastor of a single flock. The presbyter was a delegate of the bishop exercising the bishop’s ministry, and the bishop lost his personal relationship with his people and became the ruler of a diocese. The presbyter, who had been an “elder of the people” within the congregation was not replaced, except perhaps by a brief experiment in North Africa under the title “Senior of the Church.”
These changes took place rapidly in some localities and more gradually in others, but the evidences provided by fourth century synods and councils indicate that they were universally in progress during the first half of the century. The canons of several synods of the period bear witness to the presbyter celebrant, (27) and canons 6 and 15 of the Council of Sardica assume the existence of parishes in which a presbyter is resident as pastor Canon 6 which deals with the problem of “country bishops,” forbids the ordination of bishops for communities in which presbyters would suffice. Presbyter pastors are also presumed by canons 47, 49, 50, 52 and 58 of the spurious series known as the “Canons of the Apostles,” which was composed in the East during the latter half of the fourth century.
The functions and position of the deacon and the lesser ministers within the community were affected in turn by the new roles of the bishop and the presbyter. The deacon, having been the chief assistant to the bishop, now undergoes a two-fold transition as he either moves upward with the bishop and becomes a diocesan administrator or remains an assistant in the parish community in service under the presbyter-priest. In both cases the importance of the diaconate diminished. The positions of diocesan administrators, while frequently retaining the diaconal title (e.g. the cardinal deacons of Rome), gradually became filled by presbyter-priests, and the deacons in the parishes lost considerable prestige.
The Church of the fourth century found itself in a new situation following the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313. Political freedom for Christians within the Empire brought theological disputes into the market place and created a need for mechanisms for their resolution on a regional or global basis. A rapid growth of the Church’s membership with the influx of large numbers of social and political converts lowered the level of Christian commitment and the degree of popular participation in the life of the Church and accelerated the emergence of a distinctly clerical class. The changing roles of bishops and presbyters called for new structures of leadership. The manipulation of the Church by the imperial power brought internal problems and tensions which called for centralized leadership and mechanisms for dealing with rival factions. The structure of the Church of the first three centuries, as a loosely knit association of functionally independent communities, was inadequate in face of these new demands.
A new ecclesial model was ready at hand in the institutions of the Roman state. The imperial model was not chosen as a consciously deliberated alternative, but its organizational forms were spontaneously adopted and modified in relation to the particular and urgent needs of the Church. As city pastors with responsibility for a family of flocks, the newly emerging diocesan bishops became the counterparts of city magistrates. The bishops of provincial capitals became metropolitan bishops with recognized authority over the bishops of the province (28) as counterparts of the provincial governor. A similar development in the hierarchicalization of structure is seen in the emergence of patriarchal jurisdiction, (29) and the development of the papal office during the fourth and fifth centuries was significantly influenced by the application of the same model. (30) The new model also fostered an understanding of ecclesial authority in terms of binding jurisdiction in contrast to the charismatic, morally suasive leadership of the earlier centuries. The agreements reached at the synods and councils of the fourth and fifth centuries gradually came to be regarded as ecclesial law, and were gathered together into a corpus analagous to the imperial civil code. The synods and councils themselves were a form of governance significantly influenced by the Roman senate and its provincial parallels.
The new ecclesial structure was essentially vertical. The functionaries within it were interrelated in a chain of command in which appointment to office tended to be upward from the lowest to the highest. In contrast to the earlier mode of appointment by which office holders were appointed directly to the function which they were to exercise, canon 13 of the Council of Sardica (343) directs that no man shall be appointed bishop unless he has passed successively through the offices of reader, deacon and presbyter and has been found worthy. During the fourth century the readership in both East and West became a probationary office for young aspirants to higher ranks in the ministry.
The crystalization of a vertically structured hierarchical ministry accelerated the upward absorption of ecclesial functions and also assisted in creating a chasm between clergy and people which had not existed in earlier centuries. Whereas formerly the term laos had appertained to the whole people of God as a term of dignity, it now became a term distinguishing the common Christian from the kleros, or clergy, with whom the active affairs of the Church were exclusively identified. Although popular suffrage in the election of bishops was suppressed with difficulty, the trend toward suppression is clear in canons 19 and 23 of Antioch (330), which introduce the provincial synod as the appointing body, and in canon 13 of Laodicea which directs that “the election of those who are to be appointed to the priesthood is not to be committed to the multitude.” Canon 44 of Laodicea forbids women to go to the altar, and canon 69 of the Council “in Trullo” at Constantinople two centuries later (692) forbids lay men as well to enter the sanctuary or to teach.
Canon 11 of Laodicea prohibits the appointment of “presbytides” or “female presidents” in the churches. The meaning is obscure, but it is probably expressive of the general movement toward the suppression of the widow as female counterpart to the presbyter. The office of deaconess was ordered to be suppressed by the Councils of Epaon (517) and Orleans (533) in the West, but survived with respect somewhat longer in the East. The ordination of deaconesses is mentioned, for instance, in canon 14 of the Council “in Trullo,” but is also associated with the monastic life in canon 48 of the same council. The future of women’s roles in the active life of the Church was soon to be confined entirely to the monastery in both East and West.
The fourth century changes in the structures of the Church and forms of its ministry were brought about by internal conditions and external pressures which demanded rapid resolution. The Church’s response to the situation was in certain ways tremendously successful, but success was procured at a price which is still being paid. The emergence of an all male, vertically structured clerical class which became the official Church has resulted in the exclusion from meaningful and effective ministry those members of the People of the Spirit, both female and male, whose charisms of service could have immeasurably enriched the life of the Christian community and enhanced its mission during the centuries to follow. Our own century is a time of reappraisal and it will undoubtedly be a time of further change in response to the pressures of our own age. It is hoped that we may be assisted in the tasks which we will face by the Spirit of perspective, of insight and of responsibility to the whole people of God and to the community of humankind.
1. Didache 10
2. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 10
3. Magnesians, 6
4. Smyrneans, 8
5. Adversus Haereses, 3.24.1
6. Ephesians, 4:12
7. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 15
8. Testament of O.L., 47
9. Quotation from Apostolic Tradition, 13; See Testament of Our Lord 1.46
10. Chapters 2 and 3
12. Chapter 9
13. Chapter 16
14. Chapters 17-20
15. Chapter 15
16. Chapter 11
17. Chapter 21
18. Homily on Luke 17
19. On Monogamy 11.1,4; 12.1
20. Book 2, Chapter 41
21. Polycarp, Philippians 4; Didascalia 15
22. See I John 4:1 and Didache 11
23. Epistle 33.1
24. On the Unity of the Church 5
25. See Clement of Rome, I Corinthians 42 and 44; also Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.3.1.
26. Presbyters under Cyprian celebrated the Eucharist for confessors in prison. Cyprian, Epistle 5.2; Epistle 34.1. Ignatius allows that the bishop may entrust the celebration of the Eucharist to others.
27. Canon 1 of Ancyra (312); canon 19 of Neoceasarea (c. 315); canon 4 of Gangra (341); canon 6 of Sardica (343), canons 10 and 11 of the African Code.
28. See for example canon 4 of Nicaea (325); canons 16, 19, and 20 of Antioch (330); canons 6, 9 and 14 of Sardica; canons 17 and 19 of the African Code; and canon 19 of Chalcedon (451).
29. See canon 6 of Nicaea, canon 3 of Constantinople (381), and canon 28 of Chalcedon.
30. Canons 3, 4, and 7 of Sardica recognize the bishop of Rome as the highest authority for purposes of appeal.
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