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Monday, September 28, 2009

"The Structure and Worship of the Early Church" by Clark Carlton

This is from the Father Alexander website.


The cup of blessing which we
bless, is it not the communion of the Blood of Christ? The bread which we break,
is it not the communion of the Body of Christ? For we being many are one bread,
and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread (1 Cor. 10:16-17).

The reason why different denominations, with very different forms of
church government, can all claim to be based on the "New Testament model" is
that the New Testament is not very specific about how the Church is to be
organized or how services are to be conducted. It would be a grave mistake,
however, to infer from this that the early Church had no definite structure or
patterns of worship. The New Testament does not give a detailed plan of Church
government, because the Church already existed when the books of the New
Testament were written. As we pointed out above, the epistles were not written
to be an "owner's manual."

Because of this, if we want to know more
about the early Church, we must look beyond the pages of the Scriptures to the
earliest documents of the post-apostolic Church. This is not to suggest that
these other documents are more important-or even as important-as the Divine
Scriptures; they certainly are not. Their importance lies in the fact that they
tell us how the earliest Christians interpreted the Bible and applied those
interpretations to their lives. In doing so, they answer many of the questions
that modern Protestants have about Church life.

Earlier (in ch. 5) we
examined how the description of Baptism in the Didache shed light on the
biblical passages relating to the practice of Baptism. Let us now turn our
attention to a more systematic study of life in the early Church, focusing in
particular on Church government and worship.

In addition to the Didache,
four other documents from the first two centuries help us understand how the
early Church was organized and how She worshipped: I Clement, the Letters of St.
Ignatios of Antioch, the Apologies of St. Justin the Philosopher, and Against
Heresies by St. Irenaios of Lyons. To be sure, we have many other documents from
the second century, but these contain the most specific information about Church

I Clement is a letter that was sent from the Church in Rome to the
Church in Corinth around A.D. 95-96. Although St. Clement is not mentioned by
name in the letter, early tradition is unanimous in assigning it to Clement.
There is now no serious scholarly challenge to this attribution. St. Irenaios of
Lyons, writing in the latter half of the second century, tells us that Clement
was the third bishop of Rome and that he personally knew Ss. Peter and Paul. He
has also been connected with the Clement mentioned in Phil. 4:3. This letter,
therefore, stands as a bridge between the apostolic and post-apostolic ages.
(For a general introduction and bibliography, see Quasten, pp. 42-53.
Translations may be found in collections of the Apostolic Fathers. There is also
a translation by J.A. Kleist, The Epistles of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of
Antioch, Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 1, NY: Newman Press, 1946. It is
generally accepted that II Clement is an early sermon by someone other than St.
Clement of Rome).

Around A.D. 107, St. Ignatios, the bishop of Antioch,
was sent, under arrest, to Rome for execution. During his sojourn, he wrote
letters to several Churches. Seven of those letters are extant. They provide an
invaluable insight into Church life at the beginning of the second century.
(Quasten, pp. 63-76).

The Apologies of St. Justin the Philosopher are
somewhat unique in that they are addressed not to fellow Christians, but to the
pagan emperor. Dating from the middle of the second century, their value for our
purpose lies in the fact that Justin describes Church life to the emperor in
order to dispel various myths that were circulating through the Roman world. I
Clement and the Letters of Ignatios are similar to the epistles of the New
Testament in that they are occasional letters. Justin, however, describes in
some detail things that these letters only hint at. (Quasten, pp. 196-221).

One could say that St. Irenaios is the theologian par excellence of the
second century. His Against Heresies is a gold mine of information. This work
dates from the second half of the second century. Though he is known as the
bishop of Lyons in Gaul (France), he was originally from Asia Minor and knew St.
Polycarp of Smyrna, who was himself a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Thus,
Irenaios was a spiritual grand-child of the Apostles. (Irenaios is also spelled
Irenaeus. For background and bibliography see Quasten, pp. 287-313. We do not
possess complete texts of Against Heresies. There is a translation in Vol. 1 of
the Ante Nicene Fathers, pp. 315-578. For excerpts, see Bettenson, pp. 65-102.).

From these documents we learn that the Church of the first two centuries
had a definite governing structure, consisting of four principle offices: the
bishop, the presbyters, the deacons, and the laity. The Church worshipped
according to a pattern based upon types set forth in the Old Testament.
Furthermore, both Church government and worship were firmly rooted in the
doctrine of the Incarnation; that is, in the belief that God had truly become
man so that man might be able to truly share in the life of God.

What is
most important about this, however, is the way in which all of these elements of
Church life were integrated with one another, forming a seamless whole. As we
shall see below, episcopal government is tied directly to the nature of the
Church as a Eucharistic community. At the same time, the Eucharist is the
ultimate manifestation of the Church's belief that Her life is nothing less than
life in Christ: He that eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, dwelleth in Me,
and I in him (John 6:56).

Bishops and Presbyters

In the
New Testament, the terms bishop and presbyter are used interchangeably. (Most
English translations render presbyter as elder. The KJV and RSV usually render
bishop as bishop, although the KJV does render it as overseer once (Acts 20:28).
The NIV, however, renders it as overseer exclusively, thereby avoiding using a
word that is objectionable to most Evangelicals).This is evident from the
following passage from Titus:

For this cause left I thee in
Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain
elders [lit. presbyters] in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be
blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot
or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not
self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy
lucre (Titus 1:5-7).

We can quote many similar passages from the
literature of the early Church where these terms are also used interchangeably:

Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there
would be strife over the title of bishop. For this reason, therefore, since they
had perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the aforementioned persons and later
made further provision that if they should fall asleep, other approved men
should succeed to their ministry.... For it will be no trivial sin on our part
if we depose from the bishop's office those who have in a blameless and holy
manner offered the gifts. Happy the presbyters who have gone on their way before
this, for they obtained a ripe and fruitful departure; since they need not fear
that anyone should remove them from their appointed place. (I Clement 44. For
St. Clement, the office of bishop derives from the Apostles. Elsewhere he
writes, "The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ:
Jesus the Christ was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God, the Apostles from
Christ. In both cases, the process was orderly and derived from the will of
God... They preached in country and town, and appointed their first-fruits,
after testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who were
going to believe. Thus, the concept of "Apostolic Succession," dates from the
first century).

But when on our side we challenge them [that is,
the Gnostics] by an appeal to that tradition which derives from the Apostles,
and which is preserved in the churches by the successions of the presbyters,
then they oppose tradition claiming to be wiser not only than the presbyters but
even than the Apostles, and to have discovered the truth undefiled.... This
tradition the church has from the Apostles, and this faith has been proclaimed
to all men, and has come down to our own day through the successions of bishops
(Against Heresies III:2:2; III:3:2).

There is one writer from the second
century, however, who did not employ bishop and presbyter as interchangeable
terms: St. Ignatios of Antioch. In his Letters, St. Ignatios makes it clear that
in a given local Church, there is one bishop, a council of presbyters, and the

All of you follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed
the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; respect the deacons as the
ordinance of God (Smyrnaeans 8).

It is commonly asserted by
Protestant scholars that St. Ignatios' view of Church government was unusual in
the early Church — even revolutionary. Indeed, the authenticity of the Ignatian
Letters was hotly contested by many Protestants, based upon their a priori
conviction that the episcopal form of Church government was impossible in the
first decade of the second century. Today, however, there is little doubt among
scholars as to the genuineness of the seven Letters in the current collection.

It cannot be denied that St. Ignatios' clearly defined use of bishop and
presbyter is highly unusual for this point in Church history. Nor can it be
denied that he places a much greater emphasis on the role of bishop than do the
other authors we are considering. However, this does not mean that the actual
Church structure he describes was unique to Antioch. On the contrary, an
examination of the other documents under consideration will demonstrate that
they evince a similar understanding of Church government. (The only exception to
this is the Didache, which gives very little information about Church
government. The Didache is concerned primarily with the authority of traveling
apostles and teachers and takes an almost apologetic attitude toward local
clergy. This is a point in favor of dating the Didache in the first century,
perhaps as early as A.D. 70. It is highly unlikely that a second century
document would give such emphasis to traveling teachers).

Although St.
Clement uses bishop and presbyter interchangeably, there is considerable
evidence that he has in mind the same kind of Church structure as described by
St. Ignatios. This letter was occasioned by dissent within the Corinthian
Church. In particular, there was a revolt against the current presbytery. In
arguing that the Corinthians should submit to their appointed leaders, St.
Clement speaks of the proper order in the Church in terms of the Old Testament
ministers of the altar:

Since then these things are manifest to
us, and we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do
in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times.
He commanded us to celebrate sacrifices and services, and that it should not be
thoughtless or disorderly, but at fixed times and hours. He has himself fixed by
His supreme will the places and persons whom He desires for these celebrations,
in order that all things may be done piously according to His good pleasure, and
be acceptable to His will.

So then those who offer their oblations at
the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed, for they follow the laws of
the Master and do no sin. For to the high priest his proper ministrations are
allotted, and to the priests the proper place has been appointed, and on the
Levites their proper services have been imposed. The layman is bound by the
ordinances for the laity.

Here, St. Clement is describing the
proper order of the Church, but he does so using the imagery of the Old
Testament. The high priest represents the bishop. (This terminology is still
used in the Orthodox Church). The priests represent the presbytery, and the
Levites represent the deacons. Notice also that St. Clement specifically
mentions the role of the laity. Thus, for St. Clement, the Church has a
four-fold structure: bishop, presbyters, deacons, and laity.

Notice also
that St. Clement uses specifically cultic imagery. That is, the structure of the
Church is presented within the framework of Israel as a worshipping community.
In other words, the structure of the Church is directly related to the way She
worships God. This point is of the utmost importance, and we shall return to it

In Against Heresies, St. Irenaios uses the succession of bishops
in the various local Churches as an argument against the Gnostics' claims to
have special knowledge handed down secretly from the Apostles. As we saw above,
St. Irenaios speaks of the succession of both presbyters and bishops. However,
when he gets around to actually listing the succession of bishops for a
particular Church — he uses Rome as his example — he gives a single line of
succession. That is, he describes one bishop succeeding another. There is no
suggestion of multiple successions. Indeed, it is Irenaios who formally
identifies St. Clement as the author of the letter from the Church of Rome to
the Corinthians:

The blessed Apostles, then, having founded and
built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the
episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him
succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the Apostles,
Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed
Apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching
of the Apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his
eyes. Nor was he alone, for there were many still remaining who had received
instructions form the Apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension
having occurred among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a
most powerful letter to the Corinthians . . . To this Clement there succeeded
Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the Apostles, Sixtus
was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus,
after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sotor having succeeded Anicetus,
Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the Apostles, hold the
inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the
ecclesiastical tradition from the Apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have
come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same
vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the Apostles until
now, and handed down in truth (III.3.3).

From the foregoing it
is evident that while the terminology regarding the offices of bishop and
presbyter remained somewhat fluid in the first and second centuries, the offices
themselves were not interchangeable. Ss. Clement and Irenaios, like St.
Ignatios, know of only one bishop in a church at a time.

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