Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Church of the Late First Century: Offices and Hierarchy

Reading N°15 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Chapel of St. Ananias in Damascus (1st Century)
(Photo: Axilera)
There is a very precious document which contains a wealth of information about Christian life of the late First Century: it is the Didache, or Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles, written some time between 70 and 100, but echoing traditions that are earlier than the date of its composition. It is the work of a Judaeo-Christian, who, in the opinion of some authors, wrote at Antioch,[1] but who, at any rate, clearly has in view the situation brought about in the Church by the apostolate of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch.[2]

The organization of the hierarchy presents a stage of development intermediate between that shown in the Acts of the Apostles and that revealed by the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Apostles, prophets, doctors, episkopoi-presbyteroi,[3] and deacons: these are the ministers who seem to be entrusted with distinct functions. 

First we must distinguish from all the rest the Apostles in the strict sense of the word, "the Twelve." They exercise a double function in the churches: that of founders and that of pastors. As founders of the Church, in dependence upon Christ and the Holy Ghost, they are invested with special prerogatives, the chief ones being doctrinal infallibility, universal jurisdiction, and the possibility of receiving a divine revelation for the direction of the universal Church. We shall see the Church appeal to the authority of the Apostles as a decisive test in controversies. No territorial circumscription limits their powers. When they feel the need of acting in concert, as at the Council of Jerusalem, or when St. Paul declares that he does not wish to "build upon another man's foundation,"[4] this is because of a spirit of discretion and prudence, or because of an intimate dependence upon the Holy Ghost. These extraordinary privileges disappear with the last of the twelve Apostles. No one thereafter is able to appeal to them except the Roman Pontiff, and the era of public revelation closes at the death of the last of them. As to the teaching and disciplinary authority which they exercise as pastors, that will last until the end of the world and will be handed down by perpetual succession.

But the name "Apostles" was also given, even in the New Testament writings, to other persons besides the Twelve. Barnabas is called an apostle,[5] as also are Andronicus and Junias;[6] and St. Paul says that Christ, after appearing to Peter and to the Eleven, appeared to more than five hundred brethren, then to James, and lastly to all the Apostles.[7]

When the Didache speaks of Apostles, without specifying that it refers to the Twelve, it means ministers sent out on mission. An apostle is an "envoy of the Lord." He should not stop in one place more than a day, or at most two days. If he remains three days, he is a false prophet.[8] The apostle has a claim only to his nourishment; he should be given nothing except some bread for his sustenance until he reaches his next stopping-place. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.[9]

Among the sacred ministers, after the apostles the Didache mentions the prophets. The apostolic writings speak of the ministry of prophecy.[10] St. Paul refers to the part taken by prophets in the Christian assemblies,[11] and the Acts of the Apostles mentions by name the principal prophets in the Church at Antioch.[12] They are men who, like the prophets of the Old Law, speak under the direct action of the Holy Spirit and who at times foretell future events.[13] But the prophets of the Didache appear to have, if not an altogether different character, at least a different importance in the Church. What were their special functions ? Were they from the ranks of the laity, endowed with charismatic gifts, which circumstances made conspicuous? Or did they hold some rank in the hierarchy? On this interesting and difficult question no definite answer can be given.

After the apostles and prophets, the Didache mentions the doctors or didascales. From the Acts of the Apostles we know that there were doctors in the Church at Antioch.[14] Like the prophet, the doctor was a minister of the word; the former spoke under the action of the Spirit, whereas the latter spoke according to knowledge acquired in the ordinary way. Several times doctors are spoken of by Hermas, the pesudo-Clementine Homilies, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.

The Didache, after directing the faithful to meet together on Sundays for the "breaking of bread" and for the giving of thanks, adds: "Appoint therefore for yourselves episkopoi.[15] It then briefly indicates the qualities these should have, and their functions. They must be "worthy of the Lord, meek men, and not lovers of money, truthful and approved, for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers."[16] If we compare these words with what we know from contemporary sources - St. Paul, St. Clement, St. Ignatius, and St. Justin - and from archaeological monuments of the time, they suggest the greatness of the ministry confided to the episkopoi. They are ministers of the Eucharistic sacrifice described in the preceding lines of the Didache. For this reason they should be "worthy of the Lord." They must be "meek," as becomes those who have the duty of governing their brethren; "not lovers of money," for they have to administer the possessions of the community; "truthful and approved," because, as resident ministers, they must teach the community and preach - a duty that the prophets and doctors performed only in passing.

The word episkopos (bishop) was taken from the administrative institutions of the Greeks, who thus designated a civil official having an office of superintendence and inspection. The term was soon applied exclusively to the head of a particular Church. As the Didache uses this word only in the plural, some historians have thought that the title at that time given to the head of the local Church was "prophet."

Subject to the orders of this head, whatever name we give him, were the ancients or presbyteroi, who, at that period and for some time afterwards, met together in a council, called presbyteral (presbyterion). Many indications, which we need not dwell upon, lead us to suppose (though we cannot be quite positive) that, at the period spoken of by the Didache, these ancients had the "powers of orders," of a bishop - for instance, that of ordaining priests - though not possessing the "powers of jurisdiction." The title "ancient" is of Jewish origin. Among the Jews it was customary to entrust the direction of each synagogue to a council of ancients.[17]

Upon this institution, the Apostles modeled the organization of their first communities. St. Paul admonishes Timothy to remember the grace he received by the imposition of the hands of the ancients,[18] and St. Peter implores the ancients to feed the flock entrusted to them.[19] Before long, the meaning of the word became precise. After the death of the Twelve, when each separate church was placed under the direction of a single chief, when the institution of the council of elders disappeared, and the word "bishop" took on its own meaning, the title "elder" or "ancient" was used only of simple priests. This is the meaning of the word in St. Ignatius' letter, in which he congratulates the Ephesians on the happy circumstance that their ancients (i.e., priests) are united to their episkopos (i.e., bishop) like the strings of a lyre.[20]

As to the deacons, concerning whom we have already learned from earlier documents, the Didache supplies no additional light on their duties. Their domain continues to be that of works of zeal and charity, preaching, and the service of the poor.

If we consider the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the latter half of the first century as a whole, as it is described in the Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles, it appears to be nearly always on the move. The apostle, the prophet, the doctor, in a word the "itinerant minister," occupies the stage more frequently than the resident clergy, who, however, have the duty of supervising and controlling them.[21] The missioner is more conspicuous than the ordinary priest or the bishop; he is the center about whom the multitude gathers. To him go the people's offerings; and more than once we find the prophet even taking part in the functions of divine worship. But as the individual churches become organized in a more stable manner, the bishop's authority emerges more emphatically. Soon we find the bishop's pastoral function absorbing all the functions of the apostle, prophet, and doctor. These latter have only a transient place in the hierarchy, and disappear from it in the second century.


[1] Bestmann, Geschichte der Christlichen Sitte, Part II, pp. 136-153.
[2] The Didache was widely known among the Christians until the fall of the Roman Empire, and was then lost. It was refound at Constantinople by Ph. Bryennios, who published the text in 1883. Cf. Hemmer, "La Doctrine des douze apotres," in the Revue d'histoire et de littérature religieuse, 1907, pp. 193 ff.
[3] We do not translate these Greek terms, because the episkopos is not necessarily what we call "bishop," and the presbyteros may be a bishop. We saw above that all the presbyteroi took part in the Council of Jerusalem; and the Acts of the Apostles, when recounting St. Paul's farewell to the pastors of the Church of Ephesus, calls them now presbyteroi, and again episkopoi. (Acts 20:17-28.) St. Jerome says: "Eosdem episcopos illo tempore quos et prebyteros appellabant." (Comment in Epist. ad Titum, I:5.)
[4] Rom. 15:20.
[5] Acts 14:4, 13.
[6] Rom. 16:7.
[7] Cf. 1 Cor. 15:5-8. It might be supposed that the text refers to the Twelve, if the context did not seem to indicate that there is question of others besides them.
[8] Didache, XI, 5.
[9] Ibidem, XI, 6.
[10] Eusebius, III, xxxvii.
[11] Cf. 1 Cor. 14.
[12] Acts 13:1.
[13] E.g., Agabus; Acts 11:28; 21:10.
[14] Acts 13:1.
[15] Didache, XV, 1.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Jacquier, La Doctrine des douze apôtres, p. 242.
[18] Cf. 1 Tim. 4:14.
[19] Cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-5.
[20] St. Ignatius, Ephesians, 4. On the important question of the distinction between the presbyterate and the episcopate, see Prat, art. "Evêques," in the Dict. de théol. The learned author proves: (1) that, from the very beginning, no trace is found of an "amorphous church"; for all the churches had chiefs, who are called sometimes "presiding officers" (1 Thess. 5:12; Rom. 12:8), sometimes "directors" (Heb. 13:7, 24; Acts 15:22), or "angels" (Apoc. 1:20), or "pastors" (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; Ephes. 4:11), but most often "overseers" or "elders" (presbyteroi); (2) that there was lack of uniformity in the organization of the primitive churches, at least until the death of the Apostles and the disappearance of the charisma; (3) that the episcopate is of Apostolic origin; as to this, no doubt can be entertained in the face of the testimony of St. Clement at Rome, St. Irenaeus at Lyons, Tertullian in Africa, and Clement of Alexandria. (Cf. Michiels, art. "Evêques," in the Dict. apol. de la foi catholique.)
 [21] Didache, XI, 1-12. Cf. Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism, pp. 109 f.


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