Finding the early church… (pt. 1–the Apostles)

The “Apostles” are more specifically referred to as “The Twelve”. When Jesus starts his ministry, he appoints Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judah (Mark 3:16-19). The Twelve are the ones given the highest seat of authority when the Church begins. They are the ones most interconnected with the mission of Jesus and as can be seen, Jesus gives the keys of Heaven to St. Peter (Matt. 16:18-19). St. Peter’s being given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven by extension meant that The Twelve would also share this authority (Matt. 18:18, John 20:21-23). He was indeed the first to receive the keys though.

The Twelve were placed in a very high standing within the early Church and many of the contentions about orthodoxy in the first two centuries of the Church were settled by who held the teaching authority of the Apostles (synonymous with The Twelve) via the succession of the order that The Twelve had established.

when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 2, p. 2)

it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church — those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father (ibid, Bk. IV, ch. 26, p. 2)

The doctrine of the succession of an ordained ministry originating from the Apostles (The Twelve) is a nearly 1900-year-old doctrine so when it gets to a matter of “anachronistic” readings that are often heard a lot of times by Protestant critics of the ordained ministry succeeding from the Apostles themselves, the question must be asked whether we are dealing with a 2nd century anachronism or a 21st century anachronism. Clearly, not all Protestants dispute the ordained ministry succeeding from the Apostles themselves but there are many that would present this as a “beef” against “tradition”. The main problem being that the New Testament is, of course, largely ambiguous on the subject of early, first century Christian practice. Many seem to want it to be loud and clear and pretend that it is but the reality is that the New Testament is simply meant to be linked together with the outside sources to give it proper understanding. But the outside sources we have that give it clarity or seek to give it clarity are generally not very friendly to some of the more “hyper”-Protestant readings.

This is not to say that the Scriptures cannot be an authoritative source. Scriptures are an authoritative source on the issues. But we cannot imagine more into them just because we want a certain doctrine to be true and we cannot read too much out of them that is not there. It is like the corny “Christmas” song, “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause”. Most people I know tell me that it is actually the father dressed as Santa Clause but that is simply not in the song at all. At the same time, one must be careful to properly read into and properly read out of the Scriptures. For instance, while it may not necessarily be in the song that daddy is not dressed as Santa Clause and the kid is confused and imaginative, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen either or that this was not the way the song was intended.

There is a lot that the New Testament doesn’t mention because either the issues do not directly pertain to salvation or the issues were so accepted as general belief in the Church that there was no need to issue direct statements. We do not see direct statements regarding the Trinity in the New Testament either. Yet it can be assumed that the concept of the belief was indeed so common knowledge and so well-accepted based on the numerous Scriptures that affirm the core belief of the Trinity.

The teaching of a three-fold succession, although not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, is found and assumed numerous times as existing in six of the seven authentic letters of St. Ignatius.

My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God! (Epistle to Polycarp ch. 6)

I salute your most worthy bishop, and your very venerable presbytery, and your deacons, my fellow-servants, and all of you individually, as well as generally, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in His flesh and blood, in His passion and resurrection, both corporeal and spiritual, in union with God and you. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 12)

I salute in the blood of Jesus Christ, who is our eternal and enduring joy, especially if [men] are in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit. (Epistle to the Philadelphian, Greetings)

He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience. (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 7)

I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed. (Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 6)

As to my fellow-servant Burrhus, your deacon in regard to God and blessed in all things, I beg that he may continue longer, both for your honour and that of your bishop. … It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing, 1 Corinthians 1:10 and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified. (Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 2)

While St. Ignatius is more explicit about a three-fold ministry, there is more ambiguity in St. Clement of Rome. He is rather explicit that the Apostles did indeed appoint bishops and deacons but he does not mention presbyters within that category. He talks strongly of presbyters but makes no mention of bishops. It is hard to dictate from the early Church alone whether a structure similar to modern day Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy would be more familiar to them or rather a structure more similar to modern day Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and Methodism would be more familiar to them.

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. (Letter to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome)

But we’ll get back to that in a later part. For now, it is well-established that the sources outside of the New Testament have understood that The Twelve have in fact been responsible for laying an establishment of the ordained ministry. But what piece of New Testament evidence does this extraordinary idea come from? After Judah’s suicide and betrayal of Christ, The Twelve mingled together and picked St. Matthias to replace Judah as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1:23-26). Then, we enter into Acts 6 where The Twelve are consulted with a dilemma. The Greeks are complaining about the lack of ministration for their widows and so deacons must be ordained for them (Acts 6:1-2). The Greeks are instructed to nominate seven men from among them who are upstanding in the Holy Spirit and filled with wisdom (Acts 6:3-4) and The Twelve do the ordaining, “he does not tell in what way it was done, but that they were ordained (ἐ χειροτονήθησαν) with prayer: for this is the meaning of χειροτονία, (i.e. putting forth the hand,) or ordination” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 14 on the Acts of the Apostles). In a hyper-Protestant view, this couldn’t mean anything for the deacons were chosen by the people, not the Apostles. That would be an improper reading. The deacons were more nominated by the people. But the Apostles had full authority over his admittance to the ordering. If the people were clearly wrong about the man’s upstandingness in wisdom and the Holy Spirit, the Apostles would have rejected him. The Apostles have the full authority to ordain here, not the people. That the people are given allowance to nominate to the ordering does not mean that the ordinary people perform the ordering.

From what Scripture permits us to read out of it, we can certainly presume that the Apostles ordained deacons. From what Scripture and the writings of the early 1st-2nd century Church permit us to read into it, we can also presume they did more orderings. For if they did not, then they did something which was outside the will of God. One must wonder if, in creating a Church structure of bishops, priests, and deacons, and ordaining that order via the succession of the Apostles, if it was clearly a false practice as is maintained by some Protestants, why God would permit such to happen to his Church as soon as the 2nd century. For if he hadn’t, then either Jesus was lying when he said the gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church or he underestimated the power of the gates of Hell (Matt. 16:18).

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About newenglandsun

A student. Male. Passionate. Easily offended. Child-like wonderer. Growing in faith, messing up daily.
This entry was posted in History, New Testament, Patristic Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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