This week, briefly, we have been examining the minsistry in the Church. As I have stated several times, growing up in a monarchical ministry has caused me to see things differently. Now, I believe that instead of one alone, the ministry of the local congregation should be plural. Not only does it allow one to be in submission to another, but spirits are tried and burdens shared.
In this final segment, I want to share a few quotes from the Church Fathers concerning their opinions of the ministry. The first person we examine is the Bishop of Rome at the end of the first century, one Clement.
In his epistle (the only one with some semblance of authenticity), Clement has to deal with a congregation in Corinth which deposed of their ministers, ministers who had been appointed by the Apostles. He is not writing as the universal Bishop (this would not come until about 250 years later.) He refers to church leaders as presbyters/elders. They were to rule over the flock of Christ, and “the flock of Christ to be at peace with its duly appointed presbyters.” Yet, in providing the background teaching for the recognized offices in the church, Clement uses the term ‘bishop’. He states, “So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their first- fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons.” Clement uses the terms ‘presbyter’ and ‘bishop’ interchangeably, and seems to suggest that there are only two sanctioned offices in the church – the episcopate and the diaconate. For Clement, the presbyters (elders) occupied the office of the episcopate (overseer).
And our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the name of the bishop’s office . . . Those therefore who were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered unblameably to the flock of Christ in lowliness of mind, peacefully and with all modesty, and for long time have borne a good report with all – these men we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration. For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have offered the gifts of the bishop’s office unblameably and holily. Blessed are those presbyters who have gone before, seeing that their departure was fruitful and ripe; for they have no fear lest any one should remove them from their appointed place. For we see that ye have displaced certain persons, though they were living honourably, from the ministration which had been respected by them blamelessly (italics mine).
Further, from his statement that ‘consent of the whole Church’ was required for the installment of personnel to the episcopate, Clement suggests that each local congregation had its own episcopate. We note that the Apostles would appoint, without consent, but after the Apostles, consent by the local congregation was required. It looks as if the new ministery, or people added to the ministry, was added by existing members with the consent of the congregation. Again, we note the plurality, and the somewhat shared authority.
If for Clement the words were interchangeable, and having learned this from Paul,we should understand then the plurality of of ministers as we read the New Testament.
From Rome to Asia Minor, we read from Ignatius that he saw the bishop as a distinction from the presbyters, sharing power in a plurality. In writing to the Philadelphians, he states,
“hich church I salute . . . more especially if they be at one with the bishop and the presbyters who are with him . . . there is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants.”
t hath been reported to me that the church which is in Antioch of Syria hath peace, it is becoming for you, as a church of God, to appoint a deacon to go thither as God’s ambassador, that he may congratulate them when they are assembled together, and may glorify the Name . . . Now if ye desire it, it is not impossible for you to do this for the name of God; even as the churches which are nearest have sent bishops, and others presbyters and deacons (italics mine).
For Ignatius, the bishop, together with the assistance and support of the presbyters, is to rule over the local congregation; therefore, he encourages the church of Ephesus,
“hat being perfectly joined together in one submission, submitting yourselves to your bishop and presbytery, ye may be sanctified in all things . . . For your honourable presbytery, which is worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as its strings to a lyre”;
And in his epistle to the Trallians, he writes,
“For it becometh you severally, and more especially the presbyters, to cheer the soul of your bishop unto the honour of the Father of Jesus Christ and of the Apostles” .
The structure of the church, for Ignatius, consisted of three positions, not necessarily three offices, the bishop, the presbyter, and the deacon. He writes,
“Give heed to the bishop and the presbytery and deacons”;
And in writing to Polycarp, he exhorts,
“Give ye heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. I am devoted to those who are subject to the bishop, the presbyters, the deacons.”
For Ignatius the bishop and the elders occupy the same office, the episcopate, with the former assuming the role of a presidency and the latter that of a council. We note that this system lasted until the days of Alexander and Arius; however, it seems that over time the concept of the episcopate, as well as the term ‘bishop’, became peculiarly identified with the leading or directing presbyter. However, the church is to “obey the bishop and the presbytery without distraction of mind,” “submitting to the bishop as the commandment, and likewise also to the presbytery”; and to do nothing “without the bishop and presbyters.” Thus, for Ignatius, the the ministry was a team, with a leader, but a sharing of authority. No part could act indepent of one another.
The blessed Polycarp, disciple of the Apostle John, writing a several decades later, wrote as in introduction in his epistle:
“Polycarp and the presbyters that are with him unto…”
Like Ignatius before him, Polycarp sees two offices, the episcopate and the diaconate:
“Wherefore it is right to abstain from all these things, submitting yourselves to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ”
In the The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140 AD), there are a number of references to church government. For Hermas, “the elders . . . preside over the Church”.
Irenaeus writing from Lyons, following some time after Polycarp, writes:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the successions 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 . . . It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and the succession of these men to our own times . . . For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men (italics mine).
Again, we note the plurality of the ministry in the early Church.
In each of the examples presented above, we note that the ministry is seen as plural, as dependent not only upon a solid succession from the Apostles, but consent of the congregation. Further, while there may be a ‘first among equals’, the ministry was dependent upon both.
In the New Testament, we see the example of this when Paul writes to remind Timothy that he had to maintain that gift which was given him when the elders laid hands upon him. (1st Timothy 5). The plurality of the ministry is important to the local congregation, because it provides for accountablity, among other things.