Ministry (6): Constancy amid change

Since its inception, the New Apostolic Church has continually adapted its ministerial order. This progress has a long tradition, one that goes back to its predecessor Church.

The congregation founded by the Scottish pastor Edward Irving took over the ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor (shepherd) from Ephesians 4: 11. But when the apostolic movement began to develop in the direction of the Catholic Apostolic Church, already then the structure began to change.

Under the decisive influence of Apostle John Bate Cardale, the classic threefold order of Church leadership, priesthood and deaconship was added. This is how the Church historian Dr Manfred Henke explained it to

The ideal image is unrivalled

This is how a complex mixed form emerged. On the one hand, the universal church under the leadership of the Apostles, and on the other hand, the local congregation under the leadership of the angel (the bishop), which was regarded as a ministry with apostolic characteristics.

Both levels provided for prophets, shepherds, and evangelists—basically, they were of equal rank. First, the ministers were ordained as priests and were then observed for a while, says Shepherd Henke, to determine the characteristics of the ministry. Only then was it established.

This distinction was also made for ministers of the rank of bishop. If the ideal of that time had been realised, there would have been up to 144 ministers in every congregation!

More were called than were necessary

As a former angel of the Catholic Apostolic Congregation in Hamburg, Apostle Friedrich Wilhelm Schwarz brought this model into the nascent New Apostolic Church. The so-called chief ministries were to be present in each apostle and bishop district and in each central congregation. The hierarchy at the time was organised within ministerial categories. The congregational prophet, for example, was subordinate to the prophet in the district, and he, in turn, was subordinate to the chief prophet.

This model led to more ministries being called than necessary. “This resulted in various dangers and trouble,” Eberhard Emil Schmidt (Salus) wrote in the book Alte und Neue Weg (Old and New Ways). If the development had continued like this “there would have been more ministers than members in the end”.

From a horizontal to a vertical hierarchy

“What use are prophets to me if I have no deacons?” Chief Apostle Hermann Niehaus allegedly proclaimed according to a congregational chronicle. During his time as Chief Apostle, the charismatic understanding of ministry slowly began to make way for a largely pragmatic understanding. And the theoretical equivalence of ministerial characteristics changed to a hierarchy.

This happened especially in the 1930s under Chief Apostle Johann Gottfried Bischoff. He made the shepherd (pastor) the “first priest” and ranked the evangelist under him. This is how the threefold order of apostle ministry, priestly ministry, and diaconal ministry emerged again.

The central theme

Since then, the only thing that has changed are the designations of the ministries within these different levels. There were up to 17 different terms at times, many of which are a thing of the past: sub-deacon and congregational elder are more recent changes. But before that there were assistant priests, assistant bishops, assistant apostles, apostle helpers, and even character evangelists.

What is striking here is that it was not the ministerial powers conferred on the individual that made the difference, but the descriptions of their functions. This shows that, in the past, the ministerial hierarchy was also a response to the practical need of spreading the burden of spiritual and administrative tasks on several shoulders.

Since the 1930s, however, the three ministerial levels—apostolate, priestly ministry, and diaconal ministry—have remained unchanged. Today, as in the past, these levels are based solely on the spiritual powers conferred on them.

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