Ministry (5): How we arrived at a third level

What sort of ministerial order does the church need? Beyond the apostolate, the New Testament does not give us a clear answer. The structure we consider so self-evident today only developed gradually over generations.

Essentially there are two kinds of church in the New Testament period. On the one hand, there were congregations with Jewish roots, and their leadership was assumed by a council of elders (Greek: presbýteros)—in accordance with the model of the synagogue assembly.

On the other hand, however, there were also the house churches in the Hellenistic environment. These were led by the head of the family. When necessary, these household leaders would come together to make decisions as a team, and these were locally designated as Bishops (epískopos)—for example, in Philippi.

However, the Pastoral Letters of the New Testament already suggest a new development, which is further propagated in the writings of the “Apostolic Fathers”. These texts include the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, as well as the epistles of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Barnabas from the first and second centuries.

Leaders wanted

In a nutshell: the Bishop ministry more or less pushed its way past the Elder ministry to become the third level of church leadership. Little by little, the Bishops began to assume the super-regional leadership functions of the church, beyond the level of local rectorship and that of the congregational helpers (Deacons).

And this is how it happened:

  • the leaders of the house churches were not always in agreement. Paul already wrote about these sorts of situations. So it was that, from time to time, the Apostles would appoint an overseer to take care of these larger entities. Such an overseer was also designated as an epískopos, a typical term then in use to designate such supervisory functions.
  • the further Christianity diverged from its Jewish roots, the more it had to distinguish and defend itself against ideological alternatives and attacks. In the process, people with special abilities began to emerge as leaders.
  • after the early Apostles died, it was important to preserve the continuity of their teachings. Corresponding structures began to form, not only in the emergence of leadership functions, but also in the collection of spiritual writings on the New Testament.

The church begins to form

These initial approaches became increasingly entrenched over the next generation and among the Church Fathers of the third and fourth centuries.

  • Tertullian taught that there was a fundamental distinction within the congregation—namely between the ministers (ordo) and the church members (laicus).
  • Hippolytus of Rome no longer defined the laying on of hands in the ordination as a secular commission, but as spiritual authorisation.
  • And for Cyprian, the only guarantee for the uninterrupted transmission of the Apostles’ doctrine was the ordination of one minister by another.

Some completely secular upheavals also had their impact on these theological foundations. With its rise to the status of state religion at the latest, Christianity was able to spread unhindered. The working areas of the Bishops began to grow rapidly. And so it was that the Bishops passed along more and more of their local duties to the presbyters—which in turn became the level of the priesthood.

This is how the three levels of ministry began to emerge—and they can still be found in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches to this day. But how did the New Apostolic Church then arrive at its Evangelists and Shepherds? This question will be addressed in the next part of this series.

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Andreas Rother
ministry, Doctrinal instruction