Chapter 1: The Ministry in the Primative Church, by John Knox

The Ministry in Historical Perspectives by H. Richard Niebuhr and Daniel D. Williams (eds.)

[John Knox was an ordained Episcopal minister. After serving a number of parishes he taught New Testament at Emory University, Fisk University, Hartford Theological Seminary, the University of Chicago, and finally at Union Theological Seminary from 1943 to 1966. His many books include Humanity and Divinity in Christ: A Study of Pattern in Christianity (Cambridge University Press 1967) and Marcion and the New Testament (1942).]

The Greek word for “ministry” is diakonia; and it is significant that this term was in New Testament times, as it is still, the most favored way of referring inclusively to the church’s workers and their work. When Paul gives us the first account we possess of the various functions being performed by individuals in the primitive church (I Cor. 12:4-30), he speaks of them as “varieties of ministry.” He can refer to himself and to other workers as “ministers” of the new covenant, or of Christ, or of God, or of the church, or of the gospel, or simply as “ministers,” and to their work as a “ministry of reconciliation.” (II Cor. 3:6, 11:23; Col. 1:7, 25, 4:7; II Cor. 5:18; etc.) The letter to the Ephesians, probably a generation later, in summing up the significance of “apostles,” “prophets,” “evangelists,” “pastors and teachers,” uses the same word: “for the work of the ministry.” In Acts the apostolate itself is referred to as a diakonia (Acts 1:17; cf. Eph. 4;11-12). The word, whether in Greek or English, means simply “service;” and although it soon came to stand for a particular ecclesiastical office, the office of the deacon, its original more inclusive sense was never completely lost. Thus “Timothy” is enjoined to appoint “ministers” (in the sense of deacons) and to fulfill his own “ministry” in the other, more general, sense; and the same writer, the author of the Pastoral Epistles, can both describe the qualifications of the “deacons” and allude to the diakonia of Paul (I Tim. 1:12, 3:8, 12, 4:6; II Tim. 4:5). Thus also, even today, if we wish a term which includes the archbishop as well as the pastor of the humblest congregation, we speak of “the ministry.” And so, in word at least, we obey Jesus’ injunction: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant [diakonos], and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

In ancient usage diakonos primarily meant “waiter,” and there are those who find the origins of the Christian ministry in the exigencies of the common meal. The “deacons” were waiters, and since there would have needed to be a ”head-waiter,”1 the office of the bishop would always have existed, by whatever name it was called. This is only one of many possible theories about the beginnings of the orders of the early ministry — a matter to be discussed later — but the basic meaning of the term will remind us of how realistically the idea of service was taken in the primitive church and how humble and unpretentious were its first ministers. The Christian worker is also often described in the New Testament as a “slave” (doulos). Paul and others can call themselves “slaves” of Christ. But the emphasis of this term is primarily upon a status or relationship — the slave is the property of his master, belongs utterly to him — whereas diakonos denotes not primarily a status (although this may be implied), but a function, the function of useful service. A minister (diakonos) of Christ is useful to Christ, assisting in the fulfillment of Christ’s purposes in the world. A minister of the church is useful to the church, serving its members in all possible ways and contributing to the growth and effective functioning of the church itself. A minister of the gospel is useful to the gospel, making known the good news of what God had done in Christ so that the gospel may reach those for whom it is intended and may have its true fruits.

In the course of this book we shall be dealing with many kinds of ministry and with many divergent, and often conflicting, conceptions of its nature and significance. We shall better keep our bearings among all the diversities and changes of this history if we remember that the word “ministry” serves, not only to designate the full number of the church’s leaders, but also to designate the true meaning of Christian leadership, the essential character which both qualifies and unites all true leaders of the church — unites them with one another and with Christ, who “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).


Anyone who attempts to give an account of the organization of the ministry in the primitive church and of the various functions it performed must almost necessarily begin with an acknowledgment of the difficulties which beset his undertaking. These difficulties are so grave, and with our present resources so definitely insurmountable, that a clear picture of the early ministry is simply beyond our reach. This is true partly because of the meagerness of our sources. If by the “primitive church” we mean the church of the first century and the first quarter, say, of the second — and such a period represents the approximate range of this chapter — we have at most only the New Testament documents and some of the Apostolic Fathers; and none of these documents is concerned to set forth in any full or systematic way the constitution of the church or the methods of its work. Later writings, particularly manuals of church order, undoubtedly have something to tell us about earlier practices, but they do not throw any strong or steady light into the shadows of the Apostolic Age. Any reconstruction of the primitive church’s ministry — as indeed of any other phase of its outward life — must rest upon what are regarded as the implications of a very few scattered passages in a very meager literature. The New Testament documents are rich indeed in indications of the concrete nature, the quality, the “feel” of the early Christian life itself, but are, for the most part, silent concerning the forms of organization and procedure which prevailed. One may account for this virtual silence by saying either that the writers did not regard such forms as important or that they took them for granted; but the silence itself is undeniable.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that even where an early writer speaks of the ministry, one often cannot be sure what part of the church he speaks for or what period in its development he represents. Paul gives us in I Cor. 12 what is undoubtedly one of our earliest glimpses of the kinds of ministry being exercised in the primitive church. But how representative is this picture? We can certainly rely on it as being, as far as it goes, a true picture of what was happening in the church at Corinth, and his formula, “God has appointed in the church,” at least suggests that the same general picture applies to other Pauline communities. But to what extent does it apply to the rest of the primitive church, and were there not, in all probability, significant differences even among the Pauline churches? As for Acts, the Gospels, the Pastorals, the Didache, and other later sources, considerations chronological as well as geographical, must enter into our evaluation of the hints about early church order which they contain. The book of Acts, for example, because it was written late in the first century or early in the second, has much to tell us about the Christianity of that period; but because it is undoubtedly partly based on much older sources, it also tells us much about the most primitive church. But can we surely discriminate one element from the other? Even if we could, the question would remain how widely prevalent any given feature of the church may have been, whether in the earlier or the later period. The fact of the matter is not only that the church of the New Testament period was in a state of rapid development, but also that the lines or directions of this development were not the same in every part of the church; and even where the general pattern was identical, the growth was not proceeding everywhere at the same rate.

The fact that both chronological and geographical considerations are involved at almost every point in the study of the early ministry poses a problem as to method. Shall we center our attention primarily upon geographical areas or upon chronological periods? There are advantages — and the constant danger of overfacile generalization — in each method; and we can hardly follow either consistently. We shall be moving, in a general way, from the earlier to the later part of our period, but we must remember constantly to distinguish between what we can know about one church at one time and what we can only guess about another church at the same time or even about the same church at an earlier or later stage in its development.


Fortunately we can begin with some assurance. There may be some doubt about the origins of the apostolate, but there can be none that the apostles were the spiritual leaders of the primitive church. The apostles were the church’s first ministers – “first” both in the sense of earliest and in the sense of most responsible and most revered. This is obviously the view of the author of Luke-Acts; it is clearly implied in many sayings in the Gospels; and Paul, our earliest source, puts it beyond question. Not only does he take for granted the authority of the apostle and vigorously defend his own apostleship, but he quite explicitly affirms the primacy of the apostle among the servants of the church: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles . . .” (I Cor. 12:28). It is perhaps too obvious to need pointing out, but these evidences of the status of the apostle only confirm what on more general grounds would have been expected in any case. If by “apostle” is meant one who was called to his work by Jesus Christ himself (either during the human career or immediately after the resurrection), it was inevitable that such persons should have come to hold positions of largest responsibility and authority among the primitive churches.

To be sure, there are those who challenge this definition of the term “apostle.” The word, of course, means “one sent out,” usually as an ambassador, the authorized messenger, of an individual or group. So it was used among both Jews and Greeks. It could, then, have the simple meaning of “missionary” and apply to most, if not all, of the traveling evangelists of the early church. That meaning of the term is found in the Didache, once in Acts, and several times in Paul (Didache 11 :3-6; Acts 14:4, 14; II Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25, and, possibly I Thess. 2:6 and Rom. 16:7). It is often said that this was the earlier meaning of the term, and that the more restricted use to designate persons standing in a unique relation to the original event in Palestine was a later development. But the evidence for this view is unconvincing. It is true that Acts, one of the later books, ordinarily uses the word in the narrower sense; but this same document can, as we have just seen, employ it with the other meaning also. On the other hand, the Didache, which adopts the broader sense and seems to use the terms “apostle” and “prophet” interchangeably, can scarcely be regarded as a primitive document. The use of the term by Paul is, in this respect, very much like Luke’s later usage. He occasionally may employ it in the broad common sense of messenger; but he normally ascribes to it a sense as exalted and particular as Luke does, although he would certainly not identify the apostles in just the same way. Luke identifies them with the twelve, or perhaps with the twelve and James the brother of Jesus. Paul only once (if indeed then)2 refers to the twelve and it is quite impossible to say just whom he thought of as apostles except that he and Peter and probably James were among them. But for Paul, no less than for Luke, the apostolic group was both definite and closed. In a word, there may have been differences of opinion among the early Christians as to just who the apostles were; but there are many indications that from the very beginning the term designated a special and restricted class — eyewitnesses of the event itself, commissioned as his ambassadors by Jesus Christ in a unique sense. If this was not true, there ceases to be any discoverable ground for the primacy of the apostle.

If we cannot know how many apostles there were, we certainly cannot speak with any assurance of the areas in which they severally served. A few centuries later we find accounts of a primitive division of the world among the apostles — Thomas going to India or Parthia and others of the twelve to other districts, very much in the manner in which in the third or fourth century bishops might be appointed for various unevangelized territories. Such stories are late and obviously legendary, but it is noteworthy that in one of our most primitive and most authentic sources, the letter to the Galatians, there is also an account of a division of responsibility among the apostles. Paul tells us that when the leaders of the church at Jerusalem (the “pillars”) saw that he “had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through [him] also for the Gentiles),” they gave him and his associate Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship,” that he (with Barnabas) “should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal. 2:7-9). How this passage should be interpreted in detail is far from clear. Are Paul and Peter the only apostles — or are they at least “apostles” in a quite special sense — and is the entire “world” being divided between them? Other passages in Paul can be cited as indicating that he thought of himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. On the other hand, Paul can speak of “those who were apostles before me,” indicating that he knew of a number of other “apostles,” at least to the Jews (Gal. 1:17). He tells how, on the occasion of his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, he visited Cephas but “saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:8-19). This phrase, while it does not require, strongly suggests, that he thought of James as an apostle; but it clearly requires the presupposition that he knew of other apostles besides himself, Peter, and James. Did he fail to see “other apostles” because it happened so or because he made an effort not to see them, or was it because they were carrying on the work of evangelists outside of Jerusalem? If so, where? And among Jews or Gentiles? Was the “John” who is named as one of the “pillars” also an “apostle”? If there was a grand division of leadership in the church’s mission as between Paul and Peter, was the division defined on racial or geographical lines? And in what relation do James and John, the other “pillars,” and especially James, stand to Peter’s mission? These are questions to which no certain answers can be given; but division of responsibility of some kind is clearly indicated.

This indication of the pregnant but perplexing passage in Galatians is confirmed by the many signs that Paul was aware of himself as having, under Christ, the highest responsibility and authority in a definite section of the church. This section is not clearly defined and was probably not definable in strictly geographical terms. It clearly included many churches which had been established by him and his associates around the Aegean and eastward as far as Galatia. Are we to interpret the letter to the Romans as an effort to make contact with a Gentile church which properly belonged to his jurisdiction but which he had not founded or yet had an opportunity to visit? 3 This is not unlikely, but whether Paul thought of all predominantly Gentile churches as belonging to his “diocese” or not, one cannot doubt the existence of the “diocese” itself (although it is clear that some apostles or professed apostles did not acknowledge his jurisdiction). He tells of his resolution not to “build on another man’s foundation,” thus not only intimating his sense of a certain authority among his own churches, but also clearly indicating the fact that others also were laying “foundations” — though just who they were and where they were working we are not told. It is not improbable that some of these “foundations” lay within the geographical area where Paul chiefly worked.

The book of Acts seems to associate the “apostles” particularly with Judea, and one gets the impression that, instead of severally exercising authority in various areas, they constituted a kind of council located in Jerusalem, an apostolate which corporately ruled the church in its totality. Although this picture must be suspected as being in part the product of the interest of the author of Acts in promoting the unity of the church in his own period, nevertheless Paul’s words in Gal. 1:17-19 in a measure confirm it, at least as regards the concentration of apostles in Jerusalem. He tells us that after his conversion and call he did not “go up to Jerusalem” to see those who had been “apostles before [him],” thus implying that one went especially to Jerusalem to see “apostles”; and though on a later visit to that city he saw only Peter and James, his very denial that he saw “any other apostle” suggests that he might have been expected to meet more than a few of them there.

As for the work of the apostle and the relationship he sustained with the churches, we must depend almost entirely on the letters of Paul — and this means that we can know very little except about Paul’s own apostleship. The very term suggests — what all our data confirm — that the apostle was an itinerant evangelist. Paul not only gives such a picture of himself, but he seems to imply it of “the other apostles” also (I Cor. 9:5). Their primary function was the preaching of the gospel, the proclamation of the event in Palestine with which God was bringing history to a close, the bearing witness to the new creation in Christ, the calling of men to repentance; but this meant the establishing of churches, and implied the duty and authority of supervision. We can see Paul in his letters performing this duty and exercising this prerogative. Hans von Campenhausen in his recent book 4 makes much of the respect Paul shows for the integrity and freedom of his churches, pointing out that his directions to them are more likely to be exhortations than commands. This is true; and in a measure this attitude reflects a fundamental conception of Paul — namely, that the church is greater than any apostle or than all the apostles together. These are servants of the church, not its masters. They belong to the church; not the church to them. But the recognition of such facts as these must not obscure Paul’s sense of apostolic authority: “God has appointed in the church first apostles.” Paul may, as he says in Philemon (vs. 8-10), “prefer to appeal” in the name of love; but he does not fail to make clear that in doing so he is voluntarily relinquishing a right “to command” of which as an apostle he is deeply conscious and which he expects his churches to acknowledge.

Paul lets us see in his letters not a little of what was involved in this supervisory role of the apostle. It meant, at least for him, a good deal of anxiety and activity. The final and climactic item in a long catalogue of his sufferings as an apostle is his “care of all the churches” (II Cor. 11:28). He sought to keep in constant, or at least frequent, touch with them. He visited them as often as he was able (and there is no way of reconstructing, even approximately, the itinerary of his movements back and forth, to and fro, among his churches). More often perhaps he sent one of his assistants, men like Timothy, Titus, Silvanus, Epaphras, and others. And frequently, as we have even better reason to know, he wrote letters. Such communication moved in both directions: Epaphroditus, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who visited Paul as representatives of congregations, figure as prominently in Paul’s correspondence as some of his own assistants and agents; and he received letters as well as sending them (I Cor. 7:1). Merely to name the matters on which he was called upon to express an opinion or pass a judgment is to be reminded of the complexity and the difficulty of this administrative or pastoral phase of the apostle’s task. He might be called on — at any rate, Paul was called on — to settle a moral question, as about sexual relations, or divorce, or the propriety of a marriage between a Christian and a pagan, or to give counsel about the disciplining of a member; to compose a quarrel between two Christians; to ward off a threatened schism; to correct disorders in worship, to clarify, or confirm, or apply some tradition he had already transmitted; to deal with differences of opinion among the members of a church about the eating of food consecrated by pagan rites or with similar scruples; to handle the delicate matter of master-slave relations within a church; to supervise the raising of a large sum of money among a number of churches; to pacify a congregation morbidly excited by apocalyptic expectations — in a word, to apply Christian conscience and common sense to a wide range of practical problems, great and small. It would be a mistake to suppose that Paul’s situation was exactly matched by that of any other apostle. Paul lets us know very emphatically of one difference between him and others. The apostles generally were supported by the churches — we have no way of knowing whether through some regular arrangement or through occasional gifts — whereas he supported himself by his trade. He informs us, too, that some of the apostles were married and that their wives often accompanied them on their travels, whereas this was certainly not true of Paul. Although full allowance must be made for such differences and for the unique genius and convictions of Paul, nevertheless in the absence of other evidence we are justified in assuming that the general pattern of the relations of other apostles with other churches and of the functions they performed was basically the same. The itinerant character of other apostleships we have already had occasion to notice, and the reference to those who “came from James” in Gal. 2:12 suggests that others besides Paul made use of traveling representatives. Although there were undoubtedly important differences of opinion among them — in Gal. 2:11-14 we can actually see some of these differences among Paul, Peter, and James — there were also large areas of agreement; and these traveling evangelists and chief pastors, accepted as standing uniquely close to the revealing event and therefore as having a unique personal authority, constituted a very important binding element among the churches of the first century, geographically so widely scattered and culturally so diverse.


We began our consideration of the “apostle” with Paul’s affirmation that “God has appointed in the church first apostles,” and we may appropriately begin our discussion of other ministries in the early church by reminding ourselves of the rest of his statement: “. . . second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues” (I Cor. 12:28). With this passage should be placed the allusion in Phil. 1:1 to “bishops and deacons” and also what we find in Rom. 12:6-8: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who presides, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” 5 If we may take these statements as indicating the way the ministry was composed in the churches with which Paul was familiar, what are we to make of them?

Sometimes a distinction is drawn between the “charismatic” (“Spirit-given”) ministry in the early church and the “institutional” ministry. But if such a distinction was made by others in the primitive period — which seems rather dubious — it certainly was not made by Paul. The ministry was in every part charismatic; and if by “institutional” one can mean “contributing to the growth and orderly functioning of the church,” it was also in every part institutional. To be sure, Paul refers to the “bishops and deacons” at Philippi — and these terms suggest an “institutional” ministry — but one must not make the mistake of identifying these with the formally elected or appointed, the ordained, officials of a later period. The “bishops and deacons” are those members of the Philippian church who have proved to have administrative gifts — gifts of wisdom, efficiency, and tact, some in planning and oversight (the “bishops” or rulers), others in actually performing the various particular tasks belonging to what may be called the “business” of the congregation (the “deacons” or helpers). It is altogether probable, as has frequently been pointed out, that they are specifically addressed in this particular letter because Paul has just received the gift of money from the Philippian church which these administrators and workers have been largely responsible for raising and sending. It is quite possible that Paul is not making here a distinction between two classes of persons at all, but between two functions which the same persons may perform. The “overseers” serve, and the “servers” oversee. In I Cor. 16:15-16 Paul directs the Corinthian church to “be subject” to “the household of Stephanas” who have “devoted themselves to the service [diakonia] of the saints” and to those who work with them. Was Stephanas one of the “bishops” or one of the “deacons”? Perhaps both; or both at different times. We are not dealing with formal offices, but with functions for which persons were as certainly spiritually endowed as for prophecy or healing. Indeed, the “deacons” and “bishops” of Philippians are almost certainly to be identified with the “helpers” and the “administrators” of I Cor. 12:28 and with the helpers of several kinds and the “presidents” who are mentioned in Rom. 12:6-8; and it is scarcely open to question that Paul thinks of these persons as being “gifted” as certainly, and in the same sense, as the “prophets” and “teachers,” not to speak of the workers of miracles and the speakers with tongues. In I Cor. 12:28 they are mentioned, indeed, between the healers and the ecstatics. What could more clearly indicate that Paul thinks of them as exercising a “charismatic” function? The same meaning is no doubt to be seen in the fact that the administrators (or bishops) are mentioned only after the helpers (or deacons) in the same passage, and that in Rom. 12:6-8 the “presidents” are placed between two classes of helpers — those who contribute and those who show mercy. There are no distinctions of “inferior” and “superior” among these workers in the churches. They are all recipients and agents of the same Spirit; and whether some of them always exercised the one kind of function or the other (that is, superintcnding or helping), or whether all of them at certain times exercised both functions, they were equally members of the body of Christ, equally indispensable to its proper and effective functioning and therefore equally significant.

As to the kind of “business” which needed to be planned and carried through, our sources tell us little in detail; but what we know about organized social life of any kind in any period, as well as what knowledge we have of the situation of the primitive churches, will enable us to fill out the picture to some extent. It is obvious that a local congregation, meeting often for worship and the common meal, would meet for other purposes as well. The question of whether the service of “the Word” and the agape (and Eucharist) were two services or one, or whether different usages in this respect prevailed in different churches can be left open. We can also leave unanswered the question whether meetings for “other purposes” were held in connection with meetings for worship and fellowship, or were specially called; probably both patterns were followed. But there can be no doubt that such meetings took place and that their purposes were manifold. Decisions had to be made from time to time as to where or when services of the church would be held; the church needed to be told of the impending visit of an apostle, or of some prophet or teacher from abroad; a question has been raised as to the good faith of one of these visitors, and there must be some discussion of the point and a decision on it; a fellow Christian from another church is on a journey and needs hospitality; a member of the local congregation planning to visit a church abroad needs a letter of introduction to that church, which someone must be authorized to provide; a serious dispute about property rights or some other legal matter has arisen between two of the brothers and the church must name someone to help them settle the issue or must in some other way deal with it; a new local magistrate has begun to prosecute Christians for violating the law against unlicensed assembly, and consideration must be given to ways and means of meeting this crisis; charges have been brought against one of the members by another member, and these must be investigated and perhaps some disciplinary action taken; one of the members has died, and the church is called on for some special action in behalf of his family in the emergency; differences of opinion exist in the church on certain questions of morals or belief (such as marriage and divorce, or the resurrection), differences which local prophets and teachers are apparently unable to compose, and a letter must be written to the apostle — who will write this letter and what exactly will it say?

These are special or occasional concerns, and it is obvious that the list might go on almost indefinitely. There were also more regular administrative operations. Sick persons needed to be visited and the bread and wine of the Eucharist brought to them, along with what financial help they might need. The poor generally, especially the aged and the widows and the orphans, must be assisted. Certain persons who were giving full time to the work of the church and who had no other means of support — perhaps an apostle or one of his associates, perhaps a local prophet, teacher, administrator, or other worker — must be sustained. Such dispensations of help to the needy of various kinds required congregational funds, and such funds involved planning, soliciting, collecting. As individuals demonstrated their ability to administer such matters, they would more and more be relied on; but the congregation as a whole would be expected to determine policy at every point and often, no doubt, would be called on to make ad hoc decisions in questionable cases.

We are likely to suppose that the administrative work required in a first-century church was much more simple than in a modern congregation of the same size. But this supposition is probably mistaken. When a first-century Jew or pagan decided to become a Christian, he became dependent upon a new community for the supplying of all his needs in a way which the modern Christian, at any rate within the West, can scarcely imagine. The church had to assume almost total responsibility for the whole person of its members and for every aspect of their relations with one another. In even the smallest congregation in even the earliest period every one of the concerns we have mentioned (and obviously we have not begun to exhaust the possibilities) would arise; and as congregations grew larger, as they rapidly did, the “business” of the church would become correspondingly more difficult and complex. When we remember that congregational meetings had to be planned, called, and conducted, and that their actions must be recorded, communicated to those concerned, and actually implemented and carried out, we shall hardly wonder either that there should have been from the very beginning, and in great variety, “helps” and “governments,” as the King James Version translates the terms in I Cor. 12:28, or that the offices of “bishop” and “deacon” became so important in the church of a somewhat later period.


But for all the importance of this core of workers in the primitive local church, they did not hold first place in its regard. Paul, although he apparently refuses to make a distinction of rank between the “helpers” and the “overseers,” specifically says (after mentioning the apostles), “. . . second prophets, third teachers” (I Cor. 12:28). The priority of prophecy in Paul’s estimation is also indicated in I Cor. 14:1, where he urges his readers earnestly to desire the spiritual gifts, “especially” that of prophecy. Fifty years or so later, the Didache, the earliest manual of church order that we have, also clearly ascribes first place among the servants of the church to the prophets and teachers, although the writer knows the offices of bishops and deacons as well (15:1-2). And the writer of Acts tells us that it was “prophets and teachers” of Antioch who determined that Paul and Barnabas should undertake a mission to Cyprus and who “laid hands on them and sent them off” (13:1-3). This account of the origin of Paul’s apostleship must, in the light of Gal. 1 :1-2:10, be rejected, but the reference to the presence and authority of “prophets and teachers” at Antioch is in line with Paul’s own words and with the much later testimony of the Didache.

Who, or what, were these “prophets” and “teachers”? Again, as in the case of the early “bishops” and “deacons,” we may ask whether the terms always designate two distinct classes of person, or whether a distinction in function is primarily indicated. The term “prophet” suggests the “numinous” — visions, revelations, being in “the Spirit,” initiation into divine secrets, and the like. The prophet, endowed with this ecstatic character and given access to these sacred mysteries, reports his experiences and interprets their meaning, as far as he is able, to the congregation. But most important in his message, as in that of the teacher also, would always be the good news of God’s action in Christ, the event of Christ’s advent, life, death, and resurrection, which had so recently occurred — which indeed was still occurring, for the coming of the Spirit was a part of the event and Christ was soon to come again to bring to fulfillment what had been begun. The prophet would not only be fully persuaded of the event and acutely aware of its implications, but he would be an unusually sensitive participant in the new common life which had issued from it. He would also be extraordinarily capable of communicating the concrete meaning of the new life, the life of the Spirit, to others and of making articulate for them their inmost and deepest yearnings and satisfactions. The prophet was able to speak in such a way as that the believer would want to say “Amen”; and the unbeliever would find himself “convicted,” “called to account,” the “secrets of his heart . . . disclosed” so that “falling on his face” he would “worship God” and “declare that God was really present” (I Cor. 14:16, 25). The Didache calls the prophet the “high priest” of the church; and it is altogether likely that the conduct of worship and the presiding at the Eucharist were from the beginning committed to one or another of the prophets.

The word “teacher” suggests instruction in the more ordinary sense, a setting forth, perhaps in somewhat more objective fashion, of the facts of the tradition and the truth of the gospel, the inculcation of true beliefs, the encouraging of appropriate ethical impulses and conduct. The epistles of the New Testament show us the teacher at work. In them, for the most part, the good news is taken for granted, and instruction is being given in some of its implications — theological and ethical. The fact that Jesus is characteristically known as a teacher must reflect, not only the original facts, but also, in some degree, the importance of the teacher’s role in primitive Christianity; and indeed the preservation and development of the gospel tradition of Jesus’ words must have been largely the work of the early teachers.

But the line between prophet and teacher in the primitive church is not easy to draw: the prophet would often have been — indeed, how could he have helped being? — also the teacher; and the teacher would often have been the prophet. It is likely that since the more ecstatic endowment of the prophet would have seemed more exalted, the teacher who possessed it would usually have been called a prophet;6 but even he would probably have found it impossible to distinguish between his “prophecy” and his “teaching.” Both were inspired by the same Spirit and both were concerned only with the truth and relevance of the gospel.

This virtual identity — or at least extensive overlapping — of function is indicated in the way Paul actually describes prophecy and the prophet. In I Cor. 14:1 ff. he is concerned to show the superiority of prophecy to tongues. The prophet, he says, “speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” But would he have described the work of the teacher in different terms? It is true that a “teaching” seems to be distinguished from a “revelation” in 14:26: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” And in 14:6 Paul implies the same differentiation when he asks “How shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” But in I Cor. 13, the gift of “teaching” is not mentioned, and “prophecy” seems to cover the entire field of revealed truth. We note also that if prophecy has first place in I Cor. 12:28, teaching is at least mentioned first earlier in the same chapter: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge [are two kinds of teachers being designated?] according to the same Spirit, to another faith, . . . to another gifts of healing, . . . to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues [note the variety of functions even among the extreme ecstatics], to another the interpretation of tongues.”

A comparison of this list of items with that in I Cor. 12:28 will confirm many other indications not only of the manifoldness and rich variety of the forms the ministry took, at least in the Pauline churches, but also of the way functions were sometimes exercised by different persons and sometimes combined in one person. When in Gal. 6:6 Paul reminds his readers that he “who is taught the word” should accept some responsibility for the financial support of “him who teaches,” we may suppose that “prophets” as well as “teachers” are included in the provision. We do not need to decide whether Paul is supposed to be a “prophet” or a “teacher” at Antioch (in Acts 13:1-3). As a matter of fact, he was both; perhaps each of the prophets and teachers at Antioch was both. And the Didache, although it seems to know (in 11 :1-2 and 13:2) a special class of teachers, can still say of the prophet: “If he does not do what he teaches, [he] is a false prophet” (11:10).

C. H. Dodd makes a careful distinction between preaching (kerugma) and teaching (didache)7 in the early church. Such a distinction has merit in helping to bring out the full content of the message of the primitive prophets and teachers; but it would not do to identify the “preaching” with the prophets and the “teaching” with the teachers. Both the preaching and the teaching, as Dodd describes them, belonged to the function of each group. The preaching — in the sense of the proclamation of the good news of God’s saving action in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ — was perhaps in a peculiar sense the work of the apostle and those associated with him, for they were the great missionaries of the early church and were principally responsible for proclaiming the gospel where Christ’s name was not known. But the prophets and teachers in local churches, although responsible for the spiritual edification of the congregation itself, were also expected to do the work of evangelists as they had opportunity. Services of the church aimed in large part at the persuading and winning of unbelievers were certainly held. It is clear that the Christian movement spread chiefly through a constantly widening extension of the influence of the churches which had been established in metropolitan centers. The leaders in this extension must have been the prophets and teachers. The work of evangelism and the work of edification was then, as it is still, in considerable part one work.

It must not be assumed that all the “ministers” of the primitive church were men; women undoubtedly shared in both the gifts and the labors of the ministry. Paul, to be sure, says rather flatly (in I Cor. 14:34) that “women should keep silence in the churches,” intimating that this was the rule in the churches generally; but earlier in the same letter (11:5 f.) he seems concerned only that a “woman who prays or prophesies” shall be veiled. This apparent discrepancy is difficult to understand and has never been really satisfactorily explained. Antecedently, however, it is unlikely that women should not have functioned as teachers and prophets. Would not the gifts of prophecy and teaching have been sometimes, and quite unmistakably, bestowed on women? And if so, could they have refrained from prophesying, or would the churches have dared require that they should? It is likely that Prisca was such a prophet or teacher; she is presented in some such role in Acts 18:26. And the same book tells of prophetesses at Caesarea (21:9).

As to the prominence of women in the administrative and pastoral work of the churches, there can be no question whatever. Phoebe in Rom. 16:1 is called a diakonos of the church at Cenchreae. If this final chapter of Romans is pseudonymous and late (as I think it is), Phoebe is being called a “deaconess,” for we know that there were deaconesses in some at least of the second century churches; but even if the chapter is from Paul’s own hand (as is generally supposed), Phoebe is being identified as an active servant of the church. In the same chapter “Mary” is described as having “worked hard among you,” and “Tryphaena and Tryphosa,” are called “those workers in the Lord.” These are in effect deaconesses. Similarly, the “widows,” about whom we hear in the Pastoral Epistles (I Tim. 5:3ff.), as well as in Polycarp (4:3) and elsewhere, were deaconesses in fact. At first, the widow was probably merely the beneficiary of the church, one of the needy whom it supported from its common fund; but she soon became, where her strength and health permitted, one of its regular ministers. As such she visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, dispensed the charity of the church, and in other ways helped those in special need. Although her services were not confined to women, it is obvious that she could often be especially helpful to them and especially useful to the administrators of the church in dealing with them.

A distinction is often proposed between the “general” and the “local” ministry in the early church. There can be no question about the propriety of the distinction, but where exactly the line should be drawn is not so clear. Taking Paul’s list in I Cor. 12:25, some students have regarded the apostles, prophets, and teachers as belonging to the “general” ministry, and the rest, including the bishops and deacons (that is, the “administrators” and “helpers”) as local. Others have drawn the line of distinction between the prophets and the teachers, only the apostles and prophets belonging to the general ministry. What we have just been noting about the interrelatedness of the prophetic and teaching functions will suggest the difficulty of separating the teacher and the prophet from each other; and, if they belong together, it seems on the whole more plausible to regard them as belonging to the local ministry. Certainly they must in the beginning have had their primary locus in some congregation although there would have been nothing to prevent, and much to encourage, visits by a person with distinguished gifts as a preacher (such, I think, we would call either “prophet” or “teacher”) to other churches. Often he would have been invited to make such a visit. It should also be recognized that some of Paul’s associates in apostolic work — as, for example, Apollos and Timothy — would have been prophetic persons. It is to be assumed that such persons were associated with other apostles. And it probably goes without saying that the apostles themselves were almost certainly also prophets and teachers.

Later it is clear that there was a great number, a distinct class, of wandering prophets, depending for their support upon the churches they visited, many of them imposing on the early Christians’ reverence for the Spirit and for Spirit-filled persons, some of them actual charlatans. Lucian, a pagan writer of the second century, writes satirically about such a rascally prophet and the gullibility of the Christians whom he exploited. The Didache lays down some rather shrewd rules for distinguishing the true prophet from the sham: “No prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit shall eat of it: if he does he is a false prophet…. whoever shall say in the Spirit ‘Give me money [or something else],’ you shall not listen to him.” And if a visiting prophet (Called in the Didache an “apostle”) stays as long as three days, he is a false prophet (chap. 11).

It would seem, too, that the writer to the Ephesians, not so late as the Didache, but a generation after Paul’s time, thinks of the prophet as belonging to what we are calling the general ministry. At any rate, he thinks of him as being very close to the apostle. It is interesting to compare with I Cor. 12:28 f. the statement in Eph. 4:11. “Some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” We note at once the absence of any reference to the healers, the wonderworkers, the speakers in tongues, and those gifted in interpreting these outpourings. Although the epistle is filled with allusions to the Spirit, the writer does not know, or at any rate does not highly esteem, the more ecstatic gifts by which Paul set great store. It is true that he still speaks of the “prophets,” but he seems to place them in the same bracket with the apostles, thus relegating them to the early period of the church’s beginnings. Just as there are no longer “apostles” in the same sense as in the days of Peter and Paul, so there are no longer “prophets” in the original high meaning of that term. The church, he tells us, is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” — prophecy has passed away along with tongues and miracles (although, I repeat, the Spirit is very fully present and active). “Evangelists” take the place of both. “Pastors and teachers” are grouped together. Do they represent the “local ministry”? Are the “pastors” the “administrators” and “helpers” of an earlier time (the “bishops” and “deacons” of the same and a later time,) and have these taken on the functions and responsibilities of the teacher as well? 8 Ephesians was probably written at Ephesus in the last decade of the first century and whatever the answers to our questions, that document may be thought of as representing the situation of the churches at the very center of Paul’s “diocese” a generation after his death.

Let it be noted that in all of this discussion so far we have been dealing with functions or with vocations, but not with offices. For Paul there were teachers and prophets, but hardly the offices of teacher and prophet. More obviously the healers, speakers in tongues, miracle workers, were not “officials” of the church. Even the “bishops” and “deacons” of Phil. 1:1 are not to be thought of as officials. There is more basis for regarding the apostle as filling an office because it was not his personal spiritual endowment which primarily qualified him as an apostle, but his ability to meet certain specifications of a more objective kind — namely, he must have “seen the Lord” and been commissioned by him. His authority, therefore, was not merely the self-authenticating authority of the Spirit which possessed him, but inhered also in the relationship he sustained with the historical event in which the church began.

Of the several ministries of the local church, it is natural that those of the “administrators” and “helpers” should have been the first to receive official status. These are the least obviously spiritistic of them all, the most clearly susceptible of being filled by human election or appointment. Thus the “bishops” and “deacons” can be thought of as being, at least in the area of the church which Paul’s letters had earlier represented, the first official ministers. These ministers, where prophets and teachers in the more traditional sense were not to be found or were found untrustworthy, would tend to take over the more spiritual functions of preaching and of presiding at the Eucharist and other services of worship. The Didache says much, as we have seen, about the prophets and can call them “your high priests”; but it recognizes the possibility that a church at a given time may not have a prophet (13:4). It is such a situation the author has in mind when (in 15:1) he writes: “Appoint . . . for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, meek men, and not lovers of money, and truthful and approved for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers.”

With this development of definitely official bishops and deacons, possessing priestly and teaching as well as administrative responsibilities and prerogatives, the strictly primitive phase of the history of the church’s ministry comes to an end.


We have proceeded thus far without mentioning at all a term of great importance in this study or, for that matter, in the study of the ministry in any period — namely, the elder or the presbyter (presbyteros). This omission has been possible because elders are not referred to in any of Paul’s letters, nor are they mentioned in Ephesians and the Didache, the other sources upon which we have thus far been principally relying. On the other hand, “elders” are mentioned in I Peter as the “shepherds” of the flock of God (5:1-3). According to James, “the elders of the church,” who will pray and anoint with oil in the name of the Lord, are to be called on in cases of illness. The author of Revelation may be supposed to reflect a familiar order in the church when he speaks of the “twenty-four elders” around the heavenly throne (4:4). The Pastoral Epistles, although they speak also of “bishops,” have much to say about the elders of the church, and the same thing is true of I Clement. And, most important of all, the book of Acts seems to represent government by “elders” as characteristic, not only of the Jerusalem church, but also of the churches generally in the primitive period.

It happens that all of these documents are relatively late — that is, considerably later than Paul — and might be supposed to reflect a post-Pauline development in the church’s polity. Since many of these later references to elders apply to churches within the area of Paul’s earlier work and even, especially in the case of I Clement, to a church actually founded by Paul, one must acknowledge a measure of truth in this supposition. I Clement is, of course, a letter addressed by the church at Rome to the church at Corinth about AD. 95, and one might argue that it is the polity of the Roman, rather than of the Corinthian, church that is reflected there. This is undoubtedly true to some extent; but one can hardly suppose that the picture of church order at Corinth which the letter presents is substantially mistaken. There were, then, “elders” at Corinth at the end of the first century. The same thing can be said of Philippi, another of Paul’s churches, at the beginning of the second, if we can trust Polycarp’s reference to the “elders and deacons” there in his letter to that church (5:3). The book of Revelation may most naturally be taken as representing the Christianity of Asia (the very center of Paul’s field of work) in the same general period; and the Pastoral Epistles, wherever they originated, are certainly thought of by their author as standing in the Pauline tradition. We may suppose, then, that a system of government in local churches by councils of elders had established itself very generally by the end of the first century, even in the Pauline churches, whose usages in an earlier period we have been studying thus far.

It is impossible, however, to regard this system as having its origin so late as this. Whatever our view of the date of Acts and of the purposes and methods of its author, it is all but impossible to suppose that he is not following early and authentic sources in his account of the life of the primitive community in Jerusalem; and the allusions to “James and the elders” or “the apostles and elders” are too frequent and integral to be seriously doubted. Nor can we regard the “elders” as simply the “older men” — although it cannot be denied that the term is sometimes used in the New Testament in that quite nonofficial sense. In Acts, as well as in I Clement and the Pastorals, they are the principal ministers of the church; and the probability is that the term was in use in that sense in the Judean church long before it had spread into the territory of Paul’s mission.

This probability is confirmed by a very important a priori consideration. Jewish communities, large and small, were governed by councils of elders, the so-called sanhedrins. These “elders” were the only “ordained” officials of Judaism in the New Testament period — the priests and Levites being such by birth and the scribes not having yet attained full recognition as official representatives of the cultus.9 Moreover, the elders were by all means the most important Jewish officials both in Palestine and in the diaspora, the oversight of all the interests of the communities being entrusted to them. Not only is it impossible to suppose that the term “elder” as used in the early church is not related to this Jewish usage, but it is almost equally difficult to doubt that the most primitive Jewish Christian communities followed this familiar and universal Jewish pattern in their organization. The pattern moved presumably in a westward direction till in the time when Acts, I Clement, and the Pastorals were written it had become very generally established.

How are we to think of the “elders” as related to the several functions and functionaries we have noted in the Pauline churches? Sometimes in the literature of the period (as, for example, Acts 20:28; Titus 1: 5-7; I Clem. 44:4-6) the term “elder” seems equivalent to “bishop”; and it is not unlikely that the word episkopos (“bishop”) was sometimes used to make intelligible to Gentiles the meaning of presbyteros (“elder”), which would have sounded strange to them as a title of office. But we must assume that, generally speaking, the word “elder” was a more inclusive term than any we have so far considered.10 “The apostles and elders” of Acts — like the Jewish “chief priests and elders” referred to in the same work — are all “elders,” and they constitute the essential governing body of the Jerusalem church. It is not unlikely that Luke thinks of the Jerusalem elders as exercising a kind of supervision over all the churches just as the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem held primacy over all the Jewish sanhedrins. The appointment of the Seven in Acts 6:1-6 is probably to be understood as the enlarging of the council of elders to represent the Jews of Hellenistic origin who had become members of the Jerusalem church. There were undoubtedly at Jerusalem prophets and teachers, as well as administrators and helpers (we can be less sure of the various kinds of ecstatics); but in all probability all of them belonged among the “elders” of the church. Was there a definite number of these? The Jewish sanhedrins varied to some extent in size, and there is no reason to suppose that the number of Christian elders was fixed. The more important the gifts of the Spirit were in determining function and role, the more fluid the number of elders would need to be. But as the primitive enthusiasm waned, or became corrupted, and the Spirit was thought of as conferred through ordination (rather than as being a prior condition of it), a body of fixed size, at any rate in a particular congregation, would become established as the norm.

We may suppose that as this pattern of a council of governing elders moved westward in the closing decades of the first century (it may have reached Rome in the far West earlier and more directly), it absorbed the more primitive ministries — and this meant particularly the “bishops” and “deacons,” since, as we have seen, the bishops and deacons were already taking over the teaching and liturgical functions of the prophets and teachers. Sometimes, as we have seen, the term “elder” seems to be used interchangeably with “bishop;” sometimes it would appear that the “presbytery” included both elders who supervised and elders who served, that is, both “bishops” and “deacons.” No doubt both polity and nomenclature varied from time to time and from place to place.

These boards of elders, like the Jewish sanhedrins, had general oversight of the affairs of the congregation and were responsible for guiding and ruling it. All of the many functions we have mentioned as belonging to the administration of a primitive congregation — and we remember that these were becoming constantly more numerous and complex — are now the responsibility of the elders in their corporate capacity. And as the Pastorals and I Clement make abundantly clear, the elders — at any rate those “elders” who are also “bishops” — are fully responsible for teaching and for the conduct of worship and the Eucharist. I Clement represents them as successors of the apostles (42:3-4, 44:1-3), and the same status is implied in the Pastoral Epistles. Both writers, as well as I Peter, Polycarp, and the Didache, are concerned that these rulers shall be worthy of the reverence to which the office entitles them — that they shall be men of good character and reputation, devoted to Christ, sober, not married a second time (or does this mean ”undivorced”?11), free from pride and covetousness, discreet, responsible, trained in and loyal to the apostolic tradition, competent to teach, true officiants of the church’s worship. (See, e.g., I Clem. 44:3; I Tim. 3:2ff; II Tim. 3:10-4:5; Titus 1:5ff.; I Pet. 5:1ff.; Poly. ad Phil. 6:1; Didache 15:1-2.) And the deacons, who assisted in both the administrative and liturgical tasks of the elder-bishops, were to be persons of similar kind (I Tim. 3:8 ff.; Poly. ad Phil. 5:2).


One further stage in the development of the early ministry needs to be traced. This is the rise of monepiscopacy — that is, the pattern of a single bishop, or pastor, at the head of each church. We are so accustomed to this pattern — despite our controversies about episcopacy — that we may not realize that it does not clearly emerge till the opening years of the second century. The first witness to it is Ignatius, a prophet of the church of Antioch in Syria, who has become the bishop in the sense of the single head, of the church in that city. During his passage across the provinces of Asia and Macedonia on his way, under guard, to Rome, and presumably martyrdom, he had occasion to write a number of brief letters, especially to the churches of Asia which had sent deputations to visit and befriend him; and these letters are among the very few sources we have for the history of the church in the early decades of the second century. They reveal, not only that Ignatius was the single bishop of Antioch, but also that the several churches of Asia — at Ephesus, Philadelphia, Magnesia, Smyrna, and elsewhere — had likewise single rulers: Onesimus, for example, is “bishop” in Ephesus, and Polycarp in Smyrna. It is clear that each of these churches had a body of elders and a corps of deacons; but presiding over both and over the congregation as a whole is the bishop.

It appears even in Ignatius’ letters that this system of a threefold ministry was not universal, for in his letter to the Roman church he says nothing about its bishop. Similarly, his colleague and friend, Polycarp, in writing to the church at Philippi speaks of their “elders and deacons” but does not mention their “bishop,” thus strongly suggesting that monepiscopacy was not established in Macedonia at that time. Moreover, it can be argued that the vigor Ignatius shows in defending the significance and prerogatives of the bishop indicates that, even in Asia, the system was of recent origin. Indeed, if III John is to be understood as a protest again the new system, as many interpreters hold, it shows us this development in the very midst of its occurrence, probably in some Asian church. If we may assume that monepiscopacy was of longer standing and was more firmly established in Ignatius’ own church, the indications would be that the single bishop pattern, like the elder pattern, moved in a westward direction from Palestine or Syria across the church.

Again as in the case of the elders, this direction is antecedently likely because of what we gather from our most primitive sources about the organization of the Jerusalem church. Acts, as we have seen, tells us of the “apostles and elders” there; Paul, who describes a visit of his own to Jerusalem, speaks of the “pillars.” But both let us know that among the heads of the Jerusalem church (whoever they were and by whatever name they were called), there was one supreme head, namely James the Lord’s brother.l2 He was apparently more influential even than Peter. Hegesippus is the source of the tradition, preserved for us by Eusebius, that James was succeeded by another relative of Jesus and that indeed a kind of dynastic line was established in the Palestinian church. A1though this dynastic feature is unique, the office and role of James and his successors may well be the prototype of the later monarchical episcopacy. If so, it is not strange that the pattern should have early established itself at Antioch (although apparently not in Syria as a whole: witness the Didache) and that Asia should have adopted it before Macedonia or Italy. But its progress was steady and fairly rapid. By the end of the second century it was established virtually everywhere.

The rise and rapid spread of monepiscopacy cannot be explained, however, simply by the example of Jerusalem. We must recognize that the form served certain practical needs of the churches. A system of government through a council of elders could be cumbersome; and with the increasing complexity of the congregations’ operations and the growing need for both unity and efficiency in the face of increasing persecution by the state and the more vigorous activities of the gnostic teachers — in such a situation the conception of a single head of the church, the guardian of its unity and the responsible agent of its decisions, would have appealed to many congregations. There would also have been felt a need for guardians of the tradition, persons authorized to speak for the apostles, to fill the place of highest authority they had left vacant. We have seen that I Clement regards the elders as the authorized successors of the apostles; how much simpler and how much more appropriate if the authority of this succession could be located in single individuals! And supporting such claims would be the fact that in some cases actual lines of connection between particular apostles and particular bishops could be traced. Many find the origin of the office of monepiscopacy in the function of presiding at the Eucharist which, it is argued, some one person must have performed from the beginning. This precedent gradually took on other functions, pastoral, administrative, and teaching, until the monepiscopal pattern had fully emerged. But whatever the causes of it or the process by which it came about, or however different these may have been in different parts of the church, monepiscopacy was firmly established in most churches before the end of the second century and by the end of the third century prevailed everywhere. With the establishment of monepiscopacy went the doctrine that a certain priestly power inhered in the office of the bishops, who were the successors not only of the apostles but also of the Old Testament high priests.13 But the development of such doctrines falls largely in the second and later centuries. Even Ignatius says nothing about the apostolic succession of the bishops, although we cannot argue too surely from his silence that he does not accept it.

The first “bishops” in the monarchical sense were bishops of local churches; they were not diocesan superintendents in the later sense. But the roots of the later development must have been present wherever the church was situated in what was, actually or potentially, a center of expansion; and this would have been true of any large city. There would have been many congregations — at any rate, house congregations — in such a city as Ephesus or Antioch in the early second century; and therefore the bishop of Ephesus or the bishop of Antioch would have been more than the head of a single congregation. Although Harnack 14 is no doubt right in denying that there were in the beginning provincial organizations of churches presided over by single bishops and in insisting that the tendency in the second and third centuries was for every church to have its own bishop, nevertheless one must recognize some similarity, and perhaps some connection, between the apostolic oversight of many churches at the middle of the first century and the early second century episcopal oversight of the several congregations in a given city — and between both and the later diocesan episcopacy. In a significant article M. H. Shepherd, Jr.,15 argues that Ignatius in urging monepiscopacy was motivated largely by hostility to the gnostic teachers operating among the house churches in various cities. His purpose was to bring all of these house churches in a single city area under a single leader, “who would have complete control and jurisdiction over all liturgical assemblies where baptism and the Eucharist were administered, discipline meted out, and instruction given.” But a discussion of such matters falls more appropriately within the following chapter of this book.

FOR FURTHER READING (In addition to titles mentioned in the notes for this chapter)

Dobschutz, E. von, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, New York and London, 1904.

Dunkerley, R., ed., The Ministry and the Sacraments, London, 1937.

Easton, B. S., The Pastoral Epistles, New York, 1947.

Harnack, A. von, The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries, New York and London, 1910.

Hatch, E., The Organization of the Early Christian Churches, London and New York, 1892 (4th ed.).

Hort, F. J. A., The Christian Ecclesia, London, 1897.

Kirk, K. E., ed., The Apostolic Ministry, New York, 1946; London, 1947.

Leitzmann, H., “Zur Altchristlichen Verfassungsgeschichte,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie, LV. Frankfurt, 1914.

Lightfoot, J. B., “The Christian Ministry” in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, London and New York, 1894.

Lindsay, T. M., The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, London, 1907 (3rd ed.).

Linton, O., Das Problem der Urkirche in der neueren Forschung, Uppsala, 1932.

Lowrie, W., The Church and Its Organization in Primitive Times; An Interpretation of Rudolph Sohm’s Kirchenrecht, New York and London, 1904.

Manson, T. W., The Church’s Ministry, Philadelphia, 1948; London, 1948.

Rawlinson, A. E. J., “The Historical Origins of the Christian Ministry” in Foundations, London, 1914.

Streeter, B. H., The Primitive Church, studied with special reference to the origins of the Christian Ministry, New York, 1929.


1 I am indebted here to an illuminating suggestion by C. F. D. Moule, “Deacons in the New Testament,” Theology, LVIII, 1950, 405 ff.

2I Cor. 15:5. But some regard this reference to “the Twelve” as of doubtful authenticity.

3 So A. Fridrichsen in “The Apostle and His Message,” Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, 1947.

4 Kirchliches Amt und Geistliche Vollmacht in den ersten drei.Jahrhunderten (Tübingen, 1953) esp. 32 ff.

5 The text of the Revised Standard Version is followed here except that with the majority of translators we have understood proistamenos as meaning “presiding” rather than “giving aid.”

6 See the highly instructive article by F. V. Filson, “The Christian Teacher in the First Century,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LX (1941), 371 ff.

7 See his The Apostolic Preaching (New York, 1937) and Gospel and Law (New York, 1951).

8 The identification of “bishops” with “pastors” is also suggested by Acts 20:28 and I Pet. 2:25.

9 See B. S. Easton, “Jewish and Early Christian Ordination,” Anglican Theological Review, V (1922-23), 308 ff. and VI (1923-24), 285 ff.

10 See here the very suggestive article, “Zur altchristlichen Verfassungsgeschichte” by H. Lietzmann in Zeitschrift fur wissenschaftliche Theologie, LV (1914), 97 ff. This article has been especially helpful to the writer of this chapter.

11 See B. S. Easton, The Pastoral Epistles, 212-14.

12 One is bound to think here of the office of “superintendent” in the Qumran community which is mentioned in both the Manual of Discipline and the Damascus Document. Any discussion as to whether a connection should be seen between this office and the most primitive “episcopacy” in Jerusalem must wait upon the achievement of a clearer picture of the relations of the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the beginnings of Christianity.

13 See A. Ehrhardt, The Apostolic Succession in the First Two.Centuries of the Church (London, 1953).

14 The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, (New York, 1908), 445 ff.

15 “The Development of the Early Ministry,” Anglican Theological Review, XXVI, (1944), esp. 148 f. Shepherd, following Sohm and Lowrie, regards the presbyters of an earlier time as only the older or more honored men in the congregation. He sees the origin of the presbyterate as an order of the ministry in the authority which the monarchical bishops delegated to their representatives m the various house churches under their care.

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