Losing The Faith (12/22)

Christian Priesthood

Early Christianity was distinguished from both Judaism and the pagan religious system by the fact that it had no priesthood. Jesus Christ was the only high priest; all believers constituted a “royal priesthood.” There were no orders of priests acting as mediators between the believer and his God. Justin Martyr says: “So we, who through the name of Jesus have believed as one man in God, the Maker of the universe, having divested ourselves of our filthy garments, i.e., our sins, through the name of His first-born son, and having been refined by the word of his calling are the true high-priestly race of God” (Dialogue, cxvi). Irenaeus says, “all the disciples of the Lord are Levites and priests;” Origen writes that “(the Lord’s) disciples are true priests.”

In Greek and Latin the words for “priest” are hiereus and sacerdos, whereas ecclesial elders were designated by the Greek word presbyteroi (presbyters or elders). It was not until late in the third century that priestly terms were used for Christian clergy. Origen is the first of the “fathers” to imply them to any degree. In the decree of the council at Antioch the clergy are called a hieration or body of priests.

The Clergy Appears

The Greek word kleros had a number of meanings including “rank,” “social class,” and “function.” Ignatius had used it to describe the whole assembly of Christians, “that I may be found in the company of those Christians at Ephesus; but gradually kleros or “clergy” came to be limited to the bishops and presbyters. The separation between the clergy and the people then became a reality.

What came to be known as a “monarchial hierarchy” began with the church in Rome, and as that community increased in influence, its organization became standard for most of the churches. The term diocese, which came to mean “the extent of a bishop’s jurisdiction,” was the Latin word for a governmental district. In Roman towns, there was a Council, called the ordo. When convened, this body occupied a special place, referred to as a “bench.” The common people, or plebes, stood in the body of the hall. So also in the church (as opposed to the earlier ecclesia), the officials sat on a seat apart from the congregation. “It is the authority of the Church which makes a difference between the order (ordo) and the people … Thus where there is no bench or clergy, you present the offerings, and baptize, and are your own sole priest, for where two or three have gathered together, there is a Church” (Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity, vii).

Apostolic Succession

The apostles did not designate successors. Their office was unique, as those who were sent forth from the Lord Jesus himself. They did appoint others to carry on the work of assisting the ecclesias, but there is no hint in the New Testament of that doctrine which has come to be called “the apostolic succession.”

The idea first developed by way of establishing orthodoxy, distinguishing those who were thought to be holding apostolic principles as opposed to those who were seeking to promulgate new teachings. Ireneaeus points to the Roman church as having a direct line of bishops from Clement, who was associated with the apostles. Churches with a history going back to the apostles were considered to be the ones most likely to hold apostolic doctrine (Against Heresies, Book III, chs. 1-3).

Tertullian’s reasoning is similar. Let the heretics give evidence that their teachings come down from the apostles. “Let them produce the original records of their churches … For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John …” (Prescription Against Heretics, ch. xxxii).

There was a serious pitfall in these arguments. The churches that had been established by the apostles were held in high esteem; when they strayed from apostolic concepts, others would follow their lead. Faithfulness to apostolic teaching was what was necessary, rather than allegiance to those who claimed to be the apostles’ successors.
Development of the Papacy

The development of the papacy did not occur in the period we are considering, but the process had begun. Because of the importance of the city of Rome and the prestige of the church there, the bishop of Rome came to have great influence. “There was sometimes strenuous opposition to the claim of the bishop of Rome, but in the end the churches of the West acknowledged his supremacy: (B. K. Kuiper, The Church in History, ch. 6). Succeeding centuries saw this supremacy growing, and the bishop of Rome came to assume the titles previously held by the Roman Emperor.

The Clergy and Apostasy

At the beginning of the post-apostolic era, there was no “clergy” or “laity.” All believers were essentially equal, sharing the benefits and responsibilities of brethren in Christ. The development of the clerical system exactly paralleled the growth of the apostasy. Ecclesial elders were called upon to settle disputes, etc., and consequently the eldership evolved into an ecclesiastical heirarchy elevated above the congregation and, eventually claiming divine authority. Getting back to New Testament principles, we believe, rightly includes a rejection of clerical distinctions. “Ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28).

J Banta.

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