How the Church Erected a Durable Structure of Authority Vol. 4 No. 23

We read in our immediate past edition how the Gnostic heresy challenged the Church to systematize her tradition which Christ taught his apostles. It was a challenge that led to the gradual development of a threefold document which includes a specially commissioned ministry, an authoritative list of apostolic writings and a rule of faith or creed; as we shall analyse below.
The specially commissioned ministry was based on a system of governance by elders and deacons which had apparently prevailed in some churches from the beginning (at Jerusalem, Ephesus, for example). It is worthy to note that in this system, unlike Paul’s, it was not the spirit alone who conferred office; office was conferred by formal appointment. The recipient, ordained to his office by the laying on of hands was specially endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. No wonder today, no one can claim to be a Catholic priest without passing through the normal process of seminary formation. And then being ordained by a Catholic Bishop.
Concretely speaking, we could observe this system in the pastoral epistles where Timothy and Titus have been appointed to the office of elder (i.e. Presbyteros in Greek meaning Priest). And they are to choose reliable men to succeed them, and these in turn will choose others. The First Epistle of Peter also shows such a system already in operation, within a definitively fixed circle of presbyters or elders engaged in an orderly ministry. But as in those days, there was no distinction between clergy and laity. The whole Church was called a royal priesthood.
An important stage in this development was reached around A.D. 96, when the apostolic origin of this presbyteral system was asserted in the First Epistle of Clement. This was a letter written by the Roman Church to the church in Corinth in an effort to heal a schism there that occurred when a group of elders were deposed. Clement urged their restoration to authority by arguing that the deposed elders stood in due succession from the apostles. However, the Syrian catechetical manual, the Didache, (dated from the end 1st Century AD), confirmed that this system of elders was still not universal. Besides, in this work, prophets and teachers were still regarded as exercising the most important ministries. Moreover, the manual reflects a state of transition to the institutional type of church organization, for it instructs the congregation to elect bishops and deacons if prophets and teachers are in short supply. Could it now imply that prophets are teachers were higher in authority than bishops and deacons?
Well, this term Bishop was originally a secular Greek expression, episkopos, meaning supervisor or overseer. It gradually came into church usage and was nearly synonymous at first with the word for elder, presbyter. Initially, the governance of the Church was a collective responsibility of the elders and bishops. Later, one man took over the power and concentrated the various ministries in his hands. He was now called “Bishop” (overseer) to distinguish him from the presbyters (Priests), who were his subordinates. On his way to trial and eventual martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch confirmed that the bishop is the focal point of the congregation; all important functions are vested in him; he alone has the right to lead public worship and administer the sacraments. His authority is without limits, but it is to be completely at the service of the community. This level of the episcopal authority was based on the claim that he stood in legitimate succession that can be traced back to the apostles themselves. Hence, as a guarantor of the oral tradition, his teaching would therefore be in conformity with his predecessors. Irenaeus gave it a classic form when he said that the bishops of Rome were the direct successor for Peter and Paul (who were executed in Rome by Emperor Nero in 67AD). Moreover, they spoke in agreement with the bishops of other sees who were also successor of apostles. This is the first measure taken by the Church to guarantee the integrity of its tradition and safeguard its identity with the authority of the Apostles. We shall discuss the other two measures in next series

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