Help Now >
FREE Catholic Classes
The term church (Anglo-Saxon, cirice, circe ; Modern German, Kirche; Sw., Kyrka ) is the name employed in the Teutonic languages to render the Greek ekklesia ( ecclesia ), the term by which the New Testament writers denote the society founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. The derivation of the word has been much debated. It is now agreed that it is derived from the Greek kyriakon ( cyriacon ), i.e. the Lord's house, a term which from the third century was used, as well as ekklesia , to signify a Christian place of worship. This, though the less usual expression, had apparently obtained currency among the Teutonic races. The Northern tribes had been accustomed to pillage the Christian churches of the empire, long before their own conversion. Hence, even prior to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain, their language had acquired words to designate some of the externals of the Christian religion.
The present article is arranged as follows:I. The term Ecclesia
II. The Church in Prophecy
III. Its Constitution by Christ; the Church after the Ascension
IV. Its Organization by the Apostles
V. The Church, a Divine Society
VI. The Church, the Necessary Means of Salvation
VII. Visibility of the Church
VIII. The Principle of Authority; Infallibility; Jurisdiction
IX. Members of the Church
X. Indefectibility of the Church; Continuity
XI. Universality of the Church; the "Branch" Theory
XII. Notes of the Church
XIII. The Church, a Perfect Society
I. THE TERM ECCLESIA
In order to understand the precise force of this word, something must first be said as to its employment by the Septuagint translators of the Old Testament. Although in one or two places ( Psalm 25:5 ; Judith 6:21 ; etc.) the word is used without religious signification, merely in the sense of "an assembly", this is not usually the case. Ordinarily it is employed as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew qahal , i.e., the entire community of the children of Israel viewed in their religious aspect. Two Hebrew words are employed in the Old Testament to signify the congregation of Israel, viz. qahal 'êdah . In the Septuagint these are rendered, respectively, ekklesia and synagoge . Thus in Proverbs v, 14, where the words occur together, "in the midst of the church and the congregation", the Greek rendering is en meso ekklesias kai synagoges . The distinction is indeed not rigidly observed -- thus in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, both words are regularly represented by synagoge -- but it is adhered to in the great majority of cases, and may be regarded as an established rule. In the writings of the New Testament the words are sharply distinguished. With them ecclesia denotes the Church of Christ; synagoga , the Jews still adhering to the worship of the Old Covenant. Occasionally, it is true, ecclesia is employed in its general significance of "assembly" ( Acts 19:32 ; 1 Corinthians 14:19 ); and synagoga occurs once in reference to a gathering of Christians, though apparently of a non-religious character ( James 2:2 ) But ecclesia is never used by the Apostles to denote the Jewish Church. The word as a technical expression had been transferred to the community of Christian believers.
It has been frequently disputed whether there is any difference in the signification of the two words. St. Augustine (in Psalm. lxxvii, in P. L., XXXVI, 984) distinguishes them on the ground that ecclesia is indicative of the calling together of men, synagoga of the forcible herding together of irrational creatures: "congregatio magis pecorum convocatio magis hominum intelligi solet". But it may be doubted whether there is any foundation for this view. It would appear, however, that the term qahal , was used with the special meaning of "those called by God to eternal life", while 'êdah , denoted merely "the actually existing Jewish community" (Schürer, Hist. Jewish People, II, 59). Though the evidence for this distinction is drawn from the Mishna, and thus belongs to a somewhat later date, yet the difference in meaning probably existed at the time of Christ's ministry. But however this may have been, His intention in employing the term, hitherto used of the Hebrew people viewed as a church, to denote the society He Himself was establishing cannot be mistaken. It implied the claim that this society now constituted the true people of God, that the Old Covenant was passing away, and that He, the promised Messias, was inaugurating a New Covenant with a New Israel.
As signifying the Church, the word Ecclesia is used by Christian writers, sometimes in a wider, sometimes in a more restricted sense.
- It is employed to denote all who, from the beginning of the world, have believed in the one true God, and have been made His children by grace. In this sense, it is sometimes distinguished, signifying the Church before the Old Covenant, the Church of the Old Covenant, or the Church of the New Covenant. Thus St. Gregory (Epp. V, ep. xviii ad. Joan. Ep. Const., in P. L., LXXVII, 740) writes: "Sancti ante legem, sancti sub lege, sancti sub gratiâ, omnes hi . . . in membris Ecclesiæ sunt constituti" (The saints before the Law, the saints under the Law, and the saints under grace -- all these are constituted members of the Church).
- It may signify the whole body of the faithful, including not merely the members of the Church who are alive on earth but those, too, whether in heaven or in purgatory, who form part of the one communion of saints. Considered thus, the Church is divided into the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant.
- It is further employed to signify the Church Militant of the New Testament. Even in this restricted acceptation, there is some variety in the use of the term. The disciples of a single locality are often referred to in the New Testament as a Church ( Revelation 2:18 ; Romans 16:4 ; Acts 9:31 ), and St. Paul even applies the term to disciples belonging to a single household ( Romans 16:5 ; 1 Corinthians 16:19 , Colossians 4:15 ; Philemon 1-2 ). Moreover, it may designate specially those who exercise the office of teaching and ruling the faithful, the Ecclesia Docens ( Matthew 18:17 ), or again the governed as distinguished from their pastors, the Ecclesia Discens ( Acts 20:28 ). In all these cases the name belonging to the whole is applied to a part. The term, in its full meaning, denotes the whole body of the faithful, both rulers and ruled, throughout the world ( Ephesians 1:22 ; Colossians 1:18 ). It is in this meaning that the Church is treated of in the present article. As thus understood, the definition of the Church given by Bellarmine is that usually adopted by Catholic theologians : "A body of men united together by the profession of the same Christian Faith , and by participation in the same sacraments, under the governance of lawful pastors, more especially of the Roman Pontiff, the sole vicar of Christ on earth" (Coetus hominum ejusdem christianæ fidei professione, et eorumdem sacramentorum communione colligatus, sub regimine legitimorum pastorum et præcipue unius Christi in Terris vicarii Romani Pontificis. -- Bellarmine, De Eccl., III, ii, 9). The accuracy of this definition will appear in the course of the article.
II. THE CHURCH IN PROPHECY
Hebrew prophecy relates in almost equal proportions to the person and to the work of the Messias. This work was conceived as consisting of the establishment of a kingdom, in which he was to reign over a regenerated Israel. The prophetic writings describe for us with precision many of the characteristics which were to distinguish that kingdom. Christ during His ministry affirmed not only that the prophecies relating to the Messias were fulfilled in His own person, but also that the expected Messianic kingdom was none other than His Church. A consideration of the features of the kingdom as depicted by the Prophets, must therefore greatly assist us in understanding Christ's intentions in the institution of the Church. Indeed many of the expressions employed by Him in relation to the society He was establishing are only intelligible in the Light of these prophecies and of the consequent expectations of the Jewish people. It will moreover appear that we have a weighty argument for the supernatural character of the Christian revelation in the precise fulfillment of the sacred oracles.
A characteristic feature of the Messianic kingdom, as predicted, is its universal extent. Not merely the twelve tribes, but the Gentiles are to yield allegiance to the Son of David. All kings are to serve and obey him; his dominion is to extend to the ends of the earth ( Psalm 21:28 sq. ; 2:7-12 ; 116:1 ; Zechariah 9:10 ). Another series of remarkable passages declares that the subject nations will possess the unity conferred by a common faith and a common worship -- a feature represented under the striking image of the concourse of all peoples and nations to worship at Jerusalem. "It shall come to pass in the last days (i.e. in the Messianic Era] . . . that many nations shall say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob ; and he will teach us of his ways and we will walk in his paths; for the law shall go forth out of Sion, and the word of the Lord out of Jerusalem " ( Micah 4:1-2 ; cf. Isaiah 2:2 ; Zechariah 8:3 ). This unity of worship is to be the fruit of a Divine revelation common to all the inhabitants of the earth (Zack., xiv, 8).
Corresponding to the triple office of the Messias as priest, prophet, and king, it will be noted that in relation to the kingdom the Sacred Writings lay stress on three points: (a) it is to be endowed with a new and peculiar sacrificial system; (b) it is to be the kingdom of truth possessed of a Divine revelation ; (c) it is to be governed by an authority emanating from the Messias.
- In regard to the first of these points, the priesthood of the Messias Himself is explicitly stated (Ps. cix, 4); while it is further taught that the worship which He is to inaugurate shall supersede the sacrifices of the Old Dispensation. This is implied, as the Apostle tells us, in the very title, "a priest after the order of Melchisedech "; and the same truth is contained in the prediction that a new priesthood is to be formed, drawn from other peoples besides the Israelites ( Isaiah 66:18 ), and in the words of the Prophet Malachias which foretell the institution of a new sacrifice to be offered "from the rising of the sun even to the going down" ( Malachi 1:11 ). The sacrifices offered by the priesthood of the Messianic kingdom are to endure as long as day and night shall last ( Jeremiah 33:20 ).
- The revelation of the Divine truth under the New Dispensation attested by Jeremias : "Behold the days shall come saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Juda. . . and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, saying: Know the Lord: for all shall know me from the least of them even to the greatest" ( Jeremiah 31:31, 34 ), while Zacharias assures us that in those days Jerusalem shall be known as the city of truth. ( Zechariah 8:3 ).
- The passages which foretell that the Kingdom will possess a peculiar principle of authority in the personal rule of the Messias are numerous (e.g. Psalms 2 and 71 ; Isaiah 9:6 sq. ); but in relation to Christ's own words, it is of interest to observe that in some of these passages the prediction is expressed under the metaphor of a shepherd guiding and governing his flock ( Ezekiel 34:23 ; 37:24-28 ). It is noteworthy, moreover, that just as the prophecies in regard to the priestly office foretell the appointment of a priesthood subordinate to the Messias, so those which relate to the office of government indicate that the Messias will associate with Himself other "shepherds", and will exercise His authority over the nations through rulers delegated to govern in His name ( Jeremiah 18:6 ; Psalm 44:17 ; cf. St. Augustine Enarr. in Psalm. 44:no. 32). Another feature of the kingdom is to be the sanctity of its members. The way to it is to be called "the holy way: the unclean shall not pass over it". The uncircumcised and unclean are not to enter into the renewed Jerusalem ( Isaiah 35:8 ; 52:1 ).
The later uninspired apocalyptic literature of the Jews shows us how profoundly these predictions had influenced their national hopes, and explains for us the intense expectation among the populace described in the Gospel narratives. In these works as in the inspired prophecies the traits of the Messianic kingdom present two very different aspects. On the one hand, the Messias is a Davidic king who gathers together the dispersed of Israel, and establishes on this earth a kingdom of purity and sinlessness (Psalms of Solomon, xvii). The foreign foe is to be subdued (Assumpt. Moses, c. x) and the wicked are to be judged in the valley of the son of Hinnon (Enoch, xxv, xxvii, xc). On the other hand, the kingdom is described in eschatological characters. The Messias is pre-existent and Divine (Enoch, Simil., xlviii, 3); the kingdom He establishes is to be a heavenly kingdom inaugurated by a great world-catastrophe, which separates this world ( aion outos ), from the world to come ( mellon ). This catastrophe is to be accompanied by a judgment both of angels and of men (Jubilees, x, 8; v, 10; Assumpt. Moses, x, 1). The dead will rise (Ps. Solom., iii, 11) and all the members of the Messianic kingdom will become like to the Messias (Enoch, Simil., xc, 37). This twofold aspect of the Jewish hopes in regard to the coming Messias must be borne in mind, if Christ's use of the expression "Kingdom of God" is to be understood. Not infrequently, it is true, He employs it in an eschatological sense. But far more commonly He uses it of the kingdom set up on this earth -- of His Church. These are indeed, not two kingdoms, but one. The Kingdom of God to be established at the last day is the Church in her final triumph.
III. CONSTITUTION BY CHRIST
The Baptist proclaimed the near approach of the Kingdom of God, and of the Messianic Era. He bade all who would share its blessings prepare themselves by penance. His own mission, he said, was to prepare the way of the Messias. To his disciples he indicated Jesus of Nazareth as the Messias whose advent he had declared ( John 1:29-31 ). From the very commencement of His ministry Christ laid claim in an explicit way to the Messianic dignity. In the synagogue at Nazareth ( Luke 4:21 ) He asserts that the prophecies are fulfilled in His person ; He declares that He is greater than Solomon ( Luke 11:31 ), more venerable than the Temple ( Matthew 12:6 ), Lord of the Sabbath ( Luke 6:5 ). John, He says, is Elias, the promised forerunner ( Matthew 17:12 ); and to John's messengers He vouchsafes the proofs of His Messianic dignity which they request ( Luke 7:22 ). He demands implicit faith on the ground of His Divine legation ( John 6:29 ). His public entry into Jerusalem was the acceptance by the whole people of a claim again and again reiterated before them. The theme of His preaching throughout is the Kingdom of God which He has come to establish. St. Mark, describing the beginning of His ministry, says that He came into Galilee saying, "The time is accomplished, and the Kingdom of God is at hand". For the kingdom which He was even then establishing in their midst, the Law and the Prophets had been, He said, but a preparation ( Luke 16:16 ; cf. Matthew 4:23 ; 9:35 ; 13:17 ; 21:43 ; 24:14 ; Mark 1:14 ; Luke 4:43 ; 8:1 ; 9:2, 60 ; 18:17 ).
When it is asked what is this kingdom of which Christ spoke, there can be but one answer. It is His Church, the society of those who accept His Divine legation, and admit His right to the obedience of faith which He claimed. His whole activity is directed to the establishment of such a society : He organizes it and appoints rulers over it, establishes rites and ceremonies in it, transfers to it the name which had hitherto designated the Jewish Church, and solemnly warns the Jews that the kingdom was no longer theirs, but had been taken from them and given to another people. The several steps taken by Christ in organizing the Church are traced by the Evangelists. He is represented as gathering numerous disciples, but as selecting twelve from their number to be His companions in an especial manner. These share His life. To them He reveals the more hidden parts of His doctrine ( Matthew 13:11 ). He sends them as His deputies to preach the kingdom, and bestows on them the power to work miracles. All are bound to accept their message; and those who refuse to listen to them shall meet a fate more terrible than that of Sodom and Gomorra ( Matthew 10:1-15 ). The Sacred Writers speak of these twelve chosen disciples in a manner indicating that they are regarded as forming a corporate body. In several passages they are still termed "the twelve" even when the number, understood literally, would be inexact. The name is applied to them when they have been reduced to eleven by the defection of Judas, on an occasion when only ten of them were present, and again after the appointment of St. Paul has increased their number to thirteen ( Luke 24:33 ; John 20:24 ; 1 Corinthians 15:5 ; Revelation 21:14 ).
In this constitution of the Apostolate Christ lays the foundation of His Church. But it is not till the action of official Judaism had rendered it manifestly impossible to hope the Jewish Church would admit His claim, that He prescribes for the Church as a body independent of the synagogue and possessed of an administration of her own. After the breach had become definite, He calls the Apostles together and speaks to them of the judicial action of the Church, distinguishing, in an unmistakable manner, between the private individual who undertakes the work of fraternal correction, and the ecclesiastical authority empowered to pronounce a judicial sentence ( Matthew 18:15-17 ). To the jurisdiction thus conferred He attached a Divine sanction. A sentence thus pronounced, He assured the Apostles, should be ratified in heaven. A further step was the appointment of St. Peter to be the chief of the Twelve. For this position he had already been designated ( Matthew 16:15 sqq. ) on an occasion previous to that just mentioned: at Cæsarea Philippi, Christ had declared him to be the rock on which He would build His Church, thus affirming that the continuance and increase of the Church would rest on the office created in the person of Peter. To him, moreover, were to be given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven -- an expression signifying the gift of plenary authority ( Isaiah 22:22 ). The promise thus made was fulfilled after the Resurrection, on the occasion narrated in John, xxi. Here Christ employs a simile used on more than one occasion by Himself to denote His own relation to the members of His Church -- that of the shepherd and his flock. His solemn charge, "Feed my sheep", constituted Peter the common shepherd of the whole collective flock. (For a further consideration of the Petrine texts see article PRIMACY.) To the twelve Christ committed the charge of spreading the kingdom among all nations, appointing the rite of baptism as the one means of admission to a participation in its privileges ( Matthew 28:19 ).
In the course of this article detailed consideration will be given to the principal characteristics of the Church. Christ's teaching on this point may be briefly summarized here. It is to be a kingdom ruled in His absence by men ( Matthew 18:18 ; John 21:17 ). It is therefore a visible theocracy ; and it will be substituted for the Jewish theocracy that has rejected Him ( Matthew 21:43 ). In it, until the day of judgment, the bad will be mingled with the good ( Matthew 13:41 ). Its extent will be universal ( Matthew 28:19 ), and its duration to the end of time ( Matthew 13:49 ); all powers that oppose it shall be crushed ( Matthew 21:44 ). Moreover, it will be a supernatural kingdom of truth, in the world, though not of it ( John 18:36 ). It will be one and undivided, and this unity shall be a witness to all men that its founder came from God ( John 17:21 ).
It is to be noticed that certain recent critics contest the positions maintained in the preceding paragraphs. They deny alike that Christ claimed to be the Messias, and that the kingdom of which He spoke was His Church. Thus, as regards Christ's claim to Messianic dignity, they say that Christ does not declare Himself to be the Messias in His preaching: that He bids the possessed who proclaimed Him the Son of God be silent : that the people did not suspect His Messiahship, but formed various extravagant hypotheses as to his personality. It is manifestly impossible within the limits of this article to enter on a detailed discussion of these points. But, in the light of the testimony of the passages above cited, it will be seen that the position is entirely untenable. In reference to the Kingdom of God , many of the critics hold that the current Jewish conception was wholly eschatological, and that Christ's references to it must one and all be thus interpreted. This view renders inexplicable the numerous passages in which Christ speaks of the kingdom as present, and further involves a misconception as to the nature of Jewish expectations, which, as has been seen, together with eschatological traits, contained others of a different character. Harnack (What is Christianity? p. 62) holds that in its inner meaning the kingdom as conceived by Christ is "a purely religious blessing, the inner link of the soul with the living God ". Such an interpretation can in no possible way be reconciled with Christ's utterances on the subject. The whole tenor of his expressions is to lay stress on the concept of a theocratic society.The Church after the Ascension
The doctrine of the Church as set forth by the Apostles after the Ascension is in all respects identical with the teaching of Christ just described. St. Peter, in his first sermon, delivered on the day of Pentecost, declares that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messianic king ( Acts 2:36 ). The means of salvation which he indicates is baptism ; and by baptism his converts are aggregated to the society of disciples (ii, 41). Though in these days the Christians still availed themselves of the Temple services, yet from the first the brotherhood of Christ formed a society essentially distinct from the synagogue. The reason why St. Peter bids his hearers accept baptism is none other than that they may "save themselves from this unbelieving generation". Within the society of believers not only were the members united by common rites, but the tie of unity was so close as to bring about in the Church of Jerusalem that condition of things in which the disciples had all things common (ii, 44).
FREE Catholic Classes Pick a class, you can learn anything
Christ had declared that His kingdom should be spread among all nations, and had committed the execution of the work to the twelve ( Matthew 28:19 ). Yet the universal mission of the Church revealed itself but gradually. St. Peter indeed makes mention of it from the first ( Acts 2:39 ). But in the earliest years the Apostolic activity is confined to Jerusalem alone. Indeed an old tradition (Apollonius, cited by Eusebius "Hist. Eccl.", V, xvii, and Clem. Alex., "Strom.", VI, v, in P. G. IX, 264) asserts that Christ had bidden the Apostles wait twelve years in Jerusalem before dispersing to carry their message elsewhere. The first notable advance occurs consequent on the persecution which arose after the death of Stephen, A. D. 37. This was the occasion of the preaching of the Gospel to the Samaritans, a people excluded from the privileges of Israel, though acknowledging the Mosaic Law ( Acts 8:5 ). A still further expansion resulted from the revelation directing St. Peter to admit to baptism Cornelius, a devout Gentile, i.e. one associated to the Jewish religion but not circumcised. From this tune forward circumcision and the observance of the Law were not a condition requisite for incorporation into the Church. But the final step of admitting those Gentiles who had known no previous connection with the religion of Israel , and whose life had been spent in paganism, was not taken till more than fifteen years after Christ's Ascension ; it did not occur, it would seem, before the day described in Acts xiii, 46, when, at Antioch in Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas announced that since the Jews accounted themselves unworthy of eternal life they would "turn to the Gentiles ".
In the Apostolic teaching the term Church , from the very first, takes the place of the expression Kingdom of God ( Acts 5:11 ). Where others than the Jews were concerned, the greater suitability of the former name is evident; for Kingdom of God had special reference to Jewish beliefs. But the change of title only emphasizes the social unity of the members. They are the new congregation of Israel -- the theocratic polity: they are the people ( laos ) of God ( Acts 15:14 ; Romans 9:25 ; 2 Corinthians 6:16 ; 1 Peter 2:9 sq. ; Hebrews 8:10 ; Revelation 18:4 ; 21:3 ). By their admission to the Church, the Gentiles have been grafted in and form part of God's fruitful olive-tree, while apostate Israel has been broken off ( Romans 11:24 ). St. Paul, writing to his Gentile converts at Corinth, terms the ancient Hebrew Church "our fathers" ( 1 Corinthians 10:1 ). Indeed from time to time the previous phraseology is employed, and the Gospel message is termed the preaching of the Kingdom of God ( Acts 20:25 ; 28:31 ).
Help Now >
Within the Church the Apostles exercised that regulative power with which Christ had endowed them. It was no chaotic mob, but a true society possessed of a corporate life, and organized in various orders. The evidence shows the twelve to have possessed (a) a power of jurisdiction, in virtue of which they wielded a legislative and judicial authority, and (b) a magisterial office to teach the Divine revelation entrusted to them. Thus (a) we find St. Paul authoritatively prescribing for the order and discipline of the churches. He does not advise; he directs ( 1 Corinthians 11:34 ; 26:1 ; Titus 1:5 ). He pronounces judicial sentence ( 1 Corinthians 5:5 ; 2 Corinthians 2:10 ), and his sentences, like those of other Apostles, receive at times the solemn sanction of miraculous punishment ( 1 Timothy 1:20 ; Acts 5:1-10 ). In like manner he bids his delegate Timothy hear the causes even of priests, and rebuke, in the sight of all, those who sin ( 1 Timothy 5:19 sq. ). (b) With no less definiteness does he assert that the Apostolate carries with it a doctrinal authority, which all are bound to recognize. God has sent them, he affirms, to claim "the obedience of faith " ( Romans 1:5 ; 15:18 ). Further, his solemnly expressed desire, that even if an angel from heaven were to preach another doctrine to the Galatians than that which he had delivered to them, he should be anathema ( Galatians 1:8 ), involves a claim to infallibility in the teaching of revealed truth.
While the whole Apostolic College enjoyed this power in the Church, St. Peter always appears in that position of primacy which Christ assigned to him. It is Peter who receives into the Church the first converts, alike from Judaism and from heathenism ( Acts 2:41 ; 10:5 sq. ), who works the first miracle ( Acts 3:1 sqq. ), who inflicts the first ecclesiastical penalty ( Acts 5:1 sqq. ). It is Peter who casts out of the Church the first heretic, Simon Magus ( Acts 8:21 ), who makes the first Apostolic visitation of the churches ( Acts 9:32 ), and who pronounces the first dogmatic decision ( Acts 15:7 ). (See Schanz, III, p. 460.) So indisputable was his position that when St. Paul was about to undertake the work of preaching to the heathen the Gospel which Christ had revealed to him, he regarded it as necessary to obtain recognition from Peter ( Galatians 1:18 ). More than this was not needful: for the approbation of Peter was definitive.
IV. ORGANIZATION BY THE APOSTLES
Few subjects have been so much debated during the past half-century as the organization of the primitive Church. The present article cannot deal with the whole of this wide subject. Its scope is limited to a single point. An endeavour will be made to estimate the existing information regarding the Apostolic Age itself. Further light is thrown on the matter by a consideration of the organization that is found to have existed in the period immediately subsequent to the death of the last Apostle. (See BISHOP.) The independent evidence derived from the consideration of each of these periods will, in the opinion of the present writer, be found, when fairly weighed, to yield similar results. Thus the conclusions here advanced, over and above their intrinsic value, derive support from the independent witness of another series of authorities tending in all essentials to confirm their accuracy. The question at issue is, whether the Apostles did, or did not, establish in the Christian communities a hierarchical organization. All Catholic scholars, together with some few Protestants, hold that they did so. The opposite view is maintained by the rationalist critics, together with the greater number of Protestants.
In considering the evidence of the New Testament on the subject, it appears at once that there is a marked difference between the state of things revealed in the later New Testament writings, and that which appears in those of an earlier date. In the earlier writings we find but little mention of an official organization. Such official positions as may have existed would seem to have been of minor importance in the presence of the miraculous charismata of the Holy Spirit conferred upon individuals, and fitting them to act as organs of the community in various grades. St. Paul in his earlier Epistles has no messages for the bishops or deacons, although the circumstances dealt with in the Epistles to the Corinthians and in that to the Galatians would seem to suggest a reference to the local rulers of the Church. When he enumerates the various functions to which God has called various members of the Church, he does not give us a list of Church offices. " God ", he says, "hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors [ didaskaloi ]; after that miracles ; then the graces of healings, helps, governments, kinds of tongues" ( 1 Corinthians 12:28 ). This is not a list of official designations. It is a list of "charismata" bestowed by the Holy Spirit, enabling the recipient to fulfill some special function. The only term which forms an exception to this is that of apostle . Here the word is doubtless used in the sense in which it signifies the twelve and St. Paul only. As thus applied the Apostolate was a distinct office, involving a personal mission received from the Risen Lord Himself ( 1 Corinthians 1:1 ; Galatians 1:1 ). Such a position was of altogether too special a character for its recipients to be placed in any other category. The term could indeed be used in a wider reference. It is used of Barnabas ( Acts 14:13 ) and of Andronicus and Junias, St. Paul's kinsmen ( Romans 16:7 ). In this extended signification it is apparently equivalent to evangelist ( Ephesians 4:11 ; 2 Timothy 4:5 ) and denotes those "apostolic men", who, like the Apostles, went from place to place labouring in new fields, but who had received their commission from them, and not from Christ in person. (See APOSTLES.)
The "prophets", the second class mentioned, were men to whom it was given to speak from time to time under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit as the recipients of supernatural inspiration ( Acts 13:2 ; 15:23 ; 21:11 ; etc.). By the nature of the case the exercise of such a function could be occasional only. The "charisma" of the "doctors" (or teachers) differed from that of the prophets, in that it could be used continuously. They had received the gift of intelligent insight into revealed truth, and the power to impart it to others. It is manifest that those who possessed such a power must have exercised a function of vital moment to the Church in those first days, when the Christian communities consisted to so large an extent of new converts. The other "charismata" mentioned do not call for special notice. But the prophets and teachers would appear to have possessed an importance as organs of the community, eclipsing that of the local ministry. Thus in Acts, xiii, 1, it is simply related that there were in the Church which was at Antioch prophets and doctors. There is no mention of bishops or deacons. And in the Didache -- a work as it would seem of the first century, written before the last Apostle had passed away -- the author enjoins respect for the bishops and deacons, on the ground that they have a claim similar to that of the prophets and doctors. "Appoint for yourselves", he writes, " bishops and deacons, worthy of the Lord, men who are meek, and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service [ leitourgousi ten leitourgian ] of the prophets and doctors. Therefore despise them not: for they are your honourable men along with the prophets and teachers" (c. xv).
It would appear, then, indisputable that in the earliest years of the Christian Church ecclesiastical functions were in a large measure fulfilled by men who had been specially endowed for this purpose with "charismata" of the Holy Spirit, and that as long as these gifts endured, the local ministry occupied a position of less importance and influence. Yet, though this be the case, there would seem to be ample ground for holding that the local ministry was of Apostolic institution: and, further, that towards the later part of the Apostolic Age the abundant "charismata" were ceasing, and that the Apostles themselves took measures to determine the position of the official hierarchy as the directive authority of the Church. The evidence for the existence of such a local ministry is plentiful in the later Epistles of St. Paul ( Philippians , 1 and 2 Timothy , and Titus ). The Epistle to the Philippians opens with a special greeting to the bishops and deacons. Those who hold these official positions are recognized as the representatives in some sort of the Church. Throughout the letter there is no mention of the "charismata", which figure so largely in the earlier Epistles. It is indeed urged by Hort (Christian Ecelesia, p. 211) that even here these terms are not official titles. But in view of their employment as titles in documents so nearly contemporary, as I Clem., c. 4, and the Didache, such a contention seems devoid of all probability.
In the Pastoral Epistles the new situation appears even more clearly. The purpose of these writings was to instruct Timothy and Titus regarding the manner in which they were to organize the local Churches. The total absence of all reference to the spiritual gifts can scarcely be otherwise explained than by supposing that they no longer existed in the communities, or that they were at most exceptional phenomena. Instead, we find the Churches governed by a hierarchical organization of bishops, sometimes also termed presbyters, and deacons. That the terms bishop and presbyter are synonymous is evident from Titus 1:5-7 : "I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest . . . ordain priests in every city . . . For a bishop must be without crime." These presbyters form a corporate body ( 1 Timothy 4:14 ), and they are entrusted with the twofold charge of governing the Church ( 1 Timothy 3:5 ) and of teaching ( 1 Timothy 3:2 ; Titus 1:9 ). The selection of those who are to fill this post does not depend on the possession of supernatural gifts. It is required that they should not be unproved neophytes, that they should be under no charge, should have displayed moral fitness for the work, and should be capable of teaching. ( 1 Timothy 3:2-7 ; Titus 1:5-9 ) The appointment to this office was by a solemn laying on of hands ( 1 Timothy 5:22 ). Some words addressed by St. Paul to Timothy, in reference to the ceremony as it had taken place in Timothy's case, throw light upon its nature. "I admonish thee", he writes, "that thou stir up the grace ( charisma ) of God, which is in thee by the laying on of my hands" ( 2 Timothy 1:6 ). The rite is here declared to be the means by which a charismatic gift is conferred; and, further, the gift in question, like the baptismal character, is permanent in its effects. The recipient needs but to "waken into life" [ anazopyrein ] the grace he thus possesses in order to avail himself of it. It is an abiding endowment. There can be no reason for asserting that the imposition of hands , by which Timothy was instructed to appoint the presbyters to their office, was a rite of a different character, a mere formality without practical import.
With the evidence before us, certain other notices in the New Testament writings, pointing to the existence of this local ministry, may be considered. There is mention of presbyters at Jerusalem at a date apparently immediately subsequent to the dispersion of the Apostles ( Acts 11:30 ; cf. 15:2 ; 16:4 ; 21:18 ). Again, we are told that Paul and Barnabas, as they retraced their steps on their first missionary journey, appointed presbyters in every Church ( Acts 14:22 ). So too the injunction to the Thessalonians ( 1 Thessalonians 5:12 ) to have regard to those who are over them in the Lord ( proistamenoi ; cf. Romans 12:6 ) would seem to imply that there also St. Paul had invested certain members of the community with a pastoral charge. Still more explicit is the evidence contained in the account of St. Paul's interview with the Ephesian elders ( Acts 20:17-23 ). It is told that, sending from Miletus to Ephesus, he summoned "the presbyters of the Church", and in the course of his charge addressed them as follows: "Take heed to yourselves and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost has placed you bishops to tend [ poimainein ] the Church of God" (xx, 28). St. Peter employs similar language: "The presbyters that are among you, I beseech, who am myself also a presbyter. . . tend [ po
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.