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The internal development of the early Christian church

In the first Christian generation, authority in the church lay either in the kinsmen of Jesus or in those whom he had commissioned as Apostles and missionaries. The Jerusalem church under St. James, the brother of Jesus, was the mother church. Paul admitted that if they had refused to grant recognition to his Gentile converts, he would have laboured in vain. If there was an attempt to establish a hereditary family overlordship in the church, it did not succeed. Among the Gentile congregations, the Apostles sent by Jesus enjoyed supreme authority. As long as the Apostles lived, there existed a living authoritative voice to which appeal could be made. But once they all had died, there was an acute question regarding the locus of authority. The earliest documents of the 3rd and 4th Christian generations are mainly concerned with this issue: What is the authority of the ministerial hierarchy? The apostolic congregations had normally been served by elders (Greek presbyteroi, “priests”) or overseers (episkopoi, “bishops”), assisted by attendants (diakonoi, “deacons”). The clergy were responsible for preaching, for administering baptism and the Eucharist, and for distributing aid to the poor. In each city the senior member of the college (assembly) of presbyters, the bishop, naturally had some special authority; he corresponded with other churches and would attend the ordinations of new bishops as the representative of his own community and as a symbol of the catholicity the universality and unity of the church of Christ.St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch early in the 2nd century, wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom at Rome that indicate how critical the centrifugal forces in the church had made the problem of authority. The bishop, he insisted, is the unique focus of unity without whose authority there is no sacrament and no church. A few years earlier the letter of Bishop Clement of Rome (c. 95 CE) to the church at Corinth based the hierarchy’s authority on the concept of a historical succession of duly authorized teachers. Clement understood the clergy and laity to be essentially distinct orders within the one community, just as in the Hebrew Bible there were high priests, priests, Levites (Temple functionaries), and laymen. The principles of Clement and Ignatius became important when the church was faced by people claiming recognition for their special charismatic (spiritual) gifts and especially by gnostics claiming to possess secret oral traditions whispered by Jesus to his disciples and not contained in publicly accessible records such as the Gospels. Indeed, in his conflicts with the gnostics in the late 2nd century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons promoted the idea of apostolic succession, the teaching that the bishops stand in a direct line of succession from the Apostles.The authority of the duly authorized hierarchy was enhanced by the outcome of another 2nd-century debate, which concerned the possibility of absolution for sins committed after baptism. The Shepherd of Hermas, a book that enjoyed canonical status in some areas of the early church, enforced the point that excessive rigorism produces hypocrisies. By the 3rd century the old notion of the church as a society of holy people was being replaced by the conception that it was a school for frail sinners. In spite of protests, especially that of the schism led by the theologian and schismatic pope Novatian at Rome in 251, the final consensus held that the power to bind and loose (compare Matthew 16:18–19), to excommunicate and absolve, was vested in bishops and presbyters by their ordination.

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