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«As the limits of an article make it impossible to give a wide-ranging, in-depth analysis of the formation of Christian ministry, I decided to ...»

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The Origins of the

Threefold Christian



As the limits of an article make it impossible to give a wide-ranging,

in-depth analysis of the formation of Christian ministry, I decided to

approach the subject by using the analogy of an archaelogical dig! This

seems to me to be highly appropriate because the origins of Christian

ministry are shrouded in mystery and we have to rely upon the scanty

information available to us in literature and church architecture. Taking samples from the past, and analysing them in the light of the period in question, finds echoes in archaelogical research and therefore appears to be not an inexact model.

1 Substrata: the secondary nature of ministry It was fashionable at one time for theologians and church historians to teach that the New Testament presents a single form of ministry which was exclusively authorized as an ecclesiological model for all time.

This view still persists in some areas of church life, but the research of scholars like Harnack, Sohm, Streeter, Schweizer, von Campenhausen, et aI., argue convincingly that there is not one single system in the New Testament but rather a number of different ministries. 'All have won and all shall have prizes' was B. H. Streeter's comment on the desire of modern churchmen-Roman Catholic, Anglican, Free Church and Independent-to find justification for their own particular brand of ministry.

This is not to say that ministry is unimportant, or that a theology of ministry is lacking in this earliest level of our enquiry. Far from it, but ministry in the New Testament is always secondary. It presupposes a prior concern with the gospel itself. This New Testament ministry is expressed in a number of ways fbr a particular purpose. Whether we talk of the great three-apostles, prophets and teachers--or the local ministry of bishops, deacons and presbyters, the clear fact is that they are part of that medium by which the gospel comes and the church is organized. Ministry, in a New Testament sense, serves both gospel and church and very properly is a servant of both soteriology and ecclesi- ology and is called into being by the Spirit. Gospel, church and Spirit are the threefold foci of ministry.

Before we make observations on other levels in our 'dig', there are 36 The Origins of the Threefold Ministry three New Testament facts which are important to recall. First, New Testament ministry takes its starting-point from Jesus and his ministry.

Properly speaking, an apostolic succession is not 'high' enough. Jesus called to him men and women to live and teach his gospel. Jesus the 'preacher' becomes Jesus the 'preached one'. The 'Word lived' becomes the 'Word expressed' in words which become revelation to his people. Second, from the beginning ministry is functional, not ontological: that is, it does not proceed from a carefully formulated 'necessity', but rather from the more makeshift life of the New Testa- mentchurch which found it had something to say to the world. The terms 'apostle', 'prophets', 'bishops' and 'deacons' show this functional aspect. From this follows my third remark-and it is surely a most important truth for the modem church-there is no room for distinctions between kleros and laos, between clergy and laity. The laos is the people of God, and all are kleros because all are called to exercise functions within the body.

2 Order v. Spirit From the debris scattered around at this second level of the second century, we can observe that some problems were being experienced as different ministries served the church. To some degree the battleground was marked out in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians expresses Paul's anxiety over abuse of spiritual freedom and illustrates his attempt

to bring back 'extremists' to a fourfold criteria of ministry:

a) Respect for the weaker brethren: 8:9

b) Christ's pattern of gentleness and love: 13: 1

c) The fact that the one Spirit does not offer a graded system of gifts: 12:4-11

d) The necessity for order in the body: 14:26-33 We do not know if Paul's advice was heeded at Corinth. What we do know is that a later generation of Corinthians chose to ignore it, because thirty years later the church of Corinth was divided again, if Clement's letter is anything to go by.

The problem seems to have been that the church was governed by an eldership which had been overthrown by a young group of men. On hearing this, Clement (c. AD 96), a member of the church of Rome, wrote a long letter appealing to the rebels to reinstate the elders to office. His letter argued that God loves order, and the heart of his

appeal comes in chapter 42:

The apostles received the gospel for us from Jesus Christ, and Jesus the Christ was sent from God. So Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ: thus both came in proper order by the will of God. And so the apostles, after they had received their orders, and in full assurance by reason of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, being full of faith in the word of God, went out in the conviction of the Holy Spirit, preaching

–  –  –

the good news that God's kingdom was about to come. So they preached from country to country and from city to city, they appointed their first converts, after testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of the future believers.2

He continues later:

And our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the title of bishop. So for this reason, because they had been given full foreknowledge, they appointed those mentioned above and afterward added the stipulation that if these should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. Those therefore who were appointed by them or afterward by other reputable men with the consent of the whole church, who in humility have ministered to the flock of Christ blamelessly, quietly, and unselfishly, and who have long been approved by all--these men we consider are being unjustly removed from their ministry. 3 As we know well, the epistle of Clement has been signalled as presenting definite proof of the doctrine of apostolic succession. Here, it is argued, we have a clear link between the ministry of Christ and that of the later church. He ordained the twelve, and they ordained bishops.

The continuity of ministry is expressed in the 'laying on' of apostolic hands. Allied to this conclusion based upon Clement's arguments, the testimony of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, is appealed to. On the way to Rome, to face martyrdom in AD 117, Ignatius wrote six letters to six prominent churches, extolling the office of bishop as the centre of the church, a symbol of unity, a guardian of the faith, without whom the church does not exist. Ignatius uses an interesting and unusual analogy.

The bishop represents the Father, the deacons represent Jesus and the presbyters represent the apostles. It does not dawn upon Ignatius to equate the bishop with the apostles, which, ifhe had done, would have been of some theological significance to later generations. Ignatius, however, wrote a seventh letter which is of some importance because of what it does not say. To the church of Rome-the church which Clement had represented twenty years previously-Ignatius mentions no bishop, and no exhortations to any such a person colours this epistle. There is clearly no single leader in the church of Rome to whom the episcopacy-obsessed Ignatius can appeal. This is borne out by the quaint Shepherd of Hermas, written forty years later, where it is clear that the church of Rome is led by presbyters-bishops, and prophets and other 'charismatic' figures have prominent roles. But, by the end of the second century, Rome also has a clear structure of leadership in which the monarchical bishop is the central figure.

What, then, do we make of this rather confusing picture? A number of facts emerge. The first is that the church of the sub-apostolic age was witnessing a transition from the flexibility and fluidity of a missionary

38 The Origins of the Threefold Ministry

situation to that of ordered communities which needed leadership, pastoral care and teaching. The days of the wandering teacher-prophet were numbered. The church of Asia Minor bears this out. Ignatius is addressing his remarks to churches under threat of Gnostic infiltration, and the appeal to rally around the bishop stems from this situation.

The Ignation order is now a static one-bishop, presbyters and deacons.

The famous threefold order has arrived. Later, other churches will establish this order also.

But what about Clement's letter to Corinth? What weight should we place on his arguments? A number of interesting points emerge. a) Clement clearly believes that the ministry of the elders is of apostolic origin. Yet we note there is no sign of mono-episcopacy here, and the plurality of leadership is obviously in mind. b) We observe that whatever he says about the apostolic nature of the presbyteral office, the local church itself had a say in the appointment of its leaders. Clement protests that the elders who had been deposed had been elected 'with the consent of the whole church', perhaps intimating that the new leadership had not. We shall observe the importance ofthe principle later. c) Clement was the first to argue from the order of Jewish worship. For the first time, Christian ministry is interpreted in the light of Old Testament priesthood. This will have significance much later.

But, based on this, a distinction is drawn between the klerikos and laikos, analagous to the Jewish distinction between 'high priest and the people' (1 Clem. 40:4 ff.).

If Roman Catholic and Anglican theologians found their favourite ministerial models in Clement and Ignatius, continental theologians such as Soh m and Hamack found theirs in the Didache and Hermas.

These writings, which showed the prophets flourishing in the church, made these scholars differentiate between the 'charismatic' ministry of apostles, prophets and teachers, and the 'non-charismatic' ministry of the local ministry expressed in that of bishops and deacons. In point of fact, such a reading of the evidence is foolish and unnecessary. The coming of 'order' in a settled ministry did not spell by itself the passing of the 'charismatic'-there were other reasons for that-but was rather an inevitable consequence of an expanding church which needed a settled leadership.

Before I move to the third layer, a word about the threefold order of ministry. This is extolled in our own day as the most ancient of church orders and one that should be the model for future union schemes. It is certainly true, as we have seen, that in Ignatius' letters it appears to be an adequate order of ministry. But let us not forget that the Ignatian bishop is the leader of one church, not a metropolitan figure exercising authority over a wide area. He is more like a present-day vicar than a present-day bishop. The presbyters appear to be like a modem-day PCC, and the deacons are assistants to the bishop, supporting him in his sacramental roles. But before very long the lines of differentiation 39 Churchman are blurred. The office of bishop takes on a metropolitan role; the presbyters become like 'bishops' in a local context, limited only by their inability to ordain; the deacons shift from being assistants to bishops, to that of assisting presbyters. By the sixth century, the diaconate is but a step to presbyteral ordination. It is clear that confusion surrounding the threefold office began a long time ago!

3 Grace v. law: a juristic ministry I drew attention at the beginning to the fact that New Testament ministry is anchored in gospel, church and Spirit. There can be no confusion between the way of salvation and the functions of ministry, because in the New Testament salvation is by grace-not of oneself.

Salvation is a gift of God alone, which is made available through the effects of Christ's atoning death. He, Priest and Victim, offers himself to all men. To be sure, salvation is never fully received in this life, because Christian man is 'just' and 'a sinner' at the same time. He lives by grace throughout life, and will know in his life the power of God and the effect of sin. 1 John sets the parameters of this: 'If we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves... ' (1:8); 'Whoever is a child of God does not sin' (3:9). This is only comprehensible within the context of God's grace. Alas, grace was the first New Testament insight to be lost

-with terrible consequences. T. F. Torrance argues that the subapostolic writings failed to understand grace and replaced it with the concept of Christ as a teacher who brought a new revelation, or Christ as the new Moses who introduced a new law. 4 The Shepherd of H ermas illustrates the problem well. The church of Rome was obviously being weakened by Christians who failed to live up to their high dignity as followers of Christ. Hermas cannot explain how Christians, whose sins had been washed away in baptism, were still sinning. It is obviously inexplicable to him and can only indicate gross disobedience and unfaithfulness. Hermas' angel calls upon the church to repent, and a second and final chance is announced. A 'jubilee' of forgiveness is declared, and if sinners repent all will be well. If they do not, then, after this jubilee, post-baptismal sins will not be forgiven.

Hermas does not attach to ministry any special functions: it is simply their task to declare this second chance. But the next step was taken by the great and fiery Tertullian, ex-lawyer, who makes of penance a piece of ecclesiastical machinery. He is the first to differentiate between 'mortal' and 'venial' sins. Mortal sin-murder, apostasy and adulteryapparently is not forgiveable. Venial sins, that is all other offences which separate the Christian from the redeemed community, must receive the recompense of 'penance' before the sinner can be readmitted to the company of the faithful. The 'power of the keys' is vested in the bishop, who has received the authority of Peter to forgive the sins of others. It is true that when Tertullian became a Montanist he denied

40 The Origins of the Threefold Ministry

that the bishop had this right, but by now the damage was done. The episcopal office, and in time the presbyteral, included the power to forgive sin.

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