We have examined the tradition out of which Methodism came, and what happened to it in America. This should explain a lot about what we believe and practice. And this self-awareness is important when we come to read the Scriptures and examine what can be known about the history of early Christianity. For all of us read what we read while wearing the special glasses of our assumptions. Some of our assumptions will be validated in what we read, but if we read uncritically, all of them will be. For those who cannot see anything without their filters will see only what agrees with what they already think.
So, to begin with, let’s establish what a “church” was in primitive Christianity. In the NT, we usually see churches described as “the church AT Someplace” or “the church that meets in SOMEBODY’S house.” When we think of churches, we think of reasonably compact congregations operating in a defined locality, usually with a physical plant (also called a “church”). None of that is operative in the First Century, nor for many years thereafter. The earliest purpose-built churches are found in the second half of the Third Century (250-300). A few remodeled houses donated for church use might predate that, but not by much. The parochial or neighborhood model we think of didn’t exist yet. It took a thousand years to put a church in every village of Europe.
The church at Someplace referred to all the Christians living in or near a given population center. So, there were churches at Rome, Antioch, Corinth, etc. All of these people in a given location were called an ekklesia, which means “assembly” or “meeting.” It was taken from the word used to describe the meeting of all the citizens of Athens to make decisions; in our context, it means all the church members living in the (ill-defined) bounds of our town.
The church that meets in Somebody’s house describes the physical address of that ekklesia. This is not the same thing as what we call a “house church.” Oh dear, no. A house church is a kind of small group, part of a larger congregation. The Somebody in whose house the NT church would meet was probably one of the more affluent members of the church in that location. He or she owned a considerable-sized house which could accommodate a large gathering. Sometimes this was just for Sunday meetings; other times, the owner (if possessed of more than one house) might sort of vacate the premises so that the church could use all the spaces available. The church in those days was poor; it didn’t put its funds into buildings at this time. In short order, Christianity would be declared illegal, and title to properties used by the church were hard to come by for what were considered illegal corporations. So the church relied upon the benevolence of its wealthier members in many cases.
The church as a body of people was presided over by a person sometimes called a president, but as time went on more frequently called a bishop or pastor. Assisting him in all his cares would be a number of elders (depending upon the size of the church) and some deacons (to take care of members who needed financial or other support from the church). In time, the deacons assumed a role in the conduct of worship. By the early middle ages, this was their primary function. They were doorwardens and cantors and assisted converts in undressing and dressing for baptism.
The bishop presided over – everything. He was the principal baptizer, took the lead in the eucharist, was the principal teacher/preacher. He led the people into the house of God on Sunday morning (the procession was a very early feature of worship). This required many doors, so everyone could enter quickly, without anyone preceding the bishop/pastor, which would have been rude. After the communion service, which was a full meal, at least in the first generation or two, the elders would take some of the consecrated bread and wine and take it to shut-ins and prisoners, so no one would be left out.
Were there women in leadership? Yes. In the Earliest Church (Jerusalem), we are told that the apostles “with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). The mention of women here is not as in the feasting of the multitudes, so many men (oh, yeah, plus women and children). This is a roll of leaders. The apostles had a role set apart for them, but “the women” – meaning here, the women like Mary Magdalene and the wife of Cleopas and so on, women who had known Jesus personality and assisted him with hospitality and other support, were equal witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. In that earliest church, “the women” were a test of authenticity. I imagine if you passed their scrutiny, the apostles would say you were good, too. Also, the remaining family of Jesus had a special place; indeed, several of his close relations served as early bishops of Jerusalem (and martyrs).
Other women are mentioned in the Book of Acts and in Paul’s letters as “deacons” (not deaconesses). Junia is mentioned as part of the company of apostles in Romans 16:7. Prisca – typically mentioned before her husband, Aquila – is very obviously a major teacher and leader of the Corinthian church. They had also been active in Rome before the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from that city. People bound and determined to find evidence of women in pastoral roles will find it. There are church frescoes from the 5th Century which seem to show women dressed in liturgical garb, doing liturgical things. The problem here is, there is no mention of names of women pastors in the early church histories, such as Eusebius’s. Attributing the lack of mention to male prejudice doesn’t gibe with the idea that women in pastoral roles were reasonably common for at least another century, but there’s a lot we still don’t know.
And then there were “widows.” Women who had lost their husbands and had no other means of support were cared for by the church, who supplied them with necessaries. They had to be enrolled, and they had to behave themselves. Paul thought that younger women should get re-married rather than be enrolled with the widows. He thought they might be flighty; there’s an economic argument to be made there, too. In any case, these widows were probably recruited for various good works. They aren’t quite “nuns” – that’ll wait until the monastic movement takes off – but they’re a special class within the early church.
Apostolic succession assumes that the apostles were all bishops and spread across the world founding churches. Well, not quite. The earliest leaders in Jerusalem turned out to be Peter and John, two of the most prominent disciples. They are the ones we see acting most often in the early chapters of Acts. After the creation of the order of deacons, Stephen the deacon assumes the role of evangelist and baptizer on his own (or, God’s) initiative. By the middle of the Book of Acts, James the Just (not one of the original Twelve, but the brother of Jesus) has assumed primary leadership of the Jerusalem church, though Peter remains in an honored position.
Catholic theologians say that Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, and also the first bishop of Rome. How could this be, since those churches were up and running long before he showed up? Catholics say they were just meeting; they didn’t get officially organized until Peter came to found the church and ordain successors in each place. I’m sorry, but this is obviously an after-the-fact rationalization made to fit AS theory. After the Day of Pentecost, the Jews present who had been converted (three thousand of them) went home. And many of them drew others around them and began to function as churches. Nobody knows who founded the church at Rome, but it was considered important enough for Paul to want to prove his bona fides to them before his visit (or Peter’s visit, come to that). Likewise, there was a revival going on in Antioch to which the church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas. He reported on the genuineness of the church there, then went to Tarsus to fetch Saul (later, Paul) to help organize the work in Antioch. Peter shows up for a visit later to find things running smoothly, thank you very much.
The most active apostle we see at work is Paul. He appointed leaders in various places, and gave to those leaders the power to appoint others. It may be ad hoc, but there’s the beginning of conscious organization here. From what we know of the spread of Christianity, Christians finding themselves in a new place (through relocation or being sold into slavery or whatever) where there was no church would band together and ask the nearest church to send them a pastor. This happened all over the Roman Empire, but mostly in urban areas. The countryside remained pagan for hundreds of years yet.
When the persecutions heated up, the Christians were told to follow their bishops. Ignatius of Antioch’s exhortations to do so and his descriptions of the prime importance of the bishop have given rise to the idea of the “monarchical episcopate.” But given how the church was organized, staying in connection with the leadership was the way to avoid trouble or find protection, and certainly to be told what was okay to do when the demand came to swear to something or hand over something. The pastor/bishops mostly stayed at their post to shepherd their flock, even at the risk of their lives. Others fled when it got too bad in their locality, and governed their churches from hiding. In all cases, they helped keep the Scriptures and other materials from falling into the wrong hands.
Everybody got to come out of hiding when the Edict of Milan (313) made Christianity legal throughout the empire. Soon after, the new emperor, Constantine, began asking the bishops for help in various ways. He helped build churches, he used bishops in diplomatic posts, he paid travel expenses. And as bishops became more important, a status competition arose among them.
You can get the first clue to this when you read the canons of the Council of Nicea (325). They have some oblique things to say about the “country-bishops” (chorepiskopoi). Their right to ordain priests was recognized, but it was strongly suggested they not do it without checking with a regular bishop. In succeeding Councils, one can sometimes trace the loss of status of these men. Who were they? Well, remember, a “local church” is a gathering of people in one place, not a smaller group in one part of that place (a parish). As Christianity spread, it spread unevenly. There were bishops everywhere (over 300 attended the Council of Nicea), but not all were from big towns. The Bishop of Podunk was just as much a bishop as the Bishop of Megaville. But as the episcopacy expanded its reach and rose in importance, it was felt that these “country bishops” (we would call them part-time pastors) weren’t really in the same league as the leaders of the movement (whom we would call "large-church senior pastors"). By the 5th Century, the chorepiscopus in the West had been reduced to a minor order, who had to go fetch his consecrated bread to celebrate mass from the bishop in the big town next door.
A couple of serious questions arose out of the persecutions. The first arose through the controversy of the Confessors and the Lapsed. The church had not yet developed a regular means of forgiving people who had sinned in a big way, especially in the sin of apostasy. Those who had renounced Christ under threat of torture, or handed over Scriptures, or named names were excommunicated – which meant, in their understanding, damned without hope of salvation. Many of them had big regrets over that, and they sought absolution for their sin as penitents. But who had the power to forgive such a sin? The answer suggested was that those who had suffered for their faith – who had endured torture or prison or maiming without renouncing Christ, or handing over the Scripture, or naming names – could forgive these sins. There was even a publication “from all the Confessors to all the Lapsed” that purported to do this. And who else can forgive, but those who have suffered wrong? The problem was, the Confessors were considered so holy that they were thought to have been ordained through their own blood-suffering, and some of them were being asked to offer sacramental care. The bishop of Carthage put a stop to this. Let as many Confessors as want to be ordained, apply for it, he said; but let not those who have not been ordained offer absolution or communion or baptism, since that was the prerogative of the clergy.
That was in the 3rd Century. A hundred years later, there was another rhubarb in North Africa over the clergy. Some clergy in the most recent persecution had lapsed. Should they be allowed to offer the sacraments? Were the sacraments effective when an unholy person offered them? What about clergy who had done other bad things? If the Confessors and the Lapsed posed the question, Who can offer the sacraments? the question of sinful clergy posed the question, What makes the sacraments effective? The official answer finally given was, the character of the celebrant has no bearing on the efficacy of the sacrament. Someone properly ordained, even in a state of sin, who follows the correct form, offers in accordance with the will of God, and God applies that to the recipient according to his faith. In other words, it is the faith of the recipient which makes the sacraments “work,” not the faith of the celebrant. To decide otherwise would bring the assurance of salvation into question. What if you were baptized by a sinner? How would you know? Should you do it again? The church that said that only holy people could serve God this way became known as the Donatists (after their founder, Donatus). They functioned as a separate church in North Africa until wiped out by the Islamic invaders 300 years later.
Meanwhile, various great Councils met in the new peace of the empire, defining doctrine – primarily, the doctrines concerning the nature of God and the person of Christ. This collection of received decisions were embodied in creeds (from credo, I believe). Together, they constituted orthodoxy (right belief). The clergy were to be teach orthodox doctrine. If they didn’t, they would be deprived of office, perhaps even excommunicated (excluded from the church and abandoned to the demons).
As the Christian population grew, it became difficult for the whole church at Someplace to meet together. In a large city, the church would have satellite meeting places, so to speak. The bishop would try to go around and preside at each place, with whatever elders were conveniently on hand. Only slowly did the idea develop that each gathering place was its own congregation, with the bishop as the pastor of the “local church,” but with an elder appointed to conduct services and minister to the congregation in the bishop’s place. The bishop would have a reserved chair, though, for those times when he could be present in person. Then, he assumed the lead, as was his right. That said, bishops were spending more and more time on administrative work, and slowly, the priests were taking over many of their functions. Eventually, the bishops conceded the primary work of celebrating communion to the priests. This became their primary function. For a while longer, bishops held onto the right to do all the baptisms, although more and more, deacons and priests did the actual dousing in adjacent baptisteries, afterwards bringing the newly baptized in to have the bishop in the main service lay hands on them – the origin of confirmation. Eventually, as dioceses (as they were now called – a term derived from imperial government) grew larger and larger, baptism, too, had to be deputed to the parish priest. In RC and Anglican churches, the bishop still tries to get to all the churches to do confirmation, but it is routine in Roman Catholicism to let the priests confirm on the most popular Sundays (like Palm Sunday and Pentecost).
Meanwhile, monasticism was becoming the next big thing, and with the creation of the Daily Office and the Hours of Prayer, the deacon became, in many cases, a liturgical functionary, a leader of singing. Non-liturgical deacons were simply training for the priesthood.
Note the increasing tempo of the development of boundaries: Who can offer the sacraments? What does the character of the celebrant have to do with their effectiveness? Who determines doctrine, and what are the penalties for wrong teaching? What is the job of the bishop? What is the job of the elder? What is the job of the deacon? All of these play into our developing theology of ordination.
The bishop/pastor remains the primary model for ordained ministry. In our day, that is the Elder. The elder has the cure of souls in a particular parish. He is the primary preacher, the principal teacher, the baptizer, confirmer, eucharistic celebrant, and on the spot administrator of what we now call “a local church.” He is responsible to others placed over him. He is supposed to behave himself, and actually believe what he is required to teach.
In the last section, we’ll examine the training and qualification of clergy, and particularly how that applies within Methodist orders.