Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Ancient Church and Its Government

By studying the early church, we can understand more of what the church government was like before the papacy. The early church tried its best to conform to a pattern of government that observed the guidelines of Scripture. For instance, Scripture speaks of three different orders of ministers. The early church had three orders of ministers: (1) presbyters - preachers and teachers (2) presbyters - ruling elders and (3) deacons who took care of the poor and distributed alms. Readers and acolytes were not ministerial offices, but they were positions held by those who were in training to become ministers.

In the early church, there would be one minister in each city who would be named "bishop". The point of this position was not to exalt one minister nor was it so he could have power over the other ministers. It was a position developed in order to prevent dissensions which might have arisen due to the equality of the ministers. Jerome shows that this position was around even at the time of Mark the evangelist. The bishop was to be elected by the other ministers in the city, but Jerome points out that a bishop and presbyter "are one and the same."

Throughout the history of the early church, the duties of the bishop and presbyters varied from place to place and from time to time. The primary roles throughout history that bishops and presbyters serve are to preach the Word and administer the sacraments. An exception to this was in Alexandria during the time of Arius. At that time, presbyters were forbidden to preach. However, during the time of Pope Gregory, all bishops were required to preach.

Each city had a bishop, but eventually each province had an archbishop to be the "tie-breaker" for the bishops in the area. At the Council of Nicaea, it was declared that patriarchs "were ordained to be higher in rank and dignity than archbishops." If a dispute came about which could not be settled with the patriarch and the synod, then the dispute went to the general council. Calvin states that the term "hierarchy" was inappropriate for this type of government in the early church, even though that is eventually what it became.

Even though the office of presbyter evolved over time, the role of deacon remained basically unchanged since the time of the apostles. The deacons were responsible for collecting the daily offerings and the yearly income of the church. They distributed some to the minister and some to the poor. They were required to distribute the funds according to the wishes of the bishop, then they had to show an account of how they did on an annual basis. Calvin states that the deacons were "under the bishop" and "the stewards of the poor." There came about the position of "sub-deacon" which were persons who would assist the deacons in their responsibilities, but eventually the distinction between the two became confused and the separate title disappeared. For a time there were also "archdeacons" who kept closer watch over the funds of the church and were held accountable if anything was lost due to negligence or fraud. They were also given the task of reading the gospel, prayer, and even "extending the cup in the Sacred Supper."

Calvin then looks at church property. He writes, "You will frequently find in the decrees of synods and in ancient writers that all that the church possesses, either in lands or in money, is the patrimony of the poor." Bishops and deacons are encouraged "keep good faith" by not wasting the church's money. Ministers and other church workers should expect to be paid by the church. They should receive enough to meet their needs, but not so much that they lead lives of luxury and excess. Jerome stated that if a clergy member can be supported by his parents, then it is a sin for him to receive money from the church because that belongs to the poor.

The church's funds should be split four ways. One part to the clergy, one to the poor, one to the maintenance of the church building, and one more part for the poor (both foreign and indigenous). Some historical canons have designated the fourth part to bishops, but this is not for his personal use, instead it is for "the hospitality required of the rank." If a bishop is leading a luxurious life with these funds, he should be removed from his position.

When the early church first started out, it had little money for itself. Very little was spent on ornate things for the church. Even as the church gradually gained more money, moderation was still key. Calvin points out actions by different bishops throughout history who recognized that moderation was key for the church. For instance, Cyril sold vessels and vestments when a famine was upon Jerusalem in order to feed the poor. Acacius of Amida melted down sacred vessels in order to buy food and pay ransom for the poor. He is quoted as saying, "Our God need neither plates nor cups, for He neither eats nor drinks." Ambrose said, "He who sent out the apostles without gold also gathered churches without gold. The church has gold not to keep but to pay out and to relieve distress."

Tomorrow's reading: 4.4.9-4.4.15

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