Sunday, February 25, 2007

St Iggy and the Hierarchy of the Church

Last week, I had a rather extended quote that revealed the hierarchy of the early Church, indeed a hierarchy that goes a step further than anything that is clearly revealed in the New Testament. By saying that it is a step further than what the New Testament delineates, I am not suggesting that the Church has already gone off the rails by the time St John has died. St Ignatius, the disciple of St John, reveals the organization and hierarchy of the Church and how it had developed (rather properly developed) even in St John's lifetime (one would suppose, since at the time St Ignatius authored this letter it would have been only a few short years since St John's death).

"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid." – St Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Smyrneans, Ch. 8 – somewhere between A.D. 98 and 118)

I'm not going to belabor the quote. I only think it an important look at the structure of the early Church - indeed the apostolic Church. We need to be cautious in our treatment of hierarchy and authority, especially in an age that devalues it. The authority structure within the Church is not a power play. Though there have certainly been abuses (and there will certainly continue to be - as in any institution that includes us sinners) the hierarchy of the Church is and continues to be about service.


Jared Coleman said...

I got my English translation of the Apostolic Fathers and I've already read a lot and I've been thinking A LOT about this topic.

I agree very much with your warning against interpreting the development of the Church's authority structure as a power play. This is exactly the story that I've been told and that I'm now beginning to reject. This is a very ungenerous reading of history, and if there is any group that should read its history generously it should be the Church. As I read the letters of Ignatius and the others I am reminded of passages like Hebrews 13:17 & 1 Peter 5:1-5. The Church had postions of authority to which its individuals were called on to submit to during apostolic times. Perhaps it became more centralized as time passed, but that may very well have been the trajectory which the Apostles themselves set the church on. If we harshly critique the Fathers we may in fact be harshly criticizing the Apostles as well without knowing it.

I think it's ironic that large portions of the Protestant world (the parts that I'm familiar with anyway) reject much of the development of post-apostolic times in favor of some form of primitivism which looks for patterns in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, and then is surprised by the turbulence it experiences. The infant and adolescent church went through turbulent times - a lot of energy was put into spreading the Gospel and as the Church swelled with growth problems arose that had to be dealt with. Case in point: one of the first challenges to arise was a dispute over the distribution of food to widows, and the solution which was decided upon was to appoint people to oversee that function. As I read the history of the Church in the New Testament this is the general pattern that I see. The Church grows and new problems arise, new structures are created, and the problem is managed. If that's the case, then jettisoning the very structures which the Church has instituted to manage its problems may be a really bad idea.

The Church is a living thing that grows, and like other organisms it grew like crazy as an infant and adolescent (with accompanying growing pains), and when it became an adult (after the Apostles had completed their work on Earth?) the growth slowed and a more structured existence ensued. One could even quote Paul here and say that "when I became a man I put away childish things."

Dan said...

One question: what would be a modern understanding of "love-feast?" Is this a wedding, that you know of?

Scott Lyons said...

Dan, from what I understand, the love feast (or agape) was a meal within which the Eucharist was also celebrated (therefore the necessity of the bishop). I come from an understanding of it within the Brethren tradition, which says basically that the Eucharist is always to be held within the context of the Last Supper itself. In Scripture, however, we already see Paul rebuking the Corinthians for the abuses that were taking place within it, and it apparently fell out of favor after several centuries. Perhaps the size of the Church became an issue. Anyway, here are a couple of articles that might help.

Scott Lyons said...

Jared, I couldn't agree more. I've been seeing more and more "ungenerosity" toward the early Church - even toward the creeds, which I find disheartening.