There is a common misunderstanding of the origins of clerical orders within the Church. It is argued that the Christians of the apostolic era, including the apostles themselves, believed that Christ would certainly return within their own lifetime. It is only when that clearly did not occur, when the apostles, or at least most of them, had died, that the concept of the church came into being, as well as varied understandings, which evolved over time, as to how the newly constituted church ought be governed. It is thought that these structures were deeply influenced by the prevailing culture at the time, most especially Roman culture, as the church, by this time, was primarily Gentile. This narrative has been put forward with such force that it has been used to argue for later dating of any book of the New Testament which mentions the church or her orders to a later date. In the case of the Pastoral Epistles, it is used to argue that they must be minimally sub-Pauline, reflecting later ‘developments’. This view, however, has several presuppositions which necessitate, for their acceptance, the rejection of the entirety of the ethos of the entire New Testament, as well as everything that can be historically known and determined regarding the earliest Christians.
The prophets of the Hebrew Bible had testified that a time would come in the latter days when judgment would come upon Israel after their return from exile. At this point, much of Israel would be cut off, but a remnant would be purified and preserved by the fire of judgment (cf. Mic 2:12, Jer 23:3, Joel 3:5, Oba 17, Is 6:13, 7:3, 10:22), and become the basis for a new Israel, into which the nations would stream (cf. Is 60:10-14, 19:16-25, Zech 14:16). It is St. Paul’s understanding in the un-controversially Pauline Epistle to the Romans that this has taken place in the coming of Christ (Rom 11:1-24). This concept that acceptance and belief in Jesus as the Messiah represents a judgment and separation among the descendants of Israel is likewise found through St. John’s Gospel. This understanding means that the church is a new people of God, a renewed Israel, made up of the faithful remnant of the Israel of the old covenant, into which Gentiles who have come to Christ have been grafted.
All of the terminology of the New Testament used regarding the church reflects this continuity. The word ‘ekklesia‘, which we typically translate as ‘church’, is the same word used in the Greek text of the Old Testament and generally translated ‘assembly’. Throughout the Pentateuch in particular, ‘the assembly’ represents the gathering of God’s people. After they had come to the inheritance of the land, other national descriptors become more commonly used. The New Testament writers understand the Christian assembly, the new people of God, to be in this life journeying toward the promised inheritance, and so again, ‘assembly’ becomes the best descriptor (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-5, 1 Pet 2:9-12). The concept of the ‘church’ itself then can be clearly seen to not be based in the establishment of an institution due to the unanticipated delay of Christ’s second coming, but rather in the continuity of the new and old covenant peoples of God.
The formation of the assembly, and importantly its established leadership, does not begin in a group of later epistles at the end of the first century, but rather is seen to begin in the life of Christ. The gathering and purification of the remnant of Israel begins before Christ’s public ministry, in the ministry of St. John the Forerunner, who gathers a group of disciples at the Jordan river who become the followers of Jesus Christ. The constitutive event for the formation of the old covenant people had been baptism into Moses (1 Cor 10:1-3), and they had been led through the Jordan by the Old Testament Joshua to defeat spiritual forces of evil and claim an inheritance (Josh 3:9-17). This newly assembled people is no more a loosely assembled band under the sole leadership of Christ than the old covenant community was under Moses. Rather, Christ put structures of authority in place which paralleled those of the old covenant. The twelve, identified first as disciples and then as apostles, are directly connected to the 12 patriarchs who were the progenitors, the fathers, of Israel (Matt 19:28). In the same way, the apostles would become the fathers of the new assembly (1 Cor 4:14-15). In addition, Christ appoints the 70 (or 72 in some manuscripts), giving them authority within his assembled followers (Luke 10:1-20). Preserved within the church’s memory is the awareness that many of the early leaders of the church whom we see emerging within the Acts of the Apostles and the epistolary literature came from this second group. This group of men parallels the elders (presbyteroi) appointed by Moses to assist him in governing the people, also 70 (or 72 in some manuscripts) in number (Num 11:16-17). This institution had endured throughout the old covenant, and had become the Sanhedrin of the 1st century. While they might not have had formalized and disambiguated titles, within the ministry of Christ, there were new patriarchs, new elders (presbyteroi) of the people, and men and women who served Jesus and accompanied him. These last paralleled the Levites who served in and around the tabernacle and temple, and the women who served at the tabernacle’s gate (Ex 38:8).
Just as the apostles and the Christian assembly gathered around them continued to pray at the temple in Jerusalem and attend, even preaching in, the synagogues, so they maintained these authority structures within their community. As in the case of the 12 patriarchs, the particular role of ‘apostle’ was not passed on to subsequent generations, nor could it be. As in the case of the 12 patriarchs, the apostles served the role of progenitors, and basic to that order was their ability to serve as a direct witness to the person of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:21-22, Gal 1:11-12). However, in 1 Corinthians 4, St. Paul describes the apostolic ministry. As part of this description, he describes not only the role of apostle as father and progenitor, but also describes a particular relationship which he has with St. Timothy (v. 17). St. Timothy is his son in the sense that a son is the image of his father. St. Timothy’s ministry is an extension of St. Paul’s, in the case of 1 Corinthians, in space, but in the case of the ministry to which St. Paul later commits him, also in time. This makes it possible for the two to address an epistle to a community as coming from a single authority (2 Cor 1:1, Col 1:1-2). This allows St. Timothy to appoint elders (presbyteroi) of the people and those who will serve (exercise diakonia) within that assembly (1 Tim 3). This relationship, which also existed between the other apostles and their own disciples, is the basis of apostolic succession. This has two elements, both a historical continuity of relationship expressed in the laying on of hands, and more crucially, this relationship of imaging. St. Timothy is St. Paul’s successor in that he proclaims St. Paul’s gospel, and mirrors all which St. Paul teaches, and the way in which he lives his life (1 Cor 4:17).
In both the New Testament text, in the earliest documents describing church order (eg. the Didache), and in the Apostolic Fathers, there is an ambiguity in the way in which particular descriptors are used to describe those in authority. For example, it is not uncommon to see the apostles referred to as ‘presbyteroi‘. This is by analogy to their role as respected elders in the community. ‘Episkopos‘, a word used to translate ‘herdsman’ in the Greek text of the Old Testament, is sometimes used interchangeably of a given person with the word ‘presbyter‘ for the same reason. ‘Herdsman’ or ‘shepherd’ was commonly used as a generic for all of Israel’s leaders in the old covenant. It is clear, however, that certain offices were not invented within a nascent church structure, rather traditional roles within the assembled people of God were continued within the new Christian assembly. There were, in the earliest layer of the church, indeed within the early ministry of Christ himself, clearly apostles and their successors, elders of the people, men who served, and women who served as four distinct orders or roles within the community. These four clear and distinct orders would, by the middle of the second century, come to be consistently labelled as the episcopate, the presbyterate, the male diaconate, and the female diaconate. This understanding of the church’s structure is not only Biblical, it stems from a proper understanding of the very earliest layer of the Old Testament.