Offices in the New Testament
Already in the New Testament we find various offices or designated functions in the Christian church. The apostles chosen by Jesus himself formed a unique group of leaders. When they established churches, they appointed overseers, which are also called elders, to have positions of leadership and teaching. So-called servants would help the elders in a variety of ways.
It is useful to know the Greek words for these church officers, as they all made their way into ecclesiastical English:
- overseer = episkopos > bishop; Episcopalian
- elder = presbyteros > presbyter, priest; Presbyterian
- servant = diakonos > deacon, dean
Development of a hierarchy
When the apostles had died, the so-called Montanist movement claimed that the prophetic and apostolic offices continued. (Compare this to some Pentecostals today.) But the church rejected Montanism as heresy. No new authoritative teaching was to be expected; the church simply had to remain faithful to the instruction of the original apostles.
The leadership of the church now rested with the elders. Already around 150 AD we see a separation within the eldership. Any major church would have one head elder, the bishop. Village churches often only had elders, who were beholden to the bishop in the neighboring church. The bishops of bigger cities tended to have more influence and power. At the top of this hierarchy were the five patriarchs or archbishops of the key Christian cities: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome.
From the third century onward, there is a growing rift between the Western and Eastern churches, in part because of a difference in language (Latin in the West, Greek in the East). Naturally, the bishop of Rome becomes the leader of the Western church. He starts to think of himself as the most important of the patriarchs. Rome was the capital of the empire. Rome had the largest Christian population. And had not Peter established the church in Rome? Had not Jesus given the “keys of the Kingdom of heaven” to Peter? (Mat 16:16) While it had been customary to address the bishops as papa (“father”), it gradually became the unique title for the bishop of Rome. He is now the “Pope”.
The Roman Catholic church, who maintains the claim that the Pope is the leader of the entire church and the Vicar of Christ, would therefore say that Peter was the first Pope. Historically, it is more appropriate to identify the first Pope as Leo I (440-461). He played an important role at the Council of Chalcedon (451) in resolving the remaining controversies about the two natures of Jesus Christ.
Before Constantine, Christianity was an underground religion, which naturally required much dedication of its followers. The heroes of faith were the martyrs. But from the fourth century onward, you could be a Christian and live a luxurious and easy life. Many realized that true Christianity requires a lifestyle of selflessness and restraint. Serious believers would embark on a lifestyle of asceticism, abstaining from luxury, abundance of food, entertainment, and sexual pleasure.
The more radical expression of asceticism was monasticism, where one would live separate from the world. (A monastic person was later called a monk.) It became a very popular movement. In the fifth and sixth centuries, most bishops had been monastics before they entered their office. Throughout the Middle Ages, monasticism is a respectable fixture of society.
Two types of monasticism arose. The so-called eremitic monastics, or hermits, lived by themselves in desolate places, much like John the Baptist had done. The first Christian hermit was Anthony of Koma (late third century). While hermits lived in isolation, they were often supported by nearby communities, had a faithful audience to preach to, and gave advice to those who came to ask.
Coenobitic monasticism is the form most familiar to us. Coenobitic monks live together in communities, initially in natural structures like caves, later in buildings (monasteries). They give up private property, and follow a strict discipline of worship and ascetic living. The first coenobitic monks were Pachomius and his friends in the early third century.
The most prominent leader of coenobitic monasticism was Benedict of Nursia (early sixth century). He established the Benedictine Rule, a written guideline for monastic life, specifying times of worship, disciplinary measures, and so on. The Benedictine Rule became the basis for nearly all monastic communities in the West.
Today, monasticism is less common. Protestants generally reject monasticism as an unnecessary separation from human society. But the importance of monasticism for the Medieval West can hardly be overstated.
Monasteries provided a spiritual oasis in a time when the church was full of hypocrites. They maintained true Christian piety even when the church was in shambles. The monasteries often functioned as hubs for missionaries who worked at the outskirts of civilization. They not only provided theological training for bishops, but also functioned as elementary schools. Monasteries provided basic health care, apprenticeships, and job opportunities. They carried on the Western traditions of literature and science by copying and studying books and writing commentaries. They developed various arts, such as music.
When the city of Rome fell in 476 AD, the Western part of the empire entered a dark period of much political unrest and poverty. Stability was provided by the church, and the monastics played a central role as they promoted peace and provided care for friends and foes alike in the name of Christ.