Audio length: 55:07 minutes
Transcript published: March 23, 2012
Fr. Thomas looks at the writings of three of the earliest Church Fathers to see the structure of the Church in the second and third centuries.
As we continue to reflect on the structure of the Christian Church after the time of the New Testament and the time of the Apostles and go into the second century and the third century just to see how things developed there… Of course, the fourth century will be critical, because that will be the time when Constantine the emperor will convert, and during that century you’ll have the First and Second Ecumenical Councils and ultimately even the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire; that’s the fourth century.
But before we get to the fourth century, after the New Testament times, we want to try just to see a little bit about how we understand how the Church began to be organized as it spread through the Roman Empire, and very particularly what the structure was like and what the office of bishop seems to have been like. Here, of course, we are restricted, as it were, to the documents that we have, to what we know from that time, what has been written about that time.
Today I would just like to take a little time here just to reflect on the teachings of three very important saints of that particular period, of the second and the third centuries. Three writers, all of whom were bishops, but who give us an insight into the development of the Church to which we now belong, the Church that we identify with. We always want to remember, of course, that there never was a time when all Christians were united in the one Church. There were always sectarian groups; there were always heretical groups. There were always battles about how to understand the Gospel and what the truth of Christ really is and how it is to be understood.
So we Orthodox Christians today, of the 21st century, we know who we identify with in every age, in every time. In the earliest Christianity, we identify with the writers of the New Testament. We identify with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John’s Gospels, the Book of Acts, the letters of Paul that we have canonized. In other words, what we believe is that, among all the debate and controversy and discussion and even animosity and battling among people—about who Christ was, what the Gospel is, how it’s to be understood—our authoritative testimonies begin with the writings of the New Testament.
And we saw already, in our reflections earlier, that already in the New Testament, you have an emerging structure of the Church that seems to be pretty much settled by the end of the first century. You have Christian communities founded by the Apostles and the early Christian preachers. And then in each of those Christian communities there was a leadership, the elders of the church, the presbyters. And then one of those presbyters emerges as the bishop, the chief presbyter, who then is called “bishop,” the chief elder-man of the community.
And there is, by the end of the first century, beginning of the second, according to our understanding of things, the structure that each church had one bishop, and it had a council of presbyters with the bishop. And then it had the deacons, both men and women, who were ministers and serving. And then there were other orders as well. There were the order of widows, the order of virgins. There was already a way in which the church structure was developing, but in the New Testament already we have bishops, presbyters, and deacons. That’s already clear: read Timothy; read Titus.
And we already have qualifications about who should have these offices, who should hold them, what are the necessary characteristics, what are the necessary qualifications that a man—and they were always [men]; there were no women there—had to have to hold these positions. Among the deacons, there were women, but among the presbyters and among the bishops there were only men.
Then, of course, we know—from Timothy, Titus—that they had to be blameless, their life, and not accused of any great crimes, not guilty of any great crimes. They had to be the husband of one wife, or they could be a celibate virgin, but they had to, if they were married, it could only be once, and have had only one wife in their entire life. Just like the widows had to be the woman who was the wife of only one husband. A multiple-married woman could not be officially enrolled in the order of widow and virgin, which were like Church orders in the earliest Church.
But getting back to the bishops and presbyters, they had to be not a recent convert, manage their household well, not be given up to much wine, not be quarrelsome, be apt teachers, not be lovers of money, be well thought of by people outside the Church. There were qualifications. It was not the case that just any man could be ordained.
And here, we want to say that very clearly, because sometimes in popular teaching, people will say, “Well, in the Orthodox Church, only men can be bishops and priests, and women can’t be.” And there’s a certain truth to that, but it’s not a total truth, because it’s not at all a characteristic that any man can be a bishop or a priest. That’s absolutely not the case. They have to have certain qualifications. Only some men… Chrysostom will say it that way in the fourth century, that in the episcopate and in the leadership of the Church, as far as the presbyter-bishops go, it excludes most men, he said, not simply women, but most men do not have the qualifications to serve in these offices.
But the offices exist from the earliest time, that’s the Orthodox position, the Orthodox understanding. And that the earliest Church was not just a band of charismatics or a kind of free church of congregations ordered any way that they wanted to. It certainly wasn’t something like a society of friends where everybody just met, sat together, and there was no leadership. There was leadership, definitely leaders. The New Testament speaks about leaders all the time: “Obey your leaders, be subject to your leaders. If you are a leader, don’t be a person of tyranny and domination and a lover of money,” and “Don’t do it for power” and so on. This is already in the pages of the New Testament. There is a structure; there is a leadership.
Sometimes the word “hierarchy” is used, but it’s not a New Testamental word, and in fact, I don’t think that “hierarchy” is a Christian word, to tell the truth. I mean, it comes in only with the Pseudo-Dionysian writings in the sixth century, where you have bishops and priests and deacons in some kind of hierarchical order, but I think that that’s got to be properly understood. It isn’t a hierarchy as if the chief one is the bishop and then he shares his authority and graces with lower people who are called priests or presbyters, and they share their authority with lower people who are called deacons, male deacons, deaconesses. And then there’s the people on the bottom, and that there’s a kind of ... you have to pass through stages higher… That’s not the teaching.
In fact, Fr. Alexander Golitzin, a great scholar in our Church right now, a monk of Mt. Athos, Simonopetros Monastery, a professor at Marquette University, wrote a beautiful article about the Dionysian corpus, saying, “That kind of understanding is not even what the Dionysian author was writing. It’s not a hierarchy; it’s an order, a taxis.” And you see this taxis from the earliest Church, and you see it even in the documents of the earliest Church, that there is an order in the Church. It’s for that reason that the mystery of the priesthood and the episcopate and the deacons, it’s called the sacrament of holy orders because there are orders that bring order to the Church.
And even in the Corinthian community, the Apostle Paul says, “Let everything be done decently and in order.” There is an order; there’s a taxis, an order, and there are theseis, there are places, where each of the, you might say, groups of people find their place within the Church: the bishops, the priests, the deacons, the widows, the virgins, the married people, the families. Then there are other people who have other functions, charismatic functions, like healing or administering or speaking in tongues or whatever they had in the earliest Church.
But there is this order, there has to be this order. It cannot be disordered, but it’s not necessarily hierarchical in the way we often think of that now. The family’s not a hierarchy. The Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are not a hierarchical relation, but there is an order. Even in the Holy Trinity, God the Father is the one, true, and living God. And the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the Son of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom of God. He obeys the Father in all things, even divinely. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father who rests in the Son and is the Spirit of the Son and is sent by the Father through the Son into the world. So there’s an order in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, but it isn’t as if one is higher and one is lower. There’s no kind of subordination. There’s submission in the sense that one puts oneself under the other, freely and voluntarily, because that’s how things go.
If I’m in a church and there’s a bishop, there’s some sense in which I submit to the bishop, because he’s the leader of the church. If I’m in a family, I submit to my father, to my mother. If I’m in a city, I submit to the leaders of the city or the leaders of the country. That’s how human life is organized in this world. So in the Church, you have this order. You have people having their places and working together in harmony.
This is the vision that you get in the earliest Church, and it seems to me, and that’s what I’d like to reflect on now, is that you have these three writers, three bishops, that I want to speak about what they teach, in the second century and the third century. And the three men that I’m going to refer to now are St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died around the year 110-112. So he was already an active bishop at the end of the first century, and the tradition is that he was a direct disciple of the Apostle and Evangelist John, that he was in Asia Minor where the Johannine tradition developed. And then you had the other one that I want to speak about is St. Irenaeus who died around the year 202, and St. Irenaeus did most of his writing at the end of the second century, around 165-185, dying in the year of 202, the beginning of the third century. And then the third person I want to specifically speak about today is St. Cyprian of Carthage who died in the year 258; that’s the middle of the third century.
Now, in addition to St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, and St. Cyprian, we have other documents. We have the Didache of the Apostles. We have the writings of Justin the Martyr, the Apologist. I believe Justin Martyr died about the year 165, around there. We have also the writings of St. Hippolytus of Rome, the bishop who was writing there. Let me see exactly when he died; he died also in the second century. But we have these writings that tell about the order in the earliest Church, and they describe the Eucharist, they describe the baptism service with the anointing of the chrism, with the laying of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yeah, St. Hippolytus died in the year 235. These are the people and the documents that we think about when we are discussing what we’re going to discuss right now.
But I’d like to begin with St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch; that’s in Asia Minor. He died as a martyr in Rome. He was arrested and taken to Rome and killed. He is called the God-bearer. And this St. Ignatius of Antioch who died around 110-112, there are seven letters of his that are infinitely important for understanding early Christianity. St. Ignatius wrote these letters to various churches in Asia Minor and even around the world; he wrote them to Smyrna.
And then he wrote to Polycarp, the famous bishop of Smyrna whose beautiful martyrdom we have as a document from this period. St. Polycarp of Smyrna, how he was killed and how he cared for his flock and how, before he was killed, he asked permission of the ones killing him if he could have some time to pray. And then it says in his Life that he prayed for every member of his church by name. He knew his flock by name, just like the Lord Jesus. And he prayed for them by name, and then he was ready to die. And he offered himself like a living sacrifice, like a eucharist. In fact, the prayer that he makes while he’s being burned alive, it’s like a Eucharistic prayer, where he’s offering his body together with the Body of Christ to God the Father as a living sacrifice to God, a logiki latreia, as St. Paul would say, a living or spiritual or reasonable sacrifice.
So you have these wonderful people. Now, Ignatius, in writing these letters, gives us really a wonderful picture of how the communities, at least in Asia Minor where he lived—and it seems that this could be universally applied in Christianity virtually in the whole world—that he shows that each community—and here he would even be the great icon—of how each community looked, how an early Christian church looked and how it maintained its unity within itself. And this is basically the picture that he paints.
It’s a beautiful verbal picture that he paints in all of his letters, these seven letters that he wrote. As I mentioned [there’s to the Ephesians,] there’s to the Magnesians, there’s to the Philadelphians, there’s to the Smyrnaeans, there’s to the Romans, there’s a letter to the Trallians, there’s a letter to Polycarp. So we have these seven letters of St. Ignatius, and we have a beautiful picture, as I said, of the earliest Church, post-Apostolic Church, in these letters.
How does the picture look? This is what he shows. He says that the Christian community is gathered together, and he even described it like a lyre, a kind of a stringed instrument like a harp, and that it has all these different strings, and that you play them all together and they make a beautiful, harmonious music together, glorifying God and worshiping God, each one having its own place in the harp, but none alone acting without any of the others. Then he says in this beautiful picture you have the head who is called, now, the bishop, the episcopos.
And here, already now, you would have the name of the head being episcopos, bishop. It wouldn’t be bishops like in [the] Philippian letter of St. Paul, or presbyters as you have also in other New Testament writings. Now it’s a little bit more specific. The chief elder, the chief presbyter, is the bishop, the episcopos. So he’s at the head, and he’s responsible for the community before God. He’s even called by St. Ignatius the image of God in the community. He holds the place of God in the community.
Then around him are the elder members of the Church, the men elders of the Church, the presbyters. And they work together with the bishop, and the bishop works together with them. They’re not in a hostile relationship with each other. They’re not fighting with each other about authority and power as we see, I’m sad to say, so often in the churches nowadays. I mean, some bishops treat their priests almost as if they were their enemies, not their co-workers, and try to “keep them in their place” and all that kind of stuff. But in any case, in the image and the picture we get from the earliest Church, there’s a harmony first of all between the bishop and his presbyters. And they’re not even his presbyters; they’re the presbyters of the Church. And they’re like the council of the Apostles around Christ himself, according to Ignatius.
Then there are the deacons. And here we believe and see that the deacons—there were men deacons and women deacons. They had their different services; they were not identical to each other. But the main task of the deacons was to serve the bishop, together with the presbyters, in exercising the sacramental and evangelical leadership of the Church. So the deacons were kind of like in the New Testament; they were the hands of the bishop. The bishop was pronouncing the word of God, he was preaching the Gospel, he was responsible for the truth of the Gospel, and then, of course, he led the worship, he led the baptism services, he put the laying on of hands for the giving of the Holy Spirit to the people, and he presided at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
When the people gathered together, they read the holy Scriptures. We don’t know what kind of Scriptures they had in writing. Not all churches had all the Scriptures, that’s for sure, but [used] what writings they had, and many of the readings were just done from the Old Testament. We’ll see later on that St. Irenaeus will write a complete exposition of the apostolic preaching and quote only the Old Testament. So the bishops were interpreting the Scriptures. They were interpreting the writings and they were holding the Tradition. They were holding what was given to them by the Apostles, both in writing and orally, as it says in the New Testament itself.
In the letters of Timothy, it’ll say to the bishop, “Hold fast to what you have received.” It was a technical term in Greek, the parathēkē, the depositum of faith. It meant what you had received as far as the understanding of the Gospel. The Gospel itself and its understanding, its didachē, the sound doctrine, as it will say in the letters of Timothy and Titus. They maintained the sound doctrine, the true doctrine, or as it would say in [Jude], they “held fast to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints,” the unchanging faith, the eternal Gospel. That’s what the bishops held that they received from the Apostles.
It was orally and in writing, and they were kind of, themselves, guardians of this. St. Ignatius would even say specifically in one of his letters, “Our archives is Jesus Christ.” It’s not a bunch of writings. The writings witness to the living Logos of God, the living Word of God, who is Jesus Christ. “So those who hear the words of Jesus hear also his silence,” he says in one of his letters. So St. Ignatius is teaching that the bishop is kind of the living recipient of the Christian faith and Gospel in a community, and it’s his task to make sure that it’s maintained truly, soundly, rightly. As it says in the Timothy letter, their task is to “rightly define the word of God’s truth—orthotomounta ton logon tēs alētheias,” it says in Greek: “rightly dividing the word of truth.” And that, by the way, is an expression that still exists in the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy. At every Divine Liturgy, we pray that the bishop would be the one who would “rightly define the word of truth.”
In fact, in the Liturgy, we even claim that he is rightly dividing the word of truth, but I honestly have to confess that we’d better pray for our bishops that they would that they would rightly define the word of truth, because it’s not automatic; we’ve got to pray for them that they would do it, that they would really be rightly dividing the word of truth. And they have themselves to be totally responsible.
And as we see, later on, that’s why there’s a very specific examination of a candidate for bishop [which] is done as part of the consecration ritual itself: Does he believe the faith? Does he hold the faith? Does he make the confession of Peter? Does he believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Does he understand that according to the New Testament Scriptures and according to the oral traditions?
So there is this testing, but the bishop is in charge. He’s the leader; he’s the head. Christ is the head of the Church. God is the head of the Church through Christ. It’s the Church of God; it’s the Church of Christ. And all the members of the Church receive the Holy Spirit to perform the ministry and to hold the place that they have, to be the person that God created them to be and to fulfill their calling.
Well, the picture really shows us that in each church the claim is that there’s one man, one among the presbyters, who is the leader, the unique leader. It’s sometimes called the monarchical episcopate, meaning that there is one head of every community. And that was even considered to be theologically very important because there’s one God, there’s one Lord, there’s one faith, there’s one baptism, there’s one Holy Spirit, there’s one Body. This is all the teaching of the New Testament, especially St. Paul, this unity.
So St. Ignatius is a really strong teacher that the unity of the Church is the unity in with that one bishop, and that’s why the later canons will say that in each city there should be only one bishop, because his task is to maintain the unity of the Church and the unity of the faith and the unity of all the members of the Church in the one Body with the one Spirit under the one Lord Jesus Christ under the one God.
So, very strong in the letters of St. Ignatius is the issue of unity. Therefore, he teaches in his letters that it’s where the bishop is that the people gather. The people gather around the bishop. So, for example, in the letter to the Smyrnaeans, he says very specifically, “Where the bishop appears, there let the people gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church.”
And that’s the first time in history that the term katholikē is used for church as an adjective defining “church.” Church is defined as catholic, katholikē. That doesn’t mean “universal, spread out throughout the whole world.” That’s how most people think of it now, and that understanding was even very early; you’ll find that in Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century, that the catholic Church is the same Church spread throughout the entire world. It includes all kinds of people, Jews and Gentiles together who become Christians through their baptism into Christ.
However, in Ignatius and in the earliest understanding, the adjective “katholikē” or “catholic” didn’t mean “universal” geographically, in space. It didn’t mean “whole” quantitatively; it meant “whole” qualitatively. In other words, the “catholic Church” meant “the Church in which everything is whole and complete and nothing is missing and nothing is lacking.” “Kata” in Greek means “according to,” and “o holos” means “the whole,” so “kath’holon” means “according to the whole.”
And by the way, just a little trivial comment here, that’s where we get the expression in English, “okay.” When we say, “How’re you doing?” “Okay.” It’s “hola kala” in Greek; it means “the whole is good, kalos; everything’s good.” So the “kath’holon” means that the Church is full, complete, not fragmented, not partial, that the whole fullness of God is in the Church, the fullness of Christ, the fullness of truth, the fullness of grace.
So the term “fullness, plēroma,” it’s very much a word very similar to the word katholikē, because katholikē, the whole, means the full. And it’s interesting to read in the New Testament how often that term, “fullness,” is used: “Of his fullness we have received grace upon grace,” “that we may be filled with all the fullness of God,” “that the Church is called the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” That’s the letter to the Ephesians by St. Paul in the New Testament.
So the point is that each local community is a catholic church. And here that would be a very orthodox Christian ancient teaching. Each Christian church is not a catholic church, it is the catholic Church. Each church is the catholic Church. And the catholic churches are in communion with the other catholic churches and therefore they form the catholic Church throughout the whole world.
But the catholic Church spread throughout the whole world is a community, a fellowship, a federation if we wanted to use a political term, of catholic churches. And a catholic church is a church headed by a bishop, a bishop in apostolic succession, a bishop who has the laying on of hands from the Apostles. He’s the head of that church, and where he is, St. Ignatius says, there the people gather around him. Now, who gathers around him? The presbyters, so the church has a multiplicity of presbyters, has several priests.
Nowadays we call the presbyters “priests,” but I don’t think that’s very fortunate, because the term “priest” for the bishop and the presbyters is rather late. It’s in the fourth century, I think, the first time that he’s called “priest.” Cyprian, I think, in the end of the third, calls the bishop “priest,” but the term “priest” means mainly the one who offers the sacrifice ritualistically, like in the Old Testament the high priests offer the sacrifices.
But certainly the bishops and the presbyters are those who are offering the sacrifices in the Christian Church, they’re heading the Eucharist, but they’re doing it together with all the members of the Body who also make up the royal priesthood, the ieratevma, the royal priesthood. We find that in the New Testament writings, and in the Apocalypse and the letter of Peter: “You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a called people, a people called apart.” “The whole church are a kingdom of prophets and priests,” as it says in the Apocalypse.
So you have a priestly people, a royal people, headed by its chief member called the bishop who then does these particular actions of heading the community and thereby presenting Christ, presenting God as being present in the community in his person, in his sacramental person. And he receives the laying on of hands exactly for that purpose. You could even make up a nice list of what the purposes are. The task of the bishop is to guarantee the unity, the integrity, the solidarity, the continuity of the Christian church, the harmony. That’s what the bishop is for.
But he’s one of the members. He’s a member of the church, as its leading member, being the sacramental head of the community which is a sacramental community. And here, by the way, I think a very felicitous sentence of Fr. Alexander Schmemann is in order to repeat at this point. Fr. Schmemann always used to say that in the ancient Christian view and in the Orthodox Christian view, theologically, the Church is not an institution or an organization that has teachings and sacraments. It is rather a sacrament, a mystery, it’s a teaching, it’s a proclamation that has institutions and organizations.
The Church is first of all a sacramental mystery. It’s first of all a gospel. It’s first of all a proclamation of truth. It’s a teaching; it’s a didachē; it’s a didaskalia, to use New Testament terms, early Christian terms. And then it has institutions that are appropriate to its very being as the kingdom of God on earth, as the Body of Christ, as the household of God, as the temple of God, as the army of God, as the bride of Christ, as the body of Christ, as the vineyard of Christ. These are all words that define the Church in the earliest Christian writings, the New Testament and the post-Apostolic writings of people like St. Ignatius.
Here we have this vision of the community, headed by a bishop, surrounded by his presbyters and his deacons, and the deacons help him in his ministry. They help him in baptism, for example. By the way, that’s why many people think that the women diaconate disappeared in history, because the women deacons originally were preparing the women for baptism. And they were not only preparing them and teaching them and teaching them how to be good and holy women, but they had to do the actual baptism, they had to do the immersion of the woman in the water, because they were baptized naked or wearing simply a white robe. And then they had to apply the chrism of the ointment of the Holy Spirit and lay their hands upon the women, and it was considered inappropriate for the male bishop to do that.
In fact, that’s probably where the confirmation ritual grew up in Christianity, where the bishop would just put the chrism on the person’s forehead as a completion of the whole chrismation rite that went together with baptism in the earliest Church. But it was the hands of the women deacons who were putting the ointment and doing the immersion and caring for the women catechumens when they were baptized, because it was unseemly for men to do this. But then the male deacons were also proclaiming the Gospel at the services; they were preparing the bread and the wine and bringing it to the table. No women, actually, were offering the bread and wine at the table, just the men.
In fact, the women deacons had very little liturgical services at the service. They carried the bread and the wine that was consecrated, the holy Communion, to people, sick people. Also, you needed women to go into the rooms of sick women, because it was considered unseemly for a man to go into a sickroom of a woman who may be unclothed, who may be reclining in bed and so on, so the women prophetesses, the virgins, the widows, the deaconesses, they went into the sick women with the Holy Gifts of Communion and with the laying on of hands in prayer and with the unction of the holy oil.
So the ministry of the Church was much more pluralistic. The bishop headed it, but he didn’t do everything himself. And in fact, he didn’t even necessarily celebrate the Eucharist everywhere by himself. He could appoint a presbyter to do it. The presbyter could not do it on his own, but already, early in the early Christianity, the presbyters who were a kind of a co-presbyter with the chief presbyter who was the bishop would exercise some of those episcopal functions with the blessing of the one bishop.
So you have this kind of image of the Church. Let me read to you a couple of other little brief quotations of St. Ignatius in addition to saying, “Where the bishop appears, there let the people be; just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church.” But he also said this in the letter to the Magnesians:
I exhort you to strive to do all things in harmony with God. The bishop is to preside in the place of God while the presbyters are to function as the council of the Apostles, and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are instructed with this service of good works, the service of philanthropy.
And that was one of the deacons’ works also, besides carrying Communion to sick people and bringing the presence of the bishop there to them with the prayers, they would also bring just physical help—clothing, food, drink—to poor people, to needy people. There’s a lot of charitable activities going on that the deacons were in charge of, so to speak. They were the ministers, the slaves of the household of God, the chief slave being the bishop himself, as we mentioned last time. Even the term “episcopos” is a term for the chief slave in a household. “Economos” is the one who is the steward of God’s very graces, as the New Testament writings say.
So this is how the early Church looked. Here’s another sentence of St. Ignatius. It’s this time [in] the letter to the Philadelphians. He says:
Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist. For one is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one the cup to unite us with his Blood, and one altar (one table), just as there is one bishop, assisted by the presbyters and the deacons, my fellow servants.
So the presbyters and the deacons Ignatius calls “my co-workers, my syndiakonoi, my co-deacons.” So the bishop himself is exercising a diakonia, a diakonia of oversight, over superintendance. So this is the image we get. It’s a beautiful image: harmony, communion, community, togetherness, order, each in his place, the bishop at the head, the presbyters as co-servants with him, almost you might say “co-bishops” in a sense, because they’re given oversight also in certain areas of Church life. And they even then, later on, become heads of communities themselves, Eucharistic communities themselves.
For example, we know that in Rome, in Hippolytus, when the bishop in Rome—there were other heads of communities in the Roman Church. We know that even some had to be different because of ethnicity. For example, you had to have an Armenian community in Rome, or something like that, you see, because you had to have the language. But according to some of the early Christian documents, what would happen is when the bishop would celebrate his Eucharist with his people, they would take part of the Bread and the Wine of his Eucharist, and a deacon would carry it to other Eucharists in the city that were being presided over by presbyters, the ones who were in communion with the bishop. And they would take part of the bishop’s communion and put it in the cup and the table with the communion that the presbyter led to show the unity.
Unity was here a very, very strong element. Harmony and unity, integrity, communion, togetherness, conciliarity, if we want to use that term. This is what we find in the writings of Ignatius. And this is very dear, very precious, very important.
However, Ignatius would be the last person on earth to think that a bishop and his church could say to another bishop, “Mind your own business. This is my church. You do in your church what you want to do. I’ll do in my church what I want to do. Who are you to question me? Stay out of my business.” Well, of course, there were later canons where some bishops would mess into the interior lives of other bishops, and that was not allowed. That was simply, absolutely unacceptable. But the bishops were not sovereign, monarchical creatures who had no responsibility and no obligation to be in communion with the other bishops. Just the opposite.
That’s why Ignatius writes these letters. He says to the Smyrnaeans: “In the person of Polycarp, your bishop, I see your whole church.” He said to the Ephesians, where Onesimus, who’s considered to be the friend to St. Paul in the Letter to Philemon, the runaway slave who was sent back, the tradition says he was the first bishop or one of the first bishops of the Church of Ephesus, and Ignatius names him: Onesimus. Polycarp, Onesimus—they know the names of these other men, and they say, “I see your whole church in you. When I see you, I see your whole church. I see the presbyters, I see the deacons, I see the widows, I see the virgins, I see all of the people: I see the married folks, I see the children.” That’s how it was understood in the earliest Church.
So the bishop did not have his power and authority as an individual person, and he even was not allowed to move from church to church. Later on, there would be a canon forbidding a bishop to be transferred. You’re in your own church. You’re a member of your own church. You can’t move around and carry your episcopate with you. And that’s what we see nowadays, and it’s terrible. In my opinion, it’s a total degradation, where you have bishops being transferred around all over the place.
Even someone really recently remakred about Orthodoxy in the world today said, “Let the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew come to Washington, D.C., become the bishop of Washington and become the Ecumenical Patriarch whose see is Washington.” Well, excuse me, but this is absolutely ridiculous and totally absurd. Bartholomew is the head of the Church in Constantinople. He’s a member of that church. He belongs to that church. He’s integrated, organic representative and presenter of that church, not some other church. He’s not a bishop or a patriarch in his own right. No bishop is a bishop in his own right. He’s a bishop as a member of the church to which he belongs as its head. You cannot separate the bishop from the church, and you cannot separate the church from the bishop.
That’s why Ignatius himself will write that no Eucharists can be celebrated except by the blessing of the bishop. You can’t just go around having Holy Communion services and so on, and St. Cyprian will say the same thing. The unity has to be maintained. The order has to be maintained. The Church is a visible community in the world, and that visible community must maintain the faith, the unity, the integrity, the continuity, the solidarity, the harmony (as I already mentioned) of the Body of Christ itself which is the Church of God. And it’s first of all a local community.
If we could go on now, and speak about St. Cyprian of Carthage… Well, let’s speak about St. Irenaeus first. St. Irenaeus died in the year 202. He wrote around 165 to 185. Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons in modern France, Lyons. He was a Greek; he wrote in Greek. He was one of the greatest earliest theologians of early Christianity. In fact, I believe personally, we should know St. Irenaeus’ teachings much better than we do. He somehow got lost in history, especially with the later great Fathers like Basil and Gregory and the other Gregory and John Chrysostom, but before them was Irenaeus. And Irenaeus is one of the greatest links between the Old Testament, the New Testament writings, and the Church of the fourth century of the great Church Fathers.
Irenaeus was very clear. He says, “The Eucharist is only a Eucharist as celebrated by the bishop, and the Eucharist confirms our faith, and the faith is shown forth in our Eucharist.” And where the people gather together. And Irenaeus’ great point was that each church has a succession of bishops. The way that the apostolic tradition is handed on, the apostolic faith, is through apostolic succession. So Irenaeus, for example, he speaks specifically about the Church of Rome. He says, “The holy Church of Rome was founded on the blood of the foremost Apostles, Peter and Paul.” And then he says its first bishop was Linus, its second bishop Clement, third bishop Eleftherios, and then he lists eleven bishops down to his own day. And he says that’s where you know how the Church is: in the succession of the bishops.
And this became really an absolute orthodox dogma, that there is the apostolic succession, that in each church, the people elect their new bishop. And here in the earliest Church, it was the church itself that elected its own bishop. We’ll talk about that later, because later on bishops will be elected by synods of bishops, bishops will be appointed and elected by government officials, by emperors, by queens and kings. Well, in a sense, there’s a certain understanding, because those people are, so to speak, members of the Church; they’re the lay people, but in the earliest Church, it was the people themselves, when their bishop died, who said who they wanted to be their bishop.
There’s a wonderful story about St. Ambrose in the fourth century, how when the bishop in Milan died, all the people gathered to choose a new bishop, and one little boy said, “Ambrose! Ambrose!” and then everybody chose Ambrose. And the man wasn’t even baptized yet! He had to be baptized, chrismated, become a member of the Church, and then they laid the hands on him to be the bishop of Milan, and he became a great, holy Church Father and theologian: St. Ambrose of Milan, elected a bishop by his people when he wasn’t even baptized yet. He was a catechumen in the community.
In any case, what we want to see in the earliest Church was the churches themselves raised the name of the person they wanted to be the successor of their bishop who had died. And then they even put the name of the bishop who had died in the diptychs, and they would remember him at the Holy Eucharist. That’s one of the foundations of the canonization of saints, where you include holy bishops in lists of bishops that you then pray to and pray for and pray with after they have died and are together with Christ in God.
That’s why there are so many bishops in the calendar of saints, and later on it will be so many monks. Monks and bishops will dominate the calendar because you’ll have succession in monasteries and you’ll have successions in churches, and the people were remembering their holy fathers. That’s kind of the origin of the veneration of the saints in the Church and the lists of canonization.
But in any case, what we want to see now is the continuity of the church and the identity of the church, the unity of the church is guaranteed by the succession of the bishop in the church. Now, in the earliest Church he was chosen by the people of his church, and then all of the bishops of the region would come and test him to see if he was a qualified candidate, and when he was, they would lay their hands on him and he would become their bishop.
And here, I think that again we have something to discuss contemporarily, because some people now say: the bishops aren’t elected by the people, the dioceses; they’re elected by the synod of bishops. I think that’s not true, frankly. I think it’s the people, the dioceses, the presbyters, who elect their bishop, and then what happens is that they give the name of the man that they have elected, and then the other bishops test him to see if he’s qualified, and if they do, then they affirm and confirm him in office by ordaining him, by consecrating him by the laying-on of hands, the cheiritonia. But originally he’s not elected by other bishops; he’s elected by the people of his own church. Then the other bishops of the region test him and affirm or not-affirm the election.
For example, a church could elect a person and the bishops could question him, test him, and say, “No, no. This man’s not qualified. He doesn’t know how to teach. He doesn’t know how to preach. He’s not a good person” or whatever. So the final word belongs to the bishops of the region who gather together to lay their hands upon the person that the local church has chosen. And it would be marvelous if we could restore this practice to our Church today, because I think very few churches on earth have their bishop being elected by the diocese that he’s going to serve. Almost all the churches now have the bishops appointed by synods of bishops, or, in the old days, by the emperor or by the Tsar of Russia or by the Over-Procurator of the Holy Synod in Russia for 200 years from Peter the Great down to the 20th century.
There’s a lot of problems here, but in the earliest Church, we’ve got to see that the people elected. And they elected someone who was tested, tested by them first, and then they would give their command to ordain him, and then he would be asked, “Do you accept?” and then the bishops would come in and say, “Okay,” and then they would lay their hands on him. That seems to be how it worked. It seems to be pretty accurately what I just said is how it worked. But there was a continuity within the church itself, and that’s how you could tell where the church was.
And that’s why St. Irenaeus says, “Don’t go to heretical churches.” They don’t have the apostolic succession. They can’t trace their teaching back to the apostles. They are spiritualists. They have an invisible church. No, we have a concrete, visible church that you know where it is; you know who founded it. You know who its first bishop was, its second bishop was, its third bishop was, its fourth bishop was, right down through history, down to the 20th century.
And we Orthodox hold this to the present day, except we’ve got a lot of problems, because you’ve got bishops being switched around, you’ve got them moving around. We’ll talk about that later, which was considered to be a decadence. And maybe that’s something we ought to think about now. Maybe we’re not doing it rightly, the way we ought to, at least according to the earliest Church.
One last person I want to mention today is St. Cyprian of Carthage, because St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died in 258, he’s very important. He wrote a treatise, On the Unity of the Catholic Church. It’s in Latin, one of the first major patristic writings in Latin. And Cyprian was very, very strong that it’s only in the Church of bishops in the apostolic succession that you have the Church of Christ. Outside of that Church, he even said, there’s no salvation. Well, God can do what he wants, and he works by grace, and later on you’ve got to deal with what you’ve got to do with the people who are outside the Church, especially those that consider themselves Christians and perhaps even were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity or whatever, becomes again very problematic in history.
But Cyprian is very clear. The Church is a concrete community of people, headed by a bishop in apostolic succession, who keep the apostolic tradition, who teach the apostolic faith, and who exercise the apostolic worship, and who are together with one mind and one heart and one soul within each church and between the churches. So if Ignatius was emphasizing the church itself, the local church, and if Irenaeus was emphasizing the Church in history down through history and tradition, Cyprian basically, his emphases are on the relationship between the churches or among the various churches.
And here, Irenaeus is very, very strict and very clear. Prophets and martyrs and charismatic holy people cannot celebrate the Eucharist. It’s got to be done by a bishop or someone that the bishop appoints, just like Ignatius says. And that one whom the bishop appoints has to be an ordained presbyter. It can’t be just anybody. There has to be order.
Now, Cyprian also said that the apostolic and episcopal churches, they’re the ones who have the authority and the power and the presence of Christ himself in them. That’s how they have the guarantee of the presence of the Lord, who pledges himself to be with his Church always and to the end of the world. And that’s why Cyprian says to make a schism in the Church is the biggest heresy you can do.
It’s worse than heresy, he said. If you hold the formal doctrines correctly, but then make divisions, he says, you will not be saved. He said if you break the veniculum charitatis, the chains of love of the one Body of Christ, even martyrdom won’t save you, he said. You can die as a martyr for Christ and it’ll avail you nothing, because you have not loved. So the chains of love—the veniculum charitatis, the syndesmos tēs agapēs, as they say in Greek, the bond of love, the bond of peace—has to be maintained among the churches.
So Cyprian would say each bishop holds the episcopate together with all the bishops and, “Episcopatus unus est,” he says: “The episcopate is one.” And then he says each bishop is a successor of the Apostle Peter. The see of each bishop, the throne of each bishop, is a seat of Peter. It’s not exclusively that of the Church of Rome, even though that’s the church that’s founded on the blood of Peter. He says every bishop is a successor of Peter.
When the bishop of Rome tried to exercise authority in St. Cyprian’s church in northern Africa, in Carthage, St. Cyprian and his fellow bishops and the synods in that region had council and they said to the bishop of Rome, “You can’t interfere here.” And the bishop of Rome said, “Well, we have special authority.” And he says, “You have authority only within your own church.” He said, “You could write, you could advise, you could question, but you have no authority.” And then when he said, “Well, that’s an ancient custom,” and Cyprian said, “Antiquitas non est veritas—antiquity is not necessarily truth.” And an old custom may be nothing but an old error, he said.
An old custom may be nothing but an old error, and already errors were creeping in. And then, in the language of one of the Carthaginian councils, where Cyprian was present, they formulated a very important teaching: there is no bishop of bishops in the Christian Church. There is no episcopus episcoporum. No bishop is a bishop over any other bishop. No bishop can exercise episcopal authority over any other bishop. The episcopate is one; episcopatus unus est. And the bishops hold the episcopate in solidum, he wrote: in solidarity, in total unity, together, as a conciliar fellowship of bishops. And the highest office is bishop, and no bishop can lord it over any other bishop.
That’s also extremely important as we move through history, because you’ll have churches where, well, the modern Roman Church where the bishop of Rome has direct episcopal authority over every other Christian in the world or in the Catholic Church, including all the other bishops. That’s the teaching of the First Vatican Council in the 19th century, repeated by the Second Vatican Council in the 20th century.
This is not an Orthodox teaching, and in some of our churches, people think that the patriarch is kind of the bishop of the other bishops, or a metropolitan is a bishop of the other bishops. This is not true. The metropolitan is simply the bishop of a chief city of a region. The patriarch is the chief bishop of a church in a larger region, made up of metropolises. But the bishops are equal; they’re identical. They’re all successors of Peter. They all have the same office.
So let’s listen to what Cyprian himself says. He says concerning the unity of the Church:
Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church? This unity of the catholic Church we ought to hold and assert, especially those of us who are bishops, who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopacy to be one and undivided. The episcopate is one (episcopatus unus est), each part of which is held wholly (in solidum) by each one. The Church is also one.
It is not possible to have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother. He is not a Christian who is not in the Church of Christ, meaning in the Church whose head is the bishop.
So there is no bishop of bishops. There is just a bishop in each church—I shouldn’t say “just”—there is a bishop in each church, and each church is in communion with the other churches by the communion of their bishops who sit together in council. And the catholic Church is present in each one of those churches. Each one of those churches is the catholic Church.
So you have a communion of catholic churches, and as they commune, one with the other, then they express the catholic Church geographically in space, but the catholic Church that is expressed together is in unity through the whole world is first of all the unity of the local church headed by the bishop with his presbyters, with his deacons (men and women), with the various ministers, the various charismatics, the various holy people. Later on, it’ll even be the various monks and nuns who live in monastic life within that region, because the monks and nuns, even though they have their abbots and abbesses, as we see, they must be under the leadership of the bishop of the region in which their monastery exists. That’s how the Church maintains its unity, its identity, its integrity, its solidarity, and its continuity in space and time.
And this is what we see in the earliest Church, and this is the icon for us, this is the canon for us. Orthodox Christians have to see the Church of the New Testament and the Church of the first centuries as the Church that somehow functions as the paradigm Church, the image that we want to hold, and then none of the changes that take place through history can violate this principle. And, in fact, all the canon laws of the ecumenical councils are all definitely defending this principle.
For example, the canon that there can only be one bishop in one city, one chief person in a city. There may be presbyters; there may be several eucharistic assemblies, but one of them, the heads, has to be the one who is maintaining the unity in the region, even if the region has different ethnicities, like old Rome, where you had various nationalities in the city of Rome having their own Eucharists in their own language, but they were all held together by the unity of the one bishop of the city.
And then you have canons against transferring bishops. You can’t jump from one church to another, because you’re a bishop as a member of a church. You’re not a bishop in your own right, individually. Well, my opinion is that all this gets terribly mixed up and abused and violated through history. And I’ve got to say, honestly—God forgive me—it’s violated in Orthodoxy today, I believe.
I believe that in theory the Orthodox Church holds all the theories properly, but in practice they’re violated almost on a daily basis, always for oikonomia or for the good of the Church or because of political situations or because of historical conditions, but in fact we’re violating our own vision, certainly the vision that we have in the New Testament, in the earliest Church, taught by such people as St. Ignatius, St. Cyprian, St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus, St. Justus the Martyr, and such documents as the apostolic constitutions, as the Didachē of the Apostles. All these documents are preciously important, and we’ve got to know what they say, and what they say about Church structure and the bishop, I believe—God forgive me if I’m wrong—is pretty much what I’ve just shared with you today.