Friday, October 03, 2008
The Leadership Structure of Earliest Christianity-- Was it Hierarchial?
Clement of Rome is an interesting figure in early Christian history, not least because he had contact with some of the original Christian eyewitnesses, apostles and their co-workers. Hermas mentions this Clement (Shepherd 8.2) as a leader in the church in Rome to whom he sent a book, who was then to "distribute it to churches in other locations, for that is his commission". Tertullian in fact says he was the second (or third?) bishop/overseer of the church in Rome ordained by no less than Peter himself (Prescription 32). Origen (Comm. John 6.36) says he was the sometime companion of Paul which comports with Phil. 4.3 which suggests Clement is with Paul in Rome. Indeed, what Phil. 4.3 says is that Clement is a co-worker of Paul in the Gospel. It is thus important that we take with absolute seriousness what Clement says about the leadership structure of early Christianity from the time it began right on through the first century. Most scholars date 1 Clement to the last decade of the first century, though it may be from the 80s. It is a letter that reflects that the author knows well Paul's 1 Corinthians and the way the church was structured there, and he is writing a further letter to the same house churches to further correct the ongoing problems there. Here below is the crucial passage of importance for our discussion from Chapter 42 of 1 Clement:
"The apostles were given the gospel for us by the Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. Thus Christ came from God and the apostles from Christ. Both things happened then in an orderly way according to the will of God. When therefore the apostles received his commands and were fully convinced through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and persuaded by the Word of God, they went forth proclaiming the Good News that the Kingdom of God was about to come, brimming with confidence through the Holy Spirit. And as they preached throughout the countryside and in the cities, they appointed the first fruits of their ministries as bishops/overseers and deacons of those who were about to believe, testing them by the Spirit. And this was no recent development. For indeed, bishops/overseers and deacons have been mentioned in writings long before. For thus Scripture says in one place (Isaiah 60.17 LXX) "I will appoint their bishops/overseers in righteousness and their deacons in faith."
Several points are of importance here. Firstly, Clement is perfectly clear that there is a hierarchial leadership structure in the early church which was set in place by Christ himself when he picked the Twelve, and then they and other apostles went out and picked leaders from their earliest converts in various local areas. Clearly, this is a top down structure. Clement ought to have known whether this was a recent notion in his own day in the latter half of the first century, but he quite specifically denies that it was. And if the tradition is correct that he was ordained by Peter in Rome in the 60s, he certainly was in a position to know the truth about this matter going all way back to the 'first apostle' Peter who is indeed the key bridge figure between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the early church. Secondly, Clement believes that the OT prophet Isaiah forsaw such a structure for the eschatological community. Clement here takes the Greek translation of the OT to be Scripture and authoritative in this matter (N.B. the Greek differs some from the Hebrew of Isaiah here). Clement does not assume a radical disjunction between the sort of hierarchial leadership structures found amongst the OT people of God, and that found amongst the NT people of God. Clement does however reflect a period of time when the terms episkopos and presbyteros were closely associated (see 1 Clement 44). That is, all 'overseers' were also elders, but not all elders were also overseers/bishops. What Clement also reflects is the fact that he is thinking in terms of a process of ordination and appointment from apostles to local leaders and so on, and when he uses the terms episkopoi and presbyteroi he is not merely talking about functions (though that is included), he is talked about ongoing roles that some persons were appointed and anointed to carry out in the local church. Among other things, he assumes this is the structure that Paul set up in Corinth as well, as his use of 1 Corinthians throughout 1 Clement makes very clear.
What conclusions should we draw from this important authentic early Christian document from the first century A.D. written by a co-worker of Paul's?
Firstly, the notion that there was no leadership hierarchy in the earliest period of Christian history is an absolute myth. The evidence, both Biblical and extra-Biblical insofar as it discusses such a matter confirms this fact. Secondly, the notion that everyone was called to take up leadership roles in the early church is also a myth. No, there were specific persons called to do this. Thirdly, the hierarchy existed not only in general between the linked house churches, but within them as well, from what we can tell. This is definitely what Clement believes if you read 1 Clement carefully. Fourthly, this sort of structure should not be blamed on the growing pagan influence on the church as time went on. This too is absolutely false. Clement sees it rather as a continuation of the Jewish leadership structures both spoken of and prophesied in the OT. As an associate of both Peter and Paul, Clement was in a position to know what the mind of Peter and Paul was on the issue of leadership structures in a way that we certainly are not.
Ergo, we do not assume such structures are later and pagan developments, any more than the very Jewish Christian author of the Didache did. To the contrary, this is precisely the sort of ordering of the church that the apostles themselves had in mind and put in place, and which Peter believed Christ himself had inaugurated in the first place, when he gave him the keys to the kingdom and the power of binding and loosing in the first place.