The Ecclesiology of the Early Church
The Nature, Origins, and History of Ecclesiology
Ecclesiology is that branch of theology that studies the Church as such. Ecclesiology began in earnest in the sixteenth century, when the Church was compelled to respond to the Protestant Reformers, who taught that Christ founded only an invisible, internal, spiritual Church, and that the visible hierarchy of the Church composed of the pope and the bishops is a purely human institution. For the Reformers, the “real” Church of Christ consists only of those Christians united interiorly by hidden bonds of grace, faith, and charity. Luther, for example, maintained that there are two separable communities that go by the name Christian: “the first, which is natural, basic, essential, and true, we shall call ‘spiritual, internal Christendom.’ The second, which is man-made and external, we shall call ‘physical, external Christendom’” (On the Papacy).
Based on their belief that the true Church is purely an invisible, spiritual reality, the Reformers refused to accept the authority of the pope and the bishops as divinely appointed shepherds and teachers of the faith: “I declare that neither pope, nor bishop, not anyone else, has the right to impose so much as a single syllable of obligation upon a Christian man without his own consent” (Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church). The Reformers also rejected the ministerial priesthood as a man-made institution of the popes, and advocated instead a priesthood common to all Christians. As Luther put it, “Be fully assured that all of us alike are priests, and that we all have the same authority about the Word and the Sacraments” (Babylonian Captivity of the Church). While they differed on particular points of doctrine, the Reformers were united in their belief that the Catholic Church had become corrupt over the centuries and no longer resembled the Church founded by Christ.
As a consequence, Catholic theologians in the aftermath of the Reformation began to produce theological treatises on the nature and structure of the Church itself. Hence, ecclesiology as a distinct theological enterprise was born. While Catholic theologians did not deny the internal, invisible, spiritual bonds uniting the Church, they stressed that which was being denied: the governing and teaching authority of the pope and the bishops, participation in the sacraments, and the external profession of the same Christian faith taught by the Catholic Church. After the polemics of the Reformation died down, however, Catholic theologians began to articulate an ecclesiology that includes both the Church’s visible, external, hierarchical structure and its invisible, spiritual, elements into an integrated whole. This theological work culminated in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in its central ecclesiological document, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium.
While a detailed account of Vatican II’s teaching on the Church in Lumen Gentium is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that the Council teaches that the Church is a supernatural reality composed of divine, transcendent, and salvific elements that are inseparably united to its human, visible, and hierarchical structure. The Council compares the Church to the Incarnation, as a mystery of faith, a supernatural reality, and “one complex reality” composed of both human and divine elements, with both visible and invisible aspects (Lumen Gentium 8). Moreover, the Council teaches that the Church, by her intimate relationship with Christ, “is in the nature of sacrament- a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God, and of unity among all men” (Lumen Gentium 1). Like a sacrament, the Church’s visible dimension, consisting of its teaching, sacraments, and hierarchical structure, is the very means by which it brings about its invisible, interior dimension, namely, the spiritual communion of all its members with God and each other in Christ, united invisibly by grace, faith, charity, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Council further teaches in Lumen Gentium that the Church is the new People of God with a basic social structure composed of the hierarchy (pope, bishops, priests, and deacons) and the Christian lay faithful, each with their own proper vocation and mission. The hierarchy is called to govern, teach, and sanctify the Church, and the laity is called to be the living and holy presence of the Church in the world.
The Ecclesiology of the Early Church
Was the early Church Catholic? To put an even finer point on the question, did the early Church resemble the purely invisible, internal, spiritual Church of the Protestant Reformers? Or did it also include in its essential nature a visible, external, hierarchical structure like that of the Catholic Church, with a pope, bishops, priests, and the like? Because Protestants claim that the Church over the centuries gradually became corrupt, perhaps the best source for finding answers to the question of whether the early Church was Catholic is found in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers, those known as the Apostolic Fathers. The term “Church Fathers” refers to those widely influential Christian writers of the first eight centuries of Christianity, most of them bishops, who are considered the eminent teachers of Christian doctrine. Since the Church Fathers are the “founding fathers” of Christianity, Christians of all stripes consider the witness of the Fathers to be reliable and definitive. The Apostolic Fathers in particular, though, are those Church Fathers in the first two centuries, who were either directly taught by the Apostles or were strongly influenced by the Apostles by being in such close proximity to them. Due to their close contact with the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers are considered especially trustworthy and privileged witnesses to the Christian faith in its earliest stage of development.
St. Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Corinthians
One of the most important Apostolic Fathers is St. Clement of Rome (c. 30 A.D.-c. 100 A.d.). Clement was a prominent figure in the early Church and the third successor to St. Peter as Bishop of Rome, after Linus and Cletus, making him the fourth pope. According to a well-documented tradition, Clement had been taught directly by the Apostles. The most important testimony comes from St. Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons: “This man [Clement], as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes” (Against the Heresies III.3.3).
Clement’s most famous written work is his First Letter to the Corinthians, written sometime during the last decade of the first century (c. 92 A.D.-101 A.D.). THe occasion for Clement’s letter is that some young Christian laymen in Corinth has usurped the role of the priests in presiding over the Eucharistic liturgy. Clement makes clear in his opening address that the Corinthians had asked him to intervene in the matter as the head of the Church in Rome:
The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth. [. . .] Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us; and especially to that shameful and detestable sedition, utterly abhorrent to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy, that your vulnerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved, has suffered grievous injury.(1)
Clement goes on to rebuke the young laymen and exhorts them to repent of their rebellion and submit to the priests in humility and obedience. Clement compares the Church to an army where all are not prefects, tribunes, centurions, captains or the like, “but each one in his own rank performs the things commanded by the king and the generals,” and similarly, compares the Church to a human body with a head and diverse members, where “all work harmoniously together, and are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body” (37).
Clement affirms that the Church is composed of bishops, priests, deacons, and laypeople, and that the order and functions proper to each of them in the Church are fixed by God himself:
It behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest [i.e. the bishop], and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests; and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites [i.e., the deacons]. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen.(40)
As Clement makes clear, the Eucharistic liturgy is not to be performed haphazardly according to the individual participants’ tastes and preferences, but rather pursuant to the order established by Christ. Clement insists that everyone ought to “give thanks to God in his own order [. . .] not going beyond the rule of ministry prescribed to him” (41), and chastises the young men seeking to disrupt this order who thereby “divide and tear in pieces the members of Christ (46).
While Clement’s First KLetter to the Corinthians is not an ecclesiological treatise per se, it does offer an important glimpse into certain aspects of the Church in its earliest stages of development. Clement’s intervention itself, by that very fact, illustrates that the Bishop of Rome, the pope, had from the very beginning a pre-eminent role in governing the Church and ensuring the integrity of its doctrine. Clement, after all, was called upon to exercise his authority as head of the Church in Rome to resolve a doctrinal and disciplinary dispute in the Church in Corinth. Clement’s letter also makes clear that the early Church was not a flattened community of equals, where anyone could perform whatever function he chose, but was a community with a divinely-established hierarchical order where each person exercised his role according to the particular vocation he had received from God. Contrary to Luther, the early Church never considered all Christians alike as priests, but rather insisted only its ordained ministers could preside over the Eucharistic liturgy.
St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Seven Letters
Another important Apostolic Father is St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 A.D.-117 A.D.). Along with his friend and fellow bishop St. Polycarp, Ignatius was reputed to be a disciple of the evangelist St. John, one of the twelve Apostles. In a famous homily praising him, the fourth century Church Father St. John Chrysostom preached that Ignatius “held true converse with the apostles and drank of spiritual foundations [from them]” and that “the hands of the blessed apostles touched his sacred head” to ordain him as bishop of Antioch (Homily on St. Ignatius 1-2). Likewise, Eusebius, in his fourth-century history of the Church, calls Ignatius an “Apostolic man” because of his direct contact with the Apostles, and writes that Ignatius was “chosen bishop of Antioch, second in succession to Peter” (Ecclesiastical History III 36). In fact, Church Father Theodoret in his fifth-century Dialogues writes that Ignatius was ordained bishop of Antioch by no less than St. Peter himself (Dialogues II).
On his journey to martyrdom in Rome, St. Ignatius wrote seven letters (c. 117 A.D.) addressed to six early Christian communities and another to his friend St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor. Ignatius’ chief concern is to preserve the unity of the Church and oppose the heresies just then beginning by exhorting the early Christian communities to honor the hierarchical structure of the Church established by Christ. Ignatius repeatedly implores the Christians in these communities to do everything in harmony with the bishop who presides over the community in the place of God, with the presbyters (i.e., the priests) who stand in the place of the apostles, and with the deacons who have been entrusted with the ministry of Christ:
Flee from divisions as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the council of presbyters as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God.(Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8)
Be eager to do everything in godly harmony, the bishop presiding in the place of God and presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and the deacons, who are especially dear to me, since they have been entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who before the ages was with the Father and appeared at the end of time.(Letter to the Magnesians 6)
It is essential, therefore, that you continue your current practice and do nothing without the bishop, by the subject also to the council of presbyters as to the apostles of Jesus Christ, our hope, in whom we shall be found if we so live. Furthermore, it is necessary that those who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ please everyone in every respect.(Letter to the Trallians 2)
Ignatius is especially concerned that the Christian faithful always act with the approval of their bishop, which he says is effectively acting in obedience to Christ and God the Father:
For when you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, it is evident to me that you are living not in accordance with human standards but in accordance with Jesus Christ.(Letter to the Trallians 2)
Be subject to the bishop and to another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual.(Letter to the Magnesians 13)
Ignatius exhorts the Christian communities to “do nothing without the bishop” in order to preserve the unity in the Church established by Christ (Letter to the Phildelphians 7; Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8). Ignatius even goes so far as to call God the Father “the bishop of all” (Letter to the Magnesians 3), as if to stress a corresponding authority residing in the bishop, who has been appointed by God to oversee the Christian community. In one letter, Ignatius compares the harmony that ought to exist between the priests and their presiding bishop to strings perfectly fitted to a harp, and then appeals to all the Christian faithful to “join the chorus” so that they might “sing in unison with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father” (Letter to the Ephesians 4).
Notably, Ignatius shows extraordinary deference and honor in his address to the Church of Rome, which he calls “worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father” (Letter to the Romans, Opening Salutation). While it is not a full-fledged defense of the pope’s supreme authority over the whole Church, it certainly coheres with other more explicit accounts in the Church Fathers of papal primacy over the whole Church.
What can we learn from Ignatius’ letters about the nature and structure of the Church? Ignatius makes clear in his letters that the hierarchical structure of the Church was established by Christ and willed by God: one bishop over a local Church, supported by his priests and assisted by his deacons. Ignatius is emphatic that the bishop is the divinely-appointed authority and source of unity in each local Church, so that nothing in the Church should be done without the approval of the bishop. Contrary to Luther’s declaration that “neither pope, not bishop, nor anyone else” can impose any obligation upon any Christian without their consent, Ignatius stressed that when it comes to the affairs of the Church, the Christian faithful are strictly obliged to follow their bishop as God’s duly-appointed representative over them.
St. Ireanaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies
Another important early Church Father is St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 125 A.D.-202 A.D.). Although St. Irenaeus is not strictly speaking an Apostolic Father, he is only one generation removed from the Apostles. Irenaeus wrote that as a youth, he was taught the apostolic faith by the St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who had been taught by St. John the Apostle and Evangelist.
St. Irenaeus’s most famous work is Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.), in which he outlines in five books the authentic Christian faith received from the Apostles over against the Gnostic heresies. Irenaeus asserts repeatedly in Against Heresies that the faith he is presenting is that which the Church received from the Apostles. Contrary to the Gnostic heretics who claimed to possess a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, Irenaeus teaches that the bishops were established by the Apostles as heads of the Churches and as their successors to keep intact the true faith:
Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church- those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father.(Against Heresies IV.26)
While Irenaeus acknowledge that it would be possible in principle to demonstrate a continuous, unbroken line of succession from the Apostles to the bishops of each local Church, he dispense with their task except for showing the line of bishops of “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” (III.3). Above all else, Irenaeus asserts that the teaching of doctrine by all the Christian Churches must correspond with what is taught by the Church of Rome:
For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.(III. 3)
Irenaeus then enumerates the unbroken succession of bishops of Rome after Peter, from Linus down to the bishop of Rome in his own time, and concludes that it is above all else the bishops of Rome (i.e., the popes) who preserve and safeguard the one true apostolic faith:
In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come to us. And this is the most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.(III. 3)
According to Irenaeus, the apostolic tradition preserved in the Church of Rome is the standard of orthodoxy against which all other Christian teaching is measured.
Letter to Diognetus
Another significant text from the time of the Apostolic Fathers that reveals important details about the makeup of the early Church is the anonymously penned Letter to Diognetus. Although the exact date of composition is unknown, the authors speaks of Christianity as being something fresh and new in the world. Most scholars estimate it was written sometime in the second century when Christians were being persecuted. Calling himself “a disciple of the Apostles,” the author writes a brief account of the Christian faith to a man named Diognetus, a pagan who had apparently been posing questions to him about the Christian religion. Unlike other writings of the era, the Letter to Diognetus is not concerned about the governing structure of inner life of the Church, but instead has an overtly apologetic and missionary aim.
One of the chief concerns of the letter is to explain how ordinary Christians stand in relation to the world. In making the case for Christianity, the author is particularly sensitive to the widespread perception of the Greco-Roman world that Christians were foreigners who posed a threat to society. He insists Christians are no different from their pagan countrymen by race, ethnicity, language, life-style or culture, nor are they indiscriminately opposed to pagan society and culture. Rather, Christians are fully engaged in the social and civic life of the countries within which they reside. What distinguishes Christians from non-believers, however, is the supernatural character of their way of life that creates a somewhat paradoxical relationship with the world:
They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every country is their Fatherland, and every Fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.(Letter to Diognetus 5)
The author makes clear to Diognetus that Christians follow a manner of life that transcends and often opposes the beliefs and practices of their pagan counterparts. Christians reject the decadence and immorality of the culture in which they live, that is, the sins of hatred, idolatry, vanity, adultery, and infanticide that characterized pagan societies. Even though they live in the world, they are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God. As the author puts it, “Christians dwell in the world, but are no of the world” (6).
The author of the Letter to Diognetus compares the life of Christians in the world to the soul that animates the body: “In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world” (6). Like the soul in the body, Christians are dispersed throughout the world, exercise a hidden influence upon it, and give it new life and stability by their way of life and witness. Even though the world responds with hatred, Christians loves the world like the soul “loves” the flesh that rebel against it. The persecution of Christians in a mysterious way strengthens the Church and leads to its growth and increase, much like ascetic practices serve to strengthen the soul. Christians in the world have a divinely appointed vocation and mission to be God’s active agents that change the world from within: “Such is the important position to which God has appointed them, and it is not right for them to decline it” (6).
The Letter to Diognetus is an invaluable source for understanding the Christian lay vocation in the Church because it articulates so well the ordinary Christian’s relationship to the world. It balances what we learn about the Church from St. Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Corinithians, St. Ignatius of Antioch’s seven letters, and St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, because it shows that the Christian lay faithful have their own unique and positive mission given to them by God that differs from that of the clergy: the Christian layman is in the world, not of the world, but nevertheless for the world. The Christian layman’s approach to the world is neither total rejection nor uncritical acceptance. Rather, he is called by God to be a holy presence and witness in the midst of the world, thereby changing it from within.
The Early Church Was the Catholic Church
What conclusions can be drawn from their survey of four Apostolic Fathers? Whole none offer a systematic treatise on the Church from their writings. They present a Church with a divinely established hierarchical order of bishops, priests, and deacons who minister to the rest of the faithful. They also indicate that the bishops were the successors to the apostles and has a preeminent role in governing the Christian faithful, safeguarding the apostolic tradition, teaching the faith, and celebrating the Eucharist. It is evident that the bishop of the Church in Rome had a unique role in preserving the Christian faith received from the Apostles and, when that faith was compromised, in intervening to correct doctrinal errors. It is also clear that all Christians were not considered equally to be priests with all the same rights in the Church, but only those ordained to the priesthood could legitimately preside over the Eucharistic liturgy. Even so, it is evident that the non-office-bearing Christians have their own proper mission to be the Church’s living witness and sanctifying presence in the world. In short, even the earliest Christian writings by the Apostolic Fathers lead to the inescapable conclusion: the early Church was the Catholic Church.
Dr. Tamisiea is the Executive Director of the St. Philip Institute of Catechesis and Evangelization in the Diocese of Tyler. Dr. Tamisiea obtained his B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, and M.A. and Ph.D. in Theology from Ave Maria University, FL. Dr. Tamisiea lives in Tyler, Texas, with his wife, Seana, and six children.