Tuesday, July 10, 2018
A History Lesson, Part 3
The church in Rome received honor from all Christians for several reasons. First, Rome was the capital of the empire, and known as the “Eternal City.” Secondly, it was the largest and wealthiest church in the western part of the empire, and it was known for its orthodoxy and charity. Thirdly, even in persecution the Roman congregation grew quickly in numbers so that by the middle of the third century it numbered about 30,000. This size gave it great influence. Fourth, early Christian writers, beginning in the second century, referred to Peter and Paul as the founders of the Roman church and that the bishops there were their successors, which was important in combating the Gnostic heresies.
Even though Rome had honor among the church, it had no more authority than any other church, and if the Roman bishop was in error, other bishops felt no compunction about disagreeing with him. Before Constantine, there is no evidence that the bishop of Rome exercised any authority outside of Rome, even though his position was accorded honor.
Rome’s influence grew as “part of the increasingly complex church structure emerging in the third and fourth centuries. … Councils arose when churches in various areas began sending their pastors (or bishops) to meetings to discuss common problems. These were at first irregular, but during the third century these provincial councils began to meet annually. In theory, the bishops from the churches were all equal, but in practice this was seldom the case. The pastors of the churches established by the apostles possessed an informal spiritual prestige, and the bishops from the larger cities exercised authority in certain matters over the pastors from smaller towns. As the church grew it adopted…the structure of the empire. This meant that the provincial town of the empire became the episcopal town of the church. Above the provinces in the empire was the metropolis, so bishops in these larger cities soon supervised the bishops in the provinces in that area. Finally, the empire was divided into several major regions, so within the church, people came to think of the church at Rome exercising authority in Italy, Carthage in North Africa, Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and so on. As the churches within the province thrust out into the countryside, usually through a preaching tour of the bishop, other churches were established to meet the needs of the converts. At first these churches were cared for by clergy sent out from the city. Ministers who served them, however, were not bishops. They were called “priests” from presbyter, the Greek word for “elder.” These priests in the country parishes were consecrated and controlled by the city bishop…. Thus, as the fourth century began [AD 300], the catholic churches were establishing general policies by regular regional councils of bishops and handling day-to-day affairs under the oversight of bishops in each area.” (Shelly, pp.134-135)
Notice during this time, the change as to how church leadership was defined. Remember, in the New Testament the office of presbyter (Greek for elder), was also known as an overseer (Greek episkopos - English “bishop”), as well as “pastor” (Latin for “shepherd“). But now that there is a hierarchy being established, presbyter has become “priest” and the head of a city is now a bishop - an “overseer” of the lower level, local pastors.
In the next episode, we will look at what happened to the Church after Constantine converted to Christianity.