As mentioned above, many Protestant churches do not have the same kind of hierarchy that the Orthodox Church has and say that the threefold orders of bishop, priest and deacon is not found in the New Testament.
It is true that we do not find these three orders in exactly the same form we have today. However, we can see the beginnings of such a hierarchy.
Many people think that Christianity consists of a person or individual and Jesus. Of course, Christians have to have a personal relationship with Jesus, but Christianity is not a religion of rugged individualists. We know this because Jesus Christ chose twelve apostles to preach the Gospel and govern His church. It is no accident that Christ has chosen precisely twelve apostles. Israel had twelve tribes, several of which have disappeared in the course of time. However, it was believed that they would come together at the end of time when the Messiah came. Jesus Christ chose the twelve apostles to judge these tribes.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28)
The word Apostle comes from a Greek word meaning to send. Christ sends the apostles to preach the Gospel.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 2819-20)
As we see, Christ clearly left a structure to govern the church.
In the rest of the New Testament, after the Gospels we see the development of the hierarchy as we see the apostles choose people who would govern the church after them. We can see the apostles ordaining bishops, priest and deacons with the layon on of hands with prayer. For example, in the Book of Acts we see the apostles ordaining deacons.
“These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.” (Acts 6:6)
The background is this: In the early Jerusalem Church food was distributed to the poor widows. However, the Greek speaking Christians said their widows were being neglected by the Hebrew Christians, so the apostles ordained men to serve the Greek speakers.
The exact word “deacon” is not found here, but deacon means “one who serves” and the men chosen here were ordained to help with the distribution of food to the poor. We do not find the deacons serving Liturgy in this passage. But we do see the beginning of the order of deacons here.
As we know, St. Paul was directly commissioned by the risen Christ Himself. However. St. Paul did not go off by himself and create his own kind of Christianity. Rather he made sure that what he was teaching agreed with the teaching of the other apostles. Moreover, we see St. Paul being ordained.
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2-3)
We see St. Paul ordaining his disciple Timothy.
“Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands…” (2 Timothy 1:6)
It must be said that we do not see a clear distinction between bishops and elders, presbyters in the New Testament. The Greek word “episcopos” means basically “overseer”. The Greek word presbyteros, from which we get our word priest basically means “elder”. It seems that these terms were used interchangeably in certain places. For example, in Acts 20:17 we see elder, presbyter, priest and 20: 28, overseer, bishop. Or in Philippians 1:3 Paul addresses the bishops and deacons.
In the 1st and 2nd century documents outside the New Testament we see these orders becoming more developed. By the early 2nd century, the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch we see the threefold hierarchy of bishop, priest and deacon in the contemporary sense. The fact that the threefold hierarchy was so widespread by the early 2nd century with no opposition shows that the early church saw the emerging hierarchy we in full continuity with the bishops, presbyters and deacons of the New Testament, ordained by the apostles, ordained by Christ.
The Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and some others is a hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons who conduct the services, preach and so on. So the hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons are the three orders of the church. Actually, the laity are also an order of the church without which there would be no church, but discussion of this issue will be left aside for now.
Of course, we know that in addition to the 3 above–mentioned clergy there are also archbishops, metropolitans and patriarchs. However, these all belong to the order of bishops. An archbishop is usually the bishop of a large diocese, and an archbishop can be an honorific title. Our bishop is Archbishop Michael, leader of the Diocese of New York, consisting of the states of New York and New Jersey. A metropolitan (the word comes from the Greek word for a large city) is, in principle, a bishop who in some sense the superior of the bishops of smaller dioceses. In our Orthodox Church in America, the highest ranking bishop is Metropolitan Tikhon, Archbishop of Washington and Metropolitan of All-America and Canada. A Patriarch is the leader of an autocephalous church. In some churches the Metropolitan is the leading bishop, in others an archbishop is the leading bishop and in some others a patriarch. It is important to realized that archbishops, metropolitans and patriarchs are all members of one order of bishops. A metropolitan, archbishop or patriarch cannot go to another bishop’s diocese without the permission of that bishop.
In the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to the above-mentioned orders of the clergy, there are the cardinals and the pope. The cardinals are “princes of the church” who help and advise the pope. Interestingly enough, cardinals are usually bishops. Theoretically a priest, deacon or even a layman or lay woman could become a cardinal.
The Pope is a different matter. In the Roman Catholic Church the Pope is the superior of all other bishops, priests and laity. The Pope is infallible in certain circumstances. In other words, if he is speaking on a matter of faith and morals with full authority he can declare a dogma which binds every member of the Roman Catholic Church. In practice, the Popes have exercised infallibility only a few times, but he does possess this authority.
The Pope also has immediate jurisdiction over every person, clergy or lay, in the Catholic Church. For example, the Pope can appoint or depose every member of the Catholic Church. Of course, we as Orthodox reject this.
Before the schism in 1054, the Pope was honored as “first among equals”. This is not because Christ gave the Pope any special powers, but rather because the Pope was the bishop of Rome, the first city of the Roman Empire. When Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire, the Patriarch of Constantinople became the second Patriarch of the Roman Empire.
Having spoken of the four orders of the Church, bishop, priest, deacon and the laity, we have to realize that many Protestant Churches completely reject the notion of a hierarchy. When they read the New Testament, they say that they don’t see such a hierarchy. Many of these churches have the kind of hierarchy the Orthodox church has. They may have pastors, deacons, elders or something similar. They strongly oppose the kind of hierarchy we have. However, we will see the biblical basis of our hierarchy in the next article.
St. Paul is one of the most important figures in the early church. He was born a
Roman citizen. It is important to remember that not all the inhabitants of the Roman
empire were Roman citizens. Roman citizens had certain important rights that non-
citizens did not have. Roman citizenship could be granted by the government, it could
be bought, or it could be inherited. St. Paul was born a citizen in the city of Tarsus. He
was also known as Saul. Many Jews had two names, a Hebrew one (Saul) and a
Greco-Roman name (Paul). Tarsus was a fairly large city, an important trading center.
It was a very diverse city so young Paul had contact with people of different religions,
nationalities and languages.
As a young man St. Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study with the famous rabbi
Gamaliel, and he became a rabbi. St. Paul was a Pharisee. As he says in Acts 23:6,
“….”Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the
resurrection of the dead I am on trial.”
The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism. They tried to live strictly according to
the Jewish law.
At first St. Paul was a persecutor of Christians. He first appears in the Bible in the
Book of Acts. He is present when St. Stephen was stoned to death.
“Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their
garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. “(Acts 7:58)
When he gets older he becomes a violent persecutor of Christians.
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the
high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found
any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts
However, as he is riding to Damascus the risen Christ appears to him:
“Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven
flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul,
Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said,”I am
Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what
you are to do.” (Acts 9:3-6)
It is important to understand that after Jesus appeared to Paul, he did not go on to form
his own idiosyncratic religion. Rather he went to a Christian, Ananias, who taught him
the basics of Christianity and baptized him. Shortly thereafter, St. Paul began to preach
the Gospels to the Jews. However, as the majority of the Jews would not accept Jesus.
St. Paul directed his preaching to the Gentiles (non-Jews).
“But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted
what was spoken by Paul, and reviled him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly,
saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you
thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the
Gentiles.” (Acts 13:45-46)
One of the more important aspects of Paul’s Christianity was his attitude to the
Jewish law. As stated earlier, St. Paul was a Pharisee, and the most important aspect of
being a Pharisee was the strict observance of the Law. St. Paul, before he became a
Christian, tried very hard to observe the Law, but always felt he wasn’t succeeding. He
was always frustrated. So, when he became a Christian he realized that one is not save
by observing the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. St. Paul’s letter to the Roans and
Galatians deal with this issue.
This attitude towards the Law is rooted in Jesus’ attitude. We remember that
many times He was accused of breaking the Law. For example, of violating the law
against working on the Sabbath or the food laws. As Christ said
“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27)
Also, we have to remember the controversy over the Law and gentile believers.
In other words, when the Apostles began to preach to the Gentiles, some of the Jewish
Christians thought that the Gentiles who converted to Christianity also had to observe
the Jewish Law, that to become Christian one had to become a Jew first. This
controversy roiled the early church. If a convert to Christianity had to become Jewish
too, then Christianity would simply have been a Jewish sect. However, the apostles met
in Jerusalem in the 1st church council, decided that gentile converts did not have to
observe the Law.
“Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the
disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that
we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Therefore, my
judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should
write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is
strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:10-11, 19-20)
Traditionally, St. Paul is considered to be author of thirteen letters. Some
scholars deny the direct Pauline authorship of some of the works, but St. Paul’s
teaching is seen in all. Also, we should mention that about half of the Book of Acts is
about St. Paul, his conversion, his missionary journeys, the persecution he suffered and
finally his arrest and journey to Rome for trial.
One thing that differentiates the Fourth Gospel from the other three is that in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Christ speaks in short, pithy sayings such as “love your neighbor”, “turn the other cheek” and so on. He also speaks in parables such as the “Good Samaritan” and “the Prodigal Son”.
But we see very little of this in St. John’s Gospel. In this Gospel Christ delivers long theological speeches. Because of this some critics say that St. John’s Gospel is not historically accurate. However, there are some things to consider. In the first three (synoptic) Gospels, Christ is preaching for the most part, in Galilee. Galilee was ethnically mixed with Jews, Greeks and others living together. The overall level of education was somewhat lower in Galilee. Christ frequently spoke to simple, uneducated people. For this reason, Christ did not give long, theological discourses, but he uses simple language, capable of being understood by the uneducated but with profound meaning for all. Much of St. John’s Gospel is set in Judea, often in Jerusalem. Judea was more solidly Jewish with many highly educated Jewish leaders. Also, in much of the Fourth Gospel Christ is giving directions to the apostles who were able to understand Jesus in a more sophisticated way.
But there is something else to take into consideration. By the time St. John wrote his Gospel he had spent close to sixty years meditating on Christ’s words and deeds, preaching these words and deeds before various audiences. And so Christ’s words became intermixed with St. John’s words. Sometimes we don’t know where Christ’s words end and St. John’s words begin. This should not surprise us. For example, priests preach about the Gospel frequently. They quote Christ’s words and sometimes paraphrase or summarize Christ’s words in various contexts. Hopefully priests are not contradicting or ignoring Christ’s words, but rather preaching them in various situations.
There is yet one other thing we have to take into account. St. John may not have literally put pen to paper in the writing of this Gospel. It is very possible that St. John’s words were written by one or many of his disciples. In many icons of St. John, we see him speaking and his disciple Prochorus writing things down. Modern scholars propose that there was a school of St. John’s disciples for putting his words on paper.
We are tempted to think that many of Christ’s words were distorted through this process. But, we are thinking in a modern manner. Scholars have shown that in our modern situations, with words available in print or through electronic media, our ability to memorize things has slowed down. However, in pre-literate cultures where much transmission of knowledge was verbal, memory as more fully developed. Studies have shown that story tellers in non-literate cultures can memorize and repeat very long stories, histories, plays and so on. Furthermore, in Judaism in the early centuries, disciples of a rabbi were required to memorize and accurately repeat the rabbi’s teachings. Jesus’ disciples, although they did not have much formal education, probably could accurately repeat long narratives of Christ’s words and deeds.
Finally, for Orthodox we do not need to be overly concerned about detailed questions about authority or dating of the Bible. The Bible is the book of the Church, which witnesses to the truth of the Bible. Details may vary, but the Bible is God’s word for humanity.