The Orthodox Faith – The New Testament – Church History (5b)

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.

Fr. John