Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5



The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles document the fact that priestly ministry in the early Christian Church consisted of Apostles, Prophets, Presbyters, Evangelists, Deacons etc. Chief among these hierarchs were the Apostles themselves. They were "called" to the ministry by the Lord (Mark 3:13) and they were the foundations of the Church. (Eph. 4:11, Rev. 21:14) Their major commission was to proclaim the gospel of salvation of Jesus Christ to all people. Along with this they were given the authority to heal the sick, to raise the dead and the authority to bind and loose (Matt. 10:2, 9; 16, 19, 18:8). The Apostles respected each other and held consultation together in running the administration of the Church. (Acts 1:15-25; 6:1-6; 15:20-24). Peter, or for that matter, any apostle, did not have any authority over other apostles. There is no evidence to show that Jesus gave any special authority to any one apostle which was not given to others.

The Prophets in the early Church possessed special gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Eph. 20; 3:5; 1 Cor. 12:25, 29; 2:Pet 1:21). However with the passage of time, false prophets appeared in large numbers and ultimately, there were no more prophets in the Church. (This development was very much in agreement with what St. Paul had warned against prophecy in 1 Cor. 13:8). Deacons were elected and given special duties to perform (Acts 6:1-6).

The terms 'pastor', 'presbyter' and 'bishop' (Episcopos) have been used interchangeably to refer to priests and bishops (Acts 15:6; 20:17, Titus 1:5; 1 Tim 4:14; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1) which indicates that there existed no strict demarcation in the very early Church. When the apostles established Churches in various places, they chose suitable individuals and appointed them as priests and bishops. Anyway, the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon is clearly seen by the end of the first century. The Epistles of Clement of Rome (80 A.D), St. Ignatius of Antioch (110 A.D) and the early book, "Teaching of the apostles" (Didache) 140 A.D., mention about the three hierarchial positions. The three-fold ministry became widely prevalent in the universal church by the 3rd century. The duties and powers of these three positions were also specified in course of time.


    • During very early days, the Gospel was preached in important cities. Slowly Churches were established in cities; and from cities the evangelists went to nearby places to spread the Gospel. Thus communities of believers were formed in places around cities. These smaller congregations were administered by the bishop of the city. Later on, as the number of parish churches increased, all the parishes in each region came under the supervision and administration of the bishop. Before long, these conglomeration of parish churches formed a diocese and the bishop became a "diocesan bishop". It was very difficult to organize and administer dioceses before the time of Emperor Constantine, when there were large scale persecutions. In the political sphere, it was Diocletian who for the first time introduced the idea of dioceses as administrative units under the empire. At about 5th century A.D, the Church in the Roman Empire also used the 'Diocese' type of administrative units. In a way, one can say that this was an instance of liberal copying by the Church from the administrative set up of the state.


    • The general status and authority of the bishops increased during the reign of Emperor Constantine. The bishops of the cities with their improved status and importance received the title of 'Metropolitan'. To begin with, this appellation was given

      the bishops of the metropolitan cities in the Roman Empire. Their power and authority were similar to those of the administrators of the empire. By the 5th century, the Church had many bishops and also metropolitans in all major cities in the Roman Empire. In later times these ecclesiastical hierarchs exercised civil authority as well.


    • For the sake of administrative convenience, the empire was divided into civil provinces. The Metropolitan of the Provincial Capital became the leader and overseer of all other Metropolitans of the province. Thus the Metropolitans of the major cities of the Roman Empire, ie. Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch got greater powers than all other Metropolitans. The churches and Metropolitans in these major cities assumed greater authority than others, due to factors like historical significance, political importance, social status and Christian antiquity. In earlier days, these hierarchs of the major cities were called "Metropolitans" or "Chief Metropolitans". During the course of time, these hierarchs were endowed with religious and secular authority over the regions around their headquarters. The Council of Nicea (325 A.D) approved these positions and accepted them as primates of the respective regions. The sixth canon (decree) of the Council of Nicea reads:

        let the ancient custom in Egypt, Libya and Peutapolis let the ancient custom in Egypt, Libya and Peutapolis in all these, since the like is customary for the bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and other provinces the Church can retain these privileges".

        There is a misunderstanding in some quarters that the Council of Nicea had established four patriarchal sees or thrones in 325 A.D. It must be noted that the Nicene Council assembled not to deliberate on thrones or Patriarchates, but to analyse and condemn the Arian heresy. After deciding on the Arian controversy, there was deliberation and resolution on the general administrative structure that the Church should have. The sixth decree of the Council was the result of these deliberations. There is absolutely no mention of terms like 'Patriarch or Catholicos' for that matter in the Council decrees. The same Council also confirmed the arrangement made in the Eastern Church (Catholicate).

        The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) delegated the same position and authority to the bishop of Constantinople and raised it to Metropolitanate. The third canon of this Council says: "the bishop of Constantinople shall have precedence after the bishop of Rome, for, his seat is the 'New Rome'".

        Thus, by the end of the 4th century, there evolved four primates within the Roman Empire. They came to be known as Patriarchates during the fifth century.


      • The Council of Nicea confirmed the positions of Primates in Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) attributed the same position to the bishop of Constantinople ('The New Rome'). The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) conferred the same little to the bishop of Jerusalem. In this way, there were five 'patriarchates' in the 5th century. During the early days of this arrangement, Alexandria pnd Rome were considered equals. Of these, it was the Patriarchate of Alexandria which evolved first. By the second half of the fifth century, the bishop of Rome assumed the title "Pope". The see of Alexandria could not develop further due to the theological controversies and internal dissensions which raged in the 5th century. However the See of Constantinople became more powerful with state support; and situation led to unnecessary rivalry and tension between Alexandria and Constantinople. The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) was the result of these rivalries. An immediate fallout of this Council was the division in the Church. The Eastern Churches themselves were divided into two - one accepting the Council and the other rejecting it. Corresponding to these opposite positions, there were rival primates in different Christian centres like Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem etc.

        The Patriarchates are not seen standing united since the 5th century. Just as Patriarchates evolved in the Roman Empire, Patriarchates arose outside the Empire supported by political and religious compulsions. patriarchates in Bulgaria (917 AD); in Serbia (1346 A.D); the Russia (1589 AD), in Romania ((1925 AD) and Ethiopia (1959 A.D) are important cases in point.

        The term 'Patriarch' is of Greek origin and it means 'Chief father'. It signifies the person who is the head of a family, race or clan or a national church. Church hierarchs came to be called by this title from the 5th century. They also assumed special powers and responsibilities. These Patriarchs claimed that they had authority over the bishops of their neighbourhood; and these claims were backed by the political situations. From the sixth century onwards, centralization of ecclesiastical authority was being stabilized. During the middle ages, this process reached its peak. The patriarchs started claiming that their authority extended beyond their immediate neighbourhood, in the context of the divisions in the Church; and this led to quarrels and dissensions. After the middle ages the vast authority of the Patriarchs began to dwindle, mostly due to political reasons.


    • The supporters and sponsors of the Patriarchates identify four reasons why the Patriarchates became significant.

    • (a) There was a realization in the "Patriarchal regions" that
    • the Church there was established by the Apostles themselves or some evangelist close to the apostles. Eg:- the claim by the Roman Church that it was founded by apostles Peter and Paul - the claim by the Coptic Church that the founder of their Church is St. Mark, who was the disciple of Peter and Paul.

    • (b) Churches in major cities were established by the Apostles
    • or by their disciples. As the Church spread to the neighbouring places, naturally, the city Churches claimed that they had authority over the local or regional Churches in matters of faith and administration. This claim was consciously developed with the passage of time. Besides, the "Mother" churches in the cities claimed that the "daughter" churches came into being as a result of the evangelistic work of city churches.

    • (c) In the Churches founded by Apostles, the successor -
    • bishops had an importance as having "Apostolic succession" and this increased their historical significance too.

    • (d) The cities where these metropolitans had their headquarters
    • had political, geographical and cultural significance. For instance, Rome was the capital of the Empire and the bishop of Rome assumed more powers and status. Later he also claimed the succession of St. Peter and St. Paul and thus more power than others. Others in some way had to acknowledge it. Similar reasons could be identified behind the development of the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch. The Council of Constantinople conferred the Patriarchal position to the bishop of Constantinople, mainly due to the political importance of the city. The third canon of the Council of Constantinople stipulates that the bishop of Constantinople must have precedence, since the city is the 'New Rome', ie, the capital of the Empire.


    • The term 'Catholicos' comes from two Greek words 'Kath' and 'Holicos', meaning 'general primate', or 'general vicar'. In the Roman Empire this was the title of an officer who held independent charge of a large geographical region. The officer in charge of the treasury was also given this title. Within the Roman Empire, Church primates were known as 'Patriarchs' and not 'Catholicos', may be because it was felt that the title of a secular officer did not fit a Church leader. But this title was widely used in Churches outside the Empire. Thus primates of Churches in Armenia, Persia and Georgia came to be known as 'Catholicos'. Also it may be to show that these Churches were totally independent, just as the government official with the same title in the Empire exercised independent charge over a large area.


    • The title and position of 'Maphrian' is available only in the West Syrian tradition. This term is derived from the root word pharoh which means 'to bear fruit' or 'to increase'. Thus 'Maphrian' is 'one who gives out fruit' or 'one who causes to increase'.

      In the Persian Empire, there lived a group of Christians who accepted the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch, who was the leader of the West Syrian Church community. The Patriarch appointed a senior Metropolitan in the 7th century as the religious head of these 'Antiochenes', and he came to be known as 'Maphrian'. This was not an independent ecclesiastical position, but existed under the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch. However as different from the Maphrianate, Patriarchate and Catholicate were independent institutions. Never did the Patriarch come under the authority of another Patriarch, similarly never was the Catholicos under the authority of another Catholicos or Patriarch. Thus the Maphrianate always remained under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch.

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