CHAPTER 1. PRIESTHOOD IN THE EARLY CHURCH
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
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.
THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE PATRIARCHATES
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.
REASONS FOR CENTRALIZATION OF POWERS IN PATRIARCHS
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
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
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