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Biblical terms for ministry

OT terms.

NT terms.

When we turn to the NT, we are struck immediately by the obliteration of the OT distinction between professional and non-professional religious service, for here sacerdotalism has yielded to a universal priesthood constituted by Christ and shared alike by all who are united to Him in the bonds of a living faith (Phil 2:17; 1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:5, 6; 5:10; 20:6). Since there is no longer any elite priestly caste, but ministry is essentially and equally the privileged vocation of all, priestly language generally is applied to the body of believers as a whole.

The NT employs a variety of terms in connection with differing types and functions of ministry, both general and particular. Although each term has its own special shade of meaning, there is considerable overlapping in usage, so that even from a single point of view any number of these terms may be used to designate a particular ministration, or the one who performs it.

Christ and ministry

Christ the pattern for ministry.

Christian ministry in all of its modes and manifestations must be traced ultimately to the ministry of Christ. From the outset the Church perceived that the public career of Jesus is most aptly described by the term “ministry,” and it is within this framework that the Gospel records in their entirety are set. The reference to Jesus in prayer by the Early Church as the “holy servant” of God (Acts 4:27, 30) recalls the prophetic description of the Messiah as the “Servant of Yahweh,” whose self-sacrificing career fulfills God’s redemptive purpose for His people (Isa 40-66; Zech 3:8-10). The angel who revealed Jesus’ approaching birth to Joseph declared that His essential work would be the unique ministry of saving His people from their sins (Matt 1:21). Paul conceives of the Incarnation as Christ’s vesting Himself in the form of a slave (Phil 2:7).

Ministry describes the whole range of Jesus’ Messianic activities: preaching, teaching, various types of miracles, including healing the sick and raising the dead, forgiveness of sins, institution of the sacraments, etc. It extends even further to include His passion and death (Mark 10:45). So far from being an innovation or disfigurement, the cross is of a piece with the preceding ministry, the scandalous yet crowning consummation which invests His Messianic career with ultimate and eternal significance. His whole service on behalf of sinful and suffering humanity is telescoped in His sacrificial death. The Servant-Messiah mounts the throne of universal empire by laying down His life as a ransom for the citizens of His kingdom.

This perfect example of humble, self-denying service becomes, in turn, the norm and pattern for all of Christ’s followers whom He calls to share His own destiny. Discipleship is service (John 12:26; cf. Acts 20:18-35; Rom 12:1; 2 Cor 3-7). As the Father sent the Son into the world for ministry, so the Son sends His followers into the same world for ministry (John 17:18; 20:21). Whereas the world calculates greatness on the scale of lordly dominion and authority, the only greatness Christ recognizes in His kingdom is lowliness of service. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43, 44). The point is not that service is the avenue to honor; service is itself honor.

The continuation of Christ’s ministry.

The ministry of Christ did not terminate abruptly with the completion of His earthly career in the Resurrection and Ascension. The NT indicates its continuation along two different but parallel lines.

There is, first, His ministry in heaven where He rules over all things for His Church (Eph 1:20-23), represents and intercedes for His people as their priest before the throne of God (Heb 7:25; 1 John 2:2), and is preparing a place for them to dwell with Him forever (John 14:1-3).

It should not be assumed, however, that this continuing ministry in the Church is wholly identical with Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and Judea two thousand years ago. That ministry was unique and formative, the single root from which the continuing ministry has sprung and to which it must ever return for its energy and dynamic. Through its ongoing service the Church communicates to each new generation of men the saving grace first released through the life, death and resurrection of the Servant-Messiah. It does so only as the organic instrument of the living Lord who in the Spirit is ever present with and within His body.

The Church, then, is absorbed into the ministry of Christ. This is to say that ministry is the privilege and responsibility, not of an elite corps of ecclesiastical dignitaries, but belongs equally and alike to every member of Christ’s body. No one can share in authentic Christian ministry unless by faith he first lays hold for himself on the saving benefits of Christ’s own ministry. The moment a man does that there falls upon him the solemn, binding obligation of helping to advance God’s gracious design in Christ to earth’s outmost frontiers.

Christian discipleship is ministry. The accomplishment of God’s purpose for the world in Christ is never to be construed as itself necessitating the ministry of the Church and its individual members. “The necessity of the Church’s ministry is the necessity of its incorporation into Christ, not its indispensability for the fulfillment of the divine purpose” (G. W. Bromiley, Christian Ministry, p. 27). Only Christ is the true Minister, and His ministry alone is original, ultimate, indispensable.

The nature and purpose of ministry

Ministry as mission.

Ministry as service.

Ministry as priesthood.

Christian ministry further has a priestly character and function. It is hardly accidental that the NT, while retaining the term “priest” (ἱερεύς, G2636) for Jewish and pagan priests, nowhere applies this term to any single class of Christian ministers. The only priests so designated by the NT are the saints, all believers in Christ (1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). Herein lies a fundamental distinction between Christianity and ancient pagan cults and one of the greatest spiritual advances of the Christian dispensation over the OT. There is only one priesthood, that of Christ Himself, and He shares it equally with all the members of His body. It is a corporate rather than an individual possession. In their priestly ministrations individual Christians function as representatives of the whole community and on its behalf.

Equally significant is the deliberate restraint with which the NT applies sacrificial language to Christian ministry. As priests, believers offer sacrifices of praise (Heb 13:15), of service (Phil 2:17; Heb 13:16), and of self-dedication (Rom 12:1), but never do they offer sacrifices for sin. The solitary sacrifice for sin which the NT allows is the self-sacrifice of Christ, offered once for all (Heb 10:12, 26ff.). It is only by means of the great Head of the Church that the union with the all-meritorious sacrifice of lesser sacrifices of worship and service offered by the members of Christ’s body are rendered acceptable to God. The priestly and sacrificial system of the OT stands forever abrogated by the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ in which it has been perfectly fulfilled (Heb 5:1-10).

The purpose of ministry.

Christian ministry, like all creation, is intended primarily for the glory of God (1 Pet 4:10, 11). To achieve this end it serves a dual purpose among men. In relation to the unbelieving world, Christian ministry, even in its humanitarian expressions, is essentially evangelistic and missionary, looking to the numerical and geographical expansion of the body of Christ, until in its human composition it is complete.

Spiritual gifts and ministry

The primacy of the Holy Spirit in ministry.

The charismatic character of ministry.

The NT identifies all forms of ministry as divine “gifts” (χάρισμα, G5922, “grace-gift”) of the ascended Lord who bestows them on the Church through His Spirit (Eph 4:7-12). These gifts, which are wholly of grace—the same grace which is the source of the believer’s justification—display the following characteristics:


Possession of a supernatural endowment of the Spirit is indispensable for effective ministry. The NT envisions no possibility of service whatever apart from the Spirit’s gifts. It is misleading, therefore, to distinguish between so-called “charismatic ministries” (prophecy, tongues, miracles, etc.) and “non-charismatic” ministerial orders (elder and deacon). All of the essential functions associated with ministerial orders in the NT are included in the Pauline catalogues of spiritual gifts (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11, 28-31; 14:1ff.; Eph 4:11, 12). The same apostle further regarded elders, who presumably held their office by some manner of human selection and ordination, as appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). Since the apostolic Church required satisfactory evidence that a person was filled with the Holy Spirit before entrusting him with the most ordinary service (6:3), one may assume that candidates for official ministerial orders were chosen from among those persons in whom the Spirit’s gifts were most conspicuous. In any event, all ministry is charismatic, so that it is the Spirit’s gifts which decisively qualify men for service.


All gifts originate with the same Spirit; however, they display a diversity which accords with the division of labor within the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:4-11). The grace of the Spirit assumes many varieties of forms and flows through many different channels. Although useful in their own right, not all gifts are of equal value. Paul regarded tongues, for example, as inferior to prophecy (1 Cor 14:1-5), while esteeming love as the highest gift of all (1 Cor 13, which follows without interruption the detailed discussion of gifts in ch. 12).


Just as every organ in the human body performs its own unique function, so every member of the body of Christ has his special contribution to make to the well-being and usefulness of the whole (1 Cor 12:7; Eph 4:7, 16; 1 Pet 4:10). The NT is entirely innocent of the common distinction between clergy and laity, which regards the clergy as “ministers” and the laity as mere spectators. Laity (λαός, G3295) means “the people of God” and embraces all members of Christ’s body, while all members are His servants. In sovereign freedom the Spirit distributes to individual believers the gifts that render their service possible (1 Cor 12:11). While the same believer may possess multiple endowments (2 Tim 1:11), there is no monopoly of the Spirit’s gifts. Every believer has one gift or more, held in trust for the common good.


All ministry is designed to build up the body of Christ in living union with its Head (1 Cor 14:3ff.; Eph 4:11, 12). Determined in accordance with this purpose, the Spirit’s gifts are by their very nature and bestowal the pledge and guarantee of its fulfillment. Nothing else is needed. Drawing on its vast wealth of spiritual resources the ministering Church advances toward its completeness in Christ.

Varieties of spiritual gifts.

Of the several passages in which Paul catalogues the Spirit’s gifts three deserve special notice. Romans 12:6-8 lists prophecy, service (διακονία, G1355), teaching, exhortation, liberality, giving of aid (“rule,” KJV, or “management”), and acts of mercy. 1 Corinthians 12:28-31 mentions apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in tongues, and interpreters of tongues. Ephesians 4:11, 12 specifies apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.


The most important group of persons mentioned in these lists were the apostles. The term is used first of the Twelve whom Jesus chose and personally trained as apprentices through intimate association with Himself for their career of preaching the Gospel (Mark 3:13-19; 6:30). These two features—appointment by Jesus in the days of His flesh and companionship with Him throughout His entire ministry—were the distinguishing marks of the Twelve.

Essential to apostleship is the idea of mission (ἀποστέλλειν, “to send”). The NT apostles were primarily pioneer preachers of the Gospel and the original authoritative witnesses to Christ who traveled throughout the Jewish and Gentile world establishing congregations of new converts. Occupying unique positions of leadership and authority, they further superintended the work of the churches, commissioned local officers, administered discipline, and settled issues of general dispute (Acts 14:23 15:1ff.). Nearly all of the NT books were written by apostles, and the few that were not came from the hands of their intimate associates and evidently received apostolic endorsement.


Also itinerant missionary preachers, evangelists seem to have differed from apostles very little, except for their lower rank and authority, possibly because they lacked the unique qualifications for apostleship. Philip, one of the “Seven” who became an evangelist (6:5; 21:8), first introduced the Gospel to Samaria (8:4ff.). Paul exhorted Timothy in fulfilling his ministry to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5).


Teachers and pastors.

Other gifts.

The exact nature of some of these gifts of the Spirit is uncertain. “Administrators” (κυβερνήτης, G3237, “steersman, pilot”) apparently shared in the management of local congregational affairs. “Helpers” likely attended to benevolent service among the sick, the poor, the persecuted, etc. Persons having the gift of “tongues” employed it in prayer, singing, and thanksgiving (1 Cor 14:14-17). Gifts of “healing” and other miraculous powers also were found in the apostolic Church.

The organized ministry

Perhaps no subject in the history of the Christian Church has been more greatly vexed by confusion, discord, and bitter strife than that of ministerial order. The problem is a vastly complicated one. For one thing, the NT presents a picture of local communities of believers in different stages of development and with few fixed structures of ministry. Then, too, the NT evidence is in many important particulars incomplete or altogether missing, while information from the early postapostolic period is likewise scanty and not always reliable. High-sounding pronouncements on many aspects of this subject tend to be fragile and brittle, revealing more about the author’s own views than the practice of the primitive Church. One must, therefore, proceed with caution and humility, not vainly boasting a knowledge which is not ours.

This much is certain. In the formative years of the Church its ministry exhibited amazing variety and adaptability. Emerging at Pentecost as a non-schismatic Jewish sect, the Church naturally modeled its ministry in part on patterns borrowed from the synagogue. The creative Spirit of the risen Lord inhabiting His body also fashioned within it from the beginning new organs and channels of ministry through which to communicate the life-giving grace of God to men.

From the early chs. of Acts it is evident that at the first the apostles directed the life of the infant Church. Presently they were joined in their ministry by evangelists and prophets who assisted them in spreading the Gospel far and wide. As new communities of Christians sprang up in Judea, Samaria, and throughout the Gentile world, the need emerged for official structures of ministry to direct the affairs of local churches. The NT generally employs three terms to designate the two official orders of ministry which were established: elder, bishop, and deacon. It always must be remembered that alongside of these orders there existed a veritable constellation of other local and itinerant ministries, all alike Christ’s gifts to His Church through His indwelling Spirit.


There is no record to indicate when the office of “elder” (πρεσβύτερος, G4565) was instituted. Elders are found early in the Christian communities of Judea (Acts 11:30), while Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in charge of the congregations they established on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). This office was borrowed, though modified, from the Jewish synagogue, where a company of elders ruled the religious and civil life of the community. Primarily custodians of the Mosaic law, these Jewish elders taught and interpreted its precepts, and administered punishments to its offenders.


The specific functions of the deacons are beclouded by nearly as much uncertainty as their origin, and their duties must be inferred from the nature of their qualifications. They were required to be of serious mind and character, honest in speech, temperate, free from greed for money, and to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:8, 9). This list of qualifications, together with the natural associations of the word διακονία, G1355, suggests that household visitation and administration of local benevolence funds were among their responsibilities. At a later date this was certainly so. It is further known that in the post-apostolic Church deacons served as personal assistants to the bishops in conducting worship, esp. at the Eucharist, and in the management of church affairs. It is possible from 1 Timothy 3:11 to infer that women also held this office, and Romans 16:1 describes Phoebe as a “διάκονος, G1356, of the church at Cenchreae.” The masculine form of the noun may signify that it is a common noun, meaning “servant,” and not an official title. In any event, deaconesses do not appear to have been prevalent until the 3rd cent. The NT nowhere indicates the manner in which deacons were appointed to office, but as in the case of the “Seven,” they may have been chosen by the local congregation and ordained by the laying on of hands.

In view of the NT evidence, there seems to be no reasonable doubt that the apostolic Church had only two official orders of local ministry: presbyter-bishop and deacon. The ministry exercised by these orders assumed three forms: Word, rule, and service. To this threefold ministry the body of Christ, equipped and empowered by His indwelling Spirit, is unceasingly summoned by its living Head until His return in glory. See Deacon, Deaconess; NT ELDER.


F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (1897); J. B. Lightfoot, The Christian Ministry (1901), also found as an appendix in his Philippians, rev. ed. (1890), 181-269; T. M. Lindsay, The Church and Its Ministry in the Early Centuries (1902); W. Lowrie, The Church and Its Organization in Primitive and Catholic Times (1904); A. von Harnack, The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries, tr. (1910); H. B. Swete, ed., Early History of the Church and Ministry (1918); B. H. Streeter, The Primitive Church (1929); M. H. Shepherd, Jr., “The Development of the Early Ministry,” Anglican Theological Review, XXVI (1944), 135-150; K. E. Kirk, ed., The Apostolic Ministry (1946); S. Neill, ed., The Ministry of the Church (1947); T. W. Manson, The Church’s Ministry (1948); G. W. H. Lampe, Some Aspects of the New Testament Ministry (1949); F. W. Beare, “The Ministry in the New Testament Church: Practice and Theory,” Anglican Theological Review, XXXVII (1955); T. F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood (1955); A. Ehrhardt, The Apostolic Ministry, Scottish Journal of Theology, Occasional Papers, No. 7 (1958); G. W. Bromiley, Christian Ministry (1959); A. T. Hanson, The Pioneer Ministry (1961); E. Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament (tr. 1961); L. Morris, Ministers of God (1964); R. S. Paul, Ministry (1965); K. H. Rengstorf, Apostolate and Ministry (tr. 1969). See also Apostle, Bishop, Church, Deacon, Deaconess, NT ELDER.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



Use of the Word in This Article


1. The Prophet Ministry

(1) Apostles

(2) Prophets

(3) Teachers

2. The Local Ministry



1. Insistence on Organization

(1) Aid Given in Selecting a Bishop

(2) Bishops and Presbyters

2. Multiplication of Orders: Growth of a Hierarchy



I. The Word "Ministry."

The common New Testament term for the ministry is diakonia, and along with it we find diakonos, "minister," ho diakonon), "he who ministers," and diakonein, "to minister." All these words have a very extensive application within the New Testament and are by no means restricted to denote service within the Christian church; even when so restricted the words are used in a great variety of meanings: e.g.

(1) discipleship in general (Joh 12:26);

(2) service rendered to the church because of the "gifts" bestowed (Ro 12:7; 1Co 12:5), and hence, all kinds of service (Ac 6:2; Mt 20:26);

(3) specifically the "ministry of the Word" (Eph 4:12), and most frequently the "apostleship" (Ac 1:17; 20:24; 21:19; Ro 11:13, etc.);

(4) such services as feeding the poor (Ac 6:1; 11:29; 12:25), or organizing and providing the great collection for the poor saints at Jerusalem (Ro 15:25; 2Co 8:4,19, etc.);

(5) such services as those rendered by Stephanas (1Co 16:15), by Archippus (Col 4:17), by Tychicus (Eph 6:21; Col 4:7), etc.

Use of the Word in This Article:

In this article the word has to do with the guidance and government of a united community, fellowship, or brotherhood of men and women whose inward bond of union was the sense of fellowship with Jesus their Risen Lord. In all ages of Christianity the call to become the follower of Jesus, while it is the deepest of all personal things and comes to each one singly, never comes solitarily. The devout soul must share his experiences with those like-minded, and the fellowship thus formed must be able to take outward shape, which cannot fail to render necessary some sort of rule and guidance. The very thought of the church with articulate expression of a common faith, administration of the sacraments, meetings and their right conduct, aid given to the spiritual and bodily needs of their fellow-members, implies a ministry or executive of some kind. To endeavor to explain what was the character of the ministry of the Christian church in the earliest centuries of its existence and how it came into being is the aim of this article.

II. Two Kinds of Ministry.

The earliest fact we have about the organization of the Christian church is given in Ac 6, where we are told that "seven" men were appointed to what is called a "ministry of tables" (diakonein trapezais), which is distinguished from the "ministry of the word" (diakonia tou logou). This distinction between two different kinds of "ministry" which appears at the very beginning is seen to exist all through the apostolic church and beyond it into the sub-apostolic. It can be traced in the Epistles of Paul and in other parts of the New Testament. It is seen in the Didache, in the Pastor of Hermas, in the Epistles of Barnabas, in the Apology of Justin Martyr, in the writings of Irenaeus and elsewhere. (For a full list of authorities, compare Harnack, Texte u. Untersuchungen, II, ii, 111 ff.) The one ministry differs from the other in function, and the distinction depends on a conception to be afterward examined--that of "gifts." The common name, in apostolic and sub-apostolic literature, for the members of the one kind of ministry is "those who speak the Word of God" (lalountes ton logon tou Theou). Modern writers have called it the charismatic, but perhaps the better term is the prophetic ministry; while to the other class belong all the names which are given to denote office-bearers in the local churches. The two existed side by side. The great practical distinction between them was that the members of the former were in no sense office-bearers in any one Christian community; they were not elected or appointed to any office; they were not set apart for duties by any ecclesiastical ceremony. The "Word" came to them and they were compelled by inward impulsion to speak the message given them to deliver. Some were wanderers; others confined themselves to their own community. They were responsible to no ecclesiastical authority. Churches were encouraged to test them and their message; for the "gift" of discerning whether a so-called prophet spoke a truly Divine message was always presupposed to be within the local church. But once accepted they took a higher place than the office-bearers, they presided at the Lord’s Supper, and their judgment in cases of discipline could overbear ordinary ecclesiastical rules. The contest of Cyprian with the "confessors" at Carthage was the last stage of the long struggle which arose in the 2nd century between the two ministries. Out of the other kind of ministry came, by ordinary development, all the various kinds of ecclesiastical organization which now exist. Its members were office-bearers in the strictest sense of the word; they were selected to do ecclesiastical work in a given community, they were set apart for it in a special way, and they were responsible to the church for its due performance.

But it is important to remember that while the two kinds of ministries are thoroughly distinct from each other, the same individuals might belong to both kinds. The "prophetic gift" might fall on anyone, private member or office-bearer alike. Office-holding did not prevent the "gift." Polycarp, office-bearer at Smyrna, was a prophet; so was Ignatius of Antioch, and many others. The "gift" of speaking the Word of God was a personal and not an official source of enlightenment.

1. The Prophetic Ministry:

In the prophetic ministry we find a threefold division--apostles, prophets and teachers. Some would add a fourth, evangelists, i.e. men like the apostles in all respects save in having seen the. Lord in the flesh. The distinction may hold good for the apostolic period, though that appears to be very doubtful; it disappears utterly in the sub-apostolic; evangelist and apostle seem to be one class. This triple division may be traced through early Christian literature from 1 Corinthians down to the Clementine Homilies, which can scarcely be earlier than 200 AD. It is hardly possible to define each class in any mechanical fashion; speaking generally, the first were the missionary pioneers whose message was chiefly to the unconverted, while to the second and third classes belonged exhortation and instruction within the Christian communities.

(1) Apostles.

Those "apostles," to whatever class they belonged, had one distinguishing characteristic: they had chosen as their life-work to be the missionary pioneers of the gospel of the Kingdom of Christ. They were all engaged in aggressive work, and were distinguished from others not so much by what they were as by what they did. They were wanderers with no fixed place of residence. The requirements of their work might make them abide for long periods in some center (as did Paul at Corinth and at Ephesus, or some of the "Eleven" at Jerusalem), but they had no permanent home life. As the earlier decades passed, their numbers increased rather than diminished. They are brought vividly before us in such writings as the Didache. They were to be highly honored, but as severely tested. They were not expected to remain longer than three days within a Christian community, nor to fare softly when there (Didache ii.4-6). The vindication of their call was what they were able to accomplish, and to this Paul, the greatest of them, appeals over and over again.

(2) Prophets.

Prophecy was founded on revelation; the prophets were men especially "gifted" with spiritual intuition and magnetic speech. Sometimes their "gift" took the form of ecstasy, but by no means always; Paul implies that prophets have a real command of and can control their utterances. Sometimes their message came to them in visions, such as we find in the Apocalypse and in Hermas; but this was not a necessary means. The prophets spoke as they were moved, and the Spirit worked on them in various ways.

The influence of those prophets seems to have increased rather than diminished during the earlier decades of the 2nd century. While the duty of the apostle was to the unbelievers, Jewish or heathen, the sphere of the activity of the prophet was within the Christian congregation. It was his business to edify the brethren. Prophets had a recognized place in the meeting for the public worship of the congregation; if one happened to be present at the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper, he presided to the exclusion of the office-bearers, and his prayers were expected to be extempore (Didache x.7); he had special powers when matters of discipline were discussed, as is plain from a great variety of evidence from Hermas down to Tertullian. From Paul’s statements it seems that the largest number of the prophets he speaks of were members of the communities within which they used their "gift" of prophecy; but many of the more eminent prophets traveled from community to community edifying each. When such wandering prophets, with their wives and families, dwelt for a time in any Christian society, preaching and exhorting, it was deemed to be the duty of that society to support them, and regulations were made for such support. According to the Didache (chapter xiii): "Every true prophet who shall settle among you is worthy of his support ..... Every first-fruit then of the products of the winepress and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, thou shalt take and give to the prophets ..... In like manner also when thou openest a jar of wine or oil, take the first of it and give it to the prophets; and of money and clothing and every possession take the first as may seem right to thee, and give according to the commandment." Only, the receivers were to be true prophets. Each congregation had to exercise the "gift" of discrimination and sift the true from the false; for "false" prophets confronted the true in early Christianity as well as in the old Judaism.

(3) Teachers.

While the third class of the prophetic ministry, the teachers, is found joined to the other two both in the New Testament and in sub-apostolic literature, and while Paul assigns a definite place for their services in the meeting for edification (1Co 14:26), we hear less about them and their work. They seem, however, to have lingered much longer in active service in the early church than did the apostles and the prophets.

2. The Local Ministry:

As has been said, the first notice we have of organization within a local church is in Ac 6, where at the suggestion of the apostles seven men were selected to administer the charity of the congregation.

The conception that "the Seven" were a special order of office-bearers, deacons, is a comparatively late suggestion. These men are nowhere called deacons; the official designation is "The Seven." It may be that the appointment of those men was only a temporary expedient, but it is more probable that "the Seven" of Ac 6 are the elders of Ac 11; for we find those "elders" performing the duties which "the Seven" were appointed to fulfil. If so, we have in Ac 6 the narrative of the beginnings of local organization as a whole. When we turn to the expansion of Christian communities outside Jerusalem, we have no such distinct picture of beginnings; but as all the churches in Palestine evidently regarded the society in Jerusalem as the mother church, it is likely that their organization was the same. Ac tells us that Paul and Barnabas left behind them at Derbe, Lystra and Iconium societies of brethren with "elders" at their head. The word used suggests an election by popular vote and was probably the same as had been used in the selection of the "Seven" men.

When we examine the records of the distinctively Pauline churches, there is not much direct evidence for the origins of the ministry there, but a great deal about the existence of some kind of rule and rulers. For one thing, we can see that these churches had and were encouraged to have feelings of independence and of self-government; a great deal is said about the possession of "gifts" which imply the presence and power of the Spirit of Jesus within the community itself. We find names applied to men who, if not actually office-bearers, are at least leaders and perform the functions of office-bearers--proistamenoi, poimenes, episkopoi, diakonoi--and where special designations are lacking a distinction is always drawn between those who obey and those who are to be obeyed. In all cases those leaders or ministers are mentioned in the plural.

It may be said generally that about the close of the 1st century every Christian community was ruled by a body of men who are sometimes called presbyters (elders), sometimes but more rarely bishops (overseers), and whom modern church historians are inclined to call presbyter-bishops. Associated with them, but whether members of the same court or forming a court of their own it is impossible to say, were a number of assistant rulers called deacons. See Bishop; Church Government; DEACON; ELDER. The court of elders had no president or permanent chairman. There was a two-fold not a threefold ministry. During the 3rd century, rising into notice by way of geographical distribution rather than in definite chronological order, this twofold congregational ministry became threefold in the sense that one man was placed at the head of each community with the title of pastor or bishop (the titles are interchangeable as late as the 4th century at least). In the early centuries those local churches, thus organized, while they never lacked the sense that they all belonged to one body, were independent self-governing communities preserving relations to each other, not by any political organization embracing them all, but by fraternal fellowship through visits of deputies, interchange of letters, and in some indefinite way giving and receiving assistance in the selection and setting apart of pastors.


The question arises, How did this organization come into being? We may dismiss, to begin with, the idea once generally accepted among the Reformed churches, that the Christian society simply took over and made use of the synagogue system of organization (Vitringa, De synagoga vetere). The points common to both reveal a superficial resemblance, but no more. The distinctive differences are great. When we add to them the decisive statement of Epiphanius (Haeresis, xxx. 18), that the Jewish Christians (Judaizing) organized their communities with archons and an archisynagogos like the Jewish synagogues of the Dispersion and unlike the Christian churches, all the evidence makes it impossible to believe that the earliest Christian organization was simply taken over from the Jewish. On the other hand, there is little evidence that the apostles (the Twelve and Paul) received a special commission from our Lord, to appoint and ordain the office-bearers of the earliest Christian communities, so exclusive that there could be no legitimate organization without this apostolic authority and background. We find, on the contrary, the church in Rome exercising all the disciplinary functions of a congregation without this apostolic ecclesiastical rule supposed to be essential. Even in the mother-church in Jerusalem, the congregational meeting exercised rule over the apostles themselves, for we find apostles summoned before it and examined on their conduct (Ac 11:1-4). The whole question demands the recognition of several facts:

(1) Evidence abounds to show that the local churches during the apostolic and sub-apostolic age were self-governing communities and that the real background of the ministry was not apostolic authority but the congregational meeting. Its representative character and its authority are seen in the apostolic and sub-apostolic literature from Paul to Cyprian.

(2) The uniquely Christian correlation of the three conceptions of leadership, service and "gifts"; leadership depended on service, and service was possible by the possession and recognition of special "gifts" which were the evidence of the presence and power of the Spirit of Jesus within the community. These "gifts" gave the church a Divine authority to exercise rule and oversight apart from any special apostolic direction.

(3) The general evidence existing to show that there was a gradual growth of the principle of association from looser to more compact forms of organization (Gayford, article "Church" in HDB; also Harnack, The Expositor, 1887, January to June, 322-24), must not be forgotten; only one must remember that in young communities the growth is rapid.

(4) We must also bear in mind that the first Christians were well acquainted with various kinds of social organization which entered into their daily life and which could not fail to suggest how they might organize their new societies.

Examples occur readily:

(a) Every Jewish village community was ruled by its "seven wise men," and it is probable that the appointment of the "Seven" in the primitive Jewish church was suggested by familiarity with this example of social polity.

(b) It was and is an almost universal oriental usage that the "next of kin" to the founder was recognized, after the founder’s death, to be the head of the new religious community founded, and this usage accounts for the selection of James, the eldest male surviving relative of our Lord, to be the recognized and honored head of the church in Jerusalem. James has been called the first bishop; but when we read in Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 11, 1,2; 32,4; IV, 22, 4; III, 20, 1-8) how his successors were chosen, the term seems inappropriate. A succession in the male line of the kindred of Jesus, where the selection to office is mainly in the hands of a family council, and where two (James and Zoker) can rule together, has small analogy to episcopal rule.

(c) The relation of "patron" to "client," which in one form or other had spread throughout the civilized world, is suggested by a series of kindred words used to denote rulers in local churches. We find proistamenoi, prostatis, prostates, proestos, in various writers, and the last was used as late as the middle of the 2nd century to denote ministry in the Roman church (Ro 12:8; 16:2; 1Th 5:12; Hermas, Pastor. Vis. 2, 4; Justin, Apol, i.65).

(d) The Ro empire was honeycombed with "gilds," some recognized by law, most of them without legal recognition and liable to suppression. These confraternities were of very varied character--trades unions, burial clubs, etc., but a large proportion were for the purpose of practicing special religious rites.

The Jewish synagogues of the Dispersion seemed to have been enrolled among those confraternities, and certainly appeared to their heathen neighbors to be one kind of such private associations for the practice of a religion which had been legalized. Many scholars have insisted that the Gentile Christian churches simply copied the organization of such confraternities (Renan, Les Apotres; Heinrici, Zeitschrift f. wissensch. Theol., 1876-77); Hatch, Organization of the Early Christian Churches). There must have been some external resemblances. Pliny believed that the Christian churches of Bithynia were illicit confraternities (Ep. 96; compare Lucian, Peregrinus Proteus). They had, in common with the churches, a democratic constitution; they shared a "common meal" at stated times; they made a monthly collection; they were ruled by a committee of office-bearers; and they exercised a certain amount of discipline over their members. Multitudes of Christians must have been members of such confraternites, and many continued to be so after accepting Christianity (Cyprian, Ep., lxvii. 6).

But while the Christian churches may have learned much about the general principles of associated life from all those varied forms of social organization, it cannot be said that they copied any one of them. The primitive Christian societies organized themselves independently in virtue of the new moral and social life implanted within them; and though they may have come to it by various paths, they all in the end arrived at one common form--a society ruled by a body of office-bearers who possessed the "gifts" of government and of subordinate service embodied in the offices of presbyter and deacon.

III. Threefold Congregational Ministry.

During the 2nd century the ministry was subject to a change. The ruling body of office-bearers in every congregation received a permanent president, who was called the pastor or bishop, the latter term being the commoner. The change came gradually. It provoked no strong opposition. By the beginning of the 3rd century it was everywhere accepted.

When we seek to trace the causes why the college of elders received a president, who became the center of all the ecclesiastical life in the local church and the one potent office-bearer, we are reduced to conjecture. This only can be said with confidence, that the change began in the East and gradually spread to the West, and that there are hints of a gradual evolution (Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, 180, 183-85). Scholars have brought forward many reasons for the change; the need for an undivided leadership in times of danger from external persecution or from the introduction of Gnostic speculations which disturbed the faith of the members; the convenience of being represented to other local churches by one man who could charge himself with the administration of the external affairs of the congregation; the need of one man to preside at the solemn and crowning act of worship, the administration of the Lord’s Supper; the sense of congregational unity implied in the possession of one leader--each or all are probable ways in which the churches were influenced in making this change in their ministry.

This threefold congregational ministry is best seen in the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. They portray a Christian community having at its head a bishop, a presbyterium or session of elders, and a body of deacons. These form the ministry or office-bearers of the congregation to whom obedience is due. Nothing is to be done without the consent of the bishop, neither love-feast, nor sacrament, nor anything congregational. The ruling body is a court where the bishop sits as chairman surrounded by his council or session of elders; and the one is helpless without the other, for if the bishop be the lyre, the elders are the chords, and both are needed to produce melody. Ignatius compares the bishop to Jesus, and the elders to the apostles who surrounded Him. There is no trace of sacerdotalism, apostolic succession, one-man government, diocesan rule in those letters of Ignatius; and what they portray is unlike any form of diocesan episcopacy.

1. Insistence on Organization:

It is interesting to remark how all throughout the 3rd century and later every body of Christians, even if consisting of fewer than twelve families, is instructed to organize itself into a church under a ministry of office-bearers, consisting of a bishop or pastor, at least two elders and at least three deacons. Should the bishop be illiterate--for character more than erudition determined his choice--the congregation was told to elect a reader, and provision was made for a ministry of women. It was possible to obey such instructions, because the ministry of the early church received no stipends. The ministry were office-bearers, to whom ecclesiastical obedience was due in virtue of their call and election and their being set apart by prayer, and perhaps by laying on of hands, for sacred office; but they were at the same time merchants, artisans, or engaged in other secular callings, and supported themselves. Buildings, set apart for public worship, did not exist until the very close of the 2nd century, and then only in a few populous centers in towns which had felt persecution but slightly. The only property which a church possessed, besides its copies of the Scriptures, its congregational records and perhaps a place of burial, were the offerings which were presented by members of the congregation, mostly in kind, after the Eucharist; and these offerings were distributed to the poor of the congregation. If office-bearers received a share, it was only on account of their poverty and because they were on the roll of widows, orphans and helpless poor.

This threefold congregational ministry has been called by some scholars "monarchical episcopacy," a title as high-sounding as it is misleading. The kingdom over which those so-called monarchs presided might and often did consist of less than twelve families, and their rule was fenced in with many restrictions. We can collect from the Epistles of Ignatius what were the powers and what the limitations (Epistle to Polycarp) of the bishop. He administered the finances of the church; he was president of the court of Elders; he had the right to call and presumably to preside over the court of discipline; and he had the regulation of the sacraments in his hands. On the other hand, it is very doubtful whether he, or even he in conjunction with the elders, could excommunicate; that appears to have remained in the hands of the congregational meeting. The bishop might convoke the congregational meeting for the purpose, but it belonged to the meeting and not to the bishop to appoint delegates and messengers to other churches; and the meeting had the power to order the bishop to go on such a mission.

(1) Aid Given in Selecting a Bishop.

From what has been said it is plain that the selection of a bishop became one of the most important acts a congregation was called upon to perform. Accordingly, provision was made for its assistance. It is declared in the Apostolic Canons that if a congregation contains fewer than twelve men competent to vote at the election of a bishop, neighboring, "well-established" churches are to be written to in order that three men may be sent to assist the congregation in selecting their pastor (Sources of the Apostolic Canons, 7, 8). This is evidently the origin of what afterward became the custom and later a law, that the consecration of a bishop required the presence of three neighboring bishops--a rule which has given occasion to the saying that "all Christendom becomes Presbyterian on a consecration day." This custom and rule, which in its beginnings was simply practical assistance given to a weak by stronger congregations, came to bear the meaning that the bishop thus consecrated was an office-bearer in the church universal as well as the pastor of a particular congregation. It is also more than probable that this practice of seeking assistance in an emergency is the germ out of which grew the Synod--the earliest recorded synods being congregational meetings assisted in times of difficulty by advice of experienced persons from other churches.

(2) Bishops and Presbyters.

When a small group of villagers had been won to Christianity through the efforts of the Christian congregation in a neighboring town, they commonly were disinclined to separate from it, and came from their villages into town to join in the public worship. "On the day called Sunday," says Justin Martyr, "all who live in the city and in the country gather together into one place" (Ap., i.67). The earliest collections of canons show that the bishop was able in time of absence or sickness to delegate his duties to elders or even to deacons; and this enabled him, when occasion for it arose, to be, through his office-bearers, the pastor of several congregations. We can see the same process at work more clearly in large towns where the number of Christians had become very large. The bishop was always held to be the head of the Christian community, however large, in one place. He was the pastor; he baptized; he presided at the Holy Supper; he admitted catechumens to the full communion of the brotherhood. By the middle of the 3rd century the work in most large towns was more than one man could do. No record exists of the number of members belonging to the Roman church at this time, but some idea of its size may be obtained from the fact that it had more than 1,500 persons on its poor-roll; and before the close of the century the Roman Christians worshipped in over 40 separate places of meeting. It is obvious that one man could not perform the whole pastoral duties for such a multitude, and that most of the pastoral work must have been delegated to the elders or presbyters. The unity of the pastorate was for long strictly preserved by the custom that the bishop consecrated the communion elements in one church, and these were carried round to the other congregations. The bishop was thus the pastor in every congregation; the elders and deacons belonged to the whole Christian community; they served all the congregations and were not attached to one distinctively. In Alexandria, on the other hand, something like a parochial system gathered round the bishop, for individual presbyters were set over the separate congregations within the city. But always and without exception the original pastoral status of the bishop was preserved by the fact that one portion of the pastoral duties was invariably left in his hands--the rite of confirmation whereby catechumens were admitted to full communion.

II. Multiplication of Orders: Growth of a Hierarchy:

The middle of the 3rd century witnessed two changes in the ministry of the church. One was a multiplication of orders and the other the growth of a hierarchy; and while many causes went to produce these changes it can hardly be doubted that they were at least partly due to the imitation of pagan religious organization. Although we find the distinction between those who are to be obeyed and those who are to obey clearly laid down in the Epistles of Paul, we do not find a common term in general use to denote the former class until the beginning of the 3rd century. In the west the word was ordo, and in the east clerus, from which come our "orders" and "clergy." Ordo was the designation for the municipality in towns or for the committee which presided over a confraternity; and clerus denoted rank or class. The introduction of ministerial stipends and the implication that a paid ministry was expected to give its whole time to the service of the church made the distinction between clergy and laity more emphatic. When we investigate the matter, it is evident that the fact that the clergy are paid complicates the question; for the earliest lists are evidently those who are entitled to share in the funds of the church, and widows and orphans figure as members of the ordo or clerus. Setting this disturbing element aside we find that the earliest division of the ministry in the 3rd century is into bishops, presbyters and deacons (all congregational); but bishops and presbyters are sometimes said to form the special ordo ecclesiasticus. The earliest addition to those three orders is the reader, and there follows soon the sub-deacon. Then come such persons as exorcists, acolyths, singers, door-keepers and even grave-diggers; and to such the name "minor orders" is given. All are included within the clergy, all receive a proportionate share of the revenues of the congregational funds. The presence of bishops, presbyters and deacons needs no explanation. Readers, as we have seen, were needed at first to assist illiterate bishops or pastors; their retention and the insertion of exorcists have been plausibly accounted for by the idea that they represented the absorption of the old prophetic ministry. But in instituting the other minor orders the Christian church evidently copied the pagan temple usages where persons who performed corresponding services were included among the temple ministry and had due share of the temple revenues. In the institution of a graded hierarchy including metropolitans and patriarchs, the churches probably followed the example of the great pagan organization called forth by the imperial cult of the Divi and Divae (Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry, 335 ff). As Mommsen remarks, "The conquering Christian church took its hierarchic weapons from the arsenal of the enemy."

IV. Synods:

Synods to begin with were essentially democratic assemblies. They were, in their primitive form, congregational meetings assisted in times of emergency by delegates (not necessarily bishops) from "well-established churches," and they grew to be the instrument by which churches grouped round one center became united into one compact organization. The times were not democratic, and gradually the presence of the laity and even of presbyters and deacons and their combined assent to the decisions of the assembly became more and more a matter of form and gradually ceased altogether. The synods consisted exclusively of bishops and became councils for registering their decisions; and this implied that each local church was fully and completely represented by its pastor or bishop, who had become very much of an autocrat, responsible, not to his congregation nor even to a synod, but to God alone. Before the end of the 3rd century and onward, synods or councils had become a regular part of the organization of the whole church, and the membership was confined to the bishops of the several churches included within the group. It was natural that such assemblies should meet in the provincial capitals, for the roads converged to the cities which were the seats of the Roman provincial administration. A synod required a chairman, and various usages obtained about the natural chairman. At first the oldest bishop present was placed in the chair, and this continued long to be the practice in several parts of the empire. Gradually it became the habit to put into the chair the bishop of the town in which the council met, and this grew to a prescriptive right. It was then that the bishops of the towns which were the meeting-places of synods came to be called metropolitans. The title was for long one of courtesy only and did not carry with it any ecclesiastical rank and authority. But by the middle of the 4th century the metropolitans had acquired the right to summon the synods and even to exercise some authority over the bishops of the bounds, especially in the matter of election and consecration. When Christianity was thoroughly established as the religion of the empire, the more important bishops secured for themselves the civil precedence and privileges which had belonged to the higher priests of the abandoned Imperial Cult, and the higher ranks of the Christian ministry came into the possession of a lordship strangely at variance with their earlier position of service.


C. Vitringa, De synagoge vetere libra tres, Leucopetrae (Weissenfels), 1726; Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church, 1708-32; Bannermann, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church; Hort, The Christian Ecclesia; Lightfoot, Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians (dissertation on the ministry); Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Church, and articles on "Orders" in Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Antiquities; Harnack, The Expositor for January to June, 1887, and Entstehung u. Entwicklung der Kirchenverfassung .... in d. zwei ersten Jahrhunderten (1910) (English translation, The Constitution and Law of the Church); Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries; Schmiedel, article "Ministry" in EB; Gayford, article "Church" in HDB.