Patristic Understanding of Ministry

                                                                           – Rev. Dr. Sunni E. Mathew


Christian Church is envisaged as the continuation of incarnation and its ministry, the extension of Jesus’ ministry.   Early church used a variety of titles for those who gave leadership in this.  Some titles were given to itinerant preachers while others were given to those who were resident leaders of the community.  The most prominent designations were apostles, prophets and teachers.  But soon a fairly uniform structure of ministerial leadership got established with three different orders; bishops, presbyters and deacons.

English word ministry is derived from Latin ministerium, a word equivalent to Greek diakonia[1] meaning “service”.  Gospels use prophet to designate John the Baptist[2] as well as Jesus[3].  Acts mentions prophets and teachers of the Church in Anitoch[4] and also mentions Christian prophets named Judas and Silas[5] and Agabas[6].  Gospels used the title teacher 49 times in the Gospels.  Almost always it was used as a title for Jesus.  Gospel refers to the word ‘shepherd’ either literally or metaphorically to those who pasture sheep or to Jesus[7].  After crucifixion, apostles succeeded to the office of Jesus as chief shepherds or episcopos.  Later times shepherd became a leading title to designate Christian leadership.  This might be on the basis of the commission of Christ as we read in Jn. 21.15-17 to “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.  By the second century Bishop (episcopos) became the most widely used term for the main leadership of the whole Christian church in a particular city or region.  The New Testament employs this word five times.  In 1 Pet. 2.25 it refers to Jesus.  In the early Church, the term episcopos refers to denote bishops and presbyters alike and both implied shepherding imagery.  Deaconate was responsible for assisting bishops and presbyters in their duties; in baptism, Eucharist and distribution of financial assistance to those in need, particularly widows and orphans.  As the community grew, additional offices were developed to meet their responsibilities.  This development was more a historical necessity oriented towards the edification of the Church through division of responsibilities so that they could concentrate on a particular responsibility with better care.

Patristic Period

The Patristic Period is the time roughly from the death of the last Apostle around 100 C.E. to 451 C.E.   This period is of importance to every mainstream Christian tradition including the Eastern Orthodox, Reformed and Roman Catholic churches.  They all view the patristic period as a definitive landmark in the development of Christian thinking. Each of these churches regards itself as continuing, extending and where necessary, amending these thinking.  Up to 310 Christianity was under the shadow of intermittent persecutions patronized by the imperial power.  From that time onwards, the Church enjoyed the freedom to function without the threat of persecution, especially in the Byzantine and Roman Empires.  As a result, theological issues came to the forefront, and formulation and functioning of ecclesial organization became a testing ground for the genuineness of orthodoxy.

Understanding of Ministry during patristic period

Church Fathers are those who are the body of ancient Christian thinkers and leaders who lived after the time of apostles and whose works have created tremendous influence on Christians.  They help to understand the development of various Christian teachings as well as practices.  Patristic writings proposed strict qualifications for the ministerial posts.  Personal character and obedience to Christian ethics were of utmost importance.  They were expected to have clean standing even with those outside the Church.  Ordination was seen as the solemn occasion whereby the Church publically acknowledged one’s responsibility of leadership.  Hence it was seen as a serious agreement between the Church, the candidate and God Himself.  It served to remind the Church of the candidates ‘calling” and ‘selection’ by God and empowering through the Holy Spirit.  It further served to remind the candidate on his responsibility to God and the community.   Clement of Rome[8] advocated the divine role in the selection and the appointment of leadership.  According to him, God sent Christ, Christ sent the apostles and the apostles sent bishops and deacons[9].  He used the terms bishop/overseer and elder interchangeably, suggesting that the hierarchical strictness had not yet developed fully.  In line with the New Testament he recognized the role and function of apostles and prophets.  At the same time he advocated to distinguish false apostles and false prophets from the genuine ones[10].

Concerning the ministry of bishops, presbyters and deacons, Ignatius of Antioch refers; “I exhort you to strive to do all things in harmony with God: the bishop is to preside in the place of God, while, the presbyters are to function as the council of the Apostles, and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ.”[11]  Authority regarding liturgical celebration is entrusted with the office of the bishop.  “It is not permitted without authorization from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape; but whatever he approves is pleasing to God… Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it.”[12]  Such an approach to ministry was widespread in Syria and Asia Minor and was universally adapted in the Church by his time.  He further added that baptisms, marriage and love-feasts should not be conducted without the consent of the bishop.  He acknowledged the revered state of deacons on account of role played in the Church life as ministers of the elements in the Eucharist[13].  Ignatian view had been interpreted as anomalously authoritarian.  But, here the function of the duties of bishops, presbyters and deacons are not to be equated with hierarchical gradation but necessarily on interrelatedness and continuity in purpose[14].  This is further evident in his Letter to Polycarp where he advices Polycarp whom he address as bishop of Smyrna on the co-responsibility of the different orders in the ministry[15].

With the numerical development of Christians and different interpretations of faith, tendencies to organize separate Eucharistic assemblies gained momentum.  The role of the bishop was of presiding and guiding the Church and the collegiums of church ministers.  In his letter to Smyrneans chapter IV to VII, he exhorted the Smyrneans to avoid any relationship with the heretics.  After this, he advocated the community to follow the bishop as Jesus followed the Father, suggesting that the insistence was on account of the genuine concern to preserve orthodoxy and to check heresies.  In general, according to Ignatius, bishop is the symbol of unity and orthodoxy.

For Ireneus, “where there is the Church, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church…” suggesting that ministry was the service in the Spirit of God and with in the spirit filled community.  It strongly reflects the communitarian sharing in the gifts and functions of the Holy Spirit.  This approach promulgated models of the Church like “high priestly race of God” and ‘brotherhood of Christ”.  Separation for ministerial leadership as episcopa was understood to take place through the cooperative action of the community.  Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome clarifies that the bishop is chosen by all the people and consecrated in the presence of them and the bishops are to lay their hands upon the chosen one while the whole assembly keep silence praying for the descent of the Holy Spirit.  The spirit is invoked so as to exercise the authority of forgiveness of sins.  In the ordination to presbyterate Holy Spirit is invoked to exercise the spirit of grace and counsel where as for deaconate it is to exercise the spirit of grace and earnestness.  In all, the intention is to minister and function as charismatic functionaries in the service of the faithful community as per the command of the Lord.

Shepherd of Hermas mentioned bishop, presbyter and deacons.  According to it, presbyter was in charge of the church[16].  The caring ministry was entrusted with the deacons and they were responsible for the distribution of the funds to the needy.  The bishops were seen in relation with their responsibility for providing hospitality.  The spirit of leadership is the one rooted in humility and loving service.  Though these organized offices were developed for caring ministry, it was still seen as the responsibility of the whole Christian community.  By this time, varieties of need increased, especially because of persecutions[17], and the Church was forced to expand its caring ministry.  Tertullian hinted on the role of bishops in handling this responsibility.

Towards the middle of the second century Justin Martyr presented that the president of the Eucharist collected and distributed the offerings[18].  Though he did not mention who the president was, by all means it should be the bishop.  Here, along with organizing distribution of offerings, president’s responsibility included exhortation, instruction and leading in prayer.  By the mid second century as the leader of the organized Christian community, bishops became responsible for kerygmatic, didactic, prophetic and caritative functions of the Church.

Clement of Alexandria (155-220) emphasized that ministers are chosen to serve the Lord and they should moderate their desires and teach and take care of the community like a shepherd tending his flocks[19].  He observed that bishops, presbyters and deacons are imitations of angelic glory which they receive through following the footsteps of the apostles living in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel[20].  Origen (185-254) viewed selection to Church offices as a matter of God’s prerogative rather than heredity or human endeavor.

In Cyprian’s writings, bishop is acknowledged as having a central position and presbyters and deacons assumed an assisting position.  Yet his epistle suggests that the responsibility of making decisions were carried out collectively rather than single handedly[21].  By the time of Cyprian of Carthage, we see the danger of division in the Church becoming a threatening reality.  In order to check the hijacking of the Church by unworthy schismatic sections, Cyprian instructed that the leaders should be chosen publically.  The intention behind this instruction was to provide enough opportunity for the community to give testimony on the genuineness of the candidate.  Further he advocated that in order to make the consecration of the bishop valid, the ceremony should have the presence of neighboring bishops. Purpose of this insistence was to ensure that the new bishop was in fellowship with the wider community of faith and was rooted in orthodoxy.

The Apostolic Tradition also designated bishop as ‘high priest’ and states that the consecrating bishop prayed that the new bishop be given the authority ‘to loose every bond according to the authority God gave the Apostles’.  Tertullian also referred to the bishops as ‘high priests’.

According to Ephrem the Syrian, each bishop is painted with the likeness of the preceding bishop.  Thus he located the continuity of priesthood and prophesy in Jesus handed over to bishops through succession.  He saw virginity as a vestment for high priest and considered that they were wedded to their churches[22].

Development of Ministry in the Historical Context of Patristic Period

Nearly all of the Patristic fathers used strongest possible words to stress the importance of threefold ministry of bishop, presbyter and deacon.  By the end of the first century, imperial rulers became more and more antagonistic to Christianity.  It became the imperial policy to persecute the Church.  As a conscious move to wipeout the Church leadership was systematically targeted.  In such a context functional presidentship of the bishop made him an easy target for the persecutors.  Martyrdom was envisioned as the possible reward for accepting episcopacy.  Consecration as an episcopa was seen as the recognition of the candidate’s worth and willingness to be martyred.  This context of bishop being made the foremost and mainly sought pray for persecution, and the willingness of the bishop to offer himself for the sake of Christ and the Church, gave him the most prominent place in the Church as the embankment of faith, unity and existence of the Church.

Towards the second century various faith deviations also cropped up within Christianity challenging the unity and existence of the Church.  By the third century divisions within the Church became more evident.  Following Constantinian turn around and officialization of Christianity, theological controversies became a widespread phenomenon. Controversies resulted in division of the Church and emergence of para-churches generating confusion among the Christians prompting deserting from the Church to these sects. This context of controversy projected leadership, especially episcopos to the centre stage further.  Episcopos was seen as the authentic authority who safeguarded orthodoxy and the right practices of the Church.  Insistence on the apostolic succession and the essential approval of the bishop to perform sacraments solidified in this historical context.  In the context of polemical assertion of falsehood of faith deviators, orthodoxy suggested apostolic succession as a criterion for the true Church.  She upheld the transmission of apostolic teaching along with the tradition of the laying of hands[23]. Therefore, both were viewed in integrity and not in isolation.  One strengthened the other.  Apostolic succession of bishopric was considered as an expression of its genuinely apostolic faith.  The bishop of the city was acknowledged a key authority with the responsibility to maintain spiritual practices within the community so as to organize it for combating in both earthly and cosmic arenas[24].

By the fourth century, Christianity was officially recognized as the imperial religion in the Byzantine world.  With that worldliness crept into the Church at an alarming level.  As a consequence, understanding of ministry within the Church experienced a radical paradigm shift.   From a functional hierarchy of threefold ministry of responsibilities, it was consciously perverted to an essential and authoritative hierarchy of gradation with domination-subordination parenthesis.  At the same time, resistance to this shift was also evident during this period.  During this time, monasticism developed to a greater extent as a resistance movement.  Monastic vow was seen as an alternative for martyrdom, expressed renunciation, willingness to suffer unto death for the sake of the Kingdom of God and contempt for worldly pleasure and luxury.  That context prompted the selection of bishops from the monastic circle with the intention to safeguard the sanctity of leadership and check any shift from functional hierarchy of responsibilities oriented towards the edification of the Church and realization of the Kingdom to gradational hierarchy that create domination-subordination duality.


Patristic period saw the consolidation of threefold ministry within the Church.  Bishops elected by each community presided over all aspects of community life and worship.  Groups of collegial community of elected leaders known as presbyters oversaw the running of the community under the leadership of the bishop.  Service-minded ministers called deacons assisted the bishop in worship as well as caring ministry.  During the initial stage of the development of ministry, a bishop was the president of the local church of the city.  The bishop was seen as the bulwark of unity against disruptive forces resultant of persecution or faith deviations.  As the community grew and spread outside the local limits, the Eucharistic presidential principle got converted into a wider administrative structure and faith affirmative institution.  Hierarchy instituted was functional in nature and not oriented towards essential domination-subordination discrimination.  Patristic period saw leadership as collective and responsible developing functional hierarchy to safeguard orthodoxy, right practices and smooth implementation of caring ministry for the needy.

[1] The word diakonia is used only once in the gospels (Luke 10. 40), but it is used more than 30 times in the rest of New Testament, referring a wide variety of practical and spiritual duties.  St. Paul stresses that even though the services may vary, the same Lord continues to work in them all (Ref. 1 Cor. 12).

[2] Mk. 11.32; Mt. 21.46; Lk. 1.76; 7.26; 20.6; Jn. 1.26.

[3] Mk. 6.15; 8.28; Mt. 14.5; 16.14; 21.11, 46; Lk. 7.16, 39; 9.19; 24.19; Jn. 4.19; 6.14; 7.40; 9.17.

[4] Acts 13.1.

[5] Acts 15.32.

[6] Acts 21.10.

[7] Jn. 10.11 (I am the good shepherd.), Heb. 13.20 calls Jesus the great shepherd of the sheep, 1 Pet. 2.25 calls Jesus the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

[8] According to Tertullian Clement was ordained by St. Peter.  Jerome says that he was immediate successor of the Apostle, but in Illustrious Men 15, he states that he was the fourth pope.

[9] Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 42.

[10] In Letter to Corinthians 44, he wrote:

But concerning the apostles and prophets, according to the decree of the Gospel, thus do.  Let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord.  But he should not say longer than one day unless there is a need, when he can stay the next day.  But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet.  And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges.  If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.  And every prophet that speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven.  But not every one that speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he holds the ways of the Lord…  Every prophet who teaches the truth, if he does not live what he teaches, is a false prophet.

[11] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Magnesians, chpt. 6.

[12] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Smyrneans, chpt. 8.

[13] Ignatius, Letter to Smyrneans, chpt. VIII.

[14] His words,

Nor is there anyone in the church greater than the bishop, who ministers as a priest to God for the salvation of the whole world…  For if he that rises up against kings is justly held worthy of punishment, inasmuch as he dissolves public order, of how much sorer punishment, suppose, ye, shall be thought worthy, who presumes to do anything without the bishop, thus both destroying the [church’s] unity, and throwing its order into confusion?

highlight this point.

[15] Labour together with one another, act as athletes together, run together, suffer together, sleep together, rise together. As stewards of God, and of His household, and His servants, please Him and serve Him, that ye may receive from Him the wages [promised]. Let none of you be rebellious.

Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp, chapter 6.

[16] Shepherd, vision II.

[17] On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death

Tertullian, Apology 1. 39.  This reference pre-supposes persecution related situation.

[18] And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 67.

[19] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, vi.xiii, vii.vii

[20] “Since, according to my opinion, the grades here in the Church, of bishops, presbyters, deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory, and of that economy which, the Scriptures say, awaits those who, following the footsteps of the apostles, have lived in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel.”  Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, vi.xiii.

[21] In respect of that which our fellow-presbyters, Donatus and Fortunatus, Novatus and Gordius, wrote to me, I have not been able to reply by myself, since, from the first commencement of my episcopacy, I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people. But as soon as, by the grace of God, I shall have come to you, then we will discuss in common, as our respective dignity requires, those things which either have been or are to be done.

Cyprian, Epistle V.4.

[22] You have no wife, as Abraham had Sarah

Behold, your flock is your wife.

Bring up her children in your faithfulness!.

Hymns on Nisibis 19. 1.

[23] In that connection, Ephrem points out the tradition of the laying of hands.

The Most High came down onto Mount Sinai,

and he let his hand rest on Moses;

Moses put it on Aaron

and it reached all the way to John…

Our Lord gave it to his apostles,

and its transmission is still within our church.

Hymns against Heresies 22. 19, Engl. trans. Griffith, After Bardaisan, 134.

[24] Individual and group penance, mourning and repentance were expressions of cosmic and earthly dramas.  But this acting demanded constructive actions without which it becomes futile, for God cannot be fooled.  Therefore, it needs to be accompanied by justice for all, protection of the weak, trustworthy leadership and genuine faith.  St. Ephrem’s Memre on Nicomedia 15 hints that under the leadership of Bishop Vologeses, city of Nisibis submitted herself to this commitment, that in turn provided impetus for the deliverance of the city from the hands of the Persians.

Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church

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