Finding Church (Part 3):Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
As we have considered “Finding Church” in the apostolic and post-apostolic era we have found emerging communities of faith that we can recognize. Even in the churches described by Justin Martyr in the year AD 155, there were doubtless those who had either heard one or the other of the apostles, or, at the very least, knew someone who had been taught by them. By this time, no doubt, copies of the Gospels and the apostolic letters were being circulated, but the oral tradition of early Christianity remained strong. There also can be little doubt that those who were participating in those services described by the writer of the Didache and Justin Martyr believed that they had apostolic sanction for their manner and mode of worship. The similarities in the manner and mode of worship across geographical distances and varying cultural norms indicates that there was, in some sense, a common worship that one might encounter as a believer, whether in Antioch, or Damascus, or Rome. Again, all of this is to say that based upon the evidence, we have a pretty good idea of what the Church looked like in this early period.
Yet, there is more evidence as to the “Church beyond the Church”. That is, it is apparent from the early writings that, “Church” did not end at the church door. Justin Martyr tells us that when the Eucharist was celebrated, at it’s conclusion “those who are called ‘deacons’ are given the bread and the wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving (eucharistias) was pronounced, and they carry away a portion to those who were not present…” In other words, the Eucharist was considered central enough to the worship and devotional life of believers that consecrated bread and wine was taken to those who, for whatever reason, could not be present owing to age, illness, infirmity or, even those in prison. To be “Church” was to be a participant in the Eucharist and to be a participant in the Eucharist was to be “Church”. In the apostolic and post-apostolic era, we can come to no other possible conclusion.
There was, however, even more evidence of the “Church beyond the Church” and it has to do with money. At the conclusion of the service, after the deacons had been dismissed, Justin describes what next took place. “And then those who have the means, and are so disposed, give as much as they will; and what is collected is deposited with the one who presides, who himself supports and cares for the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are prisoners, and the foreigners [read here, “immigrants”] who are sojourning among us and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”
Now, there are things we know from this period and there are things that we don’t know. For instance, we know that there were those who were “clergy” in our understanding of the word. Ignatius of Antioch refers to bishops (episkopos), while elsewhere we find presbyters, elders and, by the end of the second century, priests (sacerdos). Most church historians believe that initially (as in Ignatius) there was an overseer (episkopos) appointed by the Apostles for local churches founded on their various missionary journeys. We have glimpses of this in the Pauline letters. As the churches grew and multiplied the bishops appointed presbyters to partake of their ministry of oversight and to preside at the Eucharist in yet other local assemblies. All of this takes place at a very early date and is referenced in numerous writings. Yet, we do not know how such clergy were supported. While we understand that, ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire” it seems likely that many, if not most, clergy in the early period were bi-vocational or “worker priests”. Again, however, we have no certain evidence apart from warnings in the Didache about itinerant preachers who overstay their welcome!
What we can be certain of, is that the early Church took seriously the demands of Christian charity toward the “least of these”. In the future, we will be discussing the sort of physical structures in which early Christians worshipped. For now it is perhaps enough to say that often these were buildings that early believers “re-purposed” for worship and that most often the building or home was given as a gift by a member of the local church. The money collected at the end of the Eucharist in Justin, therefore, was not for a salary or a building program. Rather it was a direct fulfillment of Matthew 25 and the other gospel imperatives. Indeed, we know that in the later letters of the emperor Julian the Apostate (fourth century) he complains at length that the Christians were known for not only taking care of their own (that is, fellow believers) but instead taking care of all who were in need, even those who were their enemies and persecutors. This sort of giving was a practical and well known hallmark of the Church for centuries. Moreover, while it was, in some sense, the responsibility of all believers, the clergy bore special responsibility for the exercise of practical care for those in need. Additionally, the specific categories of those in need remain with us today.
In seeking to find Church, I think we find it not only in its worship, structure and order. We also find it in its values.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD