The Development of Institutional Organization in the Early Church -- By: Bruce M. Metzger

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 06:0 (NA 1973)
Article: The Development of Institutional Organization in the Early Church
Author: Bruce M. Metzger


The Development of Institutional
Organization in the Early Church

Bruce M. Metzger

Historical evidence shows that the early church underwent a gradual development, so that what originally was one people of God eventually became a hierarchial organization. At first the whole church, taking over the terminology of the Old Testament, called itself the Laos tou theou, the people of God. In the course of time we discover that the adjective laicos came to designate those members of the church that we would call today the laity, those members who had not received ordination. Thus there developed a great divide between the clergy on the one hand and the laity on the other. Solemn ordination or consecration by the laying on of hands was the form of admission into the several orders. These developed further into the greater orders—the diaconate, the presbyterate, the episcopate—which were held to be of divine institution. Under these greater orders were the minor orders of a later date, ranging from that of the subdeacon to the following: the lectors in charge of reading the scriptures in the assembly and of taking care of the church books; the acolytes, who were followers of the bishops in their official duties and processions, who carried the bread and the water and lit the candles; the exorcists, who by prayer and the laying on of hands cast out the evil spirits from the catechumens and frequently assisted in the ritual of baptism; the precentors or cantors, who took charge of the musical parts of the liturgy, singing of the psalms, the benedictions, the responses, etc.; the sextons, who took care of the religious meeting rooms and at a later period had charge also of the church grounds; and a variety of other suborders.

Such are the chief external changes in the growth or organization. It is necessary to consider some of the inner motives and inner forces that led to so great a differentiation within the one people of God, producing these several ranks and levels of clergy and their assistants. As might be expected,

scholars are not in agreement concerning the identification of these inner forces and motives that led to the growth of the ministry. In fact, very basic differences exist as to the nature of the church itself. On the one hand, some have held—particularly persons concerned chiefly with studying the individual and his religious psychology—that the primitive church and its organization involved nothing more than a group of believers united by external circumstances. They assume that the following is the order of priority: that the individual existed before the local congregation and that the local congregation existed before the universal church. They assume also that ecclesiastial officers and ministrie...

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