Priesthood in the New Testament Era Church, 5.
February 12, 2017 6 Comments
After Jesus’ death, Christians followed the patterns of the synagogue and administered the Christian fellowship in each locality by a group of elders, or “presbyters.” Of course, there were the apostles and the great missionaries like Paul, and there were prophets. Prophets don’t seem to be located teachers, they travel, and they have liturgical authority, and they preach, but they don’t seem to be missionaries per se. [I’ll come back to prophets in the final post of the series.]
With the death of the apostles, and they don’t seem to get replaced,—it’s not completely clear why—partly it seems to be that they were seen—and may have seen themselves—as more eschatological officers. They certainly governed the early church, but it seems that they wanted less and less to do with practical governance issues, and you can see this in the controversies that developed over the temple and Jews and Gentile converts. Anyway, they sort of withdraw from local matters, they separate to preach, and they die. Some were killed like Peter and James (brother of John), others we don’t know about, but they die (I’ll leave John out of this—the Johannine literature is a complication on its own and something I don’t want to get into here).
After the temple and the death of the greats, the church seemed to gravitate towards a set pattern of administration, it’s local though, except for the prophets, who continue to travel from place to place. You find the beginnings of this localized administration in the Pauline Pastorals (Timothy, Titus). The Pastorals may reference Paul, but they are probably written well after Paul’s death. Paul (or Pseudo-Paul, Deutero-Paul, if you like) has a main concern in the Pastorals, get elders (presbyters) and “deacons,” (servants) appointed in every town, get a structure to administer to the poor and in general, teach the message and preserve that message against divergent teaching, preserve the proper (Christian) interpretation of the Old Testament, and certainly the tradition about Jesus, whatever that may have been. The important thing is church structures are being formed. It’s a gradual process. Joseph Smith’s early revelations seem to play on this vision of local church structure, at least verbally. For example, the texts that call for blessing the sick (D&C 42:44), or blessing babies (D&C 20:70).
Church administration is not uniform in the New Testament. But it seems pretty common that a group of presbyters is chosen after the synagogue pattern, and each group of elders oversees their own community. And sometimes they are called by that name, Overseer, a literal translation of the Greek term, episkopos. It’s a kind of hyphenated meaning. Epi (on, over, super) and skopos (look, watch). Someone(s) who supervised the community, its goods, its instruction, its care, its preservation, its moral life, and discipline. These people are chosen for stability. They aren’t selected for charisma or outstanding ability. The Pastorals instruct churches to seek for people who are balanced, prudent, married only one time (and this was firm apparently, widowers who remarried were barred from service). If they can’t control their own family, they can’t possibly administer the community. And their children have to be Christians.
That means some faithful persons, who converted later in life, and whose children weren’t Christian, were not to be episkopos, bishops, overseers, presbyters. Why not? Because only Models can serve. Someone who sets the ideal of the Christian life. This kind of thing seems inevitable. Once you set up a firm structure, seemingly artificial demands appear that reflect the ideal somehow, useful or not. And you can see a bit of this in modern Mormonism, though much of it is more tradition than fixed rules (or sometimes the rules change). Latter-day Saints saw similar constraints in other Christians (training for the ministry for example) and poked some fun there. But it always exists in any organization. These leaders that the Pastorals discuss are not “missionaries” like Paul, say. It has to be someone, people, that the group can get along with, they’re personable types. No recent converts—you can’t be sure of them. Not contentious, not angry. If Paul had actually written these, he probably wouldn’t be eligible himself (and he wouldn’t have been happy in such a spot). Next time, more on church officials, Jewish heritage, and the Christian office of “priest.”
 I know we Latter-day Saints sometimes like to connect the passing of the apostles with the withdrawal of priesthood (as we term it), but I think the narrative is more subtle than that. The idea is strongly connected to the way in which the Utah church saw it’s legitimacy. One interesting divergence from this idea of apostolic apostasy was Joseph F. Smith’s early twentieth-century priesthood narrative. Smith proposed that even the least priesthood holder could reorganize the entire church without angelic intervention, should the need arise. Everything was present in each such person. This raises some fascinating complexity in dealing with priesthood in the early Christian post-apostolic era. Smith’s idea wasn’t terribly popular in general, though parts of it were influential down the line. If you look at part 7, you’ll see a link to my paper on early Mormon priesthood in the winter 2013 issue of Dialogue which has some information on Joseph F. Smith’s ideas.
 Bishop arises from Old English, biscop, derived from vulgar [common] Latin, biscopus, imported from Greek: episkopos.