The Early Church Threefold Ministry
The Early Church

A hierarchical ordering of Christian ministry in the ranks of bishop, priest, and deacon.

Bishop with symbols of office: chair, scepter, rod, bible, crown and mantle

Threefold ministry: In this ordering bishops preside over a given locality assisted by a second group of ministers, presbyters, or priests, and a third group, deacons. The church of the New Testament era had a plethora of offices in varying places. In some places there seems to have been greater definition of these offices and in other places lesser definition. Nomenclature is fluid throughout this era. None of these offices more than anticipates the later offices defined by the threefold ministry. Nowhere in the New Testament, for example, is there an indication that presidency at Holy Communion is attached to any office.

Bishop: In the New Testament, bishops and presbyters are usually synonymous, and most often functioned as a group. In the beginning of the second century Ignatius of Antioch contends for the rule of one bishop over both presbyters and deacons in the congregation. By the end of the second century the common pattern was for one bishop to preside over a group of presbyters and deacons in a single congregation, although patterns continued to vary for some time. Bishops in the West, for example, retained early on the privilege of completing baptisms by anointing baptizands with oil. This is the origin of the rite of confirmation in the West. In the East this ritual remained a part of the rite of baptism and was administered by presbyters. In both East and West, bishops were increasingly accorded the power to ordain after this rite gained identity. This pattern eventually entirely displaced the previously diverse commissioning practices of the church of the New Testament era.

Presbyter: As the church grew larger presbyters assumed the care of individual congregations while bishops oversaw groups of congregations and retained certain prerogatives not only in the region but in individual congregations. The office of presbyter was primarily defined by the privilege to administer the sacramental rites in the congregation, although ordination was early restricted to bishops in both East and West. Confirmation as well was restricted to bishops in the West.

Deacon: In the New Testament, deacons have a variety of functions. Although some may have been given the function of distributing food, many functioned as evangelists, teachers, and readers. Later, deacons were thought of primarily as assistants to bishops and presbyters. As the office gained definition in the early centuries, deacons were assigned liturgical duties including the reading of lessons from the epistles and the gospels, the gathering of alms, dismissal of the catechumens, and the distribution of the elements to communicants. Deacons were also often responsible for the administering of alms in the congregation. There were also women deaconesses in the early church.

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Photo courtesy of Craig Koester.