Monday, May 19, 2008

What did leaders do in the early church?

The past couple of days I've been looking at some work Allen Brent has done on Ignatius and the development of church structures through the second century. He's a bit of a maverick scholar which makes him really interesting (and exasperating in equal measure!)

Following a conversation with Parush Parushev a couple of days ago, I have been reflecting on what leaders actually needed to do rather than just on how they were labelled. Parush spoke about the need for people to embody the message, once the apostles had died.

Brent argues that the so-called three-fold ministry - bishops, presbyters and deacons - in Ignatius' letters were the τυποι (the Greek word for mark, impression or type). He suggests that leaders represent God and the Spirit-filled council of the apostles - that is to say, the three-fold ministry together embodied the gospel, they were in effect the continuing incarnation. This is why they mattered so much and why Ignatius urges his readers to obey them.

It's a fascinating idea. But I have a couple of questions.

Brent seems to assume a single church group in each city that Ignatius wrote to led by a single bishop. But in the case of Rome this is almost certainly not the case (as Jeffers and Osiek have persuasely argued in various monographs). So, how would Brent's model work in small houshold-based congregations of the kind we're familiar with from Paul's letters?

And Brent seems to assume that the pattern of church life Ignatius argues for was the norm in every city. Yet Ritva Williams has argued that Ignatius may well have been prophetically arguing for this model in churches that had not adopted it (and wouldn't adopt it for a good hundred years).

I am very interested in the idea of leadership/ministry as the embodiment of the good news, not just the vehicle for its communication; that leaders taught as much by their lifestyle as by their words. This is certainly what Paul argues about himself when he calls on churches to imitate him (1 Cor 4, 11; Phil 3 etc). Is it also what the apostolic fathers are arguing in their letters - not so much in their words but in how they construct their arguments and how they encourage their readers to view them? I'm not sure whether this makes sense but I will explore it more and maybe blog in due course if I can think of something intelligent to say!

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