Ministries in the Church
When we had visitors at St Nicholas Orthodox Church last week, some were puzzled by the different ministers in the church, and this post is an attempt to explain them, especially for the benefit of Protestant visitors and others who may be wondering.
This is not intended for the instruction of the Orthodox, since I will often explain things in terms that may be unfamiliar to Orthodox Christians, but which may be more familiar to Protestants.
There are two basic kinds of ministries, which can be referred to as ordained ministries and charismatic ministries. The former are sometimes referred to as the threefold ministry, and the latter as the fivefold ministry.
Ordained ministries (threefold ministry)
- Bishops (overseers, episkopi)
- Priests (elders, presvyteri)
- Deacons (servants, dhiakoni)
Charismatic ministries (fivefold ministry)
This pattern is an oversimplification, but includes ministries mentioned in the New Testament and in other early Christian literature. The “fivefold ministry” comes from Ephesians 4:11, and the “three fold ministry” from various passages in the New Testament, such as Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:1-13; I Timothy 5:17-22. St Paul does not give definitions of these ministries in the New Testament — he assumes that his readers know what they are, because they are already among them. He just gives qualifications for selection and how they should be treated (and the qualifications are not academic). There are other references in Acts 14:23 and 20:17, and also Revelation 4:4.
The “fivefold ministry” is something of a misnomer, however, because Romans 12:4-6 gives a slightly different list of ministries, and there are others mentioned in other parts of the New Testament.
To gain a fuller picture we need to look at other early Christian literature, sometimes assisted by art and archaeology, and the continuing practice of the Church.
In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that those who were baptised on the day of Pentecost continued in “the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). And Orthodox Christians believe that the Orthodox Church has continued in those four things, without a break, from that day to this. There have been schisms, which have broken the apostles fellowship, but though schismatic groups have broken away, the Orthodox Church has continued.
This continuity of fellowship and teaching is known as “apostolic succession”, and it is maintained visibly through the bishops. The bishop is the chief elder of the local church, and is ordained by other bishops. And after ordination the bishop prays for the chief bishop of the region, who may be called a Pope, a Patriarch, a Catholicos, a Metropolitan or Archbishop. And the chief bishops pray for the others, whose names are written in special books called diptychs.
Within the local church (called a diocese or eparchy) the bishop is the focus of unity. The Eucharist can only be celebrated with the bishop, or a priest (elder) authorised by him. The authorisation takes the form of a special cloth, the antimension, which is laid on the table on which the Eucharist is celebrated. The antimension is signed by the bishop, as a sign that the congregation gathered is continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Thus the bishop is a link between the local church and the universal church. This is very important to Orthodox Christians, and forms an important part of Orthodox ecclesiology. The link is in time as well as in space. Some other Christian bodies, such as the Roman Catholics and Anglicans, have bishops among their ministries, but they are not quite as significant in maintaining the unity of the body. For Roman Catholics the unity is through one bishop, the bishop of Rome, who is in effect a kind of bishop of bishops. Among Anglicans the ties are weaker, with some (the “high church”) believing that bishops are important and others (the “low church”) thinking that they are less so. For more on the difference between Orthodox ecclesiology and other ecclesiologies, see my article on Orthodoxy and emerging church revisited. For more on the theologybehind this see Zizioulas on ministry and communion.
Priests are the second of the threefold ministry. The English word priest is derived from the Greek presvyteros, which means “elder”. But “elders” are usually plural in the New Testament. A church has one bishop, many elders. In Revelation chapter 4 there are 24 elders around the throne. The description in the chapter is very much a description of an Orthodox service. One New Testament lecturer, describing how it came to be written, began, “John went to sleep in church one day…”. The worship of the Orthodox Church on earth is meant to reflect the worship of heaven. The central part of the bread for communion is called “the Lamb”. The holy table is also called thr “throne”. The elders stand around the throne at the sides, while the deacons stand at the corners.
In the absence of the bishop one of the priests (elders) presides at the Eucharist as his representative, using the antimension as described above. A parish priest, sometimes called a pastor, shares the oversight of the bishop in a particular congregation or parish, but not independently of the bishop. Priests also anoint the sick and hear the confessions of the church members . James 5:14-18 describes this, and note that it is plural. The office of anointing the sick in the Orthodox Church, if done fully, needs seven priests and seven deacons. A Coptic bishop, demonstrating the blessing of the oil for anointing the sick, said “this is the way St Mark taught us to do it when he came in AD 42.” And though the Copts have been in schism from the Orthodox Church for 1400 years, the way of doing the anointing of the sick has remained substantially unchanged in all that time.
Those who attended Vespers at St Nicholas Church in Brixton last week may have noticed that one of the priests present, Fr Athanasius Akunda, spent the first part of the service in a chapel hearing confessions, while another, Fr Kobus van der Riet, presided at the service.
If we go back in time 1700 years, and go to the other end of the African continent, what do we see? Bishop Kallistos Ware gives this description:
If we had been visiting a church beside the Nile soon after the year 300, what kind of parish community might we have found? For an answer let us turn to the fragmentary document known as the Apostolic Church Order. This begins by mentioning the bishop, who is not yet a distant administrator, but still the immediate head of the local community, the normal celebrant at the Sunday eucharist. He is assisted in the parish worship by two or more presbyters, by a reader and three deacons. Thus far there are no great surprises, except that the reader seems to rank higher than the deacons. The parochial staff is larger than what is customary today; but, apart perhaps from the bishop, most of the others are doubtless earning their own living with ordinary jobs. The Apostolic Church Order does not stop, however, with the deacons. After them it goes on to speak of three widows, “two to persevere in prayer for all who are in temptation and to receive revelations when they are needed; and one to help the women who are ill.”
There are several things to interest us here. First of all we observe the size and diversity of the local parish ministry. There is no clericalism, no concentration of responsibility exclusively in the hands of a single, full-time “professional.” Next, we see that the ministry includes women as well as men. The women are not just elderly ladies who arrange the flowers and prepare cups of tea, but they constitute a specific ministry or order recognized by the Church; they are more or less equivalent — although not actually given such a title — to the deaconesses mentioned elsewhere in early Christian sources While one of the three is entrusted with charitable or social work, the other two have tasks immediately connected with prayer and worship. It is noteworthy that the particular role assigned to them is the ministry of intercession and prophecy. Although it is the calling of every Christian, male as well as female, to pray for others and to listen to God, yet woman by virtue of her gift for direct and intuitive understanding seems especially blessed to act as intercessor and prophet. It is no coincidence that the symbolic figure of Orans on the walls of the Catacombs, representing the Christian soul waiting upon the Spirit, should take the form of a woman.
Once we get into the ministry of intercession and prophecy, we are getting beyond the “threefold” ministry and into the “fivefold” ministry. Again, Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:
But the Church is not only hierarchical, it is charismatic and Pentecostal. “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings” (I Thessalonians v, 19-20). The Holy Spirit is poured out upon all God’s people. There is a special ordained ministry of bishops, priests and deacons; yet at the same time the whole people of God are prophets and priests. In the Apostolic Church, besides the institutional ministry conferred by the laying on of hands, there were other charismata or gifts conferred directly by the Spirit: Paul mentions “gifts of healing”, the working of miracles, “speaking with tongues”, and the like (I Corinthians xii, 28-30). In the Church of later days these charismatic ministries have been less in evidence, but they have never been wholly extinguished.
The ordained ministries of bishops priests and deacons are ministries of order; Bishop Kallistos calls them “hierarchical”. It is not that they lack gifts of the Holy Spirit; on the contrary, the bishops need to discern the working of the Spirit in those who are to be ordained by the laying on of hands. But they are discerned beforehand, and the ministry is conferred in a deliberate act by the Church.
The charismatic ministries are different. No one is “ordained” as a prophet. They are recognised by the Church as prophets when they prophesy truly. There are saints in the Orthodox Church called “equal to the apostles”, but no one called them that in their lifetime. After they had died the Church recognised that they had a church-planting ministry. They had planted churches where there had been none before. St Nicholas Church in Brixton is named for St Nicholas Kasatkin, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Enlightener of Japan. He was a missionary in Japan in the 19th century, and planted the Orthodox Church there.
St Nicholas of Japan was a priest, and eventually became a bishop, but it was not his ordination that made him an apostle, it was his ministry as a church planter. St Nina of Georgia was a a slave girl, but she took the Christian faith to Georgia, and so she too is called Enlightener of Georgia and Equal-to-the-Apostles.
A few years ago there was a best-selling novel, The da Vinci code by Dan Brown, which was based on the nonsensical notion that the Church had tried to denigrate St Mary Magdalene and keep her out of sight. On the contrary, she too is called “Equal-to-the-Apostles” because she was a witness of the resurrection and took the good news to the other apostles.
The ministry of prophecy is seen most clearly in the ministry of what are often called “clairvoyant spiritual elders”. The English term “spiritual elders” distinguishes them from ordained elders (ie priests). The distinction is clearer in Greek, where the priest, or ordained elder, is presvyteros, while the spiritual elder is geron (or gerondissa if female). Some spiritual elders have been priests, but others have not. Among Pentecostal Christians much is often made of such manifestations of the Spirit as “the word of wisdom” or “word of knowledge” (I Corinthians 12:8) and indeed any Christian, moved by the Spirit may utter such words, words that God wants someone to hear. But that does not necessarily mean that such a person has a regular ministry of uttering such words. All God’s people may prophesy on occasion, but not all have a regular ministry as prophets. Clairvoyant spiritual elders, on the other hand, do have such a regular ministry, recognised by the church.
How is this ministry recognised by the church? Not by choosing a day to ordain a person and saying “now you will be a clairvoyant spiritual elder”, but rather by acknowledging the words of wisdom and words of knowledge spoken by the spiritual elder. Also not by self-promotion and advertising. There are no posters with pictures of the spiritual elder with, announcing “Miracles every night!” His name is not advertised in lights, as is done by some Western healing evangelists, whose names are given more prominence than that of Jesus. No, rather it is done in humility, as portrayed in the film Ostrov (the Island), where people come to the spiritual elder for advice, and he pretends to get it from someone else who is hidden out of sight. The true spiritual elder knows that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (II Corinthians 12:9), and not by the the size of the car or the poshness of the house.
So the Church recognises the prophetic ministry of clairvoyant spiritual elders by coming to them for spiritual advice and guidance, even after they are dead, for even while they were visibly walking on the earth they were already dead to the world.
People may have more than one ministry in the Church. St Stephen and St Philip were among the first deacons ordained in the Church (Acts 6:5-6) but the next two chapters show that both were evangelists as well. A priest assigned by the bishop to a parish may be a pastor and part of his ministry will be pastoral — caring for the people. But others in the parish may also have a pastoral ministry, visiting the sick, for example.
When you visit St Nicholas Church in Brixton, Johannesbutrg, in the year 2009, how does it differ from the church beside the Nile in the year 300? What do you see?
In some ways it doesn’t differ very much. On visitors night there were three priests and two deacons. One priest and one deacon were visitors, while two of the priests and one deacon were regulars. There were a couple of readers, a choir to lead the singing, and some acolytes in the altar who carried candles in the procession.
I once read an article about Dutch Reformed Church architecture in South Africa. It said that the main object in designing a church building was to bring about the greatest closeness between each member of the audience (gehoor) and the preacher. Dutch Reformed Church architecture has gone through several periods. There were rectangular buildings in the early days, followed by stone structures with spires. Around the 1940s there were octagonal buildings built with golden face bricks and spires with roosters on top, and those were followed by ones with double pitched roofs and no spires. But in all the object was maximum rapport between preacher and audience, and it was an audience (gehoor), not a congregation (gemeente). And so the focus of the attention is on one man.
In an Orthodox Church, what do you see?
Not the priest. For the most part the priest stays hidden out of sight behind the ikon stand (ikonostasis), at Vespers coming out only for the procession of light and the final blessing.
So they haven’t come to see the priest or to hear him. There wasn’t even a sermon. What they see is the ikons, of Christ and the saints and the angels, and the other members of the congregation. Occasionally a deacon comes out from the altar either to lead prayers of intercession or petition, or to cense the ikons and the people. The ikons and the people are one congregation, one people, one church. At times in the services we kiss each other, and we kiss the ikons of the siants. We kiss our fellow Christians who walk the earth today, and those who walked the earth 100 or 1000 years ago. We are one in Christ.
At Vespers the priests and deacons go round the church in a procession with the acolytes carrying lighted lamps, and a deacon carrying incense., thus fulfilling the mandate to Aaron thousands of years ago, “and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exodus 30:8).
The architecture is different because the purpose is different. It is attractional, in that, as Philip said to Nathaniel, we say “Come and see”. , but it is not “seeker sensitive”, because it is not intended to tickle the ears or delight the eye (though it may well do both of those things, but that is not the primary purpose).
You do not see or hear one man speaking, but a community doing something together. There are several different ministries, different people have different parts. As Father Alexander Schmemann puts it
What is to be restored, or rather rediscovered, is the relation of the Church and of the individual Christian to the time of day, the relation which was (and theoretically still is) the theme, the content of the daily services. For these were not meant to be “prayer breaks,” periods of spiritual refreshment and “peace of mind,” but truly liturgical acts, that is, acts performed on behalf of and for the whole community, as an essential part of the redeeming mission of the Church.
Contrary ot our secular experience of time, the liturgical day begins with Vespers, i.e. in the evening. This is, of course, the reminiscience of the biblical “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gn 1:5). Yet it is more than a reminiscence. For it is, indeed, the end of each “unit” of time that reveals its pattern and meaning, that gives time its reality. Time is always growth, but only at the end can we discern the direction of that growth and see its fruits. It is at the end, in the evening of each day, that God sees His creation as good; it is at the end of creation that He gives it to man. And thus it is at the end of the day that the Church begins the liturgy of time’s sanctification.
We come to church, we who are in the world having lived through many hours filled, as usual, with work and rest, suffering and joy, hatred and love. Men died and men were born. For some it was the happiest day of their life, a day to be remembered for ever. And for some others it brought an end of all their hopes, the destruction of their very soul. And the whole day is now here — unique, irreversible, irreparable. It is gone, but its results, its fruits, will shape the next day, for what we have done once remains for ever.
But the vesperal service does not begin as a religious “epilogue” of the day, as a prayer added to all its other experience. It begins at the beginning and this means in the “rediscovery,” in adoration and thanksgiving, of the world as God’s creation. The Church takes us, as it were, to that first evening on which man, called by God to life, opened his eyes and saw what God in his love was giving to him, saw all the beauty, all the glory of the temple in which he was standing, and rendered thanks to God. And in this thanksgiving he became himself.