October 22, 2019

The Emergence of the Identity, Mission, Order, and Structure of the Early Church

INTRODUCTION

When Jesus proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God, he formed a community of faith that believed in him as the Son of God sent to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles with God. The members of the Early Church were, in that sense, a community of believers in Christ who were committed to the values of his Gospel and their mission to proclaim Jesus as the Lord and Savior of all peoples. Though this essay is on “The Emergence of the Early Church’s Identity, Mission, Order, and Structure” it is not intended to determine whether Jesus actually established and defined the nature and structure of the Church from its inception. For the Church is primarily a direct extension and end-result of Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom. Rather, what is considered and explored in this article is how the Early Church carefully defined itself, namely, its identity, mission, order, and structure, in order to, maintain some level of continuity and discontinuity from its past.

This development is worth investigating not just because the Early Church was increasingly composed of diverse groups and cultures which reshaped its vision and mission. More importantly, God’s divine plan was fully actualized in the Church as a result of these initiatives and modifications. In what follows in this essay, I will argue that the Early Church creatively conformed itself to God’s plan in defining its identity, mission, and structure in light of the pastoral developments it faced. In spite of these developments and challenges, the Church was able to grow and mature until it became a structured and centralized institution in the early part of the fourth century with the promulgation of the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine.

THE IDENTITY CRISIS OF THE EARLY CHURCH

The people who first heard the Gospel of Christ and believed in him were predominantly Jews. His initial followers were, therefore, part of the chosen people of God that God promised to save from their enemies and oppressors. They were, accordingly, bound and faithful to their religious origins and identity which required them to observe the Law and traditions of Moses. For that reason, they could not completely discard or reject everything they inherited from their religious tradition even after their conversion from Judaism. In spite of their heritage and loyalty, they were eager to distinguish themselves in the society because the Law and the Prophets they respected and observed were ultimately fulfilled in Christ. They eventually succeeded in portraying their uniqueness because as Richard McBrien noted, “what distinguished them from their fellow Jews was their belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that in him God’s end time had dawned.” [1] Consequently, the early Christians were faced with an identity crisis as members of Christ’s Body, the Church living among other Jews who did not believe in Jesus. They were obliged, in that case, to clearly define their identity as members of the new people of God who are privileged to witness the fulfillment of God’s promise in their own day and age. At that point, “they considered themselves the vanguard of a renewed Israel in the time of fulfillment.” [2]

In the early days of the Church after Pentecost, the early Christians were associated with both the Temple and the Synagogue (Acts 2:46; 3:1). The transition from Judaism to Christianity was, therefore, not too sudden and drastic because it occurred in stages over a period of time. For the early Christians still identified themselves with some of the institutions of Judaism. Indeed, the majority of the first generation of Christians regarded themselves as faithful Jews and saw their faith in Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism. Christianity began as a messianic sect within Judaism and during most of New Testament period it was seeking to establish its own identity. [3]

As a result of their respective beliefs, there was tension, conflict, and mistrust between the followers of Christ and the Jews when they gathered in the Temple and Synagogue to worship. The members of the Early Church, subsequently, began to “gather in their homes for their own [liturgical] assemblies in which other Jews who did not follow Jesus were not participants.” [4] In these house churches, they proclaimed their faith in Jesus they believe is alive and present in their midst in the Eucharist they celebrate.

In reaction to the opposition and hostility they encountered from the Jews, the early Christians were compelled in the first half of the century to worship in their own house churches. They devoted themselves in these house churches to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42). Their liturgy was, in that sense, informed by the Synagogue liturgy of the Word of God, Prayer, and Blessings. But their sense of identity and consciousness as a distinct group within Israel was greatly intensified, especially, when the religious leaders of the Jews in collaboration with the Roman authorities began to arrest the members of the Church for proclaiming Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Following the vicious persecutions carried out by Saul and the death of James – the first of the Apostles to be martyred around AD. 42 – and Peter’s imprisonment by Herod (Acts 12:1-5), “the Early Church became a separate entity – the third race, over and against the Jews … The break resulted into an immense shift in how Christians saw themselves and how they saw Jesus.” [5] They had a good reason to fully distinguish themselves from the rest of the Jews while retaining their heritage as the new chosen people of God. At that stage, it was their identity crisis that generated “an awareness of the Early Church’s apocalyptic hope, which also, contributed to the gulf between the Church and the Synagogue.” [6]

THE MISSION OF THE EARLY CHURCH

The mission of the Early Church was mainly to continue the ministry and saving work of Jesus, in accordance with, his mandate to the Apostles. Like Jesus, the missionaries of the Early Church were also committed to preaching the Good News of the Kingdom to their fellow Jews, namely, the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Mt. 10: 7; Acts 2:36-41). However, when the majority of the Jews failed to respond to the message and accept the faith, the Early Church gradually turned its attention to the Samaritans and Gentiles, in order to, fulfill its obligation to proclaim the Good News to all nations (Acts 8:14-17; 11:12-18; Rom. 11:11-13). By extending its mission to the Gentiles, the Church was “both distinct from and in continuity with historic Israel because its founder is the messiah, and yet it is distinct because without excluding Israel, it now embraces all the nations.” [7] Once the Jews rejected the Gospel, the Early Church fully opened itself to the Samaritans and Gentiles following the example of Christ during his own public ministry.

These non-Christians communities were initially excluded from the Church because “the mission to the Gentiles had not yet begun. The Christian message whatever its content was in the understanding of these first believers was a message for Jews.” [8] But with the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the Gospel was proclaimed to the Samaritans and finally to Gentiles through the missionary journeys of the Apostles, especially, St. Paul and his co-workers. Although St. Paul was not one of the twelve Apostles that Jesus sent to baptize and teach in his name, he specifically received from Christ his mandate to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles as stated in Acts 9:15-16. The mission to the Gentiles was, in that sense, an extraordinary one. Nonetheless, it was an essential mission of the Church that could not be abandoned or underrated. For the mission to the Gentiles was not just St. Paul’s own initiative; it was a mission undertaken in obedience to the Spirit of Christ and in accordance with God’s universal plan of salvation in Christ Jesus. This change in focus and priority meant that “the early stages of the Church’s life was not only continuous with Jesus, but also the later stages represented by St. Paul are continuous with the early stages represented by Peter.” [9] The significance of the Early Church’s response and commitment to the Gentile mission should greatly be appreciated even today because that was what opened the door for peoples of other nations and cultures throughout the ages to become members of the one Church of Christ.

Once the Gentiles became members of the Early Church that was originally composed of Jews and Hellenistic Jewish Christians, the Church was faced with the challenge of maintaining unity in diversity in its community gatherings. The authorities of the Church, therefore, had to address the issue of integrating non-Jewish converts into the community of believers without imposing their religious and cultural practices on these converts. As a result of their different religious and cultural background, “unity and diversity was vital and crucial in the Apostolic period. The diverse life experience of different communities caused their faith in Jesus to also be expressed in different terms and frames of references.” [10] First, the Jews insisted that the Gentile converts should be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses before they can be baptized or allowed to participate in the Eucharistic meals of the community. But their demand was rejected by St. Paul. He insisted that the Gentiles should only believe or profess faith in Jesus before they can be baptized and accepted in the Church. Eventually, when St. Paul confronted St. Peter about his attitude towards the Gentiles, which was influenced by the Judaizes in Gal. 2:11-14, the matter was resolved at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:23-29. The decision that was taken in this august Council was very sensitive to the concerns, convictions, and beliefs of the different members of the Early Church. However, the decision was in favor of the Gentiles without necessarily jeopardizing the common faith of all the members of the Church in Christ Jesus.

Among the different challenges and questions the Early Church had to address, perhaps the most contentious and delicate of all was whether the Gentiles should become members of the Church without undergoing circumcision. The issue was delicate because it was an internal matter concerning membership and there was some disagreement among believers themselves. The unity, growth, and future stability of the Early Church were clearly at stake. However, the Council was able to discern and implement God’s will by reaching a consensus on what qualifies the Gentiles to become members of the Church. The decision was not only acceptable by all parties concerned, it proved to be the right decision that did not contradict what God already ordained in his wisdom (Acts 15:14-17). One can, therefore, claim that it was precisely in moments of controversies and crisis like this incident that the Early Church creatively conformed itself to God’s universal plan of salvation. For by the end of the first century, the Jewish and Gentiles Christians were a unity in diversity in the one Church of Christ. This unity in diversity which was and still remains an inherent feature of the universal Church today needs to be safeguarded and appreciated even in complex pastoral situations.

Although the Church in Jerusalem was predominantly composed of Jews, the churches in Gentile territories under St. Paul in places like Antioch, Ephesus, Colossae, and Rome were a mixture of both Jewish and Gentiles Christians. These churches also became separate from the Synagogues where other Jews gathered to pray in these territories but prior to the separation, the Synagogues were utilized by those who founded these churches. The ones who first preached the Gospel in Rome, for instance, would have also preached in the Synagogue in Rome before the Church was established. Therefore, “the Church in Rome which Paul addresses while consisting largely of ethnic Gentiles, was well acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures and the role of the Law in Jewish practice.” [11] One cannot, consequently, argue that by the time St. Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome “there was no ongoing contact between the Church and the Synagogue [apart from] the good relationship maintained by Christians and Jews at the individual level.” [12] As a Jew and an advocate of a reconstituted Israel (Rom. 11:13-15), St. Paul would not have encouraged a division between the two groups because for him they ought to welcome each other for the glory of God as he indicated in Rom.15:7. Even though the Roman authorities never linked or associated Christianity with Judaism during Nero’s persecution, the Jewish and Gentile Christians were still interrelated in faith as a community of believers.

ORDER AND STRUCTURE OF THE EARLY CHURCH

The various ways in which the communities of the Early Church were ordered and structured suggest that there was no definite and fixed pattern of organization imposed on the Church. As the Church spread beyond Jerusalem and encountered new pastoral challenges and situations, the Apostles and their successors devised creative ways and means of arranging and organizing the local churches. Since the Gospels provided few details about how the Church that was established in the name of Jesus was to be organized and structured, the Early Church was faced with the responsibility of defining not just its identity, but also its own system of organization according to the needs and challenges of the times. There was obvious need for a structured system, in order to, preserve the Church from the dangers and threats it encountered at that time. In light of these challenges, opposition, and needs the emerging Church did not [equally] stress unchangeability or fixity of structures positively determined by an immutable decision …; open to God’s universal presence, the early communities were tentative, provisional, and free to experiment in regard to their order and structure and in relation to the peculiarities of various moments and contexts. [13]

Again, the Early Church was able to take practical initiatives in response to the new pastoral situations it faced. In this case, the system of organization it devised in its provisional experimentation was clearly not arbitrary. The evidence from Eph. 4:11-12 and 1Tim. 3:1-13 fully supports this viewpoint. Moreover, these organizational structures of the Early Church were effective in serving its needs so it means that the system and measures adopted were in accordance with God’s design for the Church.

From the comments above, it is clear that the Early Church was not a uniform and unchangeable entity situated within one geographical area. Rather, it was a composition of different communities as the Gospel was proclaimed in different regions and contexts. In the book The Churches the Apostles left behind, Raymond Brown would specifically identify seven different Traditions or Heritage that reflected the Early Church’s interests, orientation, and organization. The Pauline Tradition alone manifests different structural characteristics within itself because of different concerns, namely, sound doctrine and moral discipline within the Church. In view of his mission and mandate as an Apostle to the Gentiles,

Paul was not satisfied to make individual converts, he was intent upon building community, establishing Christian assemblies, and equipping them with the means to right worship, effective pastoral care, and catechetical instruction. For example, Paul encouraged recognition and respect for authority in the local Christian assembly (1Th. 5:12-13; 1Cor. 16:15-16). At Corinth, Paul lays down rules for charismatics who speak in tongues no one understands and has equally firm rules for the many prophetic voices in the assembly who all want to be heard (1Cor. 14;1-). [14]

In discussing the Church’s mission today later on in this article, I will expound on these points of interest.  The Johannine Tradition and its communitarian structure, on the other hand, was more careful about emphasizing the Spirit as the Teacher of all. The author also acknowledged and supported authority in the Church (3 Jn.10). These concerns, as well as, the structural organization of the Synagogue were ultimately what influenced the way the Pauline and Johannine communities were respectively structured. In response to local needs that called for a structured order, the Early Church had to adapt itself to new pastoral situations. In the case of some of the Pauline communities [that] are deficient …, that deficiency was remedied and presbyter-bishops appointed …, the Jewish synagogues had groups of elders or presbyters who set Synagogue policy. Christian presbyters, however, had a pastoral supervising role that went beyond their Jewish counterparts … it is plausible that from the Synagogue, Christians borrowed a pattern of groups of presbyters for each church. [15]

As the evidence in Acts 6:1-6 indicates, only the deacons initially had a special ministry alongside the Apostles. However, as the need arose for greater pastoral supervision, moral discipline, and proper doctrinal and liturgical formation in the local churches, the elders or presbyters and oversees were co-opted into the hierarchical structure of the Early Church. For instance, “in Rome and Corinth the two offices of presbyter and bishop began to merge into each other  … both churches were led by a college of presbyters who were also called bishops. In addition, there were deacons.” [16] Eventually, the two collegial structures, namely, elders and oversees, on the one hand, and deacons, on the other, would gradually increase in scope and number from the end of the first century onwards. This development clearly marks a shift that represents a continuity and discontinuity from the past. In fact, “there were deaconess, though they eventually disappeared … Other offices, such as charismatics (also called prophets), widows, and virgins all held a certain respected position amounting to an order in the Church.” [17] But the growing concern for unity of faith and right doctrine greatly contributed to the gradual suppression of some ministerial and charismatic gifts of the members of the Church. The action was taken for a pastoral reason but the attempt to suppress the charismatic spirit in the Church is historically and theologically difficult to justify. For, all of the gifts and charisms have the Holy Spirit as their common source (1Cor. 12:11). Some of these gifts are clearly charismatic, for example, the gifts of tongues, but others are just as clearly administrative or institutional, for example, teaching and presiding (Rom. 12:7; Eph. 4:11-12). [18]

In addition to the fact that the administrative office of the Church is itself a charism, it is also important to note that the Church itself has an inherent charismatic dimension because the Church was co-instituted by both the Word and the Spirit. The Early Church’s intent to suppress the charismatic spirit in the Church is, in that sense, a contentious issue that should caution the Church today to be more thorough and thoughtful in its reaction towards charismatic groups.

In order to maintain continuity and at the same time preserve its identity, the Early Church also ensured that the Apostolic Tradition inherited from the Apostles was legitimately handed down and preserved by their successors. There was no community, in that case, that did not have a legitimately appointed leader to maintain apostolic succession when the time of the Apostles came to an end. In spite of this measure, the Church was faced with difficulties during this post-Apostolic period of transition. At that critical stage, the Church’s apostolicity was endangered, weakened, and disregarded by some individuals and groups who were not faithful to the Church’s hierarchical authority. Such incidents clearly revealed that it was not enough for the Early Church to only agree on proclaiming the same doctrine as proof that they have preserved the authentic Apostolic teaching … [Therefore] the concept of Apostolic succession as the regular succession of one teacher of faith after another in the pastoral leadership of the churches was stressed. [but] we do not find them stressing the idea of transmission of sacred power through sacramental ordination. [19]

The above statement suggests that in the Early Church, apostolicity was defended and preserved in both faith and ministry and that, in turn, safeguarded the life and unity of the Church established by Christ. In this case, the Church was able to maintain its apostolicity, unity in diversity, communion in faith, ministry, and discipline. This explains why the importance of Apostolic succession was strongly underscored by the writer of the First Letter of Clement. When those who legitimately succeeded the Apostles in the Church of Corinth were unlawfully removed from office by those who were against Apostolic succession, Pope Clement who is recognized as the writer of this Letter gave “a sacral and immutable character to structure and order. He exhorted the Corinthian Christians not to disturb the existing order that was based on the hierarchical pattern of offices in the Roman Empire.” [20] In this Letter, the writer basically provided an additional reason why the Church should be hierarchically structured. The writer wanted the Church to have the Empire’s system of organization and administration. The only difference is that his “idea of Apostolic succession is clearly analogous to Jewish idea of hereditary Levitical priesthood … in which Christ, the Apostles, bishops, and deacons are comparable to the High Priest, priests, and Levites.” [21]

While the different communities within the Early Church were hierarchically structured, no ecclesial community at this stage exercised total authority over the whole Church. Each community was in itself a local church living in communion with other local churches in one faith. The sense of a universal Church under one authority was not yet fully realized. Congar would, therefore, argue that “it was in the course of becoming actually universal that the Church became aware of its universality.” [22] This statement is quite debatable but the idea of the Church as an institution with universal canonical laws and practices as we know it today did not yet prevail when each local church preserved its own tradition. In that case, the presbyters and bishops were responsible for their own local churches as long as the unity of Apostolic faith and tradition were preserved. But they were fully in communion with each other for what manifestly existed were many local communities or churches … which were united by bonds of fraternal friendship (were in ‘communion with each other’) but by few if any institutional links [because] there seems to have been very great variety among these churches in custom, liturgy, and organization. [23]

The situation described above would basically remain the same throughout the second and third centuries until a more centralized and institutional Church emerged in the fourth century following the official recognition of Christianity within the Roman Empire.

THE CENTRALIZED STRUCTURE OF THE EARLY CHURCH

The organizational structure of the Early Church as local communities in communion with each other would profoundly change with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. Christianity was formally recognized from then on by Emperor Constantine as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Consequently, the Church was no longer persecuted for the members of the Church were free to practice their religion in public. During this period of relative tranquility, the Church came under the direct support of the imperial government. Clergy were given special privileges: financial support, police protection, legal exemptions. The emperor convoked and presided over the first great general Councils of the Church. The acquisition and disposition of the Church property was regulated by imperial laws. [24]

Given the status and privileges the Church acquired from the Emperor, the numerical strength of its members also increased as more people were converted to Christianity. The celebration of the sacraments became more widespread and elaborate for the bishops, presbyters, and deacons who were assigned to newly established ecclesial communities and parishes.

The Church devised a system of administering the sacraments and overseeing the people in the towns because more people joined the Church as it spread along the contours of the Roman Empire. A hierarchical and centralized Church also began to emerge at the same time as the bishops, presbyters, and deacons assumed their responsibilities in towns, cities, and provinces within the organizational structures of the Empire. The direct effect of such a development was definite and tangible in many respects. As the Church became more centralized in its organization, its own ‘course of honors’ resulted into a series of promotions in which deacons ranked below elders … the arrangement would destroy the earlier idea of permanent diversity of functions and ministries that were not interchangeable, but organically united within the local church. [25]

This internal hierarchical arrangement within local churches was simulated at regional, provincial, and imperial levels so certain local churches and their bishops were subject to some Patriarchal Sees and their Patriarchs. These were in turn subordinate to the Roman See which historically and symbolically commands a primary of honor as the Apostolic See of St. Peter and St. Paul. Eventually, “even the rigorist churches of Africa and the old churches of the East, at Antioch and elsewhere accepted the bishop of Rome as, at a minimum, primus interpares (first among equals), to be consulted and often deferred to in the establishment of Christian unity.” [26]

When the imperial city finally moved from Rome to Constantinople around 330 AD, the Church of Rome became more prominent and exercised jurisdiction, power, and authority, especially, in the West. Gradually but surely, the Church of Rome began to administer and govern the entire Catholic Church so it became very influential in the Western sphere of the Roman Empire. As a result of growing threats and dangers posed by heresies and external forces, the primacy of the Church of Rome in both honor and jurisdiction was strictly upheld and defended since that time. From then on, the bishop of Rome would exercise his authority over the whole Church in matters of faith and discipline. This resulted to a highly centralized, institutional, and hierarchical Church that endured to this present day and age.

During the fourth century, one can rightly say that there was a remarkable shift from the Church’s past, as far as its identity and organizational structures were concerned. The Church that was ‘once tentative, flexible, and provisional in its structure’ later became an extremely centralized Church almost identical with the Roman Empire that once tried to stifle and completely destroy the life and credibility of the Church. However, as the Church was increasingly following the pattern of the Empire at the expense of the values and ideals of the Gospel – for which the Apostles and martyrs of the post-Apostolic period sacrificed their lives – a more radical life of witness to the Gospel emerged. This was another critical turning point and a defining moment for the Church and it was initiated by the monks, in order to, recover the Church’s credibility from the past. They opted to live out the evangelical counsels in solitude but it was meant to inspire and challenge all members of the Church to be faithful servants of Christ in a secular world. Since then, “the Church [was] given the great and essential task of contradicting fashions, contradicting the power of empirical thinking, and the dictatorial powers of ideologies.” [27] The Church, subsequently, continued to redefine itself as it encountered new pastoral developments and forms of witness. In all these transformations, the Church truly realized its identity, constitution, and mission in accordance with God’s plan of salvation.

THE CHURCH’S MISSION TODAY

The Church was mandated by Christ to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” Mt. 28:19. This great commissioning in Matthew’s Gospel indicates that the Church’s main preoccupation was to baptize believers and incorporate them into the Church. The Church’s mission was, therefore, limited to preaching the Gospel to prospective members of the Church, baptizing them in the faith, and instructing them in their religious obligations in the Church and society. Mission in this sense was mission ad extra or mission ad gentes, that is, mission to those who are yet to be baptized as members of the Church. Consequently, the missionaries of the Church were sent to mission lands outside their respective local churches and countries, in order to, preach the Gospel of Christ. Even today, when missionaries are also required to minister to their own local churches, they are still sent to those who are yet to hear the Gospel. The reason behind this trend is mainly because mission ad gentes is what the Church considers its principal mission.

The Church’s obligation in this understanding of mission ad extra or mission ad gentes was specifically to convert non-believers to the Church, administer the sacraments, and establish local parishes or communities that will eventually grow and mature into local churches. The more people were converted to the Church, the more successful the Church was in accomplishing its missionary mandate. The Church was, therefore, obliged to fully focus and commit its attention and resources to its mission territories so that it can effectively accomplish its work of primary evangelization. From all indications, the Church was very successful in this venture. For, “the traditionally ‘mission receiving’ churches became autonomous, co-responsible members of the world-wide ecclesial communion.” [28] However, the Church’s understanding of mission as a whole was, subsequently, limited because of the emphasis on mission ad gentes.

From a broad and holistic perspective, the mission of the Church is not just mission ad gentes or mission ad extra. The Church’s mission also includes mission ad intra, that is, mission to the members of the Church itself. In fact, the Church is sent to its own members wherever they are, in order to, deepen their faith and bring it to maturity in Christ. For this reason, it is not enough for the Church in the modern world to only proclaim the Gospel and administer the sacraments on prospective converts to the faith based on Christ’s mandate to the Apostles. Even in the Early Church, it was evident that St. Paul, the greatest missionary of the Church, ‘was not just satisfied with making individual converts. He also established communities and equipped them with the means to right worship, pastoral care, and catechetical instruction,’ (1Tit. 1:10-11). His pastoral commitment and exhortations to local churches he already established were all part of his missionary outreach and apostolate. The Catholic Church today also needs to provide on-going catechesis, instruction, and formation on Scripture, doctrine, morality, and the liturgical life of the Church for those who are already members of the Church. This aspect of the Church’s mission was overlooked in the past when the Church concentrated its efforts on mission ad extra and primary evangelization. A change in orientation is, therefore, necessary at this point for if the Church wants to contribute to the construction of the unity of humanity, she must question herself on her capacity to construct this unity ad intra. If Christians want to help reconcile the world, they must show that they are capable of living together as a Family of God. [29]

Now that the Church is conscious of its prophetic and animating mission not just to those who are outside but also those within the Church, it is obliged to instruct even its members to undergo ongoing conversion and renewal. This means it is no longer acceptable for the Church to ignore its work of animation and reconciliation among marginalized groups within its own boundaries.

The notion and practice of mission has undoubtedly changed in the course of history. Currently, the practice and approach to mission is perhaps more inclusive than in the past when it was bilateral, instead of, multilateral and cross-cultural in approach. For, “the world is no longer subdivided into ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ countries between ‘home base’ and ‘mission field’ The home base is everywhere and so is the mission field.” [30] The idea that missionaries need to be sent outside their home countries or churches, in order to, proclaim the Gospel to those who are not yet baptized is no longer the only sustainable option. The reason is precisely because God’s Word is also addressed to the members of the Church in their own culture and context. These members equally need missionaries or ministers of the Word and Sacrament to attend to their spiritual, pastoral, and social needs in their own context. In fact, it is in these unique situations that missionaries realize “that evangelization cannot consist simply in verbal proclamation, but must always be accompanied by Christian social action. The renewal of the Church thus becomes part of the task of world evangelization.” [31] This shows that the Church can at the same time fulfill its principal mission of primary evangelization while carrying its special ministry and apostolate to its own members which include doctrinal, scriptural, liturgical, moral, and social, education and renewal. The success of the Church in this regard is absolutely vital for its own maturity, stability, and progress.

These forms of the Church’s mission ad intra are extremely essential but they are greatly undermined by the lack of unity that exists among believers in Christ. Precisely because the division and separation of the one Church of Christ into many churches that are no longer united directly contradicts the proclamation of the Gospel of love and reconciliation even to its own members. The Church’s mission in the face of these divisions among believers should, therefore, include ecumenism and religious dialogue with non-Christians alike. Even though missionary work among the nations differs from the pastoral care of the faithful and likewise from efforts aimed at restoring unity, these two latter are, nevertheless, very closely connected with the church’s missionary endeavor because the division between Christians is injurious to the holy work of preaching the Gospel to every creature, deprives many people of access to the faith. [32]

The Church’s ecumenical dialogue that is intended to foster unity is a vital and indispensable component of its mission. Just as the Gentile mission in the Early Church was extraordinary but highly essential, the Church’s ecumenical dialogue cannot be disputed or taken slightly. There are clearly positive prospects because in most cases, the missionaries of the Church are required to engage in this form of dialogue as a witness to the Gospel values of love and solidarity and that often transforms hearts and minds. For the Church to fully become ‘a sign and instrument of communion with God and the unity of the entire human race,’ Vatican II strongly insists that all the faithful must publicly profess the faith they received from God through the Church … share in Christ’s prophetic office by spreading abroad a living witness of Christ, especially, by a life of faith and love, and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruits of lips confessing his name. [33]

In collaboration with the missionaries of the Church, all the faithful are invited to fully participate in Christ’s mission of evangelization, reconciliation, and redemption of humanity. They are, therefore, encouraged to carefully discover their unique talents and charisms so that they can use them at the service of the Church.

For the lay faithful who are endowed with special charismatic gifts and are part of the Catholic Charismatic Movement, they may have some reason to be disappointed or less motivated to use their gifts for the common good of the Church. Their reason may be related to their experience of Church discipline and authority. Like St. Paul, who was determined to regulate the charismatics in the Church of Corinth, the Church authorities today are also concerned about the teaching and activities of some members of the Charismatic Movement. In the case of St. Paul, he was concerned about the image of the communities in the eyes of his Roman Hellenistic citizens. He wanted to prevent them from being scared by the irrational behavior of [these] Christians … Paul [also] wanted to guard the communities from falling to pieces. There was a danger that individuals and small groups who prided themselves on their talents of prophesy and glossolalia were going to make this a criterion for the real possession of the Spirit. Because of this all kinds of disintegrating process could arise in the communities. [34]

These concerns that are outlined above remain the points of contention between the Church authorities and some members of the Charismatic Movement. The latter often believe they are arbitrarily suppressed out of fear and inexperience on the part of the Church authorities. But what they constantly fail to realize is that their statements, actions, and practices frequently generate disunity and conflict in the Church. This risk is what is unacceptable to the Church authorities because the unity of the Catholic faith in the Church cannot be compromised under any pretext.

In addressing the challenges of the Charismatic Movement, the Liaison Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has offered some pastoral orientations in its Pastoral Statement on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. The Committee clearly indicated that the success of the Movement depends, to a great extent, on an informed, balanced, mature, and doctrinally sound leadership, especially, at the local and diocesan levels. This is quite critical and important because it will correct the misperceptions of the members about their vocation in the Church. On the other hand, the Committee also reiterated the words of St. John Paul II that the priest, for his part, cannot exercise his service on behalf of the charismatic renewal unless and until he adopts a welcoming attitude toward it, based on the desire he shares with every Christian by baptism to grow in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The priest’s responsibility to give pastoral guidance remains, even though an individual priest may not be a participant in the renewal. [35]

What is recommended in the above statement is proper and desirable, especially, at the preliminary stages of the Charismatic Movement’s formation in a parish environment. However, the priest’s welcoming attitude alone is not sufficient enough for a fruitful and sustainable pastoral collaboration between the priest and the members of the Movement. In addition to his disposition, the priest should also attain a well-grounded theological understanding of the Spirit’s inherent role in the life and mission of the Church as a whole, and the parish in particular. This will provide him with a more informed perspective in addressing the spirituality, aspirations, and concerns of the Charismatic Movement in his parish and the Church in general.

CONCLUSION

The identity, mission, order, and structure of the Church during the first few centuries indicate that the Church was not one institutional entity organized under rules and regulations predetermined by Christ. Rather, the evidence shows that the Early Church was a progressive and creative entity of different communities independently shaped by their heritage and context. For this reason, the Early Church was able to maintain a continuity, and at the same time, effect a change from its past as long as the identity and Apostolic faith of the Church were preserved among its members. Nothing was apparently lost so far as the members were faithful to the mission that Christ entrusted his Church, which is, to continue his saving work of redemption here on earth, in order to, bring God’s universal plan of salvation to completion.

If the Early Church succeeded in preserving its Apostolic heritage, unity of faith, and mission, in spite of the developments and diversities it faced, it means that the Church today is also expected to discern and embody the pastoral needs and aspirations of its own members. The constitution and outlook of the Early Church should, in that sense, serve as a paradigm to the Church today as it endeavors to preserve unity and diversity, as well as, collegiality and communion between the local churches and the universal Church. For these forms of organization and communion to become effective and relevant, there should be a thorough and constructive change of perspective in our theological understanding of the nature, identity, mission, and structure of the Church. A change in our theological presuppositions and orientation will enable us to recapture some of the positive trends and dynamics of the Early Church. If one wants to present and articulate an ecclesiology or theological understanding of the Church’s self-identity, structure, and mission that is biblically and historically based, one should seriously take into consideration the aspects and developments of the Early Church I attempted to highlight in this article. Otherwise, the Church today will not be fully perceived and recognized as a communion of local churches, that is, a unity in diversity within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, Church of Christ.

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SOURCES: [1] Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008), 33.; [2] Bernard P. Prusak, The Church Unfinished: Ecclesiology Through the Centuries (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 74.; [3] Morna D. Hooker, Continuity and Discontinuity: Early Christianity in its Jewish Setting (Westminister, London: Epworth Press, 1986), 9.; [4] Prusak, The Church Unfinished, 73.; [5] Hooker, Continuity and Discontinuity, 57.; [6] Ibid., 52.; [7] Frank J. Matera, “Theologies of the Church in the New Testament,” In The Gift Of The Church: A Textbook on Ecclesiology, edited by Peter C. Phan (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 9.; [8] Craig C. Hill, Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division within the Earliest Churches (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 138.; [9] Raymond E. Brown, The Churches The Apostles Left Behind (New York, Paulist Press, 1984), 64.; [10] Prusak, The Church Unfinished, 29.; [11] Stephen Spence, The Parting Of The Ways: The Roman Church As A Case Study (Leuven: Peteers, 2004), 17.; [12] Spence, The Parting Of The Ways, 347.; [13] Prusak, The Church Unfinished, 56.; [14] Lawrence B. Porter, A Guide to the Church: Its Origins and Nature, Its Mission and Ministries (New York: Paulist Press, 2008), 230.; [15] Brown, The Churches The Apostles Left Behind, 32-33.; [16] Hermann J. Pottmeyer, “The Episcopacy,” In The Gift of the Church: A Textbook on Ecclesiology,” edited by Peter C. Phan (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 341.; [17] John Vidmar, The Catholic Church Through the Ages (New York: Paulist Press, 2005), 39.; [18] McBrien, The Church, 40.; [19] Francis A. Sullivan, The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic (New York: Pauline Press, 1988), 170-172.; [20] Prusak, The Church Unfinished, 112.; [21] Eric Plumer, “The Development of Ecclesiology: Early Church to the Reformation,” In The Gift Of The Church: A Textbook on Ecclesiology, 24.; [22] Yves Congar, The Mystery Of The Church (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), 141.; [23] Edmund Hill, “Church,” In The New Dictionary Of Theology, edited by Joseph A. Komonchak (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1990), 191.; [24] Porter, A Guide to the Church, 254.; [25] Prusak, The Church Unfinished, 157.; [26]  H. W Crocker III, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church – A 2000 Year History, (Roseville, California: Prima Publishing, 2001), 46.; [27] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World – A Conversation with Peter Seewald, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 357.; [28] William McConville, “Mission,” In The New Dictionary of Catholic Theology, edited by Joseph A. Komonchak (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Press, 1990), 667.; [29] Bede U Ukwuije, The Memory of Self-Donation: Meeting the Challenges of Mission, (Nairobi: Pauline Publications  Africa, 2010) 43.; [30] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission, 465.; [31] Paul Loffler, “The Ecumenical Problem in Evangelization,” In Evangelization in the World Today, edited by Norbert Greinacher and Alois Muller (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), 110.; [32] Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes Divinitus (1965) in Vatican Council: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Dublin, Ireland: Dominican Publications, 1996), no. 6.; [33] Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (1963) in Vatican Council: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Dublin, Ireland: Dominican Publications), no. 12.; [34] Johannes A. Van Der Ven, Ecclesiology in Context (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 218.; [35] “A Pastoral Statement of the Bishops’ Liaison Committee with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal” (United States Catholic Conference, Inc., 1985), 37.

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Written by
Fr Gabriel Mendy

REVEREND GABRIEL MENDY C.S.Sp. was born in The Gambia and is a Catholic priest of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit Fathers and Brothers (Spiritans). He holds a B.A (Phil.), B.A (Rel.) M.A (Theo.), and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. Since his ordination in 1997, he worked in Sierra Leone and in 2004 he began his doctorate studies in Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA. After his graduation in 2009, he became a parochial vicar in Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish, New York, USA. The following year, he was appointed lecturer in Spiritan International School of Theology, Enugu, Nigeria and since 2012, he is the Vice Rector of this Catholic Seminary. The courses he lectures include Ecclesiology, Fundamental Theology, Theology of Worship, Liturgy, and Catechetics.

Some of his publications include: “The Significance of Augustine’s Theology of the Spirit for Communion Ecclesiology,” In Bulletin of Ecumenical Theology, Vol. 22, 2010; Augustine’s Spirit – Soul Analogy and Its Implications for Communion Ecclesiology (Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris Publishing Company, 2013); Committed in Solidarity: SIST Silver Jubilee Acts, Ed. May, 2015 (Nigeria, Enugu: Kingsley Publication); and “The Theological Significance of the Psalm of Lament,” In American Theological Inquiry, Vol. 8, nos. 1 ed. Gannon Murphy (August, 2015).

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Written by Fr Gabriel Mendy
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