The Growth of the Early Church under Apostolic Authority

Homily for Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Some people would like to make us believe that the growth of the Church in the early years after Christ was not approved by the apostolic leaders and therefore the growth of the Church in those early years was something more like the growth of ecclesial communities or Protestant churches now. We certainly see enormous growth in the Church in the Acts of the Apostles but whenever the Church grew it was always brought under apostolic authority. We see an example in today’s reading from Acts (Acts 11:19-26). Those who were persecuted after the death of Stephen scattered from Jerusalem. Some of them ended up in Antioch. The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number turned to the Lord. The Church in Jerusalem heard about what happened and sent Barnabas. He approved of the new mission. So the new mission was brought under apostolic authority.

We could say the same about each of Paul’s missionary journeys. After each journey Paul returned to Jerusalem. After the first missionary journey, Paul gave a report to the Council of Jerusalem and his mission to the Gentiles was approved (Acts 14:27-15:21), and we can presume that when he returned after his second journey (Acts 18:22) he once again reported everything and received approval. Acts once again relates Paul’s return from his third journey, his report, and its approval by the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-20).

There is another way in which we see these new local churches being brought under apostolic authority. Acts 14:23 tells us that Paul and Barnabas appointed πρεσβύτεροι (presbyteroi) in every church, often translated as “elders” or “presbyters” and our English word “priest” is derived from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders: the word translated as “appointed” in Greek literally means “to stretch out the hand to appoint someone for office” (χειροτονήσαντες) so we could take it to mean ordination to the priesthood. Paul ordained priests for the local churches. While the word presbyteros had been used in Judaism to designate a Jewish elder, we see that it took on a new meaning in Acts where it is used to designate the ministers in the Christian Church. Furthermore Peter, in 1 Pet 5:1, describes himself as a συμπρεσβύτερος (sumpresbyteros) i.e. as a co-presbyter with the presbyters, or we might say, a co-priest with the priests. So we see that the πρεσβύτεροι were the leaders in the Church although the distinction between πρεσβύτεροι (priests) and ἐπίσκοποι (bishops) took some more time to develop.

The Church did spread rapidly, not always at the instigation of the apostles. Sometimes it was due to persecution scattering the missionaries, sometimes it was due to direct intervention of the Holy Spirit guiding Paul, but each time we see the new local churches being brought under the authority of the apostles.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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