The Early Church Fathers on
Holy Orders

 

Just like the church of today the early church had a three tiered system of clergy; bishop, presbyter (priest), and deacon. We see the roots of this system in the Scriptures. The writings of the Early Fathers gives us a bit more detail. Deacons were subject to the priests and the bishop and priests were subject to the bishop. Furthermore, only bishops were allowed to ordain priests and deacons. And only bishops and priests were allowed to preside at Mass and consecrate the Eucharist. Thus the Church is structured today in the same manner that she was structured in the days of the Apostles and beyond.

Ignatius of Antioch

Now, therefore, it has been my privilege to see you in the person of your God-inspired bishop, Damas; and in the persons of your worthy presbyters, Bassus and Apollonius; and my fellow-servant, the deacon, Zotion. What a delight is his company! For he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ (Letter to the Magnesians 2 [A.D. 110]).

I cried out while I was in your midst, I spoke with a loud voice, the voice of God: ‘Give heed to the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons.’ Some suspect me of saying this because I had previous knowledge of the division certain persons had caused; but he for whom I am in chains is my witness that I had no knowledge of this from any man. It was the Spirit who kept preaching these words, “Do nothing without the bishop, keep your body as the temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as he was imitator of the Father” (Letter to the Philadelphians 7:1–2 [A.D. 110]).

Clement of Alexandria

A multitude of other pieces of advice to particular persons is written in the holy books: some for presbyters, some for bishops and deacons; and others for widows, of whom we shall have opportunity to speak elsewhere (The Instructor of Children 3:12:97:2 [A.D. 191]).

Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel (Miscellanies 6:13:107:2 [A.D. 208]).

Hippolytus

When a deacon is to be ordained, he is chosen after the fashion of those things said above, the bishop alone in like manner imposing his hands upon him as we have prescribed. In the ordaining of a deacon, this is the reason why the bishop alone is to impose his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfill the bishop’s command. He has no part in the council of the clergy, but is to attend to his own duties and is to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful. . . .

On a presbyter, however, let the presbyters impose their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Even so, the presbyter has only the power to receive [the Spirit], and not the power to give [the Spirit]. That is why a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; for at the ordaining of a presbyter, he but seals while the bishop ordains (The Apostolic Tradition 9 [A.D. 215]).

Origen

Not fornication only, but even marriages make us unfit for ecclesiastical honors; for neither a bishop, nor a presbyter, nor a deacon, nor a widow is able to be twice married (Homilies on Luke 17 [A.D. 234]).

Council of Elvira

Bishops, presbyters, and deacons may not leave their own places for the sake of commerce, nor are they to be traveling about the provinces, frequenting the markets for their own profit. Certainly for the procuring of their own necessities they can send a boy or a freedman or a hireling or a friend or whomever, but, if they wish to engage in business, let them do so within the province (Canon 18 [A.D. 300]).

Council of Nicaea I

It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it]. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them (Canon 18 [A.D. 325]).

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For Further Study

Books - Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Fr. Christian Cochini and The Case for Clerical Celibacy by Cardinal Alfons Maria Stickler


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