After the Ascension of Christ, the Apostles, the Blessed Mother and many disciples waited in Jerusalem for the Spirit He promised to send them. Once they received this on the Feast of Pentecost, ten days after, they were changed men and women. No longer the timid, hiding behind closed doors in prayer and the breaking of Bread, they ventured out into the synagogue and streets proclaiming the Good News. That news proclaimed that the same Jesus Christ who had been sentenced to death and crucified by the authorities in Jerusalem had risen from the grave and ascended into heaven. He is the promised Messiah who will bring everlasting life to those who repent of their sins and are baptised with water and the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles is full of this message preached by Christ's followers, spearheaded by Peter and Paul, first in Jerusalem and then in nearer parts of the Roman Empire until it reached finally the frontiers in Britain and Gaul in the second century.
The first Christians were Jews who still observed the Jewish tradition, summed up in the Law of Moses and who thus conformed to Jewish customs such as circumcision, of distinguishing between clean and unclean food, and refusing to eat with Gentiles or entering their houses as illustrated in Acts. X:14, 28; XI: 3). They continued to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem (Acts, II: 46; III:1; XXI: 20-26), and the Synagogues. The latter worship began with prayers in praise to God, and the Shema. This was followed by readings from the books of the Law, the singing of a psalm, and a reading from the books of the Prophets, which was explained by the rabbi. The service ended with a collection for the poor, a prayer, and a closing psalm. We can still recognise this Jewish form of worship in the Liturgy of the Word that forms the first part of the Mass as the first Christians continued to use the Jewish structure for prayer after being excluded from the Synagogue.
Jewish Christians came to meet early on the day after the Sabbath in one of their homes for the Breaking of Bread. This worship has become known as the Eucharist, the second part of the Mass. So our structure of Mass has its roots in the earliest days of Christianity. As time went by they more than likely shared stories of their Lord. Some of these probably found their way in the gospels, and in time would reflect the various Christian communities.
From Acts and Galatians (1.18) James was the leader of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem. Did the Jewish Christian community meet in the homes of some of the women who followed Christ faithfully and cared for Him out of their own means (Luke 8.2-3) for Fellowship and the Breaking of Bread?
Two events quickly changed the locality of membership of the Church: the first were the martyrdom of Stephen that led to the dispersion of those early Jewish Christians throughout others part of Judaea, into nearby Syria, and further, perhaps even to Rome (e.g. Prisca and Aquilla); and the second was the conversion of one Pharisee known as Saul, a zealous persecutor of Christians. Paul began his ministry in Antioch thanks to Barnabas. In this city the good news of Jesus Christ was preached not only to Jews in the synagogues but also to Gentiles. Acts has many example of how the Gentiles were more receptive to Paul's preaching that the Jews were (Acts. 13:47-8, 15:3, 16:13, 17:12 etc). This led to an inevitable clash between Paul, Barnabas and the Antiochene Gentile Christians with Peter, James and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts. 15,Gal.2.1ff). It also led to a personal clash between Paul and Peter in Antioch for Christians to be free of the Jewish observances (Gal. 2.11). As a result what is commonly called the first Council of the Church, chaired by James met in Jerusalem c. 48 to debate on whether Gentile Christians should have to observe the Jewish laws. It was a compromise decision as the Gentiles were freed from such practices as the initiation rite of circumcision, but were asked to "abstain from pollution of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from the blood" (Acts.15.20). After this crucial meeting Gentiles rapidly outnumbered Jews as Christians. Paul's letter to the Galatians, written very shortly after this Council met made it clear that Gentiles were not subject to the Law as they had been made free in Christ in baptism. However it would seem that in that fierce debate between Peter and Paul in Antioch, that the Jewish Christianity of Peter won the day against the liberal Gentile approach of Paul that is reflected in the Matthean Gospel. Paul never went back to Antioch after leaving on the second Missionary Journey.
The Acts, the authentic letters of Paul, the first written c.51 A.D to the Thessalonians together with the Pastoral letters written towards the end of the first century, Clement's letter to the Corinthians, written c.96 A.D. and Ignatius of Antioch's letters to the seven churches written on his way to Rome c.107 A.D. enable us to ascertain a reasonable accurate account of how church life developed. Although Peter and especially Paul have always been seen the giants of the early church they sometimes were not the first to bring the Gospel to various parts of the Roman Empire. Take Rome itself. We know from the historian Suetonius in his Life of Claudius, that there were Christians in Rome at least by 49 A.D. as Jews were driven out for rioting 'at the instigation of Chrestus' by Claudius. Those driven out included Aquilla and Priscilla, as at the beginning of the eighteenth chapter of Acts we learn of their coming to Corinth after being expelled from Rome by Claudius and before Paul began his missionary work there. So this couple's presence in these two major Roman cities revealed that besides themselves there must have been other Jewish Christians who were amongst the first missionaries to Rome, and would explain that by the time the Marcan Gospel is written it is the Jewish Christians who dominate the Roman community.
The church structure in the time of Peter and Paul was based on what we would call to-day, the house-church. Christians met in the home, often that of women, such as Lydia (Acts 16.14-15,40) in Phillipi; Nympha. in Colossae ( Col.4.15) and Chloe in Corinth (1.11). Here they prayed and shared in the Breaking of Bread. The first ministry of the Church included the Apostles; prophets such as Agabus (Acts XI.28, XXI.7); and teachers such as Aquilla and Priscilla (Acts 18.26) these were the "chief orders", followed miracle workers, healers, helpers and administrators to complete the sevenfold hierarchy of orders. All of these were invariably missionaries too. Members of the Church in these early days believed that the end of the world was imminent as reflected in Paul's earliest letter to the Thessalonians (1Thes. 1.10, 2.19, 3.13, 4.17) and so they were exhorted by Paul to live in such a way that they be ready for that day (1 Thes. 5. 6- 22). In these earliest days of the Church it would seem that ecclesiastical functions were in a large measure fulfilled by men who had been specially endowed for this purpose with 'charismata' of the Holy Spirit. There was no rigid government in Paul's mind.
Some thirty years after Christ’s death both Peter and Paul were dead (martyred c.64 A.D. in Rome). Neither of these had been an episcopi or had “ordained” presbyters. Thus historically we cannot refer to Peter as the first Pope. Neither also had not been been in Rome long before their martyrdom. A further thirty years on, it is obvious from the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) that Parousia was no longer thought of as being imminent. Hence we see towards the end of the first century a more structured ministry emerging in some of the churches: presbyters/bishops (including one as first among equals) and deacons. The purpose of these pastoral letters was to instruct Timothy and Titus how to organize local Churches, with this hierarchical organization. In Titus, i, 5-7 we read "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest ordain elders/priests in every city ... For a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God." This is repeated in 1Timothy, but also added was that he be "the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach" (1Tim.3.2). In other words they had to live an exemplary life. The appointment to this office was by a solemn laying on of hands (I Tim., v, 22). Deacons were also expected to live an exemplary life (1Tim. 1.12).
Of course towards the end of Acts we read that Paul not long before his death summoned elders/ presbyters from Ephesus to meet him in Miletus before departing to Jerusalem . He charged them to "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all thy flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made thee overseers, to feed the Church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." (Acts. 20.28). Most scholars believe that Luke is writing about the ministry he knew towards the end of the first century.
The letters of Clement and Ignatius reveal more about the structural ministry of this sub-Apostolical church. Writing in c.96 A.D. to the Corinthians, it appears that Clement writing from Rome was not bishop, but chief of the presbyters in the Church of Rome. Thus it would seem that the Roman Church was later in having a bishop than the Eastern Churches, such as Antioch, Ephesus, and Smyrna as Ignatius made clear. In fact from the Shepherd of Hermas, there is mentioned in regards to two copies of a certain revelation, "one is to be sent to Clement and Clement shall then send it to the cities abroad, for that is his business." (Vision ii.4). Clement in addressing the "unholy breach of unity among you" reminded them of their previous record "of excellence and constancy of your faith" where "elders were treated with the honour due unto them." Clearly in Corinth some forty years after Paul's departure there was some hierarchical structure of government. (v.1) When commenting on the celebration of the Eucharist Clement made it clear that "each one of us should keep to his own degree." v.41. Clement emphasised that this "degree was "bishops and deacon" for he claimed that the Apostles "appointed their first converts after testing them by the Spirit to be bishops and deacons for the believers of the future." v.42 Ignatius when writing a decade later did not address his letter to the bishop of Rome as he did to the other churches in Asia but to the "devoted community" (v.1).
Ignatius on his journey to Rome for martyrdom revealed a lot about the structure of the Church. In those letters Ignatius has given us one of the first authentic accounts of the organization of the early Christian church into a three-fold ministry. To Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, he instructed him that he show "the greatest diligence both in its temporal and spiritual duties." He pleaded that he "give thought especially to unity, for there is nothing more important than this. Spend your time in constant prayer, and beg for ever larger gifts of wisdom. Be watchful and unsleeping in spirit. Address yourself to people personally, as is the way of God Himself, and carry the infirmities of them all on your own shoulders, as a good champion of Christ ought to do" (v.1).
He urged Christians to be faithful to their respective community, of which each had a presiding bishop assisted by a council of presbyters (elders) and deacons. Unity was one of Ignatius prime concerns. Writing to the Magnesians he told them "I urge you to try to do all things in harmony with God, under the presidency of the bishop, who holds the place of God, and of the presbyters, who hold the place of the college of apostles, and of the deacons, who are so dear to me and who have been entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ." (v.6).
In his letter to the Ephesians in his conclusion Ignatius instructed the Christians there "to obey your bishop and clergy with undivided minds and to share in the one common breaking of bread the medicine of immortality, and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ for evermore." (v.21).
Whilst in his letter to the Church in Smryna, he exhorted his fellow Christians to "follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Obey your clergy too, as you would the Apostles; give your deacons the same reverence that you would to a command from God. Make sure that no step affecting the church is ever taken by anyone without the bishop's sanction. (8).
Indeed "I urge you not to do anything in a spirit of divisiveness but only according to the teaching of Jesus Christ," he informed the Philadelphians. He instructed them not to do anything without their bishops, even the celebration of the Eucharist.(v.2). He repeated this in his letter to Christians in Smyrna that they must "abjure all factions". (v.8).
The only valid Eucharist is that which "is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorised by him." (Smryna .8) The Eucharist is the source of unity, "the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death which gives eternal life in Jesus Christ the bread that is the flesh of Jesus Christ, this flesh which has suffered for our sins." Ignatius expressed his own martyrdom in eucharistic terms when he prayed to be become like wheat grounded by beasts teeth to a fine white grain in Christ. (Romans. v.4)
The Didache probably finalised c.150 told a similar picture to that given by Ignatius. Local churches were to "appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men that are meek and not lovers of money, true and reliable; for they also perform for the ministry of prophets and teachers. Do not despise them there (ch.15).
In this work, side by side with the local ministry of 'bishops and deacons,' we find itinerant apostles, prophets, and teachers, who visit the churches. The apostle is to be received as the Lord, but may not stay more than three days. Provision is made for prophets and teachers who wish to settle down in the community. The prophet when speaking in the spirit is to be above criticism. He is allowed to use extempore prayer when 'giving thanks,' and first-fruits are to be assigned to him, for, says the writer, 'they (the prophets) are your high-priests.' In this itinerant ministry of apostles, prophets, and teachers there is obvious a survival of an earlier teaching ministry, which owed its position, not to appointment by the Church, but to a special gift of inspiration, which enabled its possessors to 'speak the word of God,'. This earlier 'charismatic' ministry, eventually attributes to the purely administrative local ministry of presbyters (or bishops) and deacons, who derived their appointment from the community. As the older charismatic ministry declined or fell into disrepute as the Didache warned against false prophets who were not ministerying "in the name of the Lord." (ch.11) the local ministry stepped into its place and exercised many of its functions.
Polycarp writing almost fifty years later to the Philippians, instructed firstly the deacons to "be unspotted in all respects, making their purity their first care and keeping a strict curb on any tendencies to loose living." And for the other clergy he informed them "they should be men of generous sympathies, with a wide compassion for humanity. It is their business to reclaim the wanderers, keep an eye on all who are infirm, and never neglect the widow, the orphan, or the needy." (v.6) It is certain that one of the marks of the early church was how it cared for its members.
By the time Polycarp was martyred c. 155 A.D. it would seem that there is a definite hierarchical structure in all the major centres Rome (the first bishop of Rome with any authenticity is Anicetus in 155 (the 11th in the fanciful list of early Popes of Rome from the Vatican list); Alexandria where the bishop was first called "pope"; Antioch, and Jerusalem. All these bishops were considered as equals - there was not one above the other in importance. Amongst those appointed as deacons were women who also served in some of the other minor orders such as widows and virgins. Women were very prominent in the ministry of the very early church (just look at chapter 16 of Romans). One of those mentioned as a deacon is Phoebe. The Greek word used in Paul's letter is diakonos for Phoebe whose ministry was with the church at Cenchreae, Corinth's sea-port, and it is probable that she carried Paul's letter to Rome. Writing in the early 3rdC. Origen wrote of Phoebe as being officially ordained as did John Chrysostum, a century later. "'You see that these were noble women, hindered in no way by their sex in the course of virtue; and this is as might be expected for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female."'
In the early Church the emphasis is on the local community of Christians organising their affairs and appointing their bishops. Even as late as the end of the sixth century we see this happening in Rome when Gregory the Great is elected as bishop of Rome by popular acclaim. There is certainly no centralised power lording it over the others.
What is abundantly clear that by the mid 2nd century A.D. the local churches gathered with its bishop and or presbyter to celebrate the Eucharist as the focal point of all worship on Sundays. However they must come in love and charity with all. Anyone bearing a grudge had to be reconciled with his brother. The Didache describes it: "Assemble on the Lord's Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession ofyour faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until they have been reconciled, so as to avoid profanation of your sacrifice."
The Didache made clear that only the baptised in the name of the Trinity with water were to partake in the Eucharist and that afterwards they duly thanked God who "hast graciously given spiritual meat and drink, together with life eternal, through thy Servant" The keeping of fast days, Wednesday and Fridays was also observed with a recommendation that the Lord's Prayers was said "three times every day"(7-10).
The writings of Justin (martyred c.165) to the Emperor Antonius Pius and in his Dialogue with Trypho c.150 enables us to know more about the structure of that worship. Coming together on Sunday the Christians in Rome began the Eucharist with the Synagogue structure of scripture readings, a sermon by the presider and intercessions, which are concluded with the kiss of peace. The elements of bread and wine were brought to the presider who said a prayer of thanksgiving, to which the congregation gave assent by their 'Amen'. After the congregation had communicated a collection was taken for the poor, and the deacon took the Sacrament to those who were absent through no fault of their own (Apology 1.lxv.3,5.lxvi.1).
So it is clear that a little over a century and a half after Our Lord's death the Church as we know it is very recognisable. The foundation was truly well laid for the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons with the local bishops having authority over and leadership in his own church. Over the centuries most of this local power was transferred to a central body, which for Catholics to-day is the Papacy. However it is not so in the various Orthodox Churches that still to-day resemble more closely the early churches structure.