THE NEW TESTAMENT TELLS US a great deal about the apostles during Christ’s lifetime and the first days of the early Church. With the conversion of St Paul the Scriptures focus on him and his writings; most of the other apostles leave the stage. Nevertheless, we do not have a definitive picture of the role of an apostle in the first-century Church.
We know that the apostles traveled extensively through the Mediterranean world and beyond bringing their eye-witness testimony to all who would hear them. What happened once people believed their word and formed Christian communities is less clear. It later became common to speak of some bishops as “successors” to individual apostles (Peter in Rome, Mark in Alexandria, James in Jerusalem, etc), but there is no clear evidence that apostles functioned as the heads of individual local Churches. Thus all bishops are in a sense successors of all the apostles.
The practice of St Paul, at least, was to organize a Christian community and then move on, leaving trusted assistants to help it mature. As we learn from St Paul’s advice to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-13), bishops and deacons were then to be chosen from the local community after being tested.
Sometimes, however, leaders assume that their followers are ready for leadership before their time. Perhaps this is what happened in Corinth. The chosen leader, Apollos, was being pitted against Paul and Cephas (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12-13). Apollos may have been responsible or he may have been used by contentious people in conflict with one another. In dealing with the problem St Paul reveals a divide that has reappeared in the Church from time to time.
Hierarchic Order and Prophetic Charism
The New Testament shows that, from the beginning, local Churches were organized around a hierarchy: the bishops and presbyters, assisted by the deacons. These ministries remain at the heart of the historic Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) today. They are, as it were, the mortar holding the local Church together. The bishops, by their communion with one another, show forth the interconnected nature of their Churches throughout the world.
The apostles, like the Lord Jesus Himself, had an itinerant ministry. Their role was to proclaim the Gospel of which they were eyewitnesses and to encourage believers in the growing number of local communities in the Roman Empire and beyond. Their ministry was prophetic, accompanied by signs and healings. It was also unique because the apostles were eye-witnesses to Christ’s life, death and resurrection. In that they could have no successors.
In the ages that followed the same two types of ministry continued. The hierarchical order of bishops, presbyters and deacons continued to provide the structural pattern to Church life. As the number of local Churches multiplied, bishops were given various designations corresponding to their differing responsibilities. Chor-bishops served the countryside, metropolitans served the towns and cities, the bishop of the principal Church in a province was called archbishop and, later, patriarch. These bishops came together in synods from time to time, manifesting the interdependence of each local Church on the others.
The prophetic ministry tended to become the province of the monastics. Those who excelled in living the ascetic life, whether as hermits or in monasteries, manifested spiritual gifts which drew believers to join them in their way of life or, at least, to ask for their prayers and counsel.
In many cases the bishops relied on the monastics for their spiritual assistance and often looked to them to provide members of the clergy, particularly in remote area. Sometimes, however, there were conflicts. Bishops, responsible for the care of the local Churches, tended to spend money they received on building churches, buying land and enhancing the treasury of their Church. Ascetics, on the other hand, would use whatever they were given to care for the sick and the needy, often criticizing more prosperous Christians (including bishops) for not doing the same. Prophets and hierarchs each were essential to the life of the Church; sometimes they exercised their particular gift by challenging one another.
The Elder in the Church Today
The English word “elder” is generally used to translate two different Greek terms, each referring to a different ministry in the Church. The first, presbyter, refers to the sacramental order in the Church’s hierarchy which surrounds and assists the bishop. Priest, the word we use for this order, is simply a contraction of the Greek term.
The second word, geron, (literally “old man”) refers to the spiritual guide, usually but not exclusively, a monk or a nun. The elder or eldress experienced in the spiritual life has the prophetic charism of knowing God by experience and, because of this experience, being able to guide others in their journey to God. While the hierarchical order of bishop, presbyters and deacons is found in every authentic local Church today, the ministry of charismatic elder is less common.
The lives of the Fathers and Mothers of the Egyptian desert contain numerous stories of early elders and eldresses. Successive generations have seen great elders arise in the Church such as Sts. John Moschos and Sophronios of Jerusalem in sixth-century Palestine, Symeon the Elder and Symeon the New Theologian in eleventh-century Constantinople and Sergius of Radonezh and Seraphim of Sarov in fourteenth- and nineteenth-century Russia respectively. Some today look to ascetics in monastic centers such as Mount Athos as elders for today.
The spiritual elder or geron (in Slavonic, staretz) is generally a person with the spiritual gifts necessary to help others in the spiritual life. First of all is the knowledge of God which comes, not from books, but from prayer and experiential knowledge of God. Secondly the spiritual guide must know the inner life of others, a knowledge that may come as a special gift from God.
Some elders manifest signs and uncommon spiritual gifts. One tale of an elder manifesting such a gift is often told about St Porphyrios, a twentieth-century Greek elder. Once he was visited by a Catholic monk from Italy who had come to learn more about the ascetic life of Athonite monastics. As the story goes, when Elder Porphyrios saw him, without asking him anything, he began to describe this monk’s monastery in Italy and their way of life there. He even described a neighboring convent. He saw all the monks and nuns there and mentioned each one of them in specific detail. The Italian monk was literally dumb- founded because it was the first time in his life that he had met such a man. “If someone had told me about these things; that he had seen and heard these things, I would never believe it,” he later said. “How is it possible for this person who lives in Greece to describe our monastery in Northern Italy in detail, to tell me all those details, to tell me about the monks, to tell me about the nuns, each one of them individually?”
Porphyrios attributed this knowledge to God’s grace. Popular veneration of this elder was confirmed by the bishops of the Orthodox Church of Greece who canonized Porphyrios in 2013.