God in My Sister and Brother: the “Soul Friends” of Early Celtic Christianity

St Finnian teaching, represented in stained glass at Clonard, Ireland

From the late 5th to the 7th centuries, a powerful renewal took place in the churches of Britain. From their coastal bases in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, courageous evangelists known today as the Celtic Christian missionaries planted churches and communities around the British Isles.

From the biographies of these pioneers we quickly see what importance they gave to deep relationships. Each brother or sister was to have an anamchara, or “soul friend”, who would be for them a blend of mentor, spiritual director and close friend.

The abbess Brigid (died 525) said that “a person without an anamchara is like a body without a head” – lacking true sight and sense. By their norms, a soul friend is a person who will allow me to tell the whole truth about myself, and to encourage me to seek healing and restoration.

The trailblazer was Finnian (died 549), founder of the great monastery of Clonard.  If Patrick had been the pioneer, Finnian was the spiritual father, who guided many of the early Celtic missionary leaders, like Columba of Iona and Ciaran of Clonmacnoise. He genuinely loved these sons and brothers. In his letters to Ciaran, he would call him “dear one” and “o little heart”, always adding a personal blessing.

Ciaran clearly learned this love, too. He and Kevin of Glendalough were true heart-friends. When Ciaran lay dying, he refused to let go until Kevin had come. When he did, the two spent several hours in conversation, then shared the Communion bread and wine together. Ciaran blessed Kevin and gave him a little bell as a sign of their lasting unity. Then he died.

Women had these relationships, too, and not just among themselves. In one 8th century text we read: “Between Patrick and Brigid, pillars of the Irish, there existed so great a friendship of charity that they were of one heart and one mind.”

Patrick and Brigid in a window at Kildare Abbey, Ireland

Ita, abbess of Killeedy, was mentor to so many male leaders that she is known as “the foster mother of the Saints”! She was especially close to Brendan, sometimes called “the Navigator” because of his voyages. Their biographers record how Brendan would smile warmly whenever he thought of Ita, many miles away; and how Ita would feel the slow drag of time whenever Brendan was away.

In 6th century Ireland, all the movers and shakers of Celtic Christianity had their “soul friends” and were, in turn, “soul friends” to others. They had a particular way of befriending that intentionally honoured and nurtured the life of the soul. It involved mutual encouragement, confession and telling the truth in love.

For 200 years, the Celtic missionary leaders had a common vision of reality. They also seem to have shared intuitions and discernment, particularly regarding future leaders. One story goes that Brendan the Navigator came to the monastery of Emly in Munster, where the patriarch Ailbe had presided for many years. Brendan burned with questions, but Ailbe’s was a silent order! The monastery schoolmaster (who was allowed to speak) had to rebuke Brendan and his companions for chatter. But Brendan persisted and Ailbe, recognising in the young man all the qualities of a future leader, broke his own rule and spoke, teaching him many things.

What shines clearly from the written lives of the Celtic saints is the profound respect they showed for each other’s wisdom and guidance, regardless of age or gender differences. They saw each brother or sister as a potential source of precious blessings from God.  The biographies often convey this symbolically, through the gesture of giving gifts. Although they lived poor, special gifts conveyed profound respect and mutuality: a ring, a bell, a hand-made wooden box, or maybe a horse.

The Celtic missionaries’ understood that, however essential and fulfilling a deep human bond might be, it could not take the place of a friendship with God. Indeed, relationships of this quality flowed directly from such a love-bond with God. They are essentially spiritual bonds. The Celtic missionaries saw God as the true friend, the pattern of all friendship, the centre of a wheel in which all human soul-friendships are vital spokes.

Distinct but united: art in the traditional Celtic Christian style

One example illustrates this well. When his mentor died, Finbar (died 633) felt bereft, so he went to see his friend Eolang. Eolang had been praying and had received a word from God for Finbar. He knelt before him and said: “I offer you my church and my soul”. Finbar wept and would have none of it, but Eolang persisted. “Let it be so, for this is the will of God. You are dear to Him and you are greater than I. Only grant me that we may live and die in the same place.” Here it is clear that the heavenly dimension enriched the human beyond what it could have achieved itself.

The Celtic anamcharas appreciated that solitude and companionship had to be kept in a creative balance. Both were essential for what they called “soul-making”: the lifelong process of making peace with God, with oneself, with others, and with all of creation. Soul friends are committed to helping one another make this journey successfully.

The need for such committed love has perhaps never been greater than in the post-Christian West, where there can be highly suspicious of heart-closeness, especially same-gender and cross-generational. The Celtic missionaries’ way offers a poignant reminder of what has gone missing.

In the same Western society there is also profound alienation, loneliness and fear, which is now being recognised in healthcare circles as a killer. Can we believe for a new generation of Christians to arise with the same pioneering spirit as the Celtic saints, to find today’s expression of “soul friend” mutuality?

Early Christian Hymn Singing – the Jewish Roots

The 1st century traveller and writer, Philo, describes the singing of the Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the Jewish diaspora based around Alexandria.

“They rise up together and … form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally.”

Jewish liturgical singing took two forms: antiphonal and responsorial. The first is what Philo is describing: the division of singers into two groups in such a way that they are separated from each other; for example, to the right and left sides of the central aisle in the building. They then sing alternate parts, one side starting, the other responding.

This has continued in Christian worship ever since, not so much in congregational worship, but rather by the choir. Many a well-loved anthem has the two parts marked decani and cantores, indicating that, in the past, a group of church deacons would have sung one part, and a group of chosen cantors (singers) the other.

Responsorial singing is similar, involving the priest or a perhaps a solo cantor singing an opening line and the congregation in unison singing the reply. Anyone who has been to a traditional sung service, for example in the Anglican church, will be familiar with this.

Priest: O Lord, open thou our lips.
Answer: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.
Priest: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
Answer: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

A choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

The Old Testament book of Psalms really came into its own here, as not only did it allow the congregation to take God’s word directly on its lips, but also the very verse form made for successful breaking down into statement and response (as in the above example). Even where it didn’t, a congregational reply of “Alleluia” or “We bless Thy name, O Lord” did just as well. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century, refers to response singing of psalms in the church at Rome.

One thing that surprises me with early Christian worship is that singing praises does not appear in the list of things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42, namely the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayers. The First Apology of Justin Martyr, dated c.155, describes a Christian worship service. The emphasis is on ritual (baptism / ablution and Holy Communion), not singing.

This all seems oddly at variance with the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to address one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord [Ephesians 5:19]. A very musical response indeed! The context is primarily the believer’s personal devotional life. But not exclusively: “addressing one another” can only mean a context of corporate worship.

We know that Jesus and the Twelve, before they went out to the Mount of Olives, sang a hymn [Mark 14:26]. But what, and how? Many Biblical scholars believe it would have been one of the so-called Hallel series in the Book of Psalms, consisting of Psalms 113 – 118. It was common practice among the Jews to chant these holy songs at the Passover table. Did they sing it responsively, their ‘Rabbi’ leading and the disciples responding? We shall never know for sure.

The Roman official Pliny the Younger held office as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor for a period of fifteen months or so in AD 111-112. During that time he corresponded with the emperor Trajan about how to enforce legislation against the Christians. He relates information about Christian practices which he had received from certain Christian renegades.

They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath…that they would abstain from theft and robbery and adultery, that they would not break their word, and that they would not withhold a deposit when reclaimed. This done, it was their practice, so they said, to separate, and then to meet together again for a meal, which however was of the ordinary kind and quite harmless.

The reference to “singing hymns to Christ” shows that the Christians were singing more than texts from the Psalms. And we have examples. A gospel fragment of uncertain date, known as the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 1900, contains this:

Through whom will the last enemy be destroyed?
Through Christ. Amen.
Through whom is the sting of death destroyed?
Through the Only Begotten. Amen.
To whom belongs the rulership?
It belongs to the Son. Amen.
Through whom has everything come into being?
Through the Firstborn. Amen.

Here is the ‘statement and response’ singing familiar from Jewish worship using the Psalms, but now with overtly Christian text.

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

Biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of the New Testament are likely renditions of early Christian hymns. They cite various textual criteria, for example that the passage exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure, contains vocabulary different from the surrounding context, and to some extent interrupts the context. It is common to refer to these passages as Canticles.

The classic examples have all passed into church liturgy: the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-75) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Luke 2:29-32). But there are others, such as Ephesians 5:14, which some hold to have been a credal statement for baptism, and 1 Timothy 3:16:

He was manifest in flesh,
justified in spirit,
visible to angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up into glory.

Poetic refrains and doxologies are another feature inherited by Christian hymnody from Jewish liturgical singing:

For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever (Rom. 11:36),
Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21),
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever (1 Tim. 1:17).

For further examples, see Ruth Ellis Messenger’s Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries (available courtesy of Project Gutenberg).

Why Sing Hymns? Insights From Some Early Church Fathers

A subject that fascinates me is Christian hymns. In many Western churches today they have largely been supplanted by choruses. Yet there has been a price to pay. In past times, hymns were recognised as a vital means of teaching Christian truth, not least to those who could not read (see here).

In the introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote this about hymn singing: A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.

It would seem that, for the first Christian centuries, believers sang their hymns without stopping to analyse the process. One of the first who did was John Chrysostom (347-407). In his ‘Exposition on Psalm 41’, he points out that music is an integral part of the human condition: To such an extent, indeed, is our nature delighted by chants and songs that even infants at the breast, if they be weeping or afflicted, are by reason of it lulled to sleep.

Mixing this innate sense of music with the power of words is, Chrysostom continues, a powerful vehicle, affecting the intellect and spiritual standing of the singer.

When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness – He mixed melody with prophecy, so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.

In words very relevant to today’s i-pod culture, Chrysostom warns that there are bad words and bad music too, and these can similarly affect the human soul. “Those things that are lascivious and vicious in all songs settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker.” That is why, he maintains, the devil is keen to fill the mind with dirty things through music.

From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.

d490b-notescolor1Another early Church father who understood the ‘why’ of hymn-singing was Basil of Caesarea (†379). In his Discourse on Psalm 1, he writes:

The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.

The first Christians understood the need to confess spiritual truth aloud: not just to ‘believe in your heart’, but also to ‘confess with your lips’ [Romans 10:9]. Or in Basil’s words, to impress doctrine more deeply on their souls. For this they had a clear and obvious model: the Jews. At first, Christianity was a Jewish sect. The early Christians continued to worship at the Temple and to attend synagogues. It was therefore inevitable that Jewish methods of performing music were incorporated into Christian worship.

In particular, the church continued to use the book of Psalms. Basil again:

Now the prophets teach certain things, the historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorialises history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings.

In other words, if it is important to confess God’s truth aloud, then how better than to sing scripture. Not only is there no risk of emotionalism or error, but also the addition of music aids the memorising of the words.

Disability Didn’t Stop 18 Year Old James Parnell, the first Quaker Martyr

Sculpture at Colchester Quaker Meeting Hall depicting Parnell in jail

Sculpture at Colchester Quaker Meeting Hall depicting Parnell in jail

Courageous faith isn’t just for special, brave people. Some of God’s heroes had to overcome serious limitations, even to get started. One such was James Parnell (1636-1655), from Retford in Nottinghamshire. He was a delicate lad, short for his age and sensitive. He loved Jesus and felt there must be more than going to the parish church.

In 1653, when he was 16, he heard of George Fox, the leader of the Quakers, who was in prison in Carlisle. Weak as he was, James walked the 150 miles and, fainting with exhaustion, was allowed to visit Fox. We have no record of their conversation, but Parnell was filled with the Holy Spirit and commissioned by Fox to be an evangelist.

He had just two years of life left, but they were amazingly fruitful. A colleague at the time, Stephen Crisp, subsequently wrote of him: ‘He was of a poor appearance, a mere youth, coming against giants; yet the wisdom of man was made to bow before the Spirit by which he spoke. He was a vessel of honour indeed and was mighty in the power and Spirit of Emanuel, breaking down and laying desolate many strongholds and towers of defence, in which the old deceiver had fortified himself with his children. Much might be spoken of this man, and a large testimony lives in my heart, to his blessed life, and to the power and wisdom that abounded in him.’

Disinherited and turned out of home by his parents, Parnell set about the work of the gospel. Sometimes with a partner, sometimes alone, he went from house to house, ‘preaching, praying, exhorting, and turning the minds of all sorts of people to the light of Jesus.’ He was ridiculed for his short stature, and often after preaching he was exhausted. Faith kept him going.

The cell in Colchester Castle where Parnell was held

The cell in Colchester Castle where Parnell was held

Hearing that two Quakers had been whipped at Cambridge, he went there and preached himself. Far from keeping a low profile, he published two tracts, against the corruption of the magistrates and of the priests. He was imprisoned until a court hearing, where the jury was unable to prove his authorship of the tracts. So Parnell was given a magistrates’ pass branding him “a rogue” and escorted out of the town by soldiers and a mob armed with staves.

He continued to preach in the area of Ely, Cambridgeshire. In a letter he records: “There is a pleasing people [congregation] arising out of Littleport. I remained there a sufficient time among them. There are about sixty people who meet together in that town alone.” He was often set upon by angry crowds. On one occasion, he records, “the power of God was wonderfully seen in delivering me, so that I can’t remember if they hit me.”

He continued in the east of England, strengthening existing Quaker assemblies and planting new ones at . Finally, Parnell was arrested after preaching (heckling) in St Nicholas’ Church in Colchester and accused of blasphemy. At his trial, he was acquitted of the most serious charge but fined £40, a hefty sum equivalent to c. 570 working days’ wage for a skilled labourer at that time. Parnell refused to pay.

So he was imprisoned, in a cell at Colchester Castle that can still be visited today. He was able to write letters, some of which have survived. “I am committed to be kept a prisoner, but I am the Lord’s free-man,” he wrote in one. In another, he counselled a recent convert to the Quaker message: ‘Lie down in the will of God, and wait on His teaching so that He may be your head. By such you will find the way to peace and dwell in unity with all the faithful; and though you are hated by the world, yet in God is peace and well-being.’

His jailers starved him for days at a time, then let him climb down a rope to get food. The jailer’s wife and daughter used to beat him, and on occasions he was locked outside in mid-winter. It was too much for his weak constitution. One day he had no strength left to climb the rope but fell to the concrete below, and died of his injuries. He was buried in an unmarked grave, the first of several hundred Quaker martyrs. He was just 18 years old. His message to all of us is summed up in the last words he sent to the Quaker believers in Essex: Be willing that self shall suffer for the truth, and not the truth for self.”

Faith, Beer and Public Health: the Story of Arnold of Soissons

Arnold of Soissons (1040-1087) was a Belgian career soldier in the service of Henri I of France. At some point he experienced a religious awakening and joined the Benedictine abbey of St Medard at Soissons, France. Here he must have shown considerable potential, as he was made abbot in his thirties – a role of great responsibility. For a short time he was even bishop of Soissons, though against his will, and when an opportunity came, he withdrew and founded a new monastery at Oudenburg in Flanders.

The Benedictine order already had a long history of brewing beer. There were several reasons for this. The founder, Benedict of Nursia, stipulated in his early 6th century Rule for the life of monks that they should not live off charity but rather earn their own keep and donate to the poor by the work of their hands. So monasteries produced cheese, honey, beeswax, wool and much else, selling what they did not need themselves. Besides, they were to practise hospitality, so beer was available to serve to guests and pilgrims.

Another reason was the health-giving property of beer itself. It was cheaper than wine and could be produced in colder climates. It required water to be boiled before fermentation, making beer safer to drink than water, since drinking water at the time could be unsanitary and carry diseases. The beer normally consumed during the day at this time in Europe was called small beer, having a very low alcohol content, and containing spent yeast. The drinker had a safe source of hydration, plus a dose of B vitamins from the yeast. It has been estimated that the average monk drank more than 20 pints a week!

That’s where Arnold came in. He encouraged local peasants to drink beer instead of water. This meant more sales for the monastery, but it is likely he shared the recipe with them, for the sake of public health. And, when a cholera epidemic (spread by water) ravaged the region, the Oudenburg area stayed safe while thousands elsewhere died. On another occasion, he prayed to God to increase the beer supply of a monastery after part of its roof had collapsed and destroyed the majority of the barrels. The prayer was answered and the supply of beer supernaturally restored. A neat take on Christ’s miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish that fed the 5,000?

These (and other signs) were interpreted as miracles, and after his death he was quite rapidly canonised by the Roman Catholic Church. St. Arnold is traditionally depicted with a hop-pickers mashing rake in his hand, to identify him as patron saint of brewers. He is honoured in July with a parade in Brussels on the “Day of Beer.”

 

Samuel Chadwick Burned his Sermons and Caught Fire Himself

‘Destitute of the fire of God, nothing else counts; possessing fire, nothing else matters. ‘  Samuel Chadwick

Samuel Chadwick (1860-1932) was born in the industrial north of England. His father worked long hours in the cotton mill and, when he was only eight, Samuel went to work there, too, as a means of supporting the family. Devout Methodists, they attended chapel three times on Sunday, and as a young boy, Chadwick gave his heart to Christ. Listening to God’s word week by week, he often felt the inner call to serve Jesus. It seemed impossible, as he was poor and uneducated, but in faith he made preparations. After a twelve-hour factory shift he would rush home for five hours of prayer and study.

At the age of 21 he was appointed lay pastor of a chapel at Stacksteads, Lancashire. He found the congregation self-satisfied, but Chadwick threw himself into the work with great optimism. He had been trained to prepare well-researched and interesting sermons as the sure way to bring in the crowds. He recalled later: “This led unconsciously to a false aim in my work. I lived and laboured for my sermons, and was unfortunately more concerned about their excellence and reputation than the repentance of the people.”

Soon, however, his sermons were exhausted and nothing had changed. Staring defeat in the face and sensing his lack of real power, an intense hunger was kindled within him for more of God. At this point he heard the testimony of someone who had been revitalised by an experience of the Holy Spirit. So, with a few friends he covenanted to pray and search the scriptures until God sent revival.

One evening he was praying over his next sermon, when a powerful sense of conviction settled on him. His pride, blindness and reliance on human methods paraded before his eyes as God humbled him to the dust. Well into the night he wrestled and repented, then he got out his pile of precious sermons and threw them on the fire!

Chadwick in later years

The result was immediate – he was baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire [Luke 3:16].

“I could not explain what had happened, but it was a bigger thing than I had ever known. There came into my soul a deep peace, a thrilling joy, and a new sense of power. My mind was quickened. I felt I had received a new faculty of understanding. Every power was vitalised. My body was quickened. There was a new sense of spring and vitality, a new power of endurance and a strong man’s exhilaration in big things.”

The tide turned. At his next service, seven people were converted (“one for each of my barren years”), and he called the whole congregation to a week of prayer. The following weekend most of the church was filled with the Holy Spirit and revival began to spread through the valleys. In the space of a few months, hundreds were converted to Jesus, among them some of the most notorious sinners in the area.

The pattern was repeated over the next few years as Chadwick moved to various places. 1890 saw him in Leeds, where the power of God was so strongly upon him that the chapel was full half an hour before the service began, and police had to control the crowds. Chadwick records: “We were always praying and fighting [the devil], singing and rejoicing, doing the impossible and planning still bigger things. The newspapers never left us alone, and people came from far and wide.” Within a few years, the chapel had to be demolished and a substantial Mission Hall built.

Always a man of the people, Chadwick would spend his Saturdays mixing with local workers. Once, when his wife was away, he teasingly invited anyone who was lonely to come for Saturday tea. He expected about a dozen. 600 turned up! Yet God had already catered: one church member was a baker and had been awoken by the Lord with the order to bake for all he was worth!

Chadwick was a man of prayer and urged others to it too. “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying,” he wrote. “He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom – but trembles when we pray!”

The final phase of Chadwick’s life was spent as Principal of Cliff College, a Methodist training school for preachers, and it was here that he wrote his famous book, The Way to Pentecost, which was being printed when he died in 1932. In it we read:

“I owe everything to the gift of Pentecost. For fifty days the facts of the Gospel were complete, but no conversions were recorded. Pentecost registered three thousand souls. It is by fire that a holy passion is kindled in the soul whereby we live the life of God. The soul’s safety is in its heat. Truth without enthusiasm, morality without emotion, ritual without soul, make for a Church without power.”

Succession and Commissioning to Leadership in the Early Church

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” This insightful statement, attributed to Alexander the Great, sums up how crucial it is for any movement to have the right leaders at the helm as they move into their future.

Established denominations have always faced this need, and history has shown inspired choices but also many more appointments based on politics or outward gifting rather than God’s clear choosing (shades of the calling of the shepherd boy David over his more ‘macho’ brothers, 1 Samuel 16:7). The many “new churches” that sprang up in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s are having to face the issues too. Their leaders are now in their seventies at least. Having turned away from traditional ordination, what models are there for succession? Does any one seem more fruitful than others? And when should a senior pastor initiate the process?

The earliest church communities had been founded by itinerant apostles and their teams. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that, when a need arose, suitably qualified men would be considered before God by the governing corpus of apostles, with prayer and fasting [Acts 13:1-3]. On one occasion we find the drawing of lots [Acts 1:21-26. The apostle’s (or apostles’) selection was ratified by the assembly of the local church, leading to commissioning. There is, however, little practical documentation of how prospective successors and key leaders were trained.

Traditional ordination to the priesthood

Anglican ordination to the priesthood

With time, the cultural contexts in which those churches were planted produced a variety of patterns for local leadership, some informed by Jewish models, others by Greco-Roman society. By the end of the 1st century, the pattern that emerged was a threefold, “cascade” structure:

(1) A single pastor-bishop, elected by each community and commissioned by a senior apostolic bishop. He presided over all aspects of the congregation’s life and worship. According to Hippolytus’s ‘Apostolic Traditions’, an episkopos, or senior bishop, should be at least 50 years of age. He was empowered to commission and ordain the second tier, namely:

(2) A shared ministry of leaders known as presbyters / priests / elders, elected by the local church-community, who oversaw the life of the church-community under the leadership of the bishop. These were empowered to commission and ordain the third tier, namely:

(3) Service-oriented ministers, called deacons, who assisted the bishop and the presbyter-elders in both ministry and worship [Acts 6:1-7].

In the first generations of the church, each man in tier 1 was expected to find, train and commission men into tier 2. In time, however, training became more a matter of schools; candidates were sent away from churches to be trained as leaders, rather than being trained within them.

Men in tier 2 were expected to find, train and commission both men and women to serve as deacons.

It is sometimes argued that the Didache (or ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), dated by most scholars to the late 1st century, disproves such a ‘cascade’. Chapter 15 contains the words: Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Some observers see in the words “for yourselves” a more democratic, grass-roots process than a monarchical one. However, the Didache may simply be describing the process we find in Acts 6, where the Jerusalem congregation was told to put forward suitable and respected candidates, whom the apostles then commissioned by the laying on of hands. For further discussion of the Didache on leadership, follow this link.

Sources:

The Ordained Ministry in the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Church, chapter ‘Ministry in the Second Christian Century, 90 – 210 AD’, which includes a detailed look at Hippolytus’s Didascalia (‘Apostolic Traditions’).

Thomas M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries.

Since posting this, I have received some helpful insights and comments from David Valentine, via the ‘Patristics for Protestants’ Facebook page. He has kindly given his permission to reproduce them here.

On the tier 1 bishops, for example, the evidence for such mono-episcopacy is far thinner than this article would suggest. As the big promoter of this model, Ignatius of Antioch appears to be the exception rather than the norm – and even he is not inside the first century, as the article implies. The evidence of Clement of Rome, Hermas, Justin and every Roman source (before we even reach non literary evidence such as archaeology) is of a more collegiate, team-based leadership, at least in the imperial capital, until near the end of the second century, when Irenaeus starts providing bishop lists that lack any corroborating evidence in the surviving literature before his time. He may be publishing something accurate, but we lack the evidence to check this and everything else says no, at least for Rome. In Alexandria, working back from Origen’s time (only decades after Irenaeus, and less after Hippolytus) the same pattern seems to be repeated as with Rome: teams of presbyters working together, with a fairly sudden appearance of mono-episcopacy in the first half of the third century, even later than Rome. Smaller cities may have had single leaders earlier, but in the case of Antioch alone (a big city) we have this strong tier 1 model.

Some excellent Anglican studies have suggested that the role of ‘bishop’ was simply that of the relatively rich householders who hosted meetings. It was only good manners that the hosts should preside, unless an apostle or prophet (according to Didache) was present; but this was not simply intended to perpetuate the existing social structure within the Church for all time.

I agree with your observation that the apostles tended to let local churches sort themselves out and be as autonomous as possible, with exceptions as the apostles discerned the need for more direction. Clement of Rome does point to an ongoing respect for the appointments of the apostles, but he can be placed as early as AD 68 – contemporary with the last canonical literature – rather than the ’90’s.

Having waded and brooded for some years on these things, I remain sceptical about what happened after the apostles. We just don’t know if there was a scheme of succession and how it worked. Paul’s own trajectory could even have set a precedent for charismatic leadership appointed in each generation by God.

If the Lord could simply leapfrog the Twelve and start a new stream with a fresh appointment, then Paul’s model of seeking ‘the right hand of fellowship’ to ensure continuity while starting a whole new apostolic stream, could have been perpetuated after him, as it has throughout church history. Wesley, for example, sidestepped Anglican tradition and initiated his own ‘apostolic stream’ by ordaining ministers, and this fresh stream has continued through Methodism and Pentecostalism. Perhaps Paul is the real precedent here.

The Power of God: the Jeffreys Brothers’ Remarkable Healing Ministry

Image: thebeausejourpulpit.wordpress.com

I had not been aware of the existence of the George Jeffreys and Stephen Jeffreys Official Website, but I’m delighted that I found it here. The founders of the Elim Pentecostal Church were certainly innovative in obeying the Great Commission to proclaim the gospel.

Their methods were bold and apostolic. In the economic depression of the 1920s and 30s, with dole queues and poverty, they would target an industrial city and rent a large hall. They were unknown, unsupported and often opposed by local churches. Meetings went on for weeks, the hall at first almost empty, but once news of the miraculous signs was out, it would be crammed. After the campaign they would buy a disused building, renovate it together, and George Jeffreys would install a man he had trained up, to be pastor of the new church. In this way, several hundred new churches were planted all over Britain.

Here, with due acknowledgement to the Jeffreys blog, is a contemporary report of a campaign which they held in Liverpool, UK, in March 1926.

“Revival Fires are burning in Liverpool. Although the campaign only started on Sunday 14th March, by the middle of the week the church was packed out. Hundreds have been saved and there have been many remarkable healings.” It was not long before the secular press began to report what was happening in these meetings, including the Yorkshire Observer, which referred to “the extraordinary scenes being reported at a disused Liverpool Chapel.”

The Daily Despatch of 18th March carried the following report: “Remarkable scenes of religious fervour are being witnessed at the little chapel in Windsor Street. Several remarkable ‘cures’ have been claimed by sick and maimed people who have been anointed with oil during the campaign. Several of the patients whom the pastor described as being under the power of God, swooned and lay trembling for some moments.”

Crowds gather for an afternoon meeting in Liverpool

The Daily Despatch went on to list some of the healings that had already taken place including a five year old girl suffering from Infantile Paralysis, a woman healed of deafness, a man from heart disease, and two people from paralysis. On the following day (19th March), five days after the commencement, the Daily Despatch carried the following report:

“Hundreds of people had to be turned away from yesterday’s services. Queues began to assemble outside the chapel two hours before the meeting commenced. As soon as the doors were open crowds began to clamour for admission, choking the aisles and every available inch of space. A crowd just as large could not gain admission and had to remain outside, while a few yards along the street other evangelists conducted open-air services until long after ten o’clock. So great was the pressure inside that the pastor was unable to anoint any of the people with oil and the service was terminated prematurely. Nevertheless a number of people testified to healing including a woman who had been dumb for many years, and two women healed of deafness.”

Stephen Jeffreys’ son Edward reported on a campaign in Swansea, Wales: Miracles of healing of the most amazing character took place. The blind received their sight; cripples threw away their crutches; the deaf answered questions; withered and twisted arms were raised, and there were many other remarkable cures from heart trouble, rheumatism, neuritis, paralysis, ruptures, haemorrhages and other complaints.

At Hull, in the north-east of England, George and Stephen ministered together. Testimonies were reported in the July 1922 issue of the ‘Elim Evangel’.

‘One woman told of nineteen long years of suffering through paralysis, but when anointed by Pastor Jeffreys she was completely healed. Another lady related how after four years of suffering from hip disease, during which time she had undergone no less than four serious operations and had lain in irons for over three years, her case was pronounced as absolutely hopeless by the physicians. God stepped in and marvellously delivered her and now she is able to do her own housework.

‘One of the cases which excited most interest was that of a young man whose condition was pitiable in the extreme. Paralysed in almost every limb and unable to speak intelligibly, he was as helpless as a child. What a change was wrought in him. I remember so well the evening when, full of new life, he swung his arms above his head and then in the exuberance of his joy jumped again and again, demonstrating the reality of his healing.’
Out of many other examples, the following took place at the Salem Hall, Leeds, in 1927:
‘During the laying on of hands, a middle-aged woman who was kneeling stood up and cried: “I can see! I can read!” Then, trembling with awe, she read aloud the words of the printed text above her head. Afterwards, she told [Jeffreys] that she had been almost totally blind for years, that she could not distinguish objects owing to a ball of fire in front of her eyes, but the moment his hands touched her, the ball of fire was taken away.’ (Leeds Mercury, 6 April 1927)
‘[I saw] a tall, stout, elderly man, standing with his two arms stretched high above his head and then jumping in the air… Again and again he jumped, while we were told that for 16 years he had suffered agony from sciatica and had suddenly been relieved of all pain. A girl, deaf for eleven years, was now hearing all that was said to her in the lowest of voices. An elderly lady suddenly took off her glasses, delightedly exclaiming “I can see better without them!”, while her son tells [Jeffreys] that she has been almost blind for more years than he can tell.’ (Yorkshire Evening Post of 7 April 1927)

George Jeffreys addressing a crowd outside a meeting hall

A link that has, unfortunately, been taken down, recorded eye-witness accounts of the 1932 in Exeter, south-west England. Here, onlookers heard bones crack as they were divinely reset. Most remarkable of all, though, was the case of a young girl born without eyes. George Jeffreys prayed several times over her: “Lord Jesus, give this little girl her eyes, just now!” Eye-witness Amos Pike tells what happened next: “Suddenly, this girl was looking at us – with two beautiful, big blue eyes!”
To show that this was not an exercise in Christian marketing, I close with a quotation from the Birmingham Sunday Mercury, of 31 January 1926. The secular journalist relates episodes from George Jeffreys’ campaign in Plymouth, Devon. It includes this:
‘Even sceptical policemen, whose duty it is to regulate the throng, have been swept off their feet by what they have seen and heard. One night two girls, one blind and the other dumb [mute], inquired of the officer nearby their way to the service. An hour or so later he was amazed when the couple returned to him, literally dancing for joy, the dumb girl speaking and the blind girl seeing.’
In his book ‘Pentecostal Rays’ (extracts in PDF format here), George Jeffreys is clear that healings and supernatural signs will be known in specific contexts. The evangelist is sent forth with the message to the outsider, and on the authority of those verses he lays hands on the sick, regardless of the particular person’s faith or obedience, and the signs follow. But in a comparatively short time the evangelist moves on, and the signs cease. But in the church, where the gift of healing is permanently set, the believer is clearly taught to comply with certain conditions if he expects to be healed… The gift of healing, set in the church, should be administered along church lines, and not expected as a sign seems to be given to confirm the evangelistic message. (p.142)

 

Best Practice in Church Leadership Succession: the Early Moravians

 

Image: caspianmedia

Church history rightly remembers Nicholas, Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) as a significant figure.  He was a religious and social reformer, founder of the Christian community and mission centre at Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, from which grew today’s Moravian Church. Under his leadership, missionary teams carried the gospel everywhere, from the Inuit of Labrador to the Zulus of South Africa.

It was a phenomenal achievement. What is far less known is how near the whole movement came to collapse, and how it was rescued and restored. In many ways, we will find here a model of good practice in leadership succession and generational transition in a church. The largely unsung hero was Zinzendorf’s successor, August Spangenberg (1704-92).

He had been a theology lecturer but threw in his lot with the Moravians, aged 29. He became the movement’s theologian, apologist, statesman and corrector – for sixty years! At first, he was an assistant to Zinzendorf, who sent him to Pennsylvania to establish churches, communities and schools – and to address opposition from other denominations. Zinzendorf sought Spangenberg’s mentoring when he was preparing for his own Lutheran ordination. If the count was the visionary of the Moravian movement, Spangenberg was his interpreter and enabler.

August Gottlieb Spangenberg

August Gottlieb Spangenberg

However, all was not well in the church. Zinzendorf was more of a visionary than a practical administrator. Under his leadership, the church’s expansion was funded by personal loans. By the 1750s, expenditure was out of control and the church had over-extended itself. This precipitated a spectacular crash in the church’s credit rating and reputation. Detractors used the opportunity to attack them. One major objection was to Zinzendorf’s devotion to the wounds of Jesus, which some saw as too Catholic, others as plain weird.

Zinzendorf died in 1760 with the Moravian church in a precarious position. Spangenberg was recalled from America and, although Moravian leaders saw themselves as equals, Spangenberg was clearly first among them. Under his leadership, the church felt compelled to turn inwards for a season, to address very real issues. They looked at what was central to their call and the way it had hitherto been expressed, and realised that some realignment was necessary.

  • They took responsibility for the debts and introduced financial controls. They avoided bankruptcy and achieved financial stability.

  • They apologised for any extra-biblical teaching, admitting that some of the contentious areas had been Zinzendorf’s “private opinions”, which church members were not required to endorse.

  • They reiterated their commitment to the Bible and to mission.

A sketch of the Herrnhut community in 1765

A sketch of the Herrnhut community in 1765

These reforms worked, much to Spangenberg’s credit. With disasters averted and unhelpful trappings removed, the vibrant church life and gospel endeavour initiated by Zinzendorf flourished. The Moravians concentrated on what they did best: community and mission. Their fruit was remarkable and highly esteemed. While the Great Awakening won souls in ‘Christian’ Britain and America, the Moravians reaped a harvest among the unconverted in other lands. As the 18th century ended, the Moravians had been successfully rehabilitated as the model of a missional church.

Notes:

1. The Moravian Church teaches that it has preserved apostolic succession. In Berlin in 1735, several Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut received episcopal ordination from the two surviving bishops of the Unitas Fratrum (the Bohemian Brethren or Hussites). They considered it important to preserve the historic episcopate.

2. In their earlier years, the Moravians took literally Acts 1:26, the drawing of lots, to determine the will and guidance of God. Their covenant of 1727 included the stipulation that at any time, there should be 12 elders leading the church, all appointed by ‘the lot’. Thereafter, ‘the lot’ was used to help decide key matters like the election of elders, or whom to send on mission. Once the lot was consulted, the decision was seen as binding, since God’s Spirit had spoken.

The usual method was to place two pieces of paper in a box, one with “The Saviour approves” written on it, the other with “The Saviour does not approve”. After corporate prayer, a member of the elders’ council then pulled out one of these papers.

‘The lot’ came to be mistrusted. Some feared leaders could manipulate the lot by rewording and redrawing it until they got the answer they wanted. Others, influenced by the Enlightenment, suggested that God was too rational to use such a haphazard system and that the lot was just a matter of luck. By 1800 it was no longer being used in the Moravian churches.

For further insights, see Nigel Tomes, After the Founding Fathers; Historical Case Studies.

A Revival in Poland Began with Praying Children

Image: flickr.com

Image: flickr.com

In the early 18th century, a revival took place in middle Europe that has received little attention. It had something most unusual about it: it was a revival among the children.

Lutherans were being increasingly marginalised by the Roman Catholic authorities in Silesia, (the borderlands of Poland and Czech today), but the schoolchildren would not accept this. Some time in 1707, the children of Sprottau (today Szprotawa) started to meet in the field outside the town, two or three times a day, to pray for peace in the land and for freedom of religion. They would read some Psalms, sing hymns and pray. There are reports of them falling on their knees, some even lying prostrate, and repenting of their sins. Then, when the right moment seemed to have come, they would close with a blessing.

The old town of Sprottau with the fields where the children prayed

The old town of Sprottau with the fields where the children prayed

The movement spread through the mountain villages of Upper Silesia and into the towns. Not all adults were happy about this, fearing the consequences; some tried locking their children in the house, but they would climb out of the windows! In some villages, Roman Catholic children joined the Lutheran children to pray. Reports began to circulate in local newsletters, spreading ever wider until the news was known in England and Massachusetts. To some it became known as the Kinderbeten (children’s prayer) Movement.

Some adults were drawn to the move of God. They would form a circle around the praying children. In some places, the combined number might reach 300 souls. Magistrates brought pressure to bear to disperse these meetings. One bailiff came with a whip, but when he heard the prayers, he could not use it.

Children at prayer in Africa

Children at prayer in Africa

Out of this “children’s revival” grew a movement of renewal that touched the area. In time, it found its centre in the Lutheran Jesuskirche church in Teschen (now Cieszyn), which opened in 1750. Here, so many attended services that hundreds had to stand outside the building. Sunday services began at 8 a.m. and continued through the day, in several languages. In turn, the Teschen church provided some of the original members of Count Zinzendorf’s community and fellowship at Herrnhut, known in the English-speaking world as the Moravians.

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