8 The Structure of the Undivided Early Church

Go To the Beginning of this Book Excerpts from The Bible’s ‘Big Picture’ 

The Structure of the Undivided Early Church

[Note: the first part of this section is included in one of the above “handouts” in section 6] 

The Church is the “profound mystery” (see Ephesians 5:22-32) of the Bride and Body of Jesus Christ, animated by the Divine Holy Spirit as the “soul” which enlivens that Body of Christ the Church and leads it into “all the truth” (John 16:13), which makes the Church “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) , which is why the judgements of the Undivided Early Church’s Councils of ordained Christian overseers (bishops, eparchs, patriarchs and popes) as to just what the Canon of the New Testament is and just how the Christian Bible must be interpreted (so as to yield the traditional Christian fundamental doctrines) can be trusted by all Christians today (“doctrinally liberal” Protestantism, which dominates the oldest and largest Protestant “mainline” denominations today, is typically uncertain about even basic Christian orthodoxy, and sometimes blatantly unorthodox/heretical, precisely because the Protestant Reformation rejected this Biblical understanding of the Church as truly though mysteriously (see Ephesians 5:22-32) the Living Body of Christ on Earth, in communion with and directed by Christ the Head of the Body through His Holy Spirit, despite the personal human failings of individual members of the Church). 

The Undivided Early Church called itself the Catholic Church because it was a Catholic (Greek for Universal) Communion of different culturally-based “Rites” (different cultural responses to and celebrations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ).  These Rites, once established and organized, were also called “particular” (or “Sister”) Churches which together made up the one Catholic (Universal) Christian Church.  Structurally this ancient Catholic Church was (and is) made up of:  

1)   the ancient Jerusalem Rite or Sister Church , where the (initially entirely Jewish) Church of Jesus Christ began with the descent of the Holy Spirit, and where the very first (Holy Spirit-led) Church Council was held in settlement of the very first major dispute among Christians (Acts 15); 

2)  the ancient Antiochene (Syrian), Alexandrian (Egyptian), Roman (currently by far the largest but this was not always so), and Byzantine (Greek) Gentile (non-Jewish) Rites or Sister Churches which developed thanks to the preaching of the Gospel by the Jewish Apostles and disciples of Jesus who started from Jerusalem (these four Sister Churches together with the Jerusalem Church participated in the (Holy Spirit-led) Early Ecumenical Councils which clearly defined the essential truths of Christianity in settlement of major disputes among Christians caused by heretics); and 

3) the many missionary “daughter” Rites or Sister Churches of the above ancient Gentile Sister Churches  (the first four Gentile cultures as renewed in Christ), which were initially mission fields for the above ancient Rites of the Church but which eventually developed their own distinct cultural response to and expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while still retaining many elements of their “mother” Rite which had initially evangelized them (today’s Catholic Church has 26 Sister Churches including all the “daughter” Rites which remain in the Catholic Communion – but it could have many more Rites, all of them still “daughter” Rites of the original five cultures renewed in Jesus, if the fundamentally orthodox, “Catholic at heart” already churches rejoin the ancient Catholic Communion they formally left though they unconsciously still remain in it “in heart” by their orthodoxy. Such reunion according to the structure of the Undivided Early Church would absolutely not mean Protestant churches being absorbed into the huge Roman Catholic Sister Church but formally becoming their own Catholic “Sister Churches” of “fully equal dignity” with the Roman Rite, according to the Catholic Church’s own official and dogmatic teaching of the nature and structure of the Church in Vatican II, the 21st Ecumenical Council, which is quoted later in this book).  

The oldest and most well established distinct Rites or Sister Churches eventually become officially known as Patriarchates, with the overseers (also called bishops or eparchs) who head them known as Patriarchs.  All of the 5 ancient Jewish and Gentile Christian “Mother Rites” (centered in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Byzantium/Constantinople) and several of the older of their daughter Rites are formally known as Patriarchates (this way of organizing the Church was established at the very same Early Ecumenical Councils which established the fundamental doctrines of Christianity against heretical challenges).  So a Patriarch, generally speaking, is the chief overseer or bishop of an entire cultural expression of Christianity, an entire well-established Rite or Sister Church within the ancient Catholic Communion of Christian Sister Churches. 

All of these ancient and newer Rites or Sister Churches or Patriarchates which together make up the Catholic Church share the same Christian Faith, Sacraments, and Church Government in the Apostolic Succession of overseer/bishops, including the chief overseer/bishop, the pope, who is the Successor of Peter, the Chief Apostle.  But all of these Rites or Sister Churches express their common Christian faith in different theological language, worship customs and devotional practices which are influenced by their different particular cultural background, which gives each Sister Church a unique perspective on the Divine Revelation of Jesus Christ which helps the Sister Churches together come to an ever deeper understanding of the infinitely rich truths God has revealed in Jesus Christ.  In the Undivided Early Church the Early Ecumenical (worldwide) and other major Councils of the Catholic (Universal) Communion of Sister Churches pooled together their different insights into Divine Revelation and (guided or ratified by the pope) clearly articulated and clarified (against the many early heretics) what we today know as the traditional fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith (and the traditional Canon of the New Testament), guaranteed by the Holy Spirit of Truth which enlivens the Body of Christ the Church and makes the Church “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) – fundamental beliefs (listed page 42 below) which are still shared by most (though not all) of today’s separated Christian Churches which no longer call themselves Catholic.  The Eastern Orthodox and (Western) Protestant/Evangelical Churches which broke away from the ancient Catholic Christian Communion in the Second Millennium remain “Catholic at heart” by their firm commitment to the traditional (Catholic) New Testament Canon and Christian fundamentals.  

This means that today’s divided Catholic, Orthodox, and (conservative not liberal) Protestant churches (and even today’s “Messianic Jews,” Jewish Protestant believers in Jesus) already have a tremendous common ground from which to actively seek to gradually restore the lost unity of the one Body of Christ which Jesus prayed for “so that the world may believe” in Him when it sees the love of Christians  for “one another.”  This common faith is: 

The “Common Creed” of Christianity: The Vast Common Faith of Catholic, Orthodox, and Conservative/Evangelical Protestant Christianity (and “Messianic Judaism”) Which is the Basis for Restored Christian Unity in Diversity 

the One God, Creator of the Universe, who is Love, exists as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God the Son in Jesus Christ through Mary’s Virgin Birth, making Jesus fully God and fully man, able to make Atonement for the sins of all humanity, which He did by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead so that humanity can be forgiven and saved (and find human fulfillment) through Him; we acquire this forgiveness from sin and salvation unto eternal life through, drawn and empowered by God’s Grace, our turning away from sin (anti-love), accepting what Jesus has done for us and coming into loving, saving relationship with Him (and His Father and Holy Spirit) through belief and baptism, as He taught (Mark 16:16), which makes us members of the one Body of Christ the Church; Jesus’ literal Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven; Jesus’ future return in glory and judgement and the bodily resurrection of all the dead; the tenets of traditional Christian morality (described in the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, among other passages of Scripture) as how to be loving and so how to please the God who is Love; the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures which testify to all these things.   

The above common Christian beliefs are the wonderful, life-changing, saving truths of Christianity which “turned the world upside down” in barbaric times and transformed the ancient pagan world with God’s Love, truths which still make Catholic, Orthodox, and Conservative/Evangelical Protestant Christians brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus and instruments of God’s salvation in the world.  The currently divided Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical Christians (and “Messianic Jews”) who are already united in this above common faith of the Undivided First Millennium Catholic Church must actively seek unity in love with each other since Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are [Christians], if you love one another” (John 13:35).  Furthermore, Jesus prayed to His Father “that all [Christians] may be one. . . so that the world may believe that You have sent me. . . May [Christians] be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me” (John 17:21,23).  The world of hurting people who need to know Jesus can best see Him in His Body the Church only when it is united in love.  Any successful future reunification of today’s divided Christian Church will have to be based on the model of the First Millennium Undivided Early Church’s structure (retained in today’s Catholic Church though largely hidden because of the Second Millennium numerical dominance of the Roman Rite), a structure which is further discussed below

Distinguishing Rites, Sister Churches, and Patriarchates (and the Pentarchy)

When considering the structure of the Undivided Early Church it is helpful to further distinguish the terms Rite, Sister Church, and Patriarchate.  While the word “rite” is most commonly applied to the specific words and actions of a given religious ritual (for example, “the rite of Baptism” or other “rites of passage”), “By extension it means a complete system of ritual and prayer to be used in the worship of God and the administration of the Sacraments … the whole complex of prayers and ceremonies originating at or associated with [a particular place in time with its culture or spirituality].” (Attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, ix).  I find it most helpful to capitalize Rite in this extended sense.  Thus, generally speaking, a Rite is a particular Christian sub-group’s identifiable particular way of expressing their Christian faith; a Sister Church (or particular Church within the Catholic/Universal Church) is an older and more organized Rite which actually has its own separate hierarchy of ordained overseers (bishops or eparchs) within the Catholic (Universal) Communion of Sister Churches; and a Patriarchate is a very well-established Sister Church of venerable age and historical contribution to the Church.  The “Pentarchy” refers to the first five Patriarchates (or Church Provinces) of the Undivided Early Church whose contribution to the Church includes the Canon of the New Testament and the clearly articulated fundamentals of Christian faith themselves.  To further distinguish and discuss these three related categories: 

1)  a Rite is a particular Christian sub-group’s identifiable particular way of expressing their Christian faith , usually that of a distinct cultural group (as in the Roman Rite, the Ukrainian Rite, the Zairean Rite) but sometimes that of a distinct spiritual group, as in the case of the Carthusian, Carmelite, and Dominican Rites – a case of specific religious orders who each have their own distinct form of the Roman Mass liturgy and who (together with their related lay associations) express their Christianity according to a particular spiritual style.  So there are mostly culturally-based but also spirituality-based Rites within the Catholic Church.  Mission fields quickly start to develop their own Rites, their own cultural expression of Christianity, though it may take many centuries to firmly establish them (usually still retaining many elements from the missionary “Mother Rite”), and such new Rites initially do not have their own ordained hierarchy but fall under the leadership jurisdiction of the Sister Church which sent the missionaries to them.  Occasionally a local overseer/bishop will recognize that a distinct sub-group in his territory has particular spiritual needs and approves a distinct Rite for that group to follow while remaining under his jurisdiction.  Sometimes in the case of a sizeable ethnic group from another established Sister Church that is too far away, the local bishop or “ordinary” of the local majority Rite traditionally arranges for a priest trained in the other ethnic Rite to serve that group’s spiritual needs.  With today’s easy travel and communication, this is done less, and instead overseer/bishop/eparchs of different Rites “overlap” their territories of jurisdiction, such that an overseer/bishop/eparch of a minority Rite in a country, instead of one city and its environs, may have a vast territory (still centered in a major city) in which he looks after his widely scattered minority flock (traveling a lot), and he ordains priests trained in his Rite and sends them to be the immediate pastors of the local congregations of his flock. 

As discussed more below, the many of the separated Protestant denominations who are still fundamentally orthodox or “Catholic at heart,” in future ecumenical dialogue towards formal Christian reunion as in the Undivided Early (Catholic/Universal) Church, are best thought of as their own distinct “Rites” of Christianity, with many of their own distinct ways or styles of celebrating their orthodox (“Catholic at heart”) Christian faith that in are in no way in conflict with Catholic dogma.  Many of the Protestant denominations are associated with the particular culture in which they began (Lutheranism is associated the German culture, Presbyterianism is associated with the Scottish culture, there is a vibrant and growing Korean church, and so on), akin to the major culturally-based Rites of the Catholic Church (such as the Roman, Greek, Ukrainian, Ethiopian and so on), and many of the Protestant denominations were formed from spiritual movements (such as Pentecostalism), akin to the spirituality-based Rites, the distinct Catholic Rites which are based in  particular spiritual movements which may be associated with a formal religious order and related lay associations which share that order’s particular spiritual style and emphasis in the practice of their Christianity.  Perhaps in the future the growing number of new organized spiritual movements with distinct emphases within the Catholic Church since Vatican II, many of which are lay movements though some also have “clerical” branches, will find themselves similar in many respects to reunified once-Protestant spiritually-based Rites, as the Catholic Church gradually more and more consciously restructures itself according to the Undivided Early Church model dogmatically identified in Vatican Council II (the 21st Ecumenical Council).  All of the Catholic Rites today, whether culturally-based (the traditional norm), or spiritually-based (which preserve the particular emphases of past movements of the Holy Spirit within the Church, such as religious orders with their distinct associated Rites), together enrich each other, and their distinct emphases on different aspects of the infinite Truth of God revealed in Jesus together make the Catholic Church a beautiful bouquet whose beauty comes from its variety; each of the Rites is like a jewel in Jesus’ crown which is all the more resplendent because of its variety.  The beauty of this bouquet and this crown can only be further enhanced by more distinct cultural and spiritual expressions of orthodox Christianity such as those of the fundamentally orthodox or “Catholic at heart” Protestant churches, after Catholic and (orthodox) Protestant Christians, through long and lovingly engaged ecumenical dialogue as true brothers in Christ sadly separated, have come to mutually-agreed-on resolutions to their comparatively few and comparatively unimportant actually substantial misunderstandings and disagreements. 

2) a Sister Church (or particular Church within the Catholic/Universal Church) is an older and more organized Rite which actually has its own separate hierarchy of overseers (bishops or eparchs) within the Catholic (Universal) Communion of Sister Churches , with one particular overseer/bishop as the spiritual leader of the entire Sister Church, whether that bishop is known as a “Metropolitan,” “Major Archbishop” or “Patriarch” or whatever is his title (the Pope is also the Patriarch of the Roman Catholic particular Church within the Catholic Church entire that he heads as Pope not because he is the Bishop of Rome and the Roman Patriarch but only because he is also the successor of Peter, the Chief Apostle, who happened to die in Rome.  Had Peter died in Antioch, the Bishop of Antioch would be the Pope, and another man would be the Roman Patriarch).  A Sister Church generally represents an organized distinct cultural response to the Gospel (or Rite), whether ancient or newer .  The Eastern Orthodox Churches no longer within the ancient Catholic (Universal) Communion of Orthodox Sister Churches Eastern and Western are large portions of the original Undivided Eastern Catholic Sister Churches which since the First Millennium of Christian Unity (in Diversity!) were separated from Catholic Communion,1 but, being valid ancient cultural expressions of the Gospel which have maintained their hierarchal succession of overseer/bishops from the Undivided Early Church, they are still recognized by the Catholic Church as Sister Churches who have sadly been separated from full communion within the Catholic Church (thus there is now a Ukrainian Catholic Sister Church, and a Ukrainian Orthodox Sister Church, which are almost identical except for the Ukrainian Orthodox Sister Church not being in Eastern and Western Universal or Catholic Communion under the Pope as chief overseer/bishop.  It is evidence of the lack of communion that comes from not recognizing the Pope as the Church’s center of unity that today there are actually three separate Ukrainian Orthodox Sister Churches, denominational separations among Ukrainian Orthodox Christians). 

Thus it is that Ukrainian Rite or Sister Church is also known as “the Byzantine Ukrainian Rite or Sister Church” or “the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,” terms which identify that Sister Church’s historical connection with the ancient Pentarchy – it was specifically Byzantine (or Greek) Christians who evangelized Ukraine, and the distinctly Ukrainian cultural response to and expression of the Gospel retains a strong Byzantine/Greek flavor inherited from the Byzantine Christian missionaries.2  Even the Protestant Churches are effectively “daughter Rites” of the ancient Roman Rite they broke away from in the 16th Century which make important and enriching contributions to the Church Universal, which still retain a strong distinctly Roman flavor easy for Eastern Rite Christians to see (albeit “daughter Rites” who are no longer on good speaking terms with their ancient Roman “Mother Rite”) .  It is easy for Eastern Rite Christians to tell that Protestant Christians are descended from the particularly Roman cultural expression of Christianity because Protestant Christians have continued many Roman theological and ritual and customary approaches to the commonly-held Christian Divine Revelation which are not shared by Eastern Rite Christians.  As the Ukrainian Church retains a distinctly Greek character while also having their unique cultural expressions of Christianity, so while retaining a distinctly Roman flavor, the Protestant churches also have unique expressions of Christianity, both cultural and spiritual (similar to the cultural Rites and the religious order Rites of the Catholic Church).  The Lutheran Church might be regarded as a “German Rite,” the Presbyterian Church a “Scottish Rite,” the huge Korean Church a “Korean Rite” and Evangelicalism is in many ways a “North American Rite,” a North American cultural response to the Gospel in principle just as valid as the ancient Roman and Greek cultural expressions of Christianity (which is why North American Catholics, both Roman Rite and Greek Rite, borrow many good things from Evangelical Protestant Christianity, especially praise and worship songs).  It can be seen here that once we start thinking in terms of the Undivided Early Church’s unity in diversity, we are already much closer to the Early Church’s unity than we usually think, such that real structural Christian reunification must be possible in the long term, since we are already united in vast common faith  which we express in different ways within different churches, similar to the Undivided Early Church’s Universal/Catholic Communion of Sister Churches , even though most of the Protestant churches, because of certain features from the Undivided Early Church they abandoned in the Protestant Reformation,  are not constituted like the Early Church’s different Sister Churches were (and thus official Catholic documents refer to Protestant churches as “ecclesial (church) communities” rather than as full Churches or Sister Churches – this term is not meant to demean Protestant Christian communities but simply to recognize that they are not organized as Churches the way the Early Church’s Sister Churches were). 

3) a Patriarchate is a very well-established Sister Church of venerable age and historical contribution to the Church .  Several ancient and semi-ancient Sister Churches have been declared Patriarchates at the Ecumenical Councils for their long (even foundational) service to God in the world, and the overseer/bishop who heads the hierarchy of such Sister Churches becomes known as a PatriarchThe original ancient “Pentarchy” of 5 Patriarchates (centered at Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Byzantium/ Constantinople) was established in the same Early Ecumenical Councils which established the fundamentals of Christology : that Jesus is God; specifically that Jesus is God the Son, Second Person of the Divine Holy Trinity; that Jesus is One Person in two natures, Divine and human; and specifically that Jesus is fully God and fully man.  The clear articulation of these Christian fundamentals are part of the vast contribution of these early Sister Churches to the entire Christian Church.  All of the later Rites and Sister Churches which make up the Christian Church (even those older of the later Rites which have become known as Patriarchates themselves) are descended from these 5 original “Mother Rites” and Patriarchates of the ancient Pentarchy, and thus all the Rites of Christianity today are associated with one or the other of the original five.  

So all Patriarchates are Sister Churches, and all Sister Churches are Rites, but not all Rites are yet Sister Churches and not all Sister Churches are yet Patriarchates .  One can thus refer to the Roman Rite, the Roman Sister Church, or the Roman Patriarchate (all 3 terms referring to the same entity which currently comprises the numerical bulk of the Catholic Church), while the Zairean Rite is a recently recognized distinctly culturally African Rite within the Roman Sister Church and Patriarchate which cannot yet be described as anything but the Zairean Rite (or the Roman Zairean Rite to indicate its historical connection with the Pentarchy).  These distinctions between Rite, Sister Church, and Patriarchate mainly have to do with formally recognizing and respecting how old and well-established a particular Rite is, just how long it has served Jesus by spreading the Gospel, though all orthodox cultural responses to the Gospel, new or old, are equally valid; all contribute to the mutually enriching unity in diversity of the Church which makes the Catholic Church entire superior to any one Rite alone (including today’s huge Roman Rite); and all who belong to any Rite or Sister Church or Patriarchate within the Church are equally called to evangelize the world for love of Jesus, as the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council II affirms . 

© 2007, 2009 Peter William John Baptiste SFO 

Go To Next Section One Body One Spirit: Divided Christians Need To Learn From Each Other What Each Major Branch of Christianity Has Best Preserved from the Undivided Early Church 

Go To the Beginning of this Book Excerpts from The Bible’s ‘Big Picture’ 

1The Eastern Catholic Churches commonly called themselves “Eastern Orthodox Churches” since the 5th Century, to distinguish themselves from sizeable Eastern heretic churches, but they were still Catholic until the 2nd Millennium when the formal communion with the Christian West and the pope in Rome were broken. 

2In the sad fact of Christian division, the four ancient Patriarchal cities located in the East were militarily conquered by the Muslims and large portions of the ancient Eastern Patriarchates (including “daughter churches”) associated with these cities were forced out of the Catholic (Universal) Communion of East and West by 1472 (though significant portions either were never separated or returned to the Catholic Communion in the following centuries).  As a result, the Patriarchs of the cities of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Byzantium/Constantinople are now Eastern Orthodox and no longer Catholic (out of the Universal/Catholic Christian Communion of East and West and only loosely associated with each other).  Although substantial portions of these ancient Patriarchates are still within the Catholic Communion of Sister Churches collectively known as the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church today has resisted giving the title of Patriarch to the head overseer/bishop of the still-Catholic portion of these ancient Patriarchates, in the hopes that the schism will eventually be healed and the currently out-of-communion Patriarchs will return with their flocks to the Catholic Communion, without the possible barrier of there already being another Catholic Patriarch of the same city!