Early Christians gathered on Sunday for a ceremony of thanksgiving that included elements of Jewish traditions and Christian beliefs. They celebrated the sacred rite of the Eucharist, in which they consumed bread and wine, taken in memory of Jesus, whose last supper is described in the Gospels.
Over time, the clergy of the Christian church developed into a hierarchy. What are some positive and negative elements that may arise from this type of organizational structure?
Many women welcomed Christianity's promise that in the Christian faith, “there is neither Jew nor Greek … neither slave nor free … neither male nor female.” In early Christian communities, women served as teachers and administrators. Even when they were later barred from any official role in the Christian Church, they still worked to win converts and supported Christian communities across the Roman world.
During the first centuries A.D., Christian communities developed a formal church structure with its own clergy, or people who conduct worship services. At first, the Christian clergy included priests and bishops, the highest-ranking Church officials. A bishop presided over a diocese, which included a number of Christian communities and their priests.
As the church expanded, archbishops were appointed to oversee the bishops. An archbishop's territory was called a province. This type of organization in which officials are arranged according to rank is called a hierarchy.
As the Christian Church grew more organized, women lost their influence. They could not become priests or conduct Mass, the Christian worship service. Still, they continued to work as missionaries and even suffered martyrdom for their faith.
In time, the bishops of the most important cities in the Roman empire—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople—gained greater authority and were called patriarchs. Like all bishops, they traced their spiritual authority to the apostles and Jesus.
Eventually, in the Latin-speaking western empire, the bishop of Rome assumed a dominant position, claiming that the apostle Peter had made Rome the center of the Christian Church. He took the title pope, or father of the Church. Patriarchs in the eastern Roman empire rejected the pope's claim to be supreme ruler of the Church.
Together, the clergy, including archbishops, bishops, and priests, helped keep Christianity alive in the early years of persecution. They also maintained order and discipline in the Church.
Despite its strong structure, the Church faced constant battles against heresies, or beliefs said to be contrary to official Church teachings. To end disputes over questions of faith, councils of Church leaders met to decide which ideas or practices the Church would accept. Among the most important was the Council of Nicaea in Asia Minor, where they drew up the Nicene Creed, a statement of basic Christian beliefs.