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Extra resources for Christianity: History, Belief, and Practice (The Britannica Guide to Religion)

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The bishop, he insisted, is the unique focus of unity without whose authority there is no sacrament and no church. A few years earlier the letter of Bishop Clement of Rome (c. ad 95) to the church at Corinth based the hierarchy’s authority on the concept of a historical succession of duly authorized teachers. Clement understood the clergy and laity to be essentially distinct orders within the one community, just as in the Hebrew Bible there were high priests, priests, Levites (Temple functionaries), and laymen.

Christians did not need to be disaffected from the empire, though the deification of the emperor was offensive to them. Moreover, although as an agency of social welfare the church offered much to the downtrodden elements in society, the Christians did not at any stage represent a social and political threat. After the example of their master, the Christians encouraged humility and patience before wicked men. Even the institution of slavery was not the subject of fundamental Christian criticism before the 4th century.

The clergy were responsible for preaching, for administering baptism and Eucharist, and for distributing aid to the poor. In each city the senior member of the college (assembly) of presbyters, the bishop, naturally had some special authority; he corresponded with other churches and would attend the ordinations of new bishops as the representative of his own community and as a symbol of the catholicity—the universality and unity— of the church of Christ. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch early in the 2nd century, wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom at Rome that indicate how critical the centrifugal forces in the church had made the problem of authority.

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