1. The Protestant objection
The majority of Protestants use the Scriptural references of “Elders”, “Bishops” and “Deacons” to support their view that the current Orthodox ecclesiastical order is not a continuation of the order that the Apostles left us. They say this, because in the New Testament it is clearly apparent that although the three terms of “Bishop, Elder and Deacon” are mentioned therein, the concepts of “Bishop” and “Elder” are presumed identical and not separate offices, as is the case in the Orthodox Church. Thus, it is impossible for these people to accept succession in the Church’s Bishops, because they consider succession to be an arbitrary decision.
What Protestant interpretation has overlooked, is how the office of Bishop was established during the late apostolic period, which was around the end of the first century to the beginning of the second century A.D.
It was imperative that ecclesiastic order undergo certain changes, as the head Apostles would eventually be departing from this world. Someone had to continue their work, and this could not possibly be done, while the head Apostles were still alive and in active duty.
2. The Order of Prophets
Protestants are in general aware that “Prophets” who were gifted with prophetic charisma are mentioned in the New Testament. What they probably do not realize is that – apart from those prophets - the primeval Church also had certain other “prophets” who obtained this charisma through ordination ( the laying on of the hands ). These comprised the Order that we refer to as “The Order of Prophets” today.
The Order of Prophets had immense authority in the Church during the first two centuries. It was actually the second office in authority, after that of the Apostles, as evidenced in the following verses of the New Testament :
Ephesians 4/IV 10 - 1: ΄΄…and He gave (to us) the Apostles on one hand, and on the other, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers, for the instruction of the holy flock, for ministerial labours, for the structuring of the body of Christ (the Church).”
Corinthians Α΄ 12/XII 28 - 30: ΄΄…. And there are those whom God had placed within the Church: firstly the Apostles, secondly the prophets, thirdly the teachers, then those with powers, then those with healing charismas, those with discernment, with administration, with various languages. Are all people apostles ? Are all people prophets ? Are all people teachers ? …….. For you must show zeal towards the superior charismas”.
From these verses, it becomes obvious that the prophetic charisma was the second in importance among the “superior” charismas - after the status of “Apostle” - and it had no relevance to the free prophetic charisma that would manifest itself occasionally; this was a permanent charisma, just like the apostolic charisma, that “God had placed within the Church”. This therefore is the most ancient and important order in the Church, after the Apostles.
A basic difference between “Prophets” and “Apostles” was that the Apostles had been directly selected by Jesus Christ, while the Prophets were directly selected by the Holy Spirit.
This is made evident in Acts 13/XIII 1 - 3: ΄΄There were in Antioch, in the existing Church, prophets and teachers; (who were) Barnabas and Simeon –the one called Niger- and Lucius the Cyrene, Manaes, the comrade of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. During their ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul, for the work that I am inviting them to undertake”. Then, after fasting and praying and placing their hands on these (two), they were discharged”.
It was thus that Saul (Paul) and Barnabas – who at the time belonged to the Order of Prophets – were dispatched to evangelize in Cyprus and Asia Minor. This was Paul’s first itinerary. Furthermore, the moment of their “selection” took place while they were “ministering” to the Lord. This further proves that those comprising the Order of Prophets had the right to perform the Divine Eucharist.
Furthermore, in Acts 14/XIV 23, it is apparent that those Prophets who were selected by the Church of Antioch had the right to ordain elders-clergymen in their local Churches. The Prophets’ authority over their local Churches’ clergy is therefore a fact. We can furthermore extract another conclusion: that the office of “Prophets” was not merely a local office; indeed, its range of authority extended to broader territories than that of the prophet’s Church of origin.
We can see this in another verse, in the Acts of the Apostles. After the end of the Apostolic Synod in 49 A.D., the Apostles and Elders who participated in the Synod of Jerusalem selected “Judas, the one called Barsabbas, and Silas, a man who was a prior amongst his brethren” (Acts 15/XIV 22). These were the two prophets who were sent to the Church of Antioch, in order to transfer -along with Paul and Barnabas- the decisions of the Apostolic Synod.
The fact that these two “priors” belonged to the order of Prophets, is mentioned in Acts 15/XV32: ΄΄Judas as well as Silas, both of whom were prophets, consoled and strengthened the brethren through extensive talks.”
All of the above is evidence that the Prophets routinely inspected the Churches with authority, under the supervision of the Apostles.
We can also find this information in the proto-Christian essay, the DIDACHE - “Teachings of the Apostles” - which was written around 70-100 A.D. The historical value of this essay is huge, given that it is one of the very few texts that has been preserved from that early period, when the Apostles one by one were departing from this life, leaving their successors in their stead. It is furthermore significant, because it also verifies all the aforementioned references of the Holy Bible.
In this essay, among other things, we find mentions of the order of Prophets: ΄΄And allow the Prophets to perform the Eucharist as much as they want” .(Didache 10/X 7).
΄΄As regards the Apostles and prophets, in accordance with the dogma of the Gospel, every apostle who comes to you should be welcomed as a Lord; he may not stay longer than one day, or if necessary, the next day; if he stays for three days, he is a false prophet. On his departure, the apostle may not accept anything but bread, for until he is received elsewhere as a guest. If he requests money, he is a false prophet. And every prophet who utters through the Spirit you may not offend, nor make any distinction; for every sin may be absolved, but this sin (offending the Spirit) will not be absolved. Not everyone who utters through the Spirit is a prophet, except if he has the manner of the Lord.. (Didache 11/XI 3 - 12).
΄Every true prophet, who wishes the stay with you, is worthy of his sustenance….. therefore (it is proper) to offer everything firstborn of the fruits of the winepress and the field, and the firstborn of cattle and of sheep to the prophets, for they are your high priests (Verse 13).
“Therefore ordain unto yourselves bishops and deacons worthy (in the sight) of the Lord; men of gentle nature and not greedy for money; men tried and true. They shall also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers, therefore do not overlook them, for they are your valued ones, after the prophets and the teachers.”(Didache 15/XV 1-2).
In the above, we learn that the Prophets, like the Apostles, visited the Churches and were offered hospitality by the Christians. The Christians therefore had to be careful, because there were also impostors who impersonated the Prophets.
We also learn that the Prophets were a leading Order, after the Apostles, and were bestowed with honours befitting High Priests by the Christians. In fact, their superiority over the Elders of the Churches is made clearly evident.
Finally, the Prophets could perform the Divine Eucharist: “And allow the Prophets to perform the Eucharist as much as they want”, without the Christians being allowed to hinder them.
Returning to the Holy Bible, let us examine several other “Prophets” -
Timothy II 1/i 6: ΄΄I would remind you to rekindle the charisma of God that is in you, through the laying on of my hands (upon you)”, writes the Apostle Paul to Timothy, whom he had ordained a Prophet. This is made apparent, by the fact that Timothy was bestowed the authority to likewise ordain, and also that he was selected by the Holy Spirit and had been ordained “through prophecy” (Timothy 3/III 6. 4/iv 13,14).
Similar missions were also given to Titus in Dalmatia and Crete (Titus 1/I 5), to Tychicus in Asia, (Timothy II 4/iv 12), to Criscus In Galatia, (Timothy II. 4/iv 10), to Timothy in Macedonia, (Philip. 2/ii 19), to Artemas in Crete, (Titus 3/iii 12) and to Erastus in Achaia (Timothy 4/iv 20).
After the death of the Apostles, the Prophets as their successors, continued the Apostles’ mission, ordaining and preaching to all the people.
As the decades passed on and the Prophets grew old, they could no longer travel about to visit their Churches and so began to settle down in Churches of their choice. There, they ordained their own successors, who were named “Bishops” ( Bi-shop = Epi-skopos (Greek) = Over-seer ), an office that continues, through to this day.
To this day, this continues to be the only office that is inherited through time, from the Apostles !