A Review with Observations on Parish and Parish Church: Their Place and Influence in History, by P. D. Thompson
In Parish and Parish Church, the ‘Baird Lecture for 1935,’ P. D. Thompson traces the origins, development and significance of the parish system in Western Civilization. It is a very useful volume, stimulating a number of interesting observations in my mind on the institution that has become interwoven in the fabric of Medieval and Reformation Church life and mission. And if the old parish model is to be of any contemporary application as I suggest (see About ‘West Port Experiment’), this book will go a long way for modern day pastors and missionaries. To know the past is to have a roadmap for the future.
Thompson’s treatment of the birth of the ecclesiastical parish is very enlightening. His main contention is that the early Church basically took over an organizational unit or division typical within Greco-Roman civilization. The original parish or paroikia in the first place “signified that section of the inhabitants, living within the bounds of a town or city, who were not citizens in the strict sense of the word, but foreigners or sojourners. In the second place, it signified a community living outwith the bounds, either in a detached suburb or in more widely scattered hamlets and villages in the surrounding rural area” (1). Analogous to the first sense are the ethnic ‘quarters’ or ‘districts’ of Industrial and Post-Industrial era cities.
Now, the New Testament Church did not consciously adopt the ancient division. It is not as though Paul drew up a map of the Mediterranean nations and parceled the area out into a nice and tidy parish system. But insofar as he and his associates strategically infiltrated cities first and the outlying rural (‘pagan’) areas second, they did in a way adopt the parish model. They evangelized the cities and countryside in all their pre-existing districts, enclaves, and regions. Paul intentionally went into the Jewish quarters of each city. He sought to leaven them, and from them to leaven the cities. The first district to become Christianized was thus the beachhead into the city, and the city with its several house churches (Acts 2:46, 20:20; arranged by district?) was the beachhead into the countryside.
While Thompson does not particularly reference New Testament passages in support of the concept directly, I would contend that certain verses show that Paul operated on a territorial principle, which is merely the genus to the species of the parish system (Rom. 15:18-24, 2 Cor. 10:14-16; see my treatment of this elsewhere, https://westportexperiment.wordpress.com/2008/06/04/the-settled-ministry-itinerancy).
In any case, I think Thompson is quite correct to say that the New Testament Church properly and wisely took up the territorial organization of the ancient world for its ecclesiastical organization and missionary strategy. This was only natural since the structures lay ready to hand.
It was entirely in keeping with the policy of the Church from the beginning and for many a century that it should have laid hold of such a secular institution as the ancient parish, adapted it to its own purposes, and ended by transforming it into something wholly different from what it originally was. Wherever throughout the long course of its history the Church came across any pagan institution or custom that could by any means be used to advantage or turned to Christian ends, it sought to breathe into it the Christian spirit, impart to it a Christian significance, and shape it accordingly. That was its deliberate and invariable policy and practice. Like its Master, the Church ‘came not to destroy but to fulfil’ (7).
The charter of Christ permitted and even called for His Church to repossess the strong man’s spoils.
I do think, however, that Thompson oversteps biblical warrant when he continues, “in the same way [the Church] adopted pagan popular customs, such as nature festivals and the like, breathed into them the Christian spirit, gave them a Christian stamp and significance, and transformed them into observances of the Faith and allies of the Gospel” (7). Now, there is nothing wrong with taking over indifferent customs and practices into the bosom of the Church’s life and witness. The Puritan divines put it well when they wrote “that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). But there is a world of difference between indifferent customs and unredeemable ones. Certainly the Ephesian Christians didn’t think that Diana icons should be rededicated to the Blessed Virgin, or that their books of sorcery were useful for any other purpose than for kindling (Acts 19:19)! There is nothing inherently idolatrous in a civic unit of organization; there is in pagan nature festivals. That explains why Calvin and Knox retained the parish system and rid the Church of Christmas, Easter, and the myriad of saints’ days.
Thompson’s sketch of the early Church’s appropriation of preexisting territorial structures does seem quite plausible, fitting with the facts as we have them. First, Thompson notes that there was the practical problem of the administration of charity recorded in Acts 6, which may have lent itself to the adoption of a kind of parochial organization as it certainly did to the emergence of the office of the deacon. Diaconal care had to be centrally organized in the city church, with the resources of the various district or house churches pooled in what he calls the Mother-Church, “so that none should receive preferential treatment and none be neglected” (15). Seven deacons were appointed to superintend the fair distribution of the common resources throughout the church, doubtless as it was organized in its subdivisions.
Even anterior to this contributing development was the logistical problem of meeting places in the context of a burgeoning church. “As the Gospel was preached in the original Mother-Church and propagated by the life and witness of believers, and as the number of believers multiplied and spread throughout the city, there would neither be room for them to worship together in one building, even if they could conveniently reach it, nor would there be facilities for their Christian instruction. As occasion required, therefore, meeting-places, which became churches in their turn, must needs be provided in ward after ward, until the whole city was adequately churched” (15). And with designated meeting-places came the deployment of ministerial manpower for the services, ward by ward.
Just like the parish, the diocese (dioikesis) was also an ancient territorial division. The development of the diocese, however, reflected more the circumstances of a developing episcopacy. As certain bishops were elevated in status and recognition over their peers, “it was [deemed] fitting that the territorial area under the bishop’s supervision and administration should be correspondingly enlarged, and receive an added dignity and importance. This was done by extending the bounds of the episcopal parish, and giving it a lordlier name” (18).
Perhaps it is for this reason that the Reformed Churches took over the parish system, but not the dioceses. The latter went hand in hand with episcopal preeminence from the very beginning. But obviously the Reformers had no qualms with larger territorial units of ecclesiastical organization, provided that they didn’t facilitate or support episcopacy. One thinks of how ‘presbyteries’ and ‘synods’ were used interchangeably for governing bodies as well as for territorial divisions of labor.