From the very beginning, the church has had to address questions of leadership and governance, says church historian Robert Louis Wilken. And early church figures from Gregory the Great to Irenaeus still have much to say to the church today about leadership.

Regarded by many as the dean of patristics scholars in North America, Wilken is the William R. Kenan professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. He has written extensively on Jewish/Christian relations in the early church, ancient pagan views of Christians and patristic biblical interpretation. His most popular work is “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought,” which opens the riches of ancient Christian theology to a popular audience.

He spoke to Faith & Leadership about the early church and leadership. The audio clip contains selections from the following edited interview.

Q: What does the early church’s way of thinking about a bishop have to teach us about leadership?

What people sometimes do not realize is that Christianity comes into the world as a community. It doesn’t come into the world as a group of individuals who happen to band together. … Jesus gathers together a group of disciples who are then to become the leaders of the community after the resurrection. So all through the New Testament, especially when you read Paul and of course the pastoral epistles, the question of leadership and governance … is present. And that, of course, then becomes the office of bishop.

What gave [the office] its strength is that it combines several different functions into one office: oversight, which is what “bishop” means; teaching and preaching; and liturgical leadership. That means that each function, of those three functions, complements the other. And it gave the office a kind of strength and durability.

A more pragmatic approach would be to let those teach who can teach; let those oversee who can oversee; and let those who have a sense of what ritual is about, preside. But that’s not what [the church] did.

As time went on, the bishops in larger cities took on responsibility for the smaller cities in the region. Since Rome was such a major city, the Bishop of Rome came to prominence because he was called in to adjudicate disputes elsewhere. The holder of that office began to assert wider authority and then eventually to take on teaching responsibilities for the larger church.

Gregory the Great stands at the end of this development, as pope in 600 A.D. He had a vision of the church as a worldwide community, even outside the Roman Empire. He sent a man by the name of Augustine to the British Isles. Then Gregory exercised leadership by writing letters to Augustine (now Augustine of Canterbury), which show an astute understanding of human nature. For example, Augustine asked Gregory what to do about the pagan temples where people were used to worshipping. “Should I tear those down and build churches?” Gregory says no: Clear out the idols, sprinkle the temples with holy water, put an altar in and you’re in business. People are accustomed to coming to that place and so they’ll continue to come. It’s like the stories in early modern times of people in a village coming into a church who would stop before a blank wall and make the sign of the cross or kneel. That was because there was a picture there that the Reformers painted over. Later the people didn’t even know that. They just knew it was a holy place.

Q: Thinking about the office of bishop, Ignatius of Antioch immediately comes to mind, especially his deep equation of discipleship with martyrdom.

Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch, north of Palestine on the Mediterranean Coast, and he was taken captive and brought to Rome. On the trip, in chains, he passed through a lot of Christian communities in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He understood that his trip to Rome could be a powerful witness to the Christians in those cities, so he made it very clear that he did not want them to do anything to stand in the way of his martyrdom.

He speaks with such strong emotions it’s almost frightening to read him. He had a clear sense that as a bishop he was called to suffer as Christ had suffered, but to do it in a way that was public and visible to others. This is not the way it is for most martyrs. Martyrdom usually happens in a corner, out of sight. But Ignatius knew what was coming. The term martyr means “witness.” It means someone who doesn’t just tell us about something with mere words, but shows us something in his own life.

Cyprian is another example. He was bishop in the 3rd century in Carthage in North Africa during the first empire-wide persecution. Cyprian was afraid that if he was imprisoned the community would come apart. So he fled and went into hiding. He was sharply criticized for that. Within a few years there was a new persecution. He boldly stepped forward. He had been in another city, and was very conscious that he wanted to come back to Carthage to be martyred in the city where he was bishop. Now he had proven that it was not cowardice when he fled before. It was prudence. He also knew something that people today often don’t understand: his body would be precious. People would want to take napkins or handkerchiefs and dip them in his blood and use these as objects of worship.

The ancient church knew the importance of public display because of the office of bishop. That can go both ways because it can obviously be abused.

Q: You say that for Irenaeus, the church isn’t based on the ideas of the apostles and prophets but on their persons. Tell us more about that distinction and why it matters.

He’s arguing against the Gnostics about how to interpret the Scriptures correctly. There are passages in the Scriptures that clearly lend themselves to a gnostic interpretation. Paul uses the phrase “the God of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). The Gnostics say that refers to the lesser god who is creator of this world, and not the high God who sent Jesus. Most of us would say that’s not what that text is talking about, but it is an unusual phrase, “God of this world.”

Irenaeus’ argument is that these texts need to be understood in light of the rule of faith, which is basically the Apostles’ Creed. But he doesn’t stop there. He says you also have to demonstrate that you stand in a line of teachers who go back to the apostles. They have to be named. They’re not just ideas in somebody’s head. The church is a community of persons who are gathered because they believe certain things and who trace their origin back to the apostles who are our link to Christ. If that is not maintained, then the idea can easily emerge, “Why can’t we go out and start a church?”

Now, clearly you could have bishops who stand in the succession who are not orthodox or upright in their lives. There are venal and corrupt bishops. But the point still stands that there has to be a personal line that establishes continuity. The church is not a community that is founded on a certain set of ideas or beliefs. It’s founded on people who were in relationship to Christ.

This is partly a critique of the Reformation. Lutherans, specifically, would like to have had bishops. It didn’t work out that way. Then the idea developed that you could have apostolic doctrine without apostolic succession in persons. That works up to a point, but finally there has to be more than that.

Q: Who was responsible for leading you into your life of faith and vocation?

My parents were very faithful Christians. I grew up in New Orleans in a Lutheran parish. We went to church every Sunday. During Lent we were there every Wednesday night. On Good Friday we went twice. I would not call my parents pious, but the church was at the center of their lives.

The day I was confirmed, my pastor said to me, “Robert, I hope that someday I’ll see you standing at the altar facing in the other direction.” That’s all he said. Obviously a seed was planted. Four years later, I decided to study for the ministry.

I had a professor in seminary named Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who first pointed me toward graduate study. I was thinking of studying theology. He said, “If you want to study theology you should really study the church fathers.” Well, nobody had ever talked to me about the church fathers. We read a lot of the Bible and Luther and 20th-century theologians. So I went to the library and asked the librarian about the church fathers, and he pulled a volume off the shelves. On the basis of that, I went to graduate school.

Piepkorn was a very liturgical, sacramental Lutheran, and he took the life of prayer very seriously. He arranged for us to have evening prayer, in a small chapel, with just a small group of people, simply reciting the psalms again, and again, and again, and again. That habit took root. It’s something you just do, it’s not a question of whether you want to or would like to. Repetition is a very important part of prayer.

Q: You have written about how the reading of old books has often been the agent of innovation. Can you tell us a little more?

There’s nothing particularly original about that. It’s the whole history of our civilization. The great movement of philosophy in the Roman Empire called Neo-Platonism, with Plotinus as the leading figure, basically was a re-reading of Plato, taken in directions which Plato had not anticipated.

By reading books that are old, you acknowledge a kind of humility … because you acknowledge your dependence, that your thoughts trail behind others’. Which means there’s a receptivity and humility by going to texts that have been proven either because they’ve been used a lot or they have a kind of authority… You give them something. Which means you’re more open. When one begins to hear somebody who speaks with depth, wisdom, intelligence or elegance, you don’t start with being critical. You want to absorb. You want to take in. But the process of taking in generates something within you. But you don’t live where or when that person lived, so you’re going to have different thoughts. There’s a kind of vitality that springs from such interaction.

Take something like monasticism. Monasticism begins with individuals or very small communities of people wanting to devote themselves solely to prayer. Well, as monasticism develops in new situations, it becomes missionaries, it becomes preachers -- the Dominicans, becomes serving the poor, becomes building of hospitals, serving orphans, Mother Teresa -- almost anything you could imagine. But it all started from a very simple thing, but then monasticism is endlessly changing its character.

Q: Our default mode with institutions is to be suspicious of them, to “speak truth to power” to them, but we don’t have much language for saying how institutions bear the gospel to us.

That goes back to where we began: with the bishop. The church was an ordered community from the beginning. It had to have people in authority: somebody to preside at the liturgy, someone to teach, someone to discipline. That very quickly evolved into the office of the bishop. That institution is part of communal life. That was the mistake that many people made in the ’60s. It was assumed that you could have vitality that endured over a generations or even a decade without structures.

Any parent knows you cannot transmit your religious experience to your kids alone. The only way it’s done is through the institution of structures that allows them eventually to find their own way. But it’s going to be in quite different terms from the parents. You don’t have that without structures.

Much of Christian institutional life approaches things from the point of view of organizational function. What is the best way to do this? But that’s not how classical Christianity did it. The function followed from the order. Sometimes the function didn’t work as well. But this order of things allowed the faith to endure and be passed on from generation to generation. Whereas if you focus solely on function, then as times change that way of functioning is no longer going to work and you have to start all over again.

That’s the profound problem of individualistic Christianity. It fails to realize that there is more at stake in the way the church’s life is ordered than simply how to get things done.