Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Whence Cometh Bishops?

Church history is fascinating.

From what I read, the consensus among modern scholars is that presbyteros and episkopos were interchangeable in the early-to-mid first century. There is much in Protestant Evangelicalism that sees the implications of this and views the episcopacy as a serious departure from the Biblical model of church government.

However, from the writings of Ignatius, bishop of the city-church of Antioch, we see that the situation had changed. The situation as of A.D. 100-110, maybe 10 to 15 years after Revelation was written, shows us that there were at least six separate city-churches, Ephesus, Smyrna, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Antioch, that were all governed by bishops. Ignatius of Antioch had never visited any of these other churches before. They had an established episcopacy already.

Well what changed? If the New Testament knows nothing of an episcopacy, then what explanation can we give for the change? Within a short 40 years after Paul wrote his epistles, presbyteros and episkopos were no longer interchangeable terms, and several city-churches were being pastored by a bishop. What was the cause of the origin of the Episcopate?

There were two main ideas in the fourth century church as to the rise of the office of Bishop. The first is that of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the second is that of Jerome.

These are outlined in The Origins of Christianity, by Charles Bigg, pages 63-71.

A summary of Theodores's position is option 1.

Option 1: The biblical terminology that equates presbyter and bishop
does not negate the fact that one presbyter was chief-presbyter, the first among equals, i.e. the bishop. The terminology changed by the end of the first century, but the office was always there. Regardless of what terminology was used for the office, it was of apostolic origin, given with the laying on of hands. For Theodore, the episcopacy was always there, it was the terminology changed by the end of the first century.

Implications of option 1: Since the office of bishop was established by
the Apostles themselves, episcopacy would be the Apostolic form of ecclesiology, even if the terminology may be different. Each city-church had appointed one bishop, a chief-presbyter. All Bishops are therefore equal. They all have been appointed by apostolic authority over their parishes. No bishop would be greater or less then the others. Notice then, even if the episcopate is of apostolic origin, there is still no hint of the primacy of the bishop of Rome over the other bishops.

A summary of Jerome's position is option 2.

Option 2: Presbyters and bishops were one and the same, both in terminology and in fact. One presbyter was eventually elevated to a higher office (that of Bishop) in each city-church as a practical decision of a Church council. This was done for the sake of unity, and in the midst of much heresy and division. It was not an apostolic institution. For Jerome, the episcopacy arose due to "custom of the Church".

Implications of option 2: Depending on how strongly one feels about the authority of the Church, this ‘change’ is more or less binding. This position also would completely undermine any claim of ‘divine primacy of the Roman Pontiff’ because even the pope, as bishop of Rome would only be the holder of an office created by "custom of the Church". Ecclesiology would then seem to be just a matter of custom.

Concluding thoughts:

From what I can gather, it would seem that if Theodore's position is correct, then a form of church government very similar to the Campus-Church style of ecclesiology of Mars Hill Church, or Bethlehem Baptist Church would not be too far off. One church for one city, with many locations, elders in each location, and a senior-pastor supervising all the locations and elders, who himself is accountable to the body of elders. To me, that is episcopacy, with different terminology. Is there any real difference if you have an ecclesiology that says 1. Bishop 2. Priest 3. Deacon or 1. Pastor 2. Elders 3. Deacons?

However, if Jerome is correct, a more first century form of Church government would look like what is found in independent congregational churches, and would probably be best.

What is my opinion? Some people think that all biblical truth and practice went down the tubes the moment that the last apostle died. I am highly suspect of such a view. In fact, I think "restorationism" is a serious error. There was no "great apostasy" as I was taught as a Jehovah's Witness. The general consensus among the "Apostloic Fathers" is a good general guide and very helpful in informing our understanding of the New Testament. That being said, I do see a "first among equals" pattern in the New Testament itself. This can be seen with Peter among the Apostles, Titus in Crete, Timothy in Ephesus, and James the Just in Jerusalem. I'm still thinking through this issue, but either way, the Papists are still wrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What is interesting about Ignatius is his greeting to the church in Rome (see Michael Holmes, "Apostolic Fathers," 166), where the martyr fails to address a bishop. The pattern he follows in his other letters is to reference the bishop, typically by name (i.e. Onesimus in Ephesus; Damas in Magnesia; Polybius in Tralles; referenced but unnamed in Philadelphia; and of course Polycarp in Smyrna, to whom he writes a separate letter ).
Why no mention of a bishop in Rome?
Rome is the one church that he does not know personally, so the style of his letter is much more formal. Such formality would require acknowledgement of the bishop. As well, he offers a solemn request to the Roman church--to not interfere with his impending martyrdom.
So with that considered, an appeal to a bishop would be useful. Yet there is no bishop mentioned. Is it because he is ignorant of the bishop's name? If so, why not do as he did with his unnamed bishop in Philadelphia? Surely a leader like Ignatius would have been aware of the name of the bishop in Rome anyhow.
The best answer to the question, which has major implications for Roman Catholicism, is that there was likely no bishop in Rome at the time of Ignatius' writings.
As well, you want to consider that the churches of this day were house churches that met underground for fear of persecution, so the practicality of their governance would be quite different than the later period of religious freedom.
While the early church is indeed descriptive of the changes in ecclesiology, I don't think we can look to it for prescriptive models; if even for the fact that we don't know enough of the nature of the church in that period.