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The Rise of the One-Bishop Rule in the Early Church: Part II

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 28-05-2012


The Cyprian Model

Thus,  by the time of Cyprian’s rule as bishop of  Carthage in the middle of the third century, the distinction of function has   hardened into a separation and gradation of office: to move from one office to another is viewed as an advance or the result of the increased merit of the individual (Davies, p.133).

Cyprian’s response to the inheri­tance of the one-bishop-rule form of church government was to strengthen it by developing the authority of the bishop.  To support both con­cepts he defends the idea of an un­broken succession of bishops from Peter to the legitimate bishop in every Catholic church.  Furthermore, it is Cyprian who first formulates the unity of bishops into an organ­ization which represents the whole church:

And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who pre­side in the church, that we may also prove  the  episcopate itself to be one and undivided . . . the episcopate is one, each part  of which is held by each one for the whole (quoted by Earl D. Radmacher in The Nature of the Church [Portland:  Western Bap­tist Press, 1972], p.32).

Having traced the growth of one-bishop-rule as seen in Ignatius and Cyprian, let us now turn to a brief analysis of the factors which may have stimulated this development.


Synagogue Background

The most obvious influence on the early church’s perception of how it should organize itself was Israel’s synagogue-structure.  The Jerusalem church was the greatest reflection of this influence, for it consisted mainly of converted Jews.  As could be expected, there was some carry-over from synagogue worship into the new Israel’s wor­ship (i.e., reading of the Scriptures, singing, exhortation, elders, etc; cf. Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Com­munity: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting [Eerdmans, 1980], pp.17-19).

It appears that in post-apostolic times James, among the “pillars” at the Jerusalem church (Gal.2:9), was exalted in an unhealthy man­ner.  For example, the Clementine Homilies contain a letter from Cle­ment to James: “Clement to James, the Lord, the bishop of bishops, who rules Jerusalem, the Holy Church of the Hebrews, and the churches everywhere excellently founded by the providence of God” (Richard Zehnle, The Making of the Chris­tian Church (Notre Dame: Fides Publishers, 1969], p.38).  Eusebius tells us that James was the first one “elected to the throne of the Bishop­ric of the church in Jerusalem.” It is unlikely that James exalted himself, but those who succeeded him evidently did.  After his mar­tyrdom, James’ closest living rela­tive (a cousin of the Lord), Symeon, was elected to his place, and the be­ginning of a dynastic principle is established (Zehnle, p.39).

Jewish Priesthood in the N.T. Times

The concept of the Jewish coun­cil made up of two elders and a president may certainly have in­fluenced the Jerusalem church and subsequent churches.  We know from post-apostolic writings that the Old Covenant idea of the priesthood was applied more and more exclusively to the one bishop as high priest, and very little stress given to the priesthood of all believers.  This is amply witnessed to in the Apos­tolic Tradition and by Cyprian (G.S.M. Walker, The Churchmanship of St. Cyprian [London: Lutterworth Press, 1968], p.38).

Gentile Environment

(1) Associations

The Gentile environment provi­ded ample reinforcement for leader­ship by a graded hierarchy, which could lead to the abandonment of leadership by a plurality of equals.  Edwin Hatch has drawn a picture of Roman society during the begin­nings of the church in which associ­ations played a tremendous role.  There were associations of almost every kind: trade and dramatic guilds, burial and dining clubs, literary and financial societies.  And these associations had much in com­mon with the church (in organiza­tion): the same names for meetings and some of the same names for the officers, a common fund, com­mon meal, open admission (women, strangers, freedmen, slaves) [Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches (New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), pp.30, 31].  It would be easy for the church to adopt the associations’ use of a “president” without much thought, for it was then a universal office (Hatch, p.84).

(2) Roman Government

The Roman form of government also played its part in shaping the consciousness of the church.  As early as 90 A.D., Clement of Rome compares the church to the army (Robert M. Grant, Early Christianity and Society: Seven Studies [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), pp.22,23).  And in the third century Cyprian takes Tertullian’s appli­cation to the church of an embryonic form of constitutional government and expands it.  Cyprian’s model for the church was the Roman Empire: just as its health depended on peace and unity which could only be pro­tected by a universal obedience to its laws, so the church’s health de­pended on peace and unity resulting from obedience to its laws.  The provincial governors administered the Roman laws, the church’s gov­ernors were its bishops, and “every act of the church is ruled by these very governors” (Robert F. Evans, One and Holy: The Church in Latin and Patristic Thought [London: Camelot Press, 1972], p.48).  The bishop in each place was a “judge in place of Christ.”  Like the prov­inces that had a council com­posed of delegates from the cities to discuss matters of common con­cern, so Cyprian’s bishops gathered from cities to discuss matters in council (Evans, p.48).


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