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

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 30-05-2012



Need for Church Unity

As great as the influences of the Jewish and Gentile environments were, they were eclipsed in impor­tance by the pressures exerted on the young church by questions of doctrine and discipline.  Both is­sues threatened to sunder the church.  The remedy for both prob­lems was sought in the establish­ment of a doctrine of church unity, the key to this unity being the au­thority of the bishop.

Ignatius: The Person of the Bishop

In his letters to the seven church­es, Ignatius is primarily concerned with combating doctrinal error, since Judiazers as well as Docetists were stirring up the churches and threatening schism.  The canon of N.T. Scripture had not been estab­lished, so Ignatius sets forth the person of the bishop as the measure of sound doctrine.  He warns the Smyrnaeans against the Docetists: “All of you are to follow the bishop as Apostles …Apart from the bishop no one is to do anything per­taining to the church” (Grant, Ignatius, p.120).  A Christian could be assured of his faithful obedience to God if he was obeying the bishop and preserving the unity of the local church. “For as many as belong to God and Jesus Christ, these are with the Bishop” (Grant, Ignatius, p.99).  Unlike Cyprian, Ignatius does not try to prove the authority of the bishops by succession (or through the Scriptures), but he merely posits it, with some refer­ence to Christian tradition prior to himself (Grant, “Introduction,” p. 169).

By locating sound doctrine and right practice in the person of the bishop, Ignatius solved the problem of unity for a season.  As we shall now see, the solution was not a final one, and needed a capstone to render it an impregnable defense.

Cyprian: The Office of Bishop

The next 150 years saw one-bishop-rule become secure in its acceptance by all the churches. And with the exception of some like Tertullian, no one is known to have challenged this form of government. The growing matter of concern, however, was “who is the rightful bishop?” An increasing competi­tion by rival claimants to the bish­op’s office in the same city, or claims by schismatics to be the bishop, gave rise to the desire to identify criteria for judging these claims.  Irenaeus seems to be the first to attempt to prove a succession of bishops from the Apostles, but it is Cyprian who undertakes the task of developing a coherent doc­trine of church unity based on Apos­tolic succession.

Apostolic Succession

In his treatise “On the Unity of the Catholic Church,” Cyprian rea­sons from Matt. 16 that the care of the church was given first to Peter, the church being built on him.  And, although the other Apostles subse­quently received the same share of “Honour and Power,” Peter was given the primacy so that “it may be shown that the Church is one and the See of Christ is one” (Anne Fremantle, ed., A Treasury of Early Christianity [Viking Press, 1953], p. 301).  After establishing the basis of church unity on Peter’s primacy, Cyprian takes a further important step in cementing the authority of the bishop over the church: he states that the Apostles themselves were the first bishops (Evans, p.49).  Since the Apostles were given the judicial power of binding and loos­ing, forgiving and retaining of sins, and bishops were now being called upon to exercise this same kind of judicial power, certainly it must be seen that the Apostles then were the first bishops (Evans, p.49)!  Therefore, to set oneself against a bishop was the same as refusing to obey the Apostles — and ultimately God Himself. So to those who dis­agreed with the Catholic Church, and withdrew to establish a different version of Christianity, he could write:

And although the stubborn and proud multitude of those unwill­ing to obey withdraw, yet the church does not withdraw from Christ, and the people united in their bishop and the flock cling­ing to their shepherd are the church.  Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church and the Church is in the bishop, and if there is anyone who is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church (St. Cyprian: Letters, trans. Rose B. Donna [Catholic University of America Press, 1964], Vol.51, p.229).

And to those who elected a rival bishop and declared their communion equally valid, Cyprian draws this line:

Lawful bishops are made by a de­cree of God or divine ordination and since the church is one as God is, the appearance of a second bishop in the same See, setting up another church and dividing Christ’s members, would contradict divine appointment, evangelical law and Catholic unity (Walker, p.42).

Unity of the Bishops

One other important link that Cyprian provides between Ignatius and a fully formulated doctrine of the ultimate authority of the bishop of Rome over all the church can be pointed out.  For Ignatius, the bishop was seen as a local authority.  However, Cyprian saw the bishops as an organization representative of the whole church in unity: “it is our duty to hold fast this unity that we may show that the episcopate itself also is one and indivisible” (Fremantle, p.301).

And, although no bishop had su­premacy over another since each re­ceived his power directly through the Apostles, the real autonomy of each bishop could not exist.  Real autonomy for each bishop would cre­ate the possibility of serious dissent on doctrine or practice within the body of bishops, and the carefully sewn garment of church unity would be rent. So, Cyprian writes:

In order that this unity should be manifested, it is essential for all bishops to be inspired and con­trolled by the same Holy Spirit; a bishop who breaks the concord of his brethren must at once be rejected from their fellowship …it is obvious that he does not retain the Holy Spirit’s truth with the remainder (Walker, p.43).

Despite Cyprian’s inconsistency in applying this principle of concord among the bishops, the principle is well on its way to being applied in such a way as to smother not only destructive dissent, but also con­structive dissent, as the bishops be­come   the ultimate heads of the church (cf. Chapter 3 of Leonard Verduin’s The Anatomy of a Hybrid, for an inter­esting treatment of this subject).

Resistance to Justification by Faith

Finally, a factor in the promotion of one-bishop-rule, which was sug­gested at the outset of this article, must be expanded. The early church’s resistance to the gospel’s claim that only the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ could vindicate guilty men before God’s judgment took many forms, but the source remained the same: human arro­gance looking for a way to vindicate itself (Niebuhr, p. 127).  The church after the Apostles had no clear per­ception of the problem of sin or its solution as found in the atonement.  “The deeper problems of the Chris­tian faith were partially obscured in some of the Apostolic Fathers and totally so in others” (Niebuhr, p. 130).  Thus, generally speaking, in the post-apostolic church the gospel of grace as the measure of truth is replaced by the authority of the bishop.

The Need for One-Bishop-Rule

Indeed, the abandonment of justification by faith in Christ’s righteousness created a vacuum that was ultimately filled by one-bishop-rule.  First, since Christ’s work for sinners was not understood to be the principle for interpreting the faith, there was a need for some trustworthy guide in the interpre­tation of Scripture to the people, namely, the bishop.  Secondly, since man’s efforts on his own be­half were so critical in his salva­tion, the need for temporal perfect­ion was escalated.  The defection and gross imperfection seen in many of those in the church, es­pecially during persecution, under­mined this ideal of perfection sub­stantially, and caused the church to locate its identity in one man who could measure up in its eyes to the ideal of a holy man, namely, the bishop.  Cyprian’s formula, “the bishop is in the church and the church is in the bishop,” encapsul­ates this idea.  Evans points out that by this time “the eschatological purity of the whole church has be­come a sacral purity attached to her bishop” (One and Holy, p. 59).

The Results of One-Bishop-Rule

And finally, since the bishop was the interpreter of sound doctine and the embodiment of moral perfection, it became imperative that this ex­alted and central position be de­fended from attack both from with­out and from within the church.  Only absolute authority derived from the Apostles and held by the college of bishops of the Catholic Church could make secure the place of the bishop as the repre­sentative of the people before God.  Thus, the result of the church’s refusal to recognize the gospel of Christ’s righteousness as primary was one-bishop-rule, and this in turn became the means by which the church was hindered in her re­covery of this truth.

Concluding Remarks

Although many factors came into play in shaping the one-bishop-rule from 100 – 250 A.D., the lack of comprehension by the church con­cerning the significance of justi­fication by faith created a situation where the door was opened for the fabrication of an authoritarian hierarchy.  This hierarchy did ful­fill the expectations of those who wanted conformity with the Judaistic and Roman heritage, and it did provide a kind of unity against devisive forces within and without the church.  But the process which re­sulted in the establishment of one-bishop-rule swallowed up the priest­hood of all believers.  Further, in the centuries which followed, one-bishop-rule was committed to silenc­ing dissent and dissenters.

Finally, it is instructive to note that the momentum of one-bishop-rule was carried over even into the new reformation led by Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.  While the gos­pel of justification by faith came to the fore, the affirmation of the priesthood of all believers was seen in the light of one’s individual relationship to God through Christ, and not as a corporate responsibility to minister one to another.  In actual practice, Protestants retained the one-bishop-rule in the form of one-pastor or one-minister rule.  Some Anabaptists and their spiritual off­spring saw more clearly the impli­cations of the gospel in this area and sought to restore the plural ministry characterized in the New Testa­ment.  In our own day, much re­mains to be done in following their lead to restore mutual ministry in the body of Christ, and to intrude into the long-standing tradition of one-man-rule.

The post-apostolic “Bishop” came to rule over the church in cer­tain geographical areas.  The domin­ion of his rule was defined by some territory (i.e., Bishop of North Af­rica).  The post-reformation one-minister-rule had more to do with how a local church was governed.  Thus, while the territorial dimension of one-man-rule was in many cases abandoned, the one-bishop-rule in the local church still prevailed, and remains with us to this day.  Even in many churches where there is a plurality of elders, the “Pastor” still retains functional precedence over the others.  While the one-man-rule in the post-apostolic early church was expressed differently, the basic principle is the same as the one-pastor-rule that has reigned in post-reformation history.


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