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

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 24-05-2012

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A Study in the Writings of Ignatius and Cyprian

INTRODUCTION

Even a cursory reading of the post-apostolic fathers reveals how faintly influenced they were by the doctrine which had earlier so con­sumed the apostle Paul’s thought: justification by faith. This early literature reflects much more in­terest in matters of discipline, church polity and sacramental forms. In fact, as one modern his­torian puts it:

The pre-Augustinian church never heartily accepted St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Sometimes it was wholly ignored; at other times even when the formula was respected it was in­terpreted in a way which would have been expressed more natu­rally by saying that men are saved by repentance (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 Vol. ed. [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941], p.132).

While the doctrine of justification by faith suffered at the hands of many different dogmas, the church’s adoption of mono-episcopacy (one-bishop-rule) played a pivotal role in keeping this central doctrine always on the periphery of the church’s attention.  The hasty abandonment by the second century church of the New Testament form of plural oversight for its own form of one-bishop-rule is important for at least two reasons.

First, one-bishop-rule appeared in a church largely ignorant of the im­plications of justification by faith. The spiritual hierarchy resulting from the one-bishop-rule witnesses to the lack of comprehension of the spiritual equality possessed by all believers because of Christ’s right­eousness imputed to them.

Secondly, one-bishop-rule, once created, perpetuated itself at the ex­pense of justification by faith. Any reformer who suggested that justi­fication was a gift of grace threaten­ed to undermine the established, hierarchical church structure. Grace, not hierarchy, was the historical loser in these conflicts.

Therefore, to understand the drift, if not stampede, away from the centrality of justification by faith by the pre-Augustinian church, it is also necessary to view the parallel rise of the one-bishop-rule.  It is the intent of this article to examine some influential forces at work in the development and reinforcement of one-bishop-rule, and to briefly assess the fundamental significance of this rise.  The writings of Ignatius of Antioch and of Cyprian of Car­thage will be the primary sources used, as they adequately reflect the development during the period un­der consideration (c. 100-250 A.D.).

DEVELOPMENT OF ONE-BISHOP-RULE

The New Testament Model

The New Testament instruction regarding church leadership viewed an autonomous local body being cared for by plural oversight and the service of deacons.  The group of elders in each local church was called a “presbytery,” and there is no example in the N.T. of a church ruled by one elder, nor was there a “chief elder” exalted above the others.  When occasion required a spokesman (Acts 15), he would be a representative and temporary one, not occupying a permanent office of supremacy.

The Ignatian Model

But by the beginning of the sec­ond century we find in Ignatius of Antioch having an almost complete disre­gard for the N.T. model, and a very well-defined replacement: one-bishop-rule. No longer are the terms “elder,” “overseer” and “shepherd” used interchangeably (as one function viewed from different per­spectives: elder emphasizes matur­ity; bishop emphasizes oversight and administration, and shepherd em­phasizes feeding and guarding.  Rather, the “bishop” is elevated above the “presbytery.”  What is more, the bishop was given supremacy.  Ig­natius wrote to the Magnesians, “be eager to do everything in God’s harmony, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and the presby­tery in the place of the council of the Apostles” (Robert M. Grant, ed,, The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, 6 Vols. [New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1964], p.58).

The bishop, according to Ignatius, is in the place of God and should be obeyed accordingly: “yield to him [bishop] — not to him but to the Father of Jesus Christ, to the bishop of all” (Apostolic Fathers, p.58).  And although the bishop, presbyters and deacons all receive respect and are not separated (Apostolic Fathers, p.73), the duties given to the bishop leave no doubt as to the relative in­significance of the other ordained ministers.  The bishop is to lead prayers in the church, celebrate the Eucharist and conduct baptismal meals, give counsel on matters of spiritual discipline and approve marriages, give homilies (sermons) and convoke councils of the church (Apostolic Fathers. Vol.1, p.171).

Its Rapid Spread

By the middle of the second cen­tury the Ignatian model of one-bishop-rule had entered the West with Victor being described as a bishop of Rome.  In the third cen­tury the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus witnesses to an even more elaborated conception of the func­tion of a bishop.  He is the high priest, and as such has the duty to forgive sins by imposing penance and conveying absolution (J.G. Davies, The Early Christian Church: A History of Its First Five Centuries [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965], p.131).  He also is responsible for overseeing the administration of the church finances and for ordain­ing other ministers, in addition to discharging the liturgical duties listed above.

The continual and deepening dis­tinction between the bishop and his presbyters and deacons can be clearly seen in the following instruc­tion regarding their ordination: When the deacon is ordained, there is no reason why the bishop alone shall lay his hands on him: he is not ordained to the priest­hood but to serve the bishop . . . but the presbyters shall lay on their hands because of the common and like spirit of the clergy.  Yet the presbyter has only the power to receive; but he has no power to give (The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, trans. Burton S. Easton [Cambridge: Cambridge Uni­versity Press, 1934; reprint ed., n.p. 1962], p.38).

by JUDY SCHINDLER

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