So, what’s a bishop?
Apostolic succession (AS) is a theory about the continuity of the Christian Church from the apostles to later generations. It has several different aspects, and those churches who emphasize it each approach it rather differently; however, AS usually centers on the office of Bishop. In AS theory, the apostles were the first bishops, and later bishops were their successors. The successor-bishops were at first chosen by the apostles themselves, and then later by those themselves chosen by the apostles, and so on. Authority to act as a bishop thus comes from a legitimate chain of transmission.
But this doesn’t settle what a bishop is. From the days of the early Church, bishops had three functions. First, the bishop was the guarantor of authentic teaching. Not that bishops could not err, or never disagreed among themselves; the history of the early Church is largely the history of bishops attempting to correct each other’s errors. But as the successors of the apostles, connection to the bishops marked out who was properly part of the Christian movement, and who was not.
Second, the bishop was the administrator of ecclesiastical discipline. The early Church took a far more thoroughgoing interest in the everyday life, as well as the official teaching, of its members than we do now. Christians were expected to live lives that reflected the transformation of the Spirit, and standards were high. Presbyters/elders (the titles are interchangeable) and other persons no doubt took part in the spiritual formation and supervision of church members, but when the time came to impose correction, the bishop was set over the church to correct as well as encourage.
Third, bishops were the shepherds of the flock. This meant that they not only looked after the spiritual and worldly condition of the members of their church, especially when they fell afoul of the magistrates, but that the bishop was the public face of the church. They helped shield people from persecution, but they were also the most public members of the church and therefore the first targets of persecution, themselves. In a time when possession of Christian writings was dangerous, the magistrates knew the bishop was in possession of such material – and the bishop was expected to safeguard these sacred possessions of the church, even at great personal risk.
All this was set in place very early. When Ignatius of Antioch (martyred 108) was condemned to be killed in the arena, he spent the entire time of his transit to Rome writing various Christian communities. Among his many letters is one in which he talks about the importance of the bishop. The bishop was the key figure in the local church. Christians were warned to stay close to him and follow him. He was, as outlined above, the key figure connecting them to Christ and to other Christians.
Historians and theologians call Ignatius’s view of the bishop “the monarchical episcopate,” but we need to be careful with that term. We have a tendency to take our image of a bishop from a later historical era and read it back into the early Church. One of the proud prelates of the High Middle Ages or the Renaissance might, indeed, be seen as a monarch within his diocese, but neither Ignatius nor the other bishops of the 2nd Century are much like those figures.
The medieval and early modern bishop was the head of a diocese with many parishes, each with its own congregation. While still a spiritual leader, the bishop’s actual work was mostly administrative. What we think of as pastoral work was done by the lower clergy, the presbyters (usually called priests by this time). Methodist bishops are peculiar in this regard, in that their powers and duties were patterned after those assumed by John Wesley over the People Called Methodist, not the powers and duties of the traditional diocesan bishop of the Church of England. In some ways, Methodist bishops have even more power – and spend even more time as administrative leaders – than traditional bishops. Our bishops are like CEOs of large religious corporations, with thousands of members gathered in hundreds of local churches.
Well, St. Paul might be said to approximate this image of a bishop-as-field-general, directing multiple workers in many places simultaneously, but he was not the pattern for bishops in New Testament days. Even in Ignatius’s day, bishops were not supervisors of multiple congregations. It took a thousand years to put a parish church in every village of Europe. Ignatius’s field of work would seem very small potatoes to us, today. “The monarchical episcopate” refers to the bishop’s singular place in the church, not his pretensions to power.
Bishop and pastor are equivalent terms in the NT. Bishop means “overseer, supervisor,” while pastor means “shepherd.” There could be several elders in a given congregation, but there was only one bishop. Bishops and elders were engaged in similar ministries, and are often referred to in the same ways, but the bishop presided. He presided, especially, at the eucharist. He also did most of the baptisms in the church. Offering the sacraments became a jealously guarded prerogative of the bishop.
No standard way of choosing bishops is known. The idea that the apostles appointed the first bishops – all the first bishops – directly is an anachronism, an after-the-fact folk history designed to illustrate the theory of AS. No doubt some apostles, like Paul, did appoint bishops. Others were sent to communities outside the current bounds of the Church where Christians had settled (or been sold into slavery), and the apostles or existing bishops sent persons to head those newly-formed churches. Election by the whole people of the church was common by the time of St. Ambrose (4th Century). As time went on, some bishops assumed the right to appoint junior bishops in their patriarchate or archdiocese. And, of course, in the early Middle Ages, kings wanted a voice in naming their bishops. Meanwhile, the suspicion that in the very early days, some churches just organized themselves, cannot be overcome.*
But however the bishops came into their office, it’s important to realize that there were no dioceses in the early Church. The bishop was the bishop of X Place – usually a town or city – and all the Christians resident in that place were his church members. All the Christians met together every Lord’s day at whatever place could be secured for the purpose (purpose-built churches date from very late in the 3rd Century). The bishop led the people into the gathering place to begin the service.
In a large town or city, church members might live rather far from each other. Pastoral supervision was thus shared with elders. As time went on, there might be multiple services around the town. The bishops was, in effect, the senior pastor of the whole church, but sometimes no doubt he could not be at a satellite campus gathering, in which case an elder would preside. (A modern analog would be the senior pastor of a modern mega-church.) But still, all the Christians in one place, even one as large as Rome, were one congregation led by one bishop.
It is only much later, during the expansion of churches in the 4th and 5th Centuries, that there came to be too many churches for the bishops to preside over all the services. Eventually, it became normal for an elder to be named the pastor of a given church (though a seat was left up front for the bishop, as titular pastor of every congregation). The bishops reluctantly gave up the privilege of presiding at the eucharist to the pastor-elders, and the ability to confect the eucharist became the hallmark of the priesthood. Even then, the bishops held onto baptism as long as they could. Only the rapid growth of the great missionary period and the creation of large territorial dioceses in northern Europe forced the bishops to concede the usual right to baptize to the lower clergy; in return, the rite of confirmation was created and employed to emphasize the pastoral relationship of the bishop to every confessing Christian. In modern times, the Roman Catholic Church still has the bishop tour his diocese (called, in RC parlance, a “local church”) to confirm, though so many desire to be confirmed on Palm Sunday and Pentecost that on those days, RC priests are given full power to confirm, at least in America.
So, the bishop in the early Church, however admirable and important his person and office, was usually not a high and mighty person with lots of subordinates. He had many responsibilities and few resources. This began to change in the 4th Century. The transition point could well be said to be the 1st Council of Nicea in AD 325. And the flashpoint for our understanding is a minor decision of the Council concerning a group called the chorepiskopoi, or “country-bishops.”
The Council of Nicea was called by the Emperor Constantine as a gathering of all the bishops of the Empire (and even a few from beyond the Empire) to settle the Arian controversy. We remember it largely for its formulation of the co-equal divinity of the Son with the Father; however, it also dealt with a number of disciplinary questions, like the dating of Easter, the settling of a schism in North Africa, and also a minor decree concerning the country-bishops. They were affirmed in their ranking above mere presbyters, but told they should not indiscriminately ordain other clergy; they were to look for permission to the bishop of the nearest metropolis for permission to do that.
So, who were these guys? In later centuries, for a while, the office of chorepiskopos became – in the East – what we would call a suffragan bishop, an auxiliary bishop under the direction of the titular bishop of a very large diocese. In the West, the chorepiscopus (note the Latin form) became what Methodists would call a “supply pastor” – a pastor appointed to a small church who had to go into the town church to get pre-consecrated bread to offer the eucharist to his parishioners. He wasn’t even a presbyter any more, let alone a bishop; by the High Middle Ages, the office had completely disappeared.
To understand who the country-bishops were – particularly in the 4th Century, when I Nicea met – you have to pause to consider how the early Church spread. First, it spread out to all the places where the people converted on the Day of Pentecost took it back to. It spread from synagogue to synagogue. It spread to communities where existing Christians lived. It followed trade routes. It was an urban phenomenon (the rural parts of the empire were largely untouched by evangelism until the 5th Century), but not all urbi were the same. Some Christian communities were in very small places, perhaps a tiny village gathered around an oasis; others were in huge cities like Rome and Alexandria. And a bishop was a bishop was a bishop, whether he was the Bishop of Podunk or the Bishop of Bigopolis.
No doubt sometimes the Bishop of Bigopolis might look down on the Bishop of Podunk, but when persecutions happened, the willingness of the Bishop of Podunk to offer his body as a living sacrifice for Christ was every bit as big a deal as anything the Bishop of Bigopolis could claim. And since there was no overlapping of jurisdictions, it didn’t cost the Bishop of Bigopolis anything to concede equal dignity to the Bishop of Podunk.
Ah, but the persecutions ceased in 313, with the Edict of Milan. And by the time Constantine disposed of his colleague Licinius and became sole emperor, a new day was obviously dawning for the Church. Not only was Christianity now legal to practice, but the Emperor himself was a Christian. And he wanted the Church’s help. Bishops were offered great advantages in return for helping Constantine refocus the energies of the Empire. Constantine was counting on the bishops’ help. In such a case, while the prayers of the Bishop of Podunk were appreciated, the Empire could make more use of what the Bishop of Bigopolis could do. And concerning the benefits being showered on bishops, a very understandable reluctance to let the Bishop of Podunk in on things might well be forming in the heart of the Bishop of Bigopolis. Ya think?
Consequently, it suddenly became very important to systematize the powers of bishops, especially the bishops of the most important cities. And it also became important to regularize manner of election to the episcopacy. The country-bishops were recognized as bishops, but restrained in their ability to do much. Later country-bishops had their tasks re-designed and eventually the office disappeared.
The emphasis on bishops choosing bishops led to the formulation of AS. Local traditions, such as in Alexandria, where the presbyters had elected and ordained the bishop, were now adjusted to fit a pattern where instead of the bishop being a super-presbyter, the presbyter was a deficient-bishop. The two became seen as entirely distinct orders (and with the Deacon, forming a three-fold, hierarchical ordained ministry). Apostolic continuity was emphasized and, in some cases, invented. Finally, in the 5th Century, St. Augustine articulated the transmission of grace from one bishop to another in a very Latin way, as if grace were a package being handed off from one to another.
The ordering of ministry in the NT
Well, now that we have looked at what a bishop is, or became, let’s go back and review how ministry functioned in the earliest churches of the NT. The Book of Acts opens with the eleven Apostles returning to Jerusalem after Jesus’s ascension into heaven. There, they attempt to act like a Board of Directors, “enrolling” Matthias as the successor to Judas’s place. This is the last we hear of Matthias, and indeed, of many of the other apostles. For all their attempt to take control of the mission, God is definitely in charge, and proceeds to show it. The Day of Pentecost blows all attempts at mission statements and ministry goals out of the water, and through successive miracles, revelations, and conversions, the apostles struggle to keep up.
In the early chapters of Acts, the apostles are essentially reactive. New leaders arise, and new mission fields open up that nobody (on earth) had chosen to work. The apostles create the office of Deacon, and one of the first deacons, Philip, immediately widens his field of ministry to include evangelism and baptizing converts. Persecution sets in, which scatters the Church, but wherever the scattered members wind up, they wind up spreading the Gospel. The chief persecutor, Saul, is converted by Jesus himself and baptized under the ministry of the disciple Ananias in Damascus; he then takes the new name Paul.
The Christians in Antioch create a church led by prophets and teachers. The title, “Christian” is first heard in connection with their community. Barnabas fetches Paul from his long sabbatical to help lead the Antiochene church. Meanwhile, James, the brother of Jesus, has become one of the most important leaders of the Jerusalem church, overshadowing all the apostles except, perhaps, Peter. It isn’t until the missionary journeys of Paul that a real attempt to create an organization to support extension ministry is evident. Paul’s letters to the various churches he was involved with make up the bulk of our information on the NT Church’s teaching and practice.
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul talks about the various functions of ministry as gifts of God. He writes, “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers . . . “ In other letters, Paul talks about bishops, elders, and deacons, though never in an organized, tiered system. Position titles and job descriptions are fairly fluid at this point.
We see NT people doing ministry. We are not told who presided at the table, other than the apostles in Jerusalem. The apostles baptize, but so do others. Paul tells his correspondents to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, “but especially that you might prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:1). At this time, no distinction was made between reflective and spontaneous prophecy. It included both what we would think of as preaching a sermon (indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews may have started out as a sermon) and foretelling the will of God (as when Agabus binds Paul with his belt and foretells his arrest). The old joke says that a pastor’s son came upon him writing his sermon and asked him if God told him what to say. When his father said that was so, the little boy said, “Then why are you crossing so much of it out?” The NT Christians might have struggled to see the point of that joke.
We also see Paul advising on the support of widows and the choice of women to supervise them. In the 1st Century, there was no means of support for women without family, so the church undertook to care for their widows, lest they be forced to submit to thievery or prostitution to support themselves. This is not yet the dedication of nuns – more a matter of pastoral care and poor relief – but the women who were appointed to look after them were real spiritual leaders, occupying an important office in the church.
Paul talks about deaconesses. Or does he? We use the feminine ending to speak of a particular form of ministry limited to women; and, indeed, that was how it was understood from very early times. But when Paul greets Phoebe, a “deacon” of Cenchreae, he uses the masculine form of the word, as he would for anyone else. Is the later understanding of deaconess to be read back into the NT, or was it always there? Yes, women were always employed in leadership of women, but were women equal participants in ministry to the whole church?
Stay tuned for the third and final Part
*Peter is always listed as the first Bishop of Rome, but the church at Rome was well-established, and had a reputation for orthodoxy, long before he got there; indeed, Paul’s letter to the Romans needs to be seen as the great missionary apostle exhibiting his bona fides to the leaders of an established church he had no authority over that he was hoping to visit.