We concluded our preceding article with the observation that it is truly a remarkable phenomenon that the episcopal form of church government should characterize the Church of God for about fifteen hundred years, from the time of the apostles to the Reformation. It is a truly remarkable phenomenon because it is undoubtedly true that the Word of God supports the Presbyterian form of church government. And one can hardly deny that this phenomenon is worthy of a little investigation.
This phenomenon is easily understandable. In the early Church, we understand, the presbyters or elders were all of the same rank. There is certainly nothing in holy writ to deny the truth of this observation. It was natural, however, that in each congregation one of the elders should assume leadership. He would preside at the meetings of the elders and lead the congregation in worship. We have the same situation in many vacant churches today. These churches, without the services of a regular pastor, are very easily led to look up with esteem to an elder that has received talents from the Lord above many in the congregation. Now these presbyters or elders are also called overseers in the Word of God, inasmuch as they were called of God to have the oversight over the church. And the word “overseer” in the Greek is the same word as our word “episcopal,” from which we also get our word, bishop. The transition, therefore, from the Presbyterian form of church government to the episcopal form of church government is easily understandable in the infancy of the New Testament Church.
With the death of the apostles the rapid development of this episcopal form of church government is also easily understandable. Churches, of course, were first established in the cities. From the cities Christianity spread out into the surrounding country or rural districts. Other congregations were organized. The city with its surrounding territory was known as a diocese, and its bishop was called a diocesan bishop. Formerly there were merely monarchical bishops, bishops of city churches. Now we have, besides these monarchical bishops, also diocesan bishops, bishops that were in charge of large districts. And it is surely not difficult to understand that a bishop of a large city should be regarded with greater esteem and respect than the bishop of a small rural church. The growth of episcopal authority is therefore understandable. This, however, is not all. There were bishops during those early days of the New Testament infancy of the Church who had enjoyed instruction from the apostles themselves. Is it surprising, then, that the churches should regard these men (such as Polycarp) with a tremendous amount of respect and veneration? Indeed, this episcopal development was very natural. This, then, is the historical background for this episcopal development in church government.
The belief that the episcopacy was the principal bond of the Church, presenting its unity, did not decrease, but it increased. Salvation was inseparably connected with the Church and the bishop. Ignatius, we may possibly recall, had once written: “Do ye all follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Do nothing without the bishop.” Cyprian is known for his emphasis upon the unity of the Church as revolving about the authority of the bishop. This Church father wrote once: “There is one God, and Christ is one; and there is one Church and one Chair (by one chair he meant “one center of authority”).” He continued: “He who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian. He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother. There is no salvation out of the Church. The Church is based on the unity of the bishops. The bishop is in the Church, and the Church is in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church.” In fact, of Cyprian and his emphasis upon the episcopacy Philip Schaff writes as follows: “He represents the claims of the episcopacy in close connection with the idea of a special priesthood and sacrifice. He is the typical high-churchman of the ante-Nicene age. He vigorously put into practice what he honestly believed. He had a good opportunity to assert his authority in several controversies in which he was involved. Cyprian considers the bishops as the bearers of the Holy Spirit, who passed from Christ to the apostles, from them by ordination to the bishops, propagates himself in an unbroken line of succession and gives efficacy to all religious exercises. Hence, they are also the pillars of the unity of the church; nay, in a certain sense they are the church itself. Cyprian is thoroughly imbued with the idea of the solidary unity of the episcopate,—of many bishops exercising only one office, each within his diocese, and each at the same time representing in himself the whole office. But with all this, the bishop still appears in Cyprian in the closest connection with the presbyters. He undertook no important matter without the presbyters. The fourth general council, at Carthage, A.D. 395, even declared the sentence of a bishop, without the concurrence of the lower clergy, void, and decreed that in the ordination of a presbyter, all the presbyters with the bishop, should lay their hands on the candidate. The ordination of a bishop was performed by the neighboring bishops, requiring at least three in number. In Egypt, however, so long as there was but one bishop there, presbyters must have performed the consecration, which Eutychius and Hilary the Deacon expressly assert was the case.”—end of quote. It is interesting, in this quotation from Cyprian, what that Church Father has to say of the close connection between the bishop and the presbyters. Cyprian himself undertook no important decisions without the presbyters. In fact, the fourth general council at Carthage, 398, even declared the sentence of a bishop, without the concurrence of the lower clergy, to be void. This is surely a far cry from the position of the Roman Catholic Church today as far as its conception is concerned with respect to the infallibility of the pope. However, we will have more to say about this in due time.
Seeberg describes the episcopacy in this period, 300-750 A.D., as follows (this quotation has been quoted before in our discussion of the great Donatist controversy): “Augustine holds that the great church is the one Catholic church by virtue of the distribution of the latter throughout the whole world and by virtue of its connections with the church of the apostles, whosesuccessors the bishops are (italics mine—H.V.).” However, Seeberg continues and maintains that the idea of the Roman Primacy receives no special elucidation at the hands of Augustine. We find a general acknowledgment of the “primacy of the apostolic chair,” but Augustine knows nothing of any special authority vested in Peter or his successors. Peter is a “figure of the church,” or of the “good pastors,” and represents the unity of the church. In this consists the significance of his position and that of his successors (thus also Cyprian). As all bishops (in contradistinction from the Scriptures) may err, so also the Roman bishop. This view is plainly manifest from the bearing of Augustine and his colleagues in the Pelagian controversy. The infallible authority of the pope in the church at large was a dogma in which only the popes believed. Dogmatically, there had been no advance from the position of Cyprian—thus far Seeberg. To say that all bishops may err, including the Roman bishop, is also a far cry from the position of the Roman Catholic Church of today as it maintains the infallibility of the pope at Rome. Seeberg declares that Augustine knows nothing of any special authority vested in Peter or in his successors.
Concerning the bishops and their power during this period, 300-750 A.D., the following quotation from Philip Schaff is surely interesting: “The bishops now stood with sovereign power at the head of the clergy and of their dioceses. They had come to be universally regarded as the vehicles and propagators of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and the teachers and the lawgivers of the church in all matters of faith and discipline. The specific distinction between them and the presbyters was carried into everything; while yet it is worthy of remark, that Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, just the most eminent exegetes of the ancient church, expressly acknowledge the original identity of the two offices in the New Testament, and consequently derive the proper episcopate, not from divine institution, but only from church usage. The traditional participation of the people in the election, which attested the popular origin of the episcopal office, still continued, but gradually sank to a mere formality, and at last became entirely extinct. The bishops filled their own vacancies, and elected and ordained the clergy. Besides ordination, as the medium for communicating the official gifts, they also claimed from the presbyters in the West, after the fifth century, the exclusive prerogatives of confirming the baptized and consecrating the chrism or holy ointment in baptism. In the East, on the contrary, confirmation (the chrism) is performed also by the presbyters, and, according to the ancient custom, immediately follows baptism . . . . As the bishop united in himself all the rights and privileges of the clerical office, so he was expected to show himself a model in the discharge of its duties and a follower of the great Archbishop and Archshepherd of the sheep. He was expected to exhibit in a high degree the ascetic virtues, especially that of virginity, which, according to Catholic ethics, belongs to the idea of moral perfection. Many a bishop, like Athanasius, Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Martin of Tours, lived in rigid abstinence and poverty, and devoted his income to religious and charitable objects.” Hereupon Philip Schaff describes how the bishops departed from this rule of ethical conduct, and that their very power and the temporal advantage of the episcopate (the bishops were granted temporal advantages) became also a lure for avarice and ambition, and a temptation to the lordly and secular spirit. From all this, however, we may be able to gain an idea of the rise of the episcopate and the development of the episcopacy in the early centuries of the New Testament Church. The unity of the Church and salvation within the Church were inseparably connected with the bishop. He was the principal bond of the Church, preserving its unity. He was indispensable as far as the salvation of the child of the Lord was concerned. He was the successor of the apostles and the gifts of the Holy Spirit were inseparably connected with him. And we may also remark that the bishop of Rome at this time held the leading position in the whole Church. This, as we shall presently see when we trace the amazing rise of the papacy, is not difficult to understand. Various circumstances united to bring this to pass, not the least of which was Rome’s position in the midst of the world at that time and the role which Rome’s bishop played in its defense over against the heathen invasions. To this, however, and the rise of the Papacy we wish to call attention in subsequent articles.