The word is evidently an abbreviation of the Greek episkopos; Latin, episcopus.
1. Use in the Septuagint and Classic Greek:
The Septuagint gives it the generic meaning of "superintendency, oversight, searching" (Numbers 4:16; 31:14) in matters pertaining to the church, the state, and the army (Judges 9:28; 2 Kings 12:11; 2 Chronicles 34:12,17; 1 Macc 1:54; The Wisdom of Solomon 1:6). Nor is it unknown to classical Greek. Thus Homer in the Iliad applied it to the gods (xxii.255), also Plutarch, Cam., 5. In Athens the governors of conquered states were called by this name.
2. New Testament Use:
The word is once applied to Christ himself, "unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (1 Peter 2:25). It abounds in as Pauline literature, and is used as an alternative for presbuteros or elder (Titus 1:5,7; 1 Timothy 3:1; 4:14; 5:17,19). The earliest ecclesiastical offices instituted in the church were those of elders and deacons, or rather the reverse, inasmuch the latter office grew almost immediately out of the needs of the Christian community at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-6). The presbyteral constitution of Jerusalem must have been very old (Acts 11:30) and was distinct from the apostolate (Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4). As early as 50 AD Paul appointed "elders" in every church, with prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23), referring to the Asiatic churches before established. But in writing to the Philippians (Philippians 1:1) he speaks of "bishops" and "deacons." In the GentileChristian churches this title evidently had been adopted; and it is only in the Pastoral Epistles that we find the name "presbyters" applied. The name "presbyter" or "elder," familiar to the Jews, signifies their age and place in the church; while the other term "bishop" refers rather to their office. But both evidently have reference to the same persons. Their office is defined as "ruling" (Romans 12:8), "overseeing" (Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:2), caring for the flock of God (Acts 20:28). But the word archein, "to rule," in the hierarchical sense, is never used. Moreover, each church had a college of presbyter-bishops (Acts 20:17,28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 4:14). During Paul's lifetime the church was evidently still unaware of the distinction between presbyters and bishops.
Of a formal ordination, in the later hierarchical sense, there is no trace as yet. The word "ordained" used in the King James Version (Acts 1:22) is an unwarrantable interpolation, rightly emended in the Revised Version (British and American). Neither the word cheirotonesantes (Acts 14:23, translated "appointed" the American Standard Revised Version) nor katasteses (Titus 1:5, translated "appoint" the American Standard Revised Version) is capable of this translation. In rendering these words invaria bly by "ordain" the King James Version shows a vitium originis. No one doubts that the idea of ordination is extremely old in the history of the church, but the laying on of hands, mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6; compare Acts 14:26; 15:40) points to the communication of a spiritual gift or to its invocation, rather than to the imparting of an official status.
3. Later Development of the Idea:
According to Rome, as finally expressed by the Council of Trent, and to the episcopal idea in general, the hierarchical organization, which originated in the 3rd century, existed from the beginning in the New Testament church. But besides the New Testament as above quoted, the early testimony of the church maintains the identity of "presbyters" and "bishops." Thus, Clement of Rome (Ep. 1, chapters 42, 44, 57), the Didache, chapter 15; perhaps the Constitutions, II, 33, 34, in the use of the plural form; Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., iii.2, 3), Ambrosiaster (on 1 Timothy 3:10; Ephesians 4:11), Chrysostom (Hom 9 in Ep. ad Tim), in an unequivocal statement, the "presbyters of old were called bishops .... and the bishops presbyters," equally unequivocally Jerome (Ad Tit, 1, 7), "the same is the presbyter, who is also the bishop." Augustine and other Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries hold this view, and even Peter Lombard, who preceded Aquinas as the great teacher of the church of the Middle Ages. Hatch of Oxford and Harnack of Berlin, in the face of all t his testimony, maintain a distinction between the presbyters, as having charge of the law and discipline of the church, and the bishops, as being charged with the pastoral care of the church, preaching and worship. This theory is built upon the argument of prevailing social conditions and institutions, as adopted and imitated by the church, rather than on sound textual proof. The distinction between presbyters and bishops can only be maintained by a forced exegesis of the Scriptures. The later and rapid growth of the hierarchical idea arose from the accession of the Ebionite Christian view of the church, as a necessary continuation of the Old Testament dispensation, which has so largely influenced the history of the inner development of the church in the first six centuries of her existence.
Henry E. Dosker
I. Episcopacy Defined.
Episcopacy is the government in the Christian church by bishops. The rule of the Orthodox churches in the East, of the Roman Catholics, and of the Anglicans is that the consecration of other bishops, and the ordination of priests and deacons can only be by a bishop; and with them, a bishop is one who claims historic descent from apostolic or sub-apostolic times.
II. Offices in the Early Church.
In the New Testament, the office of bishop is not clearly defined. Indeed there appear to have been many degrees of ministry in the infant church:
apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, presbyters or elders, bishops or overseers, and deacons.
Due allowance is not generally made for the mental attitude of the apostles and early Christians. They were looking for the speedy return of Christ, and consequently did not organize the church in its infancy, as it was afterward found necessary to do. For this reason, while the different persons who composed the body of Christian ministers did not overlap or infringe on each other's work, yet the relative rank or priority of each minister was not clearly defined.
The apostles were undoubtedly first, and in them rested the whole authority, and they were the depository of the power committed unto them by Christ.
Next to the apostles in rank, and first in point of mention (Acts 11:27), came the prophets. So important were these officers in the early church that they were sent from Jerusalem to warn the rapidly growing church at Antioch of an impending famine. Then it appears that there were resident prophets at Antioch, men of considerable importance since their names are recorded, Barnabas, Symeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul (Acts 13:1). These men received a command from the Holy Spirit to "separate me Barnabas and Saul," on whom they laid their hands and sent them forth on their work. The election is conducted on the same lines as the election by the eleven apostles of Matthias, and Barnabas and Paul are hereafter called apostles. It is an ordination to the highest order in the Christian ministry by "prophets and teachers." Whether "prophets and teachers" refers to two distinct ministries, or whether they are terms used for the same one is uncertain. It may be that of the five men mentioned, some were prophets, and others teachers.
In Acts 15:32 we have given us the names of two other prophets, Judas and Silas. Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:28) that God hath set some in his church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, and writing to the Ephesians he places the prophets in the same rank. "He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry" (Ephesians 4:11,12 the King James Version). And again, he says that the mystery of Christ is now "revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit" (Ephesians 3:5). The same apostle in that wonderful imagery of Christians being built up for a habitation of God, says they are "being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:20).
In the case of the ordination of Timothy, which Paul says distinctly was by his own laying on of hands and that of the presbytery, it is of great consequence to note that Paul says to Timothy that his ordination was "according to the prophecies which went before on thee" (1 Timothy 1:18 the King James Version). From this it would appear that the prophets, as in the case of Paul himself, guided by the Holy Ghost, chose Timothy for the overseership or bishopric, or it may be, which is just as likely, that Timothy was set apart by the laying on of hands by some prophets, to the rank of elder or presbyter which did not carry with it the "overseership." It is at any rate evident that in the selection of Timothy, Paul is insistent on pointing out that it was through the prophets (compare 1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).
In Revelation, the term prophet constantly occurs as a term denoting rank equivalent to that of apostle:
"ye saints, and ye apostles, and ye prophets" (Revelation 18:20); "blood of prophets and of saints" (Revelation 16:6; 18:24). The angel calls himself "thy fellow-servant, and of thy brethren the prophets" (Revelation 22:9 the King James Version). The words prophesy and prophesying are used in a general sense, and it does not mean that they were in every case the formal utterances of prophets.
3. Elders or Presbyters:
The ministry of the elders of the Christian church was modeled after that of the synagogue in which there were elders and teachers. The Christian elders or presbyters were most likely a council of advice in each local Christian ekklesia. They appear to act conjointly and not separately (Acts 15:4,6,22; 16:4; 20:17; James 5:14).
Teachers were the equivalent of those teachers or catechists of the synagogue before whom our Lord was found in the temple.
Evangelists were persons who probably had the gift of oratory and whose function it was to preach the glad tidings. Philip was one of them (Acts 21:8). In the instructions to Timothy he is bidden to do the work of an evangelist, that is to say, to preach the gospel. This was to be part of his work in the ministry.
In writing to Timothy, Paul twice says that he himself was ordained preacher, and apostle and teacher. This does not mean that he held three grades of the ministry, but that his duties as an apostle were to preach and to teach. The fact that the apostles called themselves elders does not thereby confirm the view that the bishops mentioned by them were not superior to elders, any more than the fact that the apostles called themselves teachers, or preachers, makes for the view that teachers, or preachers, were the equals of apostles.
Bishops or overseers were probably certain elders chosen out of the body of local elders. Under the Jewish dispensation, the elders stayed at home, that is, they did no ministerial visiting, but it was soon found necessary as the Christian church grew to have someone to attend to outside work to win over by persuasion and exposition of the Scriptures those inclined to embrace Christianity. This necessitated visiting families in their own homes. Then, it became necessary to shepherd the sheep. Someone had to oversee or superintend the general work. The Jewish elders always had a head and in a large synagogue the conditions laid down for its head, or legatus, were almost identical with those laid down by Paul to Timothy. He was to be a father of a family, not rich or engaged in business, possessing a good voice, apt to teach, etc.
The term episkopos was one with which the Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles were well acquainted; and it became thus a fitting term by which to designate the men called out of the body of elders to this special work of oversight. Then, again, the term episkopos was endeared to the early Christians as the one applied to our Lord--"the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (1 Peter 2:25). The duties of elders, or presbyters, are not clearly defined in the New Testament.
In the Acts, the term is found only twice, one in reference to Judas, "his bishopric (or overseership) let another take" (Acts 1:20 the King James Version), and in Paul's address to the elders of Ephesus, he warns them to feed the church over which they have been made overseers or bishops (Acts 20:28). It is impossible to say whether this "overseership" refers to all the elders addressed, or to such of those elders as had been made "overseers," or "bishops."
In the epistles, we find the church more clearly organized, and in these writings we find more definite allusions to bishops and their duties (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1,2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25).
Paul tells Timothy, "If a man desire the office of a bishop (or overseer) he desireth a good work." "A bishop (or overseer) must be blameless" (1 Timothy 3:1,2 the King James Version). He tells Titus that "he is to ordain elders in every city" and that a "bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God" (Titus 1:5,7 the King James Version).
On the other hand, there are numerous texts where elders and their duties are mentioned and where there is no reference whatever to bishopric or oversight. The epistles show that of necessity there had grown to be a more distinct organization of the ministry, and that following the custom of the synagogue to some of the elders had been committed a bishopric or oversight. At the same time the rank of a bishop, or overseer, was not yet one of the highest. Paul does not enumerate it in the order of ministry which he gives to the Ephesians--apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
That Timothy had an oversight over the elders or presbyters is evident from the fact that Paul enjoins him to rebuke those that sin:
"Against an elder receive not an accusation, except at the mouth of two or three witnesses. Them that sin reprove in the sight of all" (1 Timothy 5:19,20). This, of course, refers to a formal trial by one in authority of persons inferior to him in rank.
It has been asserted that the terms elder and bishop in the New Testament were equivalent and denoted the same office or grade in the ministry. This assertion seems unwarranted. They do not naturally denote the same grade any more than do apostle and teacher, or angel and prophet.
The deacons were the seven appointed to take charge of the temporal affairs of the church. Their appointment was perhaps suggested by the alms-collectors of the synagogue. In the New Testament they do not appear as deacons to have had any part in the sacred ministry, except, in the case of Philip the evangelist, if it be assumed that he was a deacon, which is uncertain. Nowhere is it recorded that they laid hands on anyone, or were considered as capable of bestowing any grace. In the epistles they are mentioned with the bishops--"bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1), thus showing the nature of their influence as the helpers of the "bishops" in the management of the growing funds, or properties of the church.
III. Episcopacy according to the New Testament.
The passages where the Greek word occurs which has been translated either as bishops, or overseers, are so few that they are enumerated:
Acts 20:17,28: the Ephesian elders are stated to be bishops (or overseers) to feed the church; Philippians 1:1 the salutation of Paul and Timothy to bishops (or overseers) and deacons at Philippi; 1 Timothy 3:1,2 and Titus 1:7 give the exhortation to Timothy and Titus as holding the office of a bishop; 1 Peter 2:25, where the apostle referring to Christ says, "unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls."
IV. The "Didache."
Passing out of the New Testament, we come to the early Christian writing, the so-called Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Setting aside the question for what class of Christians this document was intended, the clear fact stands out that at the date of its writing the two highest grades in the Christian ministry were still called apostles and prophets. Various dates have been assigned to this document ranging from 80 to 160 AD.
At the end of chapter 10, which deals with the thanksgiving or eucharist, the remark is made, "But permit the prophets to make thanksgiving as much as they desire." Chapters 11 and 13 deal with apostles and prophets. They were to be treated "according to the ordinance of the gospel." An apostle was not to be allowed to stay more than a couple of days at the utmost, and in no case was he to receive any money, else he was to be considered "a false prophet." A prophet could beg on behalf of others, but not for himself; but a prophet could settle among a congregation, and in that case he was to receive the same first-fruits "of money and raiment and of every possession" as the chief priest did under the old dispensation. It is to be noted that in reality the prophets, though placed second in order, were to be treated with the greater respect. If the prophet settles down, he becomes the man of the first rank in that Christian community.
Chapter 15 deals with bishops and deacons, and we are told that if appointed they rendered the ministry of prophets and teachers, but the warning is given, "Despise them not, therefore, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers." This shows that bishops were localized; and that while they could be appointed over a community, they were not considered as of equal rank with the prophets.
V. Clement of Rome.
Clement of Rome in his Epistle to the Corinthians says that the apostles preaching through countries and cities appointed the first-fruits of their labors to be bishops and deacons (chapter 42). It is usually said that Clement meant elders by the term "bishops," but it is much more likely that he meant what he said; that according to the tradition received by him, the apostles appointed bishops, that is, appointed bishops out of the elders--mentioned in the Acts. In chapter 44 Clement warns against the sin of ejecting from the episcopate those who have presented the offerings, and says, "Blessed are those presbyters who have finished their course."
The reason why the terms apostles and prophets fell into desuetude was, as regards the first, not so much out of respect to the original apostles, but because the apostles in the sub-apostolic age became apparently only wandering evangelists of little standing; while the prophets lowered their great office by descending to be soothsayers, as the Shepherd of Hermas plainly intimates. With the fall of the apostles and the prophets, there rose into prominence the bishops and deacons.
VI. Bishops and Deacons.
The deacons acted as secretaries and treasurers to the bishops. They were their right-hand men, representing them in all secular matters. As the numbers of Christians increased, it was found absolutely necessary for the bishops to delegate some of their spiritual authority to a second order.
VII. Bishops and Presbyters (Priests).
Thus very slowly emerged out of the body of elders the official presbyters or priests. To them the bishop delegated the power to teach, to preach, to baptize, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist; but how slowly is evidenced by the fact that so late as 755 AD the Council of Vern forbade priests to baptize, except by distinct permission of their bishop.
VIII. Ignatian Epistles on the Three Orders.
When we come to the Ignatian epistles written between 110-17 AD, we find a distinct threefold order. We have given us the names of Damas, for bishop, Bassus and Apollonius for presbyters, Zotion for deacon. Throughout these epistles there is no question that the bishop is supreme. Apostles and prophets are not even mentioned. The bishop succeeds to all the powers the apostles and prophets had. On the other hand, as with the Jewish elders, so with the Christian presbyters, they form a council with the bishop. Here we see in clear day what we had all along suspected to be the case in apostolic times:
a council of presbyters with a ruler at their head and deacons to attend to money matters.
It is quite immaterial as to whether a bishop had ten or a hundred presbyter-elders under him, whether he was bishop in a small town or in a large city. The question of numbers under him would not affect his authority as has been claimed. The greatness of the city in which he exercised this rule would add dignity to his position, but nothing to his inherent authority.
From this time on it is admitted by all that bishops, priests and deacons have been continuously in existence. Their powers and duties have varied, have been curtailed as one order has encroached on the power of the other, but still there the three orders have been. Gradually the presbyters or priests encroached on the power of the bishop, till now, according to Anglican usage, only the power of ordaining, confirming and consecrating churches is left to them.
IX. Views of Reformers.
At the time of the Reformation there was a great outcry against bishops. This was caused by the fact that under feudalism the bishops had come to be great temporal lords immersed in schemes of political and material aggrandizement, and often actually leading their armies in times of war. Many of the bishops were proud and arrogant, forgetful that their duties as fathers of the children of Christ were to look after those committed to them with fatherly kindness and charity or that as pastors they had to tend the erring sheep with Divine patience and infinite love.
The bulk of the adherents to the Reformed religion, looking upon the bishops as they were and as their fathers had known them, recoiled from retaining the office, although their principal men, like Calvin, deplored the loss of bishops, and hoped that bishops of the primitive order would some day be restored. The present modern Anglican bishop seems to sum up in his person and office the requirements laid down by Calvin.
Thus the claim put forth by the Anglicans in the preface to the Ordinal may be considered as sound:
"It is evident unto all men, diligently reading Holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church--Bishops, Priests, and Deacons."
Teaching of the Twelve Apostles; Clement of Rome; Shepherd of Hermas; Ignatian epistles; Muratorian Fragment; Works of John Lightfoot; Duchesne, Origines du Culte Chretien; Pellicia, Polity of the Christian Church; Bishop MacLean, Ancient Church Orders; Cheetham, Hist of the Christian Church during the First Six Centuries; Salmon, Introduction to New Testament; Elwin, The Minister of Baptism; Cruttwell, Literary History of Early Christianity; Potter, Church Government; Lowndes, Vindication of Anglican Orders; E. Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches; C. Gore, The Church and the Ministry; Thompson, Historic Episcopate (Presbyterian); Baird, Huguenots.
1. The New Testament Church a Spiritual Democracy:
As a spiritual and social democracy, Congregationaliam finds no warrant or precedent in the New Testament for the episcopal conception of the words "bishop," "presbyter," and "elder." It interprets epi-skopos, literally as overseer--not an ecclesiastical dignitary but a spiritual minister. It finds the Romanist view of Peter's primacy, founded alone on Matthew 16:18, contradicted by the entire trend of Christ's teaching, as e.g. when referring to the Gentiles exercising lordship and authority Christ says, "Not so shall it be among you" (Matthew 20:26). He set the precedent of official greatness when He said "the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister," and that "whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister (servant)." Paul's testimony confirms this in suggesting no primacy among the apostles and prophets, but making "Christ .... himself .... the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:20). The organization and history of the early Christian church establish this view of its simplicity and democracy. In Acts 1:20 the Revised Version (British and American) corrects the rendering "bishopric" (given by the King James translators, who were officers in the Episcopal church) to "office," thus, relieving the verse of possible ecclesiastical pretensions.
The church formed on the day of Pentecost was the spontaneous coming together of the original 120 disciples and the 3,000 Christian converts, for fellowship, worship and work, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Its only creed was belief in the risen Christ and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit; its only condition of membership, repentance and baptism.
2. Election of Officers by Popular Vote:
The apostles naturally took leadership but, abrogating all authority, committed to the church as a whole the choice of its officers and the conduct of its temporal and spiritual affairs. Judas' place in the apostolate was not filled by succession or episcopal appointment (Acts 1:23-26). The seven deacons were elected by popular vote (Acts 6:1-6). One of the seven--Philip--preached and, without protest, administered the rite of baptism (Acts 8:12,13).
The churches in the apostolic era were independent and self-governing, and the absence of anything like a centralized ecclesiastical authority is seen by the fact that the council at Jerusalem, called to consider whether the church at Antioch should receive the uncircumcised into membership, was a delegated body, composed in part of lay members, and having only advisory power (Acts 15:1-29).
3. The Epistles not Official Documents:
The apostolic letters, forming so large a part of the New Testament, are not official documents but letters of loving pastoral instruction and counsel. The terms bishops, elders, pastors and teachers are used synonymously and interchangeably, thus limiting the officers of the early church to two orders:
pastors and deacons.
See also \CHURCH GOVERNMENT\; \DIDACHE\.
4. Restoration of Primitive Ideals:
Under the spiritual tyrannies of the Church of England, during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, "bloody" Mary and 'Queen Elizabeth, the Dissenting bodies, chiefly the Congregationalists, returned to the simplicity and spiritual freedom of the primitive church. The issue was forced by two arbitrary acts of Parliament under Elizabeth:
the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. Emancipation from the intellectual and religious tyranny of these acts was won at the cost of many martyrdoms. These struggles and persecutions wrought into the successors of Robert Browne, the father of modern Congregationalism, a deep-seated and permanent resentment against all forms of autocratic power in church and state. They challenged, at the cost of life, both the Divine Right of kings, and of bishops. They believed that in Christ Jesus all believers are literally and inalienably made "kings and priests unto God" (Revelation 1:6 the King James Version), actual spiritual sovereigns, independent of all human dictation an d control in matters of belief and worship. The Pilgrims expatriated themselves to secure this spiritual liberty; and to their inherent antagonism to inherited and self-perpetuated power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, must be credited the religious freedom and civil democracy of America.
For further study see Henry M. Dexter, Congregationalism, chapter ii; Dunning's Congregationalists in America, chapters i, ii:
Rainy, The Ancient Catholic Church.
Dwight M. Pratt