Before beginning this lecture you may want to

Read William Telfer's The Office of a Bishop.

In the earliest Christian communities, the organization was very loose and irregular. Offices or titles of some sort, however, existed (1 Cor. 12:28).

First was the apostle, or his delegate. Then came prophets, like Agabus, described as predicting a famine in Acts 11:28.

Next were teachers of the faith, then miracle-workers, then helpers, administrators, and those who spoke in tongues.

As Christianity spread to new areas, it was no longer practical to have itinerant apostles or their delegates responsible for far-flung communities. Instead, a local leader or group of leaders would take on the duties of the apostle, both in terms of overseeing the activities of the community and also in celebrating the Eucharist and presiding at other functions.

This permanent office was known interchangeably as a bishop (overseer) or presbyter (elder) (Titus 1:5-7).

According to Acts 6:1-4, the apostles, while still in Jerusalem, selected seven men to see to the day-to-day matters of the community so as to free them to concentrate on prayer and ministry. The early Christian communities elsewhere followed this example, appointing deacons, usually seven in number.

Their job was to serve the bishop, especially in matters of finance and administration. They also took care of providing alms and other charitable work.

They assisted at baptisms and the Eucharistic feast, but they could not perform the sacraments themselves.

During the first three centuries of the Church, there were also ordained deaconesses. Unlike deacons, they did not have a liturgical function. Their primary function was providing charitable assistance to women. They also assisted women during their baptism, which was by full immersion.

By the late second century, a clear demarcation was emerging between the bishop and the presbyters.

Agabus's prophesy concerning Paul by Gerard Hoet, 1728

Agabus's prophesy concerning Paul by Gerard Hoet, 1728

An increase in converts in a region required more churches and congregations, which in turn required someone to perform the sacraments. One bishop could not do it all.

Multiple presbyters, which would come to be called priests, were ordained by the bishop, who remained the overseer of the whole community.

New bishops would be chosen by the whole congregation, yet they would be ordained by visiting bishops, particularly those with direct apostolic succession.

This trend continued in the third century as congregations grew larger. The church in Rome had, in 251 A.D., one bishop (the pope), forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven subdeacons, and numerous other support personnel.

With the passing of the apostles and the first generation of Christian missionaries, the question naturally arose as to where authority lay when disputes arose.

This was particularly pressing in light of the proliferation of Gnostic challenges to orthodoxy.

Ignatius of Antioch, who succeeded Peter as bishop of Antioch and probably knew him, insisted that the bishop held the same apostolic authority to interpret Scripture and judge the truth. This was not novel, but was a statement of a widely accepted view.

In the third century, bishops of provincial capitals, or metropolitans, were recognized as having oversight authority over other bishops in that province. These came to be known as archbishops.

Rome was sanctified by the lives, deaths, and bodies of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

According to Matthew 16: 18-19, Peter had been singled out by Christ for special authority and position in the Church.

Christ's Charge to Peter

Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1616

The bishops of the three largest cities in the Roman Empire—Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria— were generally accepted as having jurisdiction that extended beyond their provinces.

This would be codified at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

The bishop of Rome had several claims to preeminent authority in the Church. Rome was the capital of the Empire, which made its position seem natural.

Rome was sanctified by the lives, deaths, and bodies of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

According to Matthew 16: 18-19, Peter had been singled out by Christ for special authority and position in the Church.

Christ's Charge to Peter

Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1616

"And I say to thee: That thou art Peter [Rock], and upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."

In the 90s A.D., Clement, the bishop of Rome, wrote a letter of correction to the Christians of Corinth, who had accepted heretical beliefs and deposed their bishop and clergy.

Clement makes clear that the first bishops were chosen by the apostles:

"Similarly, our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full foreknowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these should fall asleep, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office. In view of this, we cannot think it right for these men now to be ejected from their ministry, when, after being commissioned by the Apostles (or other reputable persons at a later date) with the full consent of the Church, they have since been serving Christ's flock in a humble, peaceable and disinterested way, and earning everybody's approval over so long a period of time. It will undoubtedly be no light offense on our part, if we take their bishopric away from men who have been performing its duties with this impeccable devotion."

-Epistle, sec. 44

In the second century, Ireneaus wrote:

". . . that great and illustrious church founded and organized at Rome by the two glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, and to the faith declared to mankind and handed down to our own time through its bishops in their succession. For unto this church, on account of its commanding position, every church, that is to say, the faithful from everywhere, must needs resort and in it the tradition that comes from the Apostles has been continuously preserved by those who are from everywhere."

Thus from an early period Rome was considered to have a preeminence of some sort, although it was generally assumed to be a first among equals.

By the fourth century, Rome's position as judge between disputing congregations or leaders as well as its preeminence of honor was codified in several councils and synods.

Pope Damasus (366 A.D. - 384 A.D.) stressed that popes, by virtue of their succession from St. Peter, held the power of the keys, which gave binding and loosing authority.

Papal judgments took on the form of imperial decrees. The pope became much more important as a central authority in the West to impose discipline on the Church.

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