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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Was the 'one bishop per city' model of church leadership an unbiblical corruption by Catholicism? (A brief look at the monespiscopate)

One anti-Catholic argument I'm seeing come up more and more frequently is the claim that Scripture describes church governance (polity) as done by a plurality of elders/bishops who are co-ruling over a city/church, whereas the notion of authority concentrated into the hands of one elder/bishop ruling over a city/church is a later invention. The goal of this anti-Catholic argument is to suggest the office of Papacy grew out from this earlier one-bishop (monepiscopacy) corruption of true Biblical polity.

The Protestant/Liberal argument is basically this: in the New Testament, the term "bishop" ("elder") is always used in the plural, and that it wasn't until AD150 that the monepiscopate (i.e. one bishop per city) model arose in some places. At first, this claim seems to have some plausibility, but looking at it with the right glasses on will reveal the desperation of these Protestant/Liberal folks to do whatever they can to smear Jesus' one and only Catholic Church.

The first thing I noticed about this anti-Catholic argument is that it claims this major heresy arose as "late" as 75 years after the Apostles died, around AD150. It is unlikely that such a significant error would arise that early on, only to be universally embraced by even the great Church Fathers, and nobody to oppose it. Further, this small window of time doesn't leave much room for a fair look at the evidence, since the early Christian writings for this period are minimal. This kind of argument is essentially based on the Liberal/Protestant notion that Christianity as we know it was invented over the centuries by the workings of men, who corrupted Christ's simple teachings early on and invented basically every doctrine we now affirm. If it can be argued that Christianity is a series of inventions, like the monespiscopate, then this leaves Christianity with little credibility before the world. It's sad that Protestants would want to go there, but Liberalism is quite literally an outworking of this kind of Protestant thought. Just looking at the Council of Nicaea in AD325, which historically Protestants pretend to accept when Catholics aren't looking, in Canon 6 it explains there is a head bishop in Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome - the three biggest Christian metro areas. Are these Protestants seriously going to say Nicaea espoused both orthodoxy and heresy? Sadly, many Protestants would rather throw out Nicaea than grant any points to Catholicism. I call this the ABC mindset - Anything But Catholic - wherein an opponent of Catholicism would rather accept the most absurd conclusions (e.g. throwing out Nicaea) rather than admit Catholicism got something right.

The second thing I noticed is that just because Scripture uses the term elder/bishop in the plural does not preclude the notion of one of those bishops being of higher rank. Even today we have multiple bishops ruling over cities, but among them there is one arch-bishop, while the rest are auxiliary bishops. So a plurality in itself doesn't exclude a hierarchy among elders. In the Old Testament, of the Twelve Sons of Jacob, the Tribe of Judah was said to lead them all. Among the Twelve Apostles, it is clear that Peter, "protos" (Matt 10:2), was the head of them. And when Peter began to evangelize outside of Jerusalem, Scripture is clear that James was left in charge of the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 12:16-17). In fact, James leading the Jerusalem congregation in Acts 15 is one of the clearest Biblical proofs of a monepiscopacy.

And when we turn to St Paul's private correspondence to Timothy and Titus, it is clear that Paul saw himself above Timothy/Titus , and it is clear that Paul saw Timothy/Titus above the rest of the clergy: "As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine" (1 Tim 1:3) and "Exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you" (Titus 2:15; 1:5). Is this the kind of talk that suggests Timothy/Titus were just one among many elders? We know that there were already many elders/bishops in Ephesus, and that Paul warned of evil bishops arising (Acts 20:29-30), so the idea Paul wanted Timothy specifically to remain there to keep people in line is pretty significant. In fact, Paul even tells Timothy, "Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses." (1 Tim 5:19) This verse plainly shows that Timothy was in charge of judging elders/bishops,which would be impossible if all elders/bishops were equal. In fact, we see that John had to rebuke Diotrephes who was leading a church, and not for being in charge, but for his evil leadership (3 John 1:9-10).

And to conclude the brief Biblical evidence I have given, consider what Jesus says to John in Revelation 1:20, "As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." In Revelation 2-3, Jesus tells John what to tell these "angels", with each "angel" ruling over a major city church (including Ephesus), in which Jesus gives warnings or blessings to these "angles" leading the churches. While at first it might look like these "angels" are the spirit creatures we are all used to thinking of, the fact is the Greek/Hebrew word for "angel" is a more general term for "messenger" (usually appointed by God). In fact, the term "angel" is another way of referring to God's priests: "For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger [Hebrew: angel] of the Lord of hosts." (Mal 2:7) And consider: does it make much sense for Jesus to be speaking to an unfallen angel from heaven (who isn't leading a church on earth), warning them to behave or else be punished? Not really. The evidence here clearly indicates that the "seven angels" of "seven churches" were the leaders/bishops of these city churches. This is thus another clear example of a monepiscopacy during the Apostolic times.

Lastly, I hope to briefly look at some early Church testimony on this matter, starting with St Ignatius in his famous Epistle to the Church of Smyrna: "Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast." Most Protestants will admit that St Ignatius was the first to explicitly affirm the presence of a monepiscopacy, but their "solution" to this is to either say Ignatius was delusional or to discredit the historicity of Ignatius by saying he didn't really write these in the year AD110, but rather these are forged letters from much later. This isn't a very convincing way to argue, as this isn't a good reason to reject Ignatius' testimony from this key timeframe of before AD150.

These Protestants also like to claim that Pope St Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians around AD90, said nothing of the monepiscopacy or even the three-fold office of Bishop-Priest-Deacon. Maybe Clement didn't use those exact terms, but there is strong evidence within that same letter (section 40) that Clement did indeed believe there were three main offices: "Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen." Clement is here showing that within the Church there are three offices and a laity. A high priest (bishop), the priests, and Levites (deacons). Indeed, St Jerome's comments are helpful here (Letter 146):
One of [John's] letters begins thus: The presbyter unto the elect lady and her children whom I love in the truth; (2 Jn 1) and another thus: The presbyter unto the well-beloved Gaius whom I love in the truth. (3 Jn 1) When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon. . . . .
. . In fact as if to tell us that the traditions handed down by the apostles were taken by them from the old testament, bishops, presbyters and deacons occupy in the church the same positions as those which were occupied by Aaron, his sons, and the Levites in the temple.
This confirms, from a Doctor of the Church, what has basically be presented already. Jerome understands that sinful humanity has always attempted to power-grab, and the Apostles being wise to this, prevented such a thing. The democratic method of every leader being equal has never worked, anywhere, because it is unworkable, not of Christ, and anti-Trinitarian (since the Father is head).

In Conclusion: There is more than enough evidence within Scripture and Early Church testimony to embrace the monespiscopacy and to reject the Protestant/Liberal thesis aimed more at attacking Catholicism than getting down to the truth. There are more sophisticated forms of this argument and even better responses, if you're interested, but I hope this brief treatment is more than enough.

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