Monday, May 18, 2020

Monepiscopacy in Rev 1:20 (one Bishop per city)

The past several years some Protestants have been claiming that during the Apostolic era of the Church, each congregation was run by a group of Elders, rather than a single head Pastor/Bishop. They typically claim that the 'one bishop per city/congregation' model, known as the "monepiscopacy," was a 'later' development, appearing around the year 175AD. The goal of their argument is to show that the Catholic understanding of Church leadership, led particularly by a single Bishop in Rome, was never part of the original Apostolic Church, and thus the Papacy must be a later historical invention. Much has be written about this over the past several years, but for some reason one of the chief proof-texts has not gotten much attention, so I think it's worth sharing what I've found on this matter.
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 he is to tell these "angels," with each "angel" ruling over a major city church (including Ephesus), in which Jesus gives warnings to most of these "angels" 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 generic term for "messenger" (usually appointed by God). In fact, the term "angel" is sometimes another Biblical way of referring to God's priests (e.g. "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). Moreover, in Revelation, Jesus is referred to a Angel-Messenger, and in the Old Testament, the consensus among the Church Fathers is that the pre-incarnate Son is who is meant by the "Angel of the Lord" appearing to various OT figures (see HERE).

Looking at the key text in question, Revelation 1:20 and the references to these "angels" throughout ch2-3, it makes little sense for Jesus to be issuing warnings to Spirit-Angels, given that the Spirit-Angels have already been tested before the time of Adam. This means they are all already categorized as either permanently fallen or glorified. Rather, it makes more sense if these "angels" are Bishops, who certainly have the power to correct the abuses going on in these seven congregations.

Many of the 'traditional mainstream' Protestant Biblical commentaries that I've come across acknowledges that in Revelation 1:20 can be speaking of Bishop, even monarchial Bishop. Those who 'object' due so mostly on the grounds that it is unlikely that the monepiscopate existed that early, but this is kind of begging the question. Anyway, here are some of what I've found (all sources are easily found online):
  • Ellicot’s Commentary on Rev 1:20, “The more generally adopted view is that the angel is the chief pastor or bishop of the Church. The description of them as stars favors this view.
  • Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary: “If a human angel be meant (as the Old Testament analogy favors, Hag 1:13, "the Lord's Messenger in the Lord's message"; Mal 2:7; 3:1), the bishop, or superintendent pastor, must be the angel.
  • Matthew Poole's Commentary: “To interpret the term of angels by nature, seems not agreeable to what we shall hereafter meet with said to some of them; Christ would never have ordered John to have charged them with a loss of their first love, or to admonish them to be faithful unto death, or to repent. Whether the term angel denote any particular superior minister or bishop in those churches, or is to be taken collectively for all the ministers in those churches, I shall not dispute.
  • Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible: “the seven stars which John saw in Christ's right hand, represent the angels, or pastors of the seven churches of Asia
  • Geneva Study Bible: “By angels he means the ministers of the Church.
  • Pulpit Commentary: “The meaning of these "angels" has been very much disputed. The common explanation that they are the bishops of the Churches is attractive on account of its simplicity. But it has very grave difficulties, especially for those who assign the Apocalypse to the earlier date of A.D. It is highly improbable that at that very early time the seven Churches were already so fully organized as each to possess its own bishop.
  • Vincents Word Studies: “Under this interpretation two views are possible. (a) The angels are Bishops; the word ἄγγελος sometimes occurring in that sense (as in Jerome and Socrates). This raises the question of the existence of episcopacy towards the close of the first century. … Dr. Schaff says: This phraseology of the Apocalypse already looks towards the idea of episcopacy in its primitive form, that is, to a monarchical concentration of governmental form in one person, bearing a patriarchal relation to the congregation…
  • John Wesely’s Explanatory Notes: “The seven stars are angels of the seven churches — Mentioned in the eleventh verse. Revelation 1:11 In each church there was one pastor or ruling minister, to whom all the rest were subordinate. This pastor, bishop, or overseer, had the peculiar care over that flock: on him the prosperity of that congregation in a great measure depended, and he was to answer for all those souls at the judgment seat of Christ.
The honest person should acknowledge that is not some fringe view to read Revelation 1:20 as speaking of a Monarchial Bishop ruling over a given city congregation. The above are not even Catholic friendly commentaries (as far as I'm aware). In fact, it is a perfectly honest and natural reading. Furthermore, the 'alternative' view which sees them as spirit-creatures doesn't make much sense given that a human (John) is giving them a message from Jesus (which seems backwards), and that they are being told to behave (which good angels don't need to hear). At the very least, the plausibility of this Bishop interpretation means Protestants cannot be so rigid as to preclude it as evidence for the Catholic side. And the only reason to resist this is an unfair biased predisposition to reject the monepiscopate thesis.

Furthermore, I have located two Early Church Fathers who comment on this passage, which are also worth sharing:
St Augustine: "For in the Apocalypse of John we read: Unto the angel of the Church of Ephesus write: These things says He that holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know your works, and your labour, and your patience, and how you can not bear them which are evil: and you have tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for My name's sake hast tolerated them, and hast not fainted. (Revelation 2:1-3) Now, if He wished this to be understood as addressed to a celestial angel, and not to those invested with authority in the Church, He would not go on to say: Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love. Remember therefore from whence you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto you quickly, and will remove your candlestick out of his place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5) This could not be said to the heavenly angels, who retain their love unchanged, as the only beings of their order that have departed and fallen from their love are the devil and his angels."
And also:
St Epiphanius: "John writes in the Lord’s name to one of the churches — that is, to the bishop appointed there with the power of the holy angel at the altar —and says, “One good thing thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” [Rev2:6]"
(Against Heresies Section 2:25)
I  wrote an article on this issue back in 2013 (HERE), but I think the above Protestant commentaries are most helpful on Revelation 1:20, which I believe is the best proof-text to put forth.

1 comment:

john church said...

Well done, Nick! Especially like how tied in Malachi and the Protestant commentaries. While I was discerning the priesthood, there was a Bible teacher there who at first hearing this theory sort of dismissed it off-hand... i would love for him to see this.