The Early Monarchical Episcopate

            See also Mark Bonocore's response to James White in The Church Always Had Monarchical Bishops

A Protestant, claiming that the very early Church did not possess monarchical bishops, but that each city-church was governed by a so-called "body of presbyters," writes:

<< Clement wrote only a little earlier than Ignatius and clearly didn't share Ignatius' ecclesiastical view. Granted, Clement is from the West, but from him it seems clear that both Rome and Corinth of about 100 CE didn't have an Ignatian like monarchical episcopate but just local presbyter governance. It is true that Ignatius like the NT speaks of episkopoi; but also like the NT, he only means local presbyters. >>

Yours is a SERIOUS misinterpretation of Clement and Ignatius, since both of them recognized the three-fold ministry of bishop-presbyter-deacon. Don't believe me? :-) Well, consider this:

First of all, we know for a fact that whenever Ignatius uses the term "episkopos" ("bishop"), he always means the singular leader of a city-church. And, in Ignatius' Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter III, he writes:

" also bishops, SETTLED EVERYWHERE to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ." (Ignatius to the Ephesians Chap III)

Now, I'd say that Rome is part of the "utmost bounds of the earth," wouldn't you? :-) And, indeed, you yourself point out how Clement and Ignatius wrote within about a decade of each other. Thus, do we see the same three-fold ministry reflected in Clement??? :-) We sure do. Look:

"Since then these things are manifest to us, and we have looked into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times. He commanded us to celebrate Sacrifices and services (the Eucharist), and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly ....He has Himself fixed by His supreme will the places and persons (the appointed presbyters) whom He desires for these celebrations, in order that all things may be done piously according to His good pleasure, and be acceptable to His will. So then those who offer their oblations at the appointed times are acceptable and blessed, but they follow the laws of the Master and do not sin. For to the high priest (the bishop) his proper ministrations are allotted, and to the priests (the presbyters) the proper place has been appointed, and on the Levites (the deacons) their proper services have been imposed. The layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity. ......Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices." (1 Clement to the Corinthians, 44:4)

Here, it should be pointed out that the early Church frequently referred to its deacons as "Levites," as we see in the following example of St. Athanasius:

"You shall see the Levites (i.e., deacons) bringing loaves and a cup of wine, and placing them on the table. So long as the prayers of supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ." -- "Sermon to the Newly Baptized" ante 373 A.D.

So, the three-fold ministry was indeed recognized by Clement of Rome. He speaks of it in the same way we see Ignatius speaking of it, writing:

"Take care, then who belong to God and to Jesus Christ - they are with the bishop. ....Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God. .....Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one Cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons." (St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Philadelphians 3:2-4:1)

"You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." (Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2)

And who was the bishop for these Smyrneans? It was Polycarp! And Polycarp is the one who gives us the key to understanding our dispute here. For, as we know, Ignatius speaks of Polycarp several times as "the bishop of Smyrna." And Polycarp never objects to this, or acts as if he does not possess monarchial authority in Smyrna. Yet, when Polycarp writes to the Philippians, he does not call himself "the bishop," but rather introduces himself saying,

"Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi: Mercy to you, and peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, be multiplied."

Thus, we see what was really going on here. In the days of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, the TERMS "bishop" and "presbyter" were still being used interchangeably IN EUROPE! :-) Indeed, it was Ignatius himself who first used the TERM "bishop" to distinguish the leading presbyter of a city-church from the other presbyters. And this TERMINOLOGY was an Asian phenomenon, whereas the PRACTICE of a monarchical leader was common throughout the universal Church (as Ignatius makes clear in his Epistle to the Ephesians above). However, the TERMINOLOGY of distinguishing the office of what we call a "bishop" from what we call a "presbyter" (or "priest") had not yet spread to the West. Rather, the West was still using the TERMS interchangeably, as we see in Scripture:

Titus 1:5-7: "For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious. For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless, not arrogant..." etc. (compare to 1 Tim 3:1-7 & 5:17-22)

Acts 20:17-28: "From Miletus he (Paul) had the presbyters of the church of Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, ' ...Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers (i.e., "bishops"), in which you tend the Church of God..."

1 Peter 5:1: "So I exhort the presbyters among you as a fellow presbyter and a witness to the sufferings of Christ ..."

2 John 1: "The Presbyter to the Chosen Lady (i.e., the Church) and to her children whom I love in truth."

3 John 1: "The Presbyter to the beloved Gaius whom I love in truth."

Yet, even in NT times, while the TERMS "bishop" and "presbyter" were still being used interchangeably, it is also clear that each city-church possessed an "arch-presbyter" (what we would call a "bishop") -- a singular leader of the church. For example, this was clearly the role of James in Jerusalem:

Acts 21:17-19: "When we reached Jerusalem the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day, Paul accompanied us on a visit to James, and all the presbyters were present. He greeted them and proceeded to tell them in detail what God had accomplished among the Gentiles through his ministry."

Galatians 2:12: "For until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles..."

Similarly, Timothy held the office of monarchical leader in Ephesus. For, using the singular "you" in Greek, Paul instructs Timothy how to manage the Ephesian church saying,

1 Tim 5:17-22 -- "Presbyters who preside well deserve double honor ...Do not accept (you singular) an accusation against a presbyter unless it is supported by two or three witnesses. Reprimand (you singular) publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid. I charge you (singular) before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to keep these rules without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism. Do not lay hands (you singular) too readily on anyone..."

Therefore, Timothy was the one who both ordained presbyters and sat in judgment of them.

So, while there was yet no distinction between the TERMS "bishop" and "presbyter," the practical distinction of the offices was already fully established.

Mark Bonocore