Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Bishops" and "Priests" Were the Same Thing in the Early Church

Courtesy of Bill Tighe -- what a generous man! -- I have read a number of books on the issue of bishops, written from the Anglican perspective. I must say, however, that their treatment of the first-century situation also seems unnecessarily obscure, perhaps because they seem to be simply avoiding recognition of a single, well-documented point: which is that in the earliest texts as we have them, "bishop/overseer" (episcopos) and "elder/presbyter/priest" (presbyteros) are used synonymously and are plural in the churches. The modern version of the Anglican case for a necessary distinction between bishops and pastors in the church seems to be that those appointed as elders by the apostles (e.g. Acts 14:23) are the ancestors of the post-second century presbyters (>priests), while the Apostles themselves are the model for the post-second century overseers (>bishops). I've looked at Anglican case with an open mind, but this is one issue where the teaching I picked up in the Presbyterian church has stood up remarkably well.

For example, in Acts 20:17 Paul sends for the "elders" of the church of Ephesus and speaks to them. In his speech, among other things, he pleads with them to keep watch over the church over which the Holy Spirit made them "bishops/overseers" (v. 28). In 1 Timothy, elders are mentioned several times (4:14, 5:1, 5:17, 5:19), but we also have a description only of the ideal "bishop/overseer" and "deacon," but no elders -- unless elders are in fact the same as overseers/bishops. This identity is confirmed by the fact that the description of the ideal overseer in 1 Timothy 3 is in many points verbally identical to that in Titus 1:5-9 of "elders." 1 Peter 5:1-2 begins with the apostle addressing the church leaders as a fellow "elder," and then calls on them to serve well as "overseers."

Nor does the sub-Apostolic material differ (until we get to Ignatius). In the Didache 15:1-2, we read:

Appoint, therefore, for yourselves overseers/bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, meek wers, and not lovers of money, and truthful and approved, for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honorable men together with the prophets and teachers.

Similarly, Clement says of the Apostles:

They preached from district to district, and from city to city, and they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons for the future believers (1 Clem. 42:4; more on this passage later) .

The two-office structure of the church goes back to apostolic times: in Philippians 1:1, Paul address the church at Philippi, "together with the overseers and deacons." Philippi's elders and deacons, 1 Timothy's, the Didache's, and Clement's overseers and deacons: the simplest thing is to assume they are all the same, and both the elders/overseers and deacons in each city are multiple. Indeed Hermas seems to refer to Clement's own church in Rome, when he is told in a vision:

You shall therefore write two little books and send one to Clement and one to Grapte [a woman's name, BTW]. Clement then shall send it to the cities abroad, for that is his duty; and Grapte shall exhort the widows and orphans; but in this city [=Rome] you shall read it yourself with the elders who are in charge of the church.

The simplest hypothesis is that the elders who are in charge of the church are the same as Clement's bishops.

Now, I know there are immense tomes written about all of this, but for the life of me I cannot see why this is complicated. It doesn't look complicated, unless you need to see presbyters and bishops as different orders.

Let's look more closely at Clement's argument. As I wrote before his aim is to calm a sedition in the church of Corinth that erupted around the time of the persecution under Domitian (96 AD) that send St. John to Patmos. His whole mode of argumentation is Old Testament-centered; he's obviously aware of the Apostolic writings, but like the writer of Hebrews mostly establishes his point by analogy with the history of Israel. In chapter 40, he begins an analogy of the Christian ministry/liturgy with the Israelite priesthood:

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 [prosphera, a reference to the offertory] and services [leitourgeiai, liturgies], and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly, but at fixed times and hours. He has himself fixed by His supreme will the places and persons 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 accept their oblations [prosphera] at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed, for they follow the laws of the Master and do no sin.

Just as Moses appointed propitiatory bloodless sacrifices, so the Master (despotes, head of the household) commanded a liturgy and thank-offerings (in the form of the offertory). Then follows a passage that Gregory Dix got immense mileage out of:

For to the High Priest his proper ministrations are alloted, and to the priests the proper place has been appointed, and on Levites their proper services have been imposed. The layman [the man of "the people," that is, of the people of God] is bound by the ordinances for the laity. Let each one of us, brethren, be well pleasing to God in his own rank, and have a good conscience, not transgressing the appointed rules of his ministration, with all reverence. Not in every place, my brethren, are the daily sacrifices [prosphera] offered or the free-will offerings/offerings of prayers [there are two possible readings here], but only in Jerusalem; and there also the offering [prosphera] is not made in every place, but before the shrine, at the altar, and the offering [prosphera], is first inspected by the High Priest and the ministers already mentioned.

Here we finally see three orders and the laity: High Priest, priests, Levites, Israelites, used as stand ins for -- for what exactly? Bishop, presbyters, deacons, laymen? Let's not jump to that conclusion, since elsewhere, as we saw, he actually recognizes only two orders: bishops/overseers and deacons. Is the metaphor (the Israelite sacrificial system) here influencing his description of Sunday Eucharist? Perhaps. In any case let us note, that just as the rest of Clement's text makes it clear that the only real division of orders is between the overseers/elders and the deacons on the other, so too, in the Israelite system, the real difference was between the Aaronite priests and the Levites. All the priests, high or not, were descendants of Aaron in various lines and families, and historically, these lines were changed on many occasions. For example, in 2 Kings 2:26, the priest Abiathar, a descendant of Ithamar, is dismissed and replaced as high priest by Zadok, reckoned of the family of Eleazer (thus fulfilling the prophecy 1 Sam. 2:27-36). Clement goes on (in chapter 44) to cite the episode of Aaron's staff budding in Numbers 17. This miracle was aimed, not to distinguish the High Priest from the ordinary priests (and thus typological bishops from priests), but the line of Aaron (priests as a whole) from the Levites (and thus typologically bishops/priests as a single class from deacons and laymen).

Let's go to chapter 44, in which Clement describes in detail the process the Apostolic appointment of offices:

Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of overseer [episcopos]. For this cause, therefore, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who had been already mentioned [i.e. overseers and deacons], and afterwards added the codicil that if they should fall asleep, other approved wers should succeed to their ministry [leitourgeia]. We consider therefore that it is not just to remove from their ministry those who were appointed by them [presumably, by the Apostles], or later on by other eminent wers [presumably previous rulers of this church], with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably, and disinterestedly, and for many years have received a universally favorable testimony. For our sin is not small, if we eject from the overseership/episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily offered its sacrifices. Blessed are those elders/presbyters who finished their course before now, and have obtained a fruitful and perfect release in the ripeness of completed work, for they have now no fear that any shall move them from the place appointed to them. For we see that in spite of their good service you have removed some from the ministry [leitourgeia] which they have fulfilled blamelessly.

There is some doubt about the text in the last sentence, but the description elsewhere makes it clear that some of the church rulers were left in their office. And the next to last sentence nails down the identity of "elders" and "overseers." The conclusion is unavoidable: Clement believed the post-apostolic church in Corinth, and indeed churches generally two offices: overseers/elders (>bishops/priests) and deacons, that there was more than one in both offices in the churches, and if there was an analogue "High Priest" in the Corinthian church's Eucharist, it was a difference of function or office, and not one of order or consecration/ordination.

Again, there is a tremendous body of literature on all this, but having tasted a chunk of it, I just don't see what possible basis there is to avoid the obvious conclusion, that the first century churches, apostolic and sub-apostolic alike, were ruled by a college of elders/overseers, assisted by deacons/servants and that the emergence of a monarchic bishop, and the separation of presbyterial and episcopal orders is a purely second-century development, with no direct apostolic sanction at all.

Likewise, the idea that the elders/overseers were of similar rank to the Apostles seems rather arbitrary. The Didache, for example, identifies bishops/overseers and deacons with prophets and teachers, a clear reference to the famous list in 1 Cor. 12:28, which mentions apostles, prophets, and teachers, before going on to those with other gifts. Evidently for the Didache author, the overseers/bishops are equivalents not of the apostles, but of the lower-ranked prophets (like Agabus), while the deacons are matched with teachers. Similarly, if, as most of the Anglican literature I've reviewed argues, the Seven in Acts 6 were appointed not as deacons (the traditional interpretation), but as elders/overseers, the distinction between the original bishops/overseers and the Apostles is strikingly confirmed. The monarchic episcopate of the second century is a purely post-Apostolic development in which the (originally perhaps rotating) chairmanship of the college of elders/overseers became a sole pastorate with the title "overseer/bishop," while the others became his assistants, bearing only the title "elders." The distinction of essential vs. dependent ministry used by Dr. Kenneth Kirk in his Apostolic Ministry collection may be a valid idea, but if so the early evidence seems clear, that the essential ministry is that of the bishop/priest (= pastor), and the dependent one is that of deacons.

In any case, can anyone really say that Sosthenes (1 Cor. 1:1, Acts 18:17), for example, was endowed with anything comparable to Paul's authority? As Clement argued, and Ignatius after him, obedience to the established pastorate may well be a key to peace and happiness in the church, but such authority is ordained by the apostles to pastors, not shared by the apostles with bishops.

Theologically this leaves us with many options: de jure divino Presbyterianism, de jure humano Episcopalianism, and the Lutheran idea of a jure divino pastorate with no particular form specified. What seems to be excluded is any de jure divino episcopate, at least absent the idea of a post-Apostolic "development of doctrine" clarifying new requirements of the faith.

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