The Development of authority: the role of bishop from 80-200CE
In the last installment I wrote about the rise of bishops in the New Testament church, a development that was occurring at the same time as false teachers were beginning to crop up.
In popular Christianity today a debate rages about authority in the church: the Bible (evangelicals) vs. Bishops (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, many Anglicans). In the early church there was no such debate. There was no tug of war. It was not an issue of either/or. In the second and third centuries as the church debated false teaching it was not a question, of bishops v. the Bible, because there was yet no “Bible” – no single book, but a collection of “God-breathed” or “inspired” (2 Timothy 3:16) “scriptures.” In the early church the question was about WHO gets to interpret those scriptures: individual Christians or the bishops.
“Heresy,” the word for “false teaching” comes from the Greek word, “to choose.” Today people feel free to pick and choose from religious beliefs as if they were walking down the food line in a cafeteria, “I prefer potato salad. I don’t like boiled okra.” That works well at Luby’s. It is a disaster as a test of truth. And it was decidedly un-bueno in the early church. Innovation and “choice” were not on the table: Paul repeatedly gives churches two thumbs up for “maintaining the tradition as I gave it to you” (1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thes 2:15, 3:6). Jude felt it necessary to write and appeal to Christians to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” Making up a religion of our own devising is something only the most arrogant and foolish would do.
Join me as the first-century turns and look the way the second generation of early Christian leaders known as the “Apostolic Fathers” maintained the message that had been given to them…
The question facing the church at the dawn of the second century: How would Christianity fare with the apostle’s successors-the first generation not led by those who walked with Jesus? This is more than an interesting question. It was a transition critical to giving us the faith and the understanding of the trinity that define the Christian faith to this day.
The Role of Bishop in the New Testament
“Bishops” (or sometimes “elders”) are sparsely mentioned in the New Testament. We have no record of Jesus speaking of the role. However, in the book of Acts, Paul appoints “overseers”* to leave behind in the churches he had started. Paul, wrote and instructed two young pastors, Timothy and Titus, in what to look for in the selection of these bishops. Paul, Peter, and John all greet church’s bishops in their epistles. Bishops were the model of church leadership within twenty years of Jesus’ resurrection (c.50)…before much of the New Testament was written.
The Role of Bishop in the Church Age
The role of bishops expanded quickly. Their importance is seen in the writings of early church fathers…
The earliest Christian writings in existence after the close of the New Testament were from Clement, the second Bishop of Rome (after Peter’s death). Clement, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (c.95), confirmed the way apostles appointed the first bishops: “So preaching everywhere in country and town, they [the apostles] appointed their first fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe.” In Clement, we have a first-hand confirmation of what Luke told us in Acts and what we would intuitively suspect – that bishops were appointed in each town by the same apostles that introduced them to faith in Christ.
How did this second generation of Christians view bishops? Ignatius of Antioch (c100) in his Epistle to the Ephesians cues us in: He advised Christians in Ephesus to “look upon the bishop even as we would look upon the Lord Himself.” Don’t miss this: A disciple of John equated unity with the local bishop to unity with Jesus! In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius advises that those who do “anything without the bishop” both destroy the Churches’ unity, and throw its order into confusion. For Ignatius, and virtually every other early church source who speaks on the issues, the church’s source of unity and spiritual authority went through the bishops and the apostles to Jesus himself. Ignatius also wrote, the “bishops tell us how to interpret the Bible” for “without them, there is no sacrament”
Second century father, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, (c180) telegraphs his concerns in the title of his treatise: “Against Heresies” – specifically against Gnosticism. In it Irenaeus argued that the unbroken teaching of the bishops proved the truth of orthodox Christianity: His argument was simple-Jesus sent out the Apostles who passed down Jesus’ teaching to us.
In response to the Gnostic idea that there was “secret information” necessary for salvation, Irenaeus wrote,
“For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors.”
Irenaeus pointed out the obvious: Why would the apostles not tell the disciples the whole truth about Jesus?
In Against Heresies 3:3, Irenaeus then went on to list the apostolic succession of bishops from the Apostles to both Clement in Rome and bishop Polycarp in Smyrna as two examples that would be well known in to all readers in 180AD. “We are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times.” His argument in effect is “we can name names…there are no, and have been no secrets.” He finished the argument with a polemic: “This is the gateway of life [bishops]; all the rest are thieves and robbers.”
Coming on Irenaeus’ heals is Tertullian (c. 160-225). Tertullian was the first father to teach in Latin and coined the term “trinity” at the close of the second century. He followed on Irenaeus’ logic when arguing against the Monarchist heresy: “Your teaching may claim to be old. If it were, show us your apostle and the line of your bishops from him?“
So we see in the second century that the successors to the apostle’s, the bishops, were both the leaders of the churches and the interpreters of the scriptures. Where did they get that idea? From the apostles themselves, of course. Those outside of the touch and teaching of the bishops were “thieves and robbers.” In the debates with the heretics, it was the bishop, those who received and taught the unbroken message, who had the authority to interpret that message given to them by the apostles.
Next up: Game. Set. Match. Why the Bishop was the trump card in debates in the early church.
*“Bishop” is an English version of the untranslated Greek word “Episcopos.” We do the same thing with “baptism” which is the Greek word “baptizo” which means to “immerse.”
 Acts 14:23, Acts 20:28
 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9
 Philippians 1:1, 1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1, 3 John 1
 Documents of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. 3rd ed., ed. Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 41.
 Ibid, 78.
 Ibid, 74-75.
 Irenaeus. 3:4. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html
 Documents, 78.