I received the following question in my email and thought it worth sharing my response:
I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the defense for episcopal church government. I can see the case for a plurality of elders in the New Testament, but this would seemingly lend itself to either a Presbyterian or Congregational polity. What is the best defense for the role of bishops? Can we defend it from the New Testament? And how do Anglicans account for the plurality of elders, such as revealed in Philippians 1:1?
The following is my own argument, but is a summary of arguments that can be found in numerous sources. A bibliography occurs at the end.
Almost immediately after the Reformation, Anglicans acknowledged that the distinction between bishops and presbyters is not clearly articulated in the New Testament. Episcopacy was still defended, and a number of similar arguments have been used and repeated, beginning at least from the time of Richard Hooker.
The first issue has to do with the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics, that is, the difference between what Scripture meant in its original historical setting and how the church applies Scripture to its life today. The fundamental difference between Richard Hooker and his Puritan opponents had to do with the issue of contemporary application. Both Hooker and the Puritans agreed that Scripture was the final authority for Christian doctrine and practices, but they differed on what that meant for the contemporary application of Scripture. The Puritans subscribed to the “regulative” principle of biblical interpretation: whatever is not specifically commanded in Scripture is forbidden. Accordingly, they were opposed to such practices as the exchange of wedding rings, written liturgies (such as the Book of Common Prayer), hymns (apart from the Psalms), vestments, and bishops, insofar as the Puritans noted correctly that the New Testament makes no inherent distinction between presbyteroi (presbyters) and episkopoi (bishops). To the contrary, Hooker embraced a permissive understanding of biblical hermeneutics: whatever Scripture does not explicitly forbid is permitted. Moreover, Hooker distinguished between matters of doctrine and morals (which are unchangeable), and matters of civil and ritual law (which are changeable by the church). The famous distinction between moral, civil and ritual law is not original to Hooker; it can be found in Thomas Aquinas, in the Lutheran Confessions, and in John Calvin. Hooker also insisted, however, that the distinction meant that churches were free to adopt ecclesiastical practices that were not explicitly commanded in the New Testament as long as they were not forbidden. This included written prayers (liturgical worship, including the Prayer Book), practices such as exchanging wedding rings, and retaining the historic catholic practice of the three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons – even if that order is not explicitly commanded or found in the New Testament.
In making this claim, Hooker was distinguishing himself not only from Puritans but from what later would be called Anglo-Catholics. Both Puritans and Anglo-Catholics insisted that church order was of the esse of the church; Hooker believed it was of the bene esse. Bishops are part of positive law. They are part of good order, and part of ancient tradition. They are permissible, but not necessary.1
The second issue has to do with historical continuity, and specifically the question of both continuity and difference between the first century apostolic church and the second century catholic church. In the second century conflict with Gnosticism, the early fathers first designated the church as “catholic” (meaning universal) in contrast to the “private knowledge” (gnosis) claimed by gnostics. The patristic writers of the second century named four marks that distinguished catholic identity.2
(1) The canon of Scripture. All of those churches that could trace their origins to the apostles acknowledged the canon of Scripture, including both Old and New Testaments, as being the single normative witness to the God who had created the world, made a covenant with Israel, had redeemed sinful humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and had left the apostles as his successors – this, in contrast to gnostic sects that rejected the Old Testament (because its God was the creator of matter) or added gnostic gospels to the New Testament. (Unresolved was the question of the authority of the “deutero-canonical” texts, those books in the LXX translation of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament not found in the Hebrew canon, and written in Greek during the period between the writing of the last books of the Hebrew Bible and the writing of the New Testament, and later designated “apocrypha” by Protestants.)
(2) The Rule of Faith. All of those churches that could trace their origins to the apostles, and acknowledged the authority of the biblical canon, acknowledged the “Rule of Faith” as the proper interpretation of Scripture. There are several variations of the “Rule,” but versions found in Ireneaus, Origen and others both summarize the core content or subject matter of the Old and New Testaments and also anticipate the outline and even the texts of the later creeds. The “Rule” has a trinitarian structure, and summarizes God the Father’s creation of the world, the redemption sinful humanity through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church, the Scriptures, the return of Jesus Christ in judgment, and the resurrection of the dead.
(3) Apostolic succession. All of those churches that acknowledged the authority of the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and interpreted Scripture through the lens of the Rule of Faith could also trace their historical continuity through their bishops back to the apostles who were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ’s ministry and who had written the New Testament scriptures.
(4) Worship in word and sacraments: Many accounts of the distinguishing marks of the second-century Catholic church mention only the previous three characteristics, but a fourth should be added as well. All of those churches who acknowledged the canonical scriptures interpreted through the lens of the Rule of Faith, and who could trace their lineage back to the apostles through their bishops also worshiped using a pattern of word and sacrament. Accounts of this basic structure are found in some of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament, works such as The Didache or Justin Martyr’s First Apology. When early Christians worshiped, they read the canonical scriptures, and they preached on the read texts. After the reading, they celebrated the sacraments. Newcomers to the community were baptized; those who were baptized shared the body and blood of Christ through eating and drinking of consecrated bread and wine.
Note that there is a reciprocal relationship between these four practices. Those churches that acknowledged the Scriptures were also the ones who interpreted them through the Rule of Faith, who could trace their history through their bishops to the apostles who were disciples of Jesus, and had written the New Testament, who worshiped by reading the canonical texts in the service of the word, and celebrated the sacraments of baptism and eucharist that were given to the church by Christ. Those churches that acknowledged the Rule of Faith, used it to interpret the Scriptures, had received the Rule from the church that traced its history through bishops to the apostles, and the Rule later formed the basic outline of the questions that were asked of catechumens when they were baptized when the church gathered to worship. Those churches that could trace their history through bishops were also those who acknowledged the canonicity of the Scriptures written by the apostles of whom they were the successors, who acknowledged the Rule of Faith, who led the worship of the church. Those churches that worshiped in word and sacrament read the canonical Scriptures in their services, used the Rule of Faith as a baptismal creed, and were led by bishops in their worship.
The point is this: although the distinction between bishops and presbyters is not found explicitly in Scripture, it was the churches that made the distinction between bishops and presbyters who transmitted to the early church the canon of Scripture itself, the Rule of Faith by which the canonical Scriptures are interpreted and the practice of worshiping in word and sacrament. Moreover, the second century church made the claim that these bishops could transmit the authentic writings and practices of the apostles because they were in historic succession from the apostles. And, of course, it is from these second century catholic churches that all subsequent Christian churches trace their origins, including those Reformation Protestant churches that repudiate episcopal polity.
The third issue has to do with historical development. Specifically, how did the two-fold distinction between presbyter/bishops and deacons in the first century apostolic church become the three-fold office of bishop, presbyter and deacon in the second century? The key theological issue is whether this development was an aberration or departure from New Testament order (as the Puritans and some Reformation Protestants claim), or rather, whether it was appropriate and desirable.
The problem is set out by Michael Ramsey: “In the Church of the New Testament we find Baptism, Eucharist, Apostles [and I would add, presbyter/bishops]. In the subsequent centuries we find, Baptism, Eucharist, the Bishops [as distinct from presbyters], the Bible, the Creeds. In what sense do these marks of the Church declare or obscure the Gospel of God?” Ramsey states the “crucial question for theology” as: “Does this developed structure of Episcopacy fulfill the same place in the Church and express the same truth as did the Apostles’ office in Samaria and in Corinth and throughout the Apostolic Church?”3
The first principle of any doctrine of ministry is that ordained ministry must find its foundation in the ministry and priesthood of Jesus Christ.4 Ramsey criticizes Anglo-Catholic discussions of apostolic succession that defend episcopacy and apostolic succession in the abstract, neglecting the relation between episcopacy and a christocentric soteriology, and specifically without reference to the church as the body of Christ.5
In the New Testament we find the following:
(1) the ministry and priesthood of Christ. Christ is the chief shepherd (episkopos) (1 Pet. 2:25; John 10:11) and the high priest who is also the sacrifice for sin (Heb. 2:17,18).
(2) the universal priesthood of the church in which all the baptized participate and which is a participation in the ministry and priesthood of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, the priesthood of the whole people of God (1 Peter 2:9).
(3) within the church, there are numerous charisms and ministries shared in different ways by all the people of God who are members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-11; 28).
(4) Particularly in later epistles of the New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles, there begins to appear an ordered ministry, distinct from the ministries of charism in which all Christians share. This ministry consists in (i) apostles; (ii) deacons; (iii) presbyters/bishops.6
Thus, there are fundamental distinctions in the New Testament between (1) the ministry of Christ and (2) the universal priesthood of all members of the church as the body of Christ; (2) the ministry of all believing Christians – the universal priesthood of the church – which includes charisms, distinct from (3) the ministry of orders, that is, certain Christians who are called and set aside for specific ministries of oversight and service. At the same time, this ordained ministry does not exhibit the clearly formulated three-fold distinction between bishops, priests, and deacons that we find in the second century. Nonetheless, the distinction between (2) and (3) indicates that even in the New Testament there is at least by the time of the writing of the pastoral epistles a clear distinction between clergy and laity.
Richard Hooker’s summary of the Anglican understanding of orders in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is consistent with what we find the New Testament: “Touching the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” that the “body of the Church” is divided into clergy and laity, and that “the clergy are either presbyters or deacons.” (Laws 5.78.2.)
In the New Testament, the key roles of those in orders seem to be (1) to teach and to bear witness to Jesus Christ and his gospel in an authoritative way; this is especially the particular (and unique) role of apostles as eyewitnesses of Christ; (2) to exercise authority/oversight in the church; (3) to exercise a role of servanthood (particularly the role of deacons); (4) although it came to be a major function of ordained ministry, the New Testament does not state explicitly that the ordained ministry has a unique role to proclaim the word and to administer the sacraments.
The Role of Presbyters/Bishops
Hooker acknowledges that the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” are used interchangeably in the New Testament, but he makes an important point about terminology in distinguishing between “words” and the “realities” to which words refer.7 Hooker’s basic point is that discerning whether the three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons exists in the New Testament depends not on whether there is a linguistic distinction between presbyter and bishop, but rather whether the distinct office of bishop occurs in the New Testament, and whether individuals exercise that office, regardless of whether the actual name “bishop” is applied to them. According to Hooker, the role of bishop has primarily to do with exercising oversight:
The name bishop hath been borrowed from the Grecians, with whom it signifieth, one which hath principal charge to guide and oversee others. The same word in ecclesiastical writings being applied unto church governors, at the first unto all, and not unto the chiefest only, grew in time peculiar and proper to signify such episcopal authority alone, as the chiefest governors exercised over the rest; for with all names this is usual, that inasmuch as they are not given, till the things whereunto they are given have been sometime first observed; therefore generally, things are ancienter than the names whereby they are called. (Laws 7.2)
Hooker argues that there are in the New Testament those who exercise oversight over other presbyters, and thus effectively occupy the role of bishops. First are the apostles. There is a unique role to the office of apostle insofar as apostles are eyewitnesses of Christ, and this is something that cannot be transmitted to others. At the same time, there are elements of the role of the apostles that are transmitted, the attestation to the gospel of Christ, and their role of oversight over others.8 According to Hooker, the apostles were thus the first “bishops” in the church. They were apostles insofar as they were sent by Christ to proclaim the gospel, but were also “bishops” in the sense that they exercised governance over the church (Laws 7.4-5). (Moberly notes as of significance that the authority of the apostolate is presumed throughout the New Testament. What happens to this apostolic role once there are no more apostles?)9
In addition, even in the New Testament, there were (besides the apostles), presbyters who exercised authority/oversight over other presbyters or who transmitted their authority/oversight to others. So Paul gave authority to Timothy and Titus, who, in turn, delegated authority to others. (Laws 7.4).10 Other writers have noted as well the distinctive role of James, “the Lord’s brother,” in Jerusalem. Although not called a bishop, James seems regularly to be associated with a leadership role in the church at Jerusalem that is not attributed to other presbyters.11 So while the New Testament does not make a verbal distinction between presbyteros and episkopos – the terms are used interchangeably – Hooker (and others) argue that the functional distinction is implicitly present. The apostles, in addition to their unique role as eye-witnesses of the risen Christ, also exercised a governing role in the church. In addition, some presbyters exercised a governing/oversight role over other presbyters.
Some of the earliest writings outside the New Testament continue to refer to presbyter/bishop interchangeably. The Didache (late first or early second century) is aware of two distinct kinds of ministry: “Prophets” and “apostles” seem to be an itinerant ministry of a charismatic or Spirit-inspired nature; bishops and deacons exercise a local settled office, and are associated particularly with the celebration of the eucharist. The term “bishop” (episkopos) is used to describe a role that would elsewhere be called a “presbyter.” The “apostle” is not one of the Twelve, but something like a traveling preacher or evangelist.12
1 Clement (95 AD?) speaks of a succession from the apostles, who appointed “bishops and deacons,” and equates the office of bishop and presbyter: “For we shall be guilty of no slight sin if we eject from the episcopate men who have offered the sacrifices with innocence and holiness. Happy, indeed, are those presbyters who have already passed on, and who ended a life of fruitfulness with their task complete.”13
Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote a decade or so after Clement, does make a clear distinction between the roles of bishop and presbyter. Ignatius’s focus is on the unity of the church as obedient to the authority of one bishop, and refers explicitly to the three-fold office: “You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as you would God’s law.”14 Finally, the significance of a succession of bishops is emphasized by the second half of the second century, as evidenced in Ireneaus.15
As episcopacy became identified as a distinct office in the church, the office of bishop was characterized in the following ways:
(1) Unity: The local church is led by a single bishop who proclaims the word and presides at the eucharist, assisted by the college of presbyters in communion with the laity, who all together form the body of Christ.
(2) Oversight: Christ himself is the chief Shepherd (episkopos), but participation in his ministry is shared by the bishops and the presbyters.
(3) Continuity/succession: The bishop is the sign of historical unity and continuity with the gospel of Jesus Christ as witnessed to and proclaimed by the original disciples. “Apostolic succession” is also understood not only as a continuity of history, doctrine and practices, but the continuity of ordination, as it is the bishop’s function to lay hands on those who, through ordination, are brought into the presbyterate.
(4) The bishop does not exercise his role autonomously, but represents the entire church of Christ, in communion with all other bishops in the church. One of the bishop’s roles as teacher is to engage in joint oversight with the teaching of other bishops. Heresy necessarily demands the breaking of eucharistic communion because it is a violation of the unity of the body of Christ.16
It is worth noting that although the above characteristics of the offices of the church developed historically, it would seem that the functional equivalent of something like the episcopate would be necessary in any church that hoped to maintain historic Christian faith and to be in continuity with the apostolic faith. Churches that have adopted alternative non-episcopal polities (as, for example, presbyterian or congregational) have nonetheless found it necessary to develop forms of oversight that are functionally equivalent to the role of bishops. Such oversight may be exercised by groups of clergy (as a kind of “corporate episcopacy”), by presbyteries, or by “conventions.” It is significant that even a congregational body like the Southern Baptists has an elected “President of the Southern Baptist Convention,” elected annually.
A crucial theological question has to do with the theological status of the bishop; specifically, is episcopacy an order in itself, distinct from the presbyterate? Thomas Aquinas argued that the priesthood (presbyterate) is the highest order because it is an ordination to the celebration of the eucharist. The bishop has certain extra functions as well, ordination, for instance, but episcopacy is not a distinct order. Bishops are consecrated, but they are not ordained. Duns Scotus argued to the contrary that the episcopate is a proper order in a distinct sense, and a higher order than the presbyterate. The Council of Trent endorsed the Scotist model, and so embraced a fundamentally hierarchical understanding of the relationship between bishops and priests. Historically, as we have seen in Richard Hooker, Anglicans embraced the Thomist position. Theologically, there are only two offices: presbyter and deacon. Bishops are presbyters with special functions.17
That, in short, would be the historic Anglican argument for bishops. While the New Testament itself does not distinguish verbally between the office of bishop and presbyter, there were already those in the apostolic period who exercised the kind of oversight over others that is associated with the office of bishops. The apostles, in particular, not only had the unique role of being eye-witnesses to the mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also exercised roles of witness and oversight that necessarily would continue after their absence. There were also presbyters in the apostolic period who were already exercising the role of oversight characteristic of the office of bishop. With the distinction between bishop and presbyter that arose in the period immediately after the death of the apostles in the early second century, there is an essential historical continuity between the church of the first century and the church of the second century. Not only is there not any indication that the distinction between bishops and presbyters was challenged in the second century, but it was those churches who recognized the distinction between bishop and presbyter who could rightly make the claim that they were in continuity with the apostolic church. Among other things, they were the churches who recognized and passed on the canonical Scriptures to subsequent generations, so even those Reformation churches who rejected episcopal polity owe a necessary debt of gratitude to those second-century bishops. The three-fold office of bishop, priest and deacon was preserved by all historical Christians right up until the time of the Reformation, and the majority of the Christians in the world still have bishops. While Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholics believe that bishops ordained in the apostolic succession are of the esse of the church, the historic Anglican position was argued by Richard Hooker. While bishops are not required in order to be a Christian church, they are the church’s historical polity, and can arguably be traced to the apostles. There are a number of reasons why having episcopacy makes sense; among other things, it is an argument for historical continuity with the apostolic and patristic church. Finally, episcopacy is a matter of Christian freedom. Anglicans are not bound by a “regulative” hermeneutic, and so are free to continue Christian practices such as liturgical prayer, a church year, a lectionary, and, finally, bishops, that are not explicitly commanded in Scripture. For two thousand years, the majority of Christians in the world have retained these things, and have found them to be conducive to spiritual formation. As the old saying goes, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Finally, on the question of a “plurality of elders” (as in Philippians 1:1), as soon as there is one bishop and one presbyter, there is a plurality. And, of course, in the patristic church, the normal pattern was one bishop surrounded by his presbyters, a plurality. In many contemporary Anglican churches, there is also a plurality depending on the size of the congregation or diocese. It is not at all unusual for large parishes to have both a rector and one or more assistants. A bishop of a large diocese will often have an assistant, with a title something like “Bishop Coadjutor” or “Assistant Bishop.”
I hope that helps.
James T. Burtchaell. From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Church Communities (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Church of England Board for Mission and Unity of the General Synod, The Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry (London: Church House, 1986).
Oscar Cullmann. “The Tradition,” The Early Church (SCM Press, 1955).
Arthur C. Headlam, The Doctrine of the Church and Church Reunion (NY: Longmans, Green, 1920).
Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Bks 5 & 7.
George Hunsinger. The Eucharist and Ecumenism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Robert W. Jenson, Canon and Creed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
J. N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London: Longmans, Green, 1960).
J. N. D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines, revised edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978).
J. B. Lightfoot, The Christian Ministry (NY: 1883).
H.R. McAdoo and Kenneth Stevenson. The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Anglican Tradition (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995).
R.C. Moberly. Ministerial Priesthood (NY: Longmans, Green: 1898).
Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (London: Longmans, Green: 1956).
George Sumner. Being Salt: A Theology of an Ordered Church. (Wipf & Stock, 2007).
Stephen Sykes, “Richard Hooker and the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood,” Unashamed Anglicanism (Abingdon, 1995).
T.F. Torrance. Royal Priesthood (T &∓ T Clark,1993).
1 Stephen Sykes, “Richard Hooker and the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood,” Unashamed Anglicanism (Abingdon, 1995)
2 Robert W. Jenson, Canon and Creed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010); J. N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London: Longmans, Green, 1960); Early Christian Doctrines, revised edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978).
3 Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (London: Longmans, Green: 1956), 58, 77.
4 This is an assertion made by the Church of England report on priesthood, by Moberly, Ramsey, Torrance, and Sumner. (See the bibliography below.)
5 Ramsey, 218-220.
6 The institution of deacons is mentioned first chronologically in Acts 6. It is described as primarily an order of service.
7 The basic distinction here is that laid down by Hillary of Poitiers in his monumental patristic text on hermeneutics: De Trinitate. Hilary’s basic hermeneutical principle is laid out in his dictum: Non sermoni res, sed rei sermo subiectus est (The thing is not subject to the word, but the word is subject to the thing.) That is, realities control the meaning of the language we use to refer to them rather than the other way around.
8 Hooker writes about the uniqueness of the apostles’ role as eye-witnesses in Laws 7:45, but this is also a crucial theme in Cullmann’s essay, “The Tradition,” The Early Church (SCM Press, 1955). It because of the apostles’ unique role as eye-witnesses that the canonical Scriptures as writings that can be traced to authoritative eye-witnesses exercise a uniquely authoritative role in the post-apostolic church that post-apostolic tradition cannot. Bishops are successors to apostles, but they are not apostles.
9 R.C. Moberly. Ministerial Priesthood (NY: Longmans, Green: 1898), 146.
10 Also Moberly, 152-158.
11 Moberly, 147-151.
12 “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Commonly Called the Didache,” Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952); http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.viii.i.i.html
13 “The Letter of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, Commonly Called Clement’s First Letter,” Early Christian Fathers; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.vi.i.iii.html.
14 “To the Smyrneans,” Early Christian Fathers; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.vi.ii.iii.vi.html.
15 Against Heresies, 3.3, 4.
16 On this last point, see Werner Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries (Louisville: Concordia Publishing House, 2003).
17 Torrance, 76-80.