1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > The Growth of the Episcopate

(Part 23)

The Growth of the Episcopate

This thought has an important bearing on the history of the growth of the Christian government. In the 5th and 6th centuries we find that the government was episcopal, and that the principles on which it rested were very different from those which lay at the basis of the government of the Christian community during the apostolic times. The identity of the terms bishop and presbyter within the apostolic church is now so universally admitted by scholars that the sole question really is, When did bishops begin to exist as separate and superior officers? and the dispute becomes one of historical facts rather than dogmatic theories. According to one account the episcopate became the form of the government about the year 70 A.D., to meet and supply in a legitimate way a want which, if not supplied, might have caused the ruin of Christianity; and according to another and more probable theory, the episcopate in the strict sense of the word was not established until the 3rd or 4th century. It arose during a panic, and was really a false development of the primitive government, and sanctioned neither by scripture nor by the necessities of the times. Of course the discussion is very much mixed up with the question whether the apostolic office was or was not a permanent one in the Christian church.

According to the one theory, the year 70 A.D. may be taken as the turning point. In that year Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish church of Jerusalem rudely shaken, and by this time John only of the apostles re-mained alive, and he had already left Jerusalem. It was at this time, according to several scholars, that the episcopate arose to take the place of the apostolate and preserve the church from breaking up into several small sects when no longer governed by the apostles and not yet in full possession of the New Testament canon. Apart from the historical evidence to be urged in support of this theory, its chief strength lies in the mere assumption that the presbyterian rule of the apostolic church was unfit to carry on the government when unsupported by the authority of the apostles, and had to be supplemented by an episcopate. When examined, the historical proofs for this state of affairs are not very satisfactory. We certainly soon find men who are called bishops distinct from the other elders, and are superior to them; but the name and the duties which belong to them appear to be not so much those which pertain to a bishop in the episcopal sense of the term, but rather those which are performed by a minister or preaching elder in the modern Presbyterian organization. In the early church the first convert, the best speaker, he whom the apostle had made his friend during his brief stay, would naturally be elected to preside at the meetings of the college of the elders who ruled the affairs of the community, and to represent it at conferences with other communities, and would naturally be invested with the name which denoted special oversight. And the extension of the church would naturally involve a further development of this process. When one church became too small, another was built, and a presbyter sent from the first congregation to work there under the superintendence of his bishop, and so on until the minister or presiding elder of the earliest planted or mother church became the perpetual president or overseer of various dependent congregations. But this is very different from the theory which afterwards became dominant in the church, and fails to account for the origin and almost universal supremacy of episcopacy.

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