Bishops, Part 2: An Excerpt from Owen Chadwick’s The Early Church

(For the original post entitled “Bishops” by Quiet George, please click here.)

“…Ignatius was speaking of Antioch and the Asian churches as possessing a monarchical bishop, together with presbyters and deacons. In his time there were neither apostles nor prophets. The exact history of this transition within two generations from apostles, prophets and teachers to bishop, presbyters and deacons is shrouded in obscurity, though our sources give occasional glimpses of the process. The epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians implies the existence of two distinct orders of the ministry, bishops or presbyters (the titles are applied to the same people) and deacons. This twofold order is also apparent in the New Testament: Paul addresses his Philippian epistle to the ‘bishops and deacons’. Later New Testament writings (Acts xx, 17; Titus i, 5-7) likewise illustrate the application of ‘presbyter’ and ‘bishop’ to the same person. Evidently the churches established by the travelling missionaries soon came to have local, stationary clergy, subordinate to the general oversight of mobile apostolic authority. For a generation or more the apostles and prophets coexisted with this local ministry of bishops and deacons.


“It is noteworthy that in the Didache, as in the letter of Clement to Corinth and in the later New Testament writings (see I Tim. iii), the local ministry is two-tiered — bishops or presbyters and deacons. Between these two orders, according to all the evidence, there is a distinction in liturgical function: in the common eucharist the presbyter-bishop celebrates while the deacons assists. Deacons also helped the bishops in looking after any church property and in administering charitable relief. In the third century the congregations had swollen to such a size that deacons had to maintain proper order; in North Africa in Cyprian’s time the deacon administered the chalice. At Rome in 150, according to Justin Martyr’s evidence, the deacon used to take the consecrated elements to absent brethren who were imprisoned or sick. Later, in some but not in all churches, it was customary for the deacon to read the liturgical Gospel.


“The assistant status of the deacons is evident in the earliest known form of ordination in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (about 200-220): while all the presbyters join with the bishop in laying hands on candidates for the presbyterate, the bishop alone lays hands on the deacon since ‘he is not ordained for priesthood but for the service of the bishop’.

“The two-tiered ministry is integrally linked to the eucharistic celebration. But among the presbyter-bishops one rose to a position of superiority, and acquired the title ‘bishop’ while his colleagues are called ‘presbyters’. Four factors helped to bring this about. The first distinctive right naturally assigned to the senior member of the presbyteral college was the power to ordain. This became his prerogative. Secondly, correspondence between churches was normally carried on by the presiding presbyter-bishop. Thirdly, on the solemn occasion of an ordination, leaders from other communities would come as representatives of their own congregations and would take part in the laying on of hands and prayers which conferred the power of the Spirit and the authority of the community as the body of Christ. Frequent exchanges by correspondence and mutual visiting helped the concrete realization of the Church’s unity and universality. Finally, the crisis of the Gnostic sects showed the manifest necessity of a single man as the focus of unity.

“At Jerusalem the Church had had from the start a single figure at the head of the body of elders. The correspondence of Ignatius betrays no sign that at Antioch any other system had once prevailed, though the Didache (probably Syrian) would suggest otherwise. The elevation of the episcopate into an order standing above the presbyterate, while also remaining on a level with it, was taking place in the period when apostolic authority was going or gone. The process may have been helped by the example of the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch. The bishop among his presbyters remained first among  equals and for centuries continued to address them as ‘fellow-presbyters’; presbyters too had authority to celebrate the eucharist and were entrusted with the disciplinary ‘power of the keys’ (Matt. xvi, 19; xciii, 18; John xx, 23) by which the purity of the society was maintained and sinning brothers excluded. At the same time the presbyter inherited the lower role of the ‘teacher’, while the bishop inherited those of the apostle and the prophet: it is primarily the bishop who ordains presbyters, though the presbyters join in the laying on of hands. Some variety of custom appears on the question whether, when the bishop himself is being consecrated, the presbyters of his church share in the laying on of hands. At Alexandria we are told that they did so until the third century and there is no mention of visiting bishops; but at Rome by the time of Hippolytus only the bishops who came from other churches laid hands on the one to be consecrated, the chief consecrator being chosen by the bishops themselves. The service was held on a Sunday. The actual choice of the candidate rested with the whole congregation, clergy and people together, an idealistic system which assumed unanimity but in practice led to faction. Election by the people likewise played a large part in the ordination of presbyters and deacons. With the advent of a Christian emperor in the fourth century, especially when the local church was passionately divided, it began to become common for the bishops of important cities to be imperially nominated; it was soon discovered that no system of election or nomination is free of abuses and that even emperors were not always disinterested.”

(Owen Chadwick; The Early Church. London: Penguin, 1967; pp 46-50)
Also related:

1.  “Why the Apostolic Succession Debate Matters,” by Rev. Heath R. Curtis.

2.  “A dialogue on Apostolic Succession.