Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Church is Shaped (2)

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
The Development of the Episcopate (ÒBishop systemÓ)
Why do some churches have bishops and priests (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox), while others (Reformed of various types) have ministers, elders and deacons? To understand this development we have to go back, once again, to the beginning of the history of the church.

Change in Worship Styles
The earliest gatherings of the believers were services which seemed to have little structure in them. People would gather on the first day of the week, testimonies would be given of who Jesus Christ is and what He has done; some might quote some saying that they had heard from the Lord; some might quote from the letters of the apostles; there was spontaneous singing of psalms; in some places, people were speaking in tongues and others translated (Corinth) and in most cases, the rather loose service would end with a ÒLove MealÓ in which food was shared. That meal, in turn, would be ended with one of the senior men breaking bread and passing it around, together with a cup of wine, repeating the words of the Lord at the institution of the LordÕs Supper.

By the year 200 another picture emerges: believers, not only from the town or city, but also from the surrounding country side, have gathered in a large worship hall. The appointed reader stands up and reads from the prophets of the Old Testament and from the ÒmemoirsÓ of the apostles; the choir sings, with the people joining in on some refrains; then the bishop rises and delivers the short sermon. The people listen in silence, although in the case of a good sermon, the people may applaud at the end and some even shout ÒOrthodox! Orthodox!Ó in much the same way some classical concert goers may shout ÒBravo!Ó after a particularly good performance. Quite a change from the simple and rather unstructured services held only a hundred years earlier. What brought about this great change?

Overseers Needed!
You remember how the Gnostics and Montanists and how Monarchianism and Arianism had bothered the church. It is from the struggle against these heresies that the Episcopal system emerged. Episcopus is the Greek word for ÒoverseerÓ and from it we have ÒbishopÓ.

After the apostles died, there was a leadership vacuum. Although the Apostolic Fathers had much authority, the leaders of the heretics also claimed to have been instructed by the apostles and to have deep insight into the Word of God. This was especially true of the Gnostics (they were Òin the knowÓ).

We mentioned in the previous instalment that, in the midst of these conflicts, the church began to draw up a list of canonical books. We need to say a little more about that now.

ÒA canon is a standard by which other things are judged. The
canon of Scripture was compiled during the first four centuries
through a number of councils. The 66 books that now comprise the
Bible were finally established as the complete Canon in 397 A.D.
at the Third Council of Carthage.

Prior to this date, even from the latter half of the first
century, the various books of the New Testament were in
circulation. It is not as if the Bible suddenly appeared in 397.
These letters and books had been used by the church for years.
However, there developed abuses and controversies over what books
were sacred Scripture. And so, the church responded by
establishing the final Canon.

When the councils met, there were more than 2,000 books in
contention. Yet, only two books beyond the final Canon were
seriously considered: Shepherd of Hermes and 1 Clement. These
books were finally rejected and excluded because by their own
testimony; the authors indicated a clear difference between
themselves and the apostles. Some books were questioned but
finally included are Jude, 2 Peter, Hebrews and the three letters
of John.

The councils used three criteria in forming the Canon: 1)the book
had to be written or endorsed by an apostle; 2) the book had to
have been received by the early church from the beginning; and 3)
questionable books could not contradict any books of which there
was no doubt--conformity was paramount.Ó

After the Church had established what the Bible was, it had to exert its authority regarding who could decide the meaning of the Bible. This was done through the bishops. From now, until the Reformation of the 16th century, the Church would have an episcopal form of government. The early church was very simply organized: there were elders and deacons. The elders were called ÒpresbytersÓ from the Greek presbuteros = elder. The presbyters were all of equal rank, but in each congregation one of the presbyters took the lead. They were also called overseers (ÒbishopsÓ) and the title of bishop was, in time, given to the leader of the Òboard of elders.Ó The other presbyters gradually became subordinate to their overseer, or bishop and he, in turn, became the sole ruler of the church.

Churches were first established in the cities. The country folk were called, in Latin, the language of the common people, pagani. They became known as ÒpagansÓ; Christianity spread from the ÒChristianÓ cities to the ÒpaganÓ countryside. The city with its surrounding country district was called a diocese (from Latin--Òdistrict or jurisdictionÓ). In time, the leader of the church became known as the diocesan bishop.

It is not known exactly when this system was put into place. It seems that the earliest churches were not well organized at all; then, there is a gap of about 30 to 50 years in the records and when we can pick up the thread again, we come across this system. So, early in its history, probably around the turn of the first century, this system came into being. Ignatius, one of the Apostolic Fathers, who died in 107 A.D., urges obedience to the bishops.

In time, five cities emerged as leading centres of Christianity: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Not surprisingly, the bishops of larger cities came to be looked upon as having more authority than the ones in smaller centres. These five cities named were amongst the largest in the empire and church world of the day. Because the bishop of Rome had traditionally taken a leading role in the fight against heresy, he was more and more viewed as the leader of the leaders. Although he was called Òfirst among equalsÓ (referring to the other four), we see that from earliest times, the bishop of Rome emerges as the most powerful figure in the church.

Endnotes
1. "Table Talk" - September 18, 1996

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