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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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That form of church government in which diocesan bishops are established as distinct from and superior to priests or presbyters. The controversy respecting episcopacy commenced soon after the reformation;; and has been agitated with great warmth, between the Episcopalians on the one side, and the Presbyterians and Independents on the other. Among the Protestant churches abroad, those which were reformed by Luther and his associates are in general episcopai: whilst such as follow the doctrines of Calvin, have for the most part thrown off the order of bishops as one of the corruptions of popery. In England, however, the controversy has been considered as of greater importance than on the continent. It has been strenuously maintained by one party, that the episcopal order is essential to the constitution of the church; and by others, that it is a pernicious encroachment on the rights of men, for which there is no authority in Scripture. We will just briefly state their arguments. I. Episcopacy, arguments for.

1. Some argue that the nature of the office which the apostles bore was such, that the edification of the church would require they should have some successors in those ministrations which are not common to Gospel ministers.

2. That Timothy and Titus were bishops of Ephesus and Crete, whose business it was to exercise such extraordinary acts of jurisdiction as are now claimed by diocesan bishops, 1 Timothy 1:3 . Tim. 3: 19, 22. 2 Timothy 2:2 . Titus 1:5 . &c. Titus 3:10 .

3. Some have argued from the mention of angels, 1:e. as they understand it, of diocesan bishops, in the seven churches of Asia, particularly the angel of Ephesus, though there were many ministers employed in it long before the date of that epistle, Acts 20:17; Acts 18:1-28 :

4. It is urged that some of the churches which were formed in large cities during the lives of the apostles, and especially that at Jerusalem, consisted of such vast numbers as could not possibly assemble at one place.

5. That in the writers who succeeded the inspired penmen, there is a multiplied and concurring evidence to prove the apostolic institution of episcopacy.

II. Episcopacy, arguments against.

1. To the above it is answered, that, as the office of the apostles was such as to require extraordinary and miraculous endowments for the discharge of many parts of it; it is impossible that they can have any successors in those services who are not empowered for the execution of them as the apostles themselves were; and it is maintained, that so far as ordination, confirmation, and excommunication, may be performed without miraculous gifts, there is nothing in them but what seems to suit the pastoral office in general.

2. That Timothy and Titus had not a stated residence in these churches, but only visited them for a time, 2 Timothy 4:9; 2 Timothy 4:13 . Titus 3:12 . It also appears, from other places in which the journeys of Timothy and Titus are mentioned, that they were a kind of itinerant officers, called evangelists, who were assistants to the apostles; for there is great reason to believe the first epistle to Timothy was written prior to those from Rome in the time of Paul's imprisonment, as some think the second was also. To which we may add, that it seems probable, at least, that they had very extraordinary gifts to furnish them for their superior offices, 1 Timothy 4:14 . Ephesians 4:11 . 2 Timothy 4:5 . And though Timothy was with Paul when he took his leave of the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:1-38 :) the apostle gives not the least hint of any extraordinary power with which he was invested, nor says one word to engage their obedience to him; which is a very strong presumption that no such relation did subsist, or was to take place.

3. As to the angels of the seven churches in Asia, it is certain that, for any thing which appears in our Lord's epistles to them (Revelation 2:3 :) they might be no more than the pastors of single congregations with their proper assistants.

4. To the fourth argument it is answered,

1. That the word may only signify great numbers, and may not be intended to express that there were several times ten thousand, in an exact and literal sense: compare Luke, ch. 12: ver. 1. (Greek.)

2. That no sufficient proof is brought from Scripture of there being such numbers of people in any particular place as this supposes; for the myriads of believing Jews spoken of in the preceding text, as well as the numbers mentioned, Acts 2:41 . Acts 4:4 , might very probably be those who were gathered together at those great feasts from distant places, of which few might have their stated residence in that city.

See Acts, ch. 8: ver. 1-3. If the number were so great as the objection supposes, there might be, for any thing which appears in Scripture, several bishops in the same city, as there are among those who do not allow of diocesan episcopacy, several co-ordinate pastors, overseers, or bishops: and though Eusebius does indeed pretend to give us a catalogue of the bishops of Jerusalem, it is to be remembered how the Christians had been dispersed from thence for a considerable time, at and after the Roman war, and removed into other parts, which must necessarily very much increase the uncertainty which Eusebius himself owns there was, as to the succession of bishops in most of the ancient sees.

5. As to the ancient writers, it is observed, that though Clemens Romanus recommends to the Corinthians the example of the Jewish church, where the high priest, ordinary priest, and Levites knew and observed their respective offices, yet he never mentions presbyters and bishops as distinct, nor refers the contending Corinthians to any one ecclesiastical head as the centre of unity, which he would probably have done if there had been any diocesan bishops among them; nay, he seems evidently to speak of presbyters as exercising the episcopal office.

See sec. 39: of his epistle.

2. As for Irenxus, it does not appear that he made any distinction between bishops and presbyters. He does indeed mention the succession of bishops from the apostles, which is reconcileable with the supposition of their being parochial, nor altogether irreconcileable with the supposition of joint pastors in those churches.

3. It is allowed that Ignatius in many places distinguishes between bishops and presbyters, and requires obedience to bishops from the whole church, but as he often supposes each of the churches to which he wrote to meet in one place, and represents them as breaking one loaf, and surrounding one altar, and charges the bishop to know all his flock by name, it is most evident that he much speak of a parochial and not a diocesan bishop.

4. Polycarp exhorts the Christians at Philippi to be subject to the presbyters and deacons, but says not one word about any bishop.

5. Justin Martyr speaks of the president, but then he represents him as being present at every administration of the eucharist, which he also mentions as always making a part of their public worship; so that the bishop here must have only been the pastor of one congregation.

6. Tertullian speaks of approved elders; but there is nothing said of them that proves a diocesan, since all he says might be applied to a parochial bishop.

7. Though Clemens Alexandrinus speaks of bishops, priests, and deacons, yet it cannot be inferred from hence that the bishops of whom he speaks were any thing more than parochial.

8. Origen speaks distinctly of bishops and presbyters, but unites them both, as it seems, under the common name of priests, saying nothing of the power of bishops as extending beyond one congregation, and rather insinuates the contrary, when he speaks of offenders as brought before the whole church to be judged by it.

9. The apostolic constitutions frequently distinguish between bishops and presbyters; but these constitutions cannot be depended on, as they are supposed to be a forgery of the fourth century.

10. It is allowed that in succeeding ages, the difference between bishops and presbyters came to be more and more magnified, and various churches came under the care of the same bishop: nevertheless, Jerom does expressly speak of bishops and presbyters as of the same order; and Gregory Nazianzen speaks of the great and affecting distinction made between ministers in prerogative of place, and other tyrannical privileges (as he calls them, ) as a lamentable and destructive thing. III. Episcopacy, how introduced.

It is easy to apprehend how episcopacy, as it was in the primitive church, with those alterations which it afterwards received, might be gradually introduced. The apostles seem to have taught chiefly in large cities; they settled ministers there, who, preaching in country villages, or smaller towns, increased the number of converts: it would have been most reasonable that those new converts, which lay at a considerable distance from the large towns, should, when they grew numerous, have formed themselves into distinct churches, under the care of their proper pastors or bishops, independently of any of their neighbours; but the reverence which would naturally be paid to men who had conversed with the apostles, and perhaps some desire of influence and dominion, from which the hearts of very good men might not be entirely free, and which early began to work, (John 3:1-36 . 2 Thessalonians 2:7 , ) might easily lay a foundation for such a subordination in the ministers of new erected churches to those which were more ancient; and much more easily might the superiority of a pastor to his assistant presbyters increase, till it at length came to that great difference which we own was early made, and probably soon carried to an excess.

And if there were that degree of degeneracy in the church, and defection from the purity and vigour of religion, which the learned Vitringa supposes to have happened between the time of Nero and Trajan, it would be less surprising that those evil principles, which occasioned episcopal, and at length the papal usurpation, should before that time exert some considerable influence. IV. Episcopacy, reduced, plan of. Archbishop Usher projected a plan for the reduction of episcopacy, by which he would have moderated it in such a manner as to have brought it very near the Presbyterian government of the Scotch church; the weekly parochial vestry answering to their church session; the monthly synod to be held by the Chorepiscopi answering to their presbyteries; the diocesan synod to their provincial, and the national to their general, assembly. The meeting of the dean and chapter, practised in the church of England, is but a faint shadow of the second, the ecclesiastical court of the third, and the convocation of the fourth. Bingham's Origines Ecclesiasticae; Stillingfleet's Origines Sacra; Boyse and Howe on Epis.; Benson's Dissertation concerning the first Set. of the Christian Church; King's Const. of the Church; Doddridge's Lectures, lect. 196; Clarkson and Dr. Maurice on Episcopacy; Enc. Brit.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Episcopacy'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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