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Saturday, December 2nd, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

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The active controversy in which the subject of episcopacy has been involved, although it has not reconciled conflicting opinions, has brought out the historical facts in their fullest clearness. The able and candid on opposite sides can scarcely be said to differ as to the facts themselves; but they differ in their estimate of them.

The Apostles originally appointed men to superintend the spiritual, and occasionally even the secular wants of the churches (Acts 14:23; Acts 11:30; see also 2 Timothy 2:2), who were ordinarily called elders, from their age, sometimes overseers (bishops), from their office. They are also said to preside (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:17), never to rule, which has far too despotic a sound. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:17; Hebrews 13:24) they are named leading men (comp. Acts 15:22); and figuratively, shepherds (Ephesians 4:11). But that they did not always teach is clear from 1 Timothy 5:17; and the name Elders proves that originally age, experience, and character were their most necessary qualifications. They were to be married men with families (1 Timothy 3:4), and with converted children (Titus 1:6). In the beginning there had been no time to train teachers, and teaching was regarded far more in the light of a gift than an office; yet St. Paul places 'ability to teach' among episcopal qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9; the latter of which passages should be translated, 'that he may be able both to exhort men by sound teaching, and also to refute opposers'). That teachers had obtained in St. Paul's day a fixed official position, is manifest from Galatians 6:6, and 1 Corinthians 9:14, where he claims for them a right to worldly maintenance: in fact, that the shepherds ordered to 'feed the flock,' and be its 'overseers' (1 Peter 5:2), were to feed them with knowledge and instruction, will never be disputed, except to support a hypothesis. The leaders also, in Hebrews 13:7, are described as 'speaking unto you the word of God.' Ecclesiastical history joins in proving that the two offices of teaching and superintending were, with few exceptions, combined in the same persons, as, indeed, the nature of things dictated.

That during St. Paul's lifetime no difference between elders and bishops yet existed in the consciousness of the church, is manifest from the entire absence of distinctive names (Acts 20:17-28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). The mention of bishops and deacons in Philippians 1:1, and 1 Timothy 3, without any notice of elders, proves that at that time no difference of order subsisted between bishops and elders. A formal ceremony, it is generally believed, was employed in appointing elders, although it does not appear that as yet any fixed name was appropriated to the idea of ordination. In 1 Corinthians 16:15 we find the house of Stephanas to have volunteered the task of 'ministering to the saints;' and that this was a ministry 'of the word,' is evident from the Apostle's urging the church 'to submit themselves to such.' It would appear then that a formal investiture into the office was not as yet regarded essential. Be this as it may, no one doubts that an ordination by laying on of hands soon became general or universal. Hands were first laid on not to bestow an office, but to solicit a spiritual gift (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6; Acts 13:3; Acts 14:26; Acts 15:40). To the same effect Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6—passages which explain Hebrews 6:2. On the other hand, the absolute silence of the Scriptures, even if it were not confirmed, as it is, by positive testimony, would prove that no idea of consecration, as distinct from ordination, at that time existed at all; and, consequently, although individual elders may have really discharged functions which would afterwards have been called episcopal, it was not by virtue of a second ordination, nor, therefore, of episcopal rank.

The Apostles themselves, it is held by some, were the real bishops of that day, and it is quite evident that they performed many episcopal functions. It may well be true, that the only reason why no bishops (in the modern sense) were then wanting was, because the Apostles were living; but it cannot be inferred that in any strict sense prelates are co-ordinate in rank with the Apostles, and can claim to exercise their powers. The later 'bishop' did not come forward as a successor to the Apostles, but was developed out of the presbyter; much less can it be proved, or alleged with plausibility, that the Apostles took any measures for securing substitutes for themselves (in the high character of Apostles) after their decease. It has been with many a favorite notion that Timothy and Titus exhibit the episcopal type even during the life of Paul; but this is an obvious misconception. They were attached to the person of the Apostle, and not to any one church. In the last Epistle written by him (2 Timothy 4:9) he calls Timothy suddenly to Rome, in words which prove that the latter was not, at least as yet, bishop, either of Ephesus or of any other church. That Timothy was an evangelist is distinctly stated (2 Timothy 4:5), and that he had received spiritual gifts (2 Timothy 1:6, etc.); there is then no difficulty in accounting for the authority vested in him (1 Timothy 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; 1 Timothy 5:22), without imagining him to have been a bishop; which is in fact disproved even by the same Epistle (1 Timothy 1:3). That Titus, moreover, had no local attachment to Crete, is plain from Titus 3:13, to say nothing of the earlier Epistle, II Corinthians passim. Nor is it true that the episcopal power developed itself out of wandering Evangelists any more than out of the Apostles.

On the other hand it would seem that the bishop began to elevate himself above the presbyter while the Apostle John was yet alive, and in churches to which he is believed to have peculiarly devoted himself. The meaning of the title angel, in the opening chapters of the Apocalypse, has been mystically explained by some; but its true meaning is clear from the nomenclature of the Jewish synagogues. In them, we are told, the minister who ordinarily read the prayers of the congregation, besides acting as their chief functionary in matters of business, was entitled messenger of the church. The term 'angel of the church' appears therefore to be nothing but a harsh Hebraism for 'minister of the church.' We therefore here see a single officer, in these rather large Christian communities, elevated into a peculiar prominence, which has been justly regarded as episcopal.

Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists agree in one point, viz. that (because of its utility and general convenience) it is lawful for Christians to take a step for which they have no clear precedent in the Scripture, that of breaking up a church, when it becomes of unwieldy magnitude, into fixed divisions, whether parishes, or congregations. The question then arises, whether the organic union is to be still retained at all. To this (1) Congregationalists reply in the negative, saying that the congregations in different parts of a great city no more need to be in organic union, than those of two different cities; (2) Presbyterians would keep up the union by means of a synod of the elders; (3) Episcopalians desire to unite the separate churches by retaining them under the supervision of a single head—the bishop. It seems impossible to refer to the practice of the Apostles as deciding in favor of anysone of these methods; for the case had not yet arisen which could have led to the discussion. The city churches had not yet become so large as to make subdivision positively necessary; and, as a fact, it did not take place. To organize distant churches into a fixed and formal connection by synods of their bishops, was, of course, quite a later process; but such unions are by no means rejected, even by Congregationalists, as long as they are used for deliberation and advice, not as assemblies for ruling and commanding. The spirit of Episcopacy depends far less on the episcopal form itself, than on the size and wealth of dioceses, and on the union of bishops into synods, whose decisions are to be authorative on the whole church: to say nothing of territorial establishment and the support of the civil government. If, under any ecclesiastical form, either oppression or disorder should arise, it cannot be defended: but no form is a security against such evils. Our experience may, in these later times, possibly show us which of these systems is on the whole preferable; but the discussion must belong to ecclesiastical history, and would be quite out of place here.





Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Bishop'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​b/bishop.html.
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