Why the Case for Episcopal Government Doesn’t Persuade

Michael Bird provided an outline of the biblical and historical case for episcopacy, wherein “church governance centres on the bishop as the fulcrum of faith, order, and ministry…The diocese is the basic unit with a single bishop overseeing a number of priests and parishes. The bishop is distinct from and above the priests and deacons, who serve in an individual congregation.”

For this presbyterian, the strength of Bird’s position came down to two key arguments. First, that ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos, “bishop/overseer”) and πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros, “elder”) are not synonyms, but perionyms, meaning that their meanings overlap rather than being interchangeable. Citing the work of Alistair Stewart, Bird suggests, “that early congregations had a single episkopos, but when the many episkopoi of a city met together, they became a federated council of presbyteroi (emphasis original).” Second, that the apostles functioned as a college of bishops from which the episcopate is modeled and derives its legitimacy. There was originally a cohort of apostles leading the church in Jerusalem, then just Peter, James, and John, and finally, just James. “The Jerusalem church evolved from an authority consisting of apostles with elders and deacons, to a monoepiscopacy with the bishop acting as first among equals among the elders.”

So, the crux of the argument that precludes presbyterianism is that, a) ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος are perionyms, and b) we see monoepiscopacy in scripture with James in Jerusalem, which illustrates the overlapping, and yet distinct, nature of bishops and elders.

I was left unpersuaded. This argument is begging the question. I acknowledge that Bird was providing a sketch of the alleged biblical and historical basis for episcopacy, and that some of the points he mentioned might not be his own position. In the same spirit, this is a sketch of why the biblical and historical argument for episcopacy is rejected by presbyterians.

First, even if it is conceded that ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος are perionyms rather than synonyms, there is no evidence that an ἐπίσκοπος outranks a πρεσβύτερος, has jurisdiction over a number of parishes, or oversees subordinate elders. Bird presented an equivocation between the modern definition and practice of episcopacy and the term ἐπίσκοπος; essentially, the modern definition is being read back into the biblical term.

If ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος are not synonyms, but perionyms, there needs to be a biblical warrant for a distinction between the roles in practice, specifically that ἐπίσκοπος corresponds to the modern understanding of episcopacy. That is exactly the question at hand after all. In the five times ἐπίσκοπος and its relevant cognates are used in the Bible (Acts 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 2:12, 5:2) there is no indication that an overseer functions in the way practiced in the historic episcopate.

Philippians 1:1 is problematic for this view. There, Paul greets ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις (bishops and deacons). There is agreement that deacons served local congregations, not an entire diocese or presbytery. Why would Paul greet the bishops of Philippi (regional ministers) and deacons (congregational servants), but not the elders (congregational ministers)? If ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος are different offices, then where are the elders in Philippians? Why would Paul not greet the ministers of the local congregations, but still greet the deacons of those congregations? This problem arises with 1 Timothy 3 as well: Paul lists out qualifications for ἐπίσκοπος and διάκονος, but not πρεσβύτερος.  If ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος are distinct offices, why would Paul feel the need to lay out the qualifications for one, but not the other, while also presenting the qualifications for deacon? This issue is neatly resolved if ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος reference the same office.

It is telling that there is no mention of Ephesians 4:7-12 or 1 Peter in Bird’s summary. 1 Peter 2:25 describes Jesus as the ποιμήν (poimen, “shepherd, pastor”) and ἐπίσκοπος of our souls. In 1 Peter 5:1-2, the apostle instructs the πρεσβύτερος to ποιμαίνω (“to shepherd,” the verb cognate of ποιμήν) by ἐπισκοπέω (“exercising oversight,” the verb cognate of ἐπίσκοπος). In 5:4 Jesus is called the chief ποιμήν, relegating the πρεσβύτερος being addressed by Peter to the role of undershepherds. So 1 Peter connects the acts of overseeing and shepherding to the role of elder/pastor, which derives its pattern and basis from the model of Christ as the head of the church. Elders oversee/bishop the church by shepherding it, just as Jesus oversees and shepherds his church.

Ephesians 4:7-12 has historically been used by presbyterians to make a case for the divine institution of the different teaching offices of the church. While neither ἐπίσκοπος or πρεσβύτερος are used there, ποιμήν is. Ποιμήν in Ephesians 4:11 is a gift given by Christ to his church for its upbuilding. As in 1 Peter, ποιμήν in Ephesians 4 is ectypal of Christ’s shepherding leadership of the church. The list of Ephesians 4:11-12 is not understood by presbyterians as exhaustive of the gifts given by God to his church, but is understood as programatic for the gifts given for the shepherding and teaching ministry of the church. Ποιμήν is one of the perpetual, normative offices of the church. Just as the term πρεσβύτερος is absent from the list, ἐπίσκοπος is not mentioned. Πρεσβύτερος’ absence is due to its synonymity with ποιμήν; the same is true for ἐπίσκοπος. If either ἐπίσκοπος or πρεσβύτερος were distinct offices from ποιμήν they would have needed to be included separately.

Stewart argues “that early congregations had a single episkopos, but when the many episkopoi of a city met together, they became a federated council of presbyteroi.” Bird then uses Stewart’s argument that Paul’s instructions to the church leaders of Miletus (Acts 20:17-29) were to the “gathered presbyteroi [in order] to be episkopoi of their respective churches (emphasis original).” This model better matches historic presbyterianism than episcopal governance: the elders of Miletus each oversaw individual congregations and then shared regional governance as a council of elders. Acts 20:17 records Paul summoning the πρεσβυτέρους of Miletus, whom he addresses as ἐπισκόπους in Acts 20:28. What is not mentioned by Bird is that Paul addresses the elders as overseers in order for them to ποιμαίνειν the church of God. This is the same pattern present in 1 Peter 5: the elders are to oversee God’s church by shepherding it. The repetition of this pattern, bolstered by Ephesians 4:7-12, lends credence to the position that ἐπίσκοπος, ποιμήν, and πρεσβύτερος are different terms describing the same office from different perspectives.

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) makes this point in Chapter 18:

Furthermore, the ministers of the new people are called by various names. For they are called apostles, prophets, evangelists, bishops, elders, pastors, and teachers (I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)…Therefore, the ministers of the churches may now be called bishops, elders, pastors, and teachers…Now the one and an equal power or function is given to all ministers in the Church. Certainly, in the beginning, the bishops or presbyters governed the Church in common; no man lifted up himself above another, none usurped greater power or authority over his fellow-bishops.

Bird cites Stewart to argue that Titus 1:5,7 presents a similar situation to Acts 20: “However, kata polin presbyterous might not be ‘elders in every town’ but ‘council-of-elders-of-town’ (1:5). So Paul was telling Titus to select from among the episkopoi those persons who could serve as a body of presybteroi.” But this suggestion is actually the opposite of what Stewart states is happening in Acts 20. There, Stewart argues that the πρεσβυτέρους was a council of elders composed of individual bishops, something that should be true by virtue of that office – to be a bishop is to be on the council of elders. In Titus 1 Stewart is arguing that bishops need to be appointed to the council of elders, and that being on the council is not intrinsically part of that office. This is a forced and convoluted reading of Titus 1. If the office of ἐπίσκοπος outranks the office of πρεσβύτερος, surely that would mean that an ἐπίσκοπος would be on the council of elders by virtue of his office? Surely Titus is not intending to exclude lawfully and biblically ordained bishops from appointment to the council of elders? And if no ἐπίσκοπος is to be excluded, then why bother appointing them, since they are automatically part of the council? And even if κατὰ πόλιν πρεσβυτέρους meant “council-of-elders-of-town” there would also still need to be actual elders on the council. The implication of Stewart’s take on Acts 20 and Titus 1 is that only bishops, and not elders, are on the council of elders. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I am unaware that any proponent of episcopacy rejects πρεσβύτερος as a distinct office of the church. That is what a priest is in Anglicanism after all, right? If Paul left Titus in Crete in order to appoint “council-of-elders-of-town” then part of Titus’ mission would be to appoint not only bishops, but elders, to the council of elders. But the πρεσβυτέρους of Titus 1:5 is described using ἐπίσκοπον in 1:7. Therefore, ἐπίσκοπον is another way of describing the πρεσβυτέρους, which either means the terms referencing the same office, or if Stewart’s argument is correct, precluding elders from the πρεσβυτέρους. The latter view finds no basis in the text and the former is historic presbyterianism.

Acts 14:23 also records Paul and Barnabas χειροτονήσαντες δὲ αὐτοῖς κατ’ ἐκκλησίαν πρεσβυτέρους – choosing elders for them in every church (in Lystra, Inconium, and Antioch). The πρεσβυτέρους are for each individual church in these cities, whether that is one church per city or multiple churches per city. What this means is that each congregation had a council of elders, not a single ἐπίσκοπος who joined with other ἐπίσκοποι to form a council of elders. This undercuts the perionym argument.

Regardless, neither Acts 14, 20, or Titus 1 give any indication that an ἐπίσκοπος governs a regional dioceses as the overseer of the elders in individual congregations. Rather, the most consistent reading of the biblical text is to take ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος as two different ways of describing the same office.

Second, while James appears to be the solo apostle present when Paul returns to Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-18), this is not evidence of a monoepiscopacy. Most obviously, James’ apostleship is never identified as a monoepiscopacy, nor is James ever called an ἐπίσκοπος. His sole apostleship, and the regional authority derived from his office, can only be admitted as evidence of episcopacy if we accept in advance a direct connection between apostles and bishops that is distinct from a similar connection between apostles and elders. James being the sole apostle in the region can only be evidence of a monoepiscopacy by begging the question.

Never once in scripture is ἐπίσκοπος or its cognates used to describe the apostles or their office. Yes, James is the sole apostle alongside the elders of Jerusalem in Acts 17:18, but there is nothing contextually to suggest that he is doing so as an ἐπίσκοπος. If Stewart’s argument is taken at face value, πάντες οἱ πρεσβύτεροι (all the elders) in Acts 17:18 would be Jerusalem’s council of elders, which as the council of elders would include ἐπίσκοποι. This either indicates that James is not, in fact, the sole bishop in Jerusalem (and so this is not a monoepiscopacy), or indicates that πρεσβύτεροι are not composed of ἐπίσκοποι who are distinct from elders.

Bird’s argument does not take into account the distinction between apostles and bishops, and assumes without evidence that there is a special continuity between these offices. On the other hand, Peter self-identifies as a συμπρεσβύτερος (sunpresbuteros/fellow-elder) in 1 Peter 5:1, and Paul states in Ephesians 4:11 that ποιμήν are part of the same series of gifts to the church as the apostles, the foundation upon which the church is built (Ephesians 3:20). So, the office of apostle is never semantically connected to ἐπίσκοπος, but is linked to πρεσβύτερος and ποιμήν. This is one reason why the argument for apostolic succession does not impress presbyterians: we believe in apostolic succession as well, just not through individual bishops, but through the council of elders.

It is also unclear how Bird’s case justifies the existence of archbishops or patriarchs (“…Anglican churches respect the bishop of Rome as the ‘Patriarch of the West,'”). Even if Peter was the head of the apostolic college, and therefore the heirs to his bishopric held ecclesiastical supremacy, that does not justify the existence of multiple other archbishops or patriarchs. Episcopacy treats these as distinct, higher offices (with some variety, depending on the denomination) from bishops in general, and there is certainly no biblical evidence for this kind of additional hierarchy.

So, James’ apostolic work in Jerusalem is not evidence of monoepiscopacy because James was exercising his authority as an apostle. The terms πρεσβύτερος and ποιμήν are directly linked to the apostolic office, while ἐπίσκοπος is not. There is not a biblical warrant to argue a direct succession from apostles to the unique office of ἐπίσκοπος.

Third, the early church witness, while not uniform, presents a picture of bishops as local pastors, not regional church governors. Bird reflects, “Interestingly, I do recollect Stephen Holmes (St. Andrews Uni) saying that he had no problem with Ignatius of Antioch [c. 35- c. 107] as a bishop, since he was really just a pastor over a local church who led them in preaching and communion every week.” The view of Holmes seems to me the most clear understanding of Ignatius’ epistles. There is also a large number of times Ignatius ties bishops and presbyters together, but the evidence from these references for either the historic presbyterian position or Stewart’s is inconclusive.

Ignatius does state, however, in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (c. 107) 8.1-2,

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

This is consistent with the rest of Ignatius’ epistles, but what is unique is his sacramental restrictions. Only bishops may administer the sacraments. Ignatius does say that the Eucharist may be administered by one the bishop appoints (which could be a priest/elder in episcopal polity), but that circumstance is presented as the exception, not the rule. Again, I know of no one who suggests that priests/elders are not allowed to administer the sacraments if a bishop is not present. Ignatius’ description of the work of a bishop fits far better with someone working as a congregational pastor than as a regional church governor.

Something similar is present in the First Epistle of Clement (written c. 95-140). Bird cites this work as evidence of the chain of succession between bishops and the apostles. That is part of the argument of 1 Clement, but the epistle also shows bishops having a local, congregational ministry (1 Clement 42:3-5):

Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits, having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons.

Deacons, who indisputably have a local role, are connected to the bishops. Presbyters are absent from this passage, and while it could be possible that local elders were unknown to Clement, what it is more likely is that bishops and elders are one and the same office. This is borne out in 1 Clement 44:4-5, “For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate (ἐπισκοπῆς) those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who (οἱ πρεσβύτεροι), having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them.” The presbyters in view are not a council of elders, but the elders who would compose such a council and are laboring in the Corinthian church (“giving all fitting honour to the presbyters among you,” 1 Clement 1:3; see similar language in 47:6, 54:2, and 57:1). The presbyters mentioned here are clearly (and grammatically!) individuals, and are identified with the office of bishop. Clement even goes so far as to warn against ejecting presbyters from the office of bishop! The terms are clearly interchangeable.

The idea that a bishop is local, pastoral office is also present in the Didache (late 1st-early 2nd century). Chapter 14 of the Didache urges Christians to gather together for communal worship on the Lord’s Day. Chapter 15 begins, “Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons of the Lord…for they too carry out the ministry of the prophets and teachers.” Here the ministry of the bishop is local and pastoral, not regional governance.

Chapter 18 of the Second Helvetic Confession cites St. Jerome (347-420) as an authority on how the office of bishop became disconnected from the pastoral work of elders.

St. Jerome also in his commentary upon The Epistle of Paul to Titus, says something not unlike this: ‘Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders; but after every one thought that those whom he had baptized were his own, and not Christ’s, it was decreed that one of the elders should be chosen, and set over the rest, upon whom should fall the care of the whole Church, and all schismatic seeds should be removed.’ Yet St. Jerome does not recommend this decree as divine; for he immediately adds: ‘As the elders knew from the custom of the Church that they were subject to him who was set over them, so the bishops knew that they were subject to him who was set over them, so the bishops knew that they were above the elders, more from custom than from the truth of an arrangement by the Lord, and that they ought to rule the Church in common with them.’ Thus far St. Jerome. Hence no one can rightly forbid a return to the ancient constitution of the Church of God, and to have recourse to it before human custom.

While the modern practice of the historic episcopate is older than the modern practice of historic presbyterianism, in my estimation the biblical and apostolic warrant for episcopacy is non-existent.