The North American Anglican, as is their purpose, has recently published two articles explaining and defending different aspects of historic episcopal polity. The first was an explanation by Alexander Whitaker of Anglicanism’s retention of the term “priest” to describe their ministers, the second a survey of the patristic basis for historic episcopacy by Drew Keane. Both of these article represent the problem that Presbyterians like myself have had with episcopal polity: the conclusion is determined in advance, then a justification is sought out for the practice.
Whitaker asks rhetorically,
But if in the New Testament there are no Christian priests as we know them, and if Scripture identifies Christ as our one great high priest and the church as a priesthood—where and what is the basis for having some other sort of priest at all?…Anglicans would respond that these questions should be pointers to why it is right to have priests, and what functions they serve. Indeed, it could be said that Anglicans have priests because Christ is our one priest and because his Church is a priesthood of all believers (emphasis original).
No Reformed Presbyterian should have a problem with Whitaker’s description of a priest’s function, but Whitaker’s rhetorical question raises our crucial critique…
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…