The Papacy

The Monarchial Episcopate

by Mark Bonocore

The testimony of the early Church favors a monarchial style hierarchy, and not a democratic style of church governance. In this first of seven part series on the subject, Catholic Apologist Mark Bonocore exposes James White's flawed understanding of the bible and church history.

A Merciful Response to James White's "Roman Catholic Apologists Practice Eisegesis in Scripture and Patristics"


A few months ago, anti-Catholic sensationalist Mr. James White posted an article on his little website in which he criticizes several historical proofs I presented for the existence of the 1st Century monarchial episcopate; and even goes so far as to claim that these proofs represent "an interesting example of the constant presence of anachronism in Roman Catholic apologetic treatments of both the Bible and patristic sources." Well, given that Mr. White is a renowned **master** of Biblical and historical anachronism (e.g. his claim that some ancient Church fathers subscribed to the 16th Century novelty of "Scripture alone," etc.), I originally chose to ignore his silly essay, finding it both unworthy and hilariously hypocritical. This is especially true given the fact that it's been over two years now since Mr. White repeatedly failed to address the "Scripture alone" challenge I posed to him. ...That is, to name one of these aforementioned ancient Church fathers who arrived at "orthodox Christianity" (i.e., Mr. White's Reformed Baptist faith) via their supposed "Scripture alone" reading of the Bible; and thereby proving that Mr. White's "fundamental truth" of "Scripture alone" leads to "reliable," consistent, and repeatable results over time (which it obviously and objectively does not). However, so far, Mr. White continues to ignore this enormous hole in his heretical theology; and, instead, wishes to take absurd pot shots at my understanding of the Church fathers, in an apparent attempt to depict my apologetic arguments as baseless, dishonest, and manipulative as his own. However, since over the past several months, I've received numerous requests to respond to Mr. White's attack against my character and superior grasp of Church history (both from Catholic-friendly circles and from Mr. White's own misguided associates), I will now address his essay in detail.

To begin, let me take a moment to re-present my position on the monarchial episcopate, which is the position of orthodox Catholic Christianity itself. Simply stated, it is a historical fact that the three-fold office of the Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) ministerial priesthood (i.e., bishop; presbyter [priest]; and deacon) has existed in the Church since earliest times and was established by the Apostles themselves. Now, in opposition to this historical fact (and as Mr. White himself points out), numerous Protestant and liberal Catholic historians have tried to suggest that the earliest Apostolic city-churches were not governed by monarchial bishops (in which one man served as the chief shepherd of the city-church), but were rather governed by colleges of supposedly-equal ("democratic"?) presbyters. And, indeed ... Given a first-glance, pedestrian, and modernist reading of the earliest patristic evidence, it is not surprising that some misguided and agenda-driven minds would come to such a conclusion. Case in point, as seen in the New Testament literature itself, it is an indisputable fact that the earliest Christians used the terms "bishop" ("overseer") and "presbyter" ("elder" / "senior") interchangeably:

Titus 1:5-7: "For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint **presbyters** in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious. For a **bishop**, as God's steward, must be blameless, not arrogant, ...etc." (compare to 1 Tim 3:1-7 & 5:17-22)

Acts 20:17-28: "From Miletus he (Paul) had the **presbyters** of the church of Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, ' ...Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you ***overseers (i.e., "bishops")***, in which you tend the Church of God ..."

What's more, in the earliest patristic literature (especially when it applies to the Western city-churches, such as the church of Rome), we see several references to "the presbyters" (plural), and not to a monarchial bishop per se. Indeed, it is not until the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107 A.D. …about 10 years after the death of the last Apostle) that we see someone clearly distinguishing between "the bishop" (which, for Ignatius, is always the one-man leader of a city-church) and "the presbyters" who assist him in governing the city-church. However, even here, Ignatius only speaks of monarchial bishops when writing to several city-churches in the province of Asia (in the East); yet when he writes to Rome, Ignatius does not mention a "bishop" for that city-church at all. 'Therefore,' conclude the Protestant and liberal-modernist historians, 'this must mean that the office of monarchial bishop was an Eastern novelty that developed in the days of Ignatius, and that Rome and the West were still governed by colleges of (equal?) presbyters at this time.' Yet, is this a reasonable conclusion? Not at all. ...As we will see in a moment.

However, first a word about those who champion this revisionist view. As Mr. White correctly asserts, the last 30 years have seen a number of liberal (and even not-so-liberal) "Catholic" scholars who have bought into the idea that the earliest city-churches (especially the church of Rome) may not have had monarchial bishops, but were (so the story goes) governed by groups or colleges of (equal?) presbyters. Yet, what Mr. White did not bother to mention is that these so-called Catholic scholars (including Joseph F. Kelly, who is a good scholar otherwise) are following ideas popularized by the late, thoroughly-liberal, and arguably heretical Fr. Raymond Brown, who unfortunately exerted a powerful influence over Catholic Biblical scholarship throughout the 1970's and 80's. And this same Fr. Brown, as those familiar with him know, also questioned other essential Catholic doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth and the reality of Jesus' miracles. So, if this is the kind of company Mr. White wishes to keep, then it speaks volumes as to the kind of historian he is. Yet, as for these "open-minded ideas" popularized by the late Fr. Brown back in the "swinging 70's," they have long since fallen out of favor in mainstream (orthodox) Catholic scholarship. Thanks be to God.

As for Protestant historians who wish to deny the existence of monarchial bishops in Apostolic times, this desire certainly shouldn't surprise us, since discrediting the monarchial episcopate was both a key and **essential** objective of the Protestant reformation, without which the reformation could not possibly have succeeded. And why not?

Because, unlike previously-successful schisms in Church history, Protestantism was not a movement initiated by legitimate bishops. Rather, all the Protestant leaders were either mere Catholic priests (like Martin Luther) or men holding minor orders (like John Calvin), with no bishops among them to lend an air of "episcopal authority" to their heretical doctrines. True, at the tail end of the reformation, there were some Catholic bishops who "jumped ship" (as in the creation of the Elizabethan "Church of England); but, by that time, the denial of a special episcopal charism was already a universally-established tenet of the Protestant heresy; so much so that, at the "ordination" of Matthew Parker (Queen Elizabeth's first truly-Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury), two ordained priests (now-Protestant) and a low Church minister (a.k.a., layman) participated in the "ordination" as **equal partners** with legitimately-ordained Bishop Barlow (who had also gone over to the Protestant heresy).

So, the idea of a "college of presbyters" was very clear in their minds, and any notion of actual episcopal authority was something to be totally rejected. Thus, if anyone wonders why anti-Catholic Protestants like James White are so keen on disputing the existence of early monarchial bishops, that's the REAL reason. :-) It's because his (16th Century) Protestant theology NEEDS THIS to be the case. So, this isn't some cold and academic disagreement about Church history; but an extremely important part of Mr. White's agenda, without which one of the founding principals of the Protestant heresy is called into question, and its illicit and unauthoritative nature is exposed. In other words, before the 16th Century Protestant rebellion against legitimate Church authority, no one of any importance seriously questioned the Apostolic nature of the episcopal teaching office. However, for the reformation to succeed as a "valid" Christian movement, episcopal authority had to be discredited, because no bishop in the Church subscribed to Protestant corruption.

Yet, what of the historical evidence itself? After all, if we don't see any direct reference to a monarchial bishop in the earliest patristic evidence, isn't it the simplest and most likely conclusion that no monarchial bishops existed? No, not at all. Rather, the simplest and most likely conclusion is that we're dealing with a ***change in Christian semantics***, and that the **term** "bishop" began to be used for the leading presbyter of a city-church, as his importance became more and more apparent during the heresy battles at the end of the 1st Century. In other words, the Apostolic city-churches always possessed leading presbyters who presided over their fellow-presbyters (e.g. James at Jerusalem; Timothy at Ephesus; Titus on Crete, etc.); yet these leading / presiding presbyters were not singled out or referred to exclusively as "bishops" until the later half of the 1st Century.

As we've already seen, in New Testament times, the terms "bishop" ("overseer") and "presbyter" ("elder") were still being used interchangeably (e.g. Titus 1:5-7). Thus, in the original Christian usage, all "elders" were "overseers," and all "overseers" were "elders." And, as we've also seen, it was only in the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch (writing about ten years after the death of the last Apostle) that the **term** "overseer" ("bishop") is assigned exclusively to the leading presbyter of a city-church, as opposed to being applied to all the other presbyters as well. So, here we see a CLEAR change in semantics between the terminology of St. Ignatius and the terminology of St. Paul (author of Titus) or St. Luke (author of Acts), who wrote a generation earlier. So, a change is semantics DID occur. Yet, did a change in office accompany that change in semantics? Well, consider the evidence:

Ignatius of Antioch was a man who both knew and was ordained by the Apostles. No modern scholar, Protestant or Catholic, seriously questions this fact. What's more, as I said earlier, whenever Ignatius uses the term "bishop," it **always** applies to the leading, one-man shepherd of a city-church. Ignatius does not use the term "bishop" as the New Testament does, where the word is interchangeable with the term "presbyter." Rather, for Ignatius, "bishop" and "presbyter" are clearly separate offices; and again and again, we see Ignatius referring to the Traditional Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) three-fold ministry of "bishop / presbyter / deacon," in which the term "bishop" ("overseer") is used for the monarchial leading presbyter alone:

"You must all follow THE BISHOP as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and ***the presbyters*** as you would the Apostles. Reverence ***the deacons*** as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the church without THE BISHOP. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by THE BISHOP, or by ***one whom he appoints***. Wherever THE BISHOP appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." (Ignatius, TO THE SMYRNEANS)

"...your most worthy BISHOP, and through your worthy ***presbyters*** Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow servant ****the deacon**** Soto, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to THE BISHOP as to the grace of God." (Ignatius, TO THE MAGNESIANS, Chapter II)

"Take care, then who belong to God and to Jesus Christ --they are with the THE BISHOP. .... Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God. ... Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one Cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is ***ONE BISHOP*** with the **presbyters** and my fellow servants, the **deacons**." (Ignatius of Antioch TO THE PHILADELPHIANS, 3:2-4:1)

From these selected quotes alone, we can clearly see that one of Mr. White's assertions is blatantly false. For, Mr. White claims: "It is true that Ignatius like the NT speaks of episkopoi (bishops); but also like the NT, he only means local presbyters." This claim is both wrong and an intentional mischaracterization of historical fact.

Furthermore, despite what some other so-called "scholars" have directly stated in their books, St. Ignatius of Antioch did not "create" the office of "bishop"; nor did he, as some others have maintained, 'suggest that each church have a bishop.' Rather, if one bothers to read Ignatius' writings, he speaks of these bishops as **already-existing** in each of the Asian city-churches he writes to; and he even addresses all but one of these bishops by name. For example ...

What's more, as if it even needs to be pointed out, Ignatius repeatedly refers to himself as either the "bishop of Antioch" or the "bishop of Syria," meaning that he himself was the monarchial shepherd of the enormous 1st Century church of Antioch (capital of Syria). For example, he says ...

"Remember in your prayers the church of Syria (Antioch), which now has God for its BISHOP instead of ME." (Ignatius TO THE ROMANS, Conclusion)

Mark Bonocore
Catholic Apologist
July 16, 2002