The Papacy

The Monarchial Episcopate

by Mark Bonocore


When exploring the Scriptural evidence for the truth of the Catholic position, one can not help but immediately focus on the figure of St. James the Just who, without question, functioned as the one-man monarchial leader of the Jerusalem city-church after the Apostles ceased to permanently reside there. Indeed, both Scripture and the universal witness of the fathers illustrate this fact for us most clearly. For example, Eusebius of Caesarea, drawing from much earlier sources, directly states that the Apostles Peter, James [bar-Zebedee], and John appointed James the Just as the monarchial head ("bishop") of the Jerusalem city-church. Similarly, in Galatians 2:12, as St. Paul complains about some Judaizing Christians from the church of Jerusalem, he does not say that these Jewish brethren came "from Jerusalem" or from "the presbyters of Jerusalem," but rather "from James" -thus equating James with the church of Jerusalem itself. Also, in Acts 12:17, as Peter flees Jerusalem after his miraculous escape from prison, he does not command the local flock to 'report this to the presbyters'; but instead directly says, "Report this to James," thereby revealing that James was the leading authority.

However, as with St. Polycarp himself, one could easily try to "camouflage" St. James within a college of supposedly-equal presbyters (if one wasn't aware of the demonstrable truth of his primacy). For example, … In Acts 21:18, it says … "The next day Paul accompanied us on a visit to James, and all the presbyters were present."

This is clearly shades of "Polycarp and the presbyters with him." Yet, while James is not called the "bishop" here, we know from both the context of this passage (and from the overall witness of Scripture itself) that James was the presiding leader of these presbyters (a.k.a., their "bishop")

Also, in Acts 15:2, when a dispute arose between Paul and Barnabas and some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, it does not say that they decided to appeal to James (the Jerusalem bishop) about the matter. Rather, it says that they decided to appeal to "the apostles **and presbyters** " (plural) in Jerusalem; and at the Jerusalem council that follows, we hear again and again about these "presbyters" (plural) -Acts 15:2, 15:4, 15:6, 15:22, 15:23 -with no direct mention made of a presiding "bishop" or "leading presbyter" in the person of James. Indeed, it is only in Acts 15:19, when James elaborates on the teaching of Simon Peter, that we see him manifest his leadership (i.e., "It is my judgment, therefore …"). However, before that time, he is merely presented as an organic element within the Jerusalem college of presbyters, with Acts seeing no need to identify him as its presiding head. Thus was the mentality of the earliest Christian communities; and this is what we are seeing in the earliest (Western) patristic sources, when we hear about the "presbyters" (plural) of the church of Rome, with no direct mention of a "bishop."

Indeed … If, as both Scripture and the patristic sources show us, the Apostles appointed **one man** (James) to act as the monarchial governor of Jerusalem, which was without question the most important city-church of New Testament times, and the **model** for all subsequent city-churches founded by the Apostles, why would they set up entirely different systems of church government elsewhere? That makes absolutely no sense. However, the truth is that the Apostles did not create other systems of government for the other city-churches; but that each "college of presbyters" in a particular city-church always included a leading figure (an "arch-presbyter," if you will), who was later designated as its "bishop" in the Ignatian terminology. And this can be seen most clearly in Scripture itself. For example, we already presented the witness of Titus 1:5, which reads …

Titus 1:5: "For this reason I left YOU (i.e., Titus) in Crete so that YOU might set right what remains to be done and **appoint presbyters** in every town, as I directed YOU…"

Here, St. Paul speaks to St. Titus in the "you-singular" in Greek, thereby showing that Titus possesses the exclusive episcopal authority to ordain presbyters throughout the entire island nation of Crete. …which is why both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy counts St. Titus as the first Bishop of Crete; because the authority to ordain is a **bishop's** authority. Titus was, without question, the presiding presbyter (a.k.a. "bishop") over all the presbyters he ordained on the island. Thus, like James in Jerusalem, we see a monarchial system of authority manifested in New Testament-period Crete.

Yet, Crete was, by no means, the only place where this monarchial system existed at the time. Consider also the witness of 1 Timothy 5:17-22 where, as with Titus, Paul speaks to Timothy in the same Greek "you-singular," instructing him how to govern the other presbyters (of Ephesus) under his authority. St. Paul tells him … "Presbyters who preside well deserve double honor ...Do not accept ("you-singular") an accusation against a presbyter unless it is supported by two or three witnesses. Reprimand ("you-singular") publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid. I charge you (singular) before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to keep these rules without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism. Do not lay hands (you singular) too readily on anyone ...."

Here, it is more than clear that St. Timothy possesses exclusive and personal authority over the other Ephesian presbyters. It is Timothy himself who is to "accept (or reject) an accusation against a presbyter" (just like modern Catholic bishops). It is Timothy himself who is to "publicly reprimand" a sinful presbyter (just like modern Catholic bishops), so as to inspire pious "fear" in all the other presbyters. It is Timothy himself who must **personally** "keep these rules" and not show "prejudice" (one can only "pre-judge" if one has the authority to "judge") or "favoritism" (another reference to authority or the possible exploitation of authority). And, it is for Timothy himself (just like modern Catholic bishops) to "lay hands" upon a man so as to ordain him to the presbytery. Yet, as he does with Titus, Paul tells Timothy to act prudently when granting such ordination.

Thus, in at least three New Testament city-churches (Jerusalem, Ephesus, and Crete) we see the office of what would later be termed the monarchial "bishop" in action. So, if Mr. White and his modernist colleagues wish to assert that the other city-churches had different systems of government, then the burden of proof lies with them.

Furthermore, … As I pointed out earlier, it is important to appreciate the fact that the first Christian city-churches were based upon the old Jewish synagogue system that preceded them (e.g. Acts 18:7-8). And, while these synagogues clearly possessed "colleges of presbyters" who acted as a governing body for a particular Jewish community, they ALSO always possessed a "leading presbyter" (e.g. a "chief rabbi"), who was the president and spiritual father of the Jewish community. And it was no different for the earliest city-churches, in which this leading Christian presbyter would eventually be called "the bishop." However, as we've also seen, it was not a common 1st Century semantic to separate this leading presbyter (the "bishop") from his associate presbyters in the city-church, but to speak of them as one body ("the presbyters") instead. This semantic comes directly from the Jewish practice that preceded the city-churches; and it can be most clearly illustrated in the case of Jerusalem itself.

For example … Shortly after Paul arrives in Rome, he meets with the local Jewish leaders in Acts 28:17-22. One of the reasons for this meeting is that Paul wishes to discover whether or not the Sanhedrin (the Jerusalem authority that condemned him) has sent an accusation to the local Jewish community (or the imperial court) denouncing Paul. Yet, in response, the Jews of Rome tell him:

"We have received no letters **from Judea** about you, nor have any of our brothers arrived with a damaging report or rumor about you." (v.21)

Notice here how these Jews merely say "from Judea," when they really mean the Sanhedrin presided over by the High Priest. For example, in the Sanhedrin trial that preceded all this (Acts 23:1-5), Paul curses the High Priest without knowing it, and then is forced to apologize because, as he says, "It is written, 'You shall not curse the ruler of your people.'" What's more, in Acts 28:21, the Roman Jews speak of "letters" from "Judea." Yet, these are clearly the same kind of "letters" issued directly by the High Priest (as is clearly stated in Acts 9:1-2) for the **authoritative** condemnation of heretics. So, if the Jews of Rome can merely say "Judea," when what they really mean is the Jerusalem Sanhedrin presided over by the High Priest, why can't Ignatius of Antioch or some other early patristic document merely refer to the "church of Rome" or to its "presbyters," with the Roman bishop being understood to be an organic part of this? It is this historical context and early Christian semantic that Mr. White possesses no appreciation for …or at least pretends not to.

Lastly, … As Mr. White well knows, St. Ireneaus of Lyon (a disciple of St. Polycarp), along with several other 2nd Century fathers, spoke extensively on the necessity of monarchial bishops. Ireneaus himself holds up the monarchial bishop as a safeguard against the countless (Gnostic) heresies threatening the Church at this time, and even presents us with lists tracing one-man succession from the Apostles to the reigning monarchial bishops of his own day. The reason he bothered to do this was to demolish the Gnostic claim that the Apostles imparted "secret knowledge" to some of their followers; and that the Gnostic heresies were part of this "secret knowledge." In this, Ireneaus brilliantly argues that, if the Apostles were to entrust such "secrets" to any of their disciples, it would most certainly have included those to whom they entrusted the care of the city-churches. Yet, as he goes on to point out, none of the succeeding monarchial bishops ever taught anything remotely similar to the Gnostic doctrines; and the succession lists of these bishops (available in all of the 2nd Century city-churches) proves this to be an indisputable fact.

Mark Bonocore
Catholic Apologist
July 30, 2002