The Origins of Episcopacy

This (still very undeveloped) essay is based on a paper I presented at the Upper Midwest Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Saint Paul, MN, April 9, 2010, while I was an MA student.

According to early Christian apologists, the Christian churches could be assured of having the apostolic gospel because they could point to a visible succession of church leaders—whom they called bishops—which could be reckoned back to the apostles themselves.

We find mention of churches governed by an individual, monarchical bishop as early as the writings of Ignatius, in the early second century. Indeed, from the second century onward, the standard organization of the Christian churches was the monarchical bishop supported by a body of presbyters.

This has often been thought to contrast with the primitive church structure seen in the New Testament, which seems to depict the churches as having originally been governed by a body of presbyters rather than a single bishop.

Indeed, it is generally acknowledged that in the language of the New Testament, these presbyters were also referred to as bishops, before this title came later to be applied to the monarchical bishop.[1]

This apparent divergence between the two models requires investigation and explanation.

Two Approaches to the Problem

There are two basic approaches to resolving this issue. On the one hand, there is the approach of ancient writers, who minimized the contrast. By and large they assumed the continuity of the episcopal office with that of the apostles, and they viewed the bishops as their direct successors. This allowed early Christian apologists to claim a doctrinal legitimacy over their Gnostic competitors by emphasizing the public transmission of teaching from one generation to the next.

On the other hand, modern scholars have generally tended to emphasize the contrasts, and to view episcopacy as a second-century innovation introduced by the proto-orthodox Christianity as part of a tendency to centralize hierarchy.

My own investigation supports the view that the claims of the early Christian apologists were essentially correct, and that these claims were employed, not as fictions used to support an existing system, but as historical arguments which were accepted at face value even by their opponents.

The Modern View

The modern view generally sees the monarchical episcopacy of the second century and beyond as an innovative office which derived from the local presbytery. The nineteenth-century Anglican scholar Bishop Joseph Lightfoot expressed this view when he stated that “the episcopate was formed not out of the apostolic order by localisation but out of the presbyteral by elevation.”[2] In other words, the office of the monarchical bishop was not a continuation of the apostolic office; rather, it was the result of an elevation in status of the presumed spokesperson or chair of the presbyteral body.

Although Lightfoot’s views were not left unchallenged,[3] they became very influential, and studies tend to assume the historical development of the office. Thus, many contrast the supposedly charismatic ministry of the early Christian communities and the later hierarchical structuring of the church.[4] But as far as the New Testament is concerned, there was no such distinction: apostles (and their delegates), elders, and deacons existed side by side with the charismatic gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 12 and Phil. 1:1 in the undisputed Paulines).

The Ancient View

By the late-second-century, ecclesiastical writers speak of the monarchical episcopacy of their day as something which derived from the apostles. So, for example, Clement of Alexandria writes that the apostle John traveled from city to city “to appoint bishops in some places, in other places to set in order whole churches, elsewhere to choose to the ministry some one of those that were pointed out by the Spirit” (Quis Dives 42 in ANF 1, 150). Irenaeus similarly speaks of Polycarp as one who“was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna” (Haer. 3.4.3.).

 Tertullian invites his theological opponents to consult the archives of the churches of Rome and Smyrna, where they could view for themselves the succession lists of the bishops, traced all the way up to the apostles (Praescr. 32).

While the apologists made these claims within polemical contexts, it does not necessarily follow that they invented them. On the contrary, it is telling that their opponents did not deny the claim that the bishops were successors of the apostles, with a succession of faithful doctrine; instead, they asserted that the apostles themselves were mistaken (Irenaeus, Haer. 3.2.2.). 

Especially informative is the letter of Irenaeus to his former friend, the Gnostic Florinus, in which Irenaeus reminds him of the days they spent together in their youth, hearing Polycarp relating stories about the time of his association with John. Tellingly, Irenaeus expects Florinus to remember those times. Clearly he has not made up these anecdotes for apologetic purposes.

The Origin of the Episcopal Office

The earliest attestation of the monarchical bishop is found in the letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who is thought to have written around AD 115 but who may have written as early as around the year 107.[5]

In view of the importance of the writings of Ignatius to the question of church government, it is not surprising that the question of the authenticity of his works has at times occasioned much debate.[6] Ironically, Lightfoot himself was one of the ablest defenders of the authenticity of the Ignatian corpus, and today very few scholars would deny that Ignatius wrote the works attributed to him.[7]

Two observations are pertinent to the question of the origins of episcopacy. First, Ignatius demonstrates via his greetings that the churches of Asia Minor each had a monarchical bishop. Ignatius did not create this circumstance; he simply recognizes what is already established. But for these bishops to have already been established in the Asian churches, they would have had to have been appointed in their positions some time earlier, which takes the matter back to the late first century. This leaves little room for any presumed evolution from presbyterian to episcopal church government. In any case, it would seem that any significant structural change in church government, such as this, would likely have required some kind of external authority to effect it.

Secondly, not only does Ignatius use the terminology of bishop and presbyters in the later sense of the monarchical bishop and the body of elders, rather than in the New Testament sense, he does so without qualification or apology. He thus assumes that his readers shared his vocabulary. He was not attempting to introduce any new or unfamiliar terminology. The acceptance of the monarchical bishop as an office was an established fact already in the Asian churches; it only fell to Ignatius to exhort the congregations to follow them closely, as the successors of the apostles.

It is unclear whether there was anyone of the title of bishop in the church at Rome, since Ignatius writes his letters to the church, and does not address any leadership.

How, then, is this data to be harmonized?

I would propose that the fact of apostolic succession was universally recognized among the early Christians, but that there was no consensus of the title given to those who succeeded the apostles.

Three Types of Apostles

In the writings of the New Testament, the apostles were those on whom Christ conferred authority. Nevertheless, certain distinctions can be delineated. First, there is the twelve apostles, comprised of disciples who had followed Jesus from the preaching of John the Baptist until Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). 

Next are the wider number of apostles Paul speaks of, comprised of those who had seen the Lord after the resurrection. He places James, the brother of the Lord, in this category, as well as himself, although he stresses that he was the last of such apostles (1 Cor. 15:3-9). Barnabas was probably included in this latter category, since he is called an apostle, along with Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles (14:14).

Paul seems to speak of a third category when he gives his co-workers the title of apostle on account of their partnership in the apostolic work. This can be seen, for example, by comparing the greeting at the beginning of First Thessalonians, in which greetings are sent from “Paul, Silvanus and Timothy,” with a statement later in the letter where Paul refers to this group collectively as “apostles” (1 Thess 2:6).

There is evidence that Timothy, at least, did exercises apostolic authority. If the evidence from the Pastoral Epistles represents authentic Pauline tradition, then Paul sent Timothy and Titus, his co-workers to represent himself to the churches of Ephesus and Crete respectively. They were given instructions both to ordain and discipline deacons and presbyters within the local churches.

This authority, however, is elsewhere exercised directly by apostles. Thus, the Twelve apostles appointed deacons in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6).[8] Later we read of Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in their churches in Asia Minor (Acts 14:23), and by the time of the Jerusalem council (c. 48), the Jerusalem church is also said to have elders, who were under the guidance of James the Just (Acts 15:2).

Timothy and Titus were thus delegated by Paul to exercise his authority. Since they had power to ordain and remove the presbyters and deacons, they could not have held either office themselves. The Pastoral Epistles, therefore, seem in effect to be witnesses to an early form of apostolic succession, in which co-workers are delegated to exercise the apostolic oversight of the presbytery of the churches.

The Relationship of Apostles and Bishops

According to Theodoret, a fifth-century bishop of Cyprus, the title of bishop came to be set aside for the successors of the apostles. He writes:

The same persons were anciently called both bishops and presbyters, while those which are now called bishops were called apostles; but shortly afterwards, the name of apostles was appropriated to those who were apostles indeed, and then the name bishop was given to those before called apostles. 

Commentary on 1 Timothy 3.1, cited by Joseph Bingham, Origenes Ecclesiasticae (London, 1726), 21 (the Greek text can be found in PG 82.804).

Specifically mentioning three of Paul’s co-workers, Theodoret adds: “Epaphroditus was the apostle of the Philippians; and Titus, the apostle of the Cretans; and Timothy, the apostle of the Asiatics.”

According to Theodoret, there was no functional change within the Christian churches; only a nominal one: Those in succession to the apostles were, at first, called by the same title of apostle, and were later given the title of bishop that had originally belonged to the presbyters.

A reason for this change is given in a statement attributed to Ambrosiaster (late fourth century) by Amalarius of Metze (c. 775–c. 850):

They who are now called bishops, were originally called apostles: but the holy apostles being dead, they who were ordained after them to govern the Churches, could not arrive to the excellency of those first; nor had they the testimony of miracles, but were, in many other respects, inferior to them: therefore they thought it not decent to assume to themselves the name of apostles; but dividing the names, they left to presbyters the name of the presbytery, and they themselves were called bishops.

De Ecclesiasticis Officiis 2.13 (PG 105. 1091); trans. Bingham, op. cit.

In light of Ignatius’ usage, it is possible that the title of bishop was first adopted in the East, and that this practice only later spread to the West, accounting for why he does not employ the title when writing to the church at Rome (though in any case, he greets only the church, so it is possible that the title was also used at Rome at the time).

There is perhaps indirect evidence for this in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, who referred to Clement of Rome as “the apostle Clement” (Strom. 1.7.38.), whereas later writers spoke of him as a bishop.

Tertullian may shows evidence of three distinctions: the apostles (first generation), apostolic men (presumably second generation leaders like Timothy and Titus who personally knew the apostles), and bishops, who came afterward:

let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles.

Praesc. 32.

This may suggest that the title of bishop came into use during the third generation, which would bring us to the time of Ignatius.


The simplest explanation for reconciling the data is, I believe, that a change of name, from apostle to bishop, arose as a custom and spread naturally throughout the churches as a way of distinguishing later generations of apostolic successors from the first generation of apostles and the second generation of their co-workers. The use of this customary title for the apostolic successor was novel, but it was applied to a hierarchical system which reached back to the very beginnings of Christianity.


John and the Bishops of the Asian Churches

Jerome on the Origin of Bishops (Part 1)

[1]. William Barclay, A Beginner’s Guide to the New Testament (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 72; D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament  (2nd ed.: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 575; L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity (San Francisco:Harper San Francisco, 2004), 370.

[2]. Joseph Lightfoot, Dissertations on the Apostolic Age (MacMillan, 1892), 155.

[3]. E.g. Charles Wordsworth, The Outlines of the Christian Ministry (London: Longmans, 1874).

[4]. C.f., C. Marvin Pate, in his The End of the Age has come (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan,1995), 184

 [5] Elizabeth Anne Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making  (New York/Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2004), 78. For a discussion of the bibliography on this issue, see Paul Hartog, Polycarp and the New Testament: The Occasion, Rhetoric, Theme, and Unity of the Epistle to the Philippians and Its Allusions to New Testament Literature (Wissunt Zum Neun Testament Ser. II, 134): 58-60

[6]. E.g. Presbyterian scholar. William Killen in his The Ignatian Epistles Entirely Spurious (Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 1886)

[7]. Ironically, perhaps, I was challenged after my presentation on this point by the late Richard Pervo, who held the view that the Ignatian corpus of letters was in fact a later fabrication.

[8]. J. T. Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church (Cambridge University Press, 1992).