There is a lot of debate over what was the form of church government that existed during the New Testament era. Perhaps the strongest basis for the largest “Christian” faiths on the planet, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox, is that they lay a claim to apostolic succession.

The long short of it is that the office of bishop has been handed down from bishop to bishop all the way back to the apostles. They argue, this gives present bishops apostolic authority in all matters and sometimes a special blessing that allows the bishop holding the office to in effect be the apostle in the present day.

Now, obviously the Bible doesn’t say this explicitly, so some Protestants go in the opposite direction where any guy (or gal) who styles himself a pastor just goes ahead and opens a church, not being appointed by anyone.

My contention is that neither understanding is biblical.

But, is it possible that we misunderstand the Bible today? After all, for years the only form of church government there was is the traditional Catholic/Orthodox one.

Furthermore, what we cannot argue is that by the time Ignatius was writing his letters (late 1st century, early second century), the church was very hierarchical, had Bishops governing regions and to do things like the Lord’s Supper or baptism apart from the Bishop’s consent made one a schismatic.

There can be very good reasons for such a hierarchical, almost “Catholic” looking church government that early on. For one, the people who were not under the bishop’s authority in Ignatius’ time (less than a 100 years after Christ and about 50 to 70 years after the apostles) could have been real nuts, for one. Schismatics were already denying the deity of Christ and other doctrines that early.

Nonetheless, the level of authority the Bishop wielded in Ignatius’ time is not necessarily biblical. There is no biblical example of people being forbidden to preach or baptize in Jesus name even if they were not appointed by the apostles (as Christ says,  “Don’t stop him! Whoever isn’t against you is for you.” Luke 9:50) Some may argue that the people doing this were apostles, so the successors of the apostles are the only one that can do this.

This does not make much sense because 1. the Bishop doesn’t do the baptizing these days and 2. the earliest understanding of church government in the Bible and in Clement’s letter to the Corinthians (70-100 AD) does not lend itself to that interpretation.

Then, why did Ignatius and seemingly everyone else in his time that went along with him already have it wrong? My contention is that things can change A LOT within even a couple of generations. Look at the difference in US society between 1955 and 1995, for example. So, the church could have changed radically from its roots, very quickly. So, we do not know if what was the norm in Ignatius’ time is necessarily Biblical.

What does the Scripture say?

The Scripture itself does offer a picture of a relatively cogent church. Apostles had divisions between them (Paul and James, for example) and yet they came together and settled their differences. In Acts 15, we see a meeting of the apostles to hammer out differences on doctrine from people with very different opinions. The idea obviously was to keep the church unified. This historical truth is obviously in the Catholics’/Orthodox’s favor.

We also have the explicit testimony in Scripture where Paul appointed men (Timothy, Titus) and in turn called them to appoint elders to rule the churches under there jurisdiction.

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)

We Protestants might not like this, but the Church was a centralized organization from the very beginning, with appointed (and not locally elected) leaders. We also see we have an outside leader not from the same geographic area (Paul) appointing leaders below him to a geographic area (i.e. Titus in Crete) to appoint leaders in individual cities in that area.

It is important to note that the earliest extra-biblical writing, 1 Clement, appears to show that this sort of structure carried over from Paul’s time to the early church. It also goes into far more detail.

It should be noted that it is believed that Clement was the third bishop of Rome and that he was mentioned in one of Paul’s epistles. Traditionally, he knew the apostles and internal evidence in the letter lends credibility that it was written one generation after the apostles, and not two or three as some people assert. Let’s start reading:

So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both therefore came of the will of God in the appointed order.

Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come.

So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their firstfruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe.(1 Clem. 42:2-4)

It appears to me that Clement is arguing in favor of a type of apostolic succession, being that the original authority is God the Father to Christ, which was then passed on to the apostles (with full assurance from the Son, the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. The apostles then appointed their “first fruits” (converts) from among the locals to be bishops/elders and deacons. Now, what it does not say is that who they appointed was vested with special apostolic powers.

And our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the name of the bishop’s office.

For this cause therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration. Those therefore who were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered unblamably … we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration. (1 Clem 44:1-2)

The point of Clement’s whole letter was to address a faction among the Corinthians that wanted to elect new leaders to replace those that were previously there, specifically when the leadership wasn’t guilty of any wrongdoing. It is interesting to note that the leadership the Corinthians were trying to replace were appointed by either the apostles and others by those appointed by the apostles. So, this places the writing pass the apostolic era, but no more than 1.5 generations afterwards, as those appointed directly by the apostles are still in the Corinthian church!

Orthodox/Catholics would argue that this substantiates Apostolic Succession as Church doctrine as it pertains to church governance. Here we see, as we do in the Bible, that an outside body can take people that no one knows, take them from somewhere else, and just appoint them as the local leadership.

I’m not quite so sure that the reference concerning the “whole Church” approving leadership refers to the preceding. It is also possible that we are forcing an interpretation that we would get from Ignatius, which blatantly speaks of the appointing of bishops from outside the local churches. In Titus 1:5, outsiders appointed the bishops from their local cities. So, the leaders appointed by the apostles or the appointees of apostles in Clement’s time were merely from the city in which they were acting as leadership. This is why it says that they were the “first fruits” and that the continuance is that those “first fruits” then appoint men to replace themselves.

We also have indication in the letter that Clement’s position was the shared position of a good number in the Corinthian church, which adds credibility that even early on that Clement’s understanding was the traditional and correct one. Those who were causing division by appointing their own leaders apart from consent of the Church and in opposition to previous appointments, were addressed as if they were a minority.

It is shameful, dearly beloved, yes, utterly shameful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ, that it should be reported that the very steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians, for the sake of one or two persons, maketh sedition against its presbyters.(1 Clem 47:6)

Ye therefore that laid the foundation of the sedition, submit yourselves unto the presbyters and receive chastisement unto repentance, bending the knees of your heart. (1 Clem. 57:1)

So, the faction wasn’t the whole church here.

Is Clement acting as a Pope and laying down the law? I am not sure if the text lends itself to that interpretation either. The flow of the letter was that Clement was hoping to hear that everything would be resolved, making no papal injunctions or anything of the sort. He obviously wields no other authority beyond that of a respected person with wisdom that people ought to listen to.

This being said, I’d think that Catholics/Orthodox are pressing their case too strong to say that Clement is appointing any outsiders or is himself an outsider presiding over the Corinthians, because he is merely defending those locals who were already appointed the way they were always appointed. However, it does seem that the early church was unified and was still able to peaceably settle disputes of theology and governance above the local scale, just as the whole Church intervened in Acts 15 to settle disputes in three church regions (Antioch, Syria and Cilicia; which might have been the vast majority of the gentile world converted to Christ up to that time.)

So, the long short of it, I think the ideal is that we have one church, no pope, and there is something to apostolic succession…Bishops just don’t have magical powers of being the apostles on earth today. They are their own men.