Ignatius is the first ancient witness to the Monarchical Episcopate.

The Monachical Episcopate is a pretty non-controversial idea if you are a Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, Lutheran, or Anglican. They believe a single Bishop is appointed to be the head of a specific church or region, and everyone serves below him.

Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.

What makes the Monarchical Episcopate such an interesting case is that according to some, it is proof that the early Church broke with the earliest recorded Apostolic ecclesiology, in which the Bishop was simply an elder, and that churches had several Bishops. This is often called “the plurality of elders.”

If this is shown to be the case, then it shows that Catholic doctrines such as “the development of doctrine” simply do not develop from actual Apostolic doctrines, but rather prove to be innovations. Innovations are really good when it comes to smartphones, but bad when it comes to theology.

Recorded here is a debate between Joe Heschmeyer of Shameless Popery and myself in his comments section. When I read an article about the “development of doctrine” I replied:

I read Joe’s article and it makes sense with what Protestants believe, but it would not explain the development of the monarchical episcopacy or different doctrines that don’t explictly have Biblical warrant.

Joe replied as follows:

Joe: Who was the inventor of the monarchical episcopate?

Personally I believe it existed as early as Apostolic times. Titus appointed elders (PLURAL) in every city (Tit 1:5), but as soon as Ignatius more than a few of these cities has certain elders viewed as a singular Bishop. So, I am sure more than a few by sheer force of personality and ability rose to the top.

Joe: That’s a remarkable admission. If you’re right, and the Apostles didn’t oppose it, that certainly sounds like they consented to it…

I have no reason that they would not consent. That does not mean they viewed it as a preference, but they might have viewed the plurality of elders as preferential and several elders and one leading with a strong personality as fine and acceptable.

I am not saying that the early church was a Republic of elders. That would be an anachronism. However, a monarchical Episcopacy is different in the sense that several elders are not appointing an elder, but AN Overseer (i.e. Bishop) appoints the subsequent Bishop, and that by necessity other elders are of some sort of de jure inferior class.

My admission is that there may be have de facto monarchical Episcopacies. For example, in my Church there are two elders, but the Pastor essentially calls the shots and when it is time to replace him, he will essentially decide who takes the reins even though all the elders have to agree to it. There is a difference between de facto and de jure.

Joe: Even if you assume that the first century had varying leadership structures (which I deny, at least within orthodox Christianity), you’d have to also admit that the closer you get to the Apostles, the closer you get to a monarchical episcopal governance structure.

From the apostolic fathers, it rather seems the opposite. Polycarp, Clement, and the Didache all show a plurality of elders without there being any sense of pushback. Ignatius is the red herring. Then, as we go on in Church history, it becomes the opposite. Ignatius is the norm. Jerome did write, however, that the plurality of elders was the Biblical model. He wrote:

Before parties sprung up in the Christian administration; before such expressions as these were uttered amongst the faithful, I belong to Paul, I to Apollo, I to Cephas; the churches were governed by a common council of their presbyters [elders]. But, when it came to pass, that each individual (presbyter) looked on those whom he had baptized, to be an acquisition for himself, not for Christ; every where it was decided, that one presbyter should be chosen, and placed over the others , and that to him the care of the church at large should appertain, thereby to remove every principle of schism. These instances I have brought, to show that presbyters and bishops were, for those of old, one of the same; but that by degrees, the government was restricted to one, in order to do away the possibility of dissentions in future. As therefore, presbyters should know, that, in virtue of the church usage, they are submitted to their prelate, whosoever he may be; so let bishops understand, that they themselves are greater than presbyters, more from a usage than from the primary ordinance from the Redeemer, and it is their duty to govern their churches by joint deliberation.

Joe: That alone is enough to show that we’re not looking at a post-Apostolic innovation or corruption.

I said it led to corruption and that it is not the Biblical model. It is not by necessity bad.

Joe: Catholic claim: the early churches were governed by a single bishop and several elders (a.k.a. presbyters or priests) in communion with him.

Protestant claim: the early churches were governed by a body of presbyters/elders, and only later did a single bishop arise. (Prior to this point, all of the presbyters were considered bishops).

I am ironically claiming what Jerome is, and we have no sense in Clement (Chapters 42-44), Polycarp (writing with fellow elders in his introduction), or the Didache (where it says in chapter 15, “Appoint for yourselves Bishops and Deacons”) that the Protestant claim is ahistorical. Rather, it plainly and self-evidently is.

Joe: Showing that a city had multiple bishops would be a strong argument in your favor. But showing that a city had several elders doesn’t prove your case at all…You commit this logical fallacy several times, so to avoid excessive repetition, I’m just going to call it the “Elders Fallacy” from now on, okay?

I thought you would simply accept that Bishops are Elders and Elders are Bishops. Other than the Didache, Clement uses the term interchangably in Chapters 42-44 (this is covered later). However, let me just go straight to Acts 20–

Verse 17: “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.”

We know it is one church, in Ephesus. When addressing the elders Paul says in verse 28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you BISHOPS, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

So, he calls all the elders BISHOPS. Clearly, Ephesus had several BISHOPS.

Philippians 1:1 says the exact same thing when writing to Philippi (a singular church, there were not several at this time)

Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the BISHOPS and deacons…

So, I do not suffer from an “Elder Fallacy,” but rather you suffer from an “Bishops are Exclusive to Elders” Fallacy. That takes too long to write, so I am not sure if I am going to keep bringing that up. I just trust that you understand my point.

Joe: You made the claim that “as soon as Ignatius more than a few of these cities has certain elders viewed as a singular Bishop. So, I am sure more than a few by sheer force of personality and ability rose to the top. You’re assuming your conclusion (that the bishop was just one of the elders), and then concluding your conclusion from your assumption.

I am assuming what Catholics already know to be true. All Bishops are Elders. I am not presuming what Catholics presume: Not all Elders are Bishops. Hence, because I am free from such presumptions, I am able to actually interface with the historical data. This leads me to believe that the majority practice was a plurality of elders, but it is likely that the Ignatius model de facto existed in the beginning. I certainly could not prove that, and ironically what I cannot prove is your presumption.

Joe: Ignatius pretty explicitly denies that a bishop is just an elder, so your circular reasoning is pretty directly contradicted by the evidence.

I think you are misspeaking. A Bishop IS an Elder. However, Ignatius does not believe all elders are bishops. And yes, Ignatius would favor the Monarchical model, so I am not performing circular reasoning, I already agree with that point.

Joe: Given this, you can’t jump to the reasons you assume why a single presbyter-bishop arose amongst many presbyter-bishops, because you haven’t even shown that it’s happened.

Well, I did. Philippi had BISHOPS when Paul wrote. When Ignatius wrote, Chapter 13 shows there was just one Bishop.

Why? I don’t know. I speculate by sheer force of personality and ability, one rose to the top.

What you have not shown is why the Scripture and Clement conflate the two offices. You simply ignore it because it does not fit your paradigm.

Joe: All of the evidence you’ve presented is either silent on the question, or contradicts your claim.

It certainly does not contradict my claim, and some pieces are silent on certain matters and some are not. The first piece of written evidence to contradict my viewpoint is Ignatius. The first piece of evidence to contradict yours is Philippians. I win 😉

Joe: You write, “Polycarp writes his letter on behalf of himself and the elders (plural) with him.” This is the Elders Fallacy again…

Only a fallacy if you by necessity accept you presupposition. But let me tell you why I adhere to the Elders=Bishops paradigm. It is the only thing that DOES NOT CONTRADICT Phil 1:1, Acts 20, and the traditional evidence in Clement, the Didache, and Polycarp. Now the Elders Fallacy contradicts the Scripture and Clement, though it can be made to work with the Didache (with some mental gymnastics) and Polycarp. Obviously it works well with Ignatius.

I take my fallacy over yours. It works with more of the evidence than yours does.

Joe: We know from Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp that Polycarp was the single bishop of Smyrna, joined by several presbyters. For example, he opens that letter, “Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnæans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop…”

That opening does not say he is the Bishop or an exclusive Bishop. It says God is His Bishop, which obviously is true.

Joe: In the sixth chapter, he offers these instructions for the faithful of Polycarp’s church:

“Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God!”

Chapter 6 does not say that the elders were not Bishops in Smyrnan’s eyes, however. It would be like if my Pastor read a letter written by a Bishop in the Lutheran Church. They would consider one another brothers in Christ, but the Lutheran Bishop may address the governance in my church much differently than how we would view ourselves.

What you are essentially doing is making Ignatius infallible and setting him as the standard to compare all the other evidence, instead of taking the Scripture first (the earliest record we have) and using that to evaluate the rest of the historical evidence. You went to law school, so perhaps you were a history major back in the day. So, was I. I am well aware that working with the earlier source material and adding weight to it in my analysis is a completely legitimate historical practice.

Joe: The idea that Polycarp wasn’t the sole bishop of the city at this time strikes me as obviously false.

If Ignatius was the measure that everything else is set against, of course that makes sense. However, if Phil 1 and Acts 20 is the measure, it puts everything in a whole new light.

Joe: The fact that your theory leads to misunderstanding Polycarp (“Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi”) so dramatically (and so clearly) indicts the theory itself.

I see why you think this, but I think you oversstate your case because of your own fallacy.

Joe: You write, “Clement writes his letter on behalf of ‘we,’ and speaks of multiple elders in Corinth.” This is the Elders Fallacy again….

Again, it is your fallacy, the Ignatius-is-the-Measure Fallacy, that is at work. Change the measure, and it changes how you view everything.

Just so you know, that’s how I originally started. I read the Apostolic Fathers years ago and was in the Lutheran Church. In fact, a post on my own website records a time where the Catholic Church government made sense to me. The clear Biblical teaching forced me to re-evaluate Ignatius, and once I realize that Clement speaks of Bishops in chapter 42 and conflates them with Corinth’s elders in Chapter 43 and 44, it all made sense:

42: They appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.

44: Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now

“Those already mentioned” are both the Bishops in Chapter 42, the Priests in 43, and the Elders in 44. He lumps them all together as fulfilling the same role. The end of Chapter 44 makes it exceedingly clear that the Apostles were correct in prophesying “that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate (i.e. the office of Bishop).” Why? Because the elders of Corinth should not be ejected from the episcopate, they are blameless, those elders who served before are blessed to have not experienced strife over the episcopate.

Joe: Polycarp speaks on behalf of himself and his clergy. Clement does the same.

Of course, the Ignatius-as-the-Measure Fallacy requires this.

Joe: Nothing in this suggests that a monarchical episcopacy isn’t true. So Clement’s letter is evidence in favor of the monarchical episcopacy.

Actually, 1 Clem 42-44 disallows the Monarchical Episcopacy, as the above shows.

Joe: Your entire argument marshaling them into your corner was fallacious (the Elders Fallacy), and good evidence exists that they were monoepiscopal bishops of their local churches.

I think I have shown conclusively the following:

1. The Scripture says there is a plurality of bishops in Phil 1:1 and Acts 20.

2. I’m not crazy because Jerome read the same evidence and came to the same conclusion.

3. 1 Clem 42-44 Bishops and elders are one of the same.

4. The Didache makes no mention of a Bishop appointing several elders, but the congregation electing a plurality of Bishops.

5. I read Polycarp in light of the preceding evidence which would lead me to believe that he was not placing himself over the elders he was writing with.

6. Therefore, because of 1-4, and 5 being completely legitimate because of 1-4, I read Ignatius as an aberration, or a well-meaning pioneer of sorts. Because all of the preceding evidence is more ancient than Ignatius, I read Ignatius in light of the preceding. I do not commit the chronological fallacy of reading the preceding in light of Ignatius.

Joe: In light of what I’ve written, do you still hold to this? Because I think I’ve shown pretty simply how every bit of patristic evidence lines up with the monoepiscopal view, and huge chunks of it (like Ignatius’ entire corpus) contradict your view.

In light of everything I have written, do you take Jerome’s position as I quoted, or do you prefer to approach the evidence chronologically backwards in a way no honest historian would, because the authority of Catholic Church demands it?

I have made my case in a historically correct, logical, and internally consistent way. I am willing to recant if the evidence is so convincing, but all you have done is made Ignatius-the-Measure. You have not confronted the Scripture or Clement, who explicitly contradict your views and precede Ignatius.


As a note concerning the above, the original comments are from Shameless Popery’s comment’s section. Joe was quoted ad verbatim and certain parts were removed for the sake of space and clarity. I link to it here so readers may check what was actually written and verify that what is recounted here is accurate.