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Sources for the Historical Development of Monepiscopacy
Sources for the
prepared by Daniel Keeran, MSW,
Victoria, BC, Canada
Sources for the Historical Development of Monepiscopacy
prepared by Daniel Keeran, MSW
Victoria, BC, Canada
The Early Church on Scripture and Tradition
Monepiscopacy definition: a form of church government in which a single governing bishop
or leader is appointed in a local church, region, or over an entire denomination.
The writer (Luke) of the book of Acts reports a plural number of elders in each church.
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting,
committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
The writer (Luke) of the books of Acts speaks of elders whom Paul also calls bishops and speaks
only of a plural number of elders/bishops.
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. ….Keep watch over yourselves
and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (bishops). Be shepherds
(pastors) of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Paul is quoted as saying that division or departure from truth, will arise within or among the
Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away
disciples after them.
The letter to the church at Philippi mentions only two kinds of appointed officials: bishops
(plural) and deacons (plural).
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God's holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi,
together with the overseers (bishops) and deacons.
1 Peter 3:1-2
Peter, a pillar in the Jerusalem church as well as James and John called the presbyter in 2nd
John, describes himself as a fellow-elder, and he writes to plural governing elders in local
churches telling them to be pastors of the flock under their care (governing responsibility).
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ's sufferings who
also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds (pastors) of God's flock that is under
your care, watching over them--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God
wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve;
3 John 1:9 (First century)
The first known singular governing head of a local church is mentioned in the third letter of
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us.
Letter of First Clement to the Church at Corinth, chapter 43 (First century)
There appears to be more than one bishop in the church at Corinth, as well as deacons. The
term bishop is used interchangeably with the word presbyter.
They (apostles) preached in country and city, and appointed their first converts, after testing
them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this any
novelty, for Scripture had mentioned bishops and deacons long before. For this is what
Scripture says somewhere: "I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in
Now our apostles, thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that there was going to be strife over
the title of bishop. It was for this reason and because they had been given an accurate
knowledge of the future, that they appointed the officers we have mentioned. Furthermore,
they later added a codicil to the effect that, should these die, other approved men should
succeed to their ministry. In the light of this, we view it as a breach of justice to remove from
their ministry those who were appointed either by them [i.e., the apostles] or later on and
with the whole church's consent, by others of the proper standing, and who, long enjoying
everybody's approval, have ministered to Christ's flock faultlessly, humbly, quietly, and
unassumingly. For we shall be guilty of no slight sin if we eject from the episcopate men who
have offered the sacrifices with innocence and holiness. Happy, indeed, are those presbyters
who have already passed on, and who ended a life of fruitfulness with their task complete. For
they need not fear that anyone will remove them from their secure positions.
It is disgraceful, exceedingly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian upbringing, to have it
reported that because of one or two individuals the solid and ancient Corinthian Church is in
revolt against its presbyters.
century, with possible later updates), chapter 15
The writer knows only about two kinds of appointed positions, but no singular governing role.
Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek
and not lovers of money, and true and approved….
Shepherd of Hermas (2nd
century), Vision 2
The writer knows only about a plural number of those who preside over the church at Rome,
but no singular position. The author knows of no singular governing bishop but knows Clement
as a correspondent elder.
Thou shalt therefore say unto the elders of the Church…. Thou shalt therefore write two little
books, and shalt send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign
cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But thou
shalt read (the book) to this city along with the elders that preside over the Church.
First Mention of Three Distinct Positions: Bishop, Prebytery, and Deacons
century), writes letters to several churches and speaks of their singular bishop, yet
in writing to the church at Rome, he omits any such mention. He speaks of three distinct
positions: a singular bishop, a group of presbyters, and deacons.
In other words, anyone who acts without the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons does
not have a clear conscience. – Letter to the Trallians
First Claim of a Bishop of Rome Over the Whole Church
A heavy charge is laid upon us, fellow-Christians, the care of the whole brotherhood. It is
made yet heavier through the reckless wickedness of abandoned men who are drawing others
into crime and involving themselves in the snares of death. It is gamblers to whom I refer. The
fatherly goodness of God has bestowed on us the authority of the Apostolate; of His heavenly
mercy He has ordained that we should occupy the chair by which we represent the Lord
[Latin vicariam Domini]; through our predecessor we have as ours that source of the true
apostolate on which Christ founded His Church, and we have received authority to bind and
loose, and with due regard to reason forgive sins. And on these very grounds we are warned
by the doctrine of salvation to take heed, lest if we constantly overlook the faults of sinners we
suffer with them a like penalty. - Pope Victor, De Aleatoribus
Irenaeus, Against Heresies
Irenaeus serves as a theological consultant to Victor who is rebuked for having
excommunicated churches because of using a different date than Rome to observe Easter.
Victor, who inquired of Irenaeus about other questions, relented and unity was restored.
We should obey those presbyters in the Church who have their succession from the apostles,
and who, together with succession in the episcopate, have received the assured charisma of
the truth (certum charisma veritatis). – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4:26:2
…the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of
the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church
(Rome), on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as
the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist
everywhere… - Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch 3, 2
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the
hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles
to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles,
Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had
been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing
[in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were
many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this
Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in
Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace,
renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles,
proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man,
who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt,
spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the
devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the
tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now
propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and
the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander
followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him,
Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him,
Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from
the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the
ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to
us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has
been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen
Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna…
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch 3
Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Book One, Ch 32
But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the
apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles,
because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original
records of their churches; 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 stedfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in
which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records
that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement
to have been ordained in like manner by Peter.
Tertullian, On Baptism, Ch17
For concluding our brief subject, it remains to put you in mind also of the due observance of
giving and receiving baptism. Of giving it, the chief priest (who is the bishop) has the right: in
the next place, the presbyters and deacons, yet not without the bishop’s authority, on
account of the honour of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved. Beside these,
even laymen have the right; for what is equally received can be equally given. Unless bishops,
or priests, or deacons, be on the spot, other disciples are called i.e. to the work. The word of
the Lord ought not to be hidden by any: in like manner, too, baptism, which is equally God’s
property, can be administered by all. But how much more is the rule of reverence and
modesty incumbent on laymen—seeing that these powers belong to their superiors—lest they
assume to themselves the specific function of the bishop! Emulation of the episcopal office is
the mother of schisms.
century), letter 146, to Evangelus
Jerome translated the Greek scriptures into the common Latin language (Vulgate) and explains
how he thinks the idea of singular bishop emerged in Alexandria.
“Jerome refutes the opinion of those who make deacons equal to presbyters, but in doing so
himself makes presbyters equal to bishops. The date of the letter is unknown.” – NewAdvent
Catholic Online Encyclopedia
1. We read in Isaiah the words, “the fool will speak folly,” and I am told that some one has
been mad enough to put deacons before presbyters, that is, before bishops. For when the
apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops, must not a mere server of
tables and of widows Acts 6:1-2 be insane to set himself up arrogantly over men through
whose prayers the body and blood of Christ are produced? Do you ask for proof of what I
say? Listen to this passage: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the
saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi with the bishops and deacons.” Do you wish for
another instance? In the Acts of the Apostles Paul thus speaks to the priests of a single
church: “Take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock, in the which the Holy Ghost has
made you bishops, to feed the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” And
lest any should in a spirit of contention argue that there must then have been more bishops
than one in a single church, there is the following passage which clearly proves a bishop and
a presbyter to be the same. Writing to Titus the apostle says: “For this cause left I you in
Crete, that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain presbyters in every
city, as I had appointed you: if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful
children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God.”
Titus 1:5-7 And to Timothy he says: “Neglect not the gift that is in you, which was given you by
prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” 1 Timothy 4:14 Peter also says in
his first epistle: “The presbyters which are among you I exhort, who am your fellow presbyter
and a witness of the sufferings of Christ and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:
feed the flock of Christ. ..taking the oversight thereof not by constraint but willingly, according
unto God.” In the Greek the meaning is still plainer, for the word used is επισκοποῦντες, that
is to say, overseeing, and this is the origin of the name overseer or bishop. But perhaps the
testimony of these great men seems to you insufficient. If so, then listen to the blast of the
gospel trumpet, that son of thunder, Mark 3:17 the disciple whom Jesus loved John 13:23 and
who reclining on the Saviour's breast drank in the waters of sound doctrine. One of his letters
begins thus: “The presbyter unto the elect lady and her children whom I love in the truth;”
and another thus: “The presbyter unto the well-beloved Gaius whom I love in the truth.”
When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to
remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it
to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates
of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number
chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or
as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him
archdeacon. For what function, excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also
belong to a presbyter? It is not the case that there is one church at Rome and another in all
the world beside. Gaul and Britain, Africa and Persia, India and the East worship one Christ and
observe one rule of truth. If you ask for authority, the world outweighs its capital. Wherever
there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome or at Engubium, whether it be at Constantinople or
at Rhegium, whether it be at Alexandria or at Zoan, his dignity is one and his priesthood is
one. Neither the command of wealth nor the lowliness of poverty makes him more a bishop or
less a bishop. All alike are successors of the apostles.
But you will say, how comes it then that at Rome a presbyter is only ordained on the
recommendation of a deacon? To which I reply as follows. Why do you bring forward a custom
which exists in one city only? Why do you oppose to the laws of the Church a paltry exception
which has given rise to arrogance and pride? The rarer anything is the more it is sought after.
In India pennyroyal is more costly than pepper. Their fewness makes deacons persons of
consequence while presbyters are less thought of owing to their great numbers. But even in
the church of Rome the deacons stand while the presbyters seat themselves, although bad
habits have by degrees so far crept in that I have seen a deacon, in the absence of the bishop,
seat himself among the presbyters and at social gatherings give his blessing to them. Those
who act thus must learn that they are wrong and must give heed to the apostles words: “it is
not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” Acts 6:2 They must
consider the reasons which led to the appointment of deacons at the beginning. They must
read the Acts of the Apostles and bear in mind their true position.
Of the names presbyter and bishop the first denotes age, the second rank. In writing both to
Titus and to Timothy the apostle speaks of the ordination of bishops and of deacons, but
says not a word of the ordination of presbyters; for the fact is that the word bishops includes
presbyters also. Again when a man is promoted it is from a lower place to a higher. Either then
a presbyter should be ordained a deacon, from the lesser office, that is, to the more
important, to prove that a presbyter is inferior to a deacon; or if on the other hand it is the
deacon that is ordained presbyter, this latter should recognize that, although he may be less
highly paid than a deacon, he is superior to him in virtue of his priesthood. In fact as if to tell us
that the traditions handed down by the apostles were taken by them from the old testament,
bishops, presbyters and deacons occupy in the church the same positions as those which
were occupied by Aaron, his sons, and the Levites in the temple.
Eusebius in the History of the Church, book 3, chapter 4
century writer, reading his contemporary understanding into earlier history, says here
that Timothy and Titus were the first singular governing bishops and extending over a larger
geography in the case of Titus.
For he [Paul] had innumerable fellow-workers or --- as he himself called them --- fellow-
soldiers. Most of these he has honoured with an imperishable memory, paying them constant
tribute in his own letters. Again Luke in the Acts, in listing Paul's disciples, mentions them by
name. We may instance Timothy, stated to have been the first bishop appointed to the see of
Ephesus, as was Titus to the churches of Crete.
Epiphanius in his Panarion, 375 A.D.
Although the monepiscopacy prevailed historically, some Christians still held the view taught in
the first century.
Another was the heresy of the Aerians (not Arians), who, contrary to the usage of the Church,
held that there is no difference between bishops and presbyters, both being of the same
order and dignity; that the celebration of Easter is a Jewish superstition; that prayers and
offerings should not be made for the dead, and that fixed fasts should not be prescribed to
1. The churches founded by the apostles had a set or plurality of leaders termed
elders/presbyters or bishops used interchangeably.
2. The single governing overseer first emerged with Diotrephes mentioned in 3 John, in
opposition to the apostles.
3. From the letter called First Clement, we next hear of the mutiny against the presbyters at
Corinth by one or two rebels, and the local presbyters in Rome are still all called “bishops.”
4. The first mention chronologically of a singular ruling bishop in each church comes from the
letters of Ignatius, and Irenaeus refers to the succession of monepiscopal bishops in his fight
against Gnostic heresies. Eusebius in the fourth century also records a succession of singular
bishops in different churches but mentions no central ruling bishop or Pope over the whole
5. With Irenaeus we also see the primacy or elevated status of Rome as a source of true
apostolic teaching, and he says all churches must agree with the church in Rome perhaps
because it’s teaching can be trusted as coming from Paul and Peter, not because of any claim
of authority over the whole church. Irenaeus does not use Matthew 16:18 as his proof text
although Victor, bishop of Rome, who corresponded with Irenaeus, does so in 175 A.D.
6. What gave rise to the monepiscopacy? Ignatius and Irenaeus used it to fight Gnostic
heresies, so in that sense it was a defensive reaction at best.
7. In the 4th
century, Jerome says the singular governing bishop idea emerged in Alexandria
during the first century. Did it emerge after or before the revolt in Corinth?
8. Standing Back:
The apostles established churches with a plurality of governing bishops/presbyters within each
local church. The first rebellion against the apostles and the assertion of singular leadership in
a local church occurs with Diotrephes in 3 John. The Didache, the letter called First Clement,
and Shepherd of Hermas, all have a plurality of governing bishops/presbyters within the local
church. Then the rebellion against the presbyters occurs in Corinth in the late first century, and
the church in Rome having a plurality of governing presbyters, is asked for support who sends
a letter to the Christian community in Corinth urging them to support their presbyters. Even
the title of the letter called First Clement comes from the traditional belief that Clement was
the singular governing bishop in Rome. The Shepherd of Hermas (dated 90 to 155 A.D.)
mentions a plurality of presbyters who preside over the church in Rome, and Clement a
presbyter and the correspondent for the local church, but he is not named as the head of the
I believe the rebellion against plural governing presbyters/bishops in each church, spread from
Corinth and perhaps Alexandria, Egypt so that in the early second century Ignatius sends
letters to churches (including one to Rome in which he omits mention of a singular governing
bishop) requesting obedience to the singular governing bishop in each church. He makes no of
obedience to a head of the church in Rome if one existed.
In Irenaeus, this is accompanied by the idea of an unwritten oral apostolic tradition believed to
be equal to scripture. The necessary groundwork for the development of Catholicism, has
been laid. The extreme threat of heretical movements and conflicting theologies, makes the
hierarchy and unwritten apostolic tradition inevitable if not useful. (Much later, Jerome in the
century, makes a case for bishops being the same as presbyters, and he states that the
practice of choosing a singular governing bishop began in Alexandria, Egypt in the first century
to prevent disunity.)
By the time of Irenaeus and Victor in 175 A.D., we see a singular governing bishop over the
whole church and the idea of apostolic succession as a defense against heresy. Although he
mentions no singular ruling bishop over the whole church, Eusebius in the 4th
of the singular governing local and even regional bishop and inserts it into earlier history as
being the case with Timothy and Titus. The monepiscopacy has matured, but what happened
to Victor’s claim, assuming his translators are accurate and impartial? Such a claim is curiously
absent in Eusebius who is also the biographer for the Roman emperor Constantine.
In the 3rd
century, Tertullian uses the anti-heresy argument formulated by Irenaeus that the
succession of singular governing bishops originating with the apostles, is proof of truth in
contrast to heretical churches. The identical argument is used today by defenders of
Catholicism. Another perhaps ironic possibility is that this same argument coupled with the
notion of unwritten oral apostolic tradition, opened the door to heresy and traditions of men.