Part II - The Ante-Nicene Age: Lesson No. 6 - The Monarchical Episcopate

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I. Introduction

With this lesson the student of church history embarks upon a study of that long, dark process of apostasy which eventually culminated in the Roman Catholic Church. This apostasy unfolded very gradually. (Apostasies that move forward too rapidly are ordinarily too obvious and alarming to achieve much success.) Even in the days of the apostles there were signs that the church was moving in the direction of apostasy (Acts 20:29, 30; III Jn. 9,10). After the deaths of the apostles, this apostasy moved forward unchecked and with ever-increasing momentum.

This first period of post-apostolic church history was also one of persecution. By the end of the First Century the Roman government had settled on a policy of persecution against Christians. These persecutions would continue intermittently throughout the Second and Third Centuries but would finally be brought to an end by the Edict of Milan which was issued by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. Nevertheless, this was also a period of tremendous numerical and geographical growth for the church. This first period of post-apostolic church history, the "Ante-Nicene Age," is so named because it is the period "before" (signified by the word "ante") the Council of Nicea, the first general council of the church, which was convened by Constantine in 325 A.D. at Nicea in Asia Minor.

II. The Rise of the Monarchical Episcopate

The first form which apostasy generally took in the church was in the corruption of its organization. The first step in this organizational corruption, which would evolve over several centuries into the office of a supreme and infallible "pope," was the monarchical episcopate ("monarchical" meaning "one-ruling"' and "episcopate" referring to the "office of a bishop"). Exactly how and when this monarchical episcopate began is not known. Very possibly this development began even in the late apostolic age (Acts 20:29,30; III Jn. 9,10). In any event, it is quite clear that this change in the church's organization became fairly well established in some places during the first quarter of the Second Century. Ignatius, himself the monarchical bishop of Antioch, wrote (110-117) in favorable reference to the monarchical bishops of several churches in cities of Asia Minor. Of course, in the apostolic age, "presbyters" (elders) and "bishops" were terms used interchangeably in reference to the body of men who had the oversight of each church. However, as time went on, one elder began to be exalted above the other elders of a church and the title of "bishop" reserved for him alone. In the early Second Century this practice was not occurring everywhere, and the authority of the monarchical bishop was local, not diocesan (regional), in scope, but by 160 A.D. the monarchical episcopate was well-nigh universal. Eventually, the concept of ''apostolic succession," that bishops were to carry on with the role, authority and responsibilities of the apostles, would be combined with this concept of the episcopate to give it greater power and dignity.

Some historians believe that the development of a stronger episcopate gave churches a greater sense of institutional unity by virtue of a centralized focus of authority and carried the church successfully through the perilous period of heresies. Below is a chart giving the basic words used in the New Testament in reference to the rulers of a local church:

Scriptures, Greek Terms, Translations, Meanings

Eph. 4:11 poimen - pastor, shepherd

Acts 11:30; 14:23; 20:17 presbuteros - presbyter, elder, an older man (of  maturity and experience)

Phil. 1:1;Acts 20:28  episkopos - bishop overseer; supervisor

From the above, and other, Scriptures three conclusions can be drawn which set the office of bishop in stark contrast to that which later developed in the apostate church. (1) Firstly, the three terms, "elder," "bishop," and pastor," are all used interchangeably in reference to the same office (Acts 20:17,28; Tit. 1:5,7; I Pet. 5:1,2; Eph. 4:11). (It should be noted that the word translated "feed" in two of the preceding passages is the Greek word "poimaino," which means "to pastor" or "to shepherd.." Also, in the last passage where the various officers of the church are listed it is difficult to see how elders could have been omitted when teachers and evangelists are mentioned, unless the elders are the pastors.) The only difference they may have is to emphasize a different facet of the same office. However, there is not Scriptural basis for applying one term exclusively to one individual. (2) Secondly, whenever a church of the New Testament is mentioned as having elders, it had exactly that - elders, not "an elder" or "pastor." In other words, the New Testament order is that a local church always has a plurality of elders. This in itself would seem to indicate that the Lord does not desire that one man be exalted as supreme overseer of a local church. And if He did not desire that it be done on even a local level, how could it please Him to be done on a regional or universal level? (3) Thirdly, there is no Scriptural indication that the authority of an elder extended beyond the local church of which he was a member. Elders were to shepherd the flock of God among them (I Pet. 5:1,2) - the one of which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Acts 20:28).

III. Persecution of the Church

By the beginning of the Second Century the church was well-established in the regions of Syria, Macedonia, Greece, Egypt, and Rome, but it was most extensive in Asia Minor. By this time also it had elicited both popular and governmental opposition. Already the church had endured the persecutions of Nero (54-68) and Domitian (81-96). Such persecutions are indicative of the growing prominence of the church in ancient society. The Roman Government vented its wrath upon Christians because of their refusal to recognize and worship the emperor as a god, but popular animosity against Christians was aroused due to accusations of atheism (because they denied the traditional gods), licentiousness (because their worship was often carried on secretly after nightfall), and cannibalism (because of a misunderstanding of the Lord's Supper an accusation which the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation would, ironically, give much truth). Christians were also hated for their exclusiveness and the idea that they alone had the truth. Thus began a cycle of persecutions and respites which continued for two centuries until a final edict granting religious liberty was issued by Constantine in 313 A.D. Because of these accusations and persecutions men known as "Apologists" (from the Greek word apologia, meaning a "defense") arose and tried to give a philosophical defense to the gospel and church before the Roman rulers.

IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) How did the monarchical episcopate differ from the office of bishop in the New Testament?

(2) Why was there hatred toward Christians?

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