It seems to be commonly held among scholars that the so-called monarchical episcopate (i.e. the system of having one bishop governing a city church with presbyters working with him) was not apostolic and did not come to Rome until the late second century or even later. That is the opinion of scholars such as Alistair Stewart (in his commentary Hippolytus: On the Apostolic Tradition), Brent Allen (in his Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century), and others such as the late great J.N.D. Kelly. By this figuring the Christians in Rome had no one leader who spoke for all of them, but were divided into a number of self-governing communities with different leaders described by various titles. A single leader who could speak for all the communities in Rome only arose in the late second century (with Bishop Victor) or the early third century (with Bishop Pontianus).
Writers such as Irenaeus who asserted there were such singular leaders and bishops in Rome from the days of the apostles were, according to this theory, anachronistically projecting back a later system into an earlier time. It also follows therefore that the document known as the Apostolic Tradition, ascribed to Hippolytus and dating from the early third century, cannot be taken as evidence of a monepiscopate in Rome at that time, but must be regarded as the result of extensive redaction. What are we to make of this? Need we dump that section of Irenaeus’ work? I offer the following.
There are a few chronological problems with this reconstruction of the rise of the monepiscopate in Rome.
For one thing, St. Ignatius, the aged bishop of Antioch on his way to execution at the beginning of the second century, wrote a number of letters while on his way to a martyr’s crown, extolling such a monepiscopate as an essential and universal office. For Ignatius, bishops were “appointed throughout the world” (Ephesians 3.2); without the triad of deacons, bishop, and presbyters, “no group can be called a church” (Trallians 3:1); those who “call a man bishop but do everything without regard for him do not appear to act in good conscience, since they do not validly meet together” (Magnesians 4); all must “follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father” (Smyneans. 8.1).
Can anyone really suggest that the man with this understanding of the episcopate could write to Rome, commending the church there as that which “presides in the place of the district of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor…observing the law of Christ”, knowing all along that they did not have the monepiscopate which he deemed essential? Or that somehow he was ignorant of the situation at Rome? As one scholar admits (Sullivan in his From Apostles to Bishops), “We can draw no conclusions from the absence of any mention of a bishop of Rome in [Ignatius’ letter to the Romans] as the letter does not mention presbyters either, and it is hardly likely that Ignatius would have imagined that the church of Rome had no presbytery.” I suggest therefore that Ignatius’ letters, coming from as important and prominent a see as Antioch, constitute a fly in this scholarly ointment.
St. Irenaeus’ work is another such fly. He wrote his work now known as Against Heresies in the mid-second century, before he died in about 202. In this work he argues for the legitimacy of the common catholic understanding of the Gospel (the “canon of truth”), appealing to the public teaching of the bishops of the great and prominent sees. For convenience, he focuses upon that of Rome as the most well-known.
In Book 3, chapter 3, he writes as follows: “It is within the power of all who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the churches and the succession of these men to our own times…The blessed apostles, having founded and built up the church [of Rome], 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 episcopate.”
In the scholarly reconstruction we are considering, Irenaeus wrote this when there was in fact no single episcopal leader in Rome, and where there would not be one until at least several decades or later. One asks therefore: Who was Linus? Who was Anacletus? Who was Clement? They must have been prominent enough to leave their names behind for Irenaeus to find. If Linus was but one leader among many others like him in Rome at the time, how did his name come to stand out? And how could Irenaeus have been so ignorant of what was going on in Rome—especially given the fact that he wrote to Pope Victor in the late second century urging him to chill out about the Quartodeciman controversy?
Then, later on, we have the letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, who was certainly and self-consciously monepiscopal. Cyprian was martyred in 258, and wrote to his fellow bishop Stephen in Rome in the first half of the third century, arguing over whether or not heretics returning to the unity of the Church should be re-baptized. Cyprian said that he and Stephen possessed “a shared rank”. This shared rank of bishop was emphatically monepiscopal, for Cyprian believed that “the Church is a people united with its sacred bishop and a flock that stands behind its own shepherd” (from his Letter 66). If the Roman church had just become monepiscopal, how then could Cyprian have written to its bishop as he did, taking for granted a shared structure as part of an apostolic ordinance? Did he know so little about the Roman church, and the fact that a structural revolution must have just taken place there?
It seems that this recent reconstruction of the rise of the monepiscopate requires us to presuppose a tremendous amount of ignorance on the part of the people living at the time, which militates against it.
There are, of course, other arguments presented by the reconstructionists, and these are valuable, since they can help to refine our understanding about how the monepiscopate functioned back then (and perhaps should function now).
For example, the reconstructionists point out that St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans mentions different households in his greetings to the Roman Christians in Romans 16, suggesting that there were many households and independent groups. Furthermore, St. Justin Martyr when being interrogated after his arrest referred to many different gatherings of Christians in Rome. When Rusticus, the Prefect of Rome, asked him, “Where do you meet?”, Justin replied, “Where each one chooses and can. Do you really suppose we all meet in the same place?” (cited in Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy). The reason he replied this way was to avoid informing on his fellow Christians, but it also reveals that there were many separate gatherings of Christians in Rome.
As well we have the fact that Marcion, when arraigned for his heretical teaching in Rome, was brought before presbyters, not before a single bishop. All these facts point, the reconstructionists say, to their being no single leader for all of them.
These various things are not, however, evidence for the absence of a single leader, but evidence of the large size of the Roman church and for the authority of the presbyters.
In the first century, on Sunday all the Christians ideally would gather together epi to auto, in the same place, as Justin Martyr said in his Apology (chapter 67). In small villages, no doubt they could all fit in the same place. But in larger cities such as Rome or Antioch, there would be too many Christians to all fit in the same room, and so some of them would have to meet separately as a kind of overflow congregation. We see this in Ignatius of Antioch’s reference to the Eucharist being valid only when it is under the bishop “or whomever he himself designates” (Smyrneans 8.1). Thus even in Ignatius’ time the Christians in Antioch were too numerous to all fit into a single room.
Rome’s Christian population would have been even larger, with a number of such “overflow” gatherings under the authority of different presbyters. But this does not mean that there was no single leader in Rome any more than in Antioch.
These presbyters, though “under the bishop” (thus Ignatius) still possessed their own authority. They were not (as now) under the bishop in the sense of being his subordinates, men whom he could fire or depose at will. It is anachronistic to suppose that the early monepiscopate was like it later became, with the bishop being something of a potentate and the presbyters having no real authority in governing the diocese as a whole. In the early centuries the presbyters ruled along with the bishop as his council. The bishop presided at the Eucharist (and thus was the center of unity), but it was the presbyters as a group who actually ruled.
We see this in an ordination prayer used to ordain them. In the Apostolic Tradition, the ordination prayer for a presbyter asks that God to “impart the Spirit and grace and counsel” upon the presbyteral candidate “that he may help and govern Your people”. Note: the presbyter’s job to “govern”.
We see this too in the later example of Cyprian of Carthage. When he went ahead and ordained a subdeacon and a reader without the assent of his presbyters, he felt he had to justify this to the presbyters afterward, explaining to them that “Nothing new has been done by me in your absence” (Letter 23). Later still, when Bishop Alexander of Alexandria wanted to depose his presbyter Arius, he had to call the other presbyters to accomplish this, despite the fact that Arius had by then been condemned by a synod.
Thus, in Rome as in elsewhere, the presbyters had real authority, and were no means the powerless subordinates of the bishop. That is why when Marcion came to be condemned he was arraigned before the presbyteral council, not by the bishop alone. The bishop could not act apart from his council.
I would suggest therefore that, as Irenaeus said, there were single leaders in churches such as Rome from the days of the apostles, and that these men had a liturgical function, and that it was to them that the other gatherings in the city looked for unity and coordination. In cities such as Rome the “overflow” gatherings were numerous and important, and their presbyteral leaders exercised important authority.
What happened as time passed was not the growth of a new office (that of the “monarchical episcopate”), but a growing importance of the role of the single and central liturgist. As the coordinating center of unity, he functioned as the voice of all the gatherings when their voice needed to be heard. In Rome, Linus was the first of these liturgists after the apostles. Ignatius and Irenaeus were correct: the unifying role of the bishop goes back to the very beginning. As does the real authority of the local presbyters.