Arthur Middleton on the divine institution of bishops

Apostles or apostolic delegates in the New Testament and their successors in the bishops in the subsequent history of the Church is one way of exercising the divine authority committed to the Church. Examples of the ordinary rule of an Apostle are found in the First Epistle to the Corinthians and the Pastoral Epistles. In 1 Corinthians, St Paul gives authoritative decisions and makes authoritative statements on different matters. About a serious offence against the moral law he writes, ‘I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing’ (1 Cor. 5.3).

Throughout his Epistles, not only does he give pastoral instruction to the churches but also he admonishes them with supreme authority, censuring errors in faith and practice, as one set over them in the Lord. On important doctrinal issues his words are: ‘I would remind you … I preached to you … I delivered to you’ (1 Cor. 15.1–3). In the Pastoral Epistles Paul instructs Timothy and Titus about the choice of clergy and deaconesses and widows, and the methods in which they are to administer discipline (1 Tim. 3.1, 1–13; 5.9–11, 19; Tit. 1.5–9; 3.10, 11).

Apostolic delegates

The Pastoral Epistles demonstrate the governing authority of an Apostolic delegate, where it is clearly shown that Timothy and Titus were rulers of the Church, becoming successors in the episcopal office, Timothy as bishop of Ephesus and Titus of Crete. They are responsible for regulating the teaching of doctrine, approving candidates for the ministry, and the maintaining of discipline in general. Part of Timothy’s duty is ‘that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies’ (1 Tim. 1.3–4). He was responsible for the selection of those to be appointed to sacred offices and it was his task to reprove sinners, and to receive and hear accusations (1 Tim. 3.1–13; 5.1–22). Similarly it was the duty of Titus to ‘amend what was defective and appoint elders (presbyters) in every town’; to select those who were to be appointed; ‘to exhort and reprove with all authority’ (Tit. 2.15), and, when necessary, to exclude from communion (Tit. 3.10, 11).

Appointment of bishops

During the lifetime of the Apostles, St Ignatius was made bishop of Antioch and St Polycarp of Smyrna. The meaning of episcopus cannot here be misunderstood, as St Ignatius speaks of the three orders of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. St Polycarp was ordained bishop of Smyrna, as we are told in the En – cyclical Epistle on his martyrdom, and in the Apostolical Constitutions we read of many others whom the Apostles appointed bishops of churches.

Thus bishops succeeded the apostles in the government of the Church, and being their successors, possessed the same power of jurisdiction, as indispensable to their office, and for extending mission to inferior ministers.

St Irenaeus speaks of ‘bishops to whom the Apostles delivered the churches’; and St Cyprian, ‘that the Lord chose apostles, that is bishops’; and again, ‘for this, very especially, we do and ought to labour that we strive to hold fast as much as we can the unity appointed by the Lord, and delivered through the apostles to us their successors’; and St Jerome, ‘with us, bishops occupy the place of Apostles’, and ‘bishops are successors of the Apostles’.

The episcopal order being of divine institution and unchangeable, the Fathers unanimously teach that it is essential to the constitution of the Christian Church. St Ignatius says, ‘My soul be for theirs who obey bishop, presbyters, deacons; … without these there is no Church’. ‘The mark of the body of Christ,’ says St Irenaeus, ‘is according to the succession of bishops to whom the apostles delivered the Church which is in every place;’ and St Cyprian tells us that ‘the Church is in the bishop and the bishop is in the Church, and that he who is not with the bishop is not in the Church’. St Augustine and St Optatus appeal to the succession of bishops in the Roman Church as proving that the Donatists were sepa rated from the communion of the Catholic Church.

Successors of the Apostles

From the beginning of the second century onwards, there is very clear and abundant testimony as to a rule exercised by the bishops of the Church. It corresponds to what we see in Timothy, Titus and Paul. Everywhere the bishop is regarded as holding an authority, which is his because of divine appointment; like the Apostles who received their offices by the direct gift of Christ, so the bishop held his episcopate by means of his spiritual descent from the Apostles, and through them, from Our Lord himself. Joseph Bingham, the seventeenth-century Anglican divine, claims that the most ancient title given to a bishop is that of apostle, which, in a large and secondary sense, is thought by many to have been the original name for bishops, before the name bishop was appropriated to their order. ND