The concept of local bishops developed in the second century of the church. This led eventually to popery and the subsequent corruption of Christendom. There is no basis for episcopy in scripture, and no evidence of it in apostolic times.
In his paper, ‘Episcopacy: What ground is there in Scripture or History for accounting it an Institution of God?’ (Collected Writings vol. 20 – Eccesiastical 4 – page 307), J N Darby looks back over Christian history, and sees how the early fathers accepted it as an institution. It seemed prudent at the time, maintaining orthodoxy, but it was a human institution whilst claiming to be an institution of God. By the end of the second century, the position of a single person as president of a local assembly was well established, and the church had become organised. How this originate, and who originated it?
Paul established Elders or Overseers
Respect for a position of authority is right, and natural. But if a bishop becomes an object of veneration, God’s authority is set aside. Superstition and error replaces the truth that sanctifies. The prestige associated with the position detracts from the glory of the Lord Himself.
In scripture bishops, overseers and elders (Greek ἐπίσκοπος/episkopos[*]) are the same thing, depending on the translation (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7). Anther word used for an elder in Greek is (πρεσβύτερος/presbuteros*), such as those elders appointed in Acts 14.
There is no evidence that there was a single prelate in churches in Paul’s times. If there was one anywhere Paul neglected them and charged several to exercise eldership in the church. Tradition says that Timothy was Bishop of Ephesus, and Titus Bishop of Crete, but this has no basis in scripture. They were companions of Paul, who sent them to fulfil special services. Peter, despite being claimed by Roan Catholics to have been Bishop of Rome, had the same view. He spoke about ‘the elders which are among you’ (1 Peter 5:1). The nearest thing we have is James (brother of the Lord?) in Jerusalem. Whilst he was right in Acts 15, he clearly had a great influence amongst the Jewish Christians, but not always a happy one. Even then there is no hint of primacy in the Epistle of James.
Clement of Rome and Polycarp followed Paul
Likewise, Clement of Rome (d. AD99) knew of no single person leading a church. He wrote, ‘So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their firstfruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe. And this they did in no new fashion; for indeed it had been written concerning bishops and deacons from very ancient times; for thus saith the scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith’ (1 Clement 42:4-5)[†].
Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155) also did not recognise bishops in the current use of the word. He referred to one going astray as a presbyter (Polycarp 11:1). Ignatius of Antioch addressed Polycarp as bishop (Ignatius 1:1), and in his writings used the term as distinct from the elders. Hence we deduce that recognised local bishops, but not regional or diocesan bishops, as those to whom believers should be subject.
Historians and those who supported Bishops
Other late first and early second century writers, such as Barnabas (probably not the Barnabas of scripture) and Hermas, do not refer to bishops. It was not till the end of the second century their existence as presidents of churches became regarded generally. Early historians such as Tertullian, Hegessippus and Iranaeus alleged that prelates had existed since apostolic times, making lists of them. They had no authority for this.
Iranaeus was fighting the gnostics, who taught that Christ was neither God nor Creator. However he drew on tradition rather than scripture with many historical inaccuracies such as saying that Peter and Paul founded the church in Rome, whereas we know, it was well established before any apostle went there. He wrote that Paul called over the bishops of the cities around Miletus as well as the elders, and also gave a list of Bishops of Rome up to AD189[‡]. Other historians gave inconstant variants of this list, casting much doubt on their reliability. Doubtless all of those named from Linus onwards were in Rome at various times, but they did not act as bishops. Sometimes one would preside over a gathering, sometimes another.
Darby went on to illustrate the confusion by citing many other contradictory writings. For example, Clement of Alexandria alleged that John, after his release from Patmos, appointed clergy (κλήρων/kleron – or holders of a lot) in the various churches of Asia. One went as far as saying that Christ had ordained his brother, James, to be bishop of Jerusalem, having committed His throne on earth to him!
Our conclusion must be that scripture refutes episcopy. If a republic appointed a monarch, it would cease to be a republic. So the appointment of a single prelate in an assembly changes the nature of the assembly. This happened in the latter part of the second century and it was not of God.
Summary, some footnotes and references to translated texts of Clement and Polycarp by Sosthenes.
[*] Strong defines ἐπίσκοπος/episkopos/Strong 1985 as ‘(used as an official title in civil life), overseer, supervisor, ruler, especially used with reference to the supervising function exercised by an elder or presbyter of a church or congregation. Properly an overseer is a man called by God to literally ‘keep an eye on’ His flock (the Church, the body of Christ), i.e. to provide personalised (first hand) care and protection. It is a masculine noun, derived from ἐπί/epi/Strong 1909 ‘on; which intensifies σκοπός/skopos/Strong 4649 ‘watcher’. Pρεσβύτερος/presbuteros/Strong 4245) is defined as a mature man having seasoned judgment or experience. Whichever word is used it is clear that there are several elders in any assembly.
[†] Despite what the Catholics say, Clement did not claim to be Bishop of Rome. Of course writings by Clement and other early fathers have no scriptural authority, and indeed may not be in accord with scripture.
[‡] Paul and Peter (to AD68), Linus (68-80), Anencletus (80-92), Clemens (92-101), Evarestus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Soter, Eleutherus. Eusebius also gave some dates. Other historians give variants of this list.
Summary by Sosthenes
Based on ‘Episcopacy: What ground is there in Scripture or History for accounting it an Institution of God?’ (Collected Writings vol. 20 – Eccesiastical 4 – page 307)