Archive Early Church Fathers Ecclesiastical Polity Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

The Senate of the Presbyters and Early Church Bishops

The Protestant argument for church polity has consistently argued that rule by presbyters was the earlier form of church government and that mono-episcopacy was a later practical development in the early church. This may have been legitimate and beneficial but was by no means universally binding on all future churches in all other locations. The 16th century Reformers maintained that the Christian Church was originally governed by a plurality of elders organized in synods, and this argument was again maintained with great care by the 19th century historians and theologians, including names like Rudolph Sohm and B.B. Warfield. A more contemporary demonstration of this same argument can be found in Roger Beckwith’s Elders in Every City.

Michael Kruger posted an argument along these lines last year, and it bears some real gems. Note especially the excerpt from Jerome:

The presbyter is the same as the bishop, and before parties had been raised up in religion by the provocations of Satan, the churches were governed by the Senate of the presbyters. But as each one sought to appropriate to himself those whom he had baptized, instead of leading them to Christ, it was appointed that one of the presbyters, elected by his colleagues, should be set over all the others, and have chief supervision over the general well-being of the community. . . Without doubt it is the duty of the presbyters to bear in mind that by the discipline of the Church they are subordinated to him who has been given them as their head, but it is fitting that the bishops, on their side, do not forget that if they are set over the presbyters, it is the result of tradition, and not by the fact of a particular institution by the Lord. (Comm. Tit. 1.7)

It would be very valuable to see the temporal form which those “provocations of Satan” took in bringing about this transition. Peter Heather, in his The Fall of the Roman Empire, argues that a great transition occurred in church polity as the empire became Christianized:

As early as the 310s, within a year of the declaration of his new Christian allegiance, bishops from North Africa appealed to Constantine to settle a dispute that was raging among them.  This established a pattern for the rest of the century: emperors were now intimately involved in both the settlement of Church disputes and the much more mundane business of the new religion’s administration.  To settle disputes, emperors called councils,  giving bishops the right to use the privileged travel system, the cursus publicus, in order to attend.  Even more impressively, emperors helped set the agendas to be discussed, their officials orchestrated the proceedings, and state machinery was used to enforce the decisions reached.  More generally, they made religious law for the Church– Book 16 of the Theodosian Code is entirely concerned with such matters– and influenced appointments to top ecclesiastical positions.

The Christian Church hierarchy also came to mirror the Empire’s administrative and social structures.  Episcopal dioceses reflected the boundaries of city territories (some even preserve them to this day, long after they have lost all other meaning).  Further up the sale, the bishops of provincial capitals were turned into metropolitan archbishops, enjoying powers of intervention in the new, subordinate sees.  Under Constantine’s Christian successors, the previously obscure Bishop of Constantinople was elevated into a Patriarch on a par with the Bishop of Rome– because Constantinople was the ‘new Rome.’  Very quickly, too, local Christian communities lost the power to elect their own bishops.  From the 370s onwards, bishops were increasingly drawn from the landowning classes, and controlled episcopal successions by discussions among themselves.  With the Church now so much a part of the state– bishops had even been given administrative roles within it, such as running small-claims courts– to become a Christian bishop was not to drop out of public life but to find a new avenue into it.  If the Christianization of Roman society is a massively important topic, an equally important, and somewhat less studied one, is the Romanization of Christianity.  The adoption of the new religion was no one-way street, but a process of mutual adaptation that reinforced the ideological claims of emperor and state. (125-126)

Under this reading, the boundaries of ecclesiastical diocese were reshaped to match the various civic districts. The bishops saw their jurisdiction develop from more local churches to metropolitan zones and then, later, entire geographical regions. This development is explored in Walter Lowrie’s translation of Rudolph Sohm, parts of which I have posted elsewhere.

This development did not require any kind of controversy or hostile takeover. It seems to have been a rather natural one, and while there were certainly dissenting parties, the majority of the church viewed this transition as a very good one. Still, the important point is that it was a historical and human transition.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

3 replies on “The Senate of the Presbyters and Early Church Bishops”

Hey Brandon,

I browsed through your work. Looks good. For the bishop lists, Trevor Jalland argues that there are conflicts among the various sources precisely because there were times of polyepiscopacy complicated the record. That argument of his appears in *The Church and the Papacy.*

If you haven’t read it already, Alistair Stewart’s book *The Original Bishops* is an important book (IMO) on church order in the early church (=NT and shortly after).

Also, I would check out the work of Susanna Elm, notably *Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church* for a study on the “Romanization” of Christianity.

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