Archive Early Church Fathers Ecclesiastical Polity Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

The Leadership of the Catholic Church: Now vs. Then (Pt. 3)

We are continuing our series on the identity and government of the Christian Church and how it relates to the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. My first post explained why this question is freshly relevant and urgent for Roman Catholics, and it laid out the Roman Catholic claims about how the Christian Church was founded and what that founding implies about the identity and membership of the Church today. The second installment compared those claims to the evidence found in the New Testament. Now we will look to the centuries following the New Testament to see if it can add clarity to our findings.

The state of our question is narrow. We are not trying to explain in full detail what the early church’s government was like. These posts are not making an argument in favor of any one particular form of government, nor is any one denomination being promoted. The question is instead this: Are Rome’s claims true?

Do we find a universal monoepiscopal church organization? Do we see one bishop claiming universal and immediate authority over all other churches, irrespective of the consent of other clergy or lay-consent? And if so, is that bishop the bishop of Rome who appeals to Peter and a unique jurisdiction of Peter’s which is given to Rome? The New Testament provides no support for such claims, and, as we will see, neither do decades immediately following. Indeed, the early church has a qualitatively different organizational structure.

The “Early Church”

Appeals to the early church tend to conceal certain assumptions, and so it is important to clarify a few points. The earliest “early church” is actually the church of the New Testament, the firsthand account of the actions of Jesus and His apostles. Later sources should not be assumed to necessarily be clearer, and they certainly should not be given more authority than the New Testament. However, later sources can help us understand how those who followed the apostles understood themselves and how they read the Scriptures. If a consensus were to emerge in the next century or so, this would be strong evidence in favor a certain reading of the Scriptures.

Additionally, it should be pointed out that “early” is a relative term. From our contemporary position, the middle of the fifth century seems very “early.” But Christians writing during that time could themselves already speak of “ancient” positions, as well as a history of controversy and perhaps even development. A lot can happen in a few hundred years. Consider just how significant the differences are between an American living today and the world of his own grandparents. Now compare those grandparents to Jamestown.

Thus we should not begin our search for “the early church” in the fourth or fifth century. Instead we should pay close attention to the earliest post-biblical material that we have. This in itself is a challenge. Compared to the large body of Christian literature that emerges in the fourth century AD, there is relatively scant material in earlier years. But we do possess some important literature from the late first century and the second century. The third century is also significant, though substantial questions of diversity and controversy are already present by that time.

Still, for all of this diversity, there are still important pieces of evidence which instruct us about how the church was governed in these early centuries, and there are several points of continuity with the New Testament landscape. In this post we will address the post-biblical literature of the late first and early second century.

The Didache

The Didache is a document of uncertain origin and status. It was known to the Nicene and post-Nicene Christian theologians, but they offered different opinions about it. Some regarded it as highly authoritative, while others dismissed it. The majority of scholars do, however, maintain that it was written in the first century, making it one of the earliest pieces of post-biblical Christian literature we have available. And interestingly enough, it does mention several of the early church offices which we saw in the New Testament.

Didache 11:4 mentions “apostles and prophets” and appeals to “the ordinance of the gospel.” These two are presented as traveling to and from local congregations, and certain rules are given to test the validity and integrity of an apostle or prophet. Didache 15:1 mentions “bishops and deacons” and says “Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers.” Thus the bishops and deacons appear to be local and abiding offices, and these can conduct the same sort of work as the prophets and teachers. These “bishops and deacons” are to be appointed by the group, though no specifics are mentioned.

1 Clement

Roman Catholic tradition says that Clement of Rome was the fourth pope. The document that is now bears his name, called “The First Epistle of Clement,” never actually claims him for an author. It does say that it is from the church in Rome, and it is addressed to the church in Corinth. It clearly imitates the Apostle Paul in style, and it picks up on many themes already presented in 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Scholars date it to the end of the first century or the earliest years of the second.

Starting in the 42nd chapter, 1 Clement begins to talk about church governance and even a kind of apostolic succession. He says that the apostles were “from Christ… having received a charge…” (1 Clement 42:1-2). He goes on to say that these apostles:

…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… (42:4)

The apostles then appointed “bishops and deacon” in the various countries and towns. This closely resembles the model seen in the New Testament, with a plurality of bishops being present in a certain region. Clement says that this was done by all of the apostles, and he says that they did this in continuity with the practice of the Old Testament. The rest of chapter 42 and all of chapter 43 explain how the apostles were imitating Moses in his setting up Aaron and a religious leadership over Israel. 1 Clement does not make a particular claim about the nature of this ministry–whether it is priestly, Aaronic or otherwise– but rather appeals to the need for order. “But that disorder might not arise in Israel, he did thus, to the end that the Name of the true and only God might be glorified” (1 Clem. 43:6).

Clement then goes on to make this statement about how the successors to the apostles made their own successors:

And our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the name of the bishop’s office. For this cause therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration. Those therefore who were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered unblamably to the flock of Christ in lowliness of mind, peacefully and with all modesty, and for long time have borne a good report with all these men we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration. For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have offered the gifts of the bishop’s office unblamably and holily. Blessed are those presbyters who have gone before, seeing that their departure was fruitful and ripe: for they have no fear lest any one should remove them from their appointed place. (1 Clem. 44:1-4)

A number of claims are made here, but one of the most important things is the acknowledgement of controversy and strife over the very question of church government and authority. 1 Clement is defending certain church leaders from a context where churches have removed leaders. This becomes even more clear in 44:5 and 47:6. 44:4 also says that “those presbyters who have gone before” do not have to “fear lest any one should remove them…” 44:2 says that some have been “unjustly thrust out from their ministration.” Thus, the problem 1 Clement is dealing with is that of church leaders being wrongly deposed.

1 Clement says that the apostles appointed men to succeed them in “the bishop’s office” and that these men would in turn appoint others. He describes the “continuance” of this succession like this: “Those therefore who were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church…” (1 Clement 44:2). Thus the “consent of the whole Church” was considered relevant.

We can also see that these bishops are also elders, as was the case in the New Testament:

For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have offered the gifts of the bishop’s office unblamably and holily. Blessed are those presbyters who have gone before, seeing that their departure was fruitful and ripe: for they have no fear lest any one should remove them from their appointed place. (1 Clement 44:3-4)

The presbyters who went before need not fear losing the bishop’s office. Again in 47:6, the problem is said to be “the very steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians, for the sake of one or two persons, maketh sedition against its presbyters.” 57:1 says, “Ye therefore that laid the foundation of the sedition, submit yourselves unto the presbyters and receive chastisement unto repentance, bending the knees of your heart.” Thus Clement’s “bishops” and “presbyters” (or elders) are the same thing.

1 Clement is important because it provides an example of how a late 1st century or early 2nd century Christian author defended the existence of bishops and deacons and the need to have authoritative church leadership to prevent schism. 1 Clement’s “bishops” are also “elders,” as the two words seem to describe a single office, and they minister in towns. They are said to succeed those who succeeded the apostles, but no one apostle is mentioned as having a priority or unique authority. The consent of the laity is also invoked to support the authority of later bishops. It is also important to note that the author, a Roman churchman, makes no mention of Peter or a unique significance attached to the see of Rome.


Ignatius of Antioch is a favorite source for those who defend episcopal polity, including those who promote the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. This is because Ignatius had an active ministry by the end of the 1st century, writing most of his letters in the opening decade of the 2nd century. It is possible, and often claimed, that Ignatius was himself taught by the apostles (John is usually claimed), and Ignatius promotes a true episcopalian form of church government, with a bishop holding superior rank to the elders (or presbyters). Thus he would provide very strong evidence in favor of such an establishment.

We will not contest the various claims about Ignatius’ relationship to the apostles, nor will we consider the question of the authenticity of his letters. We will simply use the seven commonly accepted letters and investigate what is actually claimed.

Ignatius certainly does believe that bishops hold a distinct office from elders. And he believes that the bishop holds the highest authority in the churches, serving to be a point of unity in his office. Ignatius makes this claim in several places:

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out [through their office] the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. (Letter to the Smyrneaens, chapt. 8)

For if he that rises up against kings is justly held worthy of punishment, inasmuch as he dissolves public order, of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who presumes to do anything without the bishop, thus both destroying the [Church’s] unity, and throwing its order into confusion? For the priesthood is the very highest point of all good things among men, against which whosoever is mad enough to strive, dishonours not man, but God, and Christ Jesus, the First-born, and the only High Priest, by nature, of the Father. Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father. (Letter to the Smyrneaens, chapt. 9)

So then it becometh you to run in harmony with the mind of the bishop; which thing also ye do. For your honourable presbytery, which is worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as its strings to a lyre. (Letter to the Ephesians, chapt. 4:1)

…I advise you, be ye zealous to do all things in godly concord, the bishop presiding after the likeness of God and the presbyters after the likeness of the council of the Apostles, with the deacons also who are most dear to me… (Letter to the Magnesians, chapt. 6:1)

In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church. (Letter to the Trallians, chapt. 3:1)

These quotes demonstrate that Ignatius believed in three distinct offices, with the bishop holding the top and central place. The final quote also shows that Ignatius viewed this sort of polity as necessary for the validity of a church. There are many other places where Ignatius commends submission to the bishop. “Be obedient to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was to the Father [according to the flesh], and as the Apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be union both of flesh and of spirit” (Letter to the Magnesians, chapt. 13:2). This is one of the most important themes throughout all of Ignatius’ writings.

Is this not, then, a substantial and early support for the Roman Catholic position?


Ignatius does provide support for episcopal government and for ministerial authority. He even argues that church unity is preserved in and through unity with the bishop. However, Ignatius does not provide any evidence for an institution higher than the bishops which holds them together in harmony. He does not speak of one bishop having universal or immediate authority over other congregations. He also does not speak of the bishop of Rome, in any manner at all.

In his own letter to the church at Rome, Ignatius says this: “I do not enjoin you, as Peter and Paul did. They were Apostles, I am a convict; they were free, but I am a slave to this very hour” (chapter. 4:3). Mentioning Peter and Paul to the church at Rome is certainly intriguing, but Ignatius does not actually make any claim about their relationship to that church’s local founding or organization. Importantly, Ignatius also does not draw a line of continuity from Peter and Paul to himself or some other bishop. He makes a contrast. He says that he does not govern in the same way that they did. For someone as interested as defending the authority of the bishop as Ignatius was, this is very significant. He does not appeal to Peter and Paul for his own authority, and he does not mention their authority being conferred on any other bishop either.

It is also important to note that Ignatius states that when he left Antioch, he had not appointed a successor. “Remember in your prayers the church which is in Syria, which hath God for its shepherd in my stead. Jesus Christ alone shall be its bishop — He and your love” (Letter to the Romans, chapt. 9:1). And so, while Ignatius does make an argument for episcopal authority, he does not make an argument for apostolic succession.

Standing behind all of these considerations, however, is an even more fundamental question. What exactly is a “bishop” in Ignatius’ writings? A careful attention to the details of his claims will show that his “bishop” is a local church officer.

Consider the following quotes:

Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as where Christ is, there does all the heavenly host stand by, waiting upon Him as the Chief Captain of the Lord’s might, and the Governor of every intelligent nature. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize, or to offer, or to present sacrifice, or to celebrate a love-feast. (Letter to the Smyranaeans, chapter 8)

While the bishop can “entrust” the eucharistic celebration to another if necessary, Ignatius still argues that the bishop is the center of the assembly. “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be.” The bishop must be involved in both baptisms and love-feasts.

This fact becomes even more clear in Ignatius’ Letter to Polycarp. There he writes to Polycarp, who he says is a bishop, and tells him to have a regular and direct relationship with his congregation. “Let meetings be held more frequently. Seek out all men by name” (Letter to Polycarp, chapt. 4.2). He also says that this bishop should be involved in weddings, “It becometh men and women too, when they marry, to unite themselves with the consent of the bishop” (Letter to Polycarp, chapter 5.2). These are not the kinds of things someone tasked with overseeing dozens of churches could do, and so this helps us understand what kind of “bishop” Ignatius is promoting.

Ignatius’ “bishop” conducts meetings where he knows all the men by name. He baptizes and marries. He celebrates the eucharist. The multitude of the people appear when he appears. This bishop is the head of a college of presbyters, but both the bishop and the elders exist on a local level. The bishop is the point of unity because he presides over the assembly. They literally gather around him.

There is one final point to be made about Ignatius’ writings. While he does serve as a very early witness of episcopalian government, Ignatius also testifies to its possible novelty within the time of his writings. This might sound like a strange claim, but there is one place where Ignatius answers a challenge to his claims about the bishop, and he does not answer that challenge by claiming the episcopate to be a historical fact handed down by the apostles. Instead, he says that he has received a charismatic revelation of sorts:

For even though certain persons desired to deceive me after the flesh, yet the spirit is not deceived, being from God; for it knoweth whence it cometh and where it goeth, and it searcheth out the hidden things. I cried out, when I was among you; I spake with a loud voice, with God’s own voice, Give ye heed to the bishop and the presbytery and deacons. Howbeit there were those who suspected me of saying this, because I knew beforehand of the division of certain persons. But He in whom I am bound is my witness that I learned it not from flesh of man; it was the preaching of the Spirit who spake on this wise; Do nothing without the bishop; keep your flesh as a temple of God; cherish union; shun divisions; be imitators of Jesus Christ, as He Himself also was of His Father. (Letter to the Philadelphians, chapt. 7:1-2)

Clearly Ignatius is claiming to have a sort of prophetic ability, at least on this point. He claims that he is speaking “with God’s own voice” with “the preaching of the Spirit.” But in making this claim, he is not appealing to an existing and known reality of the episcopate being handed down by the apostles. This is all the more incredible when we remember the date, that Ignatius is writing between AD 100-107. Why not remind the Ephesians of the teaching and practice of the apostles? Why not point to an orderly and existing structure? It is entirely possible that Ignatius is instituting a new teaching in his writings, one that he believes to be of divine origin to be sure, but nevertheless an institution of his ministry and preaching. This is worth considering because Jerome, writing in the 4th century, says precisely that the monarchical episcopate was a development to combat schism, the very thing Ignatius denies! 1

Whatever we make of this passage, the one thing remains. Ignatius does not appeal to apostolic succession or tradition when he defends his teaching about the bishop. Instead, he appeals to the direct teaching of the Holy Spirit. Thus, even with his very strong defense of the bishop, Ignatius does not provide support for the unique Roman Catholic claims. He claims no connection to either Rome or Peter, and he makes no mention of any bishops having superior jurisdiction over other bishops.


Polycarp was an associate of Ignatius’ and the recipient of one of his letters. Ignatius identifies Polycarp as a bishop. For his part, however, Polycarp does not use that title. In his Letter to the Philippians, he simply says, “Polycarp and the presbyters…” This may mean that he is the bishop, around whom the other presbyters gather (as in Ignatius), or it may mean that he still uses bishops and elders as interchangeable titles. Later in the letter, Polycarp instructs the young men to submit “to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ” (5:3). He only identifies two offices, those of deacons and presbyters, thus standing more in line with the pattern of the New Testament, Didache, and 1 Clement. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written by anonymous author claiming to represent the church at Smyrna described Polycarp as “an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, a bishop of the holy Church which is in Smyrna” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 16.2). This description stands alone in the work, however, and so it cannot tell us as to whether the term “bishop” is being used in the way Ignatius uses it or in the sense of the “elder-bishops” as used by the earlier literature just mentioned.

Polycarp describes the duties of a presbyter as those of a pastor:

And the presbyters also must be compassionate, merciful towards all men, turning back the sheep that are gone astray, visiting all the infirm, not neglecting a widow or an orphan or a poor man: but providing always for that which is honorable in the sight of God and of men, abstaining from all anger, respect of persons, unrighteous judgment, being far from all love of money, not quick to believe anything against any man, not hasty in judgment, knowing that we all are debtors of sin. (Letter to the Philippians, 6:1)

Polycarp also denies that he is like Paul in authority and says instead that he only wrote to the Philippians because they requested him to do so:

These things, brethren, I write unto you concerning righteousness, not because I laid this charge upon myself, but because ye invited me. For neither am I, nor is any other like unto me, able to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who when he came among you taught face to face with the men of that day the word which concerneth truth carefully and surely; who also, when he was absent, wrote a letter unto you, into the which if ye look diligently, ye shall be able to be builded up unto the faith given to you… (3:1-2)

Thus in Polycarp we see a denial that he possesses any necessary ruling authority over churches in other regions, and he rejects a parallel between Paul’s ministry and his own. His own teaching about church office only includes presbyters and deacons.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas was another contested work in the early church. Some church fathers accepted it as canonical. Others rejected it as spurious and containing significant error. Still, its early date makes it an important testimony. It is also important for our present investigation because its author claims a pastoral title and is writing from Rome. If the Roman Catholic claims were true and universally present, we would expect a Roman pastor writing from Rome, to mention them.

Instead, The Shepherd of Hermas takes up that same older form of church governance that is present in Polycarp and 1 Clement, Didache, and the New Testament. He speaks of both “elders” and “bishops,” both plural, and presents both as carrying out a pastoral ministry. The elders “preside over the Church” (Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2, 2:6). When the author of The Shepherd mentions “bishops” it is always in the past tense (Vision 3, 5:1). It is not clear if this means that he understands them to occupy a position like the original apostles, a foundational ministry that was unique, of if they continue to hold their office in his own time. Still, “they gladly received into their houses at all times the servants of God without hypocrisy” and “sheltered the needy and the widows in their ministration and conducted themselves in purity at all times” (Parable 9, 27:2). The author also writes of “deacons.” There is no third office standing over these two, and both offices are plural.

None of Roman Catholicism’s claims about the founding of the church are present in The Shepherd of Hermas. He only notes two offices, both of which he speaks of as plural and as carrying out ordinary ministerial duties. He makes no argument about succession, no mention of Rome’s primacy, no mention of a larger ecclesiastical network, and no argument about Peter.


We have examined the major post-biblical evidence from the first and early second centuries. Some variety appears, with Ignatius clearly arguing for an episcopal government of bishops, elders, and deacons, but also appearing to be the odd man out. All of the other sources mention two ordinary offices, using the terms for bishop and elder as synonymous. What is common in all of the sources, however, is that their officers are local-church officers. Some argue for a sort of succession from the apostles, but none argue for a Petrine succession and none mention Rome as holding any primacy. At least two sources deny a strict continuity between apostles and later bishops or elders, and none speak of a larger church hierarchy that sits above the regional churches.

In summary, none of Roman Catholicism’s distinctive claims about the identity of the church and the authority of the Roman bishop are present in the first century. Just as with the New Testament evidence, what is present in the first century is somewhat varied, collegial, and localized. In some cases, the consent of the laity is mentioned. A direct descent of apostolic authority is contradicted by both Ignatius and Polycarp.

  1. Jerome writes “To Evangelus,” saying, “the apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops… When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon.” (Letter 146)

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.