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The Biblical Roots of the Office of Bishop

As being the continuation of “true Israel,” the Catholic Church was also structured in a hierarchal fashion. This structure was practical for the purpose of maintaining basic order in worship, as Israel had been practicing from the beginning. This structure was particular in that Jesus gave His apostles (especially the Twelve) similar authority as He had in order to govern His Church and safeguard the continuation of divinely sanctioned teaching. Accordingly, the apostles delegated and distributed this authority to others as the Church expanded and was confronted by a plethora of social and theological challenges. This authority — and great responsibility — was necessary in order to serve the faithful and to carry out Jesus’s teachings until His return.

The office of bishop was considered the highest authority — equivalent to that of the apostles and, hence, Jesus Himself. Herein, I will demonstrate the necessity of order, the bishops being considered the successors of the apostles, and their legitimate divine authority, according to sacred Scripture.

The Necessity of Order

The first Christian communities immediately established ecclesiastical offices, which were considered necessary for their basic operation and development. The primary duties of these offices were the celebration of the religious service, preaching and teaching true doctrine, and directing the community’s charitable activities [1]. The structure of these offices was based on the Jewish synagogue communities and the influence of Hellenism, the latter of which having a governor or an overseer [2]. The Church in Jerusalem and Palestine structured its order as a continuity of Judaism, having a “council of elders,” also known as presbyters (Acts 15:22; 20:17–28; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1–4; et al.). The Pauline communities, which included many Gentile believers, had overseers who were “presiders” or “leaders.” These came to be known as bishops (episkopei) and deacons (diakonoi), respectively (Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3; et al.) [3].

The world-embracing Israel of God, now known as the Church, had a legitimate historical development under the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.  This new expansion was the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel, which was the root of the Church (Rom. 11:18). The Mosaic theology of type and shadow finds its analogy and fulfillment in the divinely ordered polity of the Catholic Church [4]. In the Old Testament, there was a clear distinction between the common priesthood of all believers and the divinely sanctioned Aaronic priesthood, and the former could not usurp the authority of the latter. This can be clearly seen with Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16), with which the Lord caused the earth to open up and swallow the rebels, thus upholding the authority of the Aaronic priesthood.

Under the new covenant of Jesus Christ, there is also the common priesthood of all believers, which is distinct from the apostolic leadership. The threefold apostolic ministry (bishops, priests or presbyters, deacons) is the continuation of the visible Aaronic order (high priest, priests and elders, the Levites) [5]. As mentioned previously, it was practical for the early Church to continue this basic model for the purpose of order, maintaining sound doctrine, and directing charity.

Apostolic Authority and the Succession of Bishops

From the time that Jesus chose His twelve apostles, He gave them special authority to carry out His mission of proclaiming and establishing the kingdom of God. While Jesus was still with His apostles and instructing them, He gave them authority over unclean spirits and to cure illnesses and diseases (Matt. 10:2). Jesus then sent them out and said, regarding whoever did not receive them or their words, that it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for those people on the day of judgment (Matt. 10:14–15), and that whoever did receive them was the equivalent of receiving Jesus and the Father Who had sent Him (Matt. 10:40).

Later in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus establishes His Church upon the foundation of the apostle Peter and his confession of Jesus being the Christ, promising that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church. He gave Peter the keys of Heaven, declaring that whatever he should bind or loose on Earth would be done also in heaven (16:18–19). This was significant authority (and responsibility) given to Peter as the chief of the twelve apostles! In matters of church discipline, Jesus gave the apostles the authority to arbitrate and judge the sins of God’s people and even to excommunicate them if they refused to submit to their apostolic authority. Jesus promised to be in their midst whenever two or three were gathered in His name for such disciplinary decision-making, and if two of them agreed upon any matter, whatever they bound or loosed upon Earth would be done so in Heaven also (Matt. 18:15–20). Even greater an apostolic privilege was that they would one day sit on twelve thrones with Jesus on His throne, and they would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28).

To parallel this thought, we also read about the new temple in the New Jerusalem with the names of the twelve apostles written on the foundation stones of the wall of the city (Rev. 21:14). This is right after St. John writes about the twelve tribes of Israel being written on the twelve gates of the new city (21:12). Therefore, the twelve apostles are the foundation of the heavenly city of God, and they are the fulfillment of the twelve tribes of Israel, representing the people of God.

Jesus also gave the apostles the power to forgive and not to forgive sins (Jn. 20:23). This is an extraordinary amount of authority to give to human beings, as Jesus Himself was criticized for offering forgiveness because it was believed that “only God can forgive sins” (Mk. 2:7). In granting the apostles the authority to forgive or retain sins, Jesus gave them divine authority.

We also read that the early practices of the Church included devotion to the apostles’ teaching, along with fellowship, the breaking of bread (Eucharist), and prayer (Acts 2:42). It is interesting to notice what is not mentioned in this list: Scripture. Considering that the New Testament was not written at that point in time, and that the only Scriptures available were of the Old Testament, it is a safe conjecture that the “apostles’ teaching” was the equivalent of Scripture as far as Church authority was concerned. This would also include the apostles’ interpretation of the Old Testament in light of the Advent of Christ. It is also significant that the foundation of the Church regarding practical ministry and the necessities of such was subject to apostolic authority, as the money gained by the selling of property of early Church members was laid at the apostles’ feet for redistribution (Acts 4:37).

The writings of St. Paul also confirm the apostolic authority on which the Church was built. Writing to (primarily) Gentile Christians in Ephesus, Paul includes them with Israel in one body — the Church — which was built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). Referring to the Scriptures, Paul states that the mystery of God can be understood in an unprecedented way as now the mystery of God has been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). Later, when writing to his disciple Timothy, Paul refers to the Church as the “household of God” and the “pillar and support of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). This is in the context of the qualifications of bishops, presbyters, and deacons (threefold apostolic ministry). Thus, the authority and safeguarding of the kingdom of God was given to the Church, which was led by the apostles. Later, Paul would instruct Timothy to entrust everything he learned from Paul to faithful men, who would then be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). This implies three consecutive generations of apostolic authority in succession (Paul, Timothy, other faithful men). Paul charged Timothy to maintain these divine principles and to carefully pass this authority down to other leaders by the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22).

In its historical context, the office of bishop naturally proceeded forth from the order of apostles sanctioned by Jesus Christ, just as the Church naturally proceeded forth from “true Israel” as the new corporate body of God’s people. The twelve apostles proceeded forth from the twelve tribes of Israel. The old covenant had a common priesthood of all believers, subordinated under the authority of the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods. The new and better covenant also has a common priesthood of all believers, which is likewise subordinated under the apostolic authority of the threefold ordained clergy of the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate. These offices fulfill the shadows and types of the Old Testament, as the kingdom of God is present on Earth in the mystical body of the visible Church. The roots of these offices are implicit throughout the New Testament and then were expanded as the Church faced social and theological challenges within the context of history, thus growing into a tree. (Perhaps the mustard seed growing into the large plant is a better analogy.)

Since Jesus promised that he would be with the Church until the end of the age, as well as promising to give the Holy Spirit, Who would guide the Church into all truth, it is certain that these developments are not only reasonable and legitimate, but divinely sanctioned. They should be adhered to by all true followers of Jesus Christ.

[1] A. Viciano, Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, vol. 1: A–E. Edited by Angelo Di Berardino, Thomas C. Oden, and Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2014), 360.

[2] Ibid., 360–61.

[3] Ibid., 360–61.

[4] A. Theodore Wirgman, The Constitutional Authority of Bishops in the Catholic Church: Illustrated by the History and Canon Law of the Undivided Church from the Apostolic Age to the Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451 (London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899), 9.

[5] Ibid., 15–16.

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