The Rebellion Continues

©1997 Barry Bickmore. All Rights Reserved.

Reference Info - glossary of ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.

Even though the New Testament clearly indicates the need for apostles to continue in the Church, those hailing from Catholic traditions claim the apostolic authority continued with the episcopate, or the brotherhood of bishops whom the Apostles ordained. Some cite the following passage from Clement of Rome's letter to the Corinthians [ca. A.D. 96] as evidence:

    Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate.... For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.1

In fact, the Apostles may have approved certain men to succeed the bishops they personally ordained. (After all, Clement of Rome is said to have known Peter himself, so he would have been in a position to know what the apostles did.) However, just as the Church turned away from the Apostles, why would they not also rebel against those the Apostles appointed to the ministry? For example, in the passage cited above Clement was actually giving the Corinthians a stern rebuke for kicking out those ministers who had been approved by the Apostles. He continued:

    We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties.2

Notice that Clement indicated the bishops were chosen by the Apostles, or "other eminent men." So perhaps even after the apostles disappeared there were some men left over who had general, rather than merely local, authority in the Church, such as Jesus' seventy disciples.3 In any case, there is no indication of any provision for the people themselves to choose a bishop, or for other bishops to ordain them, as later became the custom. In order to prove the point that rejection of approved authority was widespread, a few more examples will be provided.

Ignatius of Antioch chastised some of the Magnesian Christians for rebelling against their bishop in the first decade of the second century: "It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him...."4 And there seems to have been some general problem in this area at the time, since Ignatius included exhortations to submit to the authority of the bishops in all six of his epistles to various churches.5

By the time of the Emperor Constantine, who called the council at Nicea, but himself was never a baptized Christian until he was on his deathbed, the situation had degenerated even further. Consider the emperor's relationship with Eusebius, the great Church historian of the fourth century and bishop of Caesarea:

    ... Constantine had called on him to deliver the opening address at Nicea, and six years later, declaring that he was fitted to become bishop of the whole world, he had desired to translate him from Caesarea to the much more important see of Antioch, an offer which Eusebius was humble enough to decline.6

How could the emperor of Rome, who was not even a Christian, have the authority to appoint bishops? Apparently he assumed he had that authority, but obviously it was not authority from God by revelation.

Once the Church had become so inextricably tied to the government of Rome, politics was the driving force in the administration of the Church. Former Anglican Bishop of London, J.W.C. Wand, admits that by the fifth century there was "a much closer association between the Church and the State than is sometimes recognized." He illustrates his point by showing that a large number of public officials were given the office of bishop, and if a conquerer wanted to remove his rival from contention, he would compel him to become a priest.7 He goes on to state that "the new Christian church was frankly national. The people were converted en bloc; the temples were turned into churches and the pagan priests were ordained into the Christian ministry."8 The Church became an unpredictable mix of true Christian doctrine, pagan traditions, secular philosophies, and politics. Even as early as the third century Gregory Thaumaturgus "substituted the cult of the martyrs for the old pagan local cults and in so doing achieved remarkable success."9

Clearly, whatever authority the apostles left behind them was quickly replaced by worldly authority.


1 1 Clement 44, in ANF 1:17.

2 Ibid.

3 See Luke 10:1.

4 Ignatius, Magnesians 4, in ANF 1:61.

5 See ANF 1:49-92.

6 Williamson, G.A, in the introduction to Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, p. 13.

7 Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500, pp. 256-257.

8 Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500, p. 244.

9 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 129.