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Episcopacy in the Early Church

I’m currently reading through the Apostolic Fathers (Michael Holmes’ translation is excellent, I highly recommend it).  When I was reading the Didache I came across this passage:

Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. (15:2)

So, it seems that perhaps the earliest catechal document we have from the early church instructs congregations in a given city to appoint and ordain their own episcopal overseers (who are, of course ostensibly in communion with overseers from in all other local churches).  Moreover, if we have have local churches consecrating their own bishops, how does that jive with any straightforward theory of apostolic succession?


  1. Jon wrote:

    Appointment of someone to the episcopacy through some form of “democratic” process occurred at least once in a while. Ambrose was made bishop of Milan through the popular vote of the Milanese. Before that Ambrose was an unbaptized politician.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    It is worth keeping in mind that the Didache comes from the context of the Apostolic period, and hence an explicit understanding of apostolic succession remains in prolepsis.

    Additionally, keep in mind statements like that of Ignatius (a contemporary of the authors of the Didache) says things like:

    “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.”

    This suggests that the Bishops already have an authority like to that of the Apostles (e.g. the power to bind and loose) which is not the sort of thing a congregation just gets together and confers on a person.

    A further question is the intended audience of the Didache. I think one can assent to the full teaching of the Catholic Church on Apostolic Succession and still sensibly exhort those responsible for the selection of Bishops to give special care to the process (and clearly there have been awful Bishops, including awful Bishops of Rome).

    This is all just to say that the passage, while interesting, is a single data point among many, and I don’t think it really calls in to question the traditional understanding of Apostolic Succession.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    This suggests that the Bishops already have an authority like to that of the Apostles (e.g. the power to bind and loose) which is not the sort of thing a congregation just gets together and confers on a person.

    And yet, this passage seems to imply exactly that: the congregation appointing a bishop by concensus. Certainly this one passage is not a slam dunk in any direction, but if the later-formed theory of apostolic succession is correct, it seems that the appointment of bishops should have, from the earliest times come directly from the apsotles, or other bishops appointed by apostles, correct?

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  4. Dennis wrote:

    Apostolic Succession doesn’t occur with the appointment or election of the bishop.

    Scripture tells us that the succession occurs with the laying on of hands. Appointment first and then the laying of hands confers the Holy Spirit to that Bishop.

    After the appointment of a local person, they would go to another bishop and have their hands laid on and they would receive the Holy Spirit along with the additional education/training that may have been required.

    Reading the Didache, I think it would make sense to use a local person as Bishop. If the local Christians appointed him, that would have made sense at that time too as the bishops would already have their episcopacies.

    The Ethiopian Orthodox Church for example can be traced historically to Frumentius, a gentleman who was shipwrecked in the fourth century in Ethiopia. Making his way to the King, he was able to convert him to Christianity and then the King sent him to Athanasius who appointed him Bishop of Ethiopia and from that point, all Ethiopian Orthodox bishops (I assume) can trace their lineage back to Frumentius who was ordained/appointed by Athanasius who can trace his lineage back to the Apostles.

    So, even though the King was converted to Christianity, he didn’t have the right to start his own church. He sent Frumentius to Athanasius who would give Ethiopia access to The Church.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    Well the only thing the passage actually implies is that the author of the Didache is suggesting that some group of people appoint bishops fitting of the job. There is actually no reason to think that this reflects the practice of a majority of churches. It may or it may not. Is it not conceivable that the Didache could have been written by an elder bishop to younger bishops? One has to assume far too much to suggest that this passage is not in harmony with apostolic succession

    I also think that apostolic succession is not something that can be applied in a microcosmic sense to the appointment of every bishop but is something that must be understood in terms of the episcopacy as a whole. There is an organic transmission of the teaching office mediated by the temporal transmission of authority from one bishop to another. This entire process is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, which renders it transcendent of earthly episcopal commerce even if said commerce is the ordinary form of apostolic succession. It is analogous to the idea that the sacrament of Baptism is the ordinary and appropriate form for the grace of initiation into Christian life and the forgiveness of sins, but that this does not preclude the forgiveness of sins outside of the tradition baptism by water.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Dennis’s point is profoundly practical and seems plausible to me.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Ben wrote:

    In my parish, the people constantly press me to be a priest. They think this would be a great thing. This doesn’t mean that I could avoid the sacrament of ordination.

    The congregations are told to appoint bishops and priests worthy of the Lord– do you imagine that this would happen in lieu of any sacrament? Do you think that the current bishop of that city would be uninvolved in that process? I mean to say, do you imagine that this document is being addressed to a people without clergy?

    I think this is a case of how you read it: In my mind, as I imagine the local church reading this Didache, reading this passage, the entirety of the people are being addressed, laity and priests and deacons and bishops in toto. They are all being told to choose wisely in whom they select as their priests– and their new bishop.

    I read it like this because I know that the bishops exist prior to this letter being written, and so I assume that this group of people would already have clergy.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  8. Dennis wrote:


    I looked it up in Scripture and the excerpt from the Didache is consistent with Scripture:

    “Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task,
    whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. (Acts 6:3-6)

    Note that they were chosen by the people and then the Apostles laid hands on them…I’m pretty sure that’s what the Didache is alluding to.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  9. Jon wrote:

    That makes a great deal of sense. My reason for bringing up Ambrose was to show that an electoral process was in existence even centuries after apostolic succession had been firmly entrenched into ecclesiastical practice. Ambrose was elected to be bishop, but obviously would not have been ordained until another bishop conferred upon him episcopal authority.

    I don’t see apostolic succession as a necessity so much as it is pragmatic. Particularly within those early formative years of antiquity where an authentic succession of bishops from the apostles ensured proper preservation of apostolic doctrine and practice.

    Apostolic Succession just seems practical in that context. I don’t think it’s perfect, nor do I think it’s necessary; but it’s definitely practical.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  10. I agree that the Acts passage is similar to the Didache passage, but I’d like to point out that the Acts passage refers to appointing persons to wait on tables and carry out a service different from the gift of the Apostles. This makes it interesting. If apostolic succession refers to every service in the church then why isn’t every service in the church given the same authority?

    Friday, November 23, 2007 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  11. Dennis wrote:


    I don’t think these people were meant to wait on tables and carry out a service different.

    Immediately after this, Stephen begins to preach and is stoned to death by the Pharisees including Saul (Paul).

    He is the first Christian witness to martyrdom after Christ. His calling was not to wait on tables but to deliver souls to God (specifically Paul’s).

    I don’t think to serve at table means to wait on people but rather to serve God.

    Friday, November 23, 2007 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  12. Acts 6:1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
    2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.
    3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task,
    4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”

    Here’s the passage in question Dennis.

    Friday, November 23, 2007 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  13. Jon wrote:

    Is the diaconate part of holy orders, my understanding–at least in post Vatican II Catholicism–the diaconate is seen as a distinct office within the Church (rather than merely a stepping stone to the priesthood). Are deacons in historically apostolic churches seen as part of the apostolic succession or as a distinct order? Aren’t there “lay” deacons?

    Friday, November 23, 2007 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    I think there is room for a figurative reading of the passage in question that bears on our discussion. The apostles are delegating a portion of the ministry previously reserved to them for the first time via the laying on of hands. The concept of an e did not even exist at the time of the events described. The vignette is describing essentially the first realization in the early church that the Apostolic ranks must be enlarged in order to for the Church’s ministry to increase.

    Friday, November 23, 2007 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    I seem to have unintentionally abbreviated “episcopacy” as “e”

    Friday, November 23, 2007 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  16. Dennis wrote:


    I see what Acts 6:2 says.

    What I mean is that to “serve at table” (or to wait on tables) means more than what it says. Acts 6:2 implies that the Apostles were “waiting on tables” and I don’t think that’s what they meant.

    So, they had others replace them for that chore that they were doing which was called “waiting on tables.”

    Then in Acts 6:8-10, Stephen is preaching, healing, and debating. This isn’t the work of a waiter but rather someone who was empowered by the Apostles.

    I really think this is some translation problem.
    I think it means more than that from reading the rest of Acts 6. Stephen starts doings signs and wonders and debated with him.

    Friday, November 23, 2007 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  17. Jon wrote:

    Why wouldn’t “waiting on tables” mean just that? It seems that the diaconate was put into place to deal with the practical issues of the community, distributing food among the faithful, money among the poor, feeding, clothing, helping.

    I don’t see why any of that would exclude being able to preach as we see Stephen doing later on. Preaching has never been restricted to the clerical office, for example in the Eastern Orthodox even the laity are allowed to preach–forbidden from administering Sacraments, yes; but not forbidden from preaching and performing evangelistic work.

    Saturday, November 24, 2007 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  18. chris wrote:


    I looked up the passage in question in the New American Bible and, low and behold, the reference to food is gone and the emphasis is put on preaching. Original greek anyone?

    The point I’m trying to make is similar to Jon’s. The laying on of hands is for ministry in all its fullness. It’s interesting that we’re noting Stephen’s preaching ability when, one of the most beautiful things to me about the Catholic expression is the full-bodied emphasis of the liturgy, not bifurcating the worship into song and then preaching.

    Back to the Acts passage, what’s missing in our conversation is that this passage describes a picture of the early Church’s Economic Redistribution. To fit all references to ministry under clerical roles as we understand them today is to leave out much of what happened when the Holy Spirit fell. The Rule of St. Benedict, the Franciscans, and many others renewed the Church to return to these gifts and this way of life.

    Saturday, November 24, 2007 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    One has to be careful about applying later concepts to this passage. Not only was there no concept of an “episcopacy” or a “diaconate” at this point, there was no real concept of the Trinity, no Creed, no “one holy catholic and apostolic church” etc. This is the church as protochurch, basically a bunch of guys wandering around preaching. If you really want to apply Ockham’s Razor to this passage then that is your church: a bunch of guys wandering around preaching, sometimes laying hands on each other so that people can wait on tables, no more.

    Saturday, November 24, 2007 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  20. Spencer wrote:

    With respect to Jon’s question about the diaconate -
    In the Roman Catholic Church, the diaconate is indeed considered a part of Holy Orders. There is a difference between temporary/transitional deacons, those for whom the diaconate is a stopping point on the way to the priesthood, and permanent deacons, for whom the diaconate is the final destination. But all deacons are ordained and receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Holy Orders is exercised in three different “degrees”: diaconate, presbytery, and episcopacy (CCC 1554). There is no such thing as a lay deacon.

    Saturday, November 24, 2007 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  21. Dennis wrote:

    I’ve been doing a little more reading into this and apparently the word “deacon” means servant or waiter. (Something I was unaware of). So, apparently these would have been the initial deacons and not bishops.

    I guess my point wasn’t that waiters couldn’t preach the Gospel but rather that there was more to the translation than appointing waiters to help out (which would have meant deacons.)

    Anyhow, to answer Jon’s question, yes, I believe that the Diaconate is part of the Holy Orders and is a distinct office in the Church. (To the best of my knowledge.)

    Saturday, November 24, 2007 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

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