Skip to content

Diverse Polities in Unity?

In his book, Priest and Bishop Fr. Raymond Brown makes the argument that, theoretically it should (or could) be possible for different forms of church polity to coexist in one communion.  He argues:

The likelihood that in Paul’s lifetime some of his Churches that had no bishops lived in fellowship with Churches that had bishops suggests the possibility of two such Churches living in union today.  The probability that not all the presbyter-bishops of the years 80-110 could trace their position back to appointment or ordination by an apostle suggests the possibility of our openness to Churches with an episcopate that (by our standards) is not in historical succession to the apostles.

Fr. Thomas Kocik criticizes Brown’s proposal on the basis of the position of the Catholic church that “the episcopate in communion with the successor of Peter is divinely instituted and essential to the one Church, which exists in and is formed from the particular churches”.  This is, I think the standard response of official Catholic ecclesiology.  However, I think that Fr. Brown’s point deserves more consideration.  If the monoepiscopate is essential to the church, what are we to say about the many churches in the first century that Brown describes?  It does seem that there was a plurality of church forms in the early centuries of the church (indeed as late as the letter of 1 Clement, it seems that the church of Rome itself was ruled by a college of presbyters rather than a single bishop).  If this early diversity of church structure falls within the conditions for ecclesiality, why should such diversity now be regarded as necessitating a division?

At the very least it seems prima facie true that if a plurality of church forms and leadership structures was no impediment to intercommunion in the early churches, there is no reason in principle why it must be a point of division today.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I think it’s pretty dicey to make these kind of arguments via appeal to what the “early” church might have looked like. The fact is that the self same church came to realize very quickly that an historically contiguously apostolic episcopate WAS essential to the Church’s identity. The word “intercommunion” likely doesn’t even have a coherent meaning in this context. Major aspects of the creed weren’t even on the radar. I don’t really mean this as an argument this way or that on the essentiality of the apostolic episcopate as it has emerged. My point is that this line of deduction doesn’t really have any definite meaning or bearing on church practice. The milieu being invoked for the defense of the argument (that a universal apostolic episcopate is unnecessary) is the same milieu that invented the universal apostolic episcopate.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I think it’s questionable that the early church came to the conclusion that the episcopate was “essential to the Church’s identity”. They certainly came to the conclusion that it was the proper way for the church to be organized, perhaps even that it was necessary in their context (for dealing with gnosticism, heresies, etc.), but the claim that the early church as a whole believed that the episcopate was part of the essence of the church claims too much, in my opinion. It becomes anachronistic, reading later ecclesiastical developments back into the early centuries.

    My worry with your logic, Hill is that you want to dismiss any implications that the diversity of the early church might have for us simply on the basis of “how it all turned out”. It just assumes that the development of doctrine and practice in the church was always one of progress, never one of deformation. I find that pretty historically and theologically questionable. There must be some sort of historical-hermeneutical core which can call into question later church practices unless we are content to assert that church practices will never be wrong.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I didn’t really mean “essential” in its most forceful sense, but more along the lines of what you suggested of “the proper way for the church to be organized.” It is difficult to apply the concepts of “essence” and “necessity” to the purely contingent operation of God in history, so I think we probably agree here. The bottom line is that if this is in fact “the proper way for the Church to be organized” then we should attempt to organize the Church in this way without delay, whatever that might mean.

    I see your point in the second paragraph and I agree with you in a sense, but a hypothetical historical-hermeneutical core cannot be simply extracted. It is only sensible within a context of unity and obedience, and I think this is ultimately the most compelling reason to me personally for becoming a Catholic. I think that the Apostolic Churches are the only institutions in history who have been able to achieve a functional autocritique, and it is precisely their understanding of apostolic succession and church authority that has made this possible. By this I don’t mean that every member of the Church or Magisterium has always been sufficiently reflective of deficiencies and their reform, but that as a body, this function has always been on going.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    As for the essentiality of the episcopate, though, there is a scriptural element that has to be addressed as well. Most Protestants I have an occasion to discuss this with cannot make heads nor tails of the various passages about the power to bind and loose, to forgive sins, etc. without simply marginalizing the significance of those particular passages. The bottom line for me is that the traditional understanding of the scriptures and the history of the early church on this question provides a compelling narrative that integrates all of the available information in a very resonant way. The dissenting voices I’ve had a chance to consider seem to fall short of that.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    “The bottom line is that if this is in fact “the proper way for the Church to be organized” then we should attempt to organize the Church in this way without delay, whatever that might mean.”

    I would say that it was certainly the proper mode of ecclesial organization when it emerged. I don’t think that means it is the only proper way or that it is self-evidently appropriate for all times and places.

    “I see your point in the second paragraph and I agree with you in a sense, but a hypothetical historical-hermeneutical core cannot be simply extracted.”

    Can’t it? Didn’t Jesus do something just like that when he argued on the basis of “the Scriptures” over against the “traditions of the elders”? I’m not wanting to descend into the rhetoric of Catholics-as-Judaizers or some such nonsense, but it strikes me as implausible that the Christian faith does not have an internal norm by which it later transmutations and developments may be measured.

    Amen to unity and amen to obedience, but it is very possible to be unified around things that are wrong and be obedient to the wrong authority. The call to unity and obedience to church leaders cannot be a call to abandon judgment and commitment. That is why such an internal norm is needed within any tradition, including the historical apostolic churches. They find that criterion ultimately within the Magisterium (as it interprets the Scriptures, etc.). The contention of protestants is that the Magisterium cannot fulfill that function because it can and at different points has descended into unfaithfulness.

    Re: your second comment about the Scriptures, I would point to John Howard Yoder’s work on Binding and Loosing in his The Royal Priesthood. The essays on “Radical Catholicity” are very helpful readings of these passages that take them with great seriousness.

    However, I would also point out that “the Rock” of Matthew 18 was not identified with Peter in the early church. I think it was Leo I who first proposed that interpretation.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  6. freder1ck wrote:


    I haven’t forgot about this question. And I confess that my previous comments have been inadequate, too formalistic and presuppositional. I hope to address this topic in some depth over at Deep Furrows. If you get the chance to see a bishop celebrate Mass, I would recommend it. It’s especially moving to see the ordination of priests, but other events like Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, or the Rite of Election (RCIA) are interesting special events.

    It still seems to me that what you’re saying is that if I get together with a couple of friends and we start worship services together, then we would be a church – which doesn’t seem enough for me. I would agree that us three would be part of the universal church, but I wouldn’t call us a church.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  7. Ben wrote:

    1. Peter’s name was Simon, Christ changed it to ROCK, and this name stuck, so much so that Simon is always referred to as “Peter/Cephas/ROCK” even retroactively within the narrative (i.e. within the narratve of the Gospels Simon is called Peter even before Jesus gives him that name), so, I think it’s pretty safe to say that “Peter/Cephas/Rock” was identified with the Rock.

    2. EVEN IF, Halden, the early church is as you say it was, ecumenically speaking I don’t see what it matters, the only groups that hold to the Eucharist as real-real kneel-to-it real are groups that organize themselves with bishops. In other words, the doctrine of the Eucharist is prior to that of the Church, and in many ways defines it. Is there some Protestant group of which I am unaware, some group which holds the doctrine of Real Presence that RC and EO do? (But which doesn’t have bishops?)

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    My point about a “historical-hermeneutical core” is that any attempt to describe is a normative claim. Hence, disagreement on it will be endless. Methodological skepticism on the question of the content of said core will never come close to being resolved and the actual hermeneutical application of that core will never come to pass outside of some sort of structure of teaching authority. This point should be fairly obvious as it is precisely what is happening right now.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Ben, the “rock” I am referring to is the one on which Christ said he would build his church in the gospel of Matthew. The concensus of patristic interpretations of this passage was that the “rock” Christ refered to was his own messiahship or Peter’s confession of that messiahship. Christ is the rock on which the church is founded, the “corner-stone”. Even the first epistle of Peter itself points to Christ as the rock, not himself. I don’t expect you to be convinced of any of this. I am just making the point that the up until Pope Leo I, the interpretation of Peter as the rock upon which the church was founded was not dominant among the Fathers of the church.

    I don’t agree that the doctrine of the Eucharist is prior to that of the church. But if I may ask, why do you keep saying “Real Presence” in these discussions rather than “transubstatiation”? There are multitudes of protestants who believe in “Real Presence”, the issue is what sort of reality we are talking about when we talk about Christ being really present.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    But, Hill the structure of the Teaching Authority of the Catholic church doesn’t guarantee some sort of lack of disagreement either. Methodological skepticism obtains everywhere. To say that figuring out a hermenutical core is hard and we won’t all agree on it is one thing, but to then jump to the conclusion that therefore we shouldn’t try to figure out what standard we’re accountable to seems highly dubious to me.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    I don’t intend to imply that a teaching authority makes these issues simple. The existence of a teaching authority makes these issues eschatologically tractable yet still nearly infinitely complex. The Church is the pillar and foundation of all truth. Since the question at issue is precisely the Church (i.e. the pillar and foundation of all truth), this question is not objectively resolvable.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    I guess I just don’t believe that the teaching authority of the Catholic church has been able to do what you claim. Which, I suppose is why I’m not a Catholic, isn’t it?

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  13. Ben wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    I don’t usually say “transubstantiation” because I can’t usually tell what someone will understand when I say it. To most Catholics, the term simply means “It’s Real.” When I first heard that the Eastern Orthodox don’t believe in transubstantiation, I was floored. Later I learned that this simply meant that they didn’t buy the Aristotelian accidents/substance terminology. They still verily verily believe that the Eucharist is Real.

    I don’t know of which multitudes of Protestants you speak. Though I understand that some of them use the same terminology, “Real presence”, I don’t know any that would follow this through to the logical conclusion: if it’s really Jesus, then it’s really God, in which case, let’s fall down in worship. Wow! God! Literally right here in front of us.

    I know that Lutherans are technically supposed to hold to consubstantiation, I know that academic Presbyterians seem to talk about it sometimes, some Anglicans believe, others not. All in all though, I just don’t see any Protestants really falling over themselves to talk much about it, or make it part of their lived faith.

    (Keep in mind that I live in Texas, Baptist Mordor, I don’t really get to see anything but Baptist style expressions of faith even in other non-Baptist denominations, so heavy is their influence.)

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    It’s not a question of what it has it or hasn’t accomplished as that is ultimately an eschatological issue. My point is that something like the Magisterium is the ground for the kind of reflection you are advocating. This is reflected precisely (for example) in the question of “sola scriptura.” Some group of people determined the canon of scripture (long after the episcopate was established I might add). The authority and spirit-led character of this canon-establishing body is a presupposition of sola scriptura, which is why sola scriptura in the contexts in which it is most often advocated isn’t coherent. Again, the scriptures are not the pillar and foundation of all truth. The Church is, and the Bible is her book.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I agree that Scriptures make no sense apart from the church. But such a claim does not immediately give us legitimation for a certain level of authority being allocated to the teaching authority in the church.

    The “determining” of the canon which took place was less an act of the church asserting its authority than of it recognizing what was self-evidently the case, that the apostolic documents had authority over them.

    Also if the teaching authority of the church is not to be judged on the basis of what it does or does not acomplish in history, why then must “sola scriptura” be so judged?

    Even if something like the Magisterium is the presupposition for the kind of ecclesial reflection which could call the church’s practices into question, that does not immediately lead to a theology of infallibility or mitigate the idea that the Magisterium could need to be corrected by the Scriptures. In short, the fact that the church recognized what constitutes its scriptures does not mean that they will always do what they say.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    “The “determining” of the canon which took place was less an act of the church asserting its authority than of it recognizing what was self-evidently the case, that the apostolic documents had authority over them.”

    This is precisely the sense in which the teaching authority of the Church, rightly understood, operates. However, not all people agree with some of the things we hold to be self evident. This history of the early church is chock full of episodes which illustrate this point. It is a failure of charity to address theological error, whether it is Arianism, Jansenism, etc. These were not self-evident issues, in the usual sense of the concept, or they wouldn’t have been so historically momentous. A teaching authority with the power to reprimand and correct error is an extremely early feature of the Church. The establishment of the Canon as well all the early Ecumenical Councils bear this out. I feel confident that none of them were trivially resolved as if the answer were clear in all places and at all times, including the issue of the Canon.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  17. Ben wrote:


    Hey Halden, I don’t know any other way to slip this in: but I’m reading Jenson’s Sys Theo I now, and I’m on the chapter on the crucifixion, and I think he might be saying something interesting, but I can’t tell what he’s saying, exactly. Is there somewhere I can go to get that expanded upon? Perhaps a good forum that discusses him in depth?

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site