The Early Papacy – 2

The reference to Isaiah 22 shows that the structure of Jesus’  kingdom was modeled on King David’s dynastic court. In Luke 1.32-33 Jesus’ birth is announced in royal terms. He will inherit the throne of his father David. He will rule over the house of Jacob and his kingdom shall never end. Like Eliakim, to whom Jesus refers, Peter is to be the appointed authority in this court, and as such his role is that of steward and ruler in the absence of the High King, the scion of the House of David. That Peter assumes this pre-eminent role of leadership in the early church is attested to throughout the New Testament from his first place in the list of the apostles, to his dynamic preaching on the day of Pentecost, his decision making at the Council of Jerusalem and the deference shown to him by St Paul and the other apostles.

Did Jesus plan the monarchical papacy? He did not plan for the sometimes corrupt, venal and worldly papacy that it has sometimes become down through history, but Jesus did plan for one man to be his royal delegate on earth. He did plan for one man to lead the others (Lk.22.32) He did plan for one man to take up the spiritual and temporal leadership of his church. This is shown not only through the famous passage from Matthew 16, but also in the final chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus the Good Shepherd hands his pastoral role over to Peter.

Was the early church de-centralized?

Independent Evangelical churches follow the Baptist Successionist idea that the early church was de-centralized. They like to imagine that the early Christians met in their homes for Bible study and prayer, and that in this pure form they existed independently of any central authority. It is easy to imagine that long ago in the ancient world transportation and communication was rare and difficult and that no form of centralized church authority could have existed even if it was desirable.

The most straightforward reading of the Acts of the Apostles shows this to be untrue, and a further reading of early church documents shows this to be no more than a back-projected invention. In the Acts of the Apostles what we find is a church that is immediately centralized in Jerusalem. When Peter has his disturbing vision in which God directs him to admit the Gentiles to the Church, he references back at once to the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem.(Acts 11:2)

The mission of the infant church was directed from Jerusalem, with Barnabas and Agabus being sent to Antioch (Acts 11:22,27) The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was convened to decide on the Gentile decision and a letter of instruction was sent to the new churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. (Acts 15:23) We see Philip, John Mark, Barnabas and Paul traveling to and from Jerusalem and providing a teaching and disciplinary link from the new churches back to the centralized church in Jerusalem.

After the martyrdom of James the leadership shifts to Peter and Paul. The authority is not centered on Jerusalem, but through their epistles to the various churches, we see a centralized authority that is vested in Peter and Paul as apostles. This central authority was very soon focussed on Rome, so that St Ignatius, a bishop of the church in Antioch would write to the Romans in the year 108 affirming that their church was the one that had the “superior place in love among the churches.’”

Historian Eamon Duffy suggests that the earliest leadership in the Roman church may have been more conciliar than monarchical because in his letter to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome doesn’t write as the Bishop of Rome, but even if this is so Duffy confirms that the early church believed Clement was the fourth Bishop of Rome and read Clement’s letter as support for centralized Roman authority. He also concedes that by the time of Irenaeus in the mid second century the centralizing role of the Bishop of Rome was already well established. From then on, citation after citation from the apostolic Fathers can be compiled to show that the whole church from Gaul to North Africa and from Syria to Spain affirm the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter and Paul.

The acceptance of this centralized authority was a sign of belonging to the one true church so that St Jerome could write to Pope Damasus in the mid 300s, “I think it is my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul… My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built!”

Was the Early Church Local and Congregational?

We find no evidence of a network of independent, local churches ruled democratically by individual congregations. Instead, from the beginning we find the churches ruled by elders (bishops) So in the New Testament we find the apostles appointing elders in the churches. (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) The elders kept in touch with the apostles and with the elders of the other churches through travel and communication by epistle. (I Pt.1:1; 5:1) Anne Rice, the author of the Christ the Lord series of novels, points out how excellent and rapid the lines of communication and travel were in the Roman Empire.

In the early church we do not find independent congregations meeting on their own and determining their own affairs by reading the Bible. We have to remember that in the first two centuries there was no Bible as such for the canon of the New Testament had not yet been decided. Instead, from the earliest time we find churches ruled by the bishops and clergy whose authenticity is validated by their succession from the apostles. So Clement of Rome writes, “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on the question of the bishop’s office. Therefore for this reason… they appointed the aforesaid persons and later made further provision that if they should fall asleep other tested men should succeed to their ministry.” Ignatius of Antioch in Syria writes letters to six different churches and instructs the Romans, “be submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to the Father and the Apostles to Christ…that there may be unity.”

This apostolic ministry was present in each city, but centralized in Rome. The idea of a church being independent, local and congregational is rejected. Thus, by the late second century Irenaeus writes, “Those who wish to see the truth can observe in every church the tradition of the Apostles made manifest in the whole world…therefore we refute those who hold unauthorized assemblies…by pointing to the greatest and oldest church, a church known to all men, which was founded and established at Rome by the most renowned Apostles Peter and Paul…for this Church has the position of leadership and authority, and therefore every church, that is, the faithful everywhere must needs agree with the church at Rome for in her the apostolic tradition has ever been preserved by the faithful from all parts of the world.”

Did the Church only become hierarchical after Constantine?

Independent Evangelicals imagine that the church only became hierarchical after it was ‘infected’ by the emperor Constantine’s conversion in 315. At that time, they argue, the monarchical model came across from the court of the emperor and the church moved from being independent, local and congregational to being a centralized, hierarchical arm of the Roman Empire.

Again, this theory has no relation to reality. Read More


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