Zizioulas, J.D.

Episkopé and Episkopos in the Early Church




Episkopé and Episkopos in the Early Church. A Brief Survey of the Evidence


John D. Zizioulas


The early Church evidence, beginning with the so-called Apostolic Fathers, differs from that of the New Testament in two fundamental respects, with regard to the notions of episkopé and episkopos. On the one hand, the content and function of episkopé is now clearly defined. On the other hand, the ministry of episkopos acquires its own specific content in relation to other ministries, particularly that of the presbyters, and becomes central in the whole structure of the Church.

In order to study the evidence concerning the content of this ministry, it is important to draw, right from the start, a line of demarcation between two periods of the early Church, namely that of the first three centuries and that of the fourth century and afterwards. The understanding of episcopacy differs fundamentally in each of those two periods. It is misleading to assume, as it is commonly done, that the idea of episcopacy which has been known to the Church from the fourth century onwards and which determined the debate between the Roman Church and the Reformation in the sixteenth century and afterwards, is identical with that of the first centuries. This point is of crucial importance for the ecumenical dialogue of our time.

Following this point we shall divide this paper into three parts. In the first place an attempt will be made to describe, as briefly as possible, the view of episcopacy as it is presented in the sources of the first centuries, beginning with the Apostolic Fathers, especially I Clement and Ignatius, and ending with Cyprian in the third century. This will be followed by a brief section in which this evidence will be contrasted with the view of episcopacy which develops in the ancient Church gradually from the fourth century and afterwards. Finally, in the last section we shall attempt to draw some conclusions in order to see in what ways this ancient tradition is relevant to our concerns today.


I. The First Three Centuries

A. The evidence of Ignatius of Antioch concerning the content and significance of episcopacy is normally presented as marking a radically new beginning, almost a revolution, in the history of the early Church. This is done not only by comparing Ignatius with the New Testament evidence but also with his non-biblical contemporaries, such as I Clement, the Didache, etc. While such a presentation of Ignatius is perhaps justifiable with regard to his singling out of the office of the bishop (the so-called, wrongly as far as Ignatius is concerned, “monarchical episcopacy”) and the emphasis he places on its importance, it is not justifiable with regard to the fundamental presuppositions of his position which are shared by all of his contemporaries. This is evident from the significance attached to episkopé in these documents: while there may be an obvious difference in the way Ignatius speaks of episkopos compared with his contemporaries, there seems to be no difference between them concerning the content and significance of episkopé. What is radically new in the history of the Church represented by these documents is not Ignatius’ view of episcopacy but the emergence of an entirely new situation for the Church due to the disappearance of the apostolic generation. It is by examining the way in which the post-apostolic Church reacted to this situation that we can appreciate the background against which the notion of episcopacy developed at that time.

A careful study of all three sources mentioned above (Ignatius, I Clement, Didache) reveals that in all of these the problem of the transition from the apostolic to the post-apostolic period is faced with the help of the function of episkopé, and that all of these sources attach the same content to this function. If we consider, in the first place, I Clement, we see that it holds a radically different view of apostolic succession from that of Ignatius, the former speaking of a linear historical transmission of ministry from God through Christ to the apostles and finally to episkopoi kai diakonoi (ch. 42), while the latter holding a more eschatological view of the Church whose ministry instead of being historically transmitted is iconically portrayed in the eschatological community of the eucharist. But when it comes to the point of describing the content of the ministry which is needed for the post-apostolic communities to make sure that they are in communion with the departed apostolic generation, both Ignatius and I Clement agree that this ministry is that of episkopé. I Clement, which uses the term presbyteroi to describe the governing body of the Church, calls their function episkopé (ch. 44) (the presbyters of Corinth were expelled from this “episkopé”). And what is even more significant is that in describing this function I Clement calls it a leitourgia and quite clearly identifies it with the offering of the eucharist (ibid).


Similar observations can be made with regard to the Didache. Here again the main concern seems to be how to secure the transition from the apostolic to the post-apostolic generation, and the way to do so is through the ordination of episkopoi kai diakonoi who will replace the charismatic “teachers and prophets” and perhaps apostles in their function (leitourgia) of eucharistein (15, 1ff.). It must be noted that these episkopoi kai diakonoi are not introduced for the first time into the community to replace the “prophets and teachers”: they are simply made now the focal ministry in the transition at the expense of the traveling ministers who no longer constitute the link between the apostolic and the post-apostolic churches. This, as it is plainly witnessed to by the Didache, I Clement, Ignatius and the other documents of that crucial period of transition (e.g. III John: the case of Diotrephes), shows that the link between the apostolic and the post-apostolic Church is the local community. A curious but crucial and decisive fact of the Church’s history is that the transition from the apostolic to the post-apostolic Church has taken place not through a series of missionary delegates, but via the local communities. It was by making each local church a full and catholic church, capable of judging any “universal” minister, that the Christians of that time moved to a state of existence in which the apostles were no longer present. This is the strikingly universal situation which unites Ignatius with the rest of his contemporaries in what concerns the very ground of the rise of episcopacy.

All this shows that the emergence of the ministry of episkopé as central in the early Church cannot be properly understood unless two other factors which seem to accompany it in the existing sources are taken into account, namely the understanding of the local church as a “catholic”, i.e. full church (which can judge and eventually expel a supra-local minister) and the leitourgia or ministry of the eucharist “offering of the gifts of episkopé” (I Clement). The centrality of the ministry of episkopé becomes questionable both historically and theologically as soon as these factors are not taken seriously into account, while by considering them carefully we can understand why things developed the way they did, including Ignatius’ view of episcopacy.

B. Ignatius seems to differ from the rest of his contemporaries mainly in one respect: he singles out the bishop from the collective whole of “presbyteroi” or “episkopoi” (kai diakonoi) as a ministry in itself, thus leading us from the episkopé to the episkopos. Whether this step is as radical as it is often taken to be depends on the extent to which one takes into account the full historical picture behind the rise of episcopacy as we have just described it. Quite apart from any apologetic concern, the question should be asked whether Ignatius’ position could have been avoided in the end, once the ministry of episkopé emerged the way it did, i.e. in close relation to the two factors we


mentioned above: the catholicity of the local church and the eucharist. For what is the Ignatian view of episcopacy?

In the first place what Ignatius did not believe in was the monarchical bishop. There are many passages in his writings which show that the bishop is inconceivable apart from the presbyters who are united with him “as the strings are to the musical instrument” (Eph. 4: 1) (cf. Philad. 4: episkopos hama tō presbyteriō), and above all apart from the community (Magis. 6: 1; Eph. 1: 3; Tral. 1: 1; Sm. 8, etc.). There is nothing “monarchical” about an office which can function only on the condition that it exists in harmony with the other ministries. The fact that in spite of that Ignatius still speaks of the bishop as a distinct ministry is due to the way he — in common with his contemporaries — understood the ministry of episkopé. And this, as we have seen, was in connection with the catholicity of the local church and the eucharist.

The association of episkopé with the ultimate authority and fullness of the local church and with the eucharist implied that whenever the local community was gathered together to celebrate the eucharist, the eschatological community was there present in its fullness. The inevitably meant that the structure which this community had at that moment is to be regarded as an image of the “heavenly” or ultimate structure of the world in which God reigns. Ignatius draws his view of episcopacy from the belief that in the local eucharistic gathering one figure is central and exercises final authority: God who gives to the world eternal life through communion in the Body of his Son — or, in terms of the Church structure which represents this, the president of the eucharistic community who “sits in the place of God” and surrounded by the presbyters (who represent the apostles sitting on their eschatological thrones) passes ultimate judgment on every matter pertaining to the Church.

Thus, the singling out of one of the presbyters or episkopos to become ho episkopos was natural as soon as the eucharistic community was understood as portraying the Kingdom of God on earth (which again was a natural consequence of the understanding of the local church as capable of passing final judgment on everything — cf. I Cor. 5-6; Mt. 18, etc. — and of episkopé as the instrument of this function in relation to the eucharist — cf. I Clement, Didache). In this respect Ignatius acts within the theological tradition which was based on a particular understanding of biblical, especially Pauline, ecclesiology and was shared by his contemporaries as well as by subsequent generations. This is enough to explain why the Ignatian view of episcopacy prevailed in the second century without provoking any negative reactions anywhere.

C. The time after Ignatius is marked by some confusion as to the terminology concerning episcopacy as well as to its precise content. Even as late as Irenaeus the term presbyteros


seems to be used interchangeably with that of episkopos, which points to the fact that in certain areas (especially the West — cf. I Clement — to which Irenaeus belongs) the term episkopos was slow in replacing that of presbyteros. But even in this situation of terminological confusion there is no doubt that in Irenaeus’ mind there is a distinct ministry of episcopacy alongside that of the presbyters.

With regard to content, there seems to be from the middle of the second century onwards a growing emphasis on the teaching authority of the bishop. This is probably due to the spread of Gnosticism and its claims to have secret access to the teaching of the apostles. The Martyrion of Polycarp, Justin (though not with particular emphasis) and especially Hegesippus (c. 175 A.D.) and Irenaeus present the bishop in therm of orthodoxy and as possessing, in the famous phrase of Irenaeus, a certain charisma veritatis. It is in this context that lists of episcopal successions are established which, it must be noted, are not intended to build up directly one universal apostolical succession, being rather, in the words of Hegesippus, “successions” (plural), that is, links with the apostles through the local communities (“in each city” Eusebius E.H. I, 22, 3, 5). Thus, in the face of the danger of Gnosticism it is again the ministry of the episkopé that the Church uses to prove its apostolic character, always, however, in connection with the local community and the head of its eucharistic assembly. (It is noteworthy that there have never appeared any lists of presbyters although the function of the presbyter was at that time precisely to teach.) The fact that the churches tried to prove that they had access to the apostolic teaching not through theologians and teachers or through lists of presbyters whose main function was in fact teaching, but through bishops, i.e. heads of the eucharistic assemblies (whose function was not primarily to teach), shows that once again the ministry of episkopé was closely related to the ecclesiology of the local church and its eucharistic character.

A clear description of both terminology and actual content appears with Irenaeus’ disciple, Hippolytus, whose Apostolic Tradition contains all that is needed for a complete knowledge of what the Church at that time meant by episcopacy. This work is a combination of Hippolytus’ personal theology with liturgical material which goes back to the middle of the second century at least. Even by studying only what seems to belong to the original material, the information we receive is extremely valuable and interesting. We may sum it up in the following manner.

a) The bishop is ordained primarily in order to offer the eucharist and ordain to the ministry (see: Prayer of ordination of the bishop). In contrast with this the prayer of ordination of the presbyter does not contain any mention of the offering of the eucharist or ordination but only of teaching the people and administering or “judging” them. This means that the original ministry of episkopé had by


then been split up into two in accordance with the old principle that the bishop is the head of the eucharistic assembly and the image of God or Christ, while the presbyterium surround him as his synedrion (Ignatius), i.e. a court passing judgment in the image of the Twelve. The eschatological imagery of episkopé prevailed as a combination of two distinct functions, the christological and the apostolic.

b) The bishop is to the community alter Christus, which is a continuation of the eschatological-eucharistic function of episkopé, but also alter apostolus. This latter seems to contradict the Ignatian view according to which it is the presbyters and not the bishop who represent the apostles. Does it represent a development further than Ignatius towards a truly monarchical episcopacy? It is rather to be suspected that at this point we have a survival of the idea of apostolic succession which we encounter in I Clement, and which perhaps had survived in the West. This mus have led naturally to the view of apostolic succession which through Cyprian, of whom more will be said later, found its way into the tradition of the Church. In any case, Hippolytus represents the first synthesis of two distinct functions within the one episkopé: what we have called the christological and the apostolic functions, which are now combined in the ministry of the bishop. This is done while still the presbyters are allowed, always collectively and together with the bishop, to exercise the “apostolic” functions: governing, teaching and judging. In other words, what Hippolytus represents is the view that the episkopos exercises both the christological functions of giving the Spirit, feeding the people, by presiding over the eucharist, etc. (which the presbyters are explicitly denied by Hippolytus) and the apostolic ones, while the presbyters are ordained to exercise together with the bishop. Neither, however, can exercise any of these functions in separation from the other and from the community: this is the implication of the fact that the ministry of episkopé is ultimately exercised only in the context of the eucharistic community. This prevents the early Church from developing a truly “monarchical” episcopacy.

The next step in the history of the concept of episcopacy is represented by Cyprian in the third century. His main contribution is that he takes the notion of episcopacy away from its christological connotations, and thus away from Hippolytus and very far indeed from Ignatius, in order to associate it primarily with the “apostolic” function. His view: episcopus, id est apostolus opens the way to the classical notion of apostolic succession in which episcopacy is essentially the continuation and exercise of apostolic ministry. He is, of course, still too ancient to abandon the idea of the local church as being the “catholic Church” and for this reason he regards each bishop as the successor of Peter. But it is clear that the image he holds of episcopacy is no longer Christ-centered


as was the case with Ignatius, the Syriac Didascalia, Hippolytus, etc., and becomes Peter-centered. When in later centuries the centrality and catholicity of the local church will be lost, this will lead to an episcopacy conceivable in itself, as a ministry above the local community and a succession of the “apostolic college”. But more about this later.

In conclusion, the ministry of episkopé became right from the beginning of the post-apostolic age the focal ministry with the help of which the churches realized and expressed their communion with the Apostolic Church. This was done in connection with a certain ecclesiology according to which whenever the church of a particular place gather together to celebrate the eucharist, it becomes the expression of the eschatological community gathered around Christ and the apostles (basically the Twelve, though the distribution did not exist at that time).

The ministry of episkopé was identified in this structure originally with those ministries representing Christ and the Twelve or apostles and called episkopoi or presbyteroi collectively. In certain areas like Syria where the view of the Church was determined by an eschatological and apocalyptical approach (Ignatius, Didascalia, etc.) the need was soon felt to distinguish between these two and under the impact of worship and the eucharistic experience to elevate the theocentric and christological element above the apostolic. This gave rise to the centrality of episkopos who was viewed for a long time in those areas as imago Christi (cf. besides Ignatius the Syriac Didascalia, the Pseudo-Clementina, Homilies, etc.). In other areas like the West (cf. I Clement), the historical approach was predominant and the distinction did not occur so quickly. The episkopé could be expressed there for some time still under the old form of presbyteroi, a situation reflected even in the end of the second century when the distinction was in fact made (Irenaeus). What happened was that the christological (presiding over the eucharist, giving the Spirit through ordination, etc.) and the apostolic aspects of episkopé were united in the person of the bishop while the presbyterium retained the “apostolic” functions alone (teaching, judging, administering, etc.) which it shared with the bishop. In the end of this periode (Cyprian) a tendency developed to view the bishop mainly in terms of apostolicity. But it is after Cyprian that the radical change takes place involving a reversal of functions in the relation between episcopacy and presbyterium.

D. Before going on to consider the situation as it developed after the fourth century, let us briefly mention another basic aspect of episcopacy in the early Church. What has been said so far seems to point to the local church as the


context in which episcopacy developed and was exercised. Indeed both the historical origins and the theology of episcopacy are rooted in the local church. This, however, does not mean that this ministry was irrelevant to the needs of the Church on a universal level. On the contrary it was precisely through episcopacy that these needs were served.

The early Church never ceased to be conscious of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that exists in the whole world. But, significantly enough, sticking faithfully to the crucial decision made by the first post-apostolic generation, which we mentioned earlier, the early Church refused to recognize any ministry or structure which would by-pass or ignore the local church. It is for this reason alone that the ministry which expressed and safeguarded the unity of the Church on a universal level was episcopal.

If we study carefully the way conciliarity developed in the first centuries, we realize that the early Councils were extensions and even replicas of the way conciliarity was practised in the local church. (1) It was the Ignatian “synedrion episopou” which was copied and used as a model, not, for example, the Apostolic Council of Acts. The early Councils were primarily concerned with eucharistic communion (e.g. the Pascal controversy, Montanism, even I Nicaea were all ultimately concerned with the break and restoration of communion and not with promulgating dogmas, as it is evident from Eusebius, E.H. V, 24 en from the anathemas which seal the decisions of all the early Councils). It was this reason which brought together the bishops who were still at that time regarded primarily as heads of the eucharistic assemblies. Episcopacy, therefore, became essential to conciliarity for the same reason it had already become essential to the life of the local church.

Through the ministry of episcopacy the early Church found a way of maintaining Cyprian’s principle episcopatus unus est without contradicting the catholicity of the local church, i.e. another principle significantly emphasized by Cyprian himself to the point of exaggeration (Ep. 55 (52). 21: as long as unity exists, each bishop gives account of his work solely and directly to God). The synods never became in the early Church a superstructure over and above the local communities, and for this reason they never acquired authority in themselves: they always had to be received by the communities in order to be fully valid. The conclusion from all this may sound strange but it seems inevitable: episcopacy, as it developed in the first three centuries, also with regard to councils, meant anything but

(1) See the Faith and Order study on this subject: In Each Place, Towards a Fellowship of Local Churches Truly United. Geneva: WCC 1977.


the subjection of the laymen to the higher authority; it meant, on the contrary, that a ministry existed through which the Church remained in the final analysis a concrete community.


II. The Fourth Century and Its Consequences

A comparative study of the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus and the liturgical and canonical documents which derived from it in the fourth and fifth centuries (Apostolic Constitutions, etc.) or of the third century Syriac Didascalia and its fourth century versions (e.g. its Ethiopic version), or even more interestingly, of the original texts of the letters of Ignatius and their enlarged version at the end of the fourth century (or the beginning of the fifth) shows consistently the following changes: whereas the original version of these texts refers the function of the offering of the eucharist only to the bishop and never to the presbyters, the later versions change the text on the relevant points to make it read that the presbyter, too, offers the eucharist, that he is called hiereus, etc. These striking alterations of the original documents are supported by other evidence coming from the same time (John Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, Jerome, etc.) and suggesting that the bishop and the presbyter do not differ at all from the point of view of the eucharistic function.

It is clear that what stands behind this radical change is the emergence and establishment of the parish as a eucharistic gathering presided over by presbyters without the presence of the bishop. When and how the parish emerged is a complicated historical problem with which we cannot deal here. But it is important to try and even briefly point out the consequences that this situation has had for the understanding of episcopacy, since it is these consequences that have shaped the entire problematique with which we are still wrestling in theology.

In the first place, the fact that the presbyters started offering the eucharist more or less ipso jure (cf. prayers of ordination) has gradually meant that the essence of episcopacy is not to be found in the presidency of the eucharist but in other functions. Such functions are mainly administration (due to the increase of the number of parishes, their coordination became inevitably central to the bishop’s role) and teaching (the magisterium), i.e. those functions originally belonging to the aspect of episkopé which was exercised by the presbyterium. This automatically meant an exchange of roles between presbyters and bishops which reached such proportions as not to expect the bishops to celebrate the eucharist except on certain days in the


year or not to expect from the presbytery any other responsibility (teaching, administration, etc.) apart from celebrating the eucharist. This meant that the bishop gave up what we called earlier the christological aspect of episkopé (presiding over the eucharist) und thus made himself redundant in the eyes of the Reformers some centuries later. He retained, of course, the exclusive right to ordain, but with the way theology developed in the Middle Ages, this was no longer understood as part of the christological aspect of episcopacy and became part of the potestas delegated through apostolic succession and a sacramentalistic view of ordination. When the entire notion of apostolic succession was put into question by the Reformation, this prerogative of the bishop was also lost. The result was that the Church could easily do without bishops, a conclusion which I find quite compelling once episcopacy is detached from the basis on which it was built in the first centuries. The Reformation drew the right conclusions from the fourth century and quite significantly it found support in Jerome in order to abolish episcopacy. Ignatius and the first three centuries, which in light of the sola scriptura principle did not count anyway, were identified with the post-fourth century view of episcopacy (the Ignatian bishop and the medieval bishop became more or less identical) and the debate grew and developed the way we know it.

The consequences, however, reached further. The reversal of functions between presbyter and bishop meant automatically that the ancient view of presbyteroi as constituting a collegium, like the Twelve, whose unity had to remain indivisible, was also lost. The presbyteral aspect of episkopé lost its collegial character and became individualized: one presbyter was sufficient to perform the eucharist and thus to fulfill the function of the presbyterium. But — to paraphrase an old saying — unus presbyterus nullus presbyterus: by giving the presbyter the functions which belonged originally to the bishop, the Church turned him into a bishop, and thus lost te presbyter. We need not say anything about the catastrophic consequences that this situation has had on the ministry of the deacon, since this falls outside our subject. But we must certainly underline the fact that the entire structure of the local church suffered destruction and disintegration as a result of the changes which took place in relation to episcopacy. Thus a eucharistic community could exist theoretically simply by the presence of one presbyter (private masses were a natural development) or the presence of one presbyter and the congregation. The bishop and the presbyters were no longer necessarily linked with the community, forming a caste of their own (the “priesthood”) which had direct access to the apostolic origins, i.e. did not need to pass through the local church, through ordination. In this situation it became necessary to seek the catholicity of the Church outside the eucharistic gathering (e.g. in a universal structure or in non-eucharistic


activities) and thus to deprive the eucharist of its eschatological and ecclesiological dimensions and reduce it to a “means of grace”, one sacrament among many. Whether the changes we have observed in the understanding and practice of episcopacy brought about these theological developments or the other way around, it is difficult to say. But certainly no historian can afford not to take notice of these “coincidences” which surround the history of episcopacy. There seems to be no way of reforming our theology without dealing with the question of episcopacy from the more general context of ecclesiology and particularly of the eucharist.

Since we are dealing here with history, it would be fair to add that the early Church did not altogether surrender episcopacy to the force of these changes. The historian comes across certain instruments or devices which the early Church developed more or less as antibodies to face the new changes. For example in the West the Church developed the revealing practice of the Fermentum: the bishop would send with the acolytes a portion of the eucharist which he had blessed in his cathedral to the parishes in order to be mixed with the presbyteral eucharist. This practice, which survives even in eighth-century Rome, shows that the Church never really allowed the idea to disappear that it is the bishop who presides over the eucharist of his church. In the East, where the Fermentum must also have existed in the early centuries, other liturgical customs surviving until now and having the force of strict canon law point in the same direction. For example, even today no presbyter can celebrate the eucharist except on a piece of linen (the Antimension) which bears the signature of the bishop of the place. Equally in all eucharistic celebrations the bishop’s name must be mentioned aloud right at the crucial point of the anaphora. These and other provisions indicate that, at least liturgically, the bishop continues indirectly to be regarded as the president of the eucharistic assembly of the local church. This loses its significance, however, as long as in fact the bishop is the head of a huge diocese and has no direct access to his flock which he is unable to “oversee” both liturgically and pastorally. Equally it loses its significance as long as theology is unable to justify episcopacy with reference to its original theological “raison d’être”. Episcopacy is the sick man of those who practise it. An ecumenical look at it is needed above all for the sake of those who believe in its significance.


III. Some Concluding Remarks

1. The early Church is almost a priori regarded as a hindrance to unity when it comes to episcopacy. In this paper we made a distinction between the first three centuries and the later history. Indeed this later history has divided the Church. (I believe that the Reformation attacked that kind of episcopacy). Could perhaps the earlier part be of a more positive use?

2. What is common between us and the first three centuries is that we both live in a post-apostolic age. Personally I find the return-to-the-New-Testament call in this case as the most deadly method to be adopted by a church which wishes to be alive. The New Testament, or rather the apostolic age, is irrevocably gone and cannot be copied simply because the apostles are gone and cannot be reproduced. We cannot reproduce Paul or Peter who saw the Lord and drew authority from this privilege. If history is of any help to us, it is the post-apostolic rather than the apostolic age that can offer it. Ignatius can be reproduced in that he could claim no access to the Lord more than a modern bishop can.

3. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that the post-apostolic generation opted in a way that led naturally to the Ignatian notion of episcopacy, simply by opting for the ultimate authority of the local church and associating episkopé with the eucharist. This, however, does not oblige all subsequent generations to do the same, even if the Holy Spirit was then at work, for the Holy Spirit can point to new ways at different times. We must not venerate history in a conservativistic manner. So what the first three centuries did is not obligatory for the Church today. Is there anything that period can offer?

4. If we study the content of the ministry of episcopacy in the first three centuries and the way it developed in close connection with the ecclesiology of the local church and the eucharistic community, we learn something about episcopacy which normally escapes the debates which take place. By opting for a single person in the community who would assume the ministry of episkopé precisely in the form of the eucharistic presidency, the early Church found the way to minister to the needs of catholicity on the local level. The natural and social world in which the Church lives involves divisions of all kinds (sex, race, age, profession, class, etc.). These have to be transcended in Christ and the eucharistic gathering was always understood as the event which brings about the transcendence. The turning of the president of the eucharistic assembly into the minister of the unity of the Church was found then to be essential. The same need exists at all times, since the above-mentioned problems of division remain the same.


Could the churches afford to exist without such a ministry? In fact this is a question that should be addressed both to the so-called “episcopal” churches and to the non-episcopal ones. For the episcopacy known to the former by no means corresponds to the ministry of episkopé which we find in the early Church.

5. While this proved the ministry of the episcopacy essential for the unity of the Church on the local level, the needs for a similar unity on the universal level could only be served through the same ministry, if there was to be faithfulness to the original option for the fullness of the local church. The fact that bishops became the sole decisive participants of the early Councils meant that the unity on the universal level should pass through the local church and not be independent of it. This made the unity of the Church a unity of communities and not of individuals, which would have been the case if there were no episcopal ministry through which the individual Christians would relate to the Church in the world. The same is true about the temporal aspect of communion through apostolic succession. The fact that it took place through the ministry of the bishop made apostolic succession a succession of communities.

6. Finally another aspect of the ministry concerned the coordination of the charismata of the other ministries in the community. By being the sole ordainer to the ministry, the bishop served the need of the Church to keep all its ministries relational coming from one source and belonging to one body. An episkopé over the entire charismatic and ministerial life of the Church was at that time understood not as authoritarian supervision and control but as a means of uniting the charismata into the one body of the one Christ. In this sense, by being part of the community, the early bishop was the servant of a particular need of the Church which, at that time at least, was thought to be absolutely essential.


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This is a “utilitarian” view of the ministry of episcopacy, as it developed in the early Church. Since the utilitarian argument exercises a lot of power on the churches of our time, it should be taken perhaps into account. But, to remember our duty as historians, the early Church did not plan its ministries primarily according to the needs of the time but mainly according to the vision it held on the eschatological nature of the Church which was taken quite seriously at that time. This is why the early Church kept faithfully the christological and the apostolic aspects of episkopé. Their primary concern was to maintain clearly the vision of the Kingdom always before its eyes, and episcopacy in its Ignatian form was found to be essential for such a purpose.