Within the early Church the Apostles exercised the regulative power with which Christ had endowed them. It was no chaotic mob, but a true society possessed of a structured life, and organized in various orders. The evidence shows the twelve to have possessed (a) a power of jurisdiction, in virtue of which they wielded a legislative and judicial authority, and (b) a magisterial office to teach the Divine revelation entrusted to them.
Thus (a) we find Paul authoritatively prescribing for the order and discipline of the churches. He does not advise; he directs (1 Corinthians 11:34; 16:1; Titus 1:5). He pronounces judicial sentence (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2:10), and his sentences, like those of other Apostles, receive at times the solemn sanction of miraculous punishment (1 Timothy 1:20; Acts 5:1-10). In like manner he bids his delegate Timothy hear the causes even of priests, and rebuke, in the sight of all, those who sin (1 Timothy 5:19 sq.). (b) With no less definiteness does he assert that the Apostolate carries with it a doctrinal authority, which all are bound to recognize. God has sent them, he affirms, to claim "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5; 15:18). Further, his solemnly expressed desire, that even if an angel from heaven were to preach another doctrine to the Galatians than that which he had delivered to them, he should be anathema (Galatians 1:8), involves a claim to infallibility in the teaching of revealed truth.
While the whole Apostolic College enjoyed this power in the Church, Peter always appears in that position of primacy which Christ assigned to him. It is Peter who receives into the Church the first converts, alike from Judaism and from heathenism (Acts 2:41; 10:5 sq.), who works the first miracle (Acts 3:1 sqq.), who inflicts the first ecclesiastical penalty (Acts 5:1 sqq.). It is Peter who casts out of the Church the first heretic, Simon Magus (Acts 8:21), who makes the first Apostolic visitation of the churches (Acts 9:32), and who pronounces the first dogmatic decision (Acts 15:7). So indisputable was his position that when Paul was about to undertake the work of preaching to the heathen the Gospel which Christ had revealed to him, he regarded it as necessary to obtain recognition from Peter (Galatians 1:18). More than this was not needful: for the approbation of Peter was definitive.
The evidence for the existence of a local ministry is plentiful in the later Epistles of St. Paul (Philippians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). The Epistle to the Philippians opens with a special greeting to the bishops and deacons. Those who hold these official positions are recognized as the representatives in some sort of the Church.
In the Pastoral Epistles the new situation appears even more clearly. The purpose of these writings was to instruct Timothy and Titus regarding the manner in which they were to organize the local Churches. We find the Churches governed by a hierarchical organization of bishops, sometimes also termed presbyters, and deacons. That the terms bishop and presbyter are synonymous is evident from Titus 1:5-7: "I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest . . . ordain priests in every city . . . For a bishop must be without crime." These presbyters form a corporate body (1 Timothy 4:14), and they are entrusted with the twofold charge of governing the Church (1 Timothy 3:5) and of teaching (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9). The selection of those who are to fill this post does not depend on the possession of supernatural gifts. It is required that they should not be unproved neophytes, that they should be under no charge, should have displayed moral fitness for the work, and should be capable of teaching. (1 Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9) The appointment to this office was by a solemn laying on of hands (1 Timothy 5:22). Some words addressed by St. Paul to Timothy, in reference to the ceremony as it had taken place in Timothy's case, throw light upon its nature. "I admonish thee", he writes, "that thou stir up the grace (charisma) of God, which is in thee by the laying on of my hands" (2 Timothy 1:6). The rite is here declared to be the means by which a charismatic gift is conferred; and, further, the gift in question, like the baptismal character, is permanent in its effects. The recipient needs but to "waken into life" [anazopyrein] the grace he thus possesses in order to avail himself of it. It is an abiding endowment. There can be no reason for asserting that the imposition of hands, by which Timothy was instructed to appoint the presbyters to their office, was a rite of a different character, a mere formality without practical import.
There is also mention of presbyters at Jerusalem at a date apparently immediately subsequent to the dispersion of the Apostles (Acts 11:30; cf. 15:2; 16:4; 21:18). Again, we are told that Paul and Barnabas, as they retraced their steps on their first missionary journey, appointed presbyters in every Church (Acts 14:22). So too the injunction to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:12) to have regard to those who are over them in the Lord (proistamenoi (literally their boss); cf. Romans 12:6) would seem to imply that there also Paul had invested certain members of the community with a pastoral charge.
Still more explicit is the evidence contained in the account of St. Paul's interview with the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-23). It is told that, sending from Miletus to Ephesus, he summoned "the presbyters of the Church", and in the course of his charge addressed them as follows: "Take heed to yourselves and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost has placed you bishops to tend [poimainein] the Church of God" (20:28). St. Peter employs similar language: "The presbyters that are among you, I beseech, who am myself also a presbyter . . . tend [poimainein] the flock of God which is among you." These expressions leave no doubt as to the office designated by St. Paul, when in Ephesians 4:11, he enumerates the gifts of the Ascended Lord as follows: "He gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors [tous de poimenas kai didaskalous]. The Epistle of St. James provides us with yet another reference to this office, where the sick man is bidden send for the presbyters of the Church, that he may receive at their hands the rite of unction (James 5:14).
It remains to consider whether the so-called "monarchical" episcopate was instituted by the Apostles. Besides establishing a college of presbyter-bishops, did they further place one man in a position of supremacy, entrusting the government of the Church to him, and endowing him with Apostolic authority over the Christian community? Even if we take into account the Scriptural evidence alone, there are sufficient grounds for answering this question in the affirmative.
From the time of the dispersion of the Apostles, St. James appears in an episcopal relation to the Church of Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; Galatians 2:12). In the other Christian communities the institution of "monarchical" bishops was a somewhat later development. At first the Apostles themselves fulfilled, it would seem, all the duties of supreme oversight. They established the office when the growing needs of the Church demanded it. The Pastoral Epistles leave no room to doubt that Timothy and Titus were sent as bishops to Ephesus and to Crete respectively. To Timothy full Apostolic powers are conceded. Notwithstanding his youth he holds authority over both clergy and laity. To him is confided the duty of guarding the purity of the Church's faith, of ordaining priests, of exercising jurisdiction. Moreover, St. Paul's exhortation to him, "to keep the commandment without spot, blameless, unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" shows that this was no transitory mission. A charge so worded includes in its sweep, not Timothy alone, but his successors in an office which is to last until the Second Advent. At the Council of Chalcedon, the Church of Ephesus counted a succession of twenty-seven bishops commencing with Timothy (Mansi, VII, 293; cf. Eusebius, Church History III.4-5).
These are not the sole evidences which the New Testament affords of the monarchical episcopate. In the Apocalypse the "angels" to whom the letters to the seven Churches are addressed are almost certainly the bishops of the respective communities. Some commentators, indeed, have held them to be personifications of the communities themselves. But this explanation can hardly stand. St. John, throughout, addresses the angel as being responsible for the community precisely as he would address its ruler. Moreover, in the symbolism of chapter 1, the two are represented under different figures: the angels are the stars in the right hand of the Son of Man; the seven candlesticks are the image which figures the communities. The very term angel, it should be noticed, is practically synonymous with apostle, and thus is aptly chosen to designate the episcopal office.
Again the messages to Archippus (Colossians 4:17; Philemon 2) imply that he held a position of special dignity, superior to that of the other presbyters. The mention of him in a letter entirely concerned with a private matter, as is that to Philemon, is hardly explicable unless he were the official head of the Colossian Church. We have therefore four important indications of the existence of an office in the local Churches, held by a single person, and carrying with it Apostolical authority. Nor can any difficulty be occasioned by the fact that as yet no special title distinguishes these successors of the Apostles from the ordinary presbyters. It is in the nature of things that the office should exist before a title is assigned to it. The name of apostle, we have seen, was not confined to the Twelve. St. Peter (1 Peter 5:1) and St. John (2 and 3 John 1:1) both speak of themselves as presbyters". St. Paul speaks of the Apostolate as a diakonia. A parallel case in later ecclesiastical history is afforded by the word pope. This title was not appropriated to the exclusive use of the Holy See till the eleventh century. Yet no one maintains that the supreme pontificate of the Roman bishop was not recognized till then. It should cause no surprise that a precise terminology, distinguishing bishops, in the full sense, from the presbyter-bishops, is not found in the New Testament.
The conclusion reached is put beyond all reasonable doubt by the testimony of the sub-Apostolic Age. This is so important in regard to the question of the episcopate that it is impossible entirely to pass it over. It will be enough, however, to refer to the evidence contained in the epistles of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, himself a disciple of the Apostles. In these epistles (about A.D. 107) he again and again asserts that the supremacy of the bishop is of Divine institution and belongs to the Apostolic constitution of the Church. He goes so far as to affirm that the bishop stands in the place of Christ Himself. "When ye are obedient to the bishop as to Jesus Christ," he writes to the Trallians, "it is evident to me that ye are living not after men, but after Jesus Christ. . . be ye obedient also to the presbytery as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ" (Letter to the Trallians 2). He also incidentally tells us that bishops are found in the Church, even in "the farthest parts of the earth" (Letter to the Ephesians 3) It is out of the question that one who lived at a period so little removed from the actual Apostolic Age could have proclaimed this doctrine in terms such as he employs, had not the episcopate been universally recognized as of Divine appointment.
It has been seen that Christ not only established the episcopate in the persons of the Twelve but, further, created in St. Peter the office of supreme pastor of the Church. Early Christian history tells us that before his death, he fixed his residence at Rome, and ruled the Church there as its bishop. It is from Rome that he dates his first Epistle, speaking of the city under the name of Babylon, a designation which St. John also gives it in the Apocalypse (c. xviii). At Rome, too, he suffered martyrdom in company with St. Paul, A.D. 67. The list of his successors in the see is known, from Linus, Anacletus, and Clement, who were the first to follow him, down to the reigning pontiff. The Church has ever seen in the occupant of the See of Rome the successor of Peter in the supreme pastorate.