Dissenting Catholic scholars love to trot out the “real story” about how the original Church of Rome was not ruled by a sole bishop, but by a council of presbyters. Of course, they create this version of church history so that they can dissent from the Pope who is the Bishop of Rome.
Their theory goes like this:
Even though Judaism was hierarchical, all “early Christians” in the first century were egalitarian and opposed to hierarchy. The Church of Rome in the first century also was egalitarian and was ruled by a council of elders or presbyters. The political structure of the “mono-episcopate” or “rule by one bishop” only developed in the second century when the church began to require institutional structure.
Dissenters appeal to two ancient sources in order to “prove” their opinion:
First, they appeal to the Epistle of Clement (written in AD 80s or 90s) and claim that the letter doesn’t mention a singular bishop of Rome. Instead, they claim that the Epistle of Clement is actually the “Letter of a Roman Committee to which Clement belonged.”
Secondly, they cite Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Church of Rome, which, unlike his other letters, fails to mention a singular bishop of Rome by name.
These two sources are supposed to be a slam dunk argument against the Catholic belief that Peter was the first “bishop of Rome” and that Peter was succeeded by Linus, Anacletus, Clement, Evarstus…John Paul II, and finally by Benedict XVI.
Well, I’ve got bad news for all of them. You wanna know why? Well, the Epistle of Saint Clement explicitly teaches that each city is ruled by a single bishop, surrounded by priests and his deacons. Did you get that? Saint Clement taught the mono-episcopate…
Don’t let the Protestants or Catholic dissenters fool you. If you actually read the Epistle of Clement, you’ll come across this passage where Clement discusses Christian worship. Here he explains that only one man (the bishop) fulfills “peculiar services” of Jesus Christ for the local church:
[Christ] has enjoined offerings to be presented and service to be performed to Him, and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him.
For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen” (1 Clement 40).
Here we find Clement describing the structure of the Church. We have a high priest to whom Christ’s “own peculiar services are assigned.” We have a plurality of priests. We have the deacons, who are often called “Levites” in the early church. Last of all, we have the laymen. This is the exact structure of every Catholic diocese on earth! We called it the “threefold order” of the bishop, priests, and deacons.
As to the the silence of Ignatius of Antioch (AD 108) regarding the name of the bishop of Rome – Ignatius does not say that there isn’t a bishop of Rome – he merely remains silent on the matter. This is for good reason. Rome is the capital of the pagan Roman Empire. It would be rather irresponsible to reveal the name of the Christian Roman leader, especially since the bishop of Rome lived there within its walls!
So next time you hear someone say, “Well, the Church of Rome didn’t really have a bishop in the early days,” immediately do three things:
- Have the person read 1 Clement 40
- Explain why it would have been imprudent for Ignatius to have mentioned the bishop of Rome by name
- Say: “boom-shaka-laka”