The Ancient Church of Rome was Ruled by a Single Bishop (Rome’s Early Mono-Episcopate)

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…

At this point, I’d like to interrupt the post with a loud:

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:

  1. Have the person read 1 Clement 40
  2. Explain why it would have been imprudent for Ignatius to have mentioned the bishop of Rome by name
  3. Say: “boom-shaka-laka”
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  • Dustin

    Hi Dr. Marshall,

    Love your show! I am a former Muslim and Calvinist, and I will be received into the church by God’s grace next Easter.

    I don’t want to be contentious, so please forgive me; I really pray I don’t come off presumptuous and the Holy Spirit helps me respond in humility and love to this post. This issue of the monoepiscopacy – in no uncertain terms – has caused me a lot of anxiety; I have been up many nights reading, thinking, and praying…even getting sick to my stomach about this. I say this to say that I’m not commenting as a person who has any authority whatsoever. I have very little knowledge and am still a baby Christian.

    But I have noticed some trends. Yes, liberal scholars and non-Catholics with an agenda have put forth that Ignatius of Antioch invented the structure of one bishop per city; that’s true. However, I think they might present it as an innovation (which the church doesn’t condone). But what if – along Newmanian lines – it is a legitimate development of doctrine, guided by the Spirit, the Lord working through history, and unfolding further the deposit of faith (the seeds of the oak tree have always been there; this is key, just like the development of the papacy) and guiding the church’s self understanding as the needs arise?

    Why do I say this? Because this isn’t just the view of protestants and Catholic liberal dissenters. Dr. Robert Louis Wilken, in his book, First Thousand Years, and Dr. Jim Papandrea (I’ve heard several of his church history lectures online), in Reading the Church Fathers, for example, present a similar development. Dr. Wilken is a Distinguished Fellow at Scott Hahn’s St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and Dr. Papandrea is also listed on the site; I believe you’re on there, too. 🙂 All three of you distinguished gentlemen are converts and have appeared on “The Journey Home” with Marcus Grodi. Again, I would not call Drs. Papandrea and Wilken liberals, much less dissenters. And please understand: I’m not saying you are saying that; but if we follow this blog post – which is maybe oversimplifying the issue – to its conclusion, that “could” be an implication. Please consider the following from Father Blankenhorn of Blessed-Sacrament (Orthodox Catholic) parish in Seattle, in his lecture on St. Ignatius:

    As in St. Paul and the Didache, Clement insists that a local community is ruled by a group
    of bishops or presbyters (two terms for the same office). Clement makes no mention of the
    prophets. This is logical. The Didache reflects an older Church
    structure, going back to the middle of the 1st century, and maybe
    even beyond. Clement is speaking about
    the actual situation in the 90’s A.D..
    As Churches became established, the need for visiting prophets declined. The prophets or “itinerant priests” were no
    longer needed, as the “local priests” (bishops or presbyters) were able to
    govern, teach and lead the prayer of the community on their own.

    Ignatius uses the biblical terms of bishop, presbyter and deacon but manifests a more developed
    Church structure. For the first time,
    bishops and presbyters have clearly distinct offices. The shift seems to have happened sometime
    between 90 and 110 A.D., which is remarkable.
    Just as important, instead of a council of bishops guiding the local
    Church, Ignatius speaks of one bishop.
    The bishop’s council is the college of presbyters, who are subordinate
    to him. The deacons are on the third
    rank, whereas they were the lower half of a two-tier system before.

    Some argue that with Ignatius, “the lady
    protests too much,” that he is trying to impose a new structure onto his
    readers. But Clement of Rome protests
    much as well, while clearly insisting that the established church
    structures and authority be maintained.
    If Clement is not instituting something new, but rather calling the
    Corinthians back to the structure that was properly put in place by the
    apostles themselves, there is no need to suspect Ignatius of radical
    innovation. The novelty is found simply
    in the split between the office of bishop and presbyter and the reduction of
    the council of bishops to a single bishop for each local Church. The rest sounds a great deal like Paul and Clement. Finally, Ignatius is constantly
    arguing for tradition and against novelties, whether in Christology or other
    theological issues. The imposition of a
    whole new Church structure onto the communities in Asia Minor would have struck
    his readers as hypocrisy from this voice of tradition. The two developments he offers look very much like the natural unfolding of structures that were well-established in the 1st

    Ignatius is clearly reflecting the Church structure already present in Antioch and its
    province of Syria, where he himself was bishop.
    He also writes to Churches in Asia Minor, where the same three-tier
    structure with the single bishop per community seems to be well
    established. His concern is to exhort
    the Christians to be loyal to their present leaders, just like
    Clement (and Paul in his letters). As in
    Clement, there is no mention of the prophets.

    Were the three-fold structure and the “monarchical episcopate” (one bishop instead
    of a council) already in place throughout the Church by 110 A.D.? We do not know for sure. We do know that by the middle of the 2nd
    century, every Christian community with the exception of Alexandria had this
    structure in place, and Alexandria would soon follow. More strikingly, amidst various theological
    and pastoral disputes, there was no debate over the implementation of the
    monarchical episcopate and the three-fold structure. Everyone also accepted the bishops as the
    legitimate successors of the apostles.
    The lone voice of dissent came from the Gnostics (see Sullivan, Magisterium

    And the following from Dr. Papandrea (The History and Meaning of Ordination in the Pre-Reformation Church, paper)

    With the letter of I Clement, written in the early 90’s of the first century, we begin to see a more
    formalized hierarchy emerge. Somewhere between the time of the apostles and the time of Clement (bishop of Rome 88 – 97 CE), cities with multiple house churches began the tradition of
    house church pastors meeting periodically as an informal council. These councils naturally
    developed the practice of choosing one of their own to speak for the council in correspondence
    with the Christians in other cities. This person functioned as the chair of the council, but at first
    the chair of the council was only a spokesperson, authorized to do and say what the council
    advised. Eventually, a shift took place in which the council no longer told the chair what to do,
    but the chair told the council what to do.

    He continues:

    Ignatius of Antioch, writing about 110 CE, argued passionately that no meeting of Christians should be held without the sanction of the local bishop. Of course, the fact that he felt the need
    to prohibit such meetings meant that they were happening, probably in the context of early
    Docetic/Gnostic subgroups within the church. Ignatius’ protestations that there should also be
    only one bishop in each city imply that not everyone was on board with his program, and that
    there were in fact cities with more than one bishop. But for Ignatius, the unity of the church
    required a centralized authority, and so one must obey the bishop as if one were obeying the Lord himself, and to oppose the bishop was the very definition of schism

    This chair then became an “overseer,” not of a house church, but of the leaders of the house churches, with authority over the other pastors. At some point, the term episcopos
    began to be used exclusively for the chair of the council, and the distinction between “bishop” and “priest” was born.

    I have both Fr. Blankenhorn’s lecture and Dr. Papandrea’s paper in Word documents, Dr. Marshall, if you would like, I can send you the files (they’re both nice and short).

    I pray I didn’t offend in any way; if so, please accept my apologies. Like I said, this issue has driven me nuts (I’m anxious even writing right now). Not to say you’re “wrong” on the person of St. Clement being an authority (I’m sure Drs. Wilken and Papandrea would agree) at the time of his letter, but I think the context in which he is the authority – the context being the stage of development (again, I’m not saying this is a novelty; it’s in the apostolic deposit of faith) of the church’s hierarchy at the time he is writing – is so key here; and I don’t really see that in this particular blog post (though, I know there’s only so much time and space for blogs).

    Please let me know if you’d like me to email you those two files.

    God bless you and your family, Dr. Marshall. Have a great day!


  • Dustin

    Hello again Dear Dr. Marshall,

    I just wanted to add that Archbishop of Vancouver J Michael Miller’s book, The Shepherd and the Rock (Nihil Obstat) confirms the information I mentioned earlier. I was just reading chapter 3; and he presents the transition from a group of presbyter-bishops in the first century, to a single monarchical bishop in the second, in the context of valid development of doctrine from the deposit of faith and the work of the holy spirit according to the will of christ, as historical needs arose – and posing no problem for Petrine and apostolic succession. He does state that Clement would have spoken for his council of presbyter-bishops of course.

    I got the book from the library tonight and hope you don’t mind me sharing that with you brother. The Archbishop has appeared on Catholic Answers Live and his book has been endorsed and praised by that apostolate.

    With love in Christ,


  • Jim Papandrea

    Hi Taylor,
    First of all, I loved Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages! I just want to clarify that my comments about the development of the mono-episcopacy really apply to cities other than Rome (or for that matter any city with an apostle as its founder). Where there was no apostle to choose his own successor, the mono-episcopacy did go through some development and probably began as a council. But I am certainly not making the anti-hierarchy argument. In fact, as I argue in my book, the hierarchy was (and is) essential to maintain unity. Still, you have to remember a couple of things. Number one, there was no uniformity across the empire, so just because something happened a certain way in Rome does not mean it happened that way in every city. And two, at the very beginning of the church in any city, when there was only one congregation in the whole city – the priest WAS the bishop. I do believe that Peter can be called the first bishop of Rome, but on the other hand that office was not what the office of bishop is today – so we know the office developed over time. I do believe that Clement was the sole bishop of Rome when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, but on the other hand we know that there was still a council of priests in Rome in the third century (Hippolytus says Noetus was called before the council). I appreciate Dustin’s enthusiasm, and desire to learn. I just think this is not an “either-or” issue, but more of a “both-and” issue. In Rome in the 90s of the first century, yes, there was one bishop (though we know that was challenged at times later). But in other cities, even 20 years later when Ignatius writes, that was not necessarily the case. I hope that makes my position a little clearer (and if not, let’s continue the dialogue!). I think ultimately we are on the same page with the big picture, but at the same time we need to take into account all the early sources. – Jim Papandrea, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Church History

    • Dustin

      Dear Dr. Papandrea,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to clarify and expound on your position more. I think it’s a both-and issue, too, and don’t see mutual exclusivity. In fact, many non (anti)-Catholics – I’ve seen this online – use the 2nd century development of the monoepiscopate as a stick with which to beat Catholics over the proverbial head; as if to say: “AHA! Your own scholars ADMIT there’s a development here! ” Then the well-meaning Catholic tries to make a defense by insisting, “No, it’s ALWAYS been this way.” leaving the person on the other side of the table with a picture of Catholicism as anachronistic.

      However, I see this as, believe it or not, a positive, encouraging and faith-enhancing element of the development of doctrine; and it frustrates and baffles me that non-Catholics use it to criticize the faith (and why other well meaning Catholics do so under the banner of liberalism, etc.). Dare I say that the development of the monoepiscopacy, when properly contextualized and nuanced (as Dr. Papandrea has done so well here), actually strengthens the Catholic case, striking that perfect balance between faith and reason?

      I mean, if someone said to me that the monoepiscopate didn’t really emerge until the second century, and they cast it in a negative light, I’d say, “I know. Praise God!” To me, it’s great for apologetics and evangelization. It’s a witness to the beauty of the faith: we don’t hide from – we celebrate – that doctrine develops and the Church of Christ is a living, breathing, divine institution.

      Thank you guys and God bless you both richly.