How the Papacy Was Born

Ask anyone who attends a church what the leadership structure is, and you’ll get various answers. Some people have a pastorate, presbytery (elders), and a diaconate (deacons). Others have the pastorate and diaconate (e.g., Baptists). We have presbytery and diaconate with the ministers acting in a role akin to the monarchy of England—we really have no power but yield influence. It’s become common to refer to the preacher as “pastor” in nearly every tradition except the high church traditions where they’re notably called “priest” or “father.” Among us, such preachers are the minister unless also an elder. He can be called pastor then but is usually not.

The person standing in the pulpit is usually esteemed differently than what he would have been in the early church. Church leaders in the New Testament were well thought of but not venerated. They would have been respected for their station and looked to for concrete leadership since the Gospel Way was usually oral more than literary. The Hebrew Scriptures were indeed used in the early church, as they were in the synagogue. Still, the first-century church lacked a complete New Testament as we have today. Instead, they had the leaders of the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11) and in the congregations (Acts 14:23) to guide them. Additionally, the early church liturgy included robustly doctrinal hymns instead of modern praise and worship one witnesses in most churches. The ancient hymns were statements of belief, and when chanted repetitiously, even the simplest of Christians was capable of repeating them to explain Christianity (Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–20; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1–3; 1 Peter 2:21–25).

By the end of the second century, Ignatius’ tripartite polity was common throughout the church. After all, his urging Christians to submit to their bishops in all things would have ensured that the one bishop was regarded as the protector of truth. He was a local bishop of a city at the time, but later the position would grow to a territory. By the end of the second century, Hegesippus and Irenaeus had produced lists of bishops throughout various cities. The latter would draw up a list of bishops and strengthen such by arguing their succession from apostles.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the [Roman] Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.

Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.3

Gnostic teachers first claimed an apostolic succession of their teachers, so Irenaeus’ list became a hallmark of the orthodox faith taught in churches. The Roman church rose to prominence for numerous reasons, the least of which entailed Peter and Paul having ministered there for several years. 

The Rise of Roman Primacy

The church at Rome had emerged as a leader of Christianity by the end of the second century. “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this [Roman] Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (Iren., Ag. Her. 3.3.2). Being the capital of the empire also had its perks. The Roman church grew immensely during the second and third centuries. Despite being as large as they were, they maintained fidelity in preserving apostolic traditions. Their wealth allowed them to be noticed for their charity, often sending aid to the churches throughout the known world when needed. Some of the members held political positions of influence in the empire as well. This congregation was known to have had direct contact with Peter and Paul, who were put to death in the city.[1] These factors elevated this church throughout the universal assembly of Christians. In time, this notoriety would vest significant authority in the church’s bishop.

Though Peter is often touted as the first pope and founder of the Roman church, history and Scripture would dictate otherwise. When Pentecost came in either the late twenties or early thirties CE, “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10), were among those who heard the good news. Jews had lived in Rome as far back as the second century BCE, with many more becoming slaves due to Pompey’s triumph in the first century BCE. Among the Jews who came for Pentecost were also proselytes—Gentiles who’d fully converted to Judaism.[2] That both existed in Rome indicates that a converted Gentile population already identified as Jewish, so the mix of Jew/Gentile in Rome existed before even the church’s first Pentecost.

When Paul wrote his letter to the church, he made no mention of Peter. Paul’s close familiars, Aquila and Prisca, met him in Corinth when Jews were exiled from Rome, suggesting that the church was already in existence (Acts 18:1–2). Peter went to Rome in 42 CE after having been a bishop of Antioch.[3] As an elder in Rome (1 Peter 5:1, 13), Peter may have aided the church in becoming better structured and ordered, but he didn’t establish the congregation. Paul wouldn’t arrive in Rome until 60 CE and would live there and minister for at least two years (Acts 28:30). After that, we don’t entirely know where he went until the traditional date of his and Peter’s martyrdom in 67 CE. Given the time they spent in Rome, they would have been able to make headways and solidify Christian orthodoxy that would have been the envy of the church.

Ignatius, Clement, and Hermas wrote to the Roman church in the late first and early second centuries. In their writings, the Roman church had a plurality of presbyters-bishops and not a pope. Near the end of the second century, an ongoing debate on the proper date of Easter persisted. Until this time, peaceful tolerance over this difference had prevailed, but the discussion flared up again. Bishops from all over called meetings to discuss this. Some in Asia reaffirmed the practice of observing Easter on the 14th day of Nisan regardless of which day of the week it fell.

In contrast, the others insisted that it should always be celebrated on a Sunday. Victor of Rome grew frustrated by this ongoing controversy and attempted to excommunicate the Asian churches for their view (Hist. Eccl. 5.24.9). This was likely the first time a Roman bishop exercised power over the church universal. Still, this attempt at ex-communication failed despite Sunday being the day that prevailed. Nearly fifty years later, however, Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen of Rome disputed over baptism. Stephen of Rome invoked Matthew 16:18 for the first time to assert Roman privilege. By 382 CE, that text was solidified as a passage of Roman primacy since the see of Rome was then taught to have succeeded Peter. Then, the occupier of Peter’s see became regarded as holding priority over others but was not then necessarily head of the church universal.[4]  

The Papacy as We Know It

As time went on and Christianity grew, the bishop over a capital city or province became known as a metropolitan. Among the metropolitans, those in a city with a more extraordinary claim to apostolic succession were given the title of patriarch. This form of church polity was extant at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. An enormous issue arose when Constantine, in 330 CE, relocated the empire’s capital from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). This city, so named after the emperor, was referred to as “New Rome.” Some believed that the relocation of the imperial capital meant a change for the church, but Rome did not take well to this belief. If the seat of imperial power now rested in Constantinople, fine. However, the Roman church was still to be esteemed as first among equals because both Peter and Paul had pastored there, thus giving them the purest form of Christianity. The first three patriarchates were Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Later added to them were Constantinople and Jerusalem. The Nicene Council gave more tremendous honor to Rome and Constantinople, but not authority.

At the Council of Chalcedon (c. 451), equal privileges were given to Constantinople as Rome wielded. These two sees were constantly battling over power and prestige. The Patriarch of Constantinople in 595 assumed the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch.” John the Faster, who’d taken that title, provoked Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) to petition the emperor, requesting that he not acknowledge such. By this time, the Western Roman Empire had fallen, and people in the West looked to Gregory for a sense of continuity. Being from a senatorial family, one might think that Emperor Maurice would have weighed this. Still, instead, he acknowledged John the Faster as Ecumenical Patriarch. Maurice was slain by a usurper a few years later, and Gregory sent letters praising the new emperor. Emperor Phocas would, in 606, transfer the title “Universal Bishop” to Boniface III, thus establishing the Roman supremacy of the pope. As you might imagine, the Eastern church didn’t accept this.

[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 138.

[2] Horace portrayed the Jews as forceful in their proselytizing (Sat. 1.4.142–3; cf. Matt. 23:15). Many were Jews by conversion rather than by birth (Acts 13:43. Cf. Juvenal, Sat. 14.102–03). A Gentile could become Jewish by circumcision, immersion, and a sacrifice (Keritot 9a; cf. Pesahim 8.8; Exod. 24:8).However, Gentile conversion was not always welcomed and in some cases was even rejected.

[3] Jerome, On Illustrious Men 1.

[4] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 237–38.

From Presbyterian to Monepiscopacy in Early Christianity

My earliest memories in a church were with my grandfather at New Hope Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. I often napped during worship, being younger than eight, and when granddad sang with the choir, a sweet elderly lady had charge over me. When they built a new state-of-the-art facility, we went from the quaint and charming church to the larger sanctuary, where eventually a full-on band would become a regularity. In the old building, we had but a piano, and that was it. There were drums, congas, and various other instruments and performances in the new building that seemed to dominate the service before too long. 

Fast-forward to when my mother met and married my stepfather, I was around nine or ten, and he attended a church of Christ. It was a culture shock. No instruments. No choir. The focus was more so on the sermon than the music. Very different. As a pre-teen, I attended church camp, and one of my uncles sat me down and talked to me about the gospel, sin, and salvation. At Taylor Christian Camp, I confessed Christ and was immersed in the creek, and became a follower of Jesus. An imperfect one at that, but a Christian.

When my (now) wife and I began dating at sixteen, I’d attend mass with her at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Madison, TN, and she would attend services with me. I found the Catholic Church interesting because it was unlike anything to which I’d been accustomed. I had questions. She had questions. We explored our belief in Jesus and what our respective churches did and taught. Still, we ultimately agreed that Scripture would have the final say. When she was seventeen, she confessed Christ as her Lord and was immersed at church camp of all places.

She had already resolved never to attend church as an adult because it was forced on her child, so she believed. Because we agreed that Scripture, not the clergy, should guide our walk with Jesus, she concluded that her christening as an unconsenting child wasn’t faith. Faith is necessary to salvation. As Paul told the Ephesians, we are saved by grace through faith, and the obedience that follows is our yielding to Jesus and His way, the Way. However, something began troubling me. Why were there so many different versions of Christianity? Why was what we did right and others wrong, assuming that was true? Were we even correct to start with? What if, as my wife had concluded, I’d been wrong for so long?

For context’s sake, my wife’s family was predominantly Catholic, and that’s all she had known. My family, however, was an assortment of various beliefs. We were Baptist but had aunts and uncles that were sort of charismatic—Church of God. I had cousins that were Mormons and other kin that were Methodists. My wife’s family was Catholic, and now I’m “church of Christ,” as one might say. What’s right? I began an exploration of this topic. What does the New Testament teach, and when did things start to change? That’s what I wanted to find out. Thankfully, a dear friend and mentor pointed me to Everett Ferguson’s work. Specifically, his book, Early Christians Speak, and so began my love of church history. I’d actually write my doctoral dissertation on Christian hospitality in the early church into late antiquity. I absolutely love history. It has been a great aid in determining why I believe what I believe and still believe.

Looking to the Top

I came to learn about first-century Christianity that many people couldn’t read. Only a few had access to the writings that now make up the New Testament because not every church had a complete Old and New Testament in them. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves how the church functioned without a New Testament. Obviously, in the first century, there were apostles, prophets, teachers (1 Cor. 12:28), evangelists, and pastors (Eph. 4:11). These people led the church and guarded sound doctrine (orthodoxy) and, in turn, passed it on to others who would take up their mantle (cf. 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2). Congregations weren’t relegated to a building on the local level as we tend to envision Christianity in America. It was typically by locale. House churches were dispersed throughout a city or province, with elders appointed over the saints in those areas (Acts 14:23). They guided, taught, and shepherded God’s people, and a part of their position was to guard sound doctrine among the saints (Titus 1:5–9).

In the New Testament, the terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” were used interchangeably of the same ministry (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–4). No one man had the title and oversaw a congregation, but a plurality of such men (cf. Phil. 1:1). They were responsible for those among them (1 Peter 5:2), so their oversight couldn’t have spread to other areas over which they knew little. The apostles, however, were leaders of the church in its universal sense. They could order and rebuke as the Lord willed. The elders of those congregations throughout the ancient world were to maintain what the apostles taught. Since we lack the apostolic presence today, this is why we rely upon Scripture. Moreover, the ancient church saw the apostles capable of imparting a measure of the Holy Spirit that would have proved beneficial to the congregations through spiritual gifts such as prophecy and the like. We lack such miraculous means today, but we do have the Scriptures, and they are sufficient.

Aiding the pastors in their works were deacons. The term “deacon” sounds churchy, but it means to minister or serve when translated. Deacons were often paired with elders (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3) and subordinates. Timothy was regarded as a deacon despite our English Bibles translating the word as “minister” (1 Tim. 4:6). What’s likely is that he was regarded as something other than just a deacon because of the particular task given to him among the Ephesians. Just as one term can have several different meanings, it was given a different meaning to Timothy.

In such a case as Timothy being a minister, this would constitute the third class of church leadership behind the elders but seemingly equal to the deacons. Timothy was gifted and appointed by the elders and endowed with a measure of the Holy Spirit’s gifts by Paul (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). I think that it would be safe to say that such men didn’t wear the clerical dress (Matt. 23:5), equated themselves with God (cf. Acts 10:25–26), and bore no religious titles (Eph. 6:21; Phil. 2:25; Col. 1:7; 4:7). It might be safe to say that those who led the church in orthodoxy, service, and ministry were relatively simple and faithful as many would endeavor to be in the years that followed. However, circumstances would arise that would bring about changes in the way the church operated. These changes would eventually result in the Western Church departing from the apostolic polity of the church.

The Second Generation of Christians

Do you remember the biblical story when Jesus brought a child before His apostles and urged that they become like the child to see the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1–5)? Later tradition claims that the child later became a leader in the church. His name was Ignatius, and he served in the Antiochene Church. There’s a little dispute around when he was a bishop of Antioch. If we follow the Orthodox ecclesial history, Peter was the first bishop. Evodius or Ignatius was the second or third bishop following Peter. Regardless, in or around 69 CE, Ignatius became a church leader in his mid-thirties or early forties. Before this time, he had been a disciple of the Apostle John with a dear friend and brother, Polycarp.[1]

Ignatius was martyred between 98–117 CE, with 108 being a rather popular date. As he journeyed to Rome from Antioch in Syria, he and the soldiers guarding him made some stops along the way. Ignatius would write several letters during visits as he headed for his martyrdom. We see in them a change in the polity of the church. Consider that Ignatius was the second generation of Christian leaders, so he wasn’t as concerned with being a “New Testament Christian” because such wasn’t a blip on the radar then. He was concerned with maintaining orthodoxy among the churches. In the local church, he believed that the bishop, an elevated elder with ties to an apostle, was the one to do just that.

Since, then, I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas you most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow-servant the deacon Sotion, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to the bishops as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ, [I now write you].

Ignatius, Magnesians 2

This is among the earliest letters when the ministry of elder (presbyters) and bishop are separate rather than a particular position in the New Testament. As the letters go on, the views become more evolved.

For when you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ’s way, who for our sakes suffered death that you might believe in his death and so escape dying yourselves. It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ …. Those too who are deacons of Jesus Christ’s “mysteries” must give complete satisfaction to everyone. For they do not serve mere food and drink, but minister to God’s Church.

Ignatius, Traillians 2.1–3

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist [Lord’s Supper] which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitle also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

Ignatius, Smyrneans 8

Now, if Ignatius introduced something new, evidence should exist that supports my earlier conclusion, right?

One source that dates to the sixties acknowledges bishops and deacons (Didache 15.1), while another that dates to the last decade of the first century does as well (1 Clement 42.4–5). Even Ignatius’ contemporary and fellow disciple under John, Polycarp, saw the church as administered by presbyters and deacons (Philippians 5.2; 6.1). Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians was written around Ignatius’s death and after his letters. Still, for some reason, Christianity adopted his threefold structure. The early fifth-century scholar Jerome wrote that a presbyter and bishop were the same things. The distinction came in, he writes, in Alexandria during Mark the Evangelist (c. 49–74 CE)—author of the gospel. Jerome wrote that the presbyters elected a bishop from among them to hold a more exalted position just as an army elects a general (Letter 146.1). The conclusion about elders and bishops being one and the same, as I mentioned earlier, is the same position that Jerome took a few centuries after Ignatius and others ran with the Ignatian structure. Upon further studying Jerome’s views on the matter, church historian Philip Schaff wrote that Jerome believed this to have been a “custom of the church” to root out heresies.[2]

Final Thoughts

As changes such as these began, the greater authority would be vested in those holding official positions in the church. The result would be two classes of Christians: clergy and laity. The clergy would emerge as the authoritative figures. Therefore, what the clergy said, went. Heresies that arose in the first and second centuries were the impetus to the tripartite congregational polity, but it wouldn’t stop there.

[1] See Andrew Stephen Damick, Bearing God: The Life and Works of St. Ignatius of Antioch the God-Bearer (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publications, 2017).

[2] In George Park Fisher, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 52.

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