Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 21, 1970

How It Got Started

Wm. E. Wallace

A prominent bishop of Antioch of Syria became involved in difficulties with the Romans and like Paul the apostle he journeyed to Rome for trial (c. 117 A.D.). This bishop, Ignatius, lived in a time when movements were in the making to consolidate and stablize the church against divisions, heresy, and persecution.

On his way to Rome Ignatius penned a number of letters to various churches in which he appealed for the authority of a single bishop as distinguished from the eldership or presbytery. He was reflecting the trend of the times toward an "overlord" in every church whose authority would serve to create or maintain unity, orthodoxy, and stability. His writings set forth an unscriptural distinction between the bishop and the presbytery.

Epistles By Ignatius

In a number of passages he is more than clear in arguing for the overlordship of one elder over the others. In his epistle to the Ephesians (Chapter VI) he asserts, "It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord himself." In the epistle to the Magnesians [sic] he observes that "the bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons..." (Ch. VI). In his epistle to the Romans (Chapter XI) he refers to himself as the "bishop of Syria."

The idea of the authority of overlordship of one bishop in a congregation characterizes the writings of Ignatius, as he seeks to unify and consolidate brethren around local and area one-man bishoprics.

"Catholic Church"

Ignatius was the first to use the term "Catholic Church" (Letter to Smyrneans VIII:2): "Where the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." In this, Ignatius is teaching that the true universal church is seen in localities where members are in subjection to a bishop overlord.

The writings of the "bishop of Syria" show how reaction to the problems of heresy, division, and persecution in a rapidly growing brotherhood laid the foundation for a restructuring of church organization and a perverting of the simplicity of the New Testament arrangement.

As the church moved into the middle of the second century, an unscriptural episcopacy was gaining control and congregations were destined to lose their autonomy as the local overlords expanded their domains to area and regional settings.

As the local, area and regional episcopacies became entrenched, they became sources of the very things they were supposed to resist. The various overlords embraced heresies and the church was marked with movements and schisms led by opposing bishops and the leading theologians of the time.

In the latter half of the second century the church was breaking up into a number of sectarian divisions. Heresies and factions were turning the "church" into a many splintered movement.


Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, set out to define the true faith and to refute the various heresies. He sought to overwhelm heresy with his prolific writings. In seeking to defend "orthodoxy" and authority he argued for the presence and protection of truth in a perpetual succession of bishops from the apostles. In his Book II, chapter 1, he stated,

"It is within the power of all, therefore, in every church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and (to demonstrate) the succession of these men to our own times . . . ."

He argues especially for a line of succession in the church of Rome, from the apostles Peter and Paul, and for "the faith preached to men, which comes to our time by means of the succession of bishops." (Book III, 2).

In this same context he contends for the primacy of the church at Rome: "For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority."

Thus the reaction to the splintering of the church was to unify it around an "orthodoxy" offered by the bishop of Rome and other overlords who were in harmony with him.

(To be continued.)