The Visible, Hierarchical, Apostolic Church in the Bible
Posted by Tony Listi on September 18, 2007
Catholics believe that the Church is both organism and organization, not merely the former. This organization is divinely instituted and biblical and therefore not optional or of secondary importance.
The bishops, by Christ’s intention, are the successors of the Apostles. The Roman Catholic Church traces herself back historically in an unbroken succession to the Apostles and the early Church (apostolic succession). The RCC thus emphasizes historical and doctrinal continuity.
Protestants emphasize biblical authority, and Catholics ecclesiastical and episcopal leadership, and Tradition. But if the Bible points to and encourages submission to the latter, then the two types of authority cannot (biblically) be opposed.
Command for Unity
There is constant warning (especially by St. Paul) against and prohibition of divisions, schisms, and sectarianism, either by command, or by counterexample: Matt 12:25, 16:18; Jn 10:16, 17:20-23; Acts 4:32; Rom 13:13, 16:17; 1 Cor 1:10-13, 3:3-4, 10:17, 11:18-19, 12:12-27, 14:33; 2 Cor 12:2; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 4:3-6; Phil 1:27, 2:2-3; 1 Tim 6:3-5; Titus 3:9-10; James 3:16; 2 Peter 2:1.
So all of us need to realize these schisms among us are not God’s will for the Church. We need to find out how and why they happened and try to be one Church again.
Prediction of Later Division and Corruption
The Bible clearly teaches that the Church (especially in its institutional sense) comprises saints and sinners, good and bad (Mt 13:24-30; cf Mt 3:12; Mt 13:47-50, 22:1-14, 25:1-30)
St. Paul, in addressing elders (Acts 20:17), states that the Holy Spirit himself has made them bishops (episkopos in Greek) yet from among these very same men, heretics and schismatics would arise (Acts 20:30).
Visibility and Oneness
Other passages that presuppose a visible, identifiable, “concrete” Church include Mt 18:15-17, in which believers are exhorted to take errant and obstinate brothers to the Church, which will then determine the appropriate verdict. It would be contrary to the tenor of the NT if this were a reference to a local church alone–apart from the impractical consequences of such a scenario, namely that the sinner would simply attend another denomination and move on with his life, as is tragically all too often the case today.
In 1 Tim 3:15, St. Paul describes the church of the living God as “the pillar and bulwark of truth.” Such a statement is nonsensical in the context of competing and often contradictory denominations. Only within the sphere of a serious attempt at actual visible oneness of doctrine can this verse attain any pragmatic possibility.
St. Paul was not some spiritual “lone ranger,” on his own, with no particular ecclesiastical allegiance. He went to see St. Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days in order to be confirmed in his calling (Gal 1:18) and 14 years later was commissioned by Peter, James, and John (Gal 2:1-2, 9)
The New Testament refers basically to three types of permanent offices in the Church: bishops (episkopos in Greek), elders (presbyteros, from which the word “priest” is derived), and deacons (diakonos). Bishops are mentioned in Acts 1:20, 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; and 1 Peter 2:25. Elders are mentioned in Acts 15:2-6, 21:18; Hebrews 11:2; 1 Peter 5:1; and 1 Tim 5:17.
There are clear distinctions among these offices. Bishops are always referred to in the singular, while elders are usually mentioned plurally.
Catholics contend that the elders carry out all the functions of a Catholic priest:
*Sent and commissioned by Jesus− Mk 6:7; Jn 15:5, 20:21; Rom 10:15; 2 Cor 5:20
*Representatives of Jesus− Luke 10:16; Jn 13:20
*Authority to “bind” and “loose” (Penance and absolution)− Mt 18:18 (cf. Mt 16:19)
*Power to forgive sins in Jesus’ name− Lk 24:47; Jn 20:21-23; 2 Cor 2:5-11; James 5:15
*Authority to administer penance− Acts 5:2-11; 1 Cor 5:3-13; 2 Cor 5:18; 1 Tim 1:18-20; Titus 3:10
*Power to conduct Eucharist− Lk 22:19; Acts 2:42 (cf Lk 24:35; Acts 2:46, 20:7; 1 Cor 10:16)
*Power to dispense sacraments− 1 Cor 4:1; James 5:13-15
*Power to baptize− Mt 28:19; Acts 2:38, 41
*Ordained− Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14, 5:23
*Pastors/Shepherds− Acts 20:17; Eph 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4
*Authority to preach and teach− 1 Tim 3:1-2, 5:17
*Authority to evangelize− Mt 16:15, 28:19-20; Mk 3:14; Lk 9:2, 6, 24:47; Acts 1:8
*Power to heal− Mt 10:1; Lk 9:1-2, 6
*Power to cast out demons− Mt 10:1; Mk 3:15; Lk 9:1
*Authority to hear confessions− Acts 19:18 (cf. Mt 3:6; Mk 1:5; James 5:16; 1 Jn 1:8-9; presupposed in Jn 20:23
*Celibacy− Mt 19:12; 1 Cor 7:7-9, 20, 25-38 (esp. 7:35)
*Enjoy Christ’s presence and assistance in a special way: Mt 28:20; (Jesus often treats the Apostles differently from the rest of his disciples)
In 1 Peter 2:5, 9, St. Peter is reflecting on the language of Exodus 19:6, in which the Jews are all described as priests. But since the Jews had a separate Levitical priesthood, by analogy, 1 Peter 2:9 cannot exclude a NT ordained priesthood. The texts are concerned with priestly holiness, as opposed to priestly function. Every Christian is a priest in terms of offering sacrifices of prayer (Heb 13:15), almsgiving (Heb 13:16), and faith in Jesus (Phil 2:17). When this universal sense is used, it never refers to the Eucharist or the sacraments.
Bishops (episkopos) have important additional responsibilities:
*Jurisdiction over priests and local churches, and the power to ordain priests− Acts 14:22; 1 Tim 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6; Titus 1:5
*Special responsibility to defend the faith− Acts 20:28-31; 2 Tim 4:1-5; Titus 1:9-10; 2 Peter 3:15-16
*Power to rebuke false doctrine and to excommunicate− Acts 8:14-24; 1 Cor 16:22; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:10-11
*Power to bestow sacrament of Confirmation− Acts 8:14-17, 19:5-6
*Management of Church finances− 1 Tim 3:3-4; 1 Peter 5:2
One should note that “episkopos” is meant as a strong “overseer” throughout the Bible (Judg 9:28; Isa 60:17; 2 Chron 34:12, 17; Neh 11:9; 2 Kings 11:18; Num 4:16) and is even applied to God and Christ (Job 20:29; 1 Peter 2:25).
The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) bears witness to a definite hierarchical, episcopal structure of Church government with special focus on the authority of St. Peter and James.
The “monarchical” bishop is both a biblical concept and an unarguable historical fact of the early Church. By the 2nd c., virtually all historians tell us that single bishops led each community. This was the case all over Christendom until Luther transferred this power to the secular princes in the 16th c.
Apostolic succession is grounded in Scripture as well. St. Paul teaches us (Eph 2:20) that the Church is built on the foundation of the twelve Apostles, whom Christ himself chose (Jn 6:70; Acts 1:2, 13; cf. Mt 16:18). For this reason they are unique among Christ’s disciples. In Acts 1:20-26, the remaining Apostles choose a successor to Judas (who is called a bishop in this passage, and thus all the Apostles were the first bishops) after the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. This is an explicit example of apostolic succession. St. Paul, the 13th Apostle if you will, appears to pass on his office to Timothy (2 Tim 4:1-6) shortly before he dies. Therefore, a clear equivalency between the Apostles and bishops emerges. The leaders of the biblical Church and the clergy of the Catholic Church are one and the same.
Lastly, the historical evidence on the earliest Christians is quite compelling: there exists virtually unanimous consent as to the hierarchical, visible nature of the Church, which proceeds authoritatively down through history by virtue of apostolic succession. (Do Protestants study/read Eusebius, the first Christian historian of the 4th c.??)