What is "The Church"?


A few years ago (when I was attending the Methodist Church) I started asking myself some questions, and I shared them with a universalist friend (who lives in another state, and was attending a Southern Baptist Church at the time.)

He’s now Orthodox, and I’m now Anglican.

My questions concerned the nature of the Church.

From scripture, it would seem the Church is an assembly of people (Greek: Ecclesia), that would disciple all nations (Matt. 28:19), baptize in the name of The Father, Son, And Holy Spirit (same verse), and teach the observance of all that Jesus commanded (verse 20.)

The later would seem to include the continuing celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26.)

Questions my friend and I discussed (and apparently came to similar conclusions on)included whether any of this presupposes the existence of an ordained ministry, and whether scripture supports the idea of some kind of Apostolic succession (though I should perhaps mention that there’s more than one way of looking at Apostolic succession, and both Wesley and Luther relied on St. Jerome’s view that Pastors and Bishops were originally one and the same to justify their actions.)

Anyway, I’d be very interested in your thoughts here.


Oy. Lots of potential topics here.

As far as I can tell, bishops were elected from church leaders by local populations, in order to be the financial administrators (specifically for distributing tithes for the care of widows, orphans, the sick and the poor.) The first (and only named) Christian bishop in the New Testament was… ahem… well, Judas Iscariot, to be honest.

So a bishop has a lot to live up to. :mrgreen:

I have yet to see any scriptural basis for Apostolic Succession per se; although there does seem to be a special honoring of Peter. (But not in overall authority of the church.) This, incidentally, is one bit of evidence (much like the fact that all texts, when they mention the Temple at all, treat the Temple as being still in operation) toward the pre-70s composition (if not public dissemination per se) of the canon: apostolic succession wasn’t really much of an issue, because the Apostles were still alive and besides Christ was coming back within 40 years (1 generation) which was getting closer all the time… right?

Apostolic succession would become much more of an issue post-70, naturally. Even then, not every (any??) 2nd century source indicates that apostles chose successors to act as apostles. When teachers make claims, they may say that they learned from this guy who learned from that guy who learned from the Apostle Andrew or Philip or John or Peter or whoever; and they may claim authority as a bishop or priest; but they don’t call themselves Apostles (so far as I recall. If it happens, it happens rarely enough that I don’t recall ever reading the claims being made when studying primary and secondary sources.) The concept of the bishop of Rome being an unbroken succession from Peter became a big deal eventually once Christianity became a legal Roman religion with headquarters now in the Imperial capitol (though still his special authority wasn’t recognized until long after the fall of the Western Empire and the ensuing age of Arian based feudalism); but does anyone, East or West, bother to call themselves the heir to the Apostleship of Matthew or anyone else other than Peter? Not that I know of today, or ever have heard of.

I’ll look up the RCC dogmatic stance on apostolic succession at the office, in the next few days, when I get the chance.

As far as the “church” goes, the scope seems to be everyone in principle (and eventually), but in practice it’s only an “elect” remnant at any given time, until the consummation of the age. There’s a tradition going back to Gospel testimony (if not to the epistolary letters) to the effect that God knows who is and who is not really in the church at any given time; and the membership isn’t necessarily evident in any formal way. There are people who formally recognize the Lordship of Christ (even to the double-title claim of “Lord, Lord!”–a reference to the double-title divinity claim of God in the OT)) and who expect to be judged favorably and who even do miracles and exorcisms in His name, and test apostleship claims, and bear up under torture for His name–who nevertheless are in major damned trouble, so to speak. Whereas there are people who aren’t expecting to be judged by Jesus, and who don’t affirm Him as Lord (yet), and who may be considered paganish, and even who may be blaspheming (as we would consider it) against the Son of Man; who yet are not sinning against the Holy Spirit but rather are cooperating pretty well with Him, and whom Jesus considers to be good representatives of the family and already well on the way to receiving the inheritance: in short, they’re in the “church” while those other people are not (despite all formal appearances).



But the word episkopos (bishop, or overseer) occurs at least twelve times.

I think the Patristic doctrine was that all bishops are the successors of all the Apostles, and I’m pretty sure most of the Greek fathers would say that whatever was given to Peter in Matthew 16 was given to all
the twelve in Matthew 18.

I agree.

Several of the fathers (Origen, Chrysostom, and even Augustine [at least in his “retractions”]) said that the “rock” that Christ said that He would build His Church on wasn’t Peter himself, but the Apostolic faith expressed by Peter in the words “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

That is interesting.

Thank you Jason.

So far as I know, no Bishop, not even the worst Bishop of Rome (on his worst day), has ever claimed to be an Apostle–and that’s because they’d be immediately shot down by the following passage:

Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord? (1 Cor. 9:1.)

The term “Apostolic succession” doesn’t imply a continuing line of Apostles, but the continuation of an office instituted by the Apostles.

What about the Apostolic practice (recorded in the New Testament) of ordaining a man (Timothy, Titus) to the ministry by the laying on of hands?

And what about the written instruction these men received (also recorded in the New Testament) to ordain other men?

Doesn’t that seem to imply that God intended some kind of line of succession?

The really interesting question is “what kind?”

The word for Bishop is used at least twelve times in the New Testament, but it seems to be used in a way that’s interchangeable with words translated Elder, Priest, and Pastor (and there seems to have been more than one in the Church of Ephesus.)

This was pointed out by Jerome, who suggested that Bishops and local Elders were really (originally) the same thing.

Melencthon, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley used this as an argument for priests (or ministers) being able to ordain other preists (or ministers), and this is what I meant by “what kind” of line of succession.

It’s an interesting question (and I think even the Church of England says that the episcopate is necessary for the fullness of the Church, not the being of the Church.)

Perhaps it goes back to 2 Tim. 2:19?

Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.


True; but that doesn’t abrogate the comment to which you were replying: as far as I can tell, the main duty of the “shepherd” was to oversee distribution of tithes to the needy. i.e., Judas’ job. (And I think it’s strictly true that none of the “shepherds” mentioned elsewhere in the NT are named.)

My point was mainly one of irony. Insofar as any one disciple is clearly connected to the ‘authority’ of bishop, it’s Judas. (Although to be fair, I suppose it could be said that Jesus was instituting Peter in that place during the GosJohn epilogue. But then, he’s never shown acting with that kind of authority afterward in Acts, so… {shrug})

Pelagius II (the orthodox, not the heretic Pelagius), writing in defense of Petrine supremacy against schismatic bishops in Istria (sometime during his tenure, between 579-590), implies pretty strongly that the successor bishops holding the seat of the apostolic sees are themselves Apostles–which is a pretty easy inference to draw, if the successors are supposed to be holding the delegated successor-authority of the Twelve.

To a Protestant (such as myself :mrgreen: ) this would seem to nix current apostolic claimancy–although even Protestants can have trouble then trying to figure out why St. Paul speaks of apostolic authority having primacy over other kinds of gifts, even that of prophecy.

However, to congregations which accept the transsubstantiation of the communion Elements, the special authority of priests descending through delegated bishops (and, in the RCC, ultimately dependent upon the authority of the legitimate successor to Peter, Prince of the Apostles), to provide (in mediation) this event, would seem to confer apostolic privilege to the bishops and most of all to the Pope. After all, there were many more than 12 who saw the risen Christ, and Christ personally chose the 12 on grounds long before the Resurrection appearances. (With Paul’s case, afterward, being a special dispensation.)

So there must be something more to apostolic authority than the ability to witness to the risen Christ; even if witnessing “the risen Christ” is still connected somehow to that authority.

Insofar as Apostolic authority represents a special prime ambassadorship, in the sense of being able to speak authoritatively for Christ, then yeah an apostle might be led to confer that position upon a successor (like Elijah did for Elisha). It isn’t much of a jump from that to the apostles having special governmental authority over the church.

Playing devil’s advocate (if I may put it like that), this sounds like quibbling. What office? The… um… well, the apostolic office. Held by the Apostles, right? uh, yeah. Did the Apostles institute their own office? uh, no, Christ did.

Ergo, the chosen successors of the original Apostles hold apostolic authority, with the gift of apostleship (per St. Paul’s list of spiritual gifts, given by the Holy Spirit, not by men), and these successors are rightly called… … … bishops. Among other things. :mrgreen:

(Except that bishops are elected by the people, or they were until the fall of the Western Empire and the decision by orthodox bishops at that time to shut down the popular elections and keep it in the family, so to speak, in order to keep the church from being over-run by the triumphant Arian faction–the invading “barbarians” who instituted the subsequent European feudalism, being at that time largely composed of neo-Arian Christians. But that points to an original distinction between bishopric-succession and apostolic-succession, even if the RCC has tried to conflate those successions for what must have seemed good reasons at the time.)

Ordaining for ministry doesn’t in itself involve passing on the authority of apostleship; or, heck, even involve ordinance for priesthood, necessarily. (Depending on whether deacons and vicars are supposed to be priests, which most Christian groups including the RCC would say they are not, one way or another. Aside from the priesthood of all believers, of course. :mrgreen: But that’s another thing, supposedly.)

I don’t have the recent universal catechism handy at the moment; I really want to check that to see what is being officially taught on the topic nowadays. Denzinger’s “Sources of Catholic Dogma” are insistent about the apostolic authority of the RCC through its legitimate succession of bishops, but are fuzzy about whether this does or does not mean that the bishops (especially the Pope) are supposed to have proper apostolic authority, as “apostles” per se.

My impression, though, is that they avoid calling successors “apostles” mainly to avoid confusion in reference to the original Twelve. (Or Thirteen. Or Fourteen. Whichever. :wink: )

And now I must rescind from this thread in order to concentrate composition efforts elsewhere. :slight_smile: (I was supposed to be doing book editing this morning, but alas–I fell to temptation and indulged here. :mrgreen: )



I take it he didn’t actually say that Bishops were Apostles?

I don’t think it’s quibbling.

As you say:

Christ instituted the Apostolic Office and chose the first Apostles.

Did that make these Apostles christs (messiahs)?

The Apostles instituted the office of Overseer (Pastor, or Bishop) and chose the first Overseers–but that wouldn’t make these Overseers (or their succesors, presuming God intended the office to be pepetuated) Apostles.

The questions I find interesting is whether every local Pastor/Elder was originally a Bishop (Overseer), how the current system of diocisean bishops over local pastors evolved, and how legitimate that evolution was.

What Christ said about binding and loosng (and how that’s interpreted) might be relevant to that discussion, and I’d be interested in any thoughts that anyone had to offer.

Once again, neither Anglicans or Eastern Orthodox believe that Bishops are Apostles (and I’d be very surprised if the Roman Catholics were teaching this.)

Another thing?

I’m not so sure.

The first generation of believers were baptized by the Apostles and their appointees.

Believers have been baptized by believers in every subsequent generation.

So if you mean a comunity of baptized believers (who elect Overseers to supervise local congregations) this could be viewed as a type of Apostolic succession.

I believe that was the position of Melenchthon and the continental reformers (and thoughts on that are certainly part of what I’m interested in here.)


The most recent English translation and collection of the “Sources” (which postdates the compilation of the universal catechism) could be read that way. Or not. As I noted later, the Dogmatic Sources (which are usually only snapshots of the relevant documents anyway, so to speak) are fuzzy on the topic: this was the only place I found in a quick read-through that could be read as actually calling the bishops “Apostles” (maybe), but the church and its bishops (especially the Pope) are commonly and continually presented across the Sources as having authority equivalent to that of the Apostles: an authority that corresponds to the chief representative ambassadors of a king, and which is not necessarily constrained by the criteria of having witnessed the risen Christ, but which is conferred by special delegation in succession.

Thus my guess (and it’s still only a guess at this point) that, to the degree that the RCCs refrain from calling the Pope or any other bishop an “Apostle”, they do so in order to avoid reference confusion to the original set.

No, but it did probably make them the chief ambassadors in the Ancient Near Middle Eastern sense of that appointment. Meaning that their authority, while not actually identical to the king’s, was to be treated as though the king was acting and speaking through their presence. (The distinction would be equivalent to that of Moses and Aaron, delegated and sent by YHWH as “elohim” to Pharaoh, compared to the Angel of the Presence Himself Who, as YHWH, making personal claims of being YHWH, was sending Moses and Aaron as delegates of YHWH.)

(And, if I recall correctly, even the Eastern Orthodox consider bishops to be specially “anointed”: a term that is only different from “Christ” or “Messiah” linguistically. But no anointed person, from the lowest Christian to the Pope or any archbishop, should consider himself to be equivalent to the King Messiah.)

A point I made myself. :wink: But then, the institution of an inclusive office does not necessarily include further perogatives assigned to some within that office. There were 70 and more “disciples” sent by Christ as ambassadorial announcers during His ministry, and the Apostles were also certainly “disciples” but not all the “disciples” had the special authority (whatever that was) of the Apostles. A point on which I’m pretty sure most Eastern and Western congregations, whether EOx, RCC or Protestant, agree. (Some groups like the Quakers, perhaps, excepted.)

Exactly what that distinction meant, and how far it went, and whether it was (or even could be) delegated on to successors, and if so how successfully (half-pun intended :mrgreen: ) is what has been debated among us for a long time–and is part of what constitutes the differences between the three main nominally orthodox Christian families.

Back to work! Away from here! AAAGHHH!! {resolving to avoid the forum for the rest of the day}{ :mrgreen: }


Which is precisely what makes it interesting–and why I thought it might (possibly) be worth discussing here.


In the interest of clarifying the issues here:

“Presbyter” and “Bishop” seem to be used synonymously in the New Testament, but the Church has had a threefold ministry (of deacons, presbyters, and bishops) from at least the 2nd or third century.

The questions are whether the original presbyter/bishops (ordained by the Apostles) inherited administrative authority that they were intended to pass down, and how (and to whom) it was passed down.

The very act of ordaining Timothy and Titus by the laying of hands, and giving then instructions regarding the appointment and ordaining of other men, seems to imply (at least to me) that the Apostles delegated authority that God intended to be passed down.

But how did the threefold ministry (with diocesan bishops over local presbyters) evolve?

Jerome believed that diocesan bishops were chief executive officers elected by their brother bishops to carry out some of their episcopal functions (such as ordination), leaving them free to govern the local church.

On this theory, Melancthon was able to argue that Luther and other presbyters had the right to ordain (especially in extreme circumstances–and Wesley used the same argument.)

The traditional (and I think more likely) Orthodox and Anglican view is that the presbyter/bishops (as the Church grew) delegated limited authority to local assistants (who became pastors, but never had the right to ordain.)

Either view implies a kind of Apostolic succession (i.e. either from the Apostles to the diocesan bishops, or from the Apostles to the the Presbyters.)

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?


I got nothing. Well, nothing more than the little I’ve already written. :mrgreen: Which isn’t much, really. To reiterate the only salient point where I might directly disagree–and even then, not much–the New Testament ‘episcopos’ seems to have been a presbyter chosen to act as the financial officer for the region, especially in regard to disbursing collected tithes for purposes of charity: helping widows, orphans, the poor, that kind of thing. So all bishops would be presbyters but not all presbyters bishops. Nor does the NT seem to demonstrate a special apostolic authority being given to such bishops exclusively or even per se. (On the other hand, I can see how successors might decide that it would be expedient to concentrate the line of succession in the bishops, thus leading to the situation of the bishops being apostolic succesors, even though that wasn’t the original setup.)

I agree, it’s an interesting topic, and I would like to see more discussion on this.

Since I’ve recently bothered to finally install the RCC Great Catechism on my system here at the house (unsure if the software will work at the office, though I’ll try there eventually), I’ll try to do a lookup on apostleship there, to clarify how the RCCs think of it and apostolic succession.


Thank you Jason.

I came across this today.

nestorian.org/unofficial_hom … he_on.html



Well, my first thought was that Nestorius isn’t exactly considered in communion with practically all the branches this fellow is talking about. :mrgreen: As he notes, the split comes relatively early, with the departure of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Still, some minor tweaks aside, I thought it was a pretty evenhanded assessment of the history of Apostolic Christianity. I wouldn’t gather from the Anglican Articles that they still believed in the Real Presence, or the sacramental character of the rites; but the wording leaves just enough leeway for me to have some hope about that.

(It’s possible that they believe in the Real Presence but not in the process of transsubstantiation per se, accepted by the RCC and the EOx more-or-less coequivally. However, some of the Anglican articles make a pretty big emphasis on the presence being only spiritual. I can understand the RCC and EOx and related older churches spazzing at that, as it smacks of adoptionism not of incarnation. But then, even their sacramental rites would involve adoptionism by virtue of the transformation of the elements after the fact of their generation.)

I don’t think I can agree that the “Peshitta” is the original Aramaic text of the New Testament “without any change or revision”. There are plenty of textual critics who respect the Peshitta as a valuable early resource, and who would love to get hold of something going back beyond the extant Greek; but they reluctantly have to conclude that the Peshitta is a retranslation of the Greek back into Syriac. (In fact, it is often used to help settle disputes over the question of primitive Greek readings. These critics have no particular cultural bias for Greek–if they thought they had an Aramaic descendent of Aramaic GosMatt, they’d wet themselves, and not with consternation. :laughing: I would, too!)

I would have to pretty strongly dissent from the notion that without Apostolic Succession there can be no operation of the Holy Spirit; but I understand why they would think (and promote) that idea.

This is aside from the question of whether they actually retain apostolic succession, which they very well might; their doctrinal distinction from the orthodox party concerning the nature of Christ isn’t necessarily incommensurate, let us say, from what the apostles taught and handed down for belief. The distinction is pretty subtle: Nestorians affirm one will of Christ’s two natures, with the orthodox (sort of–more on this in a minute), and consider the two natures to be two hypostases or substances (these being the same thing in their parlance), not one. The orthodox would affirm one hypostasis in two substances (not being the same thing in their parlance) and differ pretty crucially in how the two substances are nevertheless united.

The point in the disagreement is represented pretty well by the famous Nestorian hymnal version of the Creedal material (found here, near the bottom of the page.) The hymn states “the Godhead is three substances”. They don’t mean substance in the way the orthodox would–they aren’t trying to talk about three God-entities (I think)–but one God in three Persons, like the orthodox. But the hymn draws a direct comparison with the unity of Christ this way: “And as the Godhead is three substances in one nature, Likewise the Sonship of the Son is in two natures, one person.”

But the Godhead is three persons in one nature (allowing ‘nature’ to stand equivalent to ‘substance’ as per orthodox terminology.) If substance is person, and nature is substance, then an equivalent statement in orthodox parlance would be “three persons in one substance; likewise the Sonship is two substances in one… uh… wait. We’ve run out of terms.” :mrgreen: They ought to be saying “two natures in one substance”, but then their comparison would be whack. The orthodox wouldn’t draw the comparison this way: as three persons in one substance of Godhead, so two substances one person. Both clauses would be considered true, but the comparison doesn’t work.

So… obviously there’s some kind of technical distinction between what they’re translating (in English) as ‘person’ and what they’re translating as ‘substance’. Which is supposed to be equivalent to the Greek hypostasis (not to the Greek notion of substance); but the hypostatic union is one of persons in orthodox theology.

The upshot is that the term being translated ‘person’ probably refers to one ‘will’. But then there are two persons in Christ, the divine and the human, even though their will is ‘one’ in the sense of being a unity. One of those persons cannot be the Son of God incarnate, though; which suggests adoptionism.

The orthodox party recognizes two wills, one per substance; but by ‘will’ they don’t (or didn’t) mean the kind of thing we mean by ‘will’ today. It would be more like character (again in our modern sense, not the sense of the word ‘character’ back in New Testament times, although the two meanings are certainly related). The orthodox party thus recognizes one person of Christ, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, the Logos, with two ‘characters’ (as we might say today) united in one Incarnation.

This, by the way, is why the unity of wills recognized by the orthodox in Christ is not the same thing as the “monotheletic” singularity of will insisted upon by some other trinitarian parties in Christ. Those parties went with a singular ‘will’, as we would say a singular ‘character’, specifically in order to preserve what they considered to be a threat to Christ’s divinity and singular personality. (Kind of the opposite of the Nestorian dissension.) The orthodox party considered this to be a threat to Christ’s humanity and worried about docetism: the ‘human character’ seemed obliterated or non-existent from the outset. Whereas with the Nestorians, the orthodox worry that they really mean two persons of Christ, human and divine, not one person Incarnate in two natures.

(I will note that all three parties are trying to affirm the deity and humanity of Christ, and also the real, not modalistic, trinitarian nature of the singular, not tri-theistic, God. The question is which of them has the proper understanding of the situation. The orthodox seem to me to have the royal middle, but I understand and appreciate the concerns of the other two groups. Also, I rather doubt that the Apostles had much if any opinion on the topic at all. :laughing: The point is a question of right understanding and fidelity to the information passed down by the Apostles and disciples: something all parties, trinitarian or otherwise, were working faithfully at, generally speaking.)