Episcopacy Refuted: Scriptural Arguments

John Dick (1764–1833)
Lectures on Theology
Vol. 2, excerpt from Lecture XCVII.

In the Church of England, there are three ecclesiastical orders,—Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. The lowest is the order of Deacons, whose office it is to baptize, to read the Scriptures, homilies, and prayers to the people, to assist the Priests in the distribution of the Eucharist, and if it seem good to the Bishop, also to preach. It is the business of the Priests, or Presbyters, to preach, to read prayers, to administer both sacraments, and to pronounce the sentence of absolution upon penitents. To the Bishop it belongs to ordain Priests and Deacons, to confirm those who have been baptized, and to rule over their dioceses, of which all the clergy are subject to their authority. In the government of the Church, neither Deacons nor Priests have any share; it is vested solely in the Bishops. The latter may preach if they please, but this is a matter of choice. To preach the gospel is not an essential duty of their office, they are appointed merely to rule; and hence it appears that, although they receive double honour, they are not worthy of it, according to the judgment of Paul, who assigned it only to those who both rule well and labour in word and doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17).

Hence you will perceive what is the specific difference between Episcopacy and Presbytery. Episcopacy holds a distinction of ranks among the ministers of religion; and its fundamental article is that a bishop is superior to a presbyter. According to Presbytery, all the ministers of the word are on a level in respect of office and authority, whatever differences may be among them, in age, and talents, and learning. A gradation of ranks is indeed allowed even by Presbyterians, who admit elders to rule, and deacons to serve the poor, but they assert the parity of those whose office it is to preach and administer the sacraments.

The arguments of Episcopalians in favour of their form of government, are derived from the Scriptures, as well as from the practice of antiquity.

1. Levites & Priests.

In the first place, They have sometimes founded an argument upon the constitution of the Jewish Church, in which there was a gradation of ranks. The Levites being appointed to perform various inferior services in the Tabernacle and Temple, the Priests to offer sacrifices upon the altar, and the High Priest to preside over them all, and to enter into the Holy of Holies. It has hence been inferred that the wisdom of Jesus Christ would undoubtedly lead him to give a similar constitution to his church.

This however is only a presumptive argument, which is of no weight unless it be found to be supported by facts; and may be pronounced also to be a presumptuous one, as it prescribes the law of conduct, which he who is wiser than all men was bound to pursue. The Christian dispensation is so different from the Jewish, that no conclusion with respect to the former can be drawn from the mode of administering the latter. The ceremonial system was totally abolished at the death of Christ; and it is to no purpose to presume that any part of it was renewed, unless it can be proved that it actually was so from Scripture. It is not necessary to proceed farther in the refutation of this argument, as it is abandoned and rejected as invalid by some of the best writers of the Episcopal communion.

2. Apostles & Evangelists.

In the second place, They affirm that there was a distinction of ranks among the office-bearers of the church, instituted by our Lord himself during his ministry upon earth; and they appeal for proof to the Apostles, who were of the first degree, and to the Evangelists, who were of the second. The Apostles represented the bishops of the church, and the seventy disciples the presbyters.

But this comparison,” says Dr. Whitby, “will not hold, for the seventy received not their mission, as Presbyters do, from bishops, but immediately from the Lord Christ as well as the Apostles, and in their first mission were plainly sent on the same mission, and with the same power.” (Com. Luke 10:1). According to him, they were not dependent upon the Apostles, and were equal to them in authority; and consequently, this is no warrant for Episcopalian subordination. Other writers of the same principles agree with him. The truth is, that the commission of the seventy seems to have been temporary, and probably ceased as soon as it was executed.

But the argument is completely overthrown by a consideration which has been insisted upon even by an Episcopalian author. “It is obviously observable in the evangelical records, that the church was not and could not be founded till our Lord was risen from the dead, seeing it was to be founded on his resurrection.” The truth of this remark is indisputable, and so likewise is the following reasoning from it. “If the Christian Church had no being before Christ’s resurrection, then certainly there was no government; and if no government, then certainly not prelatical government; and consequently, the argument is lost to all intents and purposes. It is clear as light, that the followers of Christ in the days of his flesh, were under no distinct government but that of the Jewish Church, with which they were still incorporated, and from which, as we have already proved, no sequence can be drawn for the nature of the Christian government.

3. Timothy & Titus.

In the third place, They reason in favour of Episcopacy from the cases of Timothy and Titus, whom they suppose to have been bishops, the one of Ephesus, and the other of Crete. They are indeed so called in the postscripts to the Epistles, which Paul addressed to them; but he who should reason from these would make himself ridiculous, because it is acknowledged by all learned men, that they [i.e. the postscripts] are of a later age, and of no authority.

Presbyterians affirm that there is not only no evidence that Timothy and Titus were bishops, but that the contrary is absolutely certain. Timothy was of a higher order even than a bishop, being expressly called an Evangelist, who was next in rank to an Apostle, and, like the Apostles, had a general care of the churches. Titus is commonly supposed to have held the same office. It is evident that Ephesus was not the stated charge of Timothy, because he would have left it when Paul went into Macedonia (1 Tim. 1:3), had not the Apostle entreated him to remain, on account of certain false teachers who were endeavoring to disseminate error in that church. Such entreaties would not have been necessary, if Timothy had been bishop of Ephesus, for such a man would not have thought of abandoning his station; nor would Paul have afterwards requested him to come to him at Rome, as he does in the second Epistle (2 Tim. 4:8), to be his companion and assistant there, in the absence of certain other persons who had withdrawn for different reasons. Hence it is evident that his residence in Ephesus was merely temporary, for the accomplishment of a particular purpose; and it happens most unfortunately for the pretended bishopric of Timothy, that where Paul sometime before had an interview with the ministers If that church, as we read in the twentieth chapter of the Acts, he found that they had no need of a bishop, because they had not only one but many; for he addresses all the elders, as we shall afterwards see, by this appellation (Acts 20:28).

It is evident that the argument equally fails with respect to Titus. He was left in Crete to ordain elders, to reprove sharply unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, to admonish heretics, and excommunicate such as were obstinate (Titus 1:5, 10-13). But, according to the principles of Episcopalians themselves, his office was extraordinary. The elders whom he was appointed to ordain, are expressly called bishops, as we shall afterwards show. But to ordain bishops is not the work of a bishop, but of an archbishop; and none will contend that there was any such person in the Apostolic church. Titus therefore could not be a bishop, but must have held a superior rank. The case seems to have been this, that the affairs of the church in Crete were not yet properly settled, and Titus, with the power of an Evangelist, was left by Paul on that island, to set in order the things which were wanting, and particularly to appoint ministers to labour in Word and doctrine. That he was not the bishop of Crete may be inferred from the request or order of the Apostle, that he should come to him at Nicopolis, where he had determined to winter (Titus 3:12). Paul surely would not have called him away from Crete, if it had been his stated charge. For, however common it has since been for bishops not to reside in their dioceses, no such practice was then known; and had there been any attempt to introduce it, the Apostle would have opposed himself to it as a criminal desertion of duty.

4. The Angels of the Seven Churches of Asia.

In the fourth place, they reason from the Epistles of Jesus Christ to the seven churches of Asia, which are addressed to the angels of those churches (Rev. 1:4), by whom none can be meant but the bishops. I lay no stress upon an argument which has been used by Presbyterians, that the angels are the churches themselves, because it appears from the contents of the Epistles, and from the occasional use of the plural number, that they are addressed to the whole body of Christians. It is inconceivable that a whole society should be called an angel, and what is still more strange, the angel of itself; and there is certainly no reason for resorting to this supposition, as the Epistles, although intended for the respective churches, would naturally be sent to the persons who presided over them. I have therefore no doubt that the angel signifies an individual, but it does not follow that it signifies a bishop in the Episcopalian sense. It is a name not of order, but of office, which was given by the Jews to the president of their synagogues, and chiefly for this reason, that he offered up prayers to God in the name of the assembly. This being known to be the sense in which the word was understood by the Jews, John, who was himself a Jew, naturally applied it to the president of a Christian church, or the minister who officiated in holy things, and acted as intercessor with God for the people. The utmost which can be fairly inferred, is, that in each of the Asiatic churches, there was a person who held the first place; but Episcopalians can derive no advantage to their cause from this circumstance, because Presbyterians hold, that in every congregation there is, or ought to be, one person at least who is superior to the rest, and to whom it pertains to conduct the public offices of religion.

5. Bishops vs. Presbyters.

Episcopacy is founded on the assumption that bishops are of a different order from presbyters. If we can show that, in the style of Scripture, they are of the same order, the whole fabric falls to the ground. Now, when we look into the New Testament, we find that bishop and presbyter are convertible terms, and are indiscriminately applied to the same individuals.

When Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, he stopped at Miletus, from which he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders or presbyters of the church. No mention, you will observe, is made of the bishop; but we are at no loss to find the reason. It had several bishops, and these were the very presbyters whom the Apostle had summoned to meet him, for he says to them, “Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Perhaps prejudice or party-zeal had some influence in rendering the word overseers, in this instance, because the term, in the original, if rendered in the usual way, would not accord with the Episcopalian scheme. The Greek word is ἐπίσκοπος, which, indeed, literally signifies overseers, but should have been translated bishops here, as it is in other places; but, then, it would have been evident to all, that Paul knew of no distinction between a bishop and a presbyter, because those who were first called presbyters, are now called bishops. In his Epistle to Titus, he says to him, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee. If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children, not accused of riot, or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God” (Titus 1:5-7). It would be a waste of time to show that here the bishop and the presbyter are the same person, and no man can resist the evidence, however much he may be disposed. The presbyter must be blameless, for the bishop must be blameless. There would be no force in this conclusion if a bishop and a presbyter were different persons. And hence you perceive the reason why, in his First Epistle to Timothy, he makes no mention at all of presbyters, but speaks only of bishops and deacons. It is, that he did not consider the two former as different; and consequently, in describing the qualifications of the one class, he describes those of the other.

For the same reason he takes no notice of presbyters in his Epistle to the Philippians, but addresses himself to the bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1). He thus furnishes us with a new argument against Episcopacy. There were several bishops in the Church of Philippi; but how could this be, according to the scheme of our antagonists? More bishops than one in a church seem to them as monstrous as more heads than one upon a human body. It follows that the bishops of Philippi were plain presbyters, and that such were the only bishops in the apostolic age.

Wherever Episcopacy may be found, it is vain to seek for it in the Scriptures. Of this, its advocates are in some degree sensible, and therefore appeal to antiquity; but upon this part of the argument we cannot at present enter [see Part 2].


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