Episcopacy Refuted: Historical Arguments

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

I concluded the last lecture by observing that Episcopalians appeal to antiquity in favour of their scheme of ecclesiastical government. Many of them have too much wisdom to think that any decisive argument can be drawn from the Scriptures, and they therefore have recourse to the practice of the primitive church; contending that, as Episcopacy is the most ancient form of government, it should be universally adopted.

Scripture is the rule of faith, not tradition.

If it could be proved that there were such bishops as they plead for, ever since the death of the Apostles, and that it was universally affirmed by the earlier Fathers that they were instituted by the Apostles, we might be perplexed, but still should not be convinced, while we could find no vestige of them in the genuine apostolical writings. It is a Protestant principle, that nothing is an article of faith which is not delivered in the Scriptures in express terms, or by necessary consequence; and the moment we deviate from this principle, and admit anything upon the authority of tradition, we begin to build upon the foundation of popery, and cannot foresee the extent of the superstructure which we may be led step by step to raise upon it. It has been observed, that Episcopalians, in managing the plea for their church from the testimony of antiquity, have been compelled to use the same sort of reasoning in defense of it, against the employment of which by papists, they protest in their controversy with them; that is, they will not allow them to argue from tradition in favour of their usages and dogmas. Such is the unhappy effect of adopting a principle for a particular purpose, while we find it inconvenient to follow it out into all its consequences. We are entangled in our own reasonings; we are under the necessity of retracting, at one time, what we had asserted at another; we give our antagonist an advantage which he will not fail to improve, and of which we cannot deprive him without totally shifting our ground.

Episcopalian bishops in the early church?

It is not denied that the Fathers speak of bishops in the primitive church, and that lists are given of the succession of them in the principal Sees. With respect to these, there is a good deal of uncertainty; and it happens unfortunately for the high claims of the Church of Rome, that it is not easy to tell who came in the room of Peter, who, they pretend, was the first bishop. Clements, Clitus, Lenius, and Anaclitus, have been mentioned; but it is doubted whether Clitus and Anaclitus were not the same individual, and in what order the persons now named succeeded each other; while some have suspected that they are all contemporary, and equally Bishops of Rome, as there were several bishops at the same time in Philippi. But, although it were granted that the catalogues are correct, it remains to be proved that they were bishops in the Episcopalian, and not merely in the Scriptural sense. And Dr. Stillingfleet, himself a bishop, has candidly acknowledged, “that mere succession of single persons named above the rest in the successions in apostolical churches, cannot enforce any superiority of power in the persons so named, above others supposed to be joint governors of the churches with them.” (Works, vol. 2, p. 344).

How bishops and presbyters came to be distinguished.

We have seen that the titles of bishops and presbyters were indiscriminately given to all the ministers who conducted the religious service in the apostolic churches. It seems, however, that it was not long till the title of bishop was appropriated to one of them for the following reason. When there were more presbyters than one in a church, it was necessary, for the sake of order, that one should preside in the meetings which were held for the management of the public affairs. This honour was naturally assigned to the presbyter who was oldest, or who had most experience and the greatest talents; and he was known by the different names of president, pastor, governor, priest, and bishop. As it is not improbable that there were several presbyters in the seven churches, and this is certain with respect to Ephesus, when Paul had an interview with them; some have supposed that it is this president who is called the angel, in the epistles addressed to them. But he was only primus inter pares, the first among his equals, and first by their choice and consent.

Sir Peter King, in his Inquiry into the Constitution of the Primitive Church, considers bishops and presbyters as exactly of the same order, and invested with the same powers; and defines a presbyter to be “a person in holy orders, having thereby an inherent right to perform the whole office of a bishop, but being possessed of no place or parish, nor actually discharging it, without the permission and consent of the bishop of a place or parish.” (4.1). This definition differs a little, but not materially, from the view which we have taken of bishops and presbyters; for it makes only this distinction between them, that bishops had a charge, and presbyters had not, and consequently, that presbyters must have leave from the bishop before they could perform any part of their function within the limits of his jurisdiction. Presbyterians make a similar distinction, and considering every minister as bishop in his own parish or congregation, forbid any other minister to preach and baptize in it without permission asked and obtained. Sir Peter proceeds to show, at considerable length, that the distinction, in the primitive church, was little more than nominal, because the powers of bishops and presbyters were the same. He proves, from the writings of the Fathers, that presbyters had a right to preach, that they baptized, that they administered the Eucharist, that they presided in the consistories together with the bishop; that they had power to excommunicate, to restore penitents, and to confirm, and lastly, that they had the power of ordination. He was therefore fully justified in saying that “they were of the very same specific order with bishops, having the same inherent right to perform all ecclesiastical offices.” (4.3).

Thus far it appears that antiquity gives no countenance to modern Episcopacy, which affirms bishops to be of a different order from presbyters, and appropriates to them the power of ordination, and the whole government of the church.

The Epistles of Ignatius.

Episcopalians appeal with much confidence to the epistles of Ignatius, as furnishing clear proof that, in his time, the church was governed by bishops; and they lay the greater stress upon his authority, because he flourished in the first, and ended his course by a glorious martyrdom early in the second century, was contemporary at least with some of the Apostles, and from an expression which he uses, but which is ambiguous, is supposed to have seen Christ in the flesh.

There has, however, been much controversy respecting his epistles, and it is not yet terminated. When they were first published, they were full of gross corruptions, and contained heretical sentiments, which such a man as Ignatius must have held in abhorrence; and as it thus appears that unprincipled men had altered them to serve their own purposes, it is impossible to determine to what extent they had carried their wicked design. In the more correct form which they have since assumed, it is impossible to ascertain with precision, what is genuine and what is interpolated, as some of the most learned writers of the Church of England have acknowledged. And this being the case, an appeal to them cannot decide the controversy, because it remains doubtful whether it is Ignatius himself who speaks, or some other person in his name. The style of the epistles concerning the dignity, the authority, and the prerogatives of a bishop, and the demand of little less than implicit submission to him, ill accords with the simplicity of the primitive times, and with the humility which may be conceived to have characterized a man who had lived with the Apostles, and had imbibed their spirit. Would the genuine Ignatius have said without qualification, that what the bishop approves is acceptable to God?

After all, from these epistles as they stand, it is the opinion even of some Episcopalians, that little can be drawn in favour of their scheme, “In all those thirty-five testimonies,” says Bishop Stillingfleet, “produced out of Ignatius’ epistles for Episcopacy, I can meet but with one which is brought to prove the least semblance of an institution of Christ for Episcopacy; and if I be not deceived, the sense of that place is clearly mistaken too.” (Works, vol. 2, p. 349). From the impossibility of determining what is genuine and what is interpolated in those epistles, the utmost which we can safely infer from them is that there were bishops in the days of Ignatius. But this concession will not at all serve the cause of our antagonists, because there were bishops in the days of the Apostles, who, we have seen, were only presbyters, and because the person to whom this name was afterwards given by way of distinction, was merely the president in an assembly of his equals.

Ancient vs. modern bishops.

We have already seen that the bishops of the primitive church were very different from the persons to whom this title is given in modern times; that they possessed no peculiar powers, and could do nothing which a presbyter was not competent to perform. They differed from them also in the extent of their dioceses. A modern bishop has the superintendence of many churches or congregations scattered over the face of the country; but an ancient bishop presided over a single congregation only, or at most, over the Christians of a single city. The original meaning of the word has not been less changed in this respect, than by making it denote a person of a different order from a presbyter.

There were bishops not only in large cities, but in small villages, as has been shown in many instances. The diocese of a bishop was exactly the parish of a Presbyterian minister; and many bishoprics were much smaller than the parishes in this country. The number of bishops shows that their jurisdiction was circumscribed within very narrow limits. In that part of Africa which was subject to the Romans, there were in the days of Augustine, about five hundred orthodox bishops, and four hundred of the sect of the Donatists; and in Ireland, which we have no reason to believe to have been nearly as populous as at present, St. Patrick is said to have founded three hundred and sixty-five churches, each of which was governed by a bishop. It would require a very perspicacious eye to perceive any distinction between such bishops and those whom we call pastors of particular congregations. There is certainly no resemblance between them and the prelates of the English Church; and with whatever respect the latter may speak of them, I suspect that if they were still officiating in their humble charges, the bishops of the present age would not acknowledge them as their equals.

It may be thought that, however diminutive the ancient dioceses were, the bishops truly deserved the title, because they had at least some clergy under them. There is no doubt that sometimes this was the case; and we have shown that this supposition is of little use to establish the claims of modern Episcopacy, because the bishop was at first only primus inter pares [first among equals]; but it is probable that many of them labored alone, without presbyters to assist them and execute their orders. It is not likely, for example, that those Irish bishops had inferior clergy, whose churches were so poor that they could afford them no better endowment than as much ground as would pasture two cows. This, we are informed, was the whole income of some of them.

The Epistle of Clemens.

The Epistle of Clemens, “whose name,” says Paul, “is in the book of life” (Phil. 4:3), is supposed to have been written between the years sixty-four and seventy of the first century, and consequently before the destruction of Jerusalem. It was addressed to the Church of Corinth, and had the same object with the epistles of Paul, to compose the contentions and divisions which existed in it. He says that “the Apostles, preaching through the countries and cities, appointed such of the first-fruits of their ministry as they had proved by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons;” plainly referring to two orders only, whereas Episcopalians affirm that there are three in the church. He goes on to say that “the Apostles, having known by our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be great strife about the name of Episcopacy, appointed the foresaid persons, namely bishops and deacons, and ordained that there should be a succession of them.” Then, referring to the insubordination which prevailed at Corinth, he adds, “It will be no small sin if we expel from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily offered the gifts. Blessed are the presbyters who have gone before, and who have had a fruitful and perfect dissolution, for they do not fear lest any person should remove them from their settled place.” It is manifest that he here speaks of bishops and presbyters, as the same persons and he does so in other parts of the Epistle, where, omitting the mention of bishops, he speaks only of presbyters. “It is base, very base, and unworthy of the conduct of Christians, that the ancient church of the Corinthians should, by means of one or two persons, make an insurrection against the presbyters.” And he tenders this exhortation: “Be ye who have made this insurrection subject to the presbyters.” It is obvious that Clement knew of no bishops in the Corinthian Church, but presbyters; and it is remarkable that he never speaks of any persons in that church under the name of bishops, and still less of one to whom the title exclusively belonged.


Episcopalians appeal also to Irenaeus, who presided over the Church of Lyons in the second century, and imagine that he bears testimony to their cause, when he says, “We can reckon those who were appointed bishops by the Apostles in the churches, and their successors, to our days, whom they left as their successors, delivering to them the same dignity of power,” as his words have been rendered, but literally “delivering to them their own place of mastership;” evidently meaning nothing more than that they constituted them the supreme office-bearers in the church, as we acknowledge a preaching presbyter to be. Irenaeus shows that these were the bishops to whom he referred, by saying farther: “It behooves us to hear the presbyters who are in the church, those who have their succession from the Apostles, and with the succession of the episcopate, have received the gift of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father.


Jerome, who in learning and judgment was equal to any of the Fathers, is decidedly against the divine origin of Episcopacy. A deacon in the Church of Rome had broached the opinion that deacons were superior to presbyters; Jerome confutes it in one of his epistles by this argument, that presbyters and bishops were the same in the days of the Apostles, and that no man could be so foolish as to maintain that deacons are superior to bishops. The proposition which is the foundation of his argument, he proves from those passages of Scripture which are usually produced by us to show the identity of apostolical bishops and presbyters. According to this Father, bishops and presbyters were not originally different, either in order or in degree; but the titles were given to the same individuals, and the distinction between them which subsisted in his time, was merely an arrangement of human prudence for the preservation of peace. This is not a deduction from his argument, but it is explicitly stated by himself. “A presbyter is the same with a bishop. Before, by the instigation of the devil, there were parties in religion, and it was said I am of Paul, I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, the churches were governed by the common consent of presbyters. But afterwards it was decreed throughout the whole world, that one chosen from the presbyters should be set over the rest, to whom the whole care of the church should pertain, that the seeds of schism might be plucked up.” (com. Tit. 1:7). If Jerome is right, the plea of apostolical authority in favour of Episcopacy is unfounded; its jus divinum is a dream; and its authors, more modest than their successors, rested it solely upon the principle of expedience.

Conscience Binding Episcopalianism.

It appears, then, that in the controversy with the advocates of Episcopacy, we have to encounter strong assertions, but feeble proofs; lofty claims, but a very questionable title; and in short, that their cause has nothing to support it, but the sound of words in opposition to the sense.

You may think it unnecessary to have dwelt so long upon this subject, as with a few exceptions, we in this country [Scotland] are all agreed in rejecting the Episcopalian government as unscriptural. But in the other part of the island [England] it is established by law, and with the arrogance which has so remarkably characterized it, pronounces those who have adopted a different form to be schismatics and hardly entitled to the appellation of Christians. Dissenters, we have been told, have “a religion without a church,” because what they call their church is not governed by bishops.

An historical note.

You are aware of the violent struggle between Episcopacy and Presbytery in the days of our fathers, in the course of which they displayed exemplary zeal, and were subjected to severe sufferings, resisting even to blood. The reign of Episcopacy in Scotland was marked by cruelty and murder. It was publicly and solemnly renounced at the renewal of the National Covenant, and afterwards in the Solemn League and Covenant of the three kingdoms, and was finally abolished at the Revolution. There is a fact relative to this business which is not generally known, and deserves to be mentioned; and I shall give it in the words of Mr. Baxter:

“The covenant was proposed by the Parliament to the consideration of the Synod at Westminster. The synod stumbled at some things in it, and especially at the word ‘Prelacy.’ Mr. Burgess, the Prolocutor, Mr. Gataker, and abundance more, declared their judgments to be for Episcopacy, even for the ancient moderate Episcopacy, in which one stated president with his Presbytery governed every church; though not for the English diocesan frame, in which one bishop without his presbytery did, by a lay chancellor’s court, govern all the presbyters and churches of a diocese being many hundreds; and that in a secular manner, by abundance of upstart secular officers, unknown to the primitive church. Hereupon grew some debate in the assembly, some being against every degree of bishops (especially the Scottish divines), and others being for a moderate Episcopacy. But these English divines would not subscribe the covenant, till there were an alteration suited to their judgments, and so a parenthesis was yielded to, as describing that sort of prelacy which they opposed,”—which follows the words, ‘We shall endeavor the extirpation of prelacy,‘—”(that is, church government by archbishops, bishops, deans, and chapters, archdeacons, and all other ecclesiastical officers, depending on that hierarchy.) All which conjoined are mentioned as the description of church government which they meant by prelacy, as not extending to the ancient Episcopacy. When the covenant was agreed on, the Lords and Commons first took it themselves; and Mr. Thomas Coleman preached in the House of Lords, and gave it them with this public explication, that by prelacy, we mean not all Episcopacy, but only the form which is here described.” (Baxter’s Narrative of His Own Life and Times, part 1, p. 48).

Hence you learn that the Solemn League was not such a security of presbytery as is commonly supposed, having been so framed that the friends of moderate Episcopacy could enter into it. But this is a matter of little moment since we renounce Episcopacy, not because our fathers renounced it, but because we deem it to be contrary to Scripture.

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