The Way We Were
I hear so often from various fronts that the Church was "originally intended," from the beginning, to be an organic fellowship of believers, localized and self-governing, a democracy of individuals answering directly to Christ. - The idea is that the "monarchial" forms of church government- which we associate in post-Reformation times with the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Orthodox communions- somehow "distorted" God's original intent for His people. The Reformation urged us to get back to the original, pure, unsullied "communal house church" and forget about the distorted "clericalism" and "procedures" of monarchial popery.
The problem is that when we do go back to enquire into the original modus operendi... way, way back to those Sources who walked with Peter, James, and John, and who may have actually known Christ in the flesh- we do not find any such notions as that of the localized presbytery. Instead, we find an irrefutable hierarchy of bishops, who represented Christ to the congregation, who were to be obeyed, and who answered- at least in spirit- to Rome. If we judge from three authoritative sources all dating to before AD 200, we see that the early Church believed the following:
1. That the institutionalized gathering of the Christian community was essential to the Christian life- not only for the glory of God, but for protection from Satan. Furthermore, refusal to submit to the Church jeapordized the Christian's salvation.
“Meet together frequently in your search for what is good for your souls, for in the final days multitudes of false prophets and seducers will appear. Sheep will turn into wolves, and love into hatred…” (Didache, AD 50) “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and to praise Him. For when you meet with frequency, Satan’s powers are overthrown and his destructiveness is undone by the unanimity of your faith...Where the pastor is, there follow like sheep. For there are many specious wolves who… capture those who run God’s race...If anyone is not inside the sanctuary, he lacks God's bread. Be on your guard; .... inside the sanctuary a man is pure; outside he is impure. whoever does anything without the bishop... does not have a clear conscience." (Ignatius, AD 50-117)
2. That the unbroken succession of the clergy from the original twelve Apostles, and the unbroken succession of the Apostle's teaching- ensconsed in "tradition" in the absence of a Canon of Scripture- was Christianity's strongest witness to the reality of Christ and the validity of the Gospel, and was also Christianity's strongest defense against the lies of the Devil:
"But, again, when we refer the heretics to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. 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 time. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth." (Irenaeus, AD 130-202)
3. That the Bishop juridically represented the people to God, and God to the people; as such, the bishop was to be honored and obeyed as God's authorized representative.
“I hasten to urge you to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ- that life from which we cannot be torn- is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ. Hence you should act in accord with the bishop’s mind, as you surely do… wherefore, your accord and harmonious love is a hymn to Jesus Christ…thus He will heed you… therefore you need to abide in irreproachable unity if you really want to be God’s members forever. Let us then heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God. Everyone the Master of the House sends on His business, we ought to receive as the One who sent him.”(Ignatius, To the Ephesians)..."you ought to respect (your bishop) as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.” (Ignatius, to the Magnesians)...“When you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ’s way… it is essential therefore to act in no way without the bishop…if we live in union with him now, we shall gain eternal life.” (Ignatius, To the Trallians)
4. That in some sense, the supreme authority of the bishop, as God's representative, derived in a special way from the church at Rome.
"Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; we do this, I say, by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also by pointing out the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere. Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man depositing his money in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers." (Irenaeus, Against the Heretics)