Walter Lowrie on Early Church Bishops

In Walter Lowrie’s “interpretation” of Rudolph Sohm, a very convincing case is made that the “bishop” in the early church was a local church, a congregational, minister whose primary job was to preside over the Eucharist, which was a communal feast.  He writes:

Both Gentile and Jewish usage required a president at the feast, and this was particularly the case with regard to Passover, from which the Eucharistic feast was derived.  In the Eucharist there were two functions especially that fell to the part of the president: namely, the breaking of the bread, and the thanksgiving prayer.

~The Church and Its Organization in Primitive and Catholic Times, p 268

He adds that this bishop was selected on the basis of a personal leadership charismata.  The office was necessary for order, and there was naturally a leader who best fulfilled the office.  In the absence of such a person, however, a layman could step up and fulfill the role.  Lowrie quotes Tertullian, saying:

Are not also we laity priests?  …When there are no clergy thou makest the offering and baptizest and art priest for thyself alone.  When three are present, there is the Church, although they be laymen.

~De exhort. cast. c. 7.

To dismiss ideas that this is simply an aspect of Tertullian’s sectarianism, Lowrie adds:

Tertullian does not contend for this principle, he merely assumes it as a premise for his argument: therein lies the proof that it was not an individual opinion of his own, nor a distinctive tenet of Montanism, but a commonly accepted position, a primitive tradition which had not yet been successfully impugned.

~Lowrie, p 269

Lowrie gives extensive treatment to Ignatius, showing that this view of the bishop, that of congregational Eucharistic president, is precisely what is meant and that this is something qualitatively different from the later metropolitan system of bishops as heads of a larger jurisdiction.  Lowrie writes:

We have seen, however, that the single bishop and the whole organization of which he was the head is explained by the nature of the Eucharistic assembly… For Ignatius, the single bishop is the correlative of a single Eucharistic assembly, and he avails himself of the unity of organization which actually existed to press the plea for unity of worship.  This is his great remedy for schism.  He urges this point in all his epistles– except in that to the Romans.  In Ephs. c. 20 he says: “Assemble yourselves together in common, … to the end that ye may obey the bishop and the presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread,” etc. Ib. c. 5: “If any one be not within the precinct of the altar, he lacketh the bread of God.  For if the prayer of one and another hath so great force, how much more that of the bishop and of the whole Church…

…Let that be held a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it.  Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as wherever Jesus is, there is the catholic Church.  It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape.

~ p 295

That last quote of Ignatius presses the point home: the bishop was a congregational minister.  The activities of the church were to be done in his presence, just as the Church acts in the presence of Jesus, because the bishop was regularly present at the local church.  He was to be there for every baptism or agape, except in those cases when he appoints a representative.

When the episcopacy shifted to a metropolitan administrative office, the exception became the norm, and the bishop had to appoint permanent “representatives.”  But in so doing, the presbyters effectively became Ignatian bishops, though without the name and, in a fateful shift in doctrine, without the authority.

7 thoughts on “Walter Lowrie on Early Church Bishops

  1. Interesting how this thesis sort of blends the two theories about whether episcopacy came from presbytery by elevation, or the reverse by delegation.

    In his response to the Chicago Quadrilateral, Warfield sought to distinguish “the primitive parochial episcopate already possessed by Presbyterianism” from the historic episcopate as conceived of by the loftier of the Episcopalians:

  2. Lowrie is himself Anglican, I believe, though he rejects any de jure argument for polity.

    His position is that “presbyters” simply meant the older believers, who had wisdom and experience, whereas the deacons were liturgical understudies to the bishop.

    He does deny the identification of bishops with presbyters.

  3. I agree with all this.

    It’s also pretty similar to Roger Beckwith’s argument in “Elders in Every City.” He too is an Anglican.

    Linguistically, I wince when I consider that our church’s bishop (=episkopos, from skopeo, to look out upon) is in eye-contact with our church maybe once or twice a year. The notion that one could “episkopein” while being absent is laughable.

  4. I may have said this before, I don’t know, but the way I see it, every “gathering” had a “first-stander”: the seventy elders of Israel in the wilderness had Moses; the judges of Israel in the Promissed Land had a king; the Priests in the Temple(s) had an Arch-Priest; the Twelve Apostles for the Circumcision had Peter; the seventy disciples for the Gentiles had Paul; the seven Deacons had Stephen; deacons have an Arch-deacon; priests or presbyters have a bishop; etc.

  5. Pingback: Bishops and Spiritual Gifting and Chinese Churches « Cogito, Credo, Petam

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