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The Development of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy

by Frank Van Dyke
via The Preceptor, Vol. 1, No. 8, June 1952

The Catholic doctrine of the primacy of Peter and the Roman See was set forth in the following decree of the Council of Florence in 1439: "Also we decree that the holy apostolic See and the Roman pontiff has a primacy over the whole world; and that the Roman pontiff himself is the successor of St. Peter, the prince of the apostles, and is the true vicar of Christ, and head of the whole church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that to him, in the person of the blessed Peter, our Lord Jesus Christ has committed full power to feed, rule, and govern the Universal church, according as is contained in the acts of general councils and in the holy canons" (Quoted in The Novelties Of Romanism, by Collette, pgs. 251,252).

Did Rome have such precedency from the beginning of the church? Did the Lord ordain that the bishop of Rome should be supreme head of the whole church? The purpose and scope of this article will be to trace the developments during six centuries that led to the full grown ecclesiasticism in 606 A.D. It will be seen that the Catholic hierarchy resulted from a gradual departure from the New Testament pattern. In order to see this in its true light, it will be well to get before us a picture of the organization of the New Testament church.

The New Testament church was very simple in its organization. When people obeyed the gospel, the Lord saved them and added them to His church (Acts 2:47). All of these were members of the one body, over which Christ is the supreme head (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:20-23). This is the only organization that the New Testament reveals for the church. There are no earthly headquarters, no kind of ecclesiasticism or system of superior organizations.

In each local congregation there were elders or bishops ( a plurality) and deacons (Acts 14:23; Philippians 1:1). Each congregation was autonomous -- that is, free to conduct its own affairs under the oversight of its bishops, subject only and always to the authority of Christ the Head. In the local congregation there was a plural of bishops, the term "bishop" referring to the same person as "elder." (Titus 1:5,7) shows definitely that there was no distinction between an elder an a bishop.

In the second century one of the elders in a local congregation came to have more power and influence than the other elders, and soon came to be designated as "the bishop" of that congregation. Thus "bishop" was made a title of higher rank than "elder." The other elders were considered subordinate to this one bishop in the local church.

Very soon this bishop's power and influence began to extend beyond the local congregation to a territory or district, and he was called a bishop over a diocese or a diocesan bishop. In the latter part of the second century councils began to be held, and usually the bishop of the diocese in which the council was held would preside over this meeting. He usually lived and presided in a large city, so to distinguish himself from other diocesan bishops he was given the title of Metropolitan Bishop. Five of these came to be known as Patriarchs. These five were in Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome; they were considered superior to all other bishops.

It is important to notice that the organization did not yet have one supreme head over the whole church. Things at that time were headed in that direction, but the ecclesiasticism was not fully developed. Gradually, in stair-step fashion, the hierarchy was growing. The condition was far different from the New Testament order, but the organization had not reached the form that the Catholic Church has today. The pattern of development toward the present form, which development was a departure from the original organization of the church, was on this order: first, a distinction between "Bishop" and other elders in the local church; second, the Diocesan Bishop; third, Metropolitan Bishops; fourth, Patriarchs.

As already stated, there were five of these Patriarchs, one in each of the five most influential cities of that time. The struggle for influence and power finally narrowed down to an issue between Rome and Constantinople. In this struggle, as we shall see presently, Rome finally won by having her bishop proclaimed the universal head of the church; however, this came after a long, hard struggle. There is abundance of historical evidence that the Roman bishop was not from the beginning considered superior to the other bishops, and certainly that he was not looked upon as the one supreme head of the church.

The Council of Nicea, 325 A.D. the first ecumenical council, decreed that the bishops in the different provinces would be of equal rank and authority, that each one would be free to conduct his affairs independent of any other province or bishop. In the Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D., a decree was passed giving to the See of Constantinople equal rank and authority with the See of Rome. The 28th canon of this council stated that "equal precedency" should be given to Constantinople and pointed out that Rome had been given precedency by the Fathers "because it was the imperial city." It was argued by those who wrote the decree that since the seat of the imperial government had been transferred to Constantinople, this honor of precedency should at least be shared by that city as well. This shows that whatever "honor" of "superiority" the bishopric of Rome had come to possess at that time, was based upon traditional sentiment toward the capital city rather than upon divine right.

This decree of the Council of Chalcedon precipitated a long and bitter controversy between the two bishoprics, which continued for one hundred fifty years before Rome finally succeeded in being recognized as supreme. The climax to the struggle came in 606 A.D., when emperor Phocas, a usurper on the civil throne in Constantinople, crowned the bishop of Rome, Boniface III, the first universal head of the church.

This event was ironical. A bishop of Rome was now declared to be universal bishop, when two of his predecessors had severely condemned such a title as profane. The details of this are interesting and enlightening. In 588 A.D., John the Faster, the bishop of Constantinople, assumed the title of Universal Bishop of the church. Pelagious II was bishop of Rome at that time, and he was astonished at John's boldness. He said this: "Regard not the name of Universality which John has unlawfully usurped to himself, for let not of the Patriarchs ever use this so profane appellation. You may well estimate what mischief may be expected rapidly to follow, whenever among priests such perverted beginnings break forth; for he is near respecting whom it is written, He himself is king over all the sons of pride."

Two years later, in 590 A.D., Gregory the Great succeeded Pelagius II in Rome. He, too, bitterly denounced the action of John the Faster in Constantinople. Here are some of Gregory the Great's statements: for if a single patriarch be styled universal, the name of Patriarch is take from the others." Again: "To consent to the adoption of that wicked appellation is nothing less than to apostatize from the faith." Gregory also said this: "I, indeed confidently assert that whosoever either calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, that person, in his vain elation, is the precursor of Antichrist, because, through his pride he exalts himself above the others" (Novelties of Romanism, Collette, pp. 3,4,5).

It is significant to notice that Pelagius II and Gregory the Great did not claim that John the Faster was usurping something that belonged to the bishop of Rome; they said that no bishop, in Rome, Constantinople or anywhere else, should be called universal bishop. Pelagius II said, "...let none of the Patriarchs ever use this so profane appellation." Gregory the Great said: "No one of my predecessors (nobody before this in the Roman bishopric...F.V. ) ever consented to use this so profane appellation."

Remember, Gregory the Great was a bishop of Rome. He is listed by the Catholics in their list of Popes. He certainly is good authority on the question of whether or not the bishop of Rome had, until that time, been considered the supreme head of the church. He testified that such was not the case and said that the"adoption of that wicked appellation (by any bishop, anywhere, F.V.) is nothing less than to apostatize from the faith."

In 606 A.D., as already related Boniface III, who was the successor of Gregory as bishop of Rome, was given the title of Universal bishop of the church. The circumstances of this incident are sordid, but they are of interest and significance to the student of church history. They show how a struggle for supremacy over the entire church was climaxed by Rome in an unrighteous political deal, in which the bishop of Rome "sold out" to a murderous usurper on the imperial throne.

Phocas had come to the imperial throne in Constantinople through treachery and murder. He had slain Maricius, his predecessor, with his family. Cyriacus, who was bishop in Constantinople at that time, refused to endorse such murderous conduct and unrighteous usurpation; he would not place his blessings upon Phocas as the rightful ruler. Phocas, in a spirit of vindictiveness, turned to the bishop of Rome for approval of his claim to the throne. He knew there was rivalry and jealousy between the two bishoprics -- that of Constantinople and that of Rome. So here the shrewd politician was capitalizing upon a situation, using a religious leader to serve his own selfish interest and to get himself entrenched in the position he had gained by foul means.

But the bishop of Rome, Boniface IIi, was not being duped. He had his own selfish interests and saw in the situation an opportunity to play the emperor against the bishop in Constantinople and thus gain for Rome the supremacy that had been sought in the long struggle between the two Sees. The deal was made. Boniface III recognized Phocas as emperor, and Phocas in turn crowned Boniface III as supreme head of the universal church.

Since that time, the bishops of Rome have made the pompous claim of supremacy over the entire church, professing to be successors to Peter, who, they say, was the first bishop of Rome and the first universal head of the church. According to the testimony of two of their own "predecessors" they wear a "profane appellation" and have apostatized from the faith. All who know the teaching of the New Testament on the organization of the church have seen greater evidence that such is true.