"A lay Catholic perspective"

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How Bishops Came To Be

by Rod Lorenz


MANY CHRISTIANS ARE CONVINCED that Jesus never intended that there should be an ordained clergy. They believe that this was something invented later on. Catholics respond that our bishops can trace their right to shepherd God's people right back to Christ himself. It was his plan all along. We can show this is rooted in the scriptures and that it makes sense.

God's plan to bring his salvation to our world is the Church. Through this family of believers Jesus now reaches out to save and teach all nations.

But one of the problems in any society is knowing just who is in charge. If this isn't clear from the start, people will fight like cats and dogs. The other difficulty is knowing just what Jesus really taught. After all, many people claim to teach his message and yet teach completely different things.

It is important that Catholics know who speaks for Christ. If we don't, we won't know who to listen to, or what to believe. Faith would become impossible. Jesus foresaw this problem and provided us with a sure way of knowing the shepherds from the sheep. He provided a way to safeguard his teaching for all generations. He appointed certain men to shepherd and teach his people.

The apostles

After spending a night in prayer, Jesus chose twelve men as his apostles. This word means 'one sent with authority', like an ambassador. These men would be his official representatives and have the right to speak in his name.

For three years he carefully trained them for their mission. They had the best teacher around. These were to be his official witnesses, and the foundation on which he would build his Church. After he rose from the dead, Jesus told his apostles, "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." In the same way as Jesus came to teach, heal, and forgive sins, he commissioned his apostles to carry on that work. They carried his own power and authority. Their leadership was one of service to the Church. We must understand what this means.

Authority, power and service

The greatest kind of service to others is the exercise of authority. Parents serve their kids more by correcting them and guiding them in the right ways than by washing their clothes or cooking their meals. Jesus gave his apostles both authority and power as a service to the Church. What does this mean? Authority is having the right to do something, while power is being able to do it. A man who is able to take your car may have no right to it. He has power but no authority. However, if you give him the keys to your car, he will have both the power to drive it and authority to do so.

Apostolic authority

It was to his apostles that Jesus said, "He who hears you hears me, he who rejects you rejects me."[1] It does not apply to everyone. Only they could claim the right to say what Christ's teaching really means, and to have his guarantee backing them. Thus when certain believers disturbed others with their opinions, the apostles wrote, we have heard that some persons have unsettled your minds with their words; they acted without any authority from us.[2]

To ensure good order Jesus gave his apostles the right to make laws and govern his Church. He told them, "Whatever you forbid on earth is forbidden in heaven, whatever you permit on earth is permitted in heaven."[3] Without a way to maintain order everything becomes a hopeless mess.

The power of the apostles

Christ also gave the apostles the power they needed to care for his sheep. He told them, "If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained."[4] Such power was not given to everybody; it was entrusted to the apostles alone.

And at the last supper he ordered them, "Do this as a memorial of me." There they received the power to say Mass and to feed his people with the Bread come down from heaven.

When Jesus told them, "Behold I am with you always, even to the end of time," it meant their ministry was permanent. Every generation would have need of these gifts. They were not to die with the first apostles, but must be passed on to others.

Sharing their ministry

As the Church grew, others were chosen to help the apostles care for it. The first chosen were the deacons. Through the laying on of hands the apostles gave them the authority to look after the material needs of the community.[5]

Soon others were appointed to help the apostles with their spiritual ministry. Paul wrote to Titus telling him that he was to appoint good men to this work, and that he must silence others "who teach what they have no right to teach." Men like Titus came to be called elders and bishops.*

* [Paul encouraged another disciple, Timothy, to use boldly the Spiritual gift which was given to him when the prophets spoke and the body of elders laid their hands on him. (cf. 1 Timothy 4:14) — Ed.]

Apostolic succession

This handing on of the apostles' ministry is not a later invention as some say. Clement was a Roman bishop who had known the apostles Peter and Paul. He wrote that, while they were in Rome,

they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this something new, for bishops and deacons had been written afterwards added the further provision that if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.[6]

The apostles carefully organized things so that there would be no doubt who was in charge.

The early bishops

These bishops took the place of the apostles who had died, and exercised their power and authority. This is clear from the witness of the first Christians. These in turn passed on their office to others who took their place. And so in an unbroken chain, the true authority and power of Jesus has been handed down to our own time. This is called apostolic succession.

Saint Ignatius was bishop of Antioch and had been a disciple of the apostle John. On his way to die for Christ in Rome in the year 107 A.D., he wrote to the Church at Smyrna to tell them, "Wherever the bishop is, there is Jesus Christ, and wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." He warned, "Consider no Eucharist valid except that celebrated by the bishop, or someone appointed by him."

Today's bishops

Our bishops are the successors of the apostles and the rightful shepherds of Christ's flock. No one has the right to lead, or to teach, or preach in Christ's name, unless he is given authority to do this work. Jesus gave this right only to his apostles and through them to their appointed successors. Such authority can only be passed on by someone who already has it!

Their teaching authority safeguards Christ's teaching. Jesus did not leave us to be guided in matters of faith by the opinions of the crowd. If he did, we could never be sure of anything. There is no guarantee that what other teachers say, no matter how clever, will be the truth.

Deacons and priests

The bishops also delegate certain men to assist them in the ministry of the Word. They represent the bishop and are subject to his authority. Deacons may teach, preach, baptize, bury the dead, and bless marriages. Priests receive a fuller share of the bishop's ministry, but don't have the power to ordain others. The bishop gives them the right to teach and guide the faithful he places under their care.

The Pope

The promises Chirst made to all the apostles, he also made to one man. That man was Peter.

Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah. No man has revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And so I tell you, you are Rock (Peter) and on this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of darkness will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."[7]

Jesus gave him charge over the Church. The promises made to him hold good for those who succeed him. When the bishops teach in union with the pope, then you have Christ's word that it will be the truth.[8]

If the bishops disagree, the pope's decision is binding on all. He is the chief teacher of the Christian Faith. This ministry keeps the Church from flying apart; it is a gift that Christ has given his Church to ensure her unity, peace and faithfulness. Christians who step off this Rock are soon divided into may quarrelling groups with contradictory teachings. Even bishops may go wrong, but those who remain standing on the Rock are the sure guides in whose voices you will recognize the voice of Christ himself

Catholics see in these shepherds the wise plan of our Saviour and Lord, who knows well how to care for his people, and bring them home safe to heaven.

[1] Luke 10:16

[2] Acts 15:24

[3] John 20:23

[4] Acts 6:1-6

[5] Titus 1:5-11

[6] Epistle to the Corinthians 42:4; 44:3

[7] Matthew 16:18-19

[8] John 21:15-17; Luke 22:31