The Role of the Bishop in the Early Church

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by Joseph Tuttle, Benedictine College

In the early Church, and indeed today, the bishop is considered an apostolic successor, meaning that he can trace his office back to one of the twelve Apostles. The office of the bishop is to guide and protect his particular ecclesia or church. This “ecclesia” would later become known as a diocese. Although the bishops are to guide their particular church, they must be in union with each other as St. Cyprian says in his On the Unity of the Catholic Church: “The episcopate is one, the parts of which are held together by the individual bishops.”

The bishops were entrusted to pass on the apostolic tradition, which was the doctrines, worship, and pattern of life, that were received from the original twelve Apostles themselves. In refuting heresies, in his Against Heresies, St. Ireneaus discusses the Apostolic tradition and says that it does not resemble the heretics’ teachings: “We can enumerate those who were appointed as bishops in the Churches by the Apostles and their successors to our own day, who never knew and never taught anything resembling their [the heretics’] foolish doctrine.” St. Ireneaus is essentially saying that you can tell the difference between heresy and true doctrine based on whether it has been handed down through the bishops in the Apostolic tradition.

They were also to be the guardian of the rule of faith in their diocese. St. Ignatius of Antioch makes this clear: “See that you follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father…Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” (FOC, 64) Here we clearly see the authority that the bishops hold and the unity one must have with their bishop. St. Cyprian also emphasizes the authority of the bishop and the punishment that comes with disobedience: “A hostile brother, despising the bishops…dares to set up another altar, to compose another prayer with unauthorized words…and not know that he who struggles against God’s plan on account of his rash daring is punished by divine censure.” The importance of emphasizing the authority and unity of the bishops in the early Church was partially to combat the Gnostic errors that were in the current of society.

According to St. Hippolytus’ The Apostolic Tradition, the bishop had many roles when it came to administering the sacraments. The bishop was tasked with performing exorcisms on those who were to be baptized and after baptism, the bishop would anoint the newly baptized. He would then celebrate the Eucharist and “…shall explain the reason of all these things to those who partake.” Thus, it is clear to see that the bishop was thoroughly immersed in the liturgical and sacramental celebrations of his particular church.

Bishops have been given the cross of guiding and defending the unity of Church as St. Cyprian says, “This unity we ought to hold firmly and defend, especially we bishops who watch over the Church, that we may prove that also the episcopate itself is one and undivided.” Cyprian also warns against heretics who set themselves up as false bishops.

In conclusion, then, we see that the bishops of the early Church were considered the heads of the Church because they were the successors of the Apostles. They passed on the teaching of the Apostles through preaching and writing. They were greatly involved with the administration of the sacraments and the celebration of liturgies.


Aquilina, Mike. The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2013.

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