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A Defense of the Episcopacy, part 1: Before the Law

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Series note: This series on the Episcopacy will, Lord willing, be comprised of at least 6 parts, part two can be found here. A principle work that has been used for this work is Thomas Bilson's The Perpetual Government of Christ's Church.


Series Introduction

The episcopacy is that which separates Anglicans from other Protestant groups. To convince a Protestant of the necessity of the episcopacy will necessarily draw them to Canterbury. This is what lead me into Anglicanism out of Presbyterianism. Therefore, it is imperative that this form of church government be defended against those of congregational and presbyterian views.

At the center of this debate is the question of whether there is an equality or an inequality of ministers. "In Christ's church are there, by Divine right, levels of ministers by which some rule over others?" To answer this question is to answer this debate. Therefore this series seeks to show this thesis, that, in Christ's church, as seen under the old dispensation, the New Testament, and the history of the church, there is an inequality of the orders of Bishop and Presbyter by which the former rules over the later.

Historically this very question of the episcopacy led to a civil war in England. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there were debates raging within the Anglican church over the divinely appointed form of church government. One side pointed to the New Testament account where Bishops and Presbyters (Elders) seem to be the same office, but with different names. They cite St. Jerome to argue for a gradual development of the office of Bishop. The other side pointed to the historic practice of the church, reflected in the writings of the early 2nd century Bishop, St. Ignatius of Antioch to support their view.

This series of articles adds nothing new to that debate. Rather, this series seeks to synthesize in an orderly manner those best arguments which were given in the writings of my Anglican fathers in the faith.


Article Introduction

The first article in this series seeks to argue for the episcopacy by looking back into the Old Testament form of church government before the coming of the law, showing the continuity which the historic government of Christ's church has with what came before in pre-Mosaic dispensation.

What we see when we look at the government of the church is two trends. First, it is Patriarchial, the father is over his household as their priest, and the grandfather over the father, etc.. Second, that the firstborn son (or whichever son is blessed) is over his brothers as their superior.


The Household

First, we have the household. The individual household of father, mother, and children becomes the foundational unit for the pre-Mosaic form of church government. The father in this scheme of things acts as the priest of his own family, teaching, ruling, offering sacrifice, and blessing. In regard to teaching, it is written in Genesis that,

He [Abraham] will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.

There are multiple instances of offering sacrifice. An example can be found in the book of Job, where Job offers sacrifice for his family, as it is written,

And his sons went and feasted in their houses, every one his day; and sent and called for their three sisters to eat and to drink with them. And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually.

This is also seen in the example of Noah, he offers sacrifice and then his family, and by extension, the future human race is propitiated, as it is written

And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

Lastly, there are multiple instances of blessing which the Patriarchs perform on their offspring, first, Noah blesses Shem and curses Ham,

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The Larger Family

Second, we have the larger family unit. In the larger family unit, there is still a hierarchy. As we have seen above this hierarchy is still retained when sons become fathers (the grandfathers still act as priests of the fathers). Also, amongst brothers, there is a hierarchy of the oldest (or chosen) over the younger (or non-chosen) in the succession of the father. This is seen in multiple instances throughout the book of Genesis.

First, Noah made Shem the priest over his brothers,

And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

Second, Issac did the same thing with Jacob,

Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.

This is also seen more clearly when God tells Rebecca

Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy body; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder shall serve the younger.

The Case of Melchizedek

This principle of familial hierarchy is seen supremely in the case of Melchizedek. Abraham is clearly, as we have seen, the priest over his entire household. Yet, Abraham submits to Melchizedek as his greater in the priesthood. This is picked up in the book of Hebrews,

For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him; to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils. And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham: But he whose descent is not counted from them received tithes of Abraham, and blessed him that had the promises. And without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better. And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth. And as I may so say, Levi also, who receiveth tithes, payed tithes in Abraham. For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him.

From Jacob to Moses

The last remnants of this system are seen in the case of Jacob, after this era the system develops into another system with Jacob's sons. The principle of hierarchy and family are the same in this situation, but the rigidity and orderliness of the system are more fully established, which will lead to the Mosaic system. Each household is ruled by the father as we have seen. Above this, we have another level of hierarchy, which is found in "tribes." There are various heads of the tribes who are blessed by their fathers. Above this, we have one tribe which stands above the rest as the hierarch of the entire "nation." That is, the head of the tribe of Judah (although immediately after the death of Jacob this honor is given to Joseph), as Jacob said,

Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the earliest government of the church of God favors the episcopal structure. Rather than the equality of ministers which Presbyterians fight for. There is an inequality of priests under the pre-Mosaic system. First, this is seen in the principle of the grandfather over the father. Second, this is seen in the principle of the "blessed" or "chosen" son over the others. Third, this is seen in the example of Melchizedek and Abraham. Fourth, this is seen in the Tribal system of Jacob's offspring on two counts, first in the supremacy of Judah over the other tribes, and second of the tribal head.

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