Book Review: The Original Bishops, by Alistair Stewart

Review
02.23.2016

Alistair C. Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014. 394pp. $50.00.

 

It is difficult to overthrow a consensus view, yet this is precisely what Alistair Stewart attempts to accomplish with his recent monograph The Original Bishops. Stewart, who is team vicar of Upton-cum-Chalvey (Slough, England) and visiting scholar of Sarum College (Salisbury, England), is no stranger to the topic of early Christian liturgy and polity. He has written or edited over a dozen books on this topic and is considered a leading expert in this field of study.

OVERVIEW

The consensus view that Stewart seeks to overthrow states that the earliest Christian churches were governed by a plurality of leaders. These leaders, sometimes called episkopoi (“overseers” or “bishops”) or presbyteroi (“elders” or “presbyters”) collectively governed local churches. It was later, sometime in the late first or early second century, when a single episkopos rose above the presbyteroi that such a pattern was compromised. Instead, Stewart insists that Christian congregations were never led by a collective leadership (49, 155). From the beginning, and up until the turn of the third century, local churches were led by a single leader, an episkopos. After this period, a monarchical bishop emerged in some urban contexts to preside over multiple congregations with subordinate ministers (presbyters and deacons). Furthermore, originally the presbyteroi were either (1) honored, wealthy, older men who served as patrons for local house churches (such as in Ephesus; see 1 Timothy); or (2) leaders chosen from among the local episkopoi to serve as citywide elders (such as in Crete; see Titus).

According to Stewart, there are at least two main factors that lead to the consensus view: (1) the supposed synonymy of episkopos and presbyterosi ; and (2) the assumption that the church borrowed its leadership terminology and structure from the synagogue. Stewart insists that the terms episkopos and presbyteros are not synonymous (though they might be perionyms, that is, partial synonyms). More specifically, presbyteroi is a collective term that could include episkopoi (at least at the citywide level, but not at the level of the local house church). Thus, “representatives of the individual churches might collectively be known as presbyters” (25). Furthermore, it is clear that the NT church did not borrow its leadership structure from Judaism, including the synagogue. Rather, it embraced such terms primarily on the use and function in guilds and associations in the Hellenistic cities (8, 101, 141).

Embracing the thesis proposed originally by Edwin Hatch (The Organization of the Early Christian Churches, 1881), Stewart fervently argues that the original episkopoi were economic or financial officers (the same is also true of the diakonoi or “deacons”). That is, they were not primarily shepherds or teachers, but were wealthy homeowners whose “chief duties were not liturgical but charitable and administrative” (58). More specifically, the episkopos provided the Eucharistic meal for the congregations under his authority. Stewart maintains that “whatever else the episkopos did, he dispensed food” (79).

EVALUATION

Stewart is to be commended for his in-depth research. It is clear that he has a solid grasp of the primary literature of the post-apostolic period as well as the secondary literature in the area of church government. Having said that, however, there are several problems with this work. I will address these weaknesses in three broad categories related to (1) his presuppositions, (2) his thesis, and (3) his writing style.

First, many of Stewart’s presuppositions are problematic. For instance, despite his claims, he seems to have an axe to grind. Although he acknowledges that the history he presents “is of obvious theological and ecclesial interest,” he claims to present his work as “simply a history” (9). As such, he claims “to undertake this work with an ‘impartial hand’” (9). He later writes, “As a historian, I am uncomfortable drawing out theological lessons from history” (353). And yet, he readily admits that his goal is “to demolish” and “overthrow” the consensus view that the original Christian communities were governed by a plurality of leaders (2, 97). How can his work be considered “simply a history” if he is seeking to prove “church order was episcopal from the beginning” (7)?

Another problematic presupposition (at least for an evangelical Christian) is that he does not treat the NT canon as the inspired Word of God. Instead, the NT books are treated like any other literary work. In fact, he often intermingles biblical and extra-biblical sources as if there is no difference between them. Relatedly, he rejects Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles. Instead, they are treated as fictive accounts (148). Regarding Titus he states that “the fictive Paul is . . . instructing the fictive Titus to establish the same system in (fictive) Crete” (38). In a footnote he states, “The pseudonymy and relative lateness of the Pastoral Epistles are assumed, rather than argued, throughout” (38 n. 114). Consequently, 1 Timothy includes a church order that has been redacted (149). “Timothy” represents an “ideal episkopos” (303). He also rejects the authenticity of 1 Peter (206).

Furthermore, he often seems to start with the later developments in church history in order to determine the meaning of the NT. For example, in discussing the situation in the churches of Antioch, he writes, “I start at the end rather than the beginnings described in Acts” (237). Thus, it seems that his goal is not to determine what the NT teaches, but to reconstruct what he thinks the NT teaches based on the later development in church history. As a result, his work tends to be overly speculative. At the beginning of Chapter 5 (“The Causes of Monepiscopacy”) he even admits that his reconstruction “is a provisional and uncertain conclusion, consisting largely of suggestions” (299).

Finally, he assumes that the NT terms are borrowed from Greco-Roman culture. While I agree with him that the synagogue does not provide the origin of the NT elder, Stewart’s work contains almost no consideration of the OT background (there are only 13 OT references listed in the Scripture index). Regarding the background of the Christian deacon, he states that “even if the seven [in Acts 6:1–6] are in some sense diakonoi, they do not readily supply a point of origin for later Christian diakonoi” (235). So we are to assume that the gymnasium of Hellenistic culture is a more likely background for the term?

Second, there are several problems related to Stewart’s main thesis. For example, he uses only selected texts to prove his thesis (mostly from Acts, 1 Timothy, and Titus). Astonishingly, in a book about church government spanning nearly 400 pages, he never mentions James 5:14. This omission is especially troubling since it contains the term presbyteroi and is testimony against his thesis. Additionally, he never cites Galatians 6:6 or any text in Hebrews (including 13:7, 17, 24) and cites Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 only once. For a book this length, it is almost unbelievable that there is only about one page of NT references in the index. Stewart maintains that “no evidence has been found of any Christian church under the leadership of presbyteroi without any officers” (158–59). But James 5:14 speaks of “elders of the church” without any reference to other officers.

Another major issue is that much of his reconstruction is based on an unlikely interpretation of kata polin in Titus 1:5 (and kat ekklēsian in Acts 14:23). He (wrongly) interprets the prepositional phrase adjectivally instead of adverbially. Thus, he states that “Paul” is instructing “Titus” to appoint elders “for each town” (41) instead of the interpretation favored by nearly all English Bible versions and commentaries (i.e., “in every town”). Besides distorting the Greek, Stewart’s interpretation also does injustice to the historical context (assuming that Paul’s letter to Titus is authentic). Nearly all conservative commentators acknowledge that, at the time of writing, Crete was a newly evangelized area whereas the church at Ephesus had been established for at least a decade. As a result, the churches in Crete would not need city elders (which might be needed at a more advanced stage) but local church elders. Interestingly, Stewart’s model suggests that the church in Crete is more advanced than that in Ephesus (148).

Stewart also has a distorted view of the episcopal office. He suggests that the main duty of the episkopos is economic (i.e., providing food and other resources) based on the influence of Hellenistic civic roles. In addition, he strongly asserts that the teaching role of the episkopos is a late development (277). He avers that “teaching was not an original function” of the episkopos or the presbyteros (152). I find such a statement hard to accept in light of 1 Timothy 3:2 (an episkopos must be “able to teach”) and Titus 1:9 (an episkopos “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it”; also see 1 Thess. 5:12–13). Furthermore, 1 Timothy 5:17 states that those who work hard in the word and teaching are worthy of double honor. Related to this verse, Stewart claims that the “double honor” refers to “a double portion of food” given at community banquets, which is a sign of honor (163). His interpretation is based on the assumption that the presbyteroi are wealthy homeowners who do not need money (but instead provide resources as benefactors of the church). But he ignores (it is never cited) 1 Timothy 5:18 which explains the meaning of the previous verse: “the worker is worthy of his wages” (also see 1 Cor. 9:14; Gal. 6:6). Thus, it is almost unbelievable that he states, “There is . . . no evidence of episkopoi receiving payment” in the early church (91).

Finally, I will briefly comment on two issues related to his writing style. First, this book is written for the academy. It is highly speculative and often difficult to follow. He constantly interacts with various scholars throughout his work, which often bogs down the discussion and detracts from the author’s main objective. Additionally, the author sometimes uses German terms with no translation.

Second, I think the chapters are too long. For example, Chapter 4 (“Presbyters and Episkopoi in Emerging Christian Communities”) is 112 pages. He states that chapter 5 will be “brief” but the chapter spans 54 pages. Finally, the book is very repetitive, which, in the end, is probably not all bad because his reconstruction is so complex.

CONCLUSION

Although the above evaluation contained mostly negative comments, the reader should not be left with only a negative impression of this work. It is well-researched and documented. It is challenging and, at times, even compelling. It incorporates older theories while at the same time offering new evidence. Any serious treatment of church offices must interact with this work. And yet, in the end, the flaws of this book render it another theory that has been tested and found wanting.

By:
Benjamin Merkle

Benjamin Merkle is a professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.