The Role of Bishops, Martyrs, and Scripture in Early Christianity


   The early church was a period of great changes and God raised up great leaders for this time. The bishops were the men who took point and, often at the cost of their own lives, aimed the church into the future. The issues that had to be dealt with were false teachings, questions of unity, the canon of scripture, and what is the authority for the church to operate. It was the three-fold leadership model that supported the church both as an organization and an institution, and eventually lead the church to the bishops that provided an authoritative canon for their groups, authorized Christian worship by implementation of the sacraments, lived exemplary lives even to martyrdom; in all this it was the ministry of these bishops that set the tone for the churches future and their actions are felt even today.

The Role of the Bishops, Exemplary Leaders, and the Canon of Scripture

   When speaking of the canon, it is important to proceed in thinking of the canon as something designated by God and men of God discover it. Demarest stated that Calvin was convinced that there was no one better to form “right doctrine than ‘a council of true bishops’ guided by the Spirit of Christ.”[1] The councils that recognized the canon were made up of bishops and prominent leaders. However, prior to those councils, there were noncanonical books being written that were full of heresy that the church should be defended from.  Ferguson said that “[t]he Gospel of Peter … was early rejected by church leaders because of its suspected Docetic leanings …”[2] Ferguson statement show that is was the leaders that took on this role, and being the top of a three-fold leadership, the bishops would have been right in the middle of this.

Bishops Authorized Christian Worship.

   The three-fold leadership structure was first articulated by Ignatius where the “bishop (who took the place of God), the presbyters (who symbolized the apostles), and the deacons (who represented the servant Christ).”[3] In the writing of Ignatius the idea that “[a]ll activities (eucharist, baptism, agape) were to be under the bishop, either presided over by him in person.”[4] The purpose of the bishop’s involvement in these was to ensure that unity and order happened in this. There is a biblical precedent for the overseer (ἐπίσκοπος)[5] to be the one who “will … care for God’s church.”[6] The church is both an institution and an organization. Because of this, the bishop’s role in authorizing worship is twofold. For the congregant, the organization, approval of a bishop gives the sense of structure and order that cannot be obtained without that. For the institution, the bishop acts somewhat like a CEO ensuring the authority of the organizations to operate. Ignatius saw this obedience of the congregation to the three-fold leadership as the best method for combating divisiveness.[7] The author of Hebrews would seem to approve Ignatius’ approach when they said, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls …”[8]

Martyrs and Saints Served as Authoritative Examples for Christians to Follow

    The later writings of church historians like Eusebius seem to magnify the martyrdom of early Christians leaders. Ferguson points this out when he quotes Eusebius speaking of Justin Martyr, “Justin in philosopher’s garb served as an ambassador of the word of God.”[9] Justin at his trail appealed to prophecy when he said, “of old the prophets foretold His appearance among men.”[10] The primary way in which this became an authoritative example for Christians to follow is that all the martyr had to do was offer to the Emperor and they could go free.[11] By not capitulating to this command that set the precedent that one could not call both Caesar and Jesus Lord.[12] This standard that was held by these martyrs still held sway even after the persecution ended. When those who had capitulated to the Roman threats tried to rejoin the church later, they were refused re-entrance. In effect, in their staunch refusal to bend to Rome the early martyrs caused capitulation to be the unforgivable sin.

Scripture was Authoritative During this Period of Church History

   There were several references to a canon of scripture before the definitive counsel of Carthage in the 400s.[13] It seems this debate might have been instigated by a Gnostic called Marcion. Ferguson said that though “the catholic church with its creed, canon, and episcopate”[14] were not a direct reaction to Marcion, he had a “considerable”[15] “influence.”[16] There was not a consensus of books in the early canons. For example, Tertullian argued for the inclusion of the Book of Enoch on the basis that it was “published before the deluge.”[17] This highlights the issues about authorship and authenticity that faced the early bishops. However, it is easy to see that all the different canonical list presupposed one thing, God has spoken authoritatively. So, the canon of book accepted by the Bishop of the body at the time functioned as authorities for them. As the process went forward the more and more emphases were placed on apostolic authorship and books that were included in the Jewish canon carried weight as pointed out by Tertullian when he said that the book of Enoch was rejected by many “because it is not admitted into the Jewish canon.”[18]


   God had spoken in Jesus and Jesus had begun the building of his church when he sent his first missionaries. The ones to carry on the work were the bishops who bore the brunt of the difficulties faced in the early church. They took on the canon issues. They took on the unity issues. They took on Rome and they provided living examples of Christ-following. There was no question in the mind of the early church that God had spoken and as non-Christian groups like Marcion and the Dositists began to make claims about God, the issue of which books God had authored became a serious issue. This decision and challenges together with the man that faced them would shape the features of Christianity for millennia.




[1]. Bruce A Demarest, “The Contemporary Relevance of Christendom’s Creeds,” Themelios 7, no. 2 (1982): 11.

[2]. Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 73.

[3]. Ibid, 55.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), overseer; bishop. Cognate words: ἀλλοτριεπίσκοπος, ἐπισκοπή. The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Logos Bible Software, 2011).

[6]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Ti 3:5.

[7]. Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 55.

[8]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 13:17.

[9]. Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 72.

[10]. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, Justin, Chariton, Charites, Pæon, and Liberianus, Who Suffered at Rome,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, trans. M. Dods, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 305.

[11]. HTH-510 Lecture 2: From Persecution to Toleratio. 2017. Grand Canyon University.

[12] Κύριος (a title for God and for Christ) one who exercises supernatural authority over mankind. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 138.

[13]. Muratorian 200 AD., Origen 250 AD., Eusebius 300 AD.,. Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Updated 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995. 67

[14]. Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 87.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 15.

[18]. Ibid.

Posted in Other.