On Prelacy & Episcopacy

“For this cause left I [Paul] thee [Titus, an evangelist] in Crete, that thou shouldest…  ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.  If any be blameless…  For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God…”

Titus 1:5-7

“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the Church.  And when they were come to him, he said unto them…  ‘Take heed…  to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God…'”

Acts 20:17-18,28



Order of Contents

Articles  6
Books  4
Historical Theology  2

Episcopal Succession  1
Bishops & Prelates are Unlawful, but Valid Gospel Ministers  1
Latin  3




The Greek word in the New Testament for both ‘bishop’ and ‘overseer’ is episcopos, the roots of which word literally mean ‘over’-‘seer’.  Presbyterians recognize that Scripture uses these terms synonymously with ‘elder’, or presbyteros (Acts 20:17-18,28; Titus 1:5-7), they designating various characteristics of the same order of offices (including pastors, teachers and ruling elders).

Episcopalianism and Prelacy usually believe that bishops are a distinct office from pastors and have an authority of jurisdiction over pastors, such that bishops can ordain and exercise discipline of themselves over pastors and other bishops (a top-down Church government by a line of individuals).

Prelacy always entails episcopalianism, but episcopalianism does not always entail prelacy.  The 1638 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the 2nd Reformation explicitly condemned prelacy, where bishops exercise jurisdictional authority over pastors and other bishops, and are not accountable to the other Church courts.  However, numerous ministers in the 1638 assembly, including Robert Baillie, held, in theory, to a limited episcopacy, that bishops might exist under the authority of the general assembly.   The assembly, while presbyterian in structure and mostly presbyterian in viewpoint, did not condemn limited episcopacy, nor did they explicitly and exclusively affirm a strict presbyterianism.‡

‡ That which had caused so much trouble in the previous decades were bishops, by the authority of the king, acting outside of and against the authority of the Church courts.  In consistency with the subsection below on this page, the bishops were yet considered to be valid Gospel ministers.  Hence most of them were defrocked and excommunicated by the assembly for their unrepented of sinful scandals.





Calderwood, David – The Altar of Damascus or the Pattern of the English Hierarchy & Church Policy Obtruded upon the Church of Scotland  ([Amsterdam?] 1621)  EEBO

ch. 2, ‘Of the High Commission’, pp. 21-39

These chapters are mostly a description of the subject as it existed in England, as Caldwerwood thought a mere description of the monstrosity was a sufficient refutation of it, per ‘To the Reader’.

ch. 3, ‘Of the Dignity & Power of Archbishops in England’, pp. 39-72

ch. 4, ‘Of the Dignity & Power of English Bishops’, pp. 72-129

ch. 5, ‘Of Archdeacons, Chancellors, Commissaries Officials & Vicars General’

Henderson, Alexander – The Unlawfulness & Danger of Limited Prelacy: or Perpetual Precedence in the Church, Briefly Discovered  (1641)  19 pp.

Turretin, Francis – Institutes of Elenctic Theology, tr. George M. Giger, ed. James Dennison Jr.  (1679–1685; P&R, 1994), vol. 3, 18th Topic

16. ‘Should the government of the church be monarchical?  We deny against the Romanists.’  146

21. ‘Is the episcopate an order or grade of ecclesiastical hierarchy distinct from the presbyterate; and is it superior by divine right?  We deny.’  199

24. ‘Does the right of electing and calling pastors belong to bishops alone or to the church?  The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’  223





Baillie, Robert

The Unlawfulness & Danger of Limited Episcopacy, whereunto is Subjoined a Short Reply to the Modest Advertiser & Calm Examinator of that Treatise. As also the Question of Episcopacy Discussed from Scripture & Fathers  (1641)  47 pp.

An Historical Vindication of the Government of the Church of Scotland from the manifold base calumnies which the most malignant of the Prelates did invent of old, and now lately have been published with great industry in two pamphlets at London. The one entitled ‘Issachar’s burden, etc.’ written and published at Oxford by John Maxwell, a Scottish prelate, excommunicated by the Church of Scotland, and declared an unpardonable incendiary by the parliaments of both kingdoms. The other falsely entitled ‘A declaration made by King James in Scotland, concerning church-government and presbyteries’, but indeed written by Patrick Adamson, pretended Archbishop of St. Andrews, contrary to his own conscience, as himself on his death-bed did confess and subscribe before many witnesses in a write hereunto annexed  (London, 1646)  56 pp.

A Review of the Seditious Pamphlet Lately Published in Holland by Dr. Bramhell, Pretended Bishop of London-Derry, Entitled his, Fair-Warning Against the Scots’ Discipline. In which, his Malicious & most lying reports, to the great scandal of that Government are fully and clearly refuted. As also, the Solemn League & Covenant of the Three Nations Justified & Maintained  (1649)  64 pp.



Miller, Samuel – Letters Concerning the Constitution & Order of the Christian Ministry… with a Prefatory Letter on the Episcopal Controversy  (1830)  558 pp.  The letters are systematically laid out in the ToC, starting with the testimony of scripture concerning church government, then the testimony of the history of the church, followed by the rise and progress of prelacy and its practical problems.

Miller became heavily involved in public debates about prelacy (top-down church government by bishops) due to the rise of the influence of Episcopalians in his area.  This is must reading for a defense of presbyterianism from scripture and history, and for showing the Biblical and historical errors of episcopalian government.



Historical Theology

On the Early Church

Cunningham, William – ch. 8, ‘The Constitution of the Church’  in Historical Theology  (1863), vol. 1, pp. 227-66


On Calvin

Miller, Samuel – Appendix 2, ‘Calvin’s View of Prelacy’  in Thomas Smyth, The Life & Character of Calvin, the Reformer, Reviewed & Defended  (1844), pp. 87-114



On Episcopal Succession



Rutherford, Samuel – pt. 1, pp. 185-89  under 3rd Question, ‘Whether or not Ordination of Elders may be by the Church of Believers Wanting all Elders or Officers’  in ch. 8, section 8, ‘Of Election of Officers’  in The Due Right of Presbyteries  (London, 1644)



That Episcopal Bishops & Prelates are Unlawful but Valid Gospel Ministers

Samuel Rutherford

The Due Right of Presbyteries…  (London, 1644), pt. 1, pp. 204-8, 229, 235  irregular numbering

“4th Distinction.  A calling may be expressly and formally corrupt in respect of the particular intention of the ordainers and of the particular Church, ex intentione ordinanris & operantis [out of the intention of the ordainers and of the one working]. Thus Luther’s calling to be a monk was a corrupt calling, and eatenus, and ‘in that respect’ he could not give a calling to o­thers.  But that some calling may be implicitly and virtually good and lawful in respect of the intention of the Catholic Church and ex intentione operis & ipsius ordinationis [out of the intention of the work and the ordination itself], he was called to preach the Word of God.

7.  A calling to the ministry is either such [1.] as wants the es­sentials, as gifts in any messenger and the Church’s consent, or these who occupy the room of the Church, the Church consenting: such a minister is to be reputed for no minister; or 2. an entry to a calling, or a calling where diverse of the apostles’ requisites are wanting, may be a valid cal­ling, as if one enter as Caiphas, who entered by favor and mo­ney and contrary to the Law, was High-Priest but for a year: yet was a true High-Priest and prophesied as the High-priest [Jn. 11:49-51].

8.  If the Church approve by silence, or countenance the mi­nistry of a man who opened the Church door to himself, by a silver key, having given the prelate a bud.  The ordinance of God is conferred upon him, and his calling ceases not to be God’s cal­ling because of the sins of the instruments both taking and giving.

11.  The question, if such a pastor be called lawfully, is a question of fact, not a question of law; [it is] as this [case]: if such an one be baptized and there be an invincible ignorance in a questi­on of fact which excuses.  And therefore we may hear a gifted pastor taken and supposed by the Church to have the Church’s calling, though indeed he received no calling from the Church at his entry.

3.  We are nowhere forbidden in God’s Word to hear tea­chers sent and called, but only Wolves in sheep skins, void of all calling, and intruders: for pastors may be antichristian in the manner of the entry, as Cajaphas…  3. Yea, and brook an anti­christian calling, as prelates do and have done in Brittain, and yet their ministry be valid.

For that the calling of a mi­nister be valid and his ministerial acts not null, it is suffici­ent that the governing Church give him a calling, either by themselves, their express call, their silence, or tacit consent, or their approbation communicating with him in his ministry, or by these to whom the Church resigned her power, or by these who stand in place of the Church, though prelates in­vade the place of the Church: yet:

[1.] because first they themselves be pastors and have power to teach and baptize as pastors called of Christ. Mt. 18:19.

2. Because they stand for the Church, the Church approving or someway by silence consenting (as in the case of Caiaphas’s entry to the priesthood) thereunto.  These who are baptized of them are not rebaptized, and these who are ordained pastors by them are not reordained, but have a cal­ling to the ministry and do validly confer a calling upon others.

Yea, many of great learning think that at the begin­ning of Reformation thousands being under popery bapti­zed by midwives and private persons, were never rebaptized, not that they think such baptism valid, but where the sacra­ment is wanting, ex invincibili ignorantia facti, out of an invin­cible ignorance of a fact, such that way baptized do indeed want the Lord’s seal; but we cannot for that say that they are no better than infidels and unbaptized Turks and Jews, because:

1.  Their being born in the visible Church gives a federal holiness, as all of Jewish parents had a federal right to circumcision and were, eatenus, ‘insofar’, separated from the womb.

2.  Because their profession of that Covenant where­of baptism is a seal, separates them sufficiently from infidels, though they want the seal external.

But our divines esteem, and that justly, baptism administrated by women, or such as have no calling, to be no baptism at all; for which let the reader see Calvin, Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 15, sect. 20; Epistle 326; Beza, Libel., Questione de Baptism; the learned Rivet, in Cathol. Orthod., tome 2, tract 2, q. 7.  We stand not for what Bellarmine, Maldonatus, Gretse­rus and other papists say on the contrary.”



Latin Articles


Voet, Gisbert

Of Them which are either Tepid or Approve of Lukewarmness, Moderation & Toleration about the Government & Ceremonies, named Heirarchics [Formalists] in Disputes in England  in Syllabus of Theological Problems  (Utrecht, 1643), pt. 1, section 2, tract 4   Abbr.

Ecclesiastical Politics  (Amsterdam: Waesberge, 1663)

vol. 1, pt. 1, bk. 1, tract 1, Of the Instituted Church

6. ‘Of Ecclesiastical Colleges, Cathedrals or Dioceses, Archbishops or Metropolitans, Patriarchs and Ecumenics’, p. 80 ff.

vol. 3, pt. 2, bk.4, tract 1

3. Of Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, Deans 816

4. A Delineation of a Brief Controversy about Episcopacy 832

5. Containing a Disquisition on Presbytery and Episcopacy 850

.           Part 1  851
.           Part 2  859
.           [Four] Consequences 869

6. Of Ecclesiastical Governments According to Ordinaries[?], Those put Forward[?], Archdeacons, Archpresbyters, Vicars, Counselors  869
.          Appendix to Ch. 6  876




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