How did Bishops resign in the Early Church?

How did Bishops resign in the early Church before the Holy Father decided to be the one who would select Bishops?

I mean when they got old, or seriously ill, how did they resign or retire?

I mean going all the way back in the first and second century also.


In the first or second century many Bishops didn’t necessarily have long life spans to begin with due to persecutions.

I don’t think they resigned. Being a bishop to them, as now, they considered a life-long vocation from God.

While fully participating in Apostolic succession, the bishops of the very early church were in a position that was poorly defined with roles that often conflicted with those of deacons. In addition they were often elected by the people rather than appointed by the Pope. Some at the time thought this would help to ensure that good men were chosen.

Besides the short life expectancy of the time, bishops also encountered death due to persecution and assassinations.

While I can’t yet find an example, I believe there were bishops who resigned during the heresies that afflicted the Church in the first few centuries. We have to remember that the Church at this time was working to define itself and its core beliefs. This struggle meant considering not only the beliefs that we hold today, but also many heretical alternatives. (Jesus is God AND man, Jesus is God NOT man, Jesus is man, not God) Many of the bishops were right in the middle of this struggle.

Some bishops were unwilling to change their heretical beliefs and were excommunicated. Some split from the church in a schism over a belief and de facto resigned or became excommunicated. There were times when some bishops were excommunicated, then reunited, and then excommunicated!

This era was difficult, but indispensable to the Church since it gave the Church the opportunity to develop its theology embodied in the Creed.

I don’t know what you mean.

Answers like “they didn’t usually resign” are meaningless to what I’m asking. There would have been at least the odd Bishop who lost the faith and wanted to resign therefore or got into a position so they couldn’t continue.

Today to resign a Bishop would submit to the Supreme Pontiff in writing and he would deal with it.

How did Bishops resign in the early Church?

I want a literal answer

I am unaware of a definitive process described in the Early Church. Most things developed slowly and were standardized much later.

Thankyou, I agree with you. It is logical to assume they’d have appealed to Rome if they had a crises like when the Corinthians did and they appealed to Rome.

The best thing about this is:

Only “papists” can give a logical answer, anyone who rejects the papacy must remain confused about how Bishops resigned. I was mainly wondering if people would put evidence for things, in my head and heart I cling to the Catholic position.

This is a good question which no-one who rejects the papacy can answer logically.

If there is no evidence of a change and there is evidence of something happening normanily by a certain date, it is logical to assume that was the way it was from the beginning unless an explicit start is recorded in doing something.

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but cannot agree with your conclusion. In the very early Church, Bishops were invited to serve by the local clergy (this included the Bishop of Rome).

Such Bishops could resign by saying they resign (such as you can say “I quit” from your job). Nobody needed to “approve” such statements.

Thnx. I agree that Bishops were elected by the priests in the diocese.

The truth is many ‘resigned’ when they died during the Roman persecutions.

See Ignatius and Polycarp.

That being said, both St. Hippolytus and ST. Pontian resigned to repair a schism in Rome in the 3rd century. Exactly how? I don’t know.


Depends on how early in the Early Church you mean.

In the first century or so, bishops were the local Christian leaders in the city or town (a bit like a parish priest in a very large parish). They were either sent from a neighouring city, who sponsored the evagelisation there or, when the community becomes a little more self-sustaining, chosen by the local Christian community. There would be many ways how a bishop is chosen: election, proclaimation, selection in a smoke-filled room (we have all sorts of Christians in the early Church as we do now); by deacons, by laity, by select elders (no priests yet as the order of priests - as distinct from the order of bishops who fulfill the priestly function then - only appeared around third of fourth century) ; all with or without the input of the neighouring bishops. Selection of bishops exclusively by Rome did not become normal practice until 16th century - interesting story that one.

So, the ways bishops resigned was also varied. Many resigned their diocese when they moved on to other cities to evagelise (Peter moving from Antioch to Rome), some resigning when thrown into jail (Pontian was the first bishop of Rome to resign), and I am sure many who just melted away when the going got tough with the persecutions (that not so glorious part of our story is often left untold). There are also many who fell away from the mainstream church for holding on to heretical views - that still continues to this day. Whether they did a formal letter of resignation or not, I guess that differ - some just do proclaimation diferentiating their views from that of the neighbouring bishops and some just drfited off slowly in heresy in the much looser supervisory environment in those days.

I would like to think though that most of our bishops stayed firm in their faith, and handed down their traditions to us to this day.

Thankyou for your long writing :slight_smile: much appreciated, although I disagree with that particular sentence which is kind of said by many theologians also. I disagree because doctrinal development cannot change the way sacraments work that’s impossible, and the sacrament of holy orders as instituted by Christ the Lord is confered in three steps by its very nature. Timothy who was a Bishop(singular) sent out elders(priests/plural) in the new testament.

Ignatius of Antioch a century after the book of Timothy was made written about deacons (plural) presbyters(plural) and The Bishop(singular) all within the same letter many times. It is natural to assume this was here since the beginning such a distinction and unlikely that Ignatius would make up terms.

God Bless You

Well, I have many posts much longer than that :).

I gather that you would be familiar with the writings of scholars (of church history and of liturgy) which explains the development of the order of priests. So, I would not repeat them here unless there is something you wish elucidated and I can see what I can do with my limited knowledge.

While it is clear that Jesus did institute our priesthood, I would be interested to know where you would find in the Bible that Jesus did institute the triple order of clergy that we have today?

Happy Easter

Not all truth is recorded in scripture, it is likely Our Lord ordained the apostles in three steps, like it is also likely the apostles heard confessions a lot and celebrated mass a lot.

Thankyou though, I agree that things developed, eg… Metropolitan and Cardinal

I note what you say but here we are dealing with factual truth rather than spiritual truth and I think you will find it hard to substantiate the fact that Jesus instituted the three orders of clergy. Let me know if you find any.

The Bible actually described how the diaconate started and it was after the time of Jesus. The order of priests was not mentioned in the Gospels although the Apostles clearly were instructed to carry out the tasks of the priesthood as the bishops that they were. Some commentators have interpreted elders referred to in the espistles as the order of priests distinct from bishops but I understand that does not seem to be the majority view among scholars.

Godbless and happy Easter.:slight_smile:


Happy Easter.

The greater includes the lesser, so Bishops are deacons and presbyters, it’s different the other way around though :slight_smile:

The three tiars seem to be there to me

My view :smiley:

Well, I gues we can see it as implicit, even though it was not explicit. Normally, we would not like to do that as it does not give the orginal event the uniqueness/dignity (not sure what the right word is). It is like saying that the Passover meal was instituted in anticipation of the mass - it just downgraded the Passover not as an event in its own right but merely to lead to the mass (even if it is truly a percursor to our mass, it was not instituted for that purpose). Seeing each event in its own right rather than something that was instituted for a future purpose gives it the true context, not an antiicpatory one. Five centuries from now, some one could be saying the same thing about an event we currently hold dear - so, my role in history ends up being just to lead up to his point in history, not very dignified of my role. Just my view, and I am not sure if I expressed it well.

For me, I find it much more interesting in seeing how events developed leading to the need to insitute each of the order of clergy. It enriches my understanding of the Church and imbued in me a sense of wonder and awe at stories of so many of the things we encounter in the Church - it is my ministry to share all these and Ifind it heartening that Catholics do find these stories of how we got to where we are today, interesting.

I understand what you mean, but that could lead to saying we can make archbishop and cardinal a step in ordination which is impossible. I prefer to believe these things are divinly instituted than assume we can make a sacrament split up more. To me either there was always three steps to the sacrament or there never will be, the former being my view.

The college of cardinals was instituted because it made things easier but that did not become a fourth or fifth step in the sacrament, I think if the office of priest was invented then it would not be a step in the sacrament.

Not quite sure I follow your thoughts here. Just as there are three orders of clergy, there are also three tiers of bishops - suffragans, metropolitans and patriarchs (the cardinalate is a personal honour and not a type of bishop), each has its role and its charisma.

I don’t think there are three steps to the sacrament of Holy Orders (maybe I am not understanding you correctly). It is not a necessary progression to move through all three orders. There is only one sacrament and in fact, the technical term to be made bishop is not ordination but consecration.

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