A common objection to the Apostolic Succession of the trifold ministry goes like this. If the Apostles had instituted the trifold ministry, then we would expect that every text in the Apostolic Fathers would reflect this belief. These writers were, after all, closest to the Apostles in time and in the transmission of teaching. Instead, we find a mixture of texts saying different and inconsistent things about ministry and succession, which undercuts the idea that this would be an Apostolic teaching. For now I would like to focus on the arguments of some authors based on the Didache, which may be the most primitive text among the Apostolic Fathers, reserving St. Clement of Rome and others for later. I will argue that evidence from the Didache against primitive monarchical episcopacy and Apostolic Succesion is inconclusive, and that there is a trifold ministry and ecclesial succession, though the ministers have different names than in Ignatius, and the mechanism of succession is not explained in detail or explicitly connected to the Apostles.
Many scholars claim the Didache knows of neither a trifold ministry, nor of Apostolic Succession, but only of itinerant prophets and teachers who visit congregations. The author of the Didache writes:
11. So, if anyone should come and teach you all these things that have just been mentioned above, welcome him. But if the teacher himself goes astray and teaches a different teaching that undermines all this, do not listen to him. However, if his teaching contributes to righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, welcome him as you would the Lord.
Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet.
Also, do not test or evaluate any prophet who speaks in the spirit, for every sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven. However, not everyone who speaks in the spirit is a prophet, but only if he exhibits the Lord’s ways. By his conduct, therefore, will the false prophet and the prophet be recognized. Furthermore, any prophet who orders a meal in the spirit shall not partake of it; if he does he is a false prophet. If any prophet teaches the truth, yet does not practice what he teaches, he is a false prophet. But any prophet proven to be genuine who does something with a view to portraying in a worldly manner the symbolic meaning of the church (provided that he does not teach you to do all that he himself does) is not to be judged by you, for his judgment is with God. Besides the ancient prophets also acted in a similar manner. But if anyone should say in the spirit, “Give me money,” or anything else, do not listen to him. But if he tells you to give on behalf of others who are in need, let no one judge him…
13. But every genuine prophet who wishes to settle among you “is worthy of his food.” Likewise, every genuine teacher is, like “the worker, worthy of his food.”
Noteworthy here is the omission of any reference to a “bishop”. We would expect the leader of a primitive Christian congregation to be an Ignatian bishop, not an Apostle, prophet, or teacher if the monarchical episcopate were an Apostolic institution.
If Apostolic Succession were correct and part of Apostolic teaching, then in the Didache we would expect that the bishop would ordain lower congregational officers (elders/presbyters and decons). But instead, it seems that the officers of a local Church come from the congregation itself:
15. Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for they are your honored men, along with the prophets and teachers.
Because the Didache is a congregational manual, the instruction “appoint for yourselves” is being issued to members of an early Christian congregation. The ability to appoint is assigned to the congregation, not a monarchical bishop. Furthermore, the terminology of “bishops and deacons” betrays a non-monarchical view of ministry, insofar as “bishop” is plural. Multiple bishops are ruling a local congregation instead of one bishop ruling a congregation or multiple congregations. This ties in with the common Protestant and scholarly thesis that “bishop” and “presbyter” were originally just two names for the same office—the local second tier of ministry.
If these objections were successful, it would pose a problem for the proponent of an ecclesiology that includes Apostolic Succession and monarchical episcopacy. Not only would it show that the monarchical form of government and Episcopal transmission of office was not universal, but it could call into question the testimony of St. Ignatius to the universality and necessity of the episcopate. Perhaps if the Didache were considerably earlier than Ignatius, we could say that Ignatius was correct about how things were run at his time, and the Didache was simply before his time. But then we would have the Didache closer to the Apostles temporally and teaching something inconsistent with Ignatius, again calling his credibility into question and implying he is an innovator.
Let us turn to the claims of the detractors, and see if they hold. First, it was suggested that the itinerant ministry of the Apostles, prophets, and teachers was inconsistent with Ignatian bishops not being mentioned by name. This assumes that members of the highest tier of ministry cannot have more than one name, or be named differently by different authors. Instead of confusing words with concepts, we should consider whether or not the descriptions of Apostles, prophets, and teachers are consistent with the concept of a monarchical bishop.
The objector can easily revise the criticism and claim that the Apostles, prophets, and teachers are not monarchical bishops because there are inconsistencies between their description and the definition of a monarchical bishop. Let us, then, compare the description of these ministers with the definition of a monarchical bishop, and look for inconsistencies. In order to be a monarchical bishop, one must have been (1) given the spiritual gift of the highest office of ministry, which includes (2) the power to ordain officers of all three tiers, (3) the ability to consecrate and celebrate the Eucharist, (4) and the ability to monarchically oversee one or more congregation of Christians. It is not necessary that this person be exclusively a monarchical bishop, and lack other offices (such as Apostleship) or spiritual gifts (such as Apostleship and prophecy). After all, both Ignatius and Polycarp had prophetic powers:
For, when I was among you, I cried, I spoke with a loud voice: Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons. Now, some suspected me of having spoken thus, as knowing beforehand the division caused by some among you. But He is my witness, for whose sake I am in bonds, that I got no intelligence from any man. But the Spirit proclaimed 84 these words: Do nothing without the bishop; keep your as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father. (St. Ignatius, Philadelphians 7)
And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, “I must be burnt alive.” (Martyrdon of St. Polycarp, 5)
These two men who were bishops both had the spiritual gift of prophecy. There is no reason, then, to think that in the mind of the early Church charismatic ministry and monarchical rule of a bishop could not be had by a single person. Early Christians also knew St. James the Apostle as the first bishop of Jerusalem. The burden of proof, then, is on the detractor to show that spiritual gifts such as Apostleship and prophecy are incompatible with the gift and office of monarchical episcopacy.
When we consider the description of the Apostles, prophets, and teachers that is given, we see that they hold the highest place in ministry. The congregation is told “Let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord” (Didache 11:4), implying an authoritative position in relation to the congregation and its local leaders. The prophets are described interestingly as “high priests” (Didache 13:3), again suggesting a kind of monarchical position. The congregation is instructed “Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turn and teach another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not; but if he teach so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord” (Didache 1:1-2). This order to “receive him as the Lord” could indicate that the teachers are likewise honored as supreme leaders of the community. The bishops and deacons are said to “carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers”, implying that the prior ministry of prophets and teachers is the source of the ministry of bishops and deacons. Each of these descriptions implies that such ministers are of the highest tier, though there is no explicit indication that they are given a spiritual gift of office.
No explicit mention is made of their power to ordain; but this would only be a problem if we had reason to expect that the author of the Didache would include such information in his text. On the contrary, if ordination were carried out by monarchical leaders, we would not expect for there to be instructions about it in a manual addressed to a congregation and its laity and local leaders. Much mention is made of Eucharistic celebration, though, and the prophets are called “high priests”, implying an ability to offer the Eucharist. When they offer it, they do not have to speak according to the standard prayers of the community; instead the congregation should “permit the prophets to give thanks however they wish.” (Didache 10:7)
The ability to monarchically rule is also ascribed to such ministers. Consider what the author says about honoring a leader:
“My child, night and day remember the one who preaches God’s word to you, and honor him as though he were the Lord. For wherever the Lord’s nature is preached, there the Lord is.” The Didache, 4:1
This text has parallels elsewhere in the Didache which speak of how the congregation should “receive [a hierarch] as the Lord”. Noting the use of the singular noun in the phrase “the one who preaches”, we can see this as evidence of a singular, hierarchical member of the clergy. Also noteworthy is the fact that this text bears significant resemblance to the famous words of the earliest, clearest, and strongest teacher of monarchical episcopacy in early Christianity, St. Ignatius of Antioch:
“It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” Ephesians 6:1
The similarity of both meaning and language between these sections is not insignificant. Both texts use a construction that consists of a command to the reader about obedience and recognition (“remember the one…and honor him”, “we must regard”), followed by a comparison (“as”, “as though”) of a leader (“the one who preaches”, “the bishop”) to Christ (“the Lord”, “the Lord himself”). Not only does this provide evidence of conceptual similarity between the two texts, but has been taken by some (in conjunciton with background information about Ignatius’ use of Jewish and Jewish-Christian sources, and other paralellisms with the Didache) to imply that Ignatius was aware of either the source materials of the Didache or a primitive version of it, and cited it as an authority (see Claton N. Jefford’s article “Did Ignatius of Antioch know the Didache?” in The Didache in context: essays on its text, history, and transmission). This somewhat supports the compatibility of the Didache with monarchical episcopacy, insofar as Ignatius would be more likely to deny or avoid the text if it was saying something clearly inconsistent with his own view of the ministry.
To conclude this section, nothing in the description of the Apostles, prophets, and teachers is inconsistent with the claim that they are monarchical bishops. Nor is there anything inconsistent with the claim that only the prophets and teachers are monarchical bishops. This second position may be easier for some to entertain, insofar as the evidence that James the Apostle was thought of as the first bishop of Jerusalem comes later, whereas the evidence that Ignatius and Polycarp were both prophets is quite early. However we understand the Didachist’s use of titles, there is no obvious incompatibility between how he speaks of the ministry and the monarchical understanding of episcopacy.
As we observed earlier, there is instruction in the Didache to “Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved…” Though sometimes used as evidence of congregational ordination against exclusive ordination by the Bishop, it has been pointed out by authors such as Charles Gore and Felix Cirlot (Apostolic Succesion: Is it True?, pg 175) that this instruction does not explicitly give instruction to ordain, but only instructs to “appoint”. This raises the question of what is meant by appointment in this context. Is the appointment spoken of here ordination by the laying-on of hands, or something else? In order for this text to be compatible with Apostolic Succession, the text must simply not be inconsistent with the claim that the author of the Didache believed in ordination by the bishop alone. So if there is at least one other meaning of “appoint” besides ordination, then we may say that appointment language does not entail the power to ordain.
When we turn to the New Testament, we see in Acts 6:1-6 what appears to be a congregational election of leaders that is completed by an Apostolic ordination to the deaconate:
And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples [unto them], and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid [their] hands on them.
The congregation here chooses who will obtain ministry, but the transmission of office seems to be the exclusive prerogative of the Apostles. This synergy between the laity of the Church and the monarchs of the Church in no way precludes the necessity of ordination at the hands of an Apostle as a precondition for ministry. The omission of a rite of ordination in the Didache is again significant, for we have the evidence we would expect to have (and lack the evidence we would expect to lack) on the hypothesis of Apostolic Succession. If Apostolic Succession were false, and congregationalism or presbyterianism true, then we would expect that there would be an ordination rite included in the Didache, explaining how the New Testament practice of ordination could be carried out by a congregation (or at least local ministers) without needing a monarchical bishop. If it were true, we would expect such instructions to be absent, and to instead see instructions modeled after the Apostolic practice set forth in Acts 6.
The bishops and deacons are said to “carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers”. The implied continuation of the ministry of these monarchs in the local hierarchy is fully consistent with Apostolic Succession and fits naturally into it. We should be honest, though, and concede that Apostolic Succession in all of its details is not implied by the text; for ordination is not spoken of, and the bishops and deacons are not said to carry on the ministry of the Apostles.
Regarding the fact that local ministers are called “bishops and deacons”, my previous argument that “bishop” initially (in Apostolic and other terminologically pre-Ignatian sources) meant what Ignatius meant by “presbyter” should show that the mention of “bishops” in no way conflicts with the monarchical episcopate.
In conclusion, the arguments that the Didache teaches an ecclesiology inconsistent with monarchical episcopacy have been undercut. Though it is possible that the Didache is inconsistent with monarchical episcopacy, there does not seem to be any evidence for this view. There are also several lines of argument that support the existence of a monarchical episcopate and a doctrine of Apostolic Succession in the writing of the Didachist. These arguments are not sufficient to prove that the Didachist believed the same things about the ministry as Ignatius, but they definitely hint in this direction and provide some positive evidence for a shared understanding of trifold ministry.