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Although languages use different terms, especially from Greek to English, New Testament authors speak of the Bishop (or bishopric or the episcopacy) interchangeably with the presbyterate (i.e., the priesthood). A lesser office created by the Church is the deaconate. The Bishop, however, came to hold "the fullness" of Holy Orders, the sacrament of grace which endows him with a special charism of the Holy Spirit to teach and govern. Presbyters, then, from apostolic times were delegated to carry out several functions, but they were ultimately responsible to the local bishop.
Receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders is done through the ancient practice of laying on of hands. We read in the Book of Acts how St. Peter and others were summoned to perform this action, upon those who were already baptized, as an act (or sacrament) of confirmation, after which they received the Holy Spirit. The ancient method of transmitting ordination is often seen as parallel to this, then, when (existing) Bishops raise new priests and Bishops to their offices.
The Book of Acts records what many consider the first account of Apostolic Succession in chapter 10, verses 15 through 26: "In those days Peter stood up" and announced the need to fill the "office" of Judas the betrayer. The result was that the Apostles cast lots and chose Matthias as Judas' Apostolic Successor.
Historians and Ecclesiologists see the continuity from the New Testament to today as a matter of authority. However, Protestant Christians, holding with Martin Luther(who broke away from the Catholic Church in the 16th century) have asserted Luther's idea of "Sola Scriptura" (or "Scripture Alone") as the sole source of authority for the Christian faith. Luther also championed the individual's conscience, holding that no man should be required to believe that which he could not accept as true. In practice, this principle permitted the individual to interpret Scripture, but erroneous interpretation does not, Protestants insist, invalidate the Word of God. Most Protestant denominations have abandoned the ordained authority of the bishops meeting together in council, and also the apostolic succession; bishops such as those who at an earlier time and in Ecumenical Council had interpreted Scripture and then demanded acceptance of that interpretation by the clergy and laity.
Catholics, and others who accept both episcopal polity and the historical episcopate, maintain that Jesus Christ chose the Twelve Apostles to constitute the hierarchy of his Church, and that when he gave them the mission to "teach all nations", a system was instituted by which the governance of Christ's Church was to remain in force until his coming again. Christ gave all the Apostles a governing authority to "bind and loosen." To Peter, however, Christ gave an additional function which he likened to holding the "keys of the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 16:19). The meaning of this reference to keys and a kingdom has been debated endlessly among Catholic Christians and of Christians of the various Protestant denominations. To some, the expression is a Jewish term and authority bestowed upon the Chief Steward of the King of Israel's cabinet while the king is away. To the early Catholic Christians, as well as Catholics of today,this emphasized St. Peter's role as the first bishop of Rome (in modern times called "Pope") having supremacy as the shepherd of God's Catholic Church on earth.
To Roman Catholics then, The Papacy fulfills what is spoken of in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
"On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his ancestral house" Isaiah 22:21-24
Calvinists and Reformed Christians, however, maintain that since Christ defined his kingdom as being "not of this world" the connection to a former Hebrew political authority is not valid. This does not, however, explain how this prophecy was fulfilled in the New Covenant. It is said, Jesus used the image of keys elsewhere in scripture to refer to something entirely different from this. To Protestants, therefore, the Papal office is a matter of usurpation in that the special responsibility given to Peter was not governmental. Christ did, however, command him to "feed my sheep", meaning to act as a shepherd of the Church. They contend, however, that he was selected by Christ to be the first to spread the Gospel to the wider world. This was done on Pentecost, according to the New Testament book of Acts when thousands heard Peter preaching, each in his own language. The comparison, then, is to keys as an instrument for opening a door to something previously hidde, although this does present a problem, since in biblical times as well as other places in the Bible, keys are a symbol of authority and political or spiritual governance.
In Catholic teaching, the Pope, as a Bishop, receives his special role among the world's Bishops to bring them together in unity, especially at times of turmoil, in order that they be consistently uplifted and united in the faith. Church Councils are the most common form of Christian unity when the Church is in need of clarity and reunification, but the Pope is also empowered to decree obligatory doctrines on his own initiative under special and specific circumstances. This has rarely been used, however, and the convening of councils of bishops is a more common means of guiding the Church in difficult times.