Before The Great Schism
All orthodox Christians were in churches with an episcopal government, that is, one Church under local bishops and regional Patriarchs. Writing between ca. 85 and 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch, Patriarch of Antioch, was the earliest of the Church fathers to define the importance of episcopal government. Assuming Ignatius' view was the Apostolic teaching and practice, the line of succession was unbroken and passed through the four ancient Patriarchal sees (those local churches known to be founded by apostles), Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Rome was the leading Patriarchate of the ancient four by virtue of its founding by Saints Peter and Paul and their martyrdom there, not to mention being the political center of the Roman empire at the time. Some organizations (e.g. the Assyrian Church of the East), though aloof from the political wranglings of imperial Christianity, nevertheless also practiced episcopal polity.
Shortly after the Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 321, he also constructed an elaborate second capital of the Roman Empire located at Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, in 324. The single Roman Empire was divided between these two autonomous administrative centers, Roman and Constantinopolitan, West and East, Latin speaking and Greek speaking. This remained the status quo through the fourth century.
In the fifth century, Pope Dioscorus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, rejected certain Christological dogmas promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon, and as a result, the Oriental Orthodox churches split from the rest; however they continued the episcopal tradition, and today in fact there is dialog between the various orthodox churches over whether the schism was due to real differences or simply translation failures.
Also during the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire declined and was overrun by German and Frankish peoples. Although the city of Rome was in ruins, distant from the seat of secular power, and constantly harassed by invaders, the Roman Patriarchate remained the center of the Western or Latin Church. Claiming the ancient primacy of Peter and the title of "Apostolic See", it remained the last court of episcopal appeal in serious matters for the whole Church, East and West.
However, the center of the civilized Roman world had shifted definitively to Constantinople, or New Rome, the capital of the Greek speaking Empire. Along with this shift, the effective administration of the Church in the Eastern Roman Empire also shifted. This practical eminence of Constantinople in the East is evident, first at the First Council of Constantinople 381, and then ecumenically at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Beginning with John the Faster, the Bishop of Constantinople (John IV, 582-595) adopted as a formal title for himself the by-then-customary honorific, Ecumenical Patriarch ("pre-eminent father for the civilized world") over the strong objections of Rome: a title based on the political prestige of Constantinople and its economic and cultural centrality in the Empire. In the following years, Rome's appeals to the East were based on the unique authority of the Apostolic See and the primacy of Peter, over against the powers of councils as defended by the East (councils, for example, had endorsed that lofty title which Rome contested).
The sometimes subtle differences between Eastern and Western conceptions of authority and its exercise produced a gradually widening rift between the Churches which continued with some occasional relief throughout the following centuries until the final rupture of the Great Schism (marked by two dates: 16 July 1054, and the Council of Florence in 1439).
Read more about this topic: Episcopal Polity
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