by Robin G. Jordan
"Do we really need bishops?" is a question that I hear from time to time. I have generally been reluctant to write an article responding to this question because the previous articles on the topic of the episcopate I have written has been misinterpreted and misused to portray me as advocating the abolition of the episcopate, which is far from the truth. While I am opposed to prelacy and see a need for the reform of the episcopate in a number of Anglican bodies, I do not advocate the abolition of bishops. In this article I hope to make my own views clearer and to respond to this question.
I find no evidence in the Bible that the Scriptures mandate a particular form of ecclesiastical polity. This includes congregationalism and presbyterianism as well as episcopacy. The English Reformers also found no evidence in the Bible for a Scripture-mandated form of church polity. They retained episcopacy because it was, in the words of Bishop John Jewel, "ancient and allowable." It had a long history. While the Bible did not prescribe it, the Scriptures also did not prohibit it.
The English Reformers refused to unchurch the Continental Reformed Churches because they had not retained bishops. They recognized their orders and sacraments, as would the Laudian High Churchmen who did believe that episcopacy was divinely instituted. The latter held that it was a grace that had been bestowed upon the Church of England. They did not, however, believe that a church could not be a church without it.
The New Testament does mention the offices of deacon, elder, and overseer. The terms 'elder' and 'overseer' are also used interchangeably in the New Testament. It may be helpful to briefly examine the New Testament passages that mention the offices of elder and overseer.
When the New Testament mentions the office of 'elder,' it generally speaks in the plural, 'the elders' or 'the elders of the church.' Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages." 1 Tim 5:17-18
The elders are associated with the church in a particular locality. As well as ruling, preaching, and teaching, they also minister to the sick. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. James 5:14
The New Testament includes instructions to the elders in regards to how they should conduct themselves in pastoring the congregation in their care. So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 1 Peter 5:1-3
1 Timothy 3:1-7 lists a number of the duties of an overseer along with the qualifications of an overseer. The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
The role for the overseer envisioned in this passage is that of a pastor-teacher. This is also the role envisioned in Titus 1:5-9: This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you- if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to Titus, points to Titus' attention that an overseer is a steward, that is someone paid to manage another's estate or house. He is a servant, not the owner of the estate or the master of the house. He may be a slave as was Joseph. The Old Testament tells us that Potiphar "made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had" (Gen 39:4), but he did not release Joseph from slavery. How many bishops lose sight of the fact that they are servants and must give an accounting to the master of the house when he returns? How many of them think and act as if they are masters of the house, lording over their fellow servants? All Christians are bondservants, or slaves, of Christ. This includes those to whom has been entrusted the office of bishop.
In a description of Christ in his first epistle the apostle Peter juxtaposes "shepherd" and "overseer" (1 Peter 2:25). He reminds us that Christ is the ultimate "Shepherd and Overseer of our souls."
I do not find in the Bible any support for the post-apostolic concept of a monarchial bishop-a bishop who governs or rules his see as a prince might govern or rule his principality or king his kingdom. The elders of the New Testament Church shared in the governance of the church. It was not entrusted to one man.
Those usually posing the question of whether we need bishops generally have become disenchanted with the institution of the episcopate for a variety of reasons. Among the most common reasons is that they are disappointed in the leadership of a particular bishop or group of bishops. This leadership fells short of their expectations. In North America the office of bishop has been so glorified that the discovery that bishops are like everybody else and have feet of clay can be very disillusioning. The latest crop of bishops may appear a sorry bunch in comparison with the great bishops of the past. There are no Jewels, no Parkers, no Whitgifts, no Whites, no McIlvaines, and no Ryles among them.
Those who persist in glorifying the episcopal office make matters worse. They invest the office of bishop and its present occupant with much greater importance than they rightly deserve and in the wrong areas. Post-Constantine prelacy, Medieval feudalism, and Roman Catholic ecclesiology has shaped their conception of episcopacy. Bishops are not the pastor-teachers of New Testament but the princely prelates of the Post-Constantine Church. Each bishop has his own fief over which he is its feudal lord and absolute ruler. All within his fief are his vassals, clergy and laity alike, and owe him obedience. As their feudal lord the bishop collects revenues from them, appoints representatives in the form of archdeacons and churchwardens to enforce his decrees, maintains a system of courts, and lives in a palace in which he might have at one time kept prisoners in his cellars.
The Tractarian and Anglo-Catholic movements promoted the theory that the bishops in a particular succession of bishops were the successors to the apostles and that any authority that a synod, priest, parish council, or churchwarden exercised was derived from the bishops of the church. Any restrictions or limitations that the constitution and canons of a diocese placed upon the authority of a bishop were with his voluntary consent. He was bound by these restrictions and limitations only as long as he chose to be bound by them.
One is likely to hear folks argue that the Anglican Church in North America is an episcopal church and that bishops in an episcopal church govern. The church's bishops should therefore be left to govern. The same folks become agitated when one asks if that is the case, why did they leave The Episcopal Church. It is an episcopal church. Should not its bishops have been allowed to govern as they pleased? A typical response is to open and close their mouths like a fish out of water and to sputter, "But we have godly bishops...."
Canon C 18 Of diocesan bishops of the canons of the Church of England lists the duties and responsibilities of a diocesan bishop in the Church of England. All of the episcopal functions on this list might be carried out in other ways-by various boards, committees, commissions, and officials. The office of bishop, however, has shown itself to be an effective way of carrying out these functions. In small and large ecclesiastical bodies it may be one of the more efficient ways of doing so. As long as we retain a biblical perspective of the office of bishop I see no reason to dispense with it.
We do not need bishops in order to be the Church of Jesus Christ. The Bible does not support that idea. Tradition alone cannot justify the continuation of the practice. In the essay "Of ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished, and Some Retained," in The Book of Common Prayer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer articulates the principle of retaining the old where the old might be well used provided what we retained was agreeable with the Scriptures, was edifying, and did not foster superstition. The office of bishop is not inconsistent with Scripture; it certainly can be put to the purpose of edification, which is its primary reason for existence in the first place. I must admit some concerns about it fostering superstition. But I do not believe that they warrant its abolition but rather proper teaching on its place in the Church.
To the question of whether we need bishops, my answer then is 'yes,' to which, however, I add this qualification: We need good bishops. Note that I refrain from using the phrase 'godly bishops,' which has been overused so much of late to describe men about whose godliness the person describing them has absolutely no idea.
Let me share with you what I consider a 'good bishop.'
1. A good bishop is equipped by temperament and life's experiences, as well as training, to care for other pastors. The kind of training that he received may not be the kind of training that a seminary offers.
2. A good bishop takes an interest in the churches under his superintendence, as well as their pastors. It is not a possessive interest. He recognizes that these churches are not his possession but God's. He does not try to micro-manage everything in his diocese or episcopal area. He does not try to force the churches in the diocese or episcopal area into a particular mold. But as the chief pastor of the diocese or episcopal area he knows that he is responsible for the spiritual well being of all the people in his charge, clergy and laity. He is God's steward. His stewardship extends to seeing that his fellow servants are in good health, spiritually and otherwise, and that they are going about the business of their master.
3. A good bishop understands that he is only truly a successor to the apostles when he is upholding teaching of the apostles and is engaged in the work of the apostles. He recognizes that he is chief church planter, the chief evangelist, and the chief missionary of his diocese or episcopal area. He must set an example for the clergy and laity of the diocese or area. If he is not preaching to a new congregation in its early stages of development, he is leading the diocese or area in an evangelism campaign, in which he takes an active part. He is making friends within the different people groups in the diocese or area and building bridges to them. He models his ministry upon that of the apostle Paul. He will be found teaching in the marketplace at noon, not seated in a throne high above the multitude or riding in a palanquin like a Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
4. A good bishop has a heart for all the people of his diocese or episcopal area. He can empathize with our Lord when he lamented over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37). The heart that he has for his people is Christ's own heart.
I can think of other qualities that I associate with a 'good bishop' but these particular qualities are those to which God has drawn my attention for this article. Those who choose a new bishop for a diocese or episcopal area need to give careful thought to whom they choose. The right person can make a significant difference to the spiritual life of a diocese or episcopal area, directly and indirectly. The wrong person can do untold damage. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams may go down in history as an example of the wrong person. Future generations will be the judge.
I hope that this article gives my readers a better idea of my own position on this particular topic.
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