Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are Bishops Necessary?

From today's devotional in Our Daily Bread: "Caring for God’s people includes feeding them spiritually, leading them gently, and warning them firmly. Leaders in the church are to be motivated by the incalculable price Christ paid on the cross."

These are important words.

But here are a few additional thoughts triggered by the Bible passage on which the devotion is based, Acts 2:22-32. (You might want to go read it now. Go ahead! I'll wait here for you to do it.)

The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version rendering of the passage, as "overseers," is, in the original Greek, "episcopos." Episcopos is a compound word composed of the prefix, "epi," meaning "over," and "skopos" (from which we get words like telescope and microscope) and means "see."

So, an episcopos, is an overseer, someone who, in the church, sees over the spiritual needs of a congregation or a group of individual Christians.

The word "episcopos" came to be rendered in English as "bishop" and has come to be applied to clergy persons who oversee the work of groups of congregations and pastors, whether those groups are referred to as synods, conferences, districts, or dioceses.

However, the New Testament has no reference to persons bearing the title "bishop" or "episcopos" functioning in this way.*

When the New Testament refers to "overseers" or "bishops," it has in mind what we would today call "pastors." Pastors, in the New Testament context, could be the shepherds of congregations or serve the shepherding role among groups of believers within a larger body.

The New Testament doesn't lay out any particular system for individual congregations or groups of congregations to organize themselves. Biblically, we are free in Christ to be organized in any way that seems practical, helping us to pursue our common mission as believers in Christ.

The Lutheran Confessions are similarly indifferent to how congregations or groups of congregations are organized. Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, an expression of how Lutheran Christians understand God, the Bible, and Christian faith, says, "It is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word."

Lutherans have always believed that authority over the actions of the Church aren't governed by human beings, but by God, as mediated to us through God's Word, the Bible. Part 1 of the Formula of Concord, another basic Lutheran confessional statement, says, "We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged...Other writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture. Every single one of them should be subordinated to the Scriptures..." [italics are mine]

It's fine for denominational groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) of which I am a part, to have bishops, so long as that's agreeable to those within the ELCA. But the Bible only knows "bishops" (overseers) as pastors. Bishops over a synod or a diocese are in a category Martin Luther called "adiaphora," an element of church life that has nothing to do with and is unnecessary for, our salvation.

*You will notice that the word episcopos is very much like the term Episcopalian. That's because the Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, traces its organizational structure back to that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and other Christian traditions, operate with an episcopal system. This means that they are governed largely by bishops. Most notably, bishops in all of these traditions assign pastors to congregations, rather than congregations prayerfully deciding who to call to be their pastors. 

Under episcopal structures, to varying degrees, bishops also are deemed to be the ultimate authorities within the regions, dioceses, synods, or districts in which they serve, over the faith and practice of the Church. So, for example, when some bishops in the the Episcopal Church-USA, authorized the ordination of practicing homosexuals, some Episcopal parishes chose to place themselves under the authority of bishops of other dioceses, ones in which the bishops adhered to differing understandings of the underlying Biblical issues.

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