Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Successors to the Apostles: An Apology for the Figure of the Bishop

This post is an argument for necessary role of bishops, as the common English translation for the Greek, in the life of the Church. However, I think how many have argued for bishops is woeful. This is an initial sketch, so bear with me. Part of this is post facto reasoning, based on the longevity of the separate role of bishops throughout Christian history. Yet, I hope to open up new avenues of discussion. Now, on with the show.

My position depends on figuration, seeing the words and concepts of Scripture as being Real, finding their universal ground in Christ Himself, in an almost naively surface sense. That means, contrary to Platonizers, there is no hidden Real behind the text of Scripture. The very words of Scripture reflect this Real. However, they do this because they find their referent in Christ Jesus, who is both Author and Subject of the totality of Scripture. All the diverse forms, arcs, and models of Scriptures are found in Christ, either as reflections of His glory or as shadows cast in a sinful World. Thus, our discussion of bishops refers not a monarchical principle, but to the fact that Christ is our ultimate bishop (c.f. 1 Peter 2:25).

Now I also believe that Scripture, in its totality, has purpose. There are no mere loose bits, even if the authors of Scripture did not intend much by them. Thus, there's a reason why St. Paul ends his letters the way he does, even to ask St. Timothy to bring him pen and parchment. I don't know what this means or why it's included, but I take that if, indeed, all of Scripture is inspired, then this too fits within the canon of Scripture.

Given the above, I assume explanations of Apostolic authority, and St. Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus are significant. As some research has postulated, Timothy and Titus were not merely elders of the Church, but had a special warrant, from Paul himself, to act in his authority. Thus, as Christ commissioned Paul, thus Paul commissioned Timothy and Titus with Apostolic authority (see this for some more details). However, I am not a dispensationalist. Yes, there are two covenants, but I believe as much because Scripture testifies between a temporary form and an eternal fulfilled form. However, I do not believe that there is a distinct Apostolic period which closed at the death of St. John. Rather, we are still living in the age of the Apostles, though indeed there are no more Apostles. In similar vein, the Israelites in, say, 10 BC, lived in the age of holy Moses, being still under the Torah, and awaiting the Christ to come. Moses was dead, there was not another law-giver, but it was still Moses' age. As an aside, it is perhaps fitting to not think that the age of Moses ended, as much as it was eclipsed or swallowed up, the way Moses and Elijah vanished before the three Apostles on Mt. Tabor, leaving only Christ.

Thus, I go even a step further to say that the bishops are successors to the Apostles. But what I mean by this is different than what Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox mean by this. I do not claim that there is an unbroken chain of bishops that organizationally preserve Christ's Church. I also do not believe in Augustine's mechanical theory of grace being passed along through ordination. Rather, it is that bishops function in the Apostolic role, not as direct emissaries of Christ, but as emissaries of the Apostles, whose writings have been preserved as Scripture. Thus, I say more than some who advocate bishops as merely good government, or fitting to a particular time and place.

What role did the Apostles play? If we look at the life of  Paul, we see someone not shackled to particular place as the head of a community. Rather, he circled a region, expanding in its mission, where he maintained oversight of the communion he shepherded. As an Apostle, he received a distinct and special commission from Christ, as did the rest of the Apostles. Bishops, as successors to the Apostles, possess a vocation similar to the Apostles, given the task of oversight, maintaining communities' health in worship, teaching, and sociability. The role of the bishop involves pastoring pastors,  watching over a multiplicity. Christ, the Bishop of bishops, exercises this role when he commends and rebukes the churches of Asia.

It should be obvious that the development of bishops as princes or provincial governors is an abhorrent mutation of the Biblical figure. Rather, I take the Waldensian "Uncle" as a good example. The Waldensians were "heretics" during the Middle Ages. While groups of them existed across the south of France, the Cottian Alps, and into the Black Forest, Uncles, distinguishing themselves from the Roman titular "Father", traveled to support these groups. The Uncle would preach, recite Scripture, solve communal difficulties, and report news from the faithful. In recompense, some groups of Waldensians offered food and money to the Uncle, as he traveled, in a circuit, to other congregations. This particular circuit, to put it crudely, was his diocese.

The bishop has a distinctly missionary role as well. In someways, the modern circuit preacher, from the Wesleys to the Revivalist living out of his car, fulfill a similar function. Of course, self-appointed authority can be dangerous, and lead to personality cults. However, the circuit preacher inadvertently provides oversight in his visits, bringing the community together and shaking up its constitution. Even groups without bishops recognize the need for this outside accountability to diverse congregations connected together. Presbyterians have enacted the role of bishop through bureaucratic mechanisms and panels of elders who oversee a certain geographic region. Sometimes a session elder pops in to make sure the preaching meets an orthodox standard or the community is not in pure anarchy.

In a similar way to the countryside, many early bishops had a role in smaller geographic circumference of the city. They exercised oversight over the many churches of a city, too big to gather as a single corporate entity. Of course, with the creation of specific areas and buildings for worship, the bishop's wandering style was reduced to a "throne", from which he preached and exercises his role over the Christians of the city. This is not exactly a bad thing, but its contingently static form morphed to permanency as bishops were considered ecclesiastical governors. From this, the diocesan structure emerged as a parallel to Imperial provinces. Again, not in an of itself a bad thing, but easily a slip into thinking Christ's churches are conjoined to particular temporal government, which is but the City of Man, doomed to frustration and failure, and manifesting the Devil's reign over this present age.

Oversight is key to the functioning and health of Christ's Church. It is a means of missionary expansion and the unity of multiple congregations. The insider-outsider life of the bishop exercises a key check against congregational inbreeding, stagnation, and corruption. The bishop is both close enough to form discerning judgements, but distant enough to not be sucked into local politiking. In addition, the personal nature of the office helps curb denominationalism, the dying modus vivendi of most of modern Christianity. Oversight is contained in an office inhabited by a man, not a superstructure of clerks and bureaucrats, many times lost in stacks of papers, and wrapped into the mindset of a corporation.

Now, not all bishops fulfill their role, some function very well as higher ranked bureaucrats with fancy robes. But Christ's many churches, as they are becoming His Bride, fail in many forms they are to inhabit. Offices exist for a function, and their abuse does not signal their uselessness. Rather, as Christ was Bishop, Presbyter/Priest/Elder, and Deacon of His people, fulfilling these roles in their diverse forms, they remain indestructible against Human corruption, vanity, and sin. These three roles are not essential for a church to be a church, but they are crucial to the well-functioning of the church, especially as it grows and connects with others.

This was a brief, tentative, and incomplete sketch of why I think Christians ought to reconsider the office of the bishop, as many assume it in its grotesque Medieval form as the norm. As long as Christ reigns, such will never be the norm. And, as it has appeared through some of my historical examples, the office of the bishop continues to be exercised, even if it lacks the explicit name. I hope to recover such a glorious name to keep such roles within a biblical grammar. The Father's purposes cannot be stopped, even in the face of Human weakness, which many times becomes the very means the Spirit brings them about.

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