Understanding Orthodoxy – Bishops

From the earliest years of the Church the role of bishop, or episkopos, has developed as a means of preserving the ministry of the Apostles into the more settled situation of organised Christian communities. The Apostle Paul, in his letters to Timothy and Titus, describes the moral character of the man who should be considered worthy of being a bishop.

Titus 1:7-9  For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money,  8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled,  9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.

The word translated as bishop in this passage from the letter to Titus, is the Greek word episkopos, which means overseer. In those places where the Apostles and their disciples established local Christian communities through their preaching, men who had the moral qualities described by St Paul were set apart to oversee their growth and welfare.

The little letter to Titus also shows us some of the responsibilities of a bishop.

Titus 1:5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.

Therefore, a bishop, in the earliest times, had a delegated responsibility and authority from the Apostles, to ensure that the life of the Churches in their care was well ordered, and that they themselves should appoint other men to be responsible for the congregations found in each town and city.

Outside of the New Testament there are further descriptions of the role and content of the ministry of the episcopate, that is of the bishop. The Apostolic Church appears to have very quickly and naturally become an Episcopal Church. Indeed, one of the leaders of the Church in Rome, St Clement, one of the first bishops there, wrote a letter to the Church in Corinth in about 80 AD. They were still suffering from the sort of problems which caused St Paul to write to them. In his letter Clement of Rome speaks of the relationship between bishops and the Apostles saying,

Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier… Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.

Another such witness is the early Church leader, St Ignatius of Antioch. In about 107 AD he was being conducted under guard to Rome, where he was martyred for his faith. He wrote several letters to the Christian communities through which he passed in Asia Minor, and they provide clear evidence for the importance of the bishop from the beginning of the Church.

Writing to the Church in the city of Smyrna, he says,

Let no man do anything relating to the Church apart from the bishop. A true Eucharist is that which is held under the bishop or one to whom he has committed it. Where-ever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal Church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape; but whatsoever he the bishop approves, this is well-pleasing also to God.

St Ignatius also describes how the presbytery, or the elders, are to be gathered around their bishop, together with the deacons, those who are especially responsible for practical service in the Christian community. Certainly by the beginning of the second century Christian churches everywhere were shepherded by bishops, who had a number of presbyters supporting them, and deacons engaged in practical service. This has remained the pattern of Church organisation within Orthodoxy ever since.

As the Church grew and spread through the cities, towns and villages, the bishops decided that it was not appropriate that the leader of a congregation in a small hamlet should be considered a bishop in the same sense as the leader of many congregations in a major city. Thus it became normal for all the congregations in a region around a city to have one bishop whose cathedra, or bishops seat, was in the major settlement, while priests took care of the local and smaller congregations with a delegated responsibility and authority from their bishop. Some of the bishops of small communities became choir-bishops, or chorepiskopoi, which essentially meant that they were senior priests, and could perform some of the bishop’s functions as his agent or delegate, but could not act as an independent bishop

In another development those bishops who were associated with the major cities in the provinces of the Roman Empire came to be known as archbishops, and in time a small number became known as patriarchs, who might have archbishops and bishops under their authority. There are other terms which have been used in different times and places for the various degrees of authority or relative rank which individual bishops might have. But essentially each bishop is equal in terms of his ministry. The Orthodox Church is always local and is always a community of the faithful gathered around their bishop. Within Orthodoxy the universality and unity of the Church is not created or defined by having one bishop who stands above all others. Rather it is manifested in the unity which individual bishops share with one another in the local synods or councils of bishops, such as that of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and in the wider expressions of unity which take place when bishops meet and recognise each other as being bishops of the same Church, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The teaching of the New Testament and the early Church, shows us that normal Christian life takes place in relation to a bishop. He has both responsibility and authority in the Church. Responsibility to order the congregations in his care so that they become communities filled with the life of Christ, and authority to act in discipline so that such a right ordering of life in the community is preserved.

There is a strong link between the ministry of the bishop and the celebration of the Eucharist. Not only is the Eucharist only to be celebrated with the authority of the bishop, but in a sense the Church only comes into existence around the bishop and in the celebration of the Eucharist. This is because the bishop, as the successor to the Apostles, has the ministry of forming the faithful into the Church, the Body of Christ, and this especially takes place at the Eucharist, when the faithful participate in the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, and by participating in Christ are united with Him and in Him, and with one another.

As successor to the Apostles the bishop also has a teaching ministry. Not that every bishop must be a brilliant theologian, or even a wonderful public speaker. But the bishop is responsible for the quality of the teaching in the communities under his care. It is the bishop who must use his authority to preserve the Apostolic faith and who is responsible before God for it being preserved.

This means that it is sometimes necessary for the bishop to act with spiritual authority to discipline members of his own flock, or to speak against those outside the Church who are causing harm and confusion within. The Church is not a democracy, but is both a family and a theocracy. Therefore, in cheerful obedience to spiritual bishops the Church is able to discern the will of God and grow in grace by hearing the Word of God through the ministry of their bishop.

In all of his ministry, whether it be the positive aspect of calling the Body of Christ into being around him, or the more negative one of acting against error and disorder, the bishop is always best when he is spiritual father to his people, and when the faithful Christians in his care are his spiritual children.

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