The Bishop in The Church

So preaching both in the country and in the towns the Apostles appointed their first fruits, when they had tested them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons for the future believers"
(The First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians).

The words of St. Clement, the Bishop of Rome, written to the Church at Corinth sometime in the mid nineties of the first century, reflect the view of the ancient Church that the bishops of the Church were appointed to continue the ministry of the Apostles in the Church who in turn continued the ministry of Christ.

In fact only several generations earlier than Clement the First Letter to Timothy, an ancient "Church Order" or perhaps today what we would call a "constitution" ascribed to the Apostle Paul specifically mentions the qualifications of a bishop:

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, soberminded,of good behavior, hospitable,able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil (I Timothy 3:1-7).

The term that is used here for "bishop" is the Greek word "episkopos" which means literally "overseer". However this word not only had a secular usage but was used by the pagan Greeks to discuss the relationship between the gods and human beings. The various divinities were described as being the "episkopoi" – the divine overseers of human activity and affairs.

It was perhaps this usage that the Apostle Peter had in mind when he refers to Christ as being the "Overseer" of the faithful: For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer (episkopos) of your souls (I Peter 2:25).

The ministry of the bishop then is not simply that of a secular "boss" or supervisor but is given in the image of Christ's ministry with a divine purpose and calling. Indeed the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that "no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God just as Aaron was" (Hebrews 5:5).

Although in the time of the New Testament the terms "elder" or "presbyter"and "bishop" were used interchangeably eventually the distinction between presbyter or priest and bishop came to be firmly established. For example the Letter to Titus speaks of both "elders" (prebyters) in the Greek and the "bishop" (episkopos) in the same passage as partaking of the same office. This is why the letter of Timothy cited above and the Letter of Clement to the Corinthians with which this article opened only speaks of bishops and deacons and at the same time sets conditions regarding the family or household of the bishop. With several generations the offices would become more distinct. The priest would come to share in the ministry of the bishop in the celebration of the sacraments of the Church and in pastoral work but only the bishop would retain the fullness of the Office of the Priesthood. We must remember that in the early Church each local church had its own bishop that served as the head of the congregation even as the ministry of the presbyters (our English word"priest" comes from "presbyter" which means "elder" in Greek) developed apart from that of the bishop.

This is reflected in the time immediately after the death of the Apostles in the writings of St. Ignatios of Antioch. Writing on his way to martyrdom in Rome at the beginning of the second century (circa 116 A.D.) he instructed the church at Magnesia in Asia Minor: Be eager to do everything in godly harmony, the bishop presiding in the place of God and the presbyters in the place of the council of the Apostles and the deacons, who are most dear to me, having been entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ... (Magnesians 6).

In time the Church grew and the responsibilities of the Bishop grew with it. By the time of the Emperor Constantine most bishops oversaw not simply a single parish but several forming a diocese. Through the Bishops of the Church unity of faith was maintained. The Divine Liturgy reflects this in the Anaphora Prayer.  Remember among the first, O Lord our God-loving Bishop N. Grant that he may serve your holy church in peace, safety, honor and health for many years,rightly dividing the word of Your truth... This last phrase comes from St. Paul's admonition to Timothy to "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (II Timothy 2:15).

The fabric of the Faith professed by the Church is stitched together by the ministry of her bishops who exercise as "overseers" the guardianship of the faith of their churches as Christ exercises this guardianship over the whole of the Church through the Holy Spirit. We are accustomed in the Church today to have married pastors but single, monastic bishops. This was not always the case in the early Church. The passage of First Timothy citied above talks about the bishop being the husband of one wife and many of the bishop/presbyters of the early centuries of the Church were married in both the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire.

St. Gregory the Great in his work Dialogues relates the story of a married Roman priest who he said loved his "presbyterissa" (as the priest's wife was called in Latin) as a sister after his ordination until the day of his death. It soon became the custom of the Church from an early time for her bishops to be unmarried and in fact in later centuries this would become a requirement reflected today in the canons of the Church.

This was not because marriage was held to be a lesser state than a monastic or celibate life nor was it over a fear that the property of the Church, which the bishop was solely was in charge of (church councils are a modern happenstance) would be passed on to the bishop's family rather than stay in the stewardship ofthe churches.

The real reason had to do with the ministry of the bishop itself. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, one of the first bishops of the Church: Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the presbyterate (I Timothy 4:13,14).

The bishop of the Church was called to a celibate life to keep alive the prophetic voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church without the encumbrance or concern of family or property. Having given his full devotion to the Lord he can speak "in season and out of season" without fear of reprisal against his family or property. Like the Levites of old who had no share in Israel for the Lord was their portion the bishop is free to speak as the Spirit prompts him. This prophetic voice is served and preserved by the charisma of celibacy that has been given to the Bishop to guide and lead the Church from this age to the age to come.

Very Rev. Protopresbyter Lawrence Barriger