In the Oxford Diocese we are waiting for the appointment of our new Bishop. Over the last few months several people have asked me who I think should be our next Bishop and so I thought this was the ideal opportunity to reflect on what a Bishop is, in the Church of England.
If you visit another Church, particularly one in another denomination, you could easily be confused about who does what. Variously, in different churches, the person in leadership is called the minister, priest (not to mention rector and vicar), pastor, elder (and deacon), presbyter or even bishop. So, what do we mean when we call someone a Bishop?
Bishops in the New Testament
The New Testament has a very simple model of ministry. If you look at how those in leadership are described in the New Testament there are two main words that are used: presbuteroi and episkopos.
The word presbuteroi (cf. Matthew 15:2, 27:1; 28:12; Luke 9:22; Acts 4:5,8, 14:23,15:2,4,6,22, 16:4; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5, and Hebrews 11:2) is usually translated as “elder” or “elders” (now, Presbuteroi has sometimes been translated using the Old Testament title of “priest,” however, in the New Testament these are often explicitly distinguished cf. Mark 14:43; Acts 23:14).
The word episkapos (cf. Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7) is variously translated as “episcopal,” “elder,” “overseer,” or “pastor.”
The relationship between these two words is not always certain, but what is clear, is that presbuteroi and episkopos refer to the same office and are therefore synonyms.
The point of this is simply to note that whilst the New Testament does have a hierarchy of ministry between elders and deacons (cf. Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3:1-13) there is no distinction made between those who hold the office of elder – they are all in oversight of the church, whatever we call them.
Bishops in Church History
The earliest writings of the church fathers also seem to confirm this role of “elders” (bishops) as the teaching leaders who served alongside deacons to oversee the church. Both Clement of Rome (c. 95) and the Didache referred to elders and deacons from the late early first century to the early second century as the church’s leaders.
Over time, additional layers of leadership were added to the church and eventually, the term bishop came to be applied to a regional church leader who administered many churches. At the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, the church leader of each city or area represented his region’s churches and these leaders were referred to as “bishops.”
The ordinal is clear in its description of the role of the “bishop”. It says, “it is their duty to share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church.”
Here, both the New Testament foundation and Christian heritage are preserved. They are, first and foremost, “fellow presbyters” who share “the oversight of the Church”.
What should a bishop be like?
There are some general principles we can draw on to help us to answer this, and, of course, there are two parts of the New Testament that seek to define those called to be elders in the church, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-7. From these we can deduce that a bishop should be:
- Mature in the Faith. This is implicit in their work of oversight, and explicit in the sense that it is the goal of every Christian to be “mature” in Christ, and elders are called to set an example in this.
- A Person of Integrity. This is the central thrust of Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 where the character of the elder is emphasised (they are to be above reproach, clear thinking, self-controlled, well respected, friendly, sober, peace-loving, not greedy, and have a good reputation outside the church).
- Able to Teach. This is the key difference in the New Testament between those who serve as deacons and those called to be elders. Elders (whether you call them priests, pastors or bishops) are to be the teachers of the faith.
- Guardians of the Faith. Paul could not be any clearer about this. He writes, an elder “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9). The church is called to be the pillar of God’s truth in the world and the role of the overseer is to keep that pillar standing true and upright.
The Ordinal preserves these characteristics by reminding bishops that they share oversight of the church by “speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation.”
And that, “Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission.”
An Opportunity to Pray
We are expecting the announcement of our new Diocesan Bishop over the summer. Between now and then there is an opportunity to pray for the person appointed: that they would share in the oversight of the church; that they would be mature in the faith, a person of integrity, able to teach and a guardian of the faith.
For my part I have also been using the prayer that Cranmer wrote as his Collect for St Peter’s Day. Perhaps you might want to join me in praying this prayer for our new bishop and for all those called to share in the oversight of the church?
“O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give to thy Apostle Saint Peter many excellent gifts, and commandedst him earnestly to feed thy flock: Make, we beseech thee, all Bishops and Pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word, and the people obediently to follow the same, that they may receive the crown of everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”