Thursday, February 19, 2015

What is a Bishop?

This Sunday, our bishop, Steve Breedlove, will be at Good Shepherd.  But what exactly does that mean?  Why is the bishop visiting?  And what does a bishop do?  For many at Good Shepherd, the whole concept of a bishop is foreign, and even for those of us who have been in churches that have bishops, most have not been taught about what a bishop is or what a bishop does.  Bishop Steve's arrival gives us a chance to talk about the office of the bishop, and its role in the life of the Church.

A bishop usually leads a diocese.  A diocese is a group of churches, large or small, usually tied to a geographic area.  Because this work of leading a diocese is so great, bishops almost always enroll the help of priests and deacons to assist them locally in the churches under their care.  The priests and deacons who serve in the churches of the Diocese are delegated authorities of the bishop.  As Jesus has given bishops authority over his Church, these local churches are the "bishop's churches," not the church of a particular priest or pastor.

The Anglican Church's constitution contains a great summation of the bishop's office:  "A Bishop is called by God and the Church to be a shepherd who feeds the flock entrusted to his care. A Bishop is an overseer of the flock and as such is called to propagate, to teach, and to uphold and defend the faith and order of the Church willingly and as God wants him to – not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to his care, but being a wholesome example to the entire flock of Christ (1 Peter 5:2-3). These requirements are in addition to the requirements… for a Deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13) and for a Presbyter [Priest] (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:6-9). By the tradition of Christ's One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, Bishops are consecrated for the whole Church and are successors of the Apostles through the grace of the Holy Spirit given to them. [In summary:] They are chief missionaries and chief pastors, guardians and teachers of doctrine, and administrators of godly discipline and governance."

Bishops are pastors.  The word "pastor" literally means shepherd.  Bishops are the pastors of the churches that are in their diocese.  They are responsible for the growth and care of the members of their churches like a shepherd is responsible for the growth and care of their sheep.  This means they are responsible to see that correct doctrine is taught in their churches, that the worship and life of the church is in accordance with biblical principles, and that any erroneous teachings are refuted. Just as a shepherd is a defender of his sheep from wolves, the Bishop is a defender of his fellow Christians from false teachers.  The Bishop is also a pastor to pastors: caring directly for the clergy in their diocese.  When bishops and the clergy under their authority are pastoring well, the people of God usually grow in spiritual health.  When a bishop is not a pastor, their clergy often fall away into heresy and the people do not flourish. 

Bishops are overseers.  The word overseer (Gr. episkopos) or bishop ("bishop" is the Old English version of the Greek episkopos) is used in the NT six times to describe a minister. (1 Tim 3:1; Titus 1:9; Php 1:1; Acts 20:28; 1 Pe 2:25).  It describes the role some priests (Gr. presbyter, often in English called an "elder") have in giving oversight or leadership to the life of the Church.   Just as the apostles led the Churches of the first century, the bishops give "oversight" – they are the primary leaders of the Church.  They set the direction, order and organizational life of the Churches in their diocese.  When bishops give oversight properly, the Churches under their care tend to be well-ordered and mission-minded.  When the bishop does not give oversight, Churches can become disorganized, confusion reigns, and the Great Commission forgotten.

Bishops are successors of the apostles. After the apostles began dying off, they handed over their authority to bishops.  Men who served faithfully as priests would be selected for this great privilege and responsibility.  This passing of the baton began happening in the Church at least as early as 100 AD (and probably during the NT era (See Titus, 1&2 Timothy)) and is still happening today.  Every bishop in the Anglican Church comes from a long line of men who have come before them, and every bishop is tasked with faithfully preserving the Gospel for the next generation.  Because bishops have this "lineage," they are visible symbols of the unity or Catholicity of the Church.  They are living reminders of all who have come before them.  This is one reason why Bishops in the Anglican Church administer the rite of Confirmation and why a bishop must be present to ordain both priests and deacons.  Bishops are truly successors of the apostles when their churches are recognizably in line with the great cloud of witnesses that have come before, both in doctrine, in life, and in order.  When bishops are consecrated outside this lineage or when bishops are consecrated who do not hold to the apostolic teaching, it brings disunity to the larger Church.

So, that, in a nutshell is what bishops are and what they do.  When Bishop Steve visits us this Sunday, he is coming to one of the churches under his care.  His primary role this Sunday will be to preach the Word and to administer the Sacrament to the flock.  But he will also meet with the clergy to counsel them and to give direction to our church.  He will update us all on what I happening in the Church regionally, nationally, and globally.  And he will come to bring God's blessing to God's people!

One last comment on bishops.  Because they're role is so weighty and because they are sinners like us, we need to pray for our bishops.  As a congregation, we do this every Sunday, but let me encourage you to pray for our bishops in your home.  

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