The Bishop: A Brief Reflection From Tradition
For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; - Titus 1:7
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: - Philippians 1:1
We see from the very beginnings of Christianity, as reflected in the New Testament, the existence of the ministry of bishop. The bishop (in Greek, “episcopos” - sing. and “episcopoi” - pl.) were installed as “overseer” of each new Christian community founded by the apostles. While often referred to as the “successors of the apostles”, the Jesuit theologian Gerald O’Collins, has coined a possibly more accurate term, “successors to the apostles”, thereby preserving the unique calling of the apostles through their direct encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus.
In the First Letter of Timothy we see the New Testament requirements for a bishop: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,” (1 Timothy 3:2). We can deduce from this passage that the apostles, looked for not only one who had leadership qualities, but also a man who had the respect of his fellow believers for his steadiness, maturity, and compassion. As Catholic and Orthodox Christian readers of this passage we may be surprised to see that bishops could be married, at least once, in the biblical era of the Church. While the law of celibacy entered the Latin Church for all in major orders in the year 1139A.D., the celibate episcopacy has its roots (not uniformly) in various parts of Christianity from the earliest centuries. We see the origins of this in the early exhortations during the Patristic Era for married clerics to live in continence (abstain) with their wives. Today among Catholics and Orthodox only the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the East (Nestorians) allows for bishops to be married.
The ministry of the bishop in the early church was intimately tied to the eucharist. The eucharist was the sacrament that, “made the church,” and all her other sacraments and all her ministries flowed from the eucharistic liturgy. St. Ignatius of Antioch writes in his Letter to the Philadelphians, “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop.” St. Ignatius sees the bishop as the one who guarantees the unity, the truth, and the catholicity of the Church. We see in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, “Let that be deemed a proper eucharist which is administered either by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted it”.
In the third century, a century after St. Ignatius, we find in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, that the bishop was ordained to “shepherd the flock” and “to offer Thee [God] the gifts of the Thy Holy Church”. In the same vein the Syriac writing usually referred to by its Latin title Didascalia Apostolorum, states “that the eucharist is offered only through the bishop who for this reason occupies ‘the place of God’ in the church”.(see, Eucharist, Bishop, Church by John Zizioulas, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001)
In the New Testament the word for church, “ekklesia” is used close to eighty times and fifty-seven of those times it refers to a specific concrete “gathering”. The experience and understanding of the church for early Christians was simultaneously local and universal because of the eucharist, presided over by the bishop who simultaneously affirmed the unity of the concrete gathering and their unity with the universal (catholicity) gathering of all true believers. This liturgical-theological truth was so engrained in the mind of the early church, that even with the advent of the Constantinian period and the interfacing of church governance with Imperial Roman governance, could not destroy its memory. So in making the bishop a territorial administrator with priests to preside at the eucharist of numerous parishes, with the church’s population exploding after Constantine; to signify this ancient sense of unity a portion of the bishop’s consecrated bread would be taken to his parishes reminding them that he is still their eucharistic presider.
These brief reflections remind us that, “power” in the church is not like that of the world. Power within the church always remains God’s power and those who are called to govern do so ultimately as ministers of service, service that is ordained by their intimate proximity to the eucharist. Let us conclude with the final exhortation and witness of St. Ignatius, who came to realize that his imitation of Christ at the eucharist would eventually call for his imitation of Christ as martyr. On his way to Rome he writes to the Christians there, “I am the wheat of God. Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” (Letter to the Romans, St. Ignatius of Antioch).
- Rev. David A. Fisher,