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Why Bishops?

by The Rev. Dr. Canon Christopher Brown

In honor of our new bishop coadjutor elect, Fr. William Love, I would like to reflect on the role of bishops within God's provision for His Church. Why bishops?

A bishop is an "overseer." The Holy Spirit pours out spiritual gifts on all the baptized, all of whom share in the "work of ministry for building up the body of Christ"(Eph. 4:12). Clergy and laity alike take their place in the "councils of the church." Nevertheless, the Church requires a focus of leadership. The buck must stop somewhere. Hence, among the gifts of the Spirit is that of "apostleship" (1 Cor. 12:28, Eph. 4:11). From the time of the early church it was the Apostles, and those whom they appointed to serve in their place, who have exercised oversight within the Body of Christ.

Apostolic Succession in the Early Church

As early as 96 a.d., Clement of Rome wrote,

The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus, the Christ, was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God and the Apostles from Christ. In both instances the orderly procedure depends on God's will. And so the Apostles after receiving their orders and being fully convinced by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and assured by God's Word went out in the confidence of the Holy Spirit to preach the Good News that God's Kingdom was about to come. They preached in country and city and appointed their first converts after testing them by the Spirit to be bishops and deacons of future believers.

From the beginning, the role of the Bishop was not merely functional. It was not just a matter of early Christians deciding, "someone has to be in charge, so let's get a bishop." As Clement indicates, the role of the bishop involved a notion of succession.

Our apostles, thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that there was going to be strife over the title of bishop. It was for this reason and because they had been given an accurate knowledge of the future that they appointed the officers we have mentioned. Furthermore, they later added that, should these die, other approved men would succeed to their ministry.

The notion of succession involves the element of continuity—a link to a continuing personal presence. As Jesus authorized the Apostles, so the Apostles authorized "approved men [who] would succeed to their ministry." Jesus affirmed, "as the Father has sent me, so I send you"(John 20:21), "whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me" (John 13:20). Of course, every believer represents Christ to those who do not know Him, but since the post-apostolic period these words apply in a special way to those who stand in the place of the apostles.

Ten years after Clement's letter, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, taught that bishops represent Christ to such an extant that "we should regard the bishop as the Lord himself."

Half a century later, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, faced the challenge of a competing Gnosticism that taught a radically different Gospel. Irenaeus asked, in effect, "Where is the mark of authenticity? How do we know if a preacher's teaching is apostolic? How do we know whether these other teachers are not just making it up as they go along?"

He concluded that all teaching must be consistent with scripture, and that the source and lineage of Christian teaching is critical. Does it derive from the original Church of the apostles? And how would you know? You would know because of the succession of teaching that has passed from one bishop to the next all the way back from apostolic times.

The tradition of the Apostles, made clear in all the world, can be clearly seen in every church by those who wish to behold the truth. We can enumerate those who were established by the Apostles as bishops in the churches, and their successors down to our time.

From earliest times this "apostolic succession" was a sign of apostolic authority. The historic episcopate maintained a living link to the apostolic Church and the Gospel that it proclaimed.

Anglicanism and the Historic Episcopate

Among churches of the Reformation, only the Church of England (and the Lutheran Church of Sweden) retained the Apostolic Succession. Initially, Anglicanism was somewhat unreflective in its insistence on retaining this visible connection to the apostolic Church. It was not so much a matter of doctrine as an expression of an almost instinctive British tendency to conserve the past while embracing the dramatic changes of the Protestant Reformation.

In the 19th century, the Oxford Movement in the Church of England reaffirmed the catholic dimension of Anglicanism, and the episcopate as a mark of its catholicity. For these catholic-minded reformers, the Apostolic Succession signified that the Anglican Church was not merely the religious arm of the British state, but a divine society founded by Christ and built on the foundation of the Apostles.

In the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, Anglicans declared the "historical episcopate" to be essential for church unity (along with Scripture, creeds and sacraments). This ecumenical emphasis on the Apostolic Succession as a basis for unity has led to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America obtaining apostolic consecration for Lutheran bishops and on January 1, 2001, to the establishment of "Full Communion" between ELCA Lutherans and Episcopalians.

"Being" or "Well-Being"

Anglicans debate about how far the importance of the Apostolic Succession extends. Some regard it as necessary to the "being" of the Church. Others say that the Succession guarantees not the "being" or esse of the Church, but rather its bene esse or "well being." If apostolic bishops guarantee the "being" of the Church, then what of Protestant churches that lack bishops? Are Baptists or Presbyterians excluded from the Body of Christ? Can we really say that the Baptist, Billy Graham, is less a Christian than John Spong, former Episcopal Bishop of Newark? But if the episcopate guarantees only a vaguely defined "well-being" of the church, in what sense is that anything but an optional extra of only secondary importance.

Fullness of Being

One proposal suggests that the Apostolic Succession signifies not the "being" (esse), nor the "well-being" (bene esse) of the church, but rather its "fullness of being" (plene esse). This has the value of not putting the Baptists and the Presbyterians out of the church, while stressing the Apostolic Succession as mark of the sacramental fullness of historic Christianity. Hence, we can speak of Apostolic Succession as the effectual sign of the "validity" of the sacraments without denying that God is free to work in grace and power in sacraments of Protestant churches that retain the apostolic teaching of the Scriptures, but lack the historic episcopate.

The Man and the Office

We have elected a man of discernible spiritual depth and graciousness of spirit to be our bishop. Yet one can only imagine the fear and trembling with which he must be looking ahead to his consecration. Who would not question if they were worthy to stand in the place of the Apostles? Yet our bishop elect can find assurance in the fact that the spiritual authority of the bishop rests in the office, and not in the spiritual gifts of the one holding that office. The bishop exercises pastoral oversight not on his own authority, but on that of the Apostles and of the One who sent them.

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