Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bishops in the Church (Part 1): the Bible versus Catholic Tradition

The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the churches of the Anglican Communion, all practice the form of church government commonly called "episcopalian" or "prelacy." This is in contrast to the "presbyterian" and "congregationalist" systems. They claim that church history refers to government by bishops, and is found in the earliest church Fathers, including those of the immediate post-Apostolic period. And, as far as that goes, they are correct.

The reason that I say, "as far as that goes," is that it is a half-truth, leaving out a lot of relevant information, especially the simple fact that the word "bishop," a transliteration of the Greek word "episkopos," was used very differently from the way these churches use it.

There are two New Testament verses that refer to the "episkopoi" of particular congregations. Note that: "episkopoi" in the plural, not "episkopos" in the singular. In Philippians 1:1, Paul sends salutations to the Church at Philippi: "to all the saints in Christ Jesus, with the bishops and deacons" (KJV). The other is Acts 20:28 (cf  KJV margin). In both places, modern translations read "overseers," which is the literal translation of "episkopoi." The Acts passage, which begins at verse 17, is especially important, because it begins by referring to the "elders" of the Church at Ephesus, Greek "presbuteroi," and then changes to "episkopoi" for the same men.

The importance of these two verses is that they refer to multiple bishops in single congregations, utterly contrary to the single monarchical bishops of the episcopal churches.  In fact, in the immediate post-Apostolic period, the term came to refer, not to a regional monarchical official, but rather to the pastor of a city church. St. Jerome, that prominent church Father so often quoted by Catholic apologists, said, in his commentary on Titus, "A bishop is the same as a presbyter... [S]o let bishops know that they are greater than presbyters more by custom than in consequence of our Lord's appointment..." What he is referring to is Paul's instruction to Titus (in Titus 1:5) to appoint "elders," i.e., "presbuteroi," in every church. Note the plural, a plurality of elders, not a single monarchical figure. Then he continues in verse 7, "For an overseer (episkopos), as God's steward, must be above reproach." Paul uses both Greek terms to refer to the same men in the same office. That is why the New Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation, translates "episkopos" as "presiding elder," not "bishop."

Thus, in two ways, both the New Testament and the first church Fathers contradict the use that episcopalians put upon them. In contrast, they support the presbyterian church of government, which not only permits, but rather requires, multiple elders to govern each local church.

For Part 2, click here

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