Why Do We Need Bishops?

Democracy may work for countries, but it's not necessarily right for the Church

In a recent column, I talked about St. Vincent of Lerins--a man whohelped me understand how to interpret the Bible. This month, I'd like totalk about another great luminary of theearly Church and how he affected my life.

When I was an evangelical Protestant, I was committed to congregationalchurchgovernment: one man, one vote, the foundation of American democracy!Never mind that the New Testament clearly speaks of bishops, as in Acts1:20, where the Apostle Peter says to his co-workers concerning the placeleftopen by Judas' demise, "his bishopric let another take" (KJV). We dancedaround the issue because there are places in the New Testament where"bishop"and "presbyter" seem to be used interchangeably. In seminary, we were taughtthat bishops were a late innovation of the Church.

Then along comes St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was consecrated bishop ofAntioch probably in 67 A.D. This is the home church of the Apostle Paul,right in the heart of the New Testament era. Half the New Testamentwasn't even written yet. Now, if you're not supposed to have bishops in theChurch, wouldn't the Apostles have raisedsome kind of fuss?

Then I discovered that Ignatius wasn't the first bishop, but the third!TheApostle Peter was the first bishop of Antioch. While reading "The ApostolicFathers," a collection of Christianwritings from the first and early-second centuries, I discovered yet morefirst-century bishops.

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One passage from Ignatius' Letter to the Trallians sums up his teachingon the office of bishopand absolutely squares with the Scriptures. He writes, "Subjectyourselves to the bishop as to Jesus Christ." This means that in the Church,the bishop is the earthly shepherd of our souls, not a mere figurehead.

At first, I was arrested by this thought because I had considered thebishop aruler over the church. But in Orthodox understanding, he is the leaderwithin the Church, part of ourcommunity. He is not layers and layers above us, but in our midst asour father. This understanding eased my concerns greatly.

You may ask, "Is there a precedent for that in Scriptures?"Absolutely. "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word ofGod to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct"(Hebrews 13:7, NKJV). Interestingly, the book of Hebrews was written justabout the same time Ignatius became a bishop. The messageis consistent.

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