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 who helped me understand how to interpret the Bible. This month, I'd like to talk about another great luminary of the early Church and how he affected my life.

When I was an evangelical Protestant, I was committed to congregational church government: one man, one vote, the foundation of American democracy! Never mind that the New Testament clearly speaks of bishops, as in Acts 1:20, where the Apostle Peter says to his co-workers concerning the place left open by Judas' demise, "his bishopric let another take" (KJV). We danced around the issue because there are places in the New Testament where "bishop" and "presbyter" seem to be used interchangeably. In seminary, we were taught that bishops were a late innovation of the Church.

Then along comes St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was consecrated bishop of Antioch 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 Testament wasn't even written yet. Now, if you're not supposed to have bishops in the Church, wouldn't the Apostles have raised some kind of fuss?

Then I discovered that Ignatius wasn't the first bishop, but the third! The Apostle Peter was the first bishop of Antioch. While reading "The Apostolic Fathers," a collection of Christian writings from the first and early-second centuries, I discovered yet more first-century bishops.

One passage from Ignatius' Letter to the Trallians sums up his teaching on the office of bishop and absolutely squares with the Scriptures. He writes, "Subject yourselves 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 the bishop a ruler over the church. But in Orthodox understanding, he is the leader within the Church, part of our community. He is not layers and layers above us, but in our midst as our father. This understanding eased my concerns greatly.

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