This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Presbyterian Bishops?

One of the more unbiblical things that the Reformation seems to have done was get rid of bishops.  The New Testament clearly says that the early church had an office of episcopos, which literally means “overseer” or “supervisor.”  (See Philippians 1:1.  There are several other mentions in the Pastoral Epistles.)  The tripartite shape of ecclesiastical ministry — bishops, elders, and deacons, in addition to the laity — was articulated very early in church history, in the work of Ignatius of Antioch.  The Reformers would have been wrong to dispense with bishops altogether.

They were no doubt reacting to what bishops had become in the West, which was all too often tyrannical, corrupt, mercenary, hypocritical men swathed in ridiculous pomp.  Bishops had too much power and some of them abused it horribly, which caused the whole institution to be debased and defiled.  The very word has been radioactive to many Protestants ever since.

Even today, bishops seem to imagine themselves to be ecclesiastical CEO’s and allow all kinds of benefits, honors, compensation, and privileges to accrue to themselves.  We Presbyterians don’t have bishops, but we do have “Executives” who sometimes see themselves in the same way.  They can become exactly what the Reformers were trying to unload, as if all that were offensive about being a bishop were the title.  Of course, it's about the power.

But if we look carefully at Presbyterianism, we may see that we did retain a kind of  episcopal office reimagined in a different form and given a different name.  We drained the office of as much corrosive power and venality as possible, even hiding every connection to what bishops had become so well that what I am about to say will surprise most Presbyterians.  The episcopal office emerges in Presbyterianism in the role of the Moderator.

Our polity makes a point of preventing Moderators from degenerating into knots of corrupt power, at least at the presbytery and synod levels.  In our current practice, Moderators are unpaid.  They usually serve one-year terms.  The Book of Order gives them almost no explicit power of disposition or decision-making.  Moderators oversee and preside over meetings of councils, and they represent councils in ordaining and installing elders.  Often they have a seat on whatever board manages the council’s work.  

I believe we do not pay enough attention to Moderators.  We do not recognize their authority or the continuity of their office with the biblical episcopacy.  We treat the role as little more than an honorific.  Sometimes it’s almost like an onerous job people get by turns, if we can convince them to do it at all.  

But I have found Moderators to have amazing and remarkable wisdom and insight.  Most have been active and committed presbyters for many years, and they have invaluable knowledge of the community and institution.  I have learned to trust and defer to Moderators at the presbytery level, even when they seem to be doing things “out of order.”  They can have a kind of moderatorial intuition from the Holy Spirit.  Because even if we don’t take Moderators seriously, God does.

In my view, we denigrate Moderators when we make them adhere to imported and non-Christian procedures that demand adversariality, foment divisiveness, and drive to premature decisions.  Moderators should embody the principles of inclusiveness, openness, mutuality, and equality embedded in our polity.  They should have a missional sense about what a council is doing.  They should be about fostering honest and civil communication, discerning the body, and finding real consensus.  They should be trusted.


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