Like the subject of Communion, I have fairly strong opinions in Ecclesiology too. Well, not strong in the sense that I I think I have everything figured out, but strong in the sense that the boundaries are firmly set. “Apostolic Succession,” that doctrine involving the historical link between Jesus’ original Apostles and the Bishops in the Church today, is one of those things under-girding the separation between Anglicanism and the rest of the Evangelical world. I thought it’d be interesting to share this video I came across presenting an argument for “why we need bishops,” and make my own comments following it.
First, I must offer the disclaimer that the present style is rather cheesy at times and the visuals contains a lot of memes, so if you’re not down with the current internet pop culture, you might feel a little bewildered and distracted. On another unrelated note, it’s cool to see an Anglican clergyman with long hair – I’m glad to see that I won’t be one of a kind when I, too, am ordained.
0:10-0:26 Yes it’s true, the majority of Christians really do have this three-ordered ministry. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Anglican Communion all follow this order, and are also the three largest Christian denominations in the world. This is more of an introductory fun-fact than an argument, because “majority rule” is not the way we do theology. (Though majority opinion is usually an important consideration!)
0:46-1:20 This argument, of course, is dependent upon a lot of biblical study. Much of this particular approach leans on Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in Luke 24 and John 20, and what he says to the (eleven remaining) apostles only, versus to any number of other disciples.
1:22-2:08 This is a more helpful argument than many I’ve heard before. The Apostles weren’t amazing guys (and hinting that bishops today aren’t particularly special either in and of themselves), but are chosen by God to represent him nonetheless. This is a show of God’s love and understanding for us, because we’re both physical & spiritual beings, so we need both physical and spiritual ways to connect with Him! The Bible and the preaching of the gospel, Baptism, Communion, and an order of ministry are here presented as tangible means by which God invites people into relationship with himself.
This is also where many arguments of priority may arise between Anglicans/Catholics and Protestants, because this makes it sound like the 3-fold ministry and the sacraments are set on an equal level to the Bible, which is abhorrent to an Evangelical. I don’t think the presenter is trying to place them on an equal footing with respect to one another, but he is getting at something that many Protestants often overlook: it’s an historical reality that the 3-fold order of ministry, Baptism, and Communion were all instituted at the same time as the New Testament was written. Thus, you can’t really treat the Bible as the total sourcebook for Baptism, Eucharist, and the Orders of ministry, because they were already begun! When the Bible does address those topics, it’s in reference to things that are already going on.
2:08-2:45 This stuff about the Apostles ordaining new overseers (bishops) is particularly describing the course of the book of Acts, the letters to Timothy, and the letter to Titus. Note how he describes bishops: our leaders, our servants, our shepherds, our protectors. This is not tyranny, this is biblical servant-leadership!
2:47-2:57 This stuff about bishops ordaining priests also can be found in the same books as above, but this is admittedly less clear in scriptures. The Bible, taken on its own, is a tad hazy with the distinction between bishops/overseers and priests/elders. It often sounds as though overseers are just special types of elders. In many ways that’s true, but as we shall see next from the historical information, it’s actually the other way ’round: priests are extensions of the bishop’s ministry.
2:58-3:09 The fact that priests got more authority from their bishops over time shows up in documents such as Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the church in Smyrnea (chapter 8), where he told them that the only Eucharist they should consider valid is that which is done by the bishop or by someone appointed (ordained) by him. This is stuff that mainly started happening for the 2nd generation of Christians, that’s why it’s not so clear in the Bible.
3:10-3:17 This is classic formula: priests represent their bishop, who represent Christ. This is also something that tends to upset those who don’t adhere to this Order of ministry, because they want to argue that all Christians represent Christ. This is certainly true. But it does not take away from the fact that certain Christians represent Christ in certain ways according their particular gifts and calling. And the offices of bishop and priest are specific callings.
3:18-3:27 Acts 6 is where the work of the deaconate was first distinguished from the bishop/priestly realm, though the title of Deacon doesn’t show up until later, such as in 1 Timothy.
3:28-4:04 The first requirement for bishops is Apostolic Succession, which is here described as “a tangible link and organic whole” connecting all Christians across space and time. Once again it’s that idea that Christ’s Church isn’t just some invisible spiritual thing, but also physically real. We’re physical & spiritual beings, how could we possibly be united without both elements? (And the Boromir meme “one doesn’t simply unite the front” is just plain hilarious.)
4:05-4:28 The second requirement for bishops is faith. This is an important point that we have to highlight these days because of the sad reality that there are lots of so-called-bishops out there who aren’t really Christian anymore.
4:30-4:56 The efficiency and effectiveness of this three-fold Order headed by bishops is openly questioned, which I found really refreshing to hear. We don’t claim that this looks like the best system of Church governance, or that it’s fool-proof. There might have been a better way to go about this, for all we know. But we receive it as a gift from God in good faith because we trust that Jesus knew what he was doing when he set apart twelve (well, eleven) men to lead the Church in his stead. Also, the presenter makes the important remark that we acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s ministry through this order. We believe that just as the Spirit teaches us through Scripture, the Spirit also guides us through the Church’s ministry. Bishops are not a replacement for the Holy Spirit, but a conduit for him!
So this is really an introduction to the subject, and not really an in-depth argument. If this is a subject you’ve been batting around for a while, there probably isn’t too much here that you haven’t heard before. But for those who are new to the concept of bishops and are curious about why we have them, it’s a great summary.