The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy: “If anyone aspires to the office of a bishop, he desires a noble task. ” (1 Timothy 3:1) Now the Greek word episcopos can also be translated as overseer, and sometimes as shepherd. From the outset of this article, I have to state that I come from a denomination that does not have bishops. We as Baptists have vested all of the authority in the local pastors and the local church.
However, I have felt pity and kindness for those who are bishops. Within the last two decades, the Catholic bishops and cardinals have taken a beating with regards to covering some of the sins that local priests have committed. Instead of punishing them, they have transferred them to other districts where no one knew of their indiscretions. I think that the hardest time for bishops is when they have to interact with their parishioners after closing local Catholic schools and churches. I lived in Chicago when the well-respected Cardinal Bernardin started to close schools and churches. While he continued to be honored by the Pope, within the Diocese of Chicago, he soon lost lots of respect from his congregants. This year, as Bishop Smith is planning for his retirement, he was convinced that he must close some schools and dioceses in the counties where he presides. I heard the bishop preach a couple of times, and if one does not see his regalia, one might think that he is a good Baptist preacher. In fact when I heard him speak at a confirmation, he could have been preaching from the pulpit of any Pentecostal Church. Yet within the last year, many of the comments that were made about his administrative decisions have not been laudatory.
The Episcopal bishops are not faring much better in the press or in conversation with their Episcopal parishioners. There is serious discussion about splitting the Episcopal Church into conservative and liberals. The well-known author and liberal bishop of Newark John Spong, in a heated debate with the African bishops, called them children in spiritual and theological matters. They were very offended by this. Other conservative bishops feel that the problems caused by bishops such as Spong are pushing them to align themselves with the more conservative African and Asian bishops. Last year, the well-known evangelical theological J.I. Packer left his diocese over the decisions that his local bishop made in Vancouver, Canada.
Among the Orthodox Churches in the USA and Canada, bishops are accused of siding with various ethnic groups from their home countries, instead of creating an independent Orthodox Church here in the United States. Some bishops argue that the Patriarch of Constantinople is held in captivity by the Turkish government, while the Russian, Romanian, Serbian patriarchs are occupied with their own countries. Some Orthodox bishops envision a day when the American Orthodox Church will have its own patriarch, while others bishops feel that this will not be the best for the ethnic churches that are on the American soil.
I know that there have been disagreements with bishops in the past and some of the disagreements ended with the banishment of the bishops. The difference between the past and the present though, is that we now know so much more about the bishops, both positive and negative. As modern society has access to more information about bishops and their decisions, the respect that the position held had decreased; although some of the bishops have certainly not helped their cause.
In spite of all of the difficulties encountered by today’s bishops, Paul is still correct. Aspiring to be a bishop, an overseer, a shepherd of God’s extended flock is still a noble task.