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Volume 17, Issue 4: Presbyterion

The Bishop Presbyter

Douglas Wilson

On the vexed subject of church government, many of the problems are caused by what I think should be called the primitivist fallacy. In other words, it is often assumed (on all sides) that our job is to find out exactly what the form of church government was during the first century, and then duplicate it, minus the apostles. Or, if we are riding with the latest prophetic wave of latter-rain glory, maybe with apostles.

The assumption is that the way the Church was governed in the New Testament is jure divino—divine law for us in the details, and further, that the details of said government are discoverable by us if we refine our exegesis enough. C.S. Lewis pointed out the error in its extreme puritan form— "They taught that a system . . . of church government could be found in the New Testament and was binding on all believers till the end of the world. To a modern reader, examining the texts on which they based this theory, it appears one of the strangest mirages which have ever deceived the human mind."1 But the jure divino anti-puritans fared no better. The mirage of apostolic succession does not have tenuous texts; it has no texts.
But to question this assumption that the Bible instructs in the details seems (to some) like rank liberalism—"Who cares what the Bible says, and let us all do what is right in our own eyes." But if the assumption is not questioned, at least to some extent, the result is that the text will be pounded into place in order to support details of modern church government in a remarkably extravagant way. If we require textual warrant for every aspect of modern church goverance, the only possible result will be violence to the text. For starters, the New Testament doesn't have denominations in it, or headquarters, or mission boards. Neither does it have stated clerks, or archdeacons. And who can forget Ambrose Bierce's magnificent definition of a monsignor— "a high ecclesiastical title, of which the Founder of our religion overlooked the advantages."
There are two basic things that must be remembered as we pursue the subject. The first is that the Bible's teaching on church government does not begin in the New Testament—God's people had been governed according to His Word for millennia before the advent of Christ. The second thing is that when we take the teaching of Scripture as a whole, we find significant transitions and changes over time that do not alter the basic foundational principles of governance.
It is generally acknowledged on all hands that during the writing of the New Testament, the word for bishop (episkopos) was used interchangeably with the word for elder (presbyteros). The apostle Peter identifies himself as a fellow elder with those to whom he is writing (1 Pet. 5:1), and goes on to say that they are to act the part of bishops (5:2), taking the oversight. St. Paul summons the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), and then commands them to take heed to the flock over which the Holy Spirit had made them bishops (20:28). And in writing to Titus, Paul says that he is to appoint elders in every city (Tit. 1:5), for a bishop must be blameless (1:7). In writing to the church at Philippi, the saints are addressed, together with the "bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:1).
So this certainly excludes a scriptural basis for a jure divino apostolic succession. To maintain a necessary distinction between presbyter and bishop when the New Testament uses the terms interchangeably is problematic. And one church, like Philippi, could not have multiple bishops (in the modern sense). She could have a college of presbyters, also called bishops. Roman Catholic theologian Francis Sullivan acknowledges the force of this reality, even while discussing the church at Rome: "I have expressed agreement with the consensus of scholars that the available evidence indicates that the church of Rome was led by a college of presbyters, rather than by a single bishop, for a least several decades of the second century."2
At the same time, the office of bishop was not a late development within the Church, brought in centuries after, along with a host of other superstitions. Numerous bishops served the Church early, ably, and well. As hardy a Presbyterian as John Knox honored evangelical bishops, like Ridley and Latimer, and John Calvin was not at all averse to evangelical bishops. What these Reformers rejected was the idea that bishops held that office by divine right. They had in mind the edification of the church—and therefore knew that some occasions required the eliminaton of the office of bishop, while on other occasions it could be appropriate to retain it.
Now before our Protestant blood begins to boil, and we start insisting that it is dangerous to start applying ecclesiastical titles apart from any scriptural warrant for that particular office (as well as needing a scriptural basis for the enumerated duties of that office), let me anticipate the objection with a list of titles—titles in common use in evangelical Presbyterian circles. Before reading through the list, you might want to get out a concordance, if you feel like not having to use it. The list: senior pastor, associate pastor, assistant pastor, youth pastor, youth leader, worship leader, worship team, chairman, moderator, stated clerk, missionary, ruling elder, small group leader, and so on. You get the drift. In addition, there are also scriptural titles for certain church offices that we don't use any more—like steward (Tit. 1:7), under-rower (Acts 13:5), and widow (1 Tim. 5:9). Why is that?

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