A Brief Defense of Authentic Bishops

Think its a good idea to run a church without bishops? That’s what United Methodists are doing now.

The transitional Book of Doctrine and Discipline for the Global Methodist Church retains the office of bishop, albeit in a form dissimilar to what United Methodists have known. Keeping the office in any form is a genuine concern for many, and for good cause. I understand how two generations of United Methodist clergy who have known only corrupt and incompetent bishops would want to be rid of the office altogether.

No one has been blunter and more incessant in the condemnation of our overseers than I. In my letter announcing my departure from the pulpit I made it clear that, “I will not accept an appointment under a United Methodist bishop.” I describe our episcopacy as more corrupt than Chaucer’s Canterbury, and I recommend they should exchange the “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” moto with a more honest one like, “Anything for a Buck.” The following description from an essay that accompanied that letter is applicable not only to our North American bishops, but it is beginning to take root in our Central Conferences.

The corruption is evidenced in Bishops and common clergy who are abided with when they deny the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and even the atoning blood of Christ. They are permitted to participate in and promote carnal lust and licentiousness. Nothing will disturb their pleasurable estate if they know the one rule—the one offense which must not be tolerated—the one cause that will bring abrupt consequences to even the most privileged of their number: Don’t touch the money! Keep the cash flowing to the denominational Rome and you have purchased your position.

One might think I would exile the office of bishop to that Gehenna which its current occupants seem destined for themselves. Yet, the corruption of an office is not adequate cause for its abolition. It is reason for its reformation. The office of bishop — together with the office of parish pastor and indeed our whole church — stands in need of reformation. An argument for the elimination of one is an argument for the elimination of all. The solution is not to abolish the office of bishop.  The problem is that we already abolished the office of bishop and gave that sacred title to an abominable office of our own creation.

Imagine an employer who seeks good carpenters, but they deny them the use of any type of saw, hammer, or nails. Instead, they insist that the employees use only wrenches. The company would not get many qualified carpenters applying for the position, and the few who did could not do an effective job.

In the same way the first responsibility of a bishop is to guard the faith. When the General conference decided that our doctrinal standards were not to be literally interpreted nor judicially applied then it denied bishops both a faith to guard and any tools with which to guard it. The basic tenants of Christianity were reduced to historic curiosities. The core doctrines of the Church became artifacts to be gazed upon and say, “Isn’t it interesting what those primitive people used to believe.” Without a clear and common faith to defend the office of bishop becomes the office of “not-bishop.” Their responsibility was reduced to preserving institutional unity. The only tools allowed to the office were fund raising, revenue disbursement, control over property, and the financial well-being of clergy. These tools can be used to reward friends and punish enemies, but they are poor instruments for teaching the Christian faith. As a result, not many who are qualified as bishops desired the position, and the faithful few who found themselves in the office could not do an effective job.  

For the most part the United Methodist job description for bishop attracts people who are enticed by the liberty of having no faith to defend and are desirous for the control of wealth. The office we created is an anathema to the church, yet we gave it the sacred title of bishop. In truth, most United Methodists alive today have never known a bishop. We may have met some sincere Christian people who meant well and wanted to do the work of a bishop, but we have not had an office of bishop in which they could perform that work. Think its a good idea to run a church without bishops? That’s what United Methodists are doing now.

We must look outside the United Methodist Church and beyond our own experience to see what a bishop could be and should be. A bishop is a pastor of pastors and a teacher of teachers. In Paul’s relationship with Timothy, we see Paul performing the role of overseer. (We can leave for another time whether this is best expressed as that of bishop to pastor or of archbishop to bishop. Argue that one without me.) We must allow that Paul’s relationship to Timothy is both pastoral and catechetical while Timothy’s role to others is both pastoral and catechetical. Paul is acting as an overseer or superintendent of Timothy’s ministry. The pastoral epistles are not communications between two of equal authority. These letters are more than pastor-to-pastor letters.

Traditionally, the Biblical term which the church has found most appropriate to describe such a role is “bishop.” One could debate what term to use for the office, but I do not see how one could argue from Scripture that pastors and congregations have no need of overseers. We ought not argue that Timothy’s ministry was none of Paul’s business, or that Antioch had no need of a Jerusalem Council, or that the Jerusalem Council had no use for James. Scripture is replete with examples of the overseer’s office, and it is always a pastoral/catechetical model. What the pastor is to the parish — a bishop is to the conference or diocese.  The first responsibility of a bishop is to guard the faith. Any task assigned to that office must advance its first responsibility and not detract from it. When the Church is at its best, she holds to that model for bishops. When the church deviates from that model we get Luther’s Rome, Chaucer’s Canterbury, and today’s United Methodist Church.

I know from personal experience that it is easy for a pastor or congregation to be overwhelmed by events and to respond with ad hoc solutions born in our imagination from the perceived urgency of the situation. A crisis occurs, and we try to find a way to make things work. There is real temptation to compromise what ought not be compromised. The necessity of the moment can seduce the best of us into adopting worldly methods which are practical — but not faithful. The bishop is one who can keep us faithful in those days. Bishops are pastors who can view the congregation from the outside, and therefore can see some things unhindered by the fog of battle. Because they oversee many parishes, they can see when a false teaching or bad practice is becoming a trend and sound the alarm. A bishop understands the gravity of the moment and what the scientists say, and what the economists say, and what the politicians say, and takes it all seriously; but the bishop reminds us to surrender all of that to what the Scriptures say and what the church has always taught.

The recent pandemic induced chaos in the UMC is an example. Should we lock the doors or not? Should we practice virtual communion or not? Should we sing or not?  If anyone knew the answers  their voice was lost in a cacophony of discordant directives with appeals to disparate authorities.  Practices that the church would have considered abhorrent just a few months before suddenly became the norm.  Some things are eternally right, and some things are always wrong. This is true whether we speak of first century Ephesus or 21st century Baltimore. If one’s experience with bishops is limited to the United Methodist Church then you may be surprised to know that there were churches who navigated those days orderly and faithfully because they maintained authentic bishops with pastoral and teaching authority.

Authentic bishops not only maintain order within the church through their pastoral/catechetical office, but they also speak from the church to the world. When events disturb the social order, we do not want six hundred pastors searching for microphones from which they may express their personal opinions. We want one voice that can speak from the historic Christian faith. A bishop is one who is so well grounded in the faith that they do not need a special study commission, or a four year wait to speak words of wisdom and comfort.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed that the One World Trade Center’s spire be lit pink overnight to celebrate his signing of a law allowing abortions until birth in some cases, and letting non-doctors commit abortions; the church needed voices to speak from our faith. In this short essay one can compare the prompt teaching of real bishops with the belated and obscene silliness of their United Methodist counterparts. I encourage you to spend the one minute reading it and then return here. The difference is that real bishops speak from traditions with a clearly defined faith which they can teach, and United Methodists office holders are denied a faith that can be literally interpreted or judicially applied.  On matters of faith, what United Methodists call a bishop is an elder payed six figures a year to say, “I don’t know,” and, “It’s not my job.” Authentic bishops live in a church with clear delineated doctrines, they know what Christ has taught, and they know the church expects them to accept their responsibility.

Reformation of the church requires restoration of the office of bishop as modeled in Scripture and Christian tradition. The office of bishop continues to perform as it should in certain other denominations. We are seeing a great restoration of the bishop in the Anglican Church in North America though it is still going through a trial.  However, if no one else has succeeded, if every denomination has failed in the attempt, that does not release us from our obligation. The church needs overseers in its work of handing down the faith once received. We know this from the plain command and clear example of Scripture.

It will be difficult for the new Global Methodist Church to adjust to having authentic bishops. We must acknowledge that we are the victims of generations of spiritual abuse and neglect. In the absence of legitimate authority, even those of us who consider ourselves conservative or orthodox have become accustomed to consulting with like minded peers and doing what seems best in our own eyes.  We must be humble enough to recognize that we may have gotten some things wrong. United Methodists haven’t known a pastoral/catechetical authority. Those who are called bishops but are not have proven untrustworthy in those things that were placed in their care. It is understandable that some are reluctant to continue the office at all.

Before a church can have authentic bishops, it needs two things: A plain statement of what it believes, and a willingness of the people to accept correction.  A core doctrine that can be easily understood is a prerequisite for the church, and its bishops are essential to advancing and preserving that teaching. The serious commitment of the church to its professed beliefs so that they may be judicially applied is what protects even the bishops from straying off course.  A church that does not know what it believes or leaves every congregation to figure it out for themselves has no use for a bishop—or anything else. It may as well send everyone home with a Bible and say, “You are on your own.”

4 thoughts on “A Brief Defense of Authentic Bishops

  1. Methodist minister Kevin Watson asked on his blog, “Deeply Committed,” whether The United Methodist Church is meeting the standard that John Wesley warned must be upheld. Kevin wrote,
    In 1786, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, looked back on the revival begun during his lifetime. He seemed to think that it was well enough established that it would not immediately vanish after his death. However, he was not content with the survival of a lifeless sect that hung around, but failed to renew souls in the image of their creator. He wrote in “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:

    “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

    This passage is one that haunts me. It is as if Wesley continues to challenge all who call themselves Methodists to continue to have the zeal to “spread Scriptural holiness” that the early Methodists had. I can’t read this quote without asking myself the obvious question: Is the United Methodist Church in America a dead sect, does it have the form or religion without the power? Or have we held fast to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which we first set out?

    Answering this question is sadly easy. The answer is clearly no. We have not maintained a Wesleyan discipline in the United Methodist Church in America. My feeling is that for most Methodists discipline means either: not much, or a book (as in The Book of Discipline). But for Wesley, the Methodist discipline was a commitment to a process that enabled Methodists to grow in holiness. It enabled them to experience transformation. Far too many Christians today are not being transformed. They are no different today than they were 12 years ago. (There are of course always exceptions to the rule, and thank the Lord there are still many people who have been deeply changed by their relationship with Jesus Christ.) However, wherever people are not being transformed and renewed in the image of God, it would seem that Methodism has the form, but not the power of godliness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s