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The Nature of the Episcopacy

by Rev. Fr. Jeffrey L. Cottingame, M.A., D.C.

"The fullness of Holy Orders." This is a common statement concerning the esteemed office of Bishop in the Christian church. This office, however, has been one of the most controversial positions in the church from the time of the Reformation until our present day. Many Protestants are unsure of its place, and Roman Catholics are accused of elevating the position to a place of almost "Godly" authority and magical powers. To understand this ancient office it is necessary to look at what it is, where it came from, from where bishops get their "powers" and also how one is made a bishop.

Webster's Dictionary defines bishop as: one having spiritual or ecclesiastical supervision. The word comes from the Greek word, episkopos, which means literally overseer. In the Roman Catholic Church a bishop is seen as one who is in direct lineage of the Apostles by an unbroken chain of consecrations. This view is shared my many churches in the Anglican tradition as well. In the Lutheran and Methodist Churches bishops are seen as general superintendents of clergy and districts. Other denominations, such as Baptist and Presbyterian, do not have the office of bishop at all. It is safe to say that in the denominations that have bishops, they are clergy members with administrative and ecclesiastical powers that are not held by all the clergy of the church.

The origin of the office of bishop dates possibly as far back as apostolic times. It is well written of by the end of the second century at which time it had become well established. The word is used several times in the New Testament and is often interchanged with the word presbuteros, which means elder. It is very feasible that during the apostolic era there existed a grade of clergy that were known as both presbyters and bishops. These presbyter bishops most assuredly presided over the Eucharistic celebration and baptisms, as well as prayer and the reading of the sacred scriptures. As the church grew into more remote areas and grew in number at the same time, it became necessary for the two offices to differentiate. Many sub-apostolic writers mention the counsel of elders or as the Apostle Paul called it, the Presbytery. The bishop came to be known as the chief pastor of a town or area who was overseer over the congregation and the counsel of elders.

With the evolution of the office of bishop came the obvious reservation of certain church functions befitting the office. As overseer it became part of the bishops exclusive duty to ordain deacons and presbyters and to administer the rite of confirmation. In essence, these duties are given to the bishop by the presbyters, deacons and laypersons of the church at his consecration. This is a tradition that has been followed in the church since very early times and although it may not be traceable to the apostles, is most advantageous for the church for the maintenance of order. Before the differentiation of the offices of presbyter and bishop, it was the duty of the presbyter bishops to perform all of the sacramental functions of the church. Many in the high churches have held that the powers of the bishop are by divine right and mystical in nature. Some in the low churches see it only as a man made ecclesiastical function. Both of these extremes fall short of doing justice to the true nature of the episcopacy. Because the ordained ministry of apostle and elder (or the office of presbyter bishop) came from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it is therefore by divine right. However, the setting aside of the bishop as chief pastor and overseer is given him by the submission of fellow presbyters to him.

For a presbyter to become a bishop he must first be elected as such. This has been done several different ways in the various traditions of the church. Some have been chosen by the presbytery, others by the congregation, and in the sub-apostolic era a man could only become bishop after being recommended by a deacon. The ancient church of Alexandria, after the death of their bishop, chose one from among their presbytery to become bishop. They then proceeded to consecrate him without bringing in a bishop from outside to perform the ordination. After his election the bishop-elect must undergo the consecration as bishop. Save the exception mentioned above this has traditionally been done by the laying on of hands by a bishop. After the Counsel of Nicea, it became normative for the consecration to be performed by at least three bishops. This was to maintain and protect the apostolic lineage against self-styled, self-ordained heretics. If one of the consecrating bishops held valid apostolic lines then the consecration was deemed valid even if the other two had not been bishops at all. Therefore, after the election of one as bishop and the consecration of the same by at least one bishop, he is a bishop indeed and is granted by his divine right and his fellows the irrevocable responsibilities and functions of the bishopric.

The office of bishop in the Christian church is one of apostolic antiquity. The differentiation of presbyter and bishop into the two separate offices that they are today has led to a group of clergy chosen by their congregations and piers to be overseers and chief pastors of the church. The only way for them to be elevated to this office is by election and consecration. After careful reflection on the origin and nature of the office of bishop, it is easy to see that it is indeed the "fullness of Holy Orders."