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The Bishop

What were Bishops set up to do?

We need to know how the Church became transformed from a collection of equals, each functioning according to gift and calling to the great hierarchical structures of today. For instance, the modern Catholic Church has a hierarchy to rival a multinational corporation, from Pope, to cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, prelates, archdeacons, parish priests, all resplendent in their clerical garb, looking down at the great unwashed, the common laity, you and me (if we were Catholics). The Anglicans are almost as bad, in fact just about every denomination has some sort of ladder of self-importance in place.

As soon as the restraining influence of the first apostles was gone with the death of the last one, John, this tendency began to creep into the Church. Ignatius was John's disciple in Antioch and, on the way to martyrdom in Rome, wrote the following in a letter to the church in Ephesus:

"Now the more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself". (Epistle to the Ephesians 6:1)

Pardon me? We should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself! The bishop in place of Jesus himself? How had the role of bishop, an elder with responsibilities of overseeing the flock of a single church, been so elevated in so short a time? The first hierarchy had appeared, with the bishop lording it over the presbyter (another elder, usually translated as priest), the deacon and the layman. He makes this clear here:

"As therefore the Lord does nothing without the Father, for says He, "I can of mine own self do nothing", so do ye, neither presbyter, nor deacon, nor layman, do anything without the bishop. Nor let anything appear commendable to you which is destitute of his approval". (Epistle to the Magnesians 7)

So why had a hierarchy appeared, so soon after the time of the first apostles and so contrary to the picture painted by Scripture?

It wasn't just all about Ignatius, though, as we also have writings from another early Church Father, Clement of Rome. In his letter to the church in Corinth, he makes a very telling statement:

For thus saith the Scripture in a certain place, "I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith." (Chapter 42)

He was quoting here from Isaiah 60:17, but he quoted wrong!

Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron. Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones. I will make peace your governor and righteousness your ruler. (Isaiah 60:17)

This was mischievous, to say the least, and helps to illustrate that, outside of Holy Scripture, much of what we read is going to be coloured by human ambition or agenda. Clement has equated bishops and deacons with the "ruling classes" and helped to set the theme for generations to come. He was also the first to refer to "ordinary" Christians as laity (in Chapter 40), exposing a divide, borne out of the duality taught by Plato (as explained in "How the Church lost the Way ..."), that was henceforth going to be a feature of Church history. The clergy - deacons, priests, bishops etc. - were to be the special "spiritual" Christians, as if the following Scripture referred to them only:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Again I ask the question, why did this structure and hierarchy appear in the early Church? The most likely reason was in the fight against heresy, deviant beliefs that had polluted the Church mainly through the attempt to reconcile Biblical faith with pagan Greek philosophy. By elevating the bishop to a position of "God-like" authority, it was hoped that this would quell these regional outbreaks of division in the Church. Perhaps it did, but the cure soon became the problem.

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book To Life!)

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