|St. Philip's Church, Charleston, SC|
Part 2 of a series on Church government
1. EPISCOPAL GOVERNMENT: government by the bishop (episkopos, overseer). Ultimate power rests in the hands of the bishop(s). The basis for authority is the idea that the bishop was ordained by another bishop ordained by another bishop back to the Apostles who were ordained by Christ. It is an apostolic form of church government based on successionism back to Christ. Bishops do not lead local churches as much as they oversee local church leaders (called priests-Catholic, rectors- Episcopal, ministers-Methodist, or even deacons) in the area of their jurisdiction (diocese or district).
a. This type of government is hierarchical and clerical, with a sharp distinction between laity and clergy, the strongest in Catholicism, less in Anglican/Episcopalianism, and modified in Methodism.
b. Advocates of this position agree that there is no clear example of their type of bishop in the New Testament, but they argue that James in the church at Jerusalem was moving in this direction, and that Timothy and Titus acted in ways similar to modern bishops. Their strongest point is from church history. Because of massive persecution in the first centuries of the church’s existence, bishops have been the guarantors of the church’s identity and unity. For the first sixteen centuries of the church’s existence, Episcopal church government was the only one known. Advocates say that God would not have allowed error to continue so long and unchallenged if it were wrong.
c. But Scripture is a higher judge than history any day of the week. The primary form of government during this time was the old Roman Empire, and the church patterned itself comfortably after that. Further the Bible was not available to people to read until the sixteenth century. Further, their Biblical examples do not support their point. James, Timothy, and Titus were not Apostles. Second, apostolic succession is not a NT idea. In Acts 1:21-22, the Apostles assumed that their authority and office were unique and not transferable to anyone else. Third, separating the offices of bishop (as administrative overseer) and elder/presbyter/pastor, as local congregation leader, cannot be sustained from a study of Scripture. Fourth, the priesthood of all believers argues against both ordination conferring some special power on a certain set of believers and also against a division between laity and clergy. This system has very little Scriptural basis and some serious theological problems. As one old wag said about Episcopal government, “The church plundered the Egyptians (the Roman government) and ended up with a Golden Calf.”