Friday, August 12, 2005

Bishop as Pastor

In a striking post at Pontifications, the Pontificator quotes Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas on the unity of the bishop and the Eucharist in the first three centuries of the church. Summed up, the Metropolitan explains that in the first three centuries, the bishop was primarily the sacrament-administering pastor of a single church, and the church was administered by presbyters (=elders). In the church after the Council of Nicaea (AD 321), however, the bishop gradually delegated his sacramental functions to the elders, whose name and function gradually morphed into what we know as "priests" (a worn-down form of the old presbyter). The bishop then became an administrator, handling the administrative affairs of district containing many churches. Many even began to see the sacramental functions as below them.

From a Reformation perspective, what is the significance of this?

1) Our slogan must never be "no bishops!" but rather "every pastor a bishop!" Every pastor has the sacramental functions which were the essence of the bishops' role in the ante-Nicene church. In dialogue with Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians, we need to emphasize that we view our pastors as having the same charism (spiritual gifts) and authority as they give their bishops (see this solid article on the Lutheran teachings of ordination). In reading writers like Clement, St. Ignatius, and the ancient liturgy of Hippolytus, we can be confident that our pastors are indeed fully possessors of the episcopal charism, because as pastors they have been called by their congregation and ordained with the laying on of hands by other pastors back to Christ himself. (In this connection the later division of pastors into two types, bishops who can ordain their successors and priests who cannot is a complication and an abuse).

2) Debates both within the Lutheran churches (LCMS vs. WELS/ELS) and within the Reformed churches (Episcopal vs. Presbyterian vs. Congregational) often turn on church polity. Metropolitan Zizioulas's contribution shows us that the sacramental pastor (=bishop) assisted by lay elders (=presbyters) model is the oldest polity in church history and for that reason alone is worth considering. For those of us in the LCMS it offers a challenge to our model that has only the pastorate (=bishop) being divinely ordained, and all other positions being created merely on expedient bases. If the institution of multiple lay elders in each church is in fact an ancient reality in the church, we need to consider if it is not in fact Biblical as many passages (Acts 14:23, 15:22, 15:23--note apostles fulfill the sacramental function in this era--and 1 Timothy 3:1-2 (overseers/bishops) and 5:17 (elders/presbyters who rule) suggest. And in this case, then, can we please reconsider the recent LCMS decision that women can serve as elders and congregational presidents and vice-presidents (since, they say, being a mere human institution, it is governed by mere expediency; one may indeed doubt whether it is even expedient to have a church run by women).

3) We need to pay more attention to the difference between the ante-Nicene and the post-Nicene church traditions. While the post-Nicene church did correctly define the Trinity and the two natures in Christ, it was also an era of church splits that caused a permanent sundering of the Oriental churches from the Greco-Roman ones, of the eclipse of the roughly Lutheran view of the Real Presence by the growing popularity of transubstantiation, of the growing divorce of bishops from sacramental functions, the codification of celibacy not as a rare divine gift, but a rule demanded of all church leaders, the resulting glorification of strict discipline by celibate men fighting their lack of vocation for that status, and so on.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

UPDATE: comment by Chris Jones here

UPDATE II: I recanted my toying with the idea of a prescribed polity here.