Thursday, 9 February 2006

The Office of Bishop

As another episcopal election approaches, this would be a good time to reflect theologically on the office of bishop in the church.

Our primary text for reflecting on such a theologically important task must be the Bible. Two passages dealing specifically with the office of “overseer” or “bishop” (from the Greek espiskopos, from which also comes the word “Episcopal”) are 1Timothy 3: 1-7 and Titus 1: 7-9. I’m using The English Standard Version of the Bible.

Paul begins in Timothy by writing “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Reading that brought on one of those moments when I wonder why I’ve never noticed a particular biblical passage or thought before. Not only is being a bishop a noble task, but Paul’s inference is that to aspire to such an office is not necessarily a bad thing. Paul gives permission to so aspire. There must be such a thing as a good and Godly ambition to be a bishop.

But if that is true, so also must be the opposite. Pray that we may we be delivered from not so good and Godly aspirations as we plan and pray and start our search.

In Titus, Paul also states that a bishop is God’s steward. His job is, therefore, to look after God’s stuff, the Church; to manage it; well, I presume.

Paul goes on then, in both passages, to list attributes for the job. It is interesting that they are more about an aspirer’s personal character and morality than about skills.

First, there are three attributes which appear in both lists (and which are, therefore, most important?). An overseer must be above reproach, self-controlled and hospitable.

In Timothy Paul also states that a bishop must be the husband of one wife (at a time, or ever, I wonder?), sober minded, respectable, gentle and well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil, or “Lest the position go to his head, “as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “and the devil trip him up.” A bishop must also “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his own children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” How, indeed?

The Titus list adds that a bishop must be a lover of good, upright, holy and disciplined.

Then come the thou-shalt-nots. In both lists, he must neither be a drunkard nor violent. The Timothy list adds: not quarrelsome, a lover of money, or “a recent convert for fear that he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” The letter to Titus adds that the aspirer not be arrogant, quick-tempered, or greedy for gain.

The only job-related skills mentioned are: in Timothy, that he must be “able to teach;” and in Titus, “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

And there we have it; a typically challenging biblical job description; a portrait of what a bishop ought to be like.

Other questions and thoughts occur to me as I read Paul’s lists. For example, I wonder if the use of the male pronoun is merely a cultural way of expression in a particular context, or more?

Did Paul really think the personal character and faithfulness of an aspirer were more important than what he could do and how well he could do it? Were job-skills and academic qualifications in a different list somewhere? But if that were so, why mention teaching and sound doctrine here? To what extent ought we to apply the same criteria in our search?

According to Paul, the noble task is not without its risks. This is frontline work. The devil’s snares and condemnation are a real threat to a bishop’s well-being. Being above reproach, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined will be vitally important.

How do we find out whether folks who aspire to the noble task of being the Bishop of Calgary show these attributes or not? I’m not sure that a resume or even an interview can be the most trustworthy source for this kind of information. Family members, neighbors, work-mates and parishioners would likely be a better source.

I read somewhere that God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called. Please use Paul’s list above and pray that our Lord will, indeed, qualify the one who aspires to the noble task in our diocese with all the above, and more.