Why Bishops?

By |2018-08-13T15:45:38+00:00April 20th, 2015|Categories: Anglican Life|Tags: , |13 Comments

The Anglicans were one of the few reformational churches that retained Bishops as biblical and historical. Most of the other groups, in our humble opinion, threw the Bishops out with the bathwater. We feel like that was a mistake. Here’s why.

First, because of history. In Paul’s Epistles we find that there were presbyters (elders) that oversaw the churches. By the time of John’s letters (late first or early second century), one of the elders of each area was identified as the episkopos, or bishop who would lead the elders in a geographic region. This latter development quickly became the norm in the whole Christian world until the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Bishop was the chief shepherd of the churches, hence the symbol of the shepherd’s crook that many Bishops still use to this day.

Second, because of continuity of witness. Anglicans believe that we are not only to preach the same message as the Apostles and early Christians, but also that we are to keep the same structure and history. Let me explain this with an example.

When the Cleveland Browns’ owner wanted to move the team to Baltimore, the fans went berserk. In the end, they were allowed to keep the team name, colors, historical record. The team itself became the Baltimore Ravens.  After three years, the Browns were reorganized and started playing again in Cleveland. Because they kept connected to the same history, people today recognize that team as a continuation of the historical, original Cleveland Browns.

Basically we believe that retaining Bishops is one important, visible way of showing that we are a continuation of the historical, original Apostolic church. Not the only way, but one important way.

Third, it is a good way to lead churches. Churches tend to gravitate toward regional leader/pastors naturally. Whenever a church without bishops organizes, over time, if it doesn’t want to totally disintegrate into totally independent congregations, it will elect regional leaders. It is inevitable! The early church wasn’t re-inventing the wheel with regional bishops. They were following Hebrew and Roman patterns and their hybrid was very practical and effective (it actually was a part of what turned the whole world “upside down.”) Why re-invent the crook?

Fourth, and related to number three, it provided accountability. Sure, Bishops have gone rogue and done a lot of damage. But so have pastors and so have lay people. There is no foolproof system for preventing abuse, heresy, or mismanagement. However, the regional Bishop provides accountability to the pastors in the field. But the Bishop is also accountable to the councils of Bishops. And the Bishop is accountable to lay synods or bodies and clergy councils. This system, wisely constructed by our spiritual ancestors, has worked for thousands of years. It hasn’t worked flawlessly, but looking at history with a wide angle lens, it has done a better job that any other system of governance.

Fifth, because it can lead to church multiplication. We consider the Bishop to be the chief pastor of the churches in the whole diocese. The local priest, or Rector, is serving in the stead of the Bishop. This means that for us, the regional grouping of congregations is in reality our local church. Our diocese is a local church with multiple congregations. This doesn’t always lead to church planting or resource sharing automatically. But it has that kind of latent energy in it. Most successful church planting movements have been regional rather than national. Even if there is a national push, it is the city, county, or town regions that end up finding out how to actually do the mission within their own cultures. The episcopal structure and the diocesan structure is ready-made for this.

Finally, unity. Yes, we Anglicans are currently somewhat divided. And yet it is our Bishops and Archbishops who are gathering to represent us, and to lead us toward unity. Archbishops representing the majority of the world’s eighty million Anglicans just completed a meeting in London this week. The Roman church is the world’s largest church, with Bishops galore. It has held together for thousands of years, and the system of governance is one important reason for that. In fact, the Christian Church was one church worldwide for one thousand years, and two churches for another five hundred after the split between East and West. It wasn’t until Protestants got rid of the system of Bishops that we split into thousands of denominations. Makes you wonder? Statistically in our own day, the three largest Christian bodies in the world (representing about 60% of world Christians) all have bishops. Anglicans believe that despite our current divisions, holding to and reforming our episcopal system of governance will only serve to help keep us united.

Does a church denomination have to have bishops to be truly Christian? No. Do we consider non-episcopal churches our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yes! But our beloved brothers and sisters are missing out on a blessing. Anglicans believe that one of our gifts to the unity of the worldwide church might someday be the episcopate. Someday, when other reformational churches are working with Rome and the East to try to figure out how we could possibly re-unite, the Anglicans would be ready to offer a bridge. The bridge would be a restoration of the episcopate to our fellow reformational churches. We have a lot to receive from our non-episcopal sister churches, but we’d have at least that one thing to give.

So the next time you see a Bishop dressed in a funny robe and a tall, pointy hat, you may chuckle, but at least you’ll know why we insist on being decidedly old school when it comes to leadership.

Photo: Consecration of St. Augustine.  Saint Augustine Altarpiece (Huguet) Public Domain. 

Greg is the founder of Anglican Pastor. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.


  1. Joshua Collins April 21, 2015 at 12:14 am - Reply

    Within the Presbyterian system the teaching elder is the Bishop or Pastor and he does lead everyone else in a local church. If church planting occurs because of efforts of Pastors and/or other Christians from a particular church it is overseen by the Presbytery. The Presbytery is a group of elders from Presbyterian churches in a certain geographical territory. Elders includes pastors and ruling elders. The Presbyerian system is closer to Episcopalian government than one would think at first. CovenantandGrace.blogspot.com is my blog. Also ,I have some youtube videos. Look up Joshua Collins then Views on baptism evovled. You can find it and other Bible related messages on youtube.

    • Greg Goebel April 21, 2015 at 7:44 pm - Reply

      Thank you Joshua. I’ll check that out. I’ve often thought that the main difference between Anglican and Presbyterian governance is that we have regional Bishops rather than local teaching elders. As you stated, it’s much closer than is often thought.

      • Jonathan Bonomo August 27, 2015 at 1:12 pm - Reply

        Greg: As a Presbyterian, I find this to be a good, balanced piece. Thank you!

        Joshua brings up a good point re. Presbyterianism. The difference between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism isn’t in the principle of regional oversight, it is in the form. The Presbytery (regional body of elders) essentially functions as a collective bishop.

  2. Samuel Bell April 21, 2015 at 1:52 am - Reply

    loved the article! But don’t understand the need to reunite with the roman church. Until the are willing to reform and do away with all the clearly unbiblical practices the can be no hope for unification. We are Protestant for a reason and we should always remember that.

    • Greg Goebel April 21, 2015 at 7:42 pm - Reply

      Thank you Samuel. Rather than a “return to Rome” some envision a worldwide mutual reunion. In other words, we all discern a way forward together. Of course this is all theoretical but since the episcopate is an ancient Pattern it could be part of the reunion. Thanks again.

  3. Walter Bjorck April 21, 2015 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    Some very interesting points made here. But as I have studied the New Testament, the words “bishop” and “elder” seem to be used interchangeably. This article states: ” In Paul’s Epistles we find that there were presbyters (elders) that oversaw the churches. By the time of John’s letters (late first or early second century), one of the elders of each area was identified as the episkopos, or bishop who would lead the elders in a geographic region.” Could I have some references? “Presbuteros” and “episcopos” appear in the Timothy and Titus. What are the references in John’s letters, and what words are being used?

    • Greg Goebel April 21, 2015 at 7:38 pm - Reply

      Thank you for the comment, Walter. The reference is to II and III John where “the” elder writes to churches and seems to be exercising authority to appoint leaders. Paul also exercised this authority in his travels and he appointed Timothy. I agree that elder and bishop were used interchangeably but see a gradual separation into a bishop elder who oversees the elders within localities.

  4. Steve Langton April 22, 2015 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    I’m with your other commentator Walter Bjorck in seeing ‘presbyteroi/elders’ and ‘episkopoi/overseers’ as being different words for the same office. The one stresses maturity (not necessarily sheer chronological age at a time when people tended to die earlier and Jesus himself was only just over 30 during his ministry!), and the other word describes the job, overseeing or managing. Also it seems to me that the local church, like its synagogue predecessor, had a number of presbyters/episkopoi, not just one.

    I think I tend to see John’s self-description as ‘the elder’ as being apostolic modesty similar to Peter in I Pet 5;1 where he addresses elders and refers to himself as a ‘fellow-elder’.

    I don’t have a great problem with the concept of ‘regional leaders’. But coming from an English Brethren/Baptist background and associated with the UK ‘Anabaptist Network’, I have a problem with the idea of a bishop being more than that, or his being a leader ‘lording it over’ others rather than being accountable to the congregations below. I don’t go with the ‘high church’ concept of the bishop as an ‘even more quasi-magical’ figure above a quasi-magical priest. To avoid confusion I’d rather actually avoid the word ‘bishop’ (and ‘priest’) and use the translations elder and overseer, and call the regional guy something different with less implication of spiritual superiority.

    I have to confess that here in the UK people like me were a bit amused by the furore over ‘women bishops’ since to us there would be nothing special about a bishop distinct to the priest – to us Anglicans have already had women bishops for, well, ever since they ordained women ‘presbyters’!

  5. Christopher Little April 22, 2015 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    Our earliest and most compelling evidence for the institution of the “monarchical” or “regional” bishop is found in the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who penned them sometime during the first decade of the 2nd century, very close to the date of St. John’s death. St. Ignatius writes not only about the office of the bishop and what it signifies, but also its eucharistic ramifications. It is quite possible that the powerful but tyrannical individual Diotrophes, whom St. John mentions in his 3rd epistle, was a bishop or some sort of proto-bishop (and hence held the kind of power as an individual that he abused). It seems clear that during the transition of the NT ear to the 2nd century, the church came to distinguish “episkopos” and “presbyteros,” the former bing an overseer of several churches, as Fr. Greg argues here.

  6. Christopher Little April 22, 2015 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    “Era”, not “ear.”

  7. Christopher Little April 22, 2015 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    “being”, not “bing.” Oy.

  8. Michial April 24, 2015 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    There is no doubt both terms can be used synonymously, but that does not demand they are the same in order. It seems without question the early church fathers were against heresy and guarding the faith once delivered. I find it odd that nothing close to Presbyterianism or Congregational polity existed for well over a thousand years. If either one was the commonly understood Apostolic polity, surely adopting a radically different Episcopal form universally by the earliest post Apostolic church would have resulted in much controversy, as every other divergence from Apostolic teaching did. Yet we see nothing of the sort. Rather we see a universal adoption of Episcopal polity in all the different regions of Christianity, east and west. These men and women devoted themselves to preserving the Apostolic faith even with their lives. I find it absurd to believe the entire form of how Christ wanted His church governed to be completely abandoned and misunderstood for 1500 years.

  9. Thomas Loy Bumgarner August 27, 2015 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    You forget that Swedish and Finnish Lutherans kept the historic episcopacy since Reformation times

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