Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What is a bishop for?

Our congregation is gearing up to host Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on All Saints Sunday, November 4th. We are honored and blessed and excited. He comes at the invitation of our youth. At a lunch at our synod assembly in 2011, the bishop mentioned that he had never been to Arkansas (just one of two states he had yet to visit at that time; the other was Maine). So the youth said, "You should come visit." To which the bishop responded, "Send me a letter, and I will try." So we did, and here he is on the way.

If you come from another denomination or religious tradition than ours, you might be asking, "What's a bishop? What's a bishop for?" In fact, even if you are a member of the ELCA you might have this question. It's a good question. Most organizations have a "head" or leader, so obvious parallels present themselves. A bishop is like a CEO, or a governor, or a president. These aren't bad metaphors. I imagine that much of what Bishop Hanson does on a daily basis is quite like what a CEO, or a governor, or a president does. Some of it is administration. Some of it is communication. Some of it is messaging. Some of it is simple presence.

I'm quite comfortable with the idea that a lot of what religious leaders do in our tradition is itself parallel to "secular" ways of being in the world. This is God's creation after all. It would actually be surprising if the church had to organize and structure in ways radically different than the way God structures the rest of society and culture. 

The basis for bishops is in the New Testament itself. In 1 Timothy 1:3 we see Paul set Timothy as overseer of the church at Ephesus, and Titus as overseer of the church on Crete in Titus 1:5. These letters, sometimes called the "pastoral epistles," offer additional instruction for how bishops should oversee, and what kinds of additional leaders should be appointed. So part of being a bishop is simply attending to matters of structure.

But if we really wanted to hone in on precisely what a bishop is, and what a bishop does, both in secular and religious terms, what would we say? I tend to think the bishop is, more than anything else, a public sign of unity. Christ is our true unity, and then it is in and through the ministry of the church, overseen by the bishop, that we live out in various ways that unity already established in Christ. The bishop has a ministry of oversight (the word bishop comes from the Greek, επίσκοπος, which means overseer or guardian). In the early church, the bishop was not differentiated overly much from other ministries of oversight, like presbyters and pastors. In fact there is an important way in which bishops are still simply pastors (and pastors are in fact bishops).

And this ministry, the way bishops, pastors, and presbyters are similar, is that they perform a ministry of unity. Not every single member of the ELCA can travel all over the ELCA and visit congregations and represent the ELCA as a whole, be the one by and through the ELCA represents itself to itself. The bishop can. Similarly, although most members of a congregation do not have a calling to know all the groups within a congregation, travel between them, and represent the church as a whole to itself, a pastor does.

Similarly, when I walk or drive around Fayetteville, I know there is a very practical and real way in which I as a person "stand in for" my church as a whole. When people meet me, and learn that I am the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, for better or worse they consider me the representative of that church.

This is what Bishop Mark Hanson does for the ELCA. He represents us to ourselves, and to the wider Christian community, and to the world. He serves on the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood partnerships. He served previously as president of the Lutheran World Federation. He serves on the executive council on the executive board of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Each of these is an example of the way he builds bridges and is a sign of unity between the ELCA and, respectively, public service, the global church, and the ecumenical church.

And he does it incredibly well. Our current bishop is a faithful preacher, teacher, and leader. I'm honored to call him my bishop, and thankful for his faithful leadership.

The bishops of various synods within the ELCA then also oversee the ministry of unity in its various dimensions. They approve pastors and ordain them for ministry. They preside at the Eucharist. They teach and preach in ways that (it is hoped) faithfully maintain the unity of the church, faithful to Scripture and our confessional heritage.

I hope this is enough of description to inspire readers to celebrate with me as we welcome Bishop Hanson to Northwest Arkansas. As we gather for worship with him on All Saints Sunday, we will celebrate, visibly and truly, the unity of the church. We will come together as one body, and call to mind the saints, all those who have gone before us in faith. 

I hope you can join us.

Pastor Clint +

p.s. You can read some pretty fascinating theological stuff about bishops, the best of which is likely John Zizioulas's Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries) and from the Lutheran side, Timothy Wengert's Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today

1 comment:

  1. You present a very interesting and -- I think -- important discussion on the role of bishop. (I am surprised that I am the only one commenting.) I counted your use of the word "unity" in reference to the bishop -- I think you used it at least 4 times.

    Unity. I have a question for you. Imagine that I am a faithful Lutheran Christian. Imagine that I have a serious disagreement with the head bishop over several important matters of faith and morals. What should I do? Imagine that I go back and forth for several years with the bishop, and nothing is resolved.

    Should I obey the bishop? -- meaning should I quietly pray, work and try to convince other members of my church that my ideas are right? Or should I just leave, angry with the bishop and him angry with me...?

    Obedience to the bishop. Is this the Will of God? Is the bishop "legitimate authority" in the church, to be obeyed, according the counsels of St Paul? What did the saints do?