Local News: Mission Mississippi’s Annual Mayor’s Prayer Luncheon has been scheduled for May 12, 11:30 to 1:00 at the Jackson Convention Complex. The speaker will be Rose Jackson Flenorl of the FedEx Corporation. Mission Mississippi’s web site describes the event as being designed to “bring the Christian community together to pray for our mayors, local leaders, and cities.” For more information, e-mail the Mission Mississippi office or call (601) 353-6477.
One thing that historically has separated Presbyterians and Anglicans from each other has been a lack of consensus about which form of church government is most Biblical. Jackson Presbyterian Examiner will explore the subject, summarizing some of the main points.
1. Presbyterian and Episcopalian church government contrasted
Historically, church government has mattered more to Anglicans than to Presbyterians. When Presbyterian denominations experience apostasy, generally speaking, discontented members go off in search of an alternative where the gospel is front and center and where Reformed theology is upheld. For individuals in such predicaments, seeking a new church home, finding a congregation with Presbyterian church polity, while it may be a priority, isn’t usually quite as high on the list.
Historically, Presbyterians have believed that presbyters, or elders, are called to lead the church. Local Presbyterian congregations usually have a board of elders, sometimes called a “session”, which represents the church in a way similar to how elected officials represent citizens. Anglicans believe that bishops are called to lead the church, and so Anglican churches, divided up into dioceses, are led by bishops, who are in turn led by archbishops.
Those favoring Episcopal government argue that, though no one since apostolic times has had “apostolic” authority per se, bishops, as the successors of the apostles, have authority like the apostles. Authority to ordain leaders in the church. Authority to call councils and settle disputes. Authority to speak on behalf of the Body of Christ universal. In Acts 15, during the circumcision controversy, the apostles gathered together to settle the dispute. With the apostles no longer with us, what means does the church have to settle such disputes? With the death of the apostles, did God allow a great vacuum to appear that can’t be filled? Anglicans argue that the bishops now have the task of keeping the church united, just as the apostles did in the book of Acts.
2. The position of the early church and Reformation era church
Early church father St. Ignatius (2nd century) was emphatic about the necessity of bishops, arguing that apart from bishops Holy Communion could never validly be celebrated. Those who disagree with Episcopal government could respond in a couple of different ways. They could reply with the fact that Ignatius, saint though he was, wasn’t an apostle, wasn’t infallible, and was simply overstating his case regarding church government. In other words, it’s possible that the apostles themselves wouldn’t have endorsed everything Ignatius said about the matter.
Another alternative interpretation would be to say that Ignatius was simply endorsing the only form of church government that he knew, merely echoing Paul’s command that Christians honor their teachers within the church—a command that Christians of any and all church government preferences affirm—and that he wasn’t excluding the theoretical possibility of the existence of other forms of government.
Many of the Reformers didn’t see the rule by bishops as inherently bad, but neither did they see it commanded in Scripture. Therefore, some argued for other forms of church government to be instituted—for instance, John Calvin in the 16th century, arguing for Presbyterian government. Others— for instance, John Wesley, in the 18th century—argued that it was okay to retain bishops, but only as a matter of expediency, not because bishops were inherently part of the Christian church’s DNA.
3. Conclusion: Pros and cons on both sides
There are many objections against bishops. Many argue that the Presbyterian system is more democratic, giving a larger number within the Body of Christ a voice in the governing of the church, whereas the Episcopal form enables individuals to monopolize power. Many Protestants wince at the concept of bishops because they have memories of all the corrupt bishops at the time of the Reformation.
If bishops are supposed to be a bulwark against heresy, what happens when bishops themselves err? Supporters of Episcopal government aren’t so naïve as to not realize that bishops are humans, and therefore may lead the church astray. However, supporters argue that the system is self-corrective. When bad bishops err, it is up to good bishops to stand up and confront. When Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople in the 5th century, fell into heresy, rather than scrapping the whole episcopacy, the church handled the problem by deposing him, although he was one of Christendom’s most influential bishops.
In reality, the fact that there have been and continue to be many bad bishops doesn’t discount Episcopal government. In fact, many of the arguments against bishops could likewise be leveled against boards of elders and presbyteries. There are, of course, numerous presbyteries that have wandered far from Biblical truth, but Presbyterians don’t dismiss as unusable that which may be misused.