Church Government Part 3: Episcopal

The Episcopal structure grew out of the rapid church-planting of the early church. Paul exercised this authority when he started a church, instructed the church in doctrine, and then appointed elders before moving on to the next location.

Bishops appear to have emerged organically as the leaders of major urban churches, perhaps even as the “leader among equals” within an elder team. As the church grew, their rule increased in authority and the rapid growth of churches in the surrounding rural regions led to the formation of Parishes, which flowed outward from the larger cities, in particular Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Ephesus, and later, Alexandria and Constantinople.

Episcopal authority was tightened over time primarily in order to combat heresy, especially prior to the establishment of the official Canon of Scripture. Bishops were given a decisive voice on matters of theology and held significant authority in order to maintain right theology within the Church.

Over time, this authority was expanded and co-opted into the Roman government. The bishop of Rome grew in importance and started to gradually hold authority over the other bishops starting in the sixth century and onward—though Orthodox Church and the Church of the East would each disagree and could each lay claim to authority based on their size and influence until well after the eleventh century.

Both Luther and Anglicanism retained this structure (mostly) during the Reformation. Anglicans in particular disavowed Roman authority and extra-biblical Catholic teaching and sought a return to fifth century forms of government. This is particularly relevant because Methodism emerged out of the Anglican church, and then Pentecostal movements emerged out of Methodism.

Catholics and Orthodox Christians both teach the concept of Apostolic Succession, in which they see an unending line of authority passed down through the bishops to their modern successors. They believe this is necessary to form a true church.

Methodists and Anglicans generally do not hold this view and instead believe that, though the Episcopal form of government cannot be found explicitly in Scripture, it was instituted by the first generations of Christians and under the guidance of the Spirit. In other words, these were the same leaders who affirmed the Canon of Scripture and resolved several doctrinal disputes via councils and creeds—all under the leadership of the Spirit. Shouldn’t we strongly consider the fact that God led them in establishing their form of government as well? Tradition is placed secondary to the Word but is still highly considered as the default form of church.

In addition to the historic denominations above, the Vineyard Movement utilizes an Episcopal model. Others, such as DOVE, Hillsong, and New Frontiers incorporate elements by placing significant authority in a movement-wide apostolic team or spiritual overseer. Additionally, many large churches are de facto Episcopal in structure by placing a lot of authority in a strong lead pastor (even if they have an elder team).

Biblical Authority

While there is not much explicitly stating this model, it appears to be the background setting for the ministry of Paul and his letters to the churches. Even if we consider his ministry to be unique and not-reproducible due to his role in writing the Scriptures and appointment by Christ Himself, this structure still appears to be functioning in the earliest days of the Church.

One significant example is when he commands Titus to appoint elders in Crete, which is significant because Titus was not an original apostle and he held the authority to establish the oversight of a local church of which he was not a member.

Pros

This structure is designed to release the apostolic and emerged out of a concern for church planting. Bishops were able to start new churches quickly and provide a spiritual covering as the congregation matured over time. It allows for a strong vision and can minimize political infighting by having a clearly established authority.

Cons

By placing so much authority in one person, the church (or even whole denomination) can be incredibly damaged by the wrong bishop, often with no recourse for the congregation. A wise bishop will appoint leadership teams and seek the input of the church and then also place themselves under submission to someone outside the church so that they too are under authority, but unfortunately this is not always the case.

The medieval Catholic Church fell victim to this tendency and was almost entirely corrupted. In modern times, doctrinally liberal Bishops have led most mainline denominations into a form of universalism, all while church members are powerless to stop it. Furthermore, the Charismatic world is full of pastors and bishops who have abused their power within the church for personal gain.

Additionally, it’s easy for believers to disengage and leave the ministry to the clergy. Members lose their voice and decision-making ability. It can go both ways—bishops who refuse to listen, and members who prefer to disengage and consume.

In summary, I believe we need to reinstitute and create space for the apostolic within the Church, but we must do so with awareness of historical trends and avoid concentrating too much power in any one person’s hands without some form of accountability, both locally to the congregation as well as extra-locally to the broader Body. Without this, the temptation eventually becomes too great and a short-term vision is gained at the expense of long-term health.

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