A Scriptural View of the Role of the Bishop

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In 1890, John F. Funk published the first minister’s manual for the Mennonite church. He defined the office of bishop with the following paragraph: “The bishop or elder in the Mennonite church is simply the minister who has been ordained to the special charge of caring for, and officiating in the church of a certain prescribed district. This district may contain but one place of worship or a number of places which are at a considerable distance from each other. He may have a number of fellow ministers in his charge, to preach at the various places, and aid him in his work generally.” For most conservative Mennonite churches this statement still represents the view of the role of a bishop. Sometimes we think of a bishop as being a ‘pastor to the pastors’.

In I Peter 1:1, Peter was writing to the Christians “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” This represents a large segment of the then New Testament church. Many of these churches were a result of Paul’s missionary journeys. In chapter 5, verse 1, Peter wrote, “To the elders which are among you…who am also an elder.” This chapter seems to be written by a bishop (Peter) to the bishops of these New Testament churches. He describes the role of a bishop in verse 2 as “to feed the flock of God” and “taking the oversight.” We want to consider areas of oversight for which a bishop is responsible.

Oversight by Administration

A bishop has many and varied administrative responsibilities. There are congregational planning and business meetings. There may be evangelistic efforts and church planting. He needs to attend and sometimes moderate local, district, and conference meetings. He is a key figure in helping the church face new innovations and fads, as well as the need to “earnestly contend for the faith” by promoting and preaching sound doctrine and helping to guide the church in applications for our day.

Oversight by Officiating

A bishop’s work includes officiating the ordinances of the church such as weddings, communions, anointing with oil, and baptisms. He also officiates in special services such as ordinations and funerals. His work may include meeting with individuals who are involved in helping to plan these services. He is instrumental in helping these services to be inspirational, as well as maintaining agreed upon practices.

Oversight Through Discipline

While it is always the goal that our people are filled with spiritual vitality, in every church there arises the need to discipline. A bishop, along with the local team of leaders, helps members through confessions and restitutions. He needs to relate redemptively to those who acknowledge their failure and admonish those who still need repentance and submission.

Oversight in Inter-congregational Unity

In I Corinthians 16:1, Paul gives direction on the subject of giving. He tells the church at Corinth that he wants them to follow the same direction he gave to the church at Galatia. A bishop often relates to a number of congregations as well as a bishop board. This gives a sense of cohesion to the entire group and helps to keep practices unified. It also gives congregations an opportunity to benefit from gifts with which the entire group has been blessed.

In his work, a bishop must guard against feelings of superiority and lording over the church (1Pe 5:3). We as bishops are human and prone to mistakes. We want to be sensitive to our ministerial body, our fellow bishops, and the voice of our people as we move forward together. Obviously, a bishop becomes very accountable for what happens in the churches for which he is responsible, and needs to have the authority to chart a safe course. may the eternal principles of the Word and our Father in Heaven guide us and keep us in these perilous times.

~Ripley, NY
December 2010