Apostolic Episcopacy and Church Planting Movements

The Cappadocian Fathers. By David Edwards.

The Cappadocian Fathers. By David Edwards.

The paradigm of multicampus churches – that is, virtual congregations – is a paradigm of overcentralization. These churches are dependent on one talented pastor, and when that pastor’s work ends they must disperse. It is better to have a bishop who supports the work of other pastors with his superior learning and judgement, but does not build up a bureaucracy: instead, he comes by and moves on. These days it may be hard or infeasible to have almost all presbyters take higher degrees, but a less prelatical and more pastoral episcopate should make it possible for church planting to be done by more people with less money. Obviously, this kind of apostolic bishop is quite different from the typical Anglican bishop of today. He is a missionary. He may be celibate like St Paul, to be able to focus on the missionary work of the kingdom; or he may do his work married, but being the wife of a bishop should be like being a missionary and the wife of a missionary. For a bishop’s essential work is missionary in nature, and we in the Church do wrong to neglect that aspect of his call. So a bishop goes and trains laymen to lead worship and disciple others, and a bishop examines and ordains new elders, and a bishop licenses elders to preach and confirms those baptized, and a bishop writes and holds courts of appeal – and he keeps on moving. In this he is like St Paul:

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?

This missionary roving must have been why cathedral churches (where bishops must have kept their libraries) had deans: the bishop was often away doing his much-needed work. The bishops of today, in contrast, are often far too unsure of their own purpose and have to compensate by making a fetish of apostolical succession, as if a succession of manual acts can make dry bones into living flesh. No living church can come out of such unbelief. We must have bishops who lead lives of sacrifice, who travel far and wide for the gospel, who will leave the ninety-nine for the one. The dean and the canons of his cathedral church may sometimes travel around too, to teach others to proclaim and live out the gospel, but he most of all.

Sella curulis.

Sella curulis.

Yet the congregations, to keep doing their work untrammelled, must have the autonomy to manage their own affairs. Only matters that affect the unity of the whole should be referred to the bishop, and the rest should have unpaid people doing most of the work. For this, and not the ministerium, is the Body of Christ. Then the ministerium is free to shepherd the flock by beating away the wolves and finding pasture for the sheep, when the work that belongs to the whole body is not placed upon the ordained ministers’ shoulders. Study of the Scriptures should be responsive to the sound words of the bishop and the other elders, but it does not require the presence or even the constant oversight of an elder, any more than evangelism requires the presence of an elder. The ordained ministers need to empower the laymen to do all these things and to serve the poor and powerless without looking for any other initiative than the leading of the Holy Ghost in the words of holy Scripture. In this way everyone will defer to duly constituted authority but live in the freedom that comes with the power of the Holy Spirit of Christ, and so the work of God will be done in good order but by the priesthood of all believers.

As the Church multiplies its congregations and perhaps even adds daily to the number of those who are saved, new bishops will need to be consecrated in each area, who have proved to be of sound faith and learning. And it is of no great moment if some hard questions are beyond his ability, for the unity of Christ’s Body supplies his defects: easily can he write to other bishops for their learning and counsel, and for a knottier matter, a matter that needs more learned judgement and the consensus of the wise, a synod can discern with prayer and study what the word of God approves as true and godly. Sometimes a church may even look like Corinth. Such ungodly conduct is unworthy of Christ; but has the Church not survived and come through the trial of fire? The work of God was ever so, that it would not have some be discipled and the rest of the world left to burn.

The foregoing is only a rough sketch, but I trust that it has sufficiently articulated a vision of episcopacy and church planting that has been used but has now been abandoned in favour of the troubles of many buildings and salaries.


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