The Bishop in History and Tradition

“The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”  (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

Bishops John Chrysostom & Ignatius of Antioch

“For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.”   (Titus 1:5-9)

Bishop Gregory of Nyssa

The office of bishop (Greek: episkopos) has changed through the long history of the Orthodox Church.  In the apostolic age, the bishop was the leader of the local, Eucharistic community.  This is the idea found in the Pauline letters referring to the office of the bishop which we read above.  At first, the bishop and elder were probably the same office, but in time the role of the bishop became more clarified as the presiding officer at the Eucharistic assembly.   As the Church grew exponentially, especially after the conversion of Constantine, the position of the bishop changed to reflect the new realities caused by the rapid growth.  Ideas about the bishop’s office also changed to reflect the new realities.  The Church needed leadership in positions to help unite all of the local churches in an area, and the bishop’s office morphed from being the local pastor, to being a supervisor over all the local parishes in a district.  With this change, two other things happened – the idea of “local” changed from meaning a community in one town, to referring to a diocese – a territory with many local Christian communities.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Today, when the Orthodox speak about the heads of “local” churches it refers to patriarchs who preside over many dioceses, or over an entire national church.   And with the changing role of the bishop, the priest emerged as the head of the local Eucharistic community.  Today, the parish priest is really filling the role originally envisioned of the bishop in the Apostolic age.  The priest does not ordain, that has remained the prerogative of the bishop, but the priest functions in the role of the leader of the local Eucharistic community as described in the Pauline letters.  Fr. Thomas Hopko reflects on the original idea of the episkopos (bishop):

“The term episkopos, in the ancient world, actually referred to a slave who oversaw other slaves, who was a caretaker for a property, or who supervised the household as the chief servant. So it is interesting that the term for a chief slave is given to Jesus. He is the Episkopos, the Chief Servant. To be an overseer or a caretaker, one first has to be a servant. He is the Servant of all the servants; He is the Servant set over the other servants, because all the members of the household of God are servants, slaves of God, and the slaves become sons by the grace of God through Jesus. Jesus said to His disciples, ‘No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15:15). In Galatians, St. Paul writes, ‘So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir’ (Gal. 4:7). The slaves become friends and sons. That is very important, but the servant element still remains. We begin as servants, and we always recognize ourselves as servants. Jesus is the Servant of all servants. He is the Suffering Servant.”   (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 5346-5355)

All Christians are servants of God, though we also are by God’s grace, His children. However, we always are guided by the spirit of being servants of one another. Among the servants of God, one serves as the overseer among the servants, this is is the office of bishop within the Christian community.

“The episkopos, the chief servant, is not the master, the despotis, nor is he king or vasilevs, nor is he lord or kyrios. He is a servant, a slave, a doulos, but he is in charge of everything that belongs to the master and the lord. He is in charge of all the master’s servants, goods, and property. He has all the master’s power and authority. He has everything that belongs to the master. He functions in persona, ‘in the place of’ the master. When you see him, you see the master. When you hear him, you hear the master. When he commands, you hear the command of the master. When he orders you to do something, you obey him as you would the master. But he is not really the master; the real master is the master.”   (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 5361-5366)

At least according to Fr. Tom, originally the bishop was thought of as being “one of us”, a servant of God, like the rest of us.  He had a unique role in the community, but he wasn’t “over” the community, but represented the Master from within the community, to remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that we all are brothers and sisters (see Matthew 23:1-12).

However, as the bishop’s role became more that of an administrator over an entire district of local parishes, the bishop became seen as less part of the local community, and more as a distant ruler over the community.   Through the centuries the bishop was understood less as a pastor and shepherd and more as hierarch, a despot.   Fr. Lawrence Farley describes in his book how this transformation took place especially in recent centuries.  Here we can read about three changes in the dress of the bishop which occurred in history and how these changes reflect the changing role of the bishop.

“Canon 27 (14) of that council [of Constantinople IV in 869–870] decreed, ‘Bishops who have been permitted to wear the omophorion at certain times must not abuse so great and honorable a garment through pride, vainglory, human conceit, and self-love, by wearing it unnecessarily throughout the Divine Sacrifice.’ This canonical legislation could not withstand the rising tide of sacralization, and the omophorion was indeed used after the episcopal entrance during the ensuing sacramental celebration.   ( Lawrence Farley, The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 1245-1248)

In the 9th Century, the omophorion was originally to be worn only by certain bishops granted that honor, and even they were not to wear it throughout the liturgy since that practice was thought of as showing “pride, vainglory, human conceit, and self-love.”  Now, the omophorion is worn as a sign of holding the office of bishop.  The concerns of the Church Council are ignored.  The omophorion shows the unique position of the bishop and represents power over the community.  Fr. Lawrence continues:

We note next a number of appropriations of imperial ritual by the bishop. First is the acclamation “Eis polla eti despota,” “Many years, Master!” This was not found in any Greek pontifical before the fourteenth or fifteenth century. It had its origins in the popular acclamations of the emperor at imperial processions and civil festivals. In the earlier form of the episcopal acclamation used in the early fourteenth century, the bishop is hailed with “Many years, Father!” but this later changes to the episcopized form “Master.”   ( Lawrence Farley, The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 1257-1260)

The bishop’s office in later centuries takes on more imperial trappings as he is portrayed and perceived more as power above the church communities.  He is treated more as royalty, than as a pastor.  No longer is the bishop understood as one of the servants, slaves, of the household, but clearly is the master over it.

“Finally we note the wearing of the episcopal miter or crown. Perhaps nothing else suggests and visually embodies the imperial role of the bishop like his crown. The Greek miter now worn by all Orthodox bishops was introduced into the Russian church by Patriarch Nikon in 1653. The wearing of the miter was originally a privilege given to the patriarch of Constantinople and extended to all bishops after the fall of the city in 1453. Indeed, Symeon of Thessalonica writes in the early part of that century that although the patriarch of Alexandria and many others wore miters, “the more binding” custom was for bishops to serve bareheaded.”   (Lawrence Farley, The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 1266-1270)

Some feel we can never go back in time and recapture earlier understandings of the Church.  They feel the “received tradition” has superseded all previous understandings and we can never go back.  It is obvious though if we read history, that in past generations the Church did not have our understanding of the office of the bishop, or of tradition.  The understanding of the bishop’s office has changed as circumstances changed.  Even in the Canons of the Church it is noted that requiring celibacy for the bishops was a change in tradition.  The canons note that celibacy for bishops was not the received tradition, but was being adopted because of the change in historical circumstances.   Thus, our received Tradition is that traditions can be changed as historical circumstances change.

That the Church can change and adapt to historical circumstances is part of the Tradition of the Church, which we should never give up or otherwise the Church is doomed to be petrified, ossified and moribund.  We know the Church has altered, adapted and changed many things through its history.  We have the ability to understand why.  The received Tradition of the Church includes the ability to change practices to meet current needs.   The Church today is in a very different position than it was in Byzantium.  Historical circumstances have changed radically.  God has swept away the Byzantine world into the trash bin of history, but the Orthodox Church has survived, and now needs to again assess its place in the world. The Church is supposed to proclaim the Gospel, not be a museum of Byzantine imperial ideas.   A bishop in imperial robes, being addressed as “Master” – does this help proclaim and witness to the Gospel to 21st Century Westerners, or does it only make the Church a museum of Byzantine practice?    We have the wisdom and authority from God to continually witness to the Gospel in an ever changing world.  The Gospel remains the same as does Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and forever.  We in the Church can follow our Tradition and the way of the Fathers by changing church practices/traditions in order to best reflect the unchanging Gospel to the world.   The early Church did not lament the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, but viewed it as part of an old dispensation which was passing away.    We do not need to lament the disappearance of Byzantium or 19th Century Russia either, for we have before us the world, ripe for harvest and the coming Kingdom of God to which we ought direct our attention.

“Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:13-14)

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One thought on “The Bishop in History and Tradition

  1. Pingback: The Bishop in History and Tradition – Orthodox Catholic Monastery

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