The Office of the Bishop 


A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence(for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.  (1 Timothy 3:2-7)


Although today probably the biggest requirement for an Orthodox bishop is he be a celibate, that was not always the case in the Orthodox Church, and in fact represents an innovation that the Church adopted over time.  St Paul had his own list (see above quote) of what he looked for in candidates for the episcopacy, and he clearly thought the bishop should be a married man as that would help him know how to be the leader of a Christian community.  For Paul the bishop was the leader of the local community rather than the hierarch over a large territory and he looks for characteristics in a candidate that include being a good husband and father.  A little bit later in Church history the characteristics sought in a bishop were more related to being able to do charity work including properly handling the money to be used for charity as this was understood as the bishop’s main task:

… the patriarch Cyril of Alexandria was asked to lay down the qualifications of a good Bishop: ‘The gift of prophetic visions [he was imagined to have said] is of no use to a bishop, compared with giving to those in need.’  . . .  ‘All that is required of you is to look after the property of your church with diligence, lest any resource for the support of the poor be diminished.’ The art of the good bishop, indeed, was the art of ‘governing the poor.’  (Peter Brown, POVERTY AND LEADERSHIP IN THE LATER ROMAN EMPIRE, p 45)


Bishops for a time were seen as advocates for the poor and needy as well as the person organizing charity for them which included being responsible for the finances needed to do the charitable work. Only later in history will there be a growing emphasis on monks being the favored candidates for bishop.  This was seen as a corrective for those bishops who mingled their personal and family finances with that of the church community and also to oppose candidates who were more interested in power and prestige than in the actual ministry and labor of the Church.  Humans, however, are humans. Monks and bishops being human are subject to the same temptations, failure, foibles and hubris as any members of the Church – so hoping that monks might not suffer the same temptations and sinful failings as married men seems a dubious solution to a human problem. Through the centuries the bishops became seen more as hierarchs, administrators and rulers. The notion of bishops as hierarchs was another innovation that crept into the Church after the 6th Century and the Church’s enthusiastic embrace of the Pseudo-Dionysian ideas of hierarchy (see Ashley Purpura, God, Hierarchy, and Power, Location 174-176). This further altered the role of the bishop as they moved from a pastoral role – the shepherd – to being prelates and primates and patriarchs shaped by the Byzantine imperial model and attitudes. Eventually the bishops took on the insignias of the imperium further changing their role into despots more than shepherds.


St Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429) notes that in his day, Orthodox bishops, which he contrasts with Roman Catholic bishops, did not wear miters or head coverings of any kind (which also helps us date when Orthodox bishops began wearing miters – sometime after St Symeon, thus after the 15th Century). Symeon gives theological reason as to why the bishop should be serving without any head covering. (In more ancient and traditional icons of bishops, they are not portrayed with a miter. But once the innovation of the miter became accepted among the Orthodox, some iconographers began putting miters on the heads of ancient bishops even though they would not have had miters when they were alive.)


All the priests and hierarchs of the East, except the hierarch of Alexandria, perform the sacred-service with the head uncovered. This is not because of some neglect, but, indeed, for a very lofty and divine reason. 1) Paul, the speaker-about-God, set down as a principle and taught that Christ is our head and we are his limbs. So it is necessary for those honoring Christ our head to have heads uncovered when praying. 2) And not for this reason alone, but also because the one being ordained receives ordination with his head bare, and in the same way as he was ordained, he is obliged to pray and to do the sacred-service. 3) The hierarch most of all should have no other covering on his head when doing the most divine sacred-service, for when ordained, he has the God-given words that is the sacred Gospel, placed on his head.  (THE LITURGICAL COMMENTARIES, pp 109)


The office and role of the bishop was altered and changed greatly through the centuries, with St Paul’s original list of qualifications for the bishop sometimes left in the dustbin of history. Certainly, change through history is normal as the Church responds to new needs and pastoral situations. However, because an innovation gets accepted at some point in Church history should not mean that it can never  be changed or that the Church cannot go back to its more ancient practices as the world continues to change through time. Some ancient practices might be helpful to the modern Church and the Church should allow the Spirit to guide its changes rather than to become moribund, petrified and ossified due to treating Tradition as some unmalleable law that once adopted can never be changed. Changes were adopted to meet new pastoral needs, and when those needs change again, the Church should have the wisdom and courage to bring back some of its ancient practices.