In the Greek world the title episkopos (bishop) referred to an official responsible for the financial affairs of a cultic organisation.
As with the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there were officials who managed community property. It would be a short step from material to spiritual responsibility as we see in Titus 1:9-11, where the duty of correcting and censoring is called for: ‘He must hold firm to the sure word he was taught so that he may be able to give instructions in sound doctrine and to confute objectors.’
Yet to this, II Tim adds that he must be kindly and forbearing in his teaching and 1 Tim 3:3-4 and 1 Peter 5:2 stress that he be able to manage a household and not be greedy about money.
Taking the examples of Jesus, the disciples and Paul, none of whom were administrators, one might share a concern about today’s bishops and pastors being overly involved in administration. But this neglects the presbyter-bishop as the in-between role.
The New Testament shows the presbyter-bishop as an administrator, but it is careful to give him a pastoral image. Paul’s words to the presbyters of Ephesus are clear:
‘Care for the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come among you, not sparing the flock.’
In 1 Peter 5 the writer urges fellow elders or presbyters to,
‘Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercise your episcopate willingly… being examples to the flock, so that when the chief shepherd appears, you will obtain the unfading crown of glory.’
And then… It did not take long to move to the authority structure of later priesthood where in many communities one bishop emerged as head of a college of presbyters. How widespread the model is we do not know.
By the time of Ignatius of Antioch (ca 110) we have him making statements that even the most dictatorial of today’s bishops would hesitate over.
‘When you are obedient to your bishop as though he were Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living after the manner of Jesus Christ himself’ (Trallians 2:1).
‘You have only to acknowledge God and the bishop and all is well; for a man who honours his bishop is himself honoured by God (Smyrnaeans 8:1).
‘It comes to this: that we ought not just have the name of Christian but be Christian in reality, not like some people who acknowledge a man as bishop verbally but take no notice of him in their actions’ (Magnesians 4:1).
Clearly such respect for the bishop can serve as a powerful weapon against disunity and incipient heresy, the very reasons Ignatius so stressed the role. But Ignatius was speaking to small local churches and the Ignatian bishop and presbyters came closer to a pastor and curates in a one-parish town.
Such a structure in a small area gave a better opportunity of a human face that involved intimacy and friendship.
In the later institutionalised framework, a bishop ruled a greater area and became more remote from the people. What might have been warm, personal respect and trust of the Ignatian structure had a chance of leading to hierarchical absolutism.
An inbuilt modification came with the rise of priesthood, the heir to the role of the presbyter-bishop. Because the priesthood is heir to the role of the disciple of Jesus, all authority must be modified by the ideal that one disciple is not to lord it over another or seek the first place in the manner of worldly institutions. 1 Peter 5:1-3 was insistent that the presbyter-bishop had the duty of overseer but was warned not to be domineering:
‘Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock’ (v.3). John 21 stresses three times that the sheep belong to Jesus not to Peter or even any of his successors. They are held by them in trust to the Good Shepherd to be fed and tended, for they are always ‘my lambs…my sheep’.
Priesthood at last
Christian priesthood replaced the priesthood of Israel only when the Eucharist came to be understood as a bloodless sacrifice that replaced the blood sacrifices of the Temple.
Only now do we have the role of the one who presided at the Eucharist being a ministry understood as a priesthood.
Going back over all the different roles leading to this point we can see what a rich concept of ministry we have, even independent of the sacramental. The lay pastoral leaders of the archdiocese are living examples of those who carry out many of them and a good number of their roles prepare for and lead into the sacramental.
The NT itself offers a corrective to thinking of ministry as almost exclusively sacramental (‘a man can be a splendid priest if he does nothing else but offer Mass’).
We have looked at the presbyter-bishop of whom nothing is said of his presiding at the Eucharist, even though the bishop did preside at the time of Ignatius and the NT silence on the issue might be by accident. Paul never mentions that he presided at the Eucharist and the Twelve disciples are told to ‘Do this in commemoration of me’ implying some activity in relation to Eucharist, but there is no mention of their actually presiding at the Eucharist.
None of us is defined entirely by the roles or functions we carry out in life. The priests – many are most endeared to have their priestly role – but many win our love and respect for their pastoral warmth, wisdom, friendliness and their sheer goodness as human beings whose priesthood has helped them develop many of the warm human aspects of the Christ they serve.
But these qualities also emerge from and are developed through the laity they serve and relate to. Literally priests are loved into life by the people who make up their ministry, who allow and support them in being both human and holy.
Reference: R E Brown Priest and Bishop Biblical Reflections.