The word episkopos was used at first in Greek literature for one who kept a watch over a country or a people or even a treaty or an agreement. Later on it became the title for the official who was sent from Athens, the capital of Greek Empire, to its dependant states. The word was used in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, for overseers, officers and governors (2Chr 24,11; Neh 11,9; 12,42). The verb episkeptomai was used for God’s “loving supervision and solicitous care for the land of Israel” in Deut. 11:12. The Qumran Community used an equivalent term mebaqqer for its leader (1QS 6,12.20). This one was an expert in Law and was entrusted with the leadership over the community; he could make its final decisions, take disciplinary actions against its members and control its fund. He was considered as a fatherly figure in the Damascus Document: “He shall love them as a father loves his children, and shall carry them in all their distress like a shepherd his sheep. He shall loosen all the fetters which bind them” (CD 13,9).
The New Testament uses the term episkopos five times only:
1 Pet 2,25 describes Jesus Christ as the “guardian” (episkopos) of the souls of the believers along with his role as their “shepherd” (poimen).
The above two roles of Christ (episcopos and poimen) are ascribed to the elders of Ephesus in Paul’s speech to them in the Acts 20,28. This has an Old Testament background; when Joshua was elected Moses prayed to God to give Israel a “leader” and “shepherd”.
In the opening sentence of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians he addresses the “bishops” (episcopoi) along with the “deacons”(diakonoi).
In 1Tim 3,1 we read about the qualities of an episcopos of the early Church, which include sensibility, dignity, hospitality, scholarship, gentle behaviour, management skills etc.
In his letter to Titus St. Paul says that “a bishop (episcopos), is God’s steward” and he must be “blameless, hospitable, lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy and self-controlled” and he must not be arrogant, quick-tempered, violent, drunkard or greedy (Tit 1,7-8). 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” (Tit 1,9).
Functions of a Bishop:
Professor Karl Christian Felmy, a retired Lutheran Pastor of Germany and an expert in history and theology of the Orthodox Church, made a sarcastic comment once during a discussion; “the problem of the Roman Catholic Church is that it has got only one bishop, while that of the Protestants is that they have no bishops at all, and that of the Orthodox Church is that it has got many bishops”. This remark makes clearly the basis of Orthodox ecclesiology. As per the Orthodox understanding all bishops are equal in their status and the Patriarch or the Catholicos is called “the first among the equals” (primes inter pares).
We can say that Orthodox Church is episcopocentric, because everything depends upon the bishop and nothing can be done without him. But what actually is this “everything”? Does it include all sacramental functions of a parish like baptism, marriage and funeral? None of the Orthodox Churches has got the practice of our Church; one or more bishops attending the sacraments of a parish. Every day they have to travel at least hundred kilometres just to lead the funerals and weddings. Even though our bishops are suffocated with this hectic schedule, they are helpless, because it has become a custom especially in central Travancore to invite a bishop for personal functions. People consider the position of the bishops as a ceremonial one and they do not understand more than that about him. Does the above “everything” mean that the bishop should be consulted before each and every instance in the decision making process of a parish? This has become a practice in our Church since the dioceses have become small in their geographical area and since communication became easier. The parish priests have got the freedom and discretion to take decisions as per the constitution and canons and customs of our Church. Bishops can be approached only when things become “exceptional”. What then are the duties of a bishop?
According to Orthodox ecclesiology the bishop is the President of the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch says: “you should regard the Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop, or by someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Smyrn. 8,1-2). The priests are just “vicars” of a bishop. However, this Eucharistic function of the bishop has been changed later. Zizoulas, himself being a bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church and an authority on the topic says; “the Eucharist, from being the business of the episcopate par excellence, was later (it remains to be seen when) largely transformed into the principal task of the parish and the presbyter. While the bishop, from being par excellence the ‘president’ of the Eucharist was largely transformed into an administrator and a co-ordinator of the life of the parishes” (Eucharist Bishop Church, HCOP, Brookline 2001, p. 23).
The Eucharistic function of the bishop should not be considered as less important to other duties of a bishop. On the one hand the bishop is the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ with in the Church. But on the other hand he unites all the people. That is why we say there can not be more than one bishop within a local Church. Since the bishops represent Christ they have to possess a model life. Paulose Gregorios says; “On the analogy of both the consecration of Holy Chrism, and also the consecrated Chrism itself being sacraments, the consecration of a bishop as well as the consecrated bishop is a sacrament” (Glory and Burden, ISPCK/MGF, Delhi 2006, p.95). We have already seen the list of qualities, which St. Paul expected from a bishop (1Tim 3,1ff; Tit 1,7-9). St. John Chrysostom says; “The offences of the insignificant, even if made public, harm no one seriously. But those who are set upon the pinnacle of this honour not only catch every eye; more than that, however trifling their offences, these little things seem great to others, since everyone measures sin, not by the size of the offence, but by the standing of the sinner” (On the Priesthood, SVSP 1984, p. 85-6).
What distinguishes a bishop from a priest is his authority for ordination. It is his prerogative as a successor of the Apostles. Laying on of hands was originated in the rabbinic schools of Judaism. A candidate was ordained as a rabbi once he completed his training in interpreting the Torah. Early Church adopted this as a sign for handing over priestly authority. However, by ordaining somebody the bishop is transferring not just his authority for teaching, which was the practice of Jewish rabbis, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit. The ordained gets the divine charisma, which will be used for the edification of the Church. The deacon gets the charisma of service while the priest gets the charisma of forgiveness of sins and that of the authority for presiding over the sacraments.
Teaching can be considered as the unique function of a bishop. Even though the New Testament did not make a distinction between a priest (presbuteros) and a bishop (episcopos) in this regard, later on the bishop became the final authority for teaching. He is the one who declares a final word about a disputed matter of faith. He will decide what is “orthodox” and what a “heretical” teaching is. He does this not as an individual but as the member of the Holy Episcopal Synod. For this he needs a lot of time for learning the faith of the Church and for examining the writings of the Holy Fathers. However, most of our bishops do not get enough time for reading and reflecting because of their pre-occupations with ordinary functions like a wedding or funeral. The administrative duties can also become a hindrance for their study and meditation. Some bishops are exhausted by attending committees after committees.
Therefore the Church as a whole has to rethink about the rank as well as functions of an episcopos. He is different from a priest and a deacon not simply in the vestments but in his identity. This should be widely understood and respected. Once the whole Church acknowledge not only their apostolic succession but also their apostolic authority things will be quite different. Let each one do his own duty; the priests should perform all parish duties and the committees should fulfil their responsibilities. Bishops may stand at the top as Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.
The author (Fr. Dr. Reji Mathews) is the principal of St.Thomas Orthodox Seminary, Nagapur