A New Bishop

“That’s it, Joel. I’m excommunicating you. You make me want to be a Unitarian.” English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As usual, I will attempt to make my argument from several angles, often in a nonlinear fashion. My premise is this:

Given the standing of bishops in The United Methodist Church and the seemingly large disconnect between bishops, clergy, and laity, there should be a method to elect bishops from among the laity.  

I will present evidence for this now.

Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergymen or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.- John Wesley

We speak of the need to empower laity through the local church (and not in the least because the UMC is about to face a clergy crunch). There is room for laity voting at Annual Conferences as well as General Conferences. We have laity on boards, commissions, and leading the way in many areas. The United Methodist Church has attempted to move away from clergy-driven congregations and in many ways, publicly, attempt to embrace the laity-driven model of Wesley:

One of the components Wesley focuses upon is the prominent place of lay leadership within Methodism. He makes it clear that the revival is not a clergy-driven enterprise. As Wesley tells it, Methodism has many roles for laity that allow them to serve in active ministry. He describes the roles of Lay Preachers and Stewards. He documents the contributions of Class Leaders and Visitors of the Sick. Each of these “offices” has a set of responsibilities attached to it. Each of them is also empowered to do ministry—shepherding the members of the local Methodist societies in ways designed to care for them, nurture their discipleship, and push them forward in mission.

As Kevin Watson notes, the expansion of Methodism in the United States is substantial in the years following the arrival of Francis Asbury. He has commented further on the need and way to empower laity.

But, what is “laity?” In a real sense, it is the entire people of God, i.e., the Church. While there is a difference between clergy and laity, we have to ask ourselves what that difference is, especially in Protestantism.

Martin Luther wrote:

“Every Christian man is a priest, and every Christian woman is a priestess, whether they be young or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, scholar or illiterate. All Christians are, properly speaking, members of the ecclesiastical order, and there is no difference between them except as they hold different offices.”

To suggest that a lay bishop (my term) is simply a Protestant allowance would be misleading. Indeed, until 1917, Rome had Lay Cardinals. We can also mention the lay abbots of the West, but many times these titles were bought. This practice of simony is, perhaps, in of itself only sacrilegious when titles are traded rather than appointed with due course of the Spirit. This is not to say that lay episcopacy is condemned, only that the purchase of titles is. In Anglo-Saxon realms, Kings were considered “lay bishops” because they were “quasi-sacerdotal.” We have a tie (the strength of it is debatable) between Tradition and our present need.

What of Wesley? In The United Methodist Church, John Wesley’s sermons are doctrinal standards. Thus, I turn to Sermon 38.

“But what, if he be only a layman, who casts out devils! Ought I not to forbid him then?”

Is the fact allowed? Is there reasonable proof that this man has or does cast out devils? If there is, forbid him not; no, not at the peril of your soul. Shall not God work by whom he will work? No man can do these works unless God is with him; unless God hath sent him for this very thing. But if God hath sent him, will you call him back? Will you forbid him to go?

This brings us to our shores. In 1771, John Wesley asked for volunteers to go to the colonies to minister to the American Methodists. Four went. One of them was Francis Asbury. Absury, by all accounts, was never properly ordained. Yet, he became a bishop and is recognized as such. How? He was first sent out as a lay preacher by John Wesley. Years later, at the Christmas Conference, the same conference Bishop Coke was ordained as bishop (Wesley’s preference as only as a Superintendent) he in turn ordained Asbury first as a deacon, then as an elder, and then as (Superintendent) Bishop. What did Asbury do once he, elevated from that of a preaching laity?

From a link above (and Mark Noll):

“When Asbury came to America in 1771,” observed Mark Noll, “four Methodist ministers were caring for about 300 laypeople. When he died in 1816, there were 2,000 ministers and more than 200,000 Methodists in the States, and several thousand more in Canada.”

He brought the hammer down and that hammer was a revival.

We are always searching for revival in The United Methodist Church, perhaps because “revival” is in our DNA. If this is truly the case, then there must be a way for the laity to be elevated to the level of a bishop. We already have laity with the ability to preach, pastor, and the such. As we seem to believe we can recognize God’s call via elections, then perhaps we can put this to a vote. Twice.

Note, that the role of bishop in American Methodism has changed over time. Yes, we have a certain system now but since we vote on that system it is not prevented from changing.

The first will be be to change the Book of Discipline. The second will be, if ever the time should arise, vote for a lay bishop.

I want to circulate this openly to see what others think. Then, if I think it is plausible, I will write legislation and publish it on this link.

What I’d like help on is this:

  • Why not? Why would a lay bishop (promoting a laity to a bishop) be hazardous to the health of The United Methodist Church?
  • Are their theological concerns here?
  • What are the pluses (which may be used in the Whereas statements)
  • Would their be any educational requirements?

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16 Replies to “A New Bishop”

  1. 1 Asbury became a clergy once he was ordained Deacon and Elder. 2. A rather large amount of what Bishops do these days has to do with deploying clergy. Someone who has been through that him/herself has more credibility than someone who has not. 3. A “Lay Cardinal Elector” probably helped choose a Pope. Half of those who choose our Bishops are laity.

  2. I can’t believe that no one has included some snark about how this is just Joel’s plot to become a bishop without being ordained (smile).

    More seriously, my question is: what is a bishop in the UMC? Not quite Catholic/Episcopal (they’re not a separate order of ministry, at least not on paper), but also more authoritative than just an executive as many other denominations have. Theologically and biblically, is there a difference between episkopos and presbyteron (bishop and elder) in the New Testament. Wesley, in defiance of his normal deference to the early church fathers, believed that the answer was no, the two are not different theologically or biblically, even if they serve distinct functions. So if they’re not different, then a lay bishop is an oxymoron. If they are different, and we allowed for “lay bishops,” then we should probably just change the name of the office so as not to confuse people, given how radically we’d be changing the position.

    Also, I concur with the earlier comment: if a primary job of bishops is to deploy ministers, shouldn’t they have a personal understanding of that process?

    1. Joseph,

      “Theologically and biblically, is there a difference between episkopos and presbyteron (bishop and elder) in the New Testament.”

      I too wonder what exactly is that difference. Perhaps it might be something like “husband/father”–meaning it is the same person with different giftings/roles to play at times? Especially do I find any distinction to be difficult to substantiate (if one implies these are two different persons with different functions and/or levels of authority) when both terms (for elders/bishops-overseers) are used in the same context referring to the same person/s in Acts 20:17/28; Titus 1:6/7; 1 Peter 5:1/2.

      It would only be in the second century AD onward that leadership roles and distinctions/designations started to surface in the early church, but it does not appear to be that way in the first century design of the church.

  3. With respect to constructive feedback, I’d say term limits (8-12 years), and explicitly allowing an encouraging bishops to return to pastoral ministry (though perhaps not in an annual conference over which they presided as bishop, at least not right away). I think these reforms would restore bishops to their appropriate role as an extension of the order of elder, similar to how DS’ have term limits and can return to the pulpit if they’re not retiring.

    Though this would likely have to be done in consultation with central conferences, who I believe have bishop-for-life status if bishops are re-elected. Either way, I think creating greater clarity about our theology of bishops would be helpful, and given our Wesleyan roots and his biblical understanding of the office of bishop, I think episcopal reform would have to involve both doing away with bishop-for-life status and continuing to reserve the office for ordained elders.

    Ooh, and now that I’m talking about bishops…can we select them in a lottery with blindfolded children as the Coptic Christians select their pope? Speaking of biblical models of selecting church leaders…

    1. “can we select them in a lottery with blindfolded children as the Coptic Christians select their pope?”…
      What a wonderful idea! No politics involved. If random chance (Urim and Thummim) was good enough for the high priests at the Jerusalem Temple, it should be good enough for UMC Bishops. (Of course a joke)… But rather serious in questioning this whole Apostolic Succession business. Gee wiz, Judas Iscariot’s replacement was chosen by lot. It’s biblical! 🙂

  4. There have been TWO — count them, exactly two (the Second and Third Great Awakenings) — significant religious revivals in American history. BOTH followed major wars.

    The Second Great Awakening, and more memorable of the twain, came on the heels of the American Revolution. The Third Great Awakening occurred after the War Between the States.

    That’s been it. By comparison, the other three have been fizzles, misses, and wannabes.

    Want revival? Once again put a wholesale slaughter between waring armies on American soil. If history is any indication, that might just about do it. Never mind, of course, that doing so will quite likely fundamentally change American government and society.

    A second point worth making is that Methodism is NOT — as was the case with First Century Christianity — a religion of the people. Rather it is a subset of the Anglican tradition.

    That Father Church — if you will — was the creation of a ill-prepared, murderous (even before he started lopping off his wives’ heads), and mentally deranged (the latter most possibly resulting from one or more concussions suffered during jousting) British king seeking to rid himself of a first wife unable to produce a suitable heir to the throne.

    As with most top-down impositions inherited from Britain — such as juries — the laity must never question authority figures. After all, if God intended them for a higher station in life, he would have put them there!

    Furthermore, democracy (essentially allowing the common man, much less a woman, to have a voice in governance) was never supposed to be a hand dealt to the American public. Even those Founding Fathers responsible for writing The Constitution of 1787 greatly feared it at least as much as they feared consolidation of power in the hands of a king.

    American democracy was an accident of history. There were simply too many people coming off the boat and too much territorial expansion for elites — mostly located along the east coast — to control. Voter IDs are merely the latest tactic for trying to reconsolidate power into the hands of a relative few people.

    Likewise, there is absolutely NOTHING democratic in the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is theocracy. (That one, by the way, led to the Salem Witch Trials when put into practice on American soil.) There are are apostles, kings, prophets — all, supposedly, ordained by God.

  5. If this were to happen the Bishop would not be able to serve communion as only an ordained elder can preform the priestly function of blessing Holy Communion outside of a local church.

    1. On those rare occasions after the fourth century when Bishops were chosen from the laity (not already ordained) the person then had to be ordained a priest in order to also be a Bishop. Theoretically, any Roman Catholic man can be elected Pope, but, again, would have to be ordained a priest too.

  6. In our system, the OFFICE of the Episcopacy is seated in the ORDER of the Presbyterate. When an Elder is ordained, they are ordained to “Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.” Each of these ordained tasks are exercised by the Elder in their leadership of the congregations to which they are appointed. This is also true for Bishops, who are appointed not to local congregations but to Conferences — each of the ordained functions of ministry are critically important in exercising the Office of the Episcopacy.

    For Bishops, “Word” exemplifies the importance of (1) ensuring the right-transmission and interpretation of the Faith, and in doing-so (2) teaching and raising up future clergy — or, in the very least, establishing those systems that are intended to both train and approve of candidates for ordained ministry.

    For Bishops, “Sacrament” reflects both the critically important duty of presiding at the many means of grace — especially the sacraments — in pastoral ministry FOR the gathered clergy. Do not forget, in our system the clergy are NOT members of local congregations but, rather, of the Annual Conferences — and Bishops are their pastors. “Sacrament” also, most critically, relates to the Bishop’s essential function as the only person authorized in our system to actually ordain and appoint clergy in ministry. While Presbyters and Deacons are invited to lay on hands in the ordination service, only a Bishop can actually ordain (set apart) someone into the Orders and Offices of ministry in the church. While we don’t understand ordination to be a sacrament, it is nevertheless a means of grace and functions exclusively within the Order of the Presbyterate.

    “Order” is the function of ministry in which Elders direct, order, or administrate the temporal and spiritual life of the church. This involves raising up leadership, identifying candidates for ministry, and ensuring that the church is properly organized in accord with the stipulations of the Book of Discipline. For Bishops, “Order” involves the administration of not only the congregations within the conference (though the DSs and appointed pastors), but of the entire Conference organization and, indeed, of the entire denomination. For Bishops, “Order” includes appointing clergy to their churches as well as cabinet members to their positions, selecting boards of ordained ministry to oversee the selection and training of clergy, the selection of other leaders and delegation of duties to them, as well as representing the conference and the denomination in ecumenical concerns to the world.

    And, finally, “Service” involves leadership by doing — Bishops serve by leading all the clergy (Deacons and Elders) in service-ministry.

    In other words, in order to function as a Bishop one must be ordained to the Presbyterate. Bishops are Presbyters, plain and simple; they function in the office of the Episcopacy, which is set apart WITHIN the order of the Presbyterate, but they are still Presbyters.

  7. Greg has properly and eloquently named the instrinsic United Methodist and historical ecclesiological problems with your proposal.

    I’d add these historical and ecumenical pieces.

    There is no such thing, and never has been such a thing, anywhere, as a “lay bishop.” Bishops are and always have been ordained. And only in extreme emergencies were they ordained in haste– as Mr Wesley did for Coke and Asbury, following the example of Ambrose in his quick successive ordinations of Augustine as bishop, then deacon, then bishop before dispatching him to Hippo which lacked a bishop at the time and needed one.

    Even if Mr. Wesley strongly preferred to call them superintendents and not bishops, what Mr Wesley did in creating the office and the ritual he provided to establish it was a service of ordination of someone already ordained elder. True to his reading (following Lord Peter King’s assertion) of the POSSIBILITY that Elders could ordain, including ordaining superintendents (and not just other bishops or superintendents doing this), Mr Wesley included the ordained elders present in the laying on of hands at the ordination (and yes, he called it that– not consecration) of superintendents.

    There is historically also precedent of bishops being elected from among (permanent) deacons or abbots in some places, rather than from among priests. But in every case, before being ordained bishop, one was first ordained priest and then bishop. This was apparently following the theory articulated in Apostolic Tradition (AD 215) that the Holy Spirit could only be transmitted in ordination through someone who had been AT LEAST ordained as presbyter/priest/elder. AT makes rather a big point of even using different words for the acts of ordination of deacon and priest to underscore this– stretching hands over them (deacons, epitonos) versus laying hands upon them (elders, epithesia, laying on of hands).

    Finally– if we did this, it would pretty much break every full communion agreement we have made or have underway, and make future ones with episcopally-governed churches pretty close to impossible. No other episcopally-governed body– including I might add, many other Methodist bodies– would recognize “lay bishops” and then anyone whom those lay bishops would ordain– as real bishops and validly ordained clergy.

    So, if you want to break our own historical pattern, the larger church’s historical pattern with evidence stretching at least to the early third century, AND break many of our our present and possible future ecumenical relationships going forward, plow ahead, Joel.

    If not, I might suggest a modest withdrawal.

    1. Taylor, why withdraw an experiment?

      I think people are focusing, wrongly on the title with I meant it as something less.

      I can’t remember, and maybe you can help me, but did Wesley ever challenge Asbury’s immediate ordination?

      1. Coke was sent to America to ordain Asbury. Wesley didn’t agree with their using the title Bishop. They were supposed to be “General Superintendents.”

  8. Can we start on a more fundamental level? Is there real support in the New Testament for anything significantly like the separation of orders that we find in the church today? I would contend it is dubious at best.
    I know there are some seeds in the epistles but still the practice of the early church seemed to care far less for credentialing and more for sacrifice and commitment. If that were the standard, I suspect you’d find sufficient overlap between laity and clergy to pick the leaders we actually need today with less regard for institutional status.

    1. I think there is NT proof of a separation of sorts. We can begin in Acts (even though I assign it a later date than others do). We have elders and deacons and the people. Luke is a pretty good study of how “people” is used to separate (but equal) orders.

      Paul doesn’t always just write to the “church at” but also to the elders and deacons. Further, he gives explicit instructions to the leadership. In 1 Co, he cites Chloe’s house (i.e., she was a shepherd/pastor)

      By the time we get to the pastorals (pseudo-Paul) we have some full-fledged development here. Before that, with deutero-paul (ephesians) we also have some real development. These are just seeds, but honest to goodness “orders.”

      The credentialing, tho, is something vastly different than what we do.

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