Bishops and Deacons
Michael Browne, Bath, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
A ranking churchman recently placed upon record the following statement: "The private interpretation of the Bible by parties and groups of Christians leads to error, bitterness, division, and schism. The Bible is the book of the whole church and its interpretation is committed by God to the bishops and clergy. They are not infallible but they are the guides God has given us." We challenge this statement as being not only extremely bigoted but based upon nothing firmer than intellectual fantasy! The first part of the statement suggests that the Bible is a rather dangerous book and ought not to be handled by the ordinary Christian lest he fall into error, bitterness, division, and schism through misinterpretation. Or the suggestion may be that he can read it, but read it with a closed mind, read it with intellectual "dark glasses" on, only interpreting its meaning in the narrow field of pre-suggested ideas given by the bishops and clergy, any amplification being branded by them as error, bitterness, division, and schism! What a monstrous claim, yet one which is consistent with the history of sacerdotalists down through the ages.
How different is the language of Scripture itself; not only does it promise to keep us from sin and doctrinal error, "Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee", Ps. 119. 11; "Hold fast the form of sound words . . . That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us", 2 Tim. 1. 13-14 (cf. 2 Thess. 3. 14; 1 Tim. 6. 20-21); but it encourages the humblest believer to look into its teachings, and promises that such will be enlightened, "The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple", Ps. 119. 130; "I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation", v. 99; cf. v. 105.
Regarding the interpretation of Scripture being committed to the bishops and clergy, we ask which bishops and clergy? The Papists claim this prerogative, so do the episcopal systems of Protestantism, so does the Eastern Church—we confess that we are confused by so many claims; who is right? God is not the Author of confusion but of peace, 1 Cor. 14. 33. These conflicting voices in Christendom do not come from God. The claim to ultimate authority in Biblical interpretation by so many sectarian systems for their own clergy is surely not inspired from heaven. We further ask for proof to support such a claim; certainly it cannot be found in the Scriptures, and if not there then we have every right to reject it as spurious.
The Scriptures Given to all Believers. The Lord Jesus in His great High Priestly prayer, John 17, twice declares that He has given His disciples God's Word, and goes on to claim that the Word given is truth, vv. 8, 14, 17. The latter part of this chapter reveals that He has in mind not only the disciples who were with Him at that time, but all those who would become disciples in the succeeding generations, vv. 20-24. It is therefore a legitimate conclusion that the Word of God is also for every Christian of our generation. Who then dares challenge the humblest believer's right to interpret it when the Lord Jesus says, "I have given them thy word"? The Word, given to the apostles and committed by them to the permanent written form that we have in our Bibles today through the inspiration of the Spirit, is ours - not ours through the auspices of any group of clerics, but ours by inalienable right through the gift of our Risen Lord.
There is a sense, of course, in which the Scriptures are interpreted through human agency as in the gift of the "pastor-teacher", Eph. 4. 11. However, such men are never viewed as being gifted with an infallible insight into the Word; indeed the saints were called upon to use their discernment regarding the public ministry of prophets by judging what was being taught, 1 Cor. 14. 29, and today the measure of that judgment is, no doubt, the Scriptures already in our hands. Does what is being said measure up to the character of what the Spirit has already revealed in His Word? Is it in harmony with the written Word? Were there more of this kind of judgment today, then would our pulpits be far healthier, the saints more blessed, and God's Name more glorified as a result. Neither are these men viewed as being the ultimate authority in interpretation; neither does their ministry do away with the need for a personal pursuit of truth. Rather they are gifts of the Risen Lord, "for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ", Eph. 4. 12 R.v. Ultimately it is the Spirit Himself who guides us into all truth, John 16. 13, and the Scriptures are common ground to be understood by all God's children through the personal illumination of the Spirit of God, 1 John 2. 20, 27.
Unscriptural Character of Sacerdotal Ministry, But there is a deeper and more fundamental reason why the interpretation of the Bible has not been committed into the hands of a select sacerdotal minority, and that is the unscriptural character of a sacerdotal ministry in any shape or form. The episcopate as an office, derived from a supposedly unbroken line of succession from the apostles and as such guaranteeing the uninterrupted transmission of sacramental grace from the apostles to the present time, is a scripturally untenable notion, entirely out of harmony with the teaching of the New Testament. Such a notion, however, has been allowed to grow and is so entrenched that the system is regarded by many as being actually constitutive of the church and therefore essential to its ministry. If such were the case then the utterances of the present day episcopacy would carry weight and we would lend a ready ear, but because it is not so we must be guided by the Word of God alone allowing the Spirit His authority in interpreting the Word to our individual hearts.
Since the Scriptures reveal the mind of God on every subject they touch upon, it follows that the Holy Spirit will never lead in a path contrary to the revelation of the written Word -this is basic to the harmony and unity which exists within the Godhead. Having already seen that the Spirit of God is our Guide into all truth, and knowing from the words of the Lord Jesus that God's Word is truth, we ask: Will the Spirit confer the sole right of scriptural interpretation into the hands of men whose very position is contrary to the teachings of that Word? The answer is self-evident and we shall now examine the position of these men in the light of the Scriptures they profess to interpret, at the same time showing what the Scriptures actually teach.
The Bishopric. It is essential to an understanding of what constitutes a New Testament bishop to banish from our minds the modern concept of the bishopric. Today, in sacerdotal systems, a bishop is a cleric elevated to high office in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He has control over many churches and their clergy within a stated area, lives in a palace, is addressed as "my lord";, and receives a substantial remuneration for his services. He stands in such marked contrast to the bishops of the apostolic church that Dean Alford expostulated, "The bishops of the Bible were one thing, and the bishops of today quite another". The late Dr. H. C. G. Moule, himself a bishop, in his Outlines of Christian Doctrine confesses that a bishopric in the present day sense of the word has nothing in common with the bishopric of the New Testament. Concerning the origin of the authority for the existence of the present-day bishopric, Dr. Moule has this to say "By the end of the second century a definite bishopric in the present sense of the word appears practically everywhere in the church". He then quotes from the words of Jerome (fifth century), "The bishop is what he is, not by direct divine law, but by the custom of the church". From this it would appear that church custom (that is, the historical tradition of the church) may quite legitimately set aside the authority of the Word of God. Such a stand seems perilously to duplicate the position of the scribes and Pharisees who received this rebuke from Christ, "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition", Matt. 15. 6. Hence we cannot accept this teaching which elevates the traditions of men over the command of God.
To be continued.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Michael is in fellowship in Manvers Hall, Bath, where he serves as an elder. He worked as a missionary in Hong Kong for thirteen years and since 1972 has had an itinerant Bible teaching and gospel ministry labouring in many parts of the world.