One morning, the day after Easter 2017, I suddenly remembered an Archdeanery Synod report about “Mission Shaped Church”. It had called the bishop “the chief missioner” and that had kept me wondering for some time, at the back of my mind. Time to reflect.
The report was from a few years ago and the author has moved to another Diocese and been promoted long since. For some reason we sometimes need time to digest such reports, put them into perspective and make connections. I comfort myself with the thought that when such connections take this long to come to us, it makes it less likely, although not impossible, that they are a product of prejudice. I leave it up to the reader to form his or her opinion. I believe the report was meant for discussion purposes anyway.
I may not do justice to the report by doing so, but I want to limit myself to that one statement, namely that the bishop is the “chief missioner” within a diocese and that all Christians are meant to support the bishop and take part in this great calling to spread the word of God (and look after each other, for mission is more than evangelism).
Many other things in the report are based on this premise of the bishop as the one who has been sent (which is the role of apostles) and whose mission is then shared with all baptised Christians, the whole people of God. This may all seem very sound doctrine until we start to think of the implications, the logic and the psychology accompanying such an emphasis.
Without in any way denying the authority and great responsibilities of bishops, we need to ask how being the chief missioner would relate to another important biblical principle, namely that of equipping the church, as it is phrased in Ephesians 4:11-13, “And it was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for works of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, as we mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ” (Berean Study Bible; other translations speak of ‘works of service’ instead of ‘ministry’).
To me, this text seems to say that all ministries, including those of the apostles (or if you like, bishops) are given in order to equip others to better fulfil their ministry or works of service. The kind of ministry or service of all these various types of “ministers” (servants) is such that, above all, their brothers and sisters are helped to carry out their ministry. That wider ministry is assumed to be present already. The specific ministries are provided to further develop and support them. It is the whole body of Christ which is meant to be built up. In that sense the bishop could be said to be a servant of servants. This, by the way is also one of titles of the pope, servus servorum Dei in Latin.
Logically speaking, there are only three possibilities. Either the “senior” clergy serve the communion of saints, or the “saints” serve the bishop by sharing in his or her mission, or everyone serves everyone else. We cannot have the bishop as primarily the owner of the Christian mission and at the same time as primarily an enabler, the servant of servants. The only way out of that dilemma seems the third option, namely to have everyone minister to everyone else, which would not be a bad conclusion theologically. It would mirror the situation in which Christ ministered to his disciples and his disciples ministered by following Christ’s commandments.
The problem then, seems to be not so much a theological one as it is an organisational one. Once we have a hierarchy, which was far less pronounced before Christ ascended, other considerations tend to impose themselves on our theology. Unfortunately in reports like the one I mentioned, theology and church politics are not always clearly separated. I can fully understand why bishops might agree with descriptions of their role as chief missioners, with the other clergy and the laity as servants supporting them in that mission.
The question, however, is whether this emphasis really helps towards the development of mission and ministries. It is certainly an improvement from ideas of not so long ago that the laity simply did not have any mission, but I am sure it is not radical enough. Far be it from me to suggest that bishops of any church are not doing enough to stimulate participation in mission, vocations, training, and so forth. However, if enabling others to fulfil their ministry is not considered as the primary task of bishops, there might be a temptation to rely too much on protocols and to not detect or remove certain difficult obstacles others are facing in their ministry.
My main concern, though, is how modern believers will instinctively react when they are told they are only sharing in the mission of a bishop. They will not feel the same kind of ownership and commitment as when that mission would be theirs and the bishop would be there to support them in it. The people in the pew will, in the best scenario, tend to wait for further instructions from their bishop. If and when those instructions arrive they may not be found specific enough or too specific and not geared to a particular local context, which will provide another good excuse not to act upon them. In the worst scenario ordinary believers will not even accept instructions, but think that stipendiary ministers should take care of the mission which is claimed for them. Any confusion as to responsibilities might cause nobody to feel responsible for the actual mission and ministries, even though the bishop has local ordained and non-ordained points of contact in individual chaplaincies. There could also be an emphasis on coordination and strategic reflection at the expense of actual mission and ministry.
At this point you may object, saying that the meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent” and that this points to a specific ministry, that of a bishop, which ministry is distinct from other ministries in Ephesians 4. This is true, but it would be incorrect to conclude that the people carrying out the other ministries are not sent and do not have their own mission. When our text says, “it was He who gave some to be…”, it is clear that all these ministries were given by God. It is He who gave these gifts and sent them to specific people. Both the gifts and the people who received them were sent to equip all the saints.
The whole idea that it would be primarily the apostles who were or are sent, is an exaggeration resulting from a too literal reading of the Bible, overlooking its main message. This type of exaggeration not only occurs in sects, but also in mainstream churches. Unfortunately people tend to be blind to their own assumptions. Sects will not consider themselves as such and mainstream churches will find it hard to admit that they, too, may have accumulated some peculiar elements of doctrine and/or customs and some unnecessary or political jargon. Mainstream churches will sometimes resort to the argument that if enough people have believed something for a long enough time, it must be true. Personally I believe that the Holy Spirit leads the church in a general way, not so as to preserve it from all flaws. Infallibility of the church is a very bad explanation for what has actually happened to and is happening in the church, even in the areas of doctrine and organisational innovation. Even if the church would be without flaws, we would have to ask: “which one?”
In case you are still not convinced, let us assume that our text should be read more or less literally. Since “apostle” means “one who is sent” and bishops are said to be in “apostolic succession”, they would be the primary recipients of a mission. Since this concerns a distinct ministry, mentioned separately in the list of Ephesians 4, the other ministries must also be distinct ministries. A bishop can therefore not be a teacher or vice versa! However, we all know that isn’t true. The bishop is usually considered, and rightly so, as the guardian of sound doctrine, a teacher of teachers. This is only possible, though, if we do not consider the various ministries of Ephesians 4 as completely distinct from each other! If an apostle can be a teacher, then a teacher can also be one who has a mission, without having to “borrow” that mission from the apostle. Similarly, the distinction between apostles and disciples cannot be a black and white one. Disciples of today can be the ones who are sent tomorrow.
This brings us to the question whether all ministries are equal. It is interesting that bishops or overseers (episcopoi) are not mentioned in Ephesians 4. Elsewhere they are. All organisations need leaders or supervisors and that is what bishops are. The reason why they are not mentioned in our text (unless we assume that the terms bishop and apostle are completely interchangeable) may be that in the whole New Testament all leaders are primarily servants. Matthew 23:11,12: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.…”. Reality also teaches us that bishops are just like other Christians in that they come in different flavours. In some, the evangelist is more prominent, in others the pastoral aspect, the ability as a teacher, the prophetic gift or a specific mission.
Ministries, then, may not all be equal in ecclesiastical authority, they are theologically comparable. All are “given” to build the church. All are services to enable each other to serve. It is therefore dangerous to speak of the mission of the church in terms of (primarily) the mission of bishops, in which, ideally, others may share, as if this were a kind of favour or luxury. If we share in a mission at all, it is in the mission of Christ, who is the head of the Church. It would be good to realise that a “mission shaped church” is primarily a Christ-shaped church. Ecclesiology is not about writing down what bishops might like to hear (neither of course, about bashing them), but about putting Christ in the centre, along with all the gifts and ministries and vocations He has granted to His church through the Spirit. This is only possible by recognising our common mission. This is a mission in which we need the support of our bishops as much as they need our support. It is sometimes said that the Church is where the bishop is. Likewise, there can be no bishop without a church to oversee. Both are necessary in one form or another, for any kind of mission, evangelism or otherwise, to occur.
So I hope to have shown that there are good reasons for not using the term “chief missioner” when referring to a bishop. The reasons are based on logic and psychology as well as on ecclesiology and Christology. This article in no way seeks to undermine or reduce the important role of bishops or other church leaders, but encourages us to stay close to the biblical principle of interrelated and mutually dependant ministries (cf. also Col. 1:18, 1 Cor.12:12-27 and similar texts). The end goal is nothing other than a shared knowledge (experience) of the Son of God and maturity in Christ for all those ministering or ministered to. I pray that every recipient will give and every giver will receive whatever is necessary to flourish in His service.