Bishops—Lords or Slaves?
THOMAS WOLSEY was born in Ipswich, England, in 1475. He became a priest in 1498 and was favored by King Henry VIII. His rise was swift. He was appointed bishop of Lincoln in 1514, archbishop of York a few months later, cardinal in 1515, and papal legate just three years later. In addition, the king made him lord chancellor. Thus he virtually ruled England from 1515 until 1529. Cardinal Wolsey was typical of many clerics who have exercised power as both secular and spiritual “lords.”
In the first century C.E., a “bishop” of another sort served. Called Timothy, he was the son of a Greek man, though his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois were Jewesses. They lovingly raised him in the way of Christianity. About the year 50 C.E., while still a young man, Timothy seized the opportunity to join the apostle Paul as a missionary. After years of training, he became a Christian overseer, or e·piʹsko·pos (from which the word “bishop” is derived), and was much loved for his selfless devotion. Wrote Paul: “Like a child with a father he slaved with me in furtherance of the good news.”—Philippians 2:22.
Thomas the lord, Timothy the slave—which one set the right example for true Christian “bishops,” or overseers?
The Pattern of a Christian Overseer
The Founder and only Head of true Christianity, Jesus Christ, established a basic pattern for overseers, when he said: “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. . . . Anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”—Matthew 20:25-28, Catholic Jerusalem Bible; italics ours.
Peter, one of the first Christian overseers, confirmed the above pattern by commanding Christian elders: “Shepherd the flock of God in your care, not under compulsion, but willingly; neither for love of dishonest gain, but eagerly; neither as lording it over those who are God’s inheritance, but becoming examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2, 3) Peter practiced what he preached. When visiting Cornelius, the first Gentile to become a Christian, the latter “fell down at his feet and did obeisance to him. But Peter lifted him up, saying: ‘Rise; I myself am also a man.’”—Acts 10:25, 26.
Interestingly, Peter wrote his words at 1 Peter 5:1 to the “older men.” The Greek word Peter used for “older men” was pre·sby·teʹrous, from which the word “priest” is derived. In Christendom “bishops” are now considered superior to “priests.” But when the apostle Paul “sent to Ephesus and called for the older men [pre·sby·teʹrous] of the congregation,” he said to them, among other things: “Pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the holy spirit has appointed you overseers [e·pi·skoʹpous].” (Acts 20:17, 28) Hence, elders (pre·sby·teʹrous) and overseers (e·pi·skoʹpous) had the same rank in Bible times. The term “elder” highlights the experience and spiritual maturity needed by those accepting this responsibility, whereas the term “overseer” describes the kind of work such ones do in supervising and caring for members of the congregation.
But did one man reign as “overseer,” or “elder,” over a congregation in Bible times? Not according to what the Bible says at Titus 1:5, 7. There Titus was told to “make appointments of older men [pre·sby·teʹrous] in city after city.” The Jerusalem Bible renders this verse, “and appoint elders in every town” with a footnote saying: “In the earliest days each Christian community was governed by a body of elders.”—Italics ours.
Timothy was also commissioned to appoint overseers in many congregations. To him Paul wrote, according to the King James Version: “If a man desire the office of a bishop [e·pi·skoʹpos], he desireth a good work.” (1 Timothy 3:1) The Jerusalem Bible renders this: “To want to be a presiding elder is to want to do a noble work.” It adds in a footnote: “The word ‘episcopos,’” used here by Paul, “has not yet acquired the same meaning as ‘bishop’.” (Italics ours.) Hence, Catholic scholars admit that the lordly bishops of Christendom are not the same as the humble overseers of the early Christians. As The New Bible Dictionary states: “There is no trace in the New Testament of government by a single bishop.” Elmer T. Merrill, M.A., LL.D., similarly states in his book Essays in Early Christian History: “For the first hundred years . . . the bishop was at most only the unassuming chairman of a college [organized body] of fellow presbyters [older men.]”
Christendom’s Bishops—Scripturally Qualified?
When writing to Titus, the apostle Paul said that an overseer must be “free from accusation.” (Titus 1:6) Was Cardinal Wolsey “free from accusation”? The Encyclopædia Britannica says that he was “unchaste—he had an illegitimate son and daughter.” He is not alone in this. Through the centuries, countless priests and bishops have been similarly guilty. As the book Age of Faith says: “By the ninth century, clerical chastity and even celibacy had become a mockery.” One of the 11th-century popes, Gregory VII, admitted: “I find but few bishops whose appointments and whose lives are in accordance with the laws of the Church, or who govern God’s people through love and not through worldly ambition.”
Paul further wrote that a Christian elder should not be “a lover of money.” (1 Timothy 3:3) Concerning Wolsey, however, the Encyclopædia Britannica says: “He was worldly, greedy for wealth” and “used his vast secular and ecclesiastical power to amass wealth that was second in value only to that of the King.” He had two palaces, one of which, York Place, was so sumptuous that Henry VIII, after inspecting it, became “incensed by the wealth which he found” and took it over.
Similarly today, church clerics have used the payment of church dues, collections, tithing, and revenue from lands and property to enrich themselves. (Revelation 18:7) For example, a bishop in South Africa, head of one of the thousands of African sects, not long ago bought a new Buick automobile costing R37,000.* This was despite his already having four luxury automobiles at his disposal. Asked what was wrong with one of the present cars, a church official explained: “It’s a nice car, but the bishop needs the extra bit of space in the big Buick.”
How fleeting such material gain can be! Thomas Wolsey failed to arrange the marriage annulment that Henry VIII wanted and thus fell from favor in 1529. According to history, he then “retired in disgrace to his diocese of York, which he had never visited”—in 15 years! (Italics ours.) Wolsey, however, had not merely lost in the game of politics. His real failure was neglecting to follow “the fine shepherd [Jesus, who] surrenders his soul in behalf of the sheep.”—John 10:11.
In contrast, Timothy did not meddle in politics. He was therefore “no part of the world.” (John 15:19) Rather than lording it over others, he became such a devoted slave of fellow Christians that Paul could write: “I have no one else of a disposition like his who will genuinely care for . . . you.”—Philippians 2:20.
How grateful we can be that today Jehovah has likewise raised up thousands of faithful overseers who “genuinely care” for the flock of God. Almost all overseers in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are men of modest means. Most support their families by secular employment and carry out their spiritual duties in their time after work. Most of that time is taken up with preparing for and attending five meetings a week; taking the lead in preaching from house to house; conducting Bible studies with interested people; visiting the sick, elderly, and spiritually weak; and caring for their own families. These are very busy men, dedicated “slaves,” who receive no payment for these services. To the contrary, out of their personal funds they share in contributing to the upkeep of the local Kingdom Hall. They wear no peculiar garb, have no special titles, and are distinguished only by their Bible knowledge, their Christian maturity, and their zeal in Jehovah’s service. Such men merit deep respect and wholehearted cooperation as they shepherd the flock and prove by their humble, devoted service that they are slaves—not lords!
1 Rand = 87 cents.