You see them and hear about them everywhere. On billboards. Television. From your coworkers and family. The ubiquitous “bishops” of the contemporary church world. I’m not sure when the fashion got its start, who originated it, but the proliferation of titles in some church circles has reached epidemic levels. We have “overseers,” “bishops,” “apostles” and so on. One pastor friend says, “The only title folks have not grabbed is ‘Lord,’ and that might not be too far off.” Indeed.

One concerned layperson and television talk show host, Lexi Allen, has attempted to bring attention to the increase of “illegitimate bishops.” She discovered that for $75 and a few minutes online you can purchase a doctorate and for another $50 buy the title “bishop.” Lexi rightly expresses alarm with the situation and tries as a steward to highlight the problem. I’m grateful for her efforts because the practices and perspectives that under-gird this trend actually harm unsuspecting sheep.

However, Lexi’s program, for all the good it does in exposing a significant problem in the church world, actually compounds the confusion about biblical church leadership. To help her make her case, she invites “some of the country’s foremost and respected ordained bishops” to discuss “illegitimate bishops”: Paul S. Morton of Changing a Generation (two locations in Atlanta and one in New Orleans), Lester Love of City of Love (New Orleans), and Jerry F. Hutchins of Kingdom Now Ministries (Norcross, GA). These men, drafted to help solve the problem, themselves illustrate the problem of illegitimate bishops.

Watch the 28-minute interview:

Some good things are said during this interview. It’s important to clearly state, as the guests do, that there’s a problem, that rogue “bishops” are commonplace and unaccountable. It was helpful that the guests stressed the importance of doing the work of the ministry and of living a life worthy of the ministry. I even appreciated the tone of the conversation, punctuated with laughter and warmth even while denouncing a harmful practice.

But the errors and confusions were legion and far outweighed any good done by the program. Let me four of the many.

Definitions

First, no basic biblical definition of “bishop” was given. The guests failed to open their Bibles and show that “bishop” is simply another term for “pastor” or “overseer.” The terms are synonyms and no where does the Bible suggest a hierarchy of clerical offices from pastor to overseer to bishop.

I suspect this didn’t happen because the guests’ own practices are faulty on this score. The most needful remedy was to fix our basic understanding of biblical offices, but that wasn’t likely given their investment in the faulty system to begin with.

Tradition

Second, it was very troubling to listen to the mongrel mix of traditions and church practices that inform their practice. Bishop Morton notes the novelty of “Baptist bishops” when he first got started and then goes on to stress the “validation” of his “bishopric” in COGIC roots! He says, “Bishop Charles Blake preached my consecration service. In order to be validated properly I had to go back to my roots” [his Pentecostal COGIC roots].

There’s a reason Baptists don’t have “bishops” and why no Baptist bishops were around when Morton got his start. Baptists understand–or at least we used to–that no hierarchy exists in congregational polity that would allow for ruling or presiding bishops to oversee other local bodies. It’s… well… it’s… it’s a major part of what it means to be Baptist!

Then the interview went from denominationally confused to downright bizarre when Mr. Hutchins invokes apostolic succession to justify their practice of ordaining bishops! Just before the 15 minute mark Hutchins provides a definition of apostolic succession.

Hutchins: “That means you are able to trace your apostolic succession back to the original apostles. Our reformation traces our succession back to the apostle Peter….”

Lexi: “All the way back?”

Hutchins: “All the way back…. We trace our consecration back through the apostle Peter. It’s called apostolic succession.”

My Roman Catholic friends would likely be both proud and appalled. With one smooth lift of his right hand Hutchins waved us back to Rome! But let’s assume that apostolic succession were true, as Hutchins presented it and Rome maintains it, how in the world can the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, Int’l claim to stand in that succession outside the Roman Communion?!

It’s madness really. These men seek validation for their practice not only outside the denominational understanding of Baptist bodies but outside of Protestantism itself. It’s a mangling and mixing of tradition that really scandalizes the term “bishop.” As Love pointed out in the interview, a bishop should be able to refute error according to Titus 1:9. But these men not only failed to refute the error, they propagated it. It’s the worst appeal to tradition possible.

Gender Roles

The panelists became most inventive when asked about the protocols for becoming a bishop. Lexi inquired: “What is the proper protocol? Is there an age requirement? Can a woman be a bishop?”

After some problematic misquoting of scripture and ramblings about “anointings” Love turns to Lexi’s question about women bishops. It’s worth quoting the section at length to illustrate the twisting of scripture and capture the laywoman’s astonishment at what she’s hearing and to provide a little commentary of my own in brackets.

Love: The Bible says this when you look at the word “man,” “if a man desires the office of a bishop,” we have to look at it as to what the word “man” really means. The word “man” is not male gender. The word “man” is “mankind.” [False. If this were true our egalitarian friends would be all over it]

Lexi: But when you say ‘wife’ is that gender specific? [Thank you Lexi for actually reading the text in context!]

Love: Yes, if the person is married, if the man is married. But then you have bishops who are not married [Changing the subject]. You don’t have to be married to be a bishop. You can be a woman and be a bishop. Bishop Morton started all of this [a little blame-shifting or is it appealing to his bishop's authority rather than the Bible's authority]… uh… with consecrating women bishops. Then we find out what the Bible says as it relates to the Spirit; there is no gender in the Spirit. We are different physically–man and woman. We are different mentally–we think differently. But spiritually  there is no difference between a man and a woman as it relates to the way God sees it, as it relates to walking in these offices [Switches texts in order to make an egalitarian appeal to Gal. 3:28; still not dealing with the qualifications in 1 Tim. 3, which is in direct answer to Lexi's question about who can be a bishop]. These are the same people who had the argument should a woman be a pastor [ad hominem attack to divert attention and win sympathy]. But if a woman has a covering she can pastor a church. The bishop as a woman has a covering she can be a bishop to give leadership in the kingdom of God. [Complete misinterpretation and misapplication of 1 Cor. 11:3-16]

It’s interesting to note that the laywoman who got her bishop’s license online for $50 is handling the scripture better than the “some of the country’s foremost and respected ordained bishops.” Also interesting to note that Lexi, who I believe worships in a COGIC church, belongs to a denomination that officially restricts the pastorate and its bishopric to men in accordance with 1 Timothy 3. Men who had their bishoprics validated by COGIC nevertheless depart from COGIC teaching and the Bible where they see fit. It reveals the emptiness of all their talk about pseudo-bishops who are rebellious in spirit and refuse to submit to authority. They themselves refuse the authority of the Bible and their “validating” denomination.

Bishops and Money

At 20:45 in the interview, Lexi asks: “Is there a financial gain to becoming a bishop? Do you think people are doing it for financial advantage?” Once again, thank you, Lexi, for asking the key questions.

The “bishops” offer an interesting response. Consider this exchange:

Hutchins: “It does not guarantee financial gain, but it does guarantee financial obligation.”

Lexi: “What do you mean by that?”

Hutchins: “When you sit in certain seats, there are certain expectations. As a part of the fellowship there are certain obligations that I assume and am willing to participate in.”

Now, I know a pyramid scheme when I hear one described. I know a bribe when I see one. And I wonder why Hutchins, so familiar with church history, doesn’t point out the historical abuses associated with purchasing bishoprics. This would have been a wonderful place for Lexi to ask them, “What’s the difference between my paying $50 online and what you’re describing?” But, alas, no one is a perfect interviewer.

Anyway, the “bishops” trip over themselves showing that there isn’t that much difference. Morton explains an “overseer” is “over a group of pastors pays less than bishops. If they do a good job as overseers then they’re recognized as bishops but the price goes up for a bishop. So, it’s almost like… ‘Whoa, let me keep the name overseer’.”  So bishop positions are bought, and the price is rather steep to keep the less serious out of the ranks. Perhaps that’s why there was so much emphasis laid on “success” in the early parts of the interview. A pastor of 15 people can’t be a bishop because the worldly resources of “success” won’t allow him to afford the fees, “expectations,” and “obligations” of being a Full Gospel bishop. Never mind faithfulness and godliness. He can’t afford it.

Conclusion

So, the end is worse than the beginning. Perhaps the interview proved more than the interviewees intended. That’s good for the church because the pandemic of self-styled bishops and apostles needs to be exposed for the racket that it is. May the Lord grant them more interviews and grant His people more discernment!

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Comments:


26 thoughts on “Bishop Mania and Confusion About Biblical Church Leadership”

  1. Inchristus says:

    Re: whether or not 1 Tim 3:1 refers to “man” or “mankind” the Greek text says “ει τισ” where “τισ” is a neuter pronoun. While I agree with your points of disagreement with these concerns, Phil Payne from his Man and Woman, One in Christ offers some words to consider:

    “If it were Paul’s intention that women should forever be excluded from teaching and from positions of authority in the church, there is no more natural place in all his letters for him to have said so than in the…passage listing requirements for overseers and deacons, 1 Tim 3:1-12. Unfortunately, practically all English versions of 1 Tim 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 give the false impression that Paul uses masculine pronouns, implying that these church leaders must be male. In Greek, however, there is not even one masculine pronoun or ‘men only’ requirement for the offices of overseer and deacon in 1 Tim 3:1-12 or elder in Tit 1:5-9.”

    This raises serious questions as to why translators of every popular English translation (e.g., NIV, ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, and even the TNIV) would translate these passages this way. While Payne does not demonstrate what was driving translators’ mindset on why these passages are not more faithful to the original language, one has to wonder if gender bias was not a motivation. Even if 1 Tim 2:12 provides a “limitation into the requirements for overseer,” it does not warrant the vast number of masculine pronouns introduced into the text, especially those “formally equivalent” translations such as the ESV, NASB, et al. (see Payne, p. 24, note 1 for the number of masculine pronouns inserted per English translation).

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Inchristus,

      Thanks for stopping by and adding to the discussion!

      I’m not likely to ever be on anyone’s translation team since I have no Greek training, but I’d have to guess that the committees translated 3:1 with “man” because the context so strongly favors it. As I understand it, there are no feminine pronouns in 1 Tim. 5:3-16 but the discussion of widows and other feminine terms require feminine pronouns in that text.

      I’m certain there’s no translation committee free of bias or free from constraints imposed by their interpretive approach. But with a set of English translation committees and approaches that diverse, personally I’d hesitate before assuming gender bias as a motivation. Until gender-neutral translation came a long, it had also been convention to translate the general category (mankind) with the term “man.” Perhaps in addition to gender bias or other biases, it could in part be that historical reflex??? I don’t know, but personally I think the context warrants the interpretation.

      T-

      1. Inchristus says:

        There are a host of feminine references in 1 Tim 5:3ff. I quote Payne…
        “there is no dispute that 1 Tim 5:3-16 is dealing specifically with women. Widows are repeatedly identified as the subject (5:3, 4, 5, 9, 16). 5:3 has a feminine article. 5:5 has a feminine participle, which, like the following feminine participles, identifies the subject as female. 5:6 has a feminine article and two feminine participles. 5:9 has a feminine participle that makes it unambiguous that “one-man woman” (ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή) specifically describes a woman. 5:10 has a feminine participle. The comparative adjective in 5:11 is feminine. 5:12 has a feminine participle. 5:13 has two feminine participles. 5:14 has a pronominal adjective identifying the subject to be younger women. 5:16 has a feminine pronoun and is part of this section on widows, so it is not correct to say that there are no feminine pronouns in this passage discussing the role of widows. 5:16 also has a feminine article with “widows.” Each of these factors and the standard use of χήρα to identify female widows ["χήρα, -ας, ἡ fem. of χῆρος = bereft (of one’s spouse)" BAG 889] make it clear that Paul is not talking about men who have lost their wives as widows.”

        “tis” however can be either male or female. Context is king as someone else here mentions. But context does not redefine terms to force an agenda.

    2. Tom says:

      Not sure how the phrase “μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα” (i.e. a man of one woman) in 1 Tim 3:2 can be referring to a woman bishop.

    3. David Hoffelmeyer says:

      Hi Inchristus-

      I appreciate that you brought the gender and leadership discussion back to the original text of Paul’s letter. “Ei tis” is certainly not gender specific. You’re right on there. But, the thing is, ESV and NIV (ESV leans toward formal equivalence and NIV toward dynamic, but both seek to communicate the original Greek faithfully into our modern English) both translate “ei tis” with appropriate gender neutrality– respecitely, “If anyone” and “Whoever”. ESV is a bit more formally equivalent since it captures the conditional “if” (ei). NASB and KJV do use the masculine “any man”, but before we cast stones we should ask whether the text warrants this reading.

      That said, both ESV and NIV go on to use masculine pronouns to describe overseers. So, it’s right for us to ask whether there is warrant in the original text– i.e. was Paul really intending to speak about men when he listed qualifications for overseers?

      As my seminary professors say, “Context is king” in hermeneutics. In this case context makes it easy. You can’t read 1 Tim. 2:12-14, right before this passage, and conclude that Paul is speaking of women as overseers. Further reading in Paul’s letters will reveal the same thing, and reading more widely in the NT and the entire Bible for that matter will continually affirm complementary roles in the church and home for men and women.

      That said, women are viewed highly in the Bible’s estimation– God uses Ruth to continue the royal line of David, he extols the virtuous woman in Prov. 31, and he inspires Luke and Paul to write about lots of women like Prisca and Phoebe who were instrumental to God’s redemptive mission. Just as each Person of the Trinity is equal in glory and dignity and yet differing in role, so is woman equal with man.

    4. Christian Crouch says:

      Hi Inchristus,

      Actually tis in 1 Tim 3:1 is masculine; the neuter equivalent would be ti. In this context it could be translated very literally “someone [who is a male].” Additionally, the overseer/bishop is required to be an aner (man) in 1 Tim 3:2. Tis is used again in 1 Tim 3:5. The masculine plural pronoun houtoi is used to refer to deacons in 1 Tim 3:10, and as with overseers/bishops, they are also required to be an aner (man) in 1 Tim 3:12. With the exception of the adjective referring to women/wives in 1 Tim 3:11, all of the adjectives in this section are masculine.

      So it seems then that there are numerous reasons to use masculine pronouns in English translations of this section. I’m not sure how anyone who knows Greek could look at it and say that no masculine pronouns or masculine-specific language is used. I don’t see any reason to “seriously question” the different translation committees on this one.

      1. Inchristus says:

        Hum….If tis is masculine, then how do we handle translating 1 Tim 5:4 where εἰ δέ τις χήρα clearly refers to women as widows? Clearly this is not the case.

        It’s not likely that the gender issues will be resolved here, nor could we ever expect them to. For those with sufficient skills in the language and time, I recommend Phil Payne’s book Man and Woman: One in Christ among many others. A summary of reviews here.

        1. Christian Crouch says:

          Huh. Good point! I checked BDAG, and I shouldn’t have been so dogmatic about tis being masculine. Thanks for the correction! At the same time, I think my other points remain relevant.

  2. Drew says:

    Thabiti – great article. Only small correction/gripe – the Anglican Church also believes and practices apostolic succession – so it is not just a Rome belief. But agree 100% that the argument doesn’t make much sense in the context of Baptistic polity and ecclesiology.

  3. David Camera says:

    Thabiti- thanks for pointing this confusion out. When you say “…The terms are not synonyms..” don’t you mean “the terms ARE synonymous”? In other words, as you say in the sentence before, the different terms refer to the same office, but perhaps a different aspect of the same office?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Thanks for catching that, man. It’s been corrected.
      T-

  4. Marti Lowder says:

    I appreciate this FANTASTIC article, but I am a little disheartened. It seems as though these “bishops” are saying, “I’m not a Biblical scholar, but I play one on T.V.” How many hours of valuable time are spent having to (try to) explain or untangle the message of those who misrepresent God’s Holy Word?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Dear Marti,

      thanks for joining the conversation. I’m afraid it takes a great many valuable hours untangling things like this, mixed as they are with partial truths but filled with fatal flaws. Heartbreaking, really.

      T-

  5. Mark says:

    What do you think about the often overused term ‘reverend’?

    It’s a shame that all of these “Bishops” are using people as pawns.

  6. John Metz says:

    Thank you for a very good post. The lust for a title is a scandal of evangelicalism, in some groups more than others. I especially liked how you pointed out that “bishop” and “overseer” (or elder) are the same thing. One refers to the person and the other to the person’s function. Additionally, in the Bible there was always a plurality of elders or bishops (no caps) in each church and no hierarchy, no apostolic succession.

    Thanks again for a very frank expose of today’s situation. You even touched on the matter of financial gain.

  7. Greetings! I was at FBC Grand Cayman with Tony Merida the Sunday you preached in view of a call. Happy to hear of your faithfulness there.

    I’m sure you already know, but for those scrolling through the comments: when it comes to Baptists using the term “bishop”, the 1925 version of The Baptist Faith and Message (Southern Baptist) says about the local church “Its Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.”
    http://sbc.net/bfm/bfmcomparison.asp

    The terms “bishops” and “elders” were dropped in the 1963 version (which may be a reason Southern Baptists of today over the age of 35 furrow their brow when they hear about elders; the term was removed from SBC vocabulary…but so was the term “bishop”).

    Anyhow, for what it’s worth.

    God’s peace to you.
    byron.

  8. Mark Timothy O'Bryant says:

    I am grateful to God for men like you Brother Thabiti. Who are not afraid to expose error! We know according to Scripture, not to marvel that Satan himself can transform as an angel of light and likewise his ministers. I am not calling these men agents of the Enemy, but we know the Devil is the great deceiver . And in the garden he changed what God had said, thou shalt not surely die. Changed the context of what God had said .we must rightly divide the Word of God 2 Timothy 2:15. I stand with you! We know God’s Word states, in the end time men will be lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, having itching ears, turning to fables. Keep up the good work of sharing, and telling the Truth of God’s Word !

  9. Jemar says:

    Thank you for this great article, Pastor T. You highlighted the issues of titles, apostolic succession, and biblical interpretation very well.

    I have heard that Black people in general–and I think the pattern plays out in the Black church specifically–originally began to use long titles to reclaim their dignity in a racist system of oppression. Instead of being called “boy” or “Toby”, when Blacks could start naming themselves they responded by using titles, initials, and other appellations (e.g. Bishop J.C. Smith III [fictitious name as far as I know]).

    Have you heard of this? Is there any merit to it? Might this be part of the reason for such titles in the Black church?

    1. Thabiti says:

      Hi Jemar,

      i pray you had a wonderful Christmas and the Lord blesses you richly in the year to come. Thanks for dropping by the blog and contributing a good question.

      While it is true that one of the first acts of self-definition in the war for full humanity and dignity is the act of naming, I don’t think that offers any justification for the titles discussed in this post or the Black Church. I’d say that for a couple of reasons.

      First, the kind of example you use has to do with personal names. We do see some people adopting names like “Prince” or last names like “Freeman,” literally “free man.” These naming practices happen primarily with personal names–not so much with personal titles.

      Second, if these exalted titles had some basis in our earlier history, we’d expect to see this behavior in the 1800s. But we don’t. In fact, the only ones using honorific and exalted titles tend to be secular movement leaders like a Marcus Garvey in the early 1900s or Masons with the rise of that movement. Church leaders tend to simply use the common titles in their denominational bodies. So Allen becomes “bishop” because of the Methodist system he follows rather than “apostle” or some such thing. Exalted honorific titles belong to cultic groups.

      Third, given the riches of grace, freedom and opportunity we enjoy compared to our people in the 1800s or even first half of the 1900s, even if this were a part of our history, we still can’t justify the practice today. Instead, we should look to always be reforming according to the word of God. We should settle for being sloppier than our forbears. In fact, the stuff we’re seeing today is just plain dishonesty with the biblical text, sometimes for personal gain.

      We have to be better stewards of our history and heritage. That better stewardship requires at least two things:
      1. We have to protect the history from romanticism and abuses, which often justify themselves by attempting to root error in some unimpeachable past; and,
      2. We have to correct the errors of the past. The fact that something once happened doesn’t mean it should always continue, especially if it doesn’t conform to the word of God. History is a guide post, not a hitching post.

      Those would be my reactions, bro. I hope there’s something helpful in it.

      T-

  10. Beyond the love of exalted titles (particularly “bishop”) being contrary to the history of being Baptist, isn’t it exactly what the Lord Jesus warned us against in Matthew 23:7-10? :

    “they love . . . being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.” (Matthew 23:6-10 ESV)

    Surely, the problem is just with those specific titles (rabbi, teacher, father) but with the love of title itself — including, we could add, “Reverend”.

  11. Agam says:

    Thabiti,
    thank you for an insightful article on this. While this seems to be very common in the black (and independent pentecostal) strands of the church in America, it is sadly spreading fast among church leaders in Africa.

  12. judi Gordon says:

    The Church is based on Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Evangelists and Teachers. Hence the 5 fold ministry. NEVER in the Bible does is talk about a “senior pastor” etc. But they can get licenses on line too as can Bishops.
    And my other question is (and if ANYONE can answer this, I would LOVE to hear from you) if we are made in God’s image (Genesis) then God is both female and male and holds ALL of male and female. I am NOT saying we are not different as we are BUT why aren’t there more females in leadership roles? Thank you.

  13. I saw this particular episode of The Lexi Show some time ago. I am seriously disturbed by the title chasing preachers in our country today, especially within the African-American community. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” I would suggest for all “Baptist Bishops” to relook the Reformation and its purpose. My covering is Christ alone.

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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