Doodle: If Anyone Aspires to the Office of Bishop
In Prince Caspian, Aslan asks the eponymous prince if he feels that he’s ready to become the king of Narnia. Caspian’s reply is marked by hesitation. “I don’t think I do, Sir…I am only a kid,” he stutters. Aslan deems this uncertainty a good thing and says, “If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been proof that you were not.” Many readers—not to mention those who mine literature for quotes—have together with Aslan commended Caspian’s deferent mood towards taking up authority; his wariness of having power. For leaders can be domineering, even tyrannical, the church not excluded.
While the unadulterated desire for power is usually a hint that someone shouldn’t be trusted with it, pursuing a position of leadership or authority is not a black mark against someone. Confusion around this point was well illustrated a few decades ago, when the Episcopalian denomination I belonged to was electing a new bishop. In hindsight, we were pitting C. S. Lewis against the apostle Paul. Even as someone who loves the English churchman and his writings, we were wrong.
“He Is Desiring a Good Work”
As I’ve said, my Episcopalian denomination was electing a new bishop. And in personal conversations around the handful of candidates it seems that we’d reified Caspian’s hesitation to the level of biblical qualification. The candidates for the bishopric were scrutinised on the basis of how much they desired the office. It wasn’t uncommon to hear, ‘My worry with Stuart is that he really wants it. He’s really set on becoming the next bishop.’ The obverse could also be heard, ‘Wilko doesn’t desire the position. He’s better suited.’ At the time I thought very little of it and fell in with those around me, concluding that aspiring to the office of bishop is a red flag.
The problem comes with Paul’s outlining of the requirements for church officers in 1 Timothy 3. There he writes, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he is desiring a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1). The word translated as “overseer” in that verse is the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος. While the Reformed tradition has typically understood that to be a reference to elders in a two-office governance structure—including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists—Episcopalians understand “overseer” (or ἐπίσκοπος) as a reference to a bishop. Putting aside the confusing situation this puts Episcopalians in, where 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is used as the qualifications for both an elder and a bishop, the plain sense of this verse suggests that whoever aspires to be a bishop desires a noble and good task.
Returning to Caspian and candidates for the bishopric, it would seem that Paul and Lewis are on different pages; or, at the very least, how we were applying the latter was at odds with the apostle’s clear statement in 1 Timothy.
We Need Convinced Leaders with Christian Character
This proves something I wrote last year. “A lot of conventional Christian advice seems to have simply materialised. And now it lives and moves and has its being by mere virtue of its existence. Thus we don’t theologically examine advice, probing its assumptions along with the worldview behind it.” The same thing could be said regarding our preference for a candidate who didn’t actually want to be bishop—as if Paul had actually written, ‘If anyone aspires to the office of bishop, his desires aren’t noble.’ But he didn’t. He penned the exact opposite. By prizing Aslan’s words over Paul’s we demonstrated an unbiblical and culturally conditioned commitment.
Of course, I’m not defending the tragically commonplace abuse of authority, both within the church and without. Furthermore, there is undoubtedly wisdom in Caspian’s hesitation. For fools rush in where angels fear to tread. But this is a doodle. So let me conclude by pointing readers to the balance of requirements in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Authority in God’s church should be entrusted to those with the required character, who have a desire to lead.