“Self-styled bishop” is snide code 4 ‘not a real bishop’. A pointless putdown as all bishops r just primates in hats https://t.co/kotJ1pskjv
— SecularNZ (@SecularNZ) January 27, 2016
A tweet from SecularNZ this morning reminded me about a phrase that irritated me in a New Zealand Herald article last week. In yet another story about the finances of Destiny Church, the article referred to its leader as “self styled bishop Brian Tamaki.”
Without entering into a discussion of Tamaki, his church or its finances, I wonder what the writer thought the difference was between a “bishop” and a “self-styled bishop.”
Like other men and women who get to be called “bishops,” Brian Tamaki had the title conferred on him by other leaders of his church in 2005. In this respect it makes no more sense to describe Pope Francis as a “self-styled pope.” Francis I may style himself “pope,” but like Bishop Tamaki, he also had the title officially conferred on him by other leaders of the Catholic church in 2013. Like “Bishop” Tamaki, “Pope” Francis shares his title with a number of contemporary contenders.
My guess is that the confusion comes from some expectation that “bishop” is an exclusively Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox term – that, somehow, unless you wear a purple shirt and/or a mitre, you don’t get to be called a bishop.
In fact, “bishop” comes to us from the New Testament via the Old English word biscop. Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 refer to church leaders called episkopoi in Greek (Old English biscop is just a rendering of the piskop in the Greek episkopos).
Episkopos is notorious difficult to translate, and its origins are uncertain. It may come from the non-religious world of the early Christian era, referring to someone in charge of a building site or other group activity. In this context it’s sometimes translated as “overseer” or “superintendent.” It may come from the Septuagint (a Jewish-Greek translation of the Old Testament), where Ezekiel is called to be a “watchman” or episkopos for the people of Israel (Ezekiel 33:3). Here the office is something more like a prophet.
Of course “bishop” could have both origins. Unfortunately, though, the New Testament doesn’t tell us much about what an episkopos does, except that, according to 1 Timothy at least, he should be of irreproachable character and the “husband of only one wife.”
In the two centuries following the Reformation, most Protestant churches wanted to abandon the term “bishop” because they associated it with what they regarded as the corruption of the medieval church. But Protestants were aware that episkopos was in the Bible, and so they experimented with translating it in different ways. They also experimented with what the office meant in practice (beyond being irreproachable and the “husband of only one wife”).
So, for example, John Knox’s Church of Scotland experimented with an office known as the “superintendent,” before abandoning after a few decades. Some modern Methodist churches still have leaders called “superintendents.” Other Methodists opt for the older translation of “bishop.” A lot of Protestant churches who don’t use either term would still argue that their leaders and ministers met the job-description of “oversight” or “watching” implied in the Biblical Greek.
Which is all a long way of saying that there isn’t a standard blueprint for what a “bishop” is, does or wears. There’s also no regulating body, patent office or copyright agency that gets to decide who can and can’t use the title “bishop.”
More broadly speaking, in a secular, liberal democracy, all religions deserve equal treatment under the law. So if I want to call myself the Dalai Lama, Pope or Jedi Master, the law has no interest in this. Nor, I think, does the secular media – except, perhaps, as a matter of curiosity.
But if I were to use my church’s money in ways that looked legally questionable, then both law and media would have an interest, and both would entitled to call me to account.