Anna and I had a conversation once, several months ago, about how some pastors of mega-churches are really functioning as Bishops without the title. We were talking about one of Anna’s former pastors, Jack Hayford, and his reputation for holiness as an example. Well, recently I’ve been reading the very interesting book Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition by Claudia Rapp. Dr. Rapp writes a lot about the acquisition of various kinds of authority by the Episcopal office. One of these is what she calls ascetical authority–basically authority through holiness of life–and it is the sort of authority on which other forms depended. Tonight I was flipping through the book and this section caught my eye. I think it might have some application to our current difficulties…and since I’ve always liked Origen, and Pope Benedict has recently given him something of a rehabilitation, I don’t feel that bad about quoting him… 🙂

Origen, in the late third century, oscillates between the generalizing application of Paul’s passage [1 Tim. 3:1-7] that had been typical of the earlier period and the assumption that certain men, because they possess the virtues catalogued by Paul, are identified as episkopoi before God. Origen addresses this issue in two passages in his Commentary on Matthew. In the first passage, he explains that those who conform to the virtues set out by Paul for bishops rightfully exercise the power to bind and loose. In other words, the possession of virtues precedes and indeed is the precondition for the exercise of penitential authority that is largely the prerogative of bishops. In the second passage, Origen says that Jewish Rabbis receive recognition in the eyes of the people because of the external markers of their position, such as the most prominent seat at banquets or in the synagogue. Bishops, by contrast, are recognized in the eyes of God because of their virtues: “For he who has in him the virtues that Paul lists about the bishop, even if he is not a bishop among men, is a bishop before God, even if the [episcopal] rank has not been bestowed on him through the ordination by men.” To illustrate his point, Origen invokes the example of the physician and the pilot of a ship. These men retain their skill and ability, even if they lack the opportunity to exercise them. the physician remains a physician even if he has no patients, and the pilot remains a pilot even if he has no ship to navigate. Taken to its logical conclusion, Origen’s reasoning allows that there may be many more “bishops before God” than there are bishops among men. Moreover, it opens the door to the possibility that men who do not quallify as “bishops before God” are nonetheless ordained to the episcopate. This is in tune with Origen’s general tendency to expose the worldliness of the church as an institution. Criticism of this nature would become even more pronounced in the post-Constantinian era. (p35)