The purpose of this brief, and incomplete, reflection is to focus on the centrality of the gospel in the ministry of a bishop. It is not intended to promote a partisan perspective on any issue facing the contemporary Orthodox Church – Antiochian, Greek or O.C.A. It simply spotlights what the calling of a bishop is to be.
I want to be clear that this article is not a response to the recent discussions of the Antiochian bishops or the Holy Synod. It is a timeless reflection -- a positive statement -- of what the primary work of a bishop should be, regardless of his geographical location or the time of history in which he lives. It is vitally important that we understand the bishop’s calling because the gospel of Jesus Christ lies at the very center of his ministry among us.
The Bishop’s Apostolic Mission
The apostolic mission of a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church can be summarized in five points.
1. Preach the Gospel. All bishops are to proclaim and interpret the gospel of Christ to the church and to the world.
Bishops should be elected largely on the basis of their knowledge and ability to skillfully communicate the Holy Scriptures. St. John Chrysostom is the prime example of such a bishop.
All bishops are to faithfully keep the gospel clear and central to their ministries.
What is the gospel? The gospel is the “good news” that God became human in Jesus Christ, took upon himself our fallen humanity in order to restore it into communion with God, conquer sin and vanquish death. This he did pre-eminently through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. This “good news” must be at the very core of every life-giving action in the church – the sacraments and throughout every liturgical season of fasting and prayer.
Bishops need to preach and teach this message to all their priests and parishioners. They need to boldly call people to repentance and faith and not make the fatal assumption that everyone is a Christian just because they happen to be inside the walls of an Orthodox Church.
This requires that lay people give them a large degree of freedom from administrative and managerial functions. Managerial duties must be done by them, but whenever those duties occupy more attention than the preaching of the gospel, we the people have committed a great sin against our bishops.
2. Administer the Sacraments of the Gospel.
Bishops are to oversee the celebration of the Eucharist and ensure the sacramental integrity of its parishes. This is a heavy subject so I will forego an extensive theological commentary on it. Suffice it to say that all Orthodox sacraments are sacraments of the gospel.
The failure to intentionally keep the gospel clear and central is the main reason why so many of our young people are “religious but lost”. They know about God but have seldom been asked to make the Church’s faith their own, even though they have attended Church all their lives. Bishops (as well as priests and lay people) are to do the work of an evangelist.
3. Guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church.
Maintaining the unity of the church today requires acts of courage and risk taking. Guardianship of the gospel does not mean simply "holding the traditional line." It also means preventing spiritual decay and ignorance.
4. Be a moral example of holiness and wholesomeness.
This implies the usual exemplary personal conduct and spirituality that is the vocation of every baptized Christian -- bishops, priests and laity alike.
Another aspect of episcopal modeling would be for bishops to renounce work-a-holism. Compulsive work habits destroy one’s spiritual and mental health and that is simply not a Christian thing to do.
5. Diminish the distance between bishops and their flock.
The true calling of an episcopal ministry requires that the gospel be kept clear and central in the life of the Church. Perhaps we should examine historical accretions that have attached themselves to the office of bishop and which mislead the flock about the servant nature of Christian leadership.