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.
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.
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.
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.
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!