Clergy of The Church
What Is A Bishop?

“. . . I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you by the laying on of my hand”(2 Timothy 1:6).

In our technological age, it is often difficult for Orthodox Christians to have a full appreciation of the office of bishop. We fall too easily into the error of regarding the chief pastors of the Church in the same light as that in which we view secular officials — largely the products of political achievement or influence, wielding authority by virtue of questionable appointment or democratic mandate. Nothing could be further from the truth. For the sake of clearing up some of the misunderstanding regarding this most vital office in the Church, let us examine, at least superficially, the nature and function of the episcopacy.

What is the Bishop?

Perhaps we can best understand what the bishop is by first understanding what the word itself means.

The noun, bishop, comes into contemporary English usage through Old and Middle English from its Greek origin episkopos, which means overseer. It is a word taken over from the pagan world of the first and second century. At all events, it is quite certain that the episkopos was not concerned merely with the practical side of organizing things; both the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers offer abundant evidence that the bishop had to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9), and to govern (1 Timothy 3:5; Titus 1:7). The bishops were, and still are the overseers, teachers and governors of the Church, both directly and through their representatives, the presbyters (from which we derive the English word priest), and the diakonoi (deacons), or servers and assistants.

All right, you say, that’s all very well, but in what real way is the office of the bishop different from that of the corporation head, or that of a mayor, a governor, or even the president of the United States? All of these, through their subordinates, supervise, teach and govern. There is however, a great — and essential — difference: the leaders of secular organizations, financial or political, social or revolutionary, exercise their authority at the will of other men, and they are all, ultimately, dependent upon men like themselves for their positions of leadership.

Not so the bishop. He is not dependent upon men for his authority, but upon God Himself!

When Christ established His Church, He also provided for its perpetuation, or unbroken continuity, “even unto the end of the world. “He accomplished that end through ordination, the giving of the Holy Spirit, to His apostles, (John 20:21-23). The apostles were commissioned by Jesus to carry on His work in the world, and were given His own powers in order to do so, including the commissioning and ordaining of others who would follow after them. Thus the apostles, through laying on of their hands upon those chosen to be their successors, transmitted that same Holy Spirit, the life-force of the Church, to the bishops who came after them. The bishops in turn passed on the same power, the same divine authority, to other chosen men in an unbroken line to the present day.

Saint Ignatius, on his way to his death in Rome in the early years of the second century, wrote to the members of the Church in Smyrna: “You must all follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the apostles; and pay respect to the deacons, as to God’s commandment. Let no one do anything in the Church without the bishop. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people gather, just as the Church is found wherever Jesus is.”

In other words, where the bishop is, there is the Church.

We might observe here that many Christian groups have lost the concept of the bishop in the Church, even to the point of abolishing the office completely. Since they have no bishops in the sense commanded by the Scriptures — direct descendants of Christ through the apostles — they cannot legitimately claim to be the Body of Christ, the Church. They lack the necessary fullness of Christ and, consequently, there can be among them no true sacraments. Their holiness must be an individually subjective thing, completely dependent upon the mercy of God, since it can make no claim to the true objective holiness of the Church which Christ established. (And yet, although they lack the fullness of the faith, these same groups often shame us Orthodox Christians with their deep, passionate commitment to Christ! All too often we remain completely silent about Christ’s good news, despite the fact that we should be the loudest in proclaiming it to all.)

What is the Bishop’s Function?

The primary function of the bishop is to perpetuate the Church so that it can go on with its God-given mission of bringing the Gospel of Christ — salvation — to all mankind. He does it through teaching, through wise governing, and through the administration of the Sacraments of the Church.

· Teaching. It is the responsibility of the bishop to teach the Truth of Christ, “rightly defining the Word of Truth. “This means that the faith must be kept pure, exactly as it was received from Christ Himself two thousand years ago, as it was proclaimed by the apostles, and promulgated by the Church through its seven Ecumenical Councils. Nothing of the Gospel must be lost, for any reason, and nothing may be added.

· Governing. In addition to teaching the bishop must oversee and administer that part of the Church that he has been made responsible for, the diocese. A diocese is a geographical area turned over to the spiritual care of a bishop by the Holy Synod, the “college” of bishops of which he is a member.

Since the bishop of a diocese is solely responsible for its orderly and Godly functioning, he is also the sole and final authority in his diocese. He may delegate duties and authority to others, at his discretion, but the ultimate responsibility is his alone. So long as the diocesan bishop rules his diocese according to the mandate of Christ expressed in the Gospel and the Canon law of the Orthodox Church, no other person may interfere with him, whether it be another bishop or layperson.

While a prudent bishop seeks the opinions of others, and may even appoint a diocesan council to advise him, his is the final decision in the diocese, and the faithful are commanded to obey him as they would Christ Himself, since he carries the fullness of the divine gift of the Holy Spirit — and its authority. The Church derives its authority from God, not men.

Let us be plain about this matter of government and authority: no man is infallible, but the Church, because it was created by Christ, and is given life by the Holy Spirit, is infallible. Therefore, the bishop who governs his area of that Church in accordance with the revealed teachings of Christ is simply proclaiming the infallible message of Christ, the only Head of the Church, which is His own indestructible Body!

· Administering the Sacraments. Since the bishop embodies the fullness of the Spirit, then it follows that the means of Grace, that is, the sacraments of Christ, are also in his keeping, and are administered by him to the faithful.

In the early Church the bishop personally administered the sacraments. He was the pastor of the central church, to which all of the faithful from the surrounding community came, and it was from his own hands, assisted by the deacons, that the people received the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. It was from his lips that they heard the words of divine forgiveness of sins. It was the bishop himself who counseled, guided, reproved and corrected, who anointed for the healing of soul and body, and laid to rest those who had fallen asleep in the faith.

But, even in the time of the apostles, with the enormously rapid growth of the Church, it became impossible to do all these personally — there would have to be help.

The answer lay in the bishop himself. Since the bishops were and still are the direct inheritors of the gift and power of the Holy Spirit as given by Jesus Christ, they could pass on, in the same way, that power to others, in any degree that they saw fit. Thus was created the presbyteroi, the priests, who function not in place of, but as an extension of the bishop. They exercise, at the pleasure of the bishop, those powers and that authority which they have received from God through the sacrament of Ordination at the hands of the bishop.

Who is the Head of the Church?

The teaching of Christ, as witnessed by the apostles and inherited by the Fathers of the Church in all ages, is that the only true Head of the Church is Christ Himself “Now the Church is His Body; He is its Head,”(Colossians 1:18).

It is difficult for many to conceive of a Church without an earthly, visible leader or head. They demand a focal point, a person of whom they can say, “that’s the boss.” But the teaching of the New Testament is that the Head of the Body of Christ is Christ. There is no one, single, universal human head, but there is the Holy Spirit, the living Breath of the Body, whose promised universal coming was accomplished on the day of Pentecost.

Just as the apostles gathered together in Jerusalem, in obedience to the command that they had received on that glorious “birthday” of the Church, so have the bishops gathered together in their Councils, and, through the same outpouring of the Holy Spirit, have determined matters of faith and doctrine. The Church is infallible, not man.

Who is the Chief Bishop?

All bishops are equal in spiritual grace. All have precisely the same gift. Some are called to exercise greater administrative responsibility than others, and some enjoy a primacy of honor or place, such as the patriarchates of Jerusalem, Constantinople or Antioch, but all are bishops together, none wielding superior spiritual authority. Their honor of place or time is not divine. Thus we have such titles as patriarch, archbishop, metropolitan, etc. , but these designations do not connote any extra spiritual rank. They are purely mundane descriptions of the particular administrative function of the bishop who is so addressed. Since all, by the will of God, hold the fullness of His Grace for the Church, there is nothing more needful for them.

Image of Christ

The bishop is the image of our heavenly Father among us, guiding, governing, teaching, dispensing the Grace of God to the people of God, and drawing into the Body of Christ those who hunger for the Truth, for the full banquet of God’s Kingdom, not just the crumbs dropped from the table.

The bishop is not a political figure or an administrator. He is not a corporation president. He is a man, for sure, but one which has the authority of Christ. He walks in the terrible knowledge of his own sinful state, and bears the burden of his human frailty, but is upheld and strengthened by the ancient grace which he has received from the apostles, those who knew the breath of Christ and that of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.


The priests of the Church, also called presbyters, are those who assist the bishop in his work. In the present day the priests normally exercise the function of pastors of the local churches or parishes, a function which was normally performed by the bishops in early times. The priests head the local congregation of believers, the parish. They preside at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. They preach, teach, counsel and exercise the ministries of healing and forgiveness.

The priests of the Church are assigned by the bishop and belong to the specific parishes which they serve. No one can receive the gift of the priesthood personally or individually. Apart from his bishop and his own particular parish community, the priest has no “powers” and, indeed, no services to perform. Thus, on the altar table of each Orthodox community headed by the priest as pastor, there is a cloth called the antimension, signed by the bishop, which is his permission for the community to gather and to act as the Church of God. Without the antimension, the priest and his people cannot function legitimately, and the actions of the assembly cannot be considered as being authentically of the Church.

The priest is in no sense whatsoever an “employee” of the community that he serves. He is sent to his assignment by the will of the diocesan bishop, and therefore he is the bearer of the full authority of the bishop. He is literally the voice of the bishop in his parish and is responsible to the bishop for all his actions. In the name of the bishop, who is the archpastor or chief shepherd, he is entrusted with the flock given him, and is charged to lead and guide that flock in love and compassion, just as the bishop himself would do. Only the bishop can release him from his assignment.

St. Ignatius instructs us: “The Eucharist is valid when it is performed by the bishop or one to whom he has committed this right.”

Like the bishop, the priest must exercise prudence, and seek advice among those entrusted to his care. Priests should therefore work closely with their parishioners, especially their parish councils, in carrying on the work of Christ in His Holy Church.

Listen again to St. Ignatius as he writes to the Church in Tralles of Asia: “Let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they respect the bishop and the priests as the council of God and as the college of the apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church.”

In the Orthodox Church a married man may be ordained to the priesthood. His marriage, however, must be the first for both him and his wife, and he may not remarry and continue in his ministry if his wife should die. If a single man is ordained, he may not marry.


The deacons of the Church originally assisted the bishops in good deeds and works of charity. The Acts of the Apostles record the calling of the first deacons. In recent centuries the diaconate has become almost exclusively a liturgical function in which the deacons assist at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other services. In more recent times, however, the diaconate has been extended to many as a permanent position for full or part-time service to the work of the Church. In the office of deacon, men may not only assist the priest and bishop in liturgical services, but will often head educational programs and youth groups, do missionary work, hospital visitations and conduct the projects of social welfare to help the poor or needy. In these cases the deacons are not necessarily graduates of professional schools of theology or seminaries, but are chosen directly from the local parish community. The Church’s rules about marriage are the same for the deacons as they are for the priests.


Do you have an interest in working for the betterment of others, as well as yourself? Does knowing that God is your boss sound intriguing? Why not consider becoming a priest or deacon? While requirements vary within each Orthodox jurisdiction, candidates are usually expected to study at one of the several American Orthodox theological seminaries, each offering unique programs designed to prepare not only future priests and deacons, but educated laypersons as well. While some people still feel that entering full-time ministry is an awful way to spend the rest of one’s life (“Priests lead such hard lives . . .”), the majority of the nation’s clergy would definitely agree that such views are not at all realistic. The Church offers many unique opportunities, and the rewards are indeed satisfying. Interested? Why not talk it over with God, and then give your parish priest a call. He’ll be more than happy to give you whatever guidance is necessary (in fact, he’ll be overjoyed just to hear from you!)


While the Orthodox Church does not ordain women, it does not exclude them from Church work and ministry. Most of the Orthodox theological seminaries in America are now co-ed, and offer excellent programs for women in liturgical music and art, religious education and theology. There are many, many opportunities for women in the Orthodox Church, especially in the fields of education and social work. Contact your parish priest for more information.

Reprinted from On the Upbeat.

THE WORD/JUNE 1984; pp. 4-6