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  • Peter Blair

Are Bishops Biblical?


As a 20 year old university student considering christian ministry, this question occupied not-a-little of my time. Those who know Northern Irish Christians will know that we are a thoroughly denominational bunch; even non-denominational Christians are passionate about their denomination (or lack thereof). In Northern Ireland, there are any number of opportunities for evangelical ministry, be it Presbyterian (whether mainline, Evangelical, Free or Reformed), Baptist, Congregational, Independent, and even Anglican.


Now, as an Anglican minister, this question continues to be asked of me by young men and women considering full-time ministry. Are bishops really in the Bible? Wouldn’t it be easier to be independent? Aren’t there more evangelicals in other denominations?


These questions are nothing new. In the tumultuous 17th Century, reformed Christians wrestled with this issue, not least the great Archbishop, James Ussher.


Biblical Bishops: James Ussher’s Defence and Reform of Anglican Polity, surveys Ussher’s two most significant reflections on church polity: The Original of Bishops and Metropolitans (1644) and The Reduction of Episcopacy (1656). These two works sought to defend (The Original) and reform (The Reduction) the government of the Church of England.


Chapter 1 introduces the life and times of James Ussher. He was an enigmatic figure: although he was Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, he welcomed Presbyterian clergymen into the Church of Ireland. He was a key influence on the formation of the Westminster Confession, even though he refused to attend the Assembly. He was admired by the Congregationalist Oliver Cromwell, and Archbishop William Laud. In the midst of division and discord, he was a magnificent model of reformed irenicism, in his own day and ours.


Chapter 2 examines Ussher’s study of the leadership structure of the Old Testament. There, he notes that the spiritual leaders of the Old Testament were divided into priests and Levites, and within both orders there were rulers appointed (Num 3:24, 30, 35; 1 Chron 24:1–4). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these rulers are even referred to as episcopoi (bishops/overseers - Neh 11:22). This threefold structure can also be seen in the jewish leadership of the New Testament: chief priests, priests, and Levites. Ussher declines to draw an absolute correlation between the offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, and chief priest, priest, and Levite, however, he does note that the both the Old Testament (Isaiah 66:21) and New Testament (1 Cor 9:13–14) see some continuity between the leadership of the old and new covenant communities.


Chapter 3 explores Ussher’s evidence for a threefold leadership structure in the New Testament. Rather than go to the pastoral epistles, where Timothy and Titus are appointed to ordain elders and guard against false teaching, he studies the letters to the churches in Revelation 2–3. There, he convincingly argues that the “angels” the letters are addressed to, are in fact leaders over regional churches, even citing presbyterian commentators to support his position.


Chapter 4 moves to Ussher’s a survey of key episcopal figures of the early church. Examining the writings of Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, and others, he argues that bishops were not a late departure from the New Testament church, but rather a reasonable continuation of the patterns established in the Old and New Testaments. Those familiar with the episcopal convictions of some of the early church fathers (most notably Ignatius) might be surprised to find that Ussher argues for a more cooperative model of episcopacy than one usually associates with Ignatius.


Chapter 5 considers Ussher’s Reduction of Episcopacy, a four-step program to reform the 17th Century Church of England’s polity to better align with both the New Testament and Early Church. Alongside these steps, Ussher considers the words of the 1559 Ordinal, Paul’s words to the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20, and briefly revisits Revelation 2–3.


This booklet doesn’t answer every objection to Anglican polity. Rather, it hopes to bolster confidence in the system of government we have inherited from the saints of old, whilst a the same time reintroducing James Ussher to the reformed anglican constituency.

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Peter Blair is married to Jodie and serves as the Curate-Assistant of All Saints' Church, Belfast. He studied at Moore Theological College and was ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia. Whilst in Sydney, alongside his studies, he served as a catechist in Unichurch, UNSW and Two Ways Ministries. You can buy his new book here

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