This is a topic I find myself thinking about surprisingly often — surprisingly because it’s so far beyond the scope of my expertise and experience. But hey, if you can’t bloviate on your personal blog, where can you bloviate?
I believe that the classic threefold order of Christian ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) is indeed embedded in the earliest Christian communities. You can see these roles beginning to form by noting how the letters of the New Testament employ the terms (episkopos, presbyteros, diakonos) — but the evidence is sketchy, and there are few details. The threefold order could have taken different forms that it did, and I’m inclined to think that, as the saying goes, mistakes were made.
The most lasting and consequential of those mistakes was the decision to model episcopal governance on the administrative structures of the Roman Empire. I say “decision” but I suspect it was an unconscious inclination to mimic the dominant social organization of time, in much the same way that churches today mimic the broader culture’s entertainment and business models. In any case, just as the Roman Empire came to be divided into provincia, each of which contained several or many municipia, so ecclesiastical systems gradually emerged which followed this general practice. These have always differed from place to place, and a Metropolitan in the East may not be precisely the same as an Archbishop in the West, but there are strong family resemblances, and they all follow from the territorial structure of Rome’s Empire.
An ecclesiastical organization modeled on an administrative organization will inevitably take on an administrative character, and that is what has happened to the episcopacy. Thoughtful and prayerful churchmen have always been aware of the dangers involved in this modeling: for instance, the informal papal title of servus servorum Dei is an attempt at correction and redefinition. But organizational structures exhibit powerful affordances; they constantly press the people who inhabit them into certain practices, into a certain habitus. The pre-existing layout of the Empire may have seemed to the early Church a wonderful gift; but I cannot help seeing it as a poisoned chalice.
The long, slow, but ultimately irresistible process by which bishops became managers is one of the largest contributing factors in the sex-abuse crisis in the Church today. Very few bishops are wickedly predatory like Uncle Ted McCarrick; but men who have been raised to the episcopacy because they were thought to have managerial competency, and men who clearly lack managerial competency but understand that their job demands that they acquire it, are equally unlikely to think that it’s any of their business to exercise fraternal discipline of someone managing a different department in the same organization. The affordances of the episcopacy as it is currently constituted (more or less throughout the world) strongly dispose it to disciplinary ineffectuality.
Some Christians will agree with much of this and see it as evidence that the threefold order of ministry needs to be abandoned, or at least to become twofold through the amputation of bishops. I don’t think so. But I think the Church of Jesus Christ needs a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the office of bishop.
More thoughts about that (and related matters) in another post.