Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nazarene Superintendency/Episcopacy Reconsidered, Part I: Setting the Stage

Nazarene General Superintendents
For those who have followed this blog over time, it will come as no surprise that I have consistently been outspoken when it comes to clearly identifying the Nazarene general superintendents as bishops.  -  I will discuss the basis for that in the midst of this first of two posts.

However, there are others in our midsts who have given the title bishop to our district superintendents.  -  I have opposed this view for three major reasons:

     1.) Wesley's Intent
     2.) Ecumenical/Fraternal Relations Within American Methodism, and The Consistent Structure of American Methodism
     3.) The Authority to Ordain

I will develop and address those three reasons in part two of my "reconsideration."

First, then:  Laying the basis and foundation of the Nazarene superintendency/episcopacy.

Most who read this blog will understand that the Church of the Nazarene is a Wesleyan-Holiness expression of Methodism.  It was born out of the 19th Century Holiness Movement.  Behind each of the major parent denominations that merged together in 1907 and 1908 to form the current denomination, there lay a number of schisms from the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  -  That is to say, unlike The Wesleyan Methodist Church or the Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene was not a schism, itself.  It was a uniting group, uniting many of the Wesleyan-Holiness people across the nation.  Some of those who united did not have a Methodist background, but they did accept the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness of heart and life, and they understood that they were joining a denomination that was essentially Methodist.  Further, in early leadership, theology/doctrine, government, etc., the Church of the Nazarene is clearly identifiable as Methodist*

John Wesley
The Nazarene superintendency, then, finds its roots in American Methodism, and beyond that, in the founder of Methodism, the Rev'd. John Wesley.

Francis Asbury
When Wesley sent his The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America to the American Methodists, he did so via the hands of the Rev'd. Dr. Thomas Coke.  Coke, like Wesley, was a priest in the Church of England.  However, prior to his coming to America, Wesley laid hands on Coke and "ordained" (yes, ordained) him "Superintendent" for the Methodists in North America.**  He instructed Coke to ordain Francis Asbury, deacon, elder and superintendent.  The two were to be "general superintendents" of the Methodists in North America.  -  It was a short time later that (much to Wesley's frustration)  the two men began to use the term bishop in place of general superintendent.  -  And there were plenty of good reasons for them to do so.

First, it was clear that the term superintendent was simply another way of identifying the episcopacy.  The Greek word, itself, while usually translated as bishop, actually means overseer (i.e., one who superintends).  A superintendent, then, is an overseer or bishop.

This identification is clear in that, even when the term superintendent was being used, the newly formed denomination was called the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Further, the "ordination" rite used by Wesley for Coke, and used by Coke for Asbury, and printed in The Sunday Service, was simply the rite for making bishops in the Church of England.  The term, bishop, was simply replaced with the term, superintendent.

Charles Wesley

Also confirming this identity was Charles Wesley's scathing response:

So easily are bishops made
By man or woman's whim!
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him
(As quoted in Manschreck's A History of Christianity, vol. 2, p. 294)

Charles clearly understood that Wesley had acted to make Coke a bishop.***

To this day, the United Methodist Church, in The Book of Discipline, identifies the bishop as a general superintendent.  (Another aside: despite Wesley's rite of "ordaining superintendents," American Methodism is united in stating that the office of bishop is just that, an office.  It is not understood to be a separate order from that of elder.)

When we look to the various (major) Methodist denominations in America, we discover that: the United Methodist Church (as the MEC) went from using the title general superintendent to the title bishop; the three African Methodist denominations have continued to use the term, bishop; the Free Methodists originally used the term, general superintendent, but changed it to bishop; The Wesleyan Church and the Church of the Nazarene, both use Wesley's term of general superintendent.

Phineas Bresee
Carl Bangs, in his book, Phineas F. Bresee: His Life in Methodism, the Holiness Movement, and the Church of the Nazarene, says that whenn Bresee chose the term general superintendent, he knew well that this was the Methodist term for "bishop."  -  Likely, this was a wise choice, in that one of the issues that holiness people had was the perceived abuse of power by Methodist Episcopal bishops.  Using the other term, not only harkened back to Wesley's language, it also distanced the Nazarene "episcopacy" from that of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Additionally, unlike the Methodist bishops, who were elected for life, Nazarene general superintendents would serve four year terms.  They could be re-elected at each General Assembly, but they had to be re-elected in order to stay in that office.

The denominations mentioned, above, have each developed their understandings of the power, authority and role that their general superintendents/bishops.  The three African Methodist denominations are very similar to each other and the UMC.  The Wesleyans, Free Methodists, and Nazarenes are similar to each other (though there are differences, with the FMC leaning toward the episcopal side, and The Wesleyans leaning toward the congregational side of their connectional governments).

All of this should make it clear that, for Nazarenes (and other Wesleyan/Methodists in America), the superintendency is their episcopacy, and a general superintendent is a bishop.

Further, the Church of the Nazarene, itself, has identified the superintendency with the episcopacy.  Admittedly, this is not as prominant as I would like, and it has not always been in a way that I would like.  In fact, it often makes this identification as it is describing the limitations of our superintendency/episcopacy.  Nevertheless, the identification is made. 

For example, in recent editions of the Manual, our general superintendents' "Foreword" has stated, "The government of the Church of the Nazarene is distinctive.  In polity it is representative - neitherly purely episcopal nor wholly congregational" (p. 6, emphasis mine).  In the "Preamble" to our section on "Government," it is stated, "The government of the Church of the Nazarene is representative, and thus avoids the extremes of episcopacy on the one hand and unlimited congregationlism on the other" (p. 62, emphasis mine). 

In Called Unto Holiness: The Story of the Nazarenes: The Formative Years. vol. 1, it is recounted how there was a (perceived) need to ". . . 'correct any interpretation' that the church's government was episcopal in form."  (In other words, the government was understood by many to be episcopal!)  The resolution at that General Assembly (which passed!) stated, "We are not an episcopal church in the common sense of that term" (emphasis mine).  The statement went on to explain the limits of the superintendecy's oversight, stating that "Our pastors are the overseers of their particular charges" (p. 247).

Those Nazarene quotes should indicate that:  1.) The Nazarene form of government is not purely an episcopal form of government.  -  None of the American Methodist denominations have a purely episcopal form of government, but rather all have a modified episcopal government.  It is a connectional, representative government that includes an episcopacy.  Each of the denominations lean, to greater or lesser degrees, toward or away from the episcopal side of their respective government.  The UMC, AME, AMEZ and CME lean more heavily toward the episcopal side.  The FMC leans somewhat less in that direction, while The Wesleyan Church leans more toward the congregational side of their connectional/representative government.  Nazarenes are probably between the TWC and the FMC.  -  It should be noted that not even The Episcopal Church (Anglican) in the U.S.A. has a purely episcopal form of government (much to the confusion and frustration of some global south Anglicans).  -  2.)  The Nazarene form of government blends epicopal elements with congregational elements as it forms its representative government.  3.)  The episcopal side of the Nazarene government is expressed in its superintendency.

What should be clear from this post is that the superintendency within Wesleyan/Methodist denominations (including the Church of the Nazarene) constitutes their episcopacy.  It was not the intent of this post to argue that the Church of the Nazarene has an episcopal form of government.  Rather, it was the intent to show that the Nazarenes, like other American Methodists, have an episcopal element in their government structure.  Further, it was the intent to demonstrate that that episcopal element is expressed in our superintendency.  Specifially, it was the intent to demonstrate that general superintendents in Wesleyan/Methodist churches are to be understood as bishops.

In the second part of this "reconsideration," I will look at the view that district superintendents ought to be identified as bishops.  I will further discuss and "reconsider" my three major reasons for opposing this position, viz., 1.) Wesley's Intent; 2.) Ecumenical/Fraternal Relations Within American Methodism; and 3.) The Authority to Ordain.


*cf., especially, Our Watchword & Song: The Centennial History of the Church of the Nazarene, edited by Floyd Cunningham. (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. 2009).  -  This history emphasizes that Nazarenes not only have a Methodist heritage, but they maintain an underlying Methodist identity.  Nazarenes are Methodists.  - This emphasis was confirmed in emailed conversations with the book's editor and conversations with one of the contributing authors.

**I have no desire to get into the conversation of Wesley's authority to ordain.  That will take too much time and distract from the immediate subject at hand.  Suffice it to say, Wesley understood that elder and bishop were essentially the same order.  However, that did not mean that any elder could, at any time, simply choose to ordain.  Rather, for Wesley a number of things came together leading to his ordaining.  1.) God providentially giving him leadership of the entire Methodist movement (because of which, Wesley could say that he understood he was as much a New Testament bishop as the Archbishop of Canterbury).  2.)  The emergency situation of those in American not having access to the sacrament, and the refusal of Church of England bishops to act.  3.)  The fact that he was not interfering with the established government and realm of the Church of England.

***I should mention that, it is true, John Wesley was not happy that the two general superintendents were now calling themeslves bishops.  However, the evidence seems to indicate that the reasons for his negative response was not because he did not understand the superintendency to be the episcopacy.  Rather, it seems to have more to do with a fear of a sense of pride and, possibly, the additional trouble that he might experience from other Anglicans.


Eric + said...

Thanks Todd. This is good stuff. I can't wait to read your reconsideration. As one who has been vocal that it is the DS that should be understood to be the Bishop, I think I have shifted somewhat as well. I am less inclined than before to haggle over General vs District. I would prefer to simply say that Superintendent = Bishop. Thanks again.

Eric + said...

What I would be interested in haggling over is order vs office regarding the episcopacy. ;)

Todd Stepp said...


It took quite a while for me to make time to get this part written. I hope it won't take as long for part two!

If you are wanting to argue order over office, good luck! (Now there is a Christian concept.)

Nazarenes are afraid of the term bishop, they are certainly not going for another order.

I recall (with much frustration) a G.A. where the returning g.s.s, stood behind the kneeling, newly elected g.s.s for prayer. They stood with theiir hands clasped behind their backs(!) and the prayer included (within the prayer!) something like "Now God you know that they are still elders"(!) and went on to explain how they were not a different order!

The UMC is the closest of the American Methodists to act like it is another order. They consecrate with laying on of hands.


The Holy Spirit is invoked upon them "for the ministry of a bishop." - Wesley's words (and the CoE) "for the office and work of a Superintendant/Bishop."

For elders, it is "for the office and work of an elder."

(Again, notice what the act of ordination is, compared to Nazarenes!)

All of this sounds very much like the UM bishops are being ordained! And they function as though it is a new order.

It is ironic that the difference is stated in terms of bishop being an office, while elder is an order, however, in the ordination, what makes the elder ordained is the invocation for "the office" of elder. What makes the bishop not ordained is that the Spirit is not invoked for "the office," but for the ministry!

Still the UMC is quite clear in the Discipline, bishop is an office for an elder, not a third order.

Eric + said...

Todd, order vs office is not a hill I'd die on, heck, I won't even lose any sleep over it. I just think it is a fun discussion. I do think it is a long shot, but after 80 years we added a second order, so even a 1 in a million chance is still a chance!

Out of curiosity, could you say a little about why Wesley departed from Anglican theology on the issue of order or office for Bishops?

Eric + said...

Wesley and subsequent Methodism...