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Bishops in the Black Church Part 2

by Lewis Brogdon | Mar 13, 2013

African-American bishops are not new. They have been around since the 1800s. Richard Allen became the first presiding bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816 and later Daniel Alexander Payne was consecrated as bishop in 1852. James Varick was ordained bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1822. William Henry Miles and Richard Vanderhost were the first bishops in the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church in 1870. In the early part of the twentieth century, Charles H. Mason became the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, Charles Price Jones presided as bishop over the Church of Christ (Holiness) and Garfield Haywood was bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Ida Robinson, a bishop in the Mt. Sinai Holy Church, was an exception to what was an early norm among African American churches, that only men could be bishops. Today, some African-American denominations have made small steps toward including women in the bishopric with capable leaders such as Vashti McKenzie in the AME Church and Teresa Snorton in the CME Church while others like the Church of God in Christ do not ordain women as bishops (or even as pastors for that matter).

As you can see, these people are all bishops in churches with an Episcopal structure, meaning churches that are governed by select individuals called ‘bishops.’ Bishops preside over churches in jurisdictions, regions or districts within a single state and sometimes preside over churches in multiple states. From a historical standpoint, the episcopacy in the contemporary Black Church is linked to the large number of African-Americans in the Methodist churches since the early nineteenth century, which later give rise to Holiness, Pentecostal and later nondenominational churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, all of which have bishops. Becoming a bishop takes time in these churches. It requires one to begin as a local pastor and advance to positions such as ruling elder or district supervisor for years overseeing pastors and congregations while working with a presiding bishop. Afterwards, one is appointed or elected as a bishop, which is a qualitatively different process than the one adopted by some African American churches today.

So, what’s the big deal? What is happening today that is causing so much controversy and debate? Two things are happening. First, there are an increasing number of bishops in churches that have not historically been governed by bishops. This is particularly true in African-American Baptist churches, which typically have a congregational polity. The Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, for example, is a clear deviation from congregational governance. Paul Morton serves as the presiding bishop of a fellowship of Baptist churches that have adopted an Episcopal structure. Furthermore, there are an increasing number of bishops in the National Baptist Convention. This trend is causing quite a stir as more traditional Baptist pastors question the validity of the office of bishop in the Baptist Church.  

Second, there are an increasing number of predominantly African-American nondenominational churches. These churches are not affiliated with historic black denominations like the AME Church, CME Church, National Baptist Convention, the Church of God in Christ, or the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Yet they have adopted the Episcopal structure. Among these nondenominational churches, many pastors call themselves bishops. What is particularly ironic about this practice is that many of these bishops do not exercise oversight of a jurisdiction, region or district of churches with a host of pastors to oversee. They are mostly pastors of a single congregation and in some cases may participate in a fellowship of nondenominational churches. Today there are bishops who serve as pastors of churches with membership as large as ten thousand to memberships of 10 or 20 people. This too, has caused a quite a stir. And so I ask the following questions. First, what caused this shift within historic denominations and the emergence of nondenominationalism among African-American churches? Second, why has the episcopacy become so popular? Is it the love of an honorific title or is it a signal of important issues emerging in African-American churches. Tell me what you think, and I’ll explain my thoughts next time.

5 Comments

  1. 1 Pastor Leroy M. DeBerry 15 Mar
    It appears among our African American churches, that moving from the office of Pastor to that of Bishop is a more elevated office, but in my opinion and understanding of Ehp.4:11-16 the office ot the Pastor, is a Fivefold ministry annoiting,with the office of a Bishop being an personal desired office of administration 1Tim 3:1-7.
  2. 2 Justin Burch 11 Nov

    What is more important than anything is what God is doing I am a pastor and I am not following the historical episcopacy at all God has not required that I do so little yet am I following any historical structure at all I am following what God has given in my prayer time with him through fasting and revelation from the lord I think we need to see it more often then anything nothing wrong with breaking so many traditions in fact, more needs to be broken there is not set way of doing things only God's way and he is doing things that aren't common to most people and I am bold enough to say I am not doing ministry the way so many are doing it now and have done for years.

  3. 3 Joseph C. Epps, Jr. 22 May
    We could all be bishops by following the biblical guidelines as set forth in 1 Timothy 3: 1-7. Unfortunately the lack of a consensus for attaining such a position today is more a matter of egoism than substance.
  4. 4 Beau Brown 19 Mar
    Really appreciated this overview. Postmodern culture seems to creates a situation in which people can instill whatever meaning we want in any title we want. Seeing behind and beneath the structure is good, but we still need a structure!
  5. 5 Rev. Amariah McIntosh 19 Mar
    Great outlining of the history of the episcopacy in the African-American Church. I can't explain the shift, except to say that it is possibly the thirst for a title beyond Reverend, Pastor, or Elder that some believe will set them apart from others.
    They are not necessarily concerned about the history or the biblical concept, just how they want to see themselves and others to see them.

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Lewis Brogdon







          Lewis Brogdon is the
          Director of the Black
          Church Studies
          program at
          Louisville Seminary
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