Baptist Bishops

Paul Harvey

Thanks to Jon Walton, "Evangelicals Embracing Ecclesial Elitism?", for calling my attention to this story, from the Boston Globe, about the crowning of the well-known black minister in Boston John M. Borders III as a Bishop. Nothing unusual there, except that Borders is a Baptist. I got a call from the reporter who did this story a while back, and had since forgotten about it, but she alerted me to the increasingly common practice of making well-known church leaders into Bishops. Borders was consecrated so by the International Bishops Conference USA, which I had not heard of before but appears to be a sort of support group for well-known and respected pastors of large congregations who have earned the honorific.

The story begins:

The Rev. John M. Borders III approached the pulpit at Morning Star Baptist Church on a recent Sunday wearing his usual suit and tie. He adjusted his glasses, as he often does, and proceeded to deliver to the packed sanctuary a thunderstorm of a sermon on a theme from Revelation: “No more delays!’’

In the pews, some sobbed. Some shouted, “Yes, Lord!’’ Some just breathed, until Borders concluded with a hushed prayer.

The only outward sign that something was different was the new ring on the pastor’s finger, a thick gold ring with a purple stone. It symbolized his recent elevation, in a ceremony in Memphis two weeks before, to the position of bishop.

The title of bishop, accompanied by such emblems of authority, was uncommon among hierarchy-spurning Baptists until recently, but it is being adopted by a growing number of Baptist pastors, most of them African-American. Borders and other new bishops have acquired some of the ceremonial garb — croziers (pastoral staffs), zucchettos (skullcaps) and chasubles (robes) — that their spiritual forefathers left behind when they broke from the Church of England in the 17th century. Some, including Borders, have even embraced the doctrine of apostolic succession — the belief in an unbroken line from Jesus’ apostles to today’s bishops.

Walton is skeptical, to say the least, of this move:

One has to wonder if the recent rise of Baptist bishops and evangelical charismatic authorities (think Joel Osteen and Rick Warren) represents a cultural reversal. Over the past three decades, aristocratic corporate cronyism, skyrocketing executive pay, and oligarchic elites have concretized the boundaries of American mobility and existence. It makes sense, then, that many “successful” religious leaders would embrace and spiritualize this power-grabbing culture.

I see his point, for sure, but given this is primarily an honorific, sort of like an ecclesiastical honorary doctorate, I worry less about Borders than the non-bishop megachurch icons who come closer to all-powerful CEOs than to guys like Borders who genuinely have put their bodies on the line in tough urban situations.

Or maybe it's just that all organizations bureaucratize over time. Sects become churches, and churches develop hierarchies, and hierarchies become more elaborate. Thank God that sort of thing never happens to universities.

Incidentally, I'm thinking about becoming a Blog Bishop. Can someone please loan me the headgear?


Qohelet said…
And I thought they just want to play dress-up like it's Halloween.
Christopher said…
This is really quite fascinating, and I was completely unaware. Thanks for the heads up, Pau- ... er ... Blog Bishop Harvey.

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