When I was a boy, all we had was reverends. The AME had one or two bishops. But, every other preacher was a reverend. Now everyone wants to be a bishop, apostle, prophet of the fourth quadrant of the western hemisphere. Climbing the ladder, can’t be reverend no more.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright
The African-American Baptist church is caught up in a circus of standards. Too many of our clergy have picked one or two verses of scripture to give themselves new identities among their congregants and colleages. Our denomination has long rejected the idea of a clergy hierarchy as found among liturgical bodies. Thus, the only ordained offices among us are that of Pastor (frequently called reverend) and Deacon. Our kinsmen in the African Methodist Episcopal denominations and the Church of God in Christ organized it’s heirarchy of bishops and other such leaders with doctrinal requirements of education, years of service, and other standards long established by their national (now worldwide) bodies. Baptist ministers that wanted to rise in a heirarchy converted to one of the other churches, put their time and effort into God’s service, and (if needed and passed the required examinations) were elevated to such offices.
Thanks to our lack of authority above the local congregation (our state, and national bodies cannot dictate anything to the local church), there is a disturbing trend among Baptist and “non-denominational” churches. Clergy men and women are bestowing the title “bishop” on themselves and among one another in cliques within the church. As we don’t have any governance as to who may receive such a title, there are a wide range of bishops from those with legitimate seminary degrees and years of influential service to “jack legs” that have little more than a GED and ministry training from imitating what is shown on TBN or Word Network. And with the popularity of the “five fold ministry” model (And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelist, and some pastors and teachers for the equiping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ Ephesians 4:11, 12), there are too many people running around the church calling themselves anything they wish.
It would be easy to say that we need to call our prominent pastors and theologians together and set up standards for ministers who wish to work to such offices. But, that is impossible with our traditional lack of oversight of local churches. Maybe our state and national leadership can denounce the usage of such titles. But, many churches would leave the denomination all together. Therefore, any slick sounding “bishop” with little or no theological training can teach a false doctrine and have a good number of people believe him over someone with an M. Div because the title is sounds so authoritive. If a “prophet” has connections to a tele-evangelist, or can host some sort of “holy convocation” in a hotel ballroom, she will hold more influence than the dean of the chapel at the nearby seminary. Indeed, a popular “Archbishop” can start his own school of religion to teach popular doctrines in defiance of a denominational institution that is dedicated to teaching the truth.
I thank God that there are still some black Baptist pastors who refuse to join the circus of titles. May we stand firm in the midst of the monkey doo-doo that people are accepting as “the will of God.”