“Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1, NIV; overseer is most commonly translated “bishop” in some versions).
I’ve often been asked why I’m not a bishop. Does the church really need another bishop? After the death of my father, the late Bishop Ulysses S. King, Sr., in 1984, it was assumed by many that I would want to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a bishop. It would seem like the most logical thing to do since I come from a family of exemplary church leaders, preachers, bishops, pastors, and missionary/evangelists on both sides of my family tree. I can honestly say that I never sought nor desired the office of bishop or ever wanted the position or title. Just because my grandfather and father were bishops does not mean that I would automatically aspire to the same position or office. Unfortunately, many churches suffer because of self-appointed, self-anointed, self-seeking leaders who were never meant nor called to be a bishop. Sorry, color-coded vestments, clergy collars, or a certificate from “makeabishop.com” does not make one a bishop.
Then what does make or qualify someone who “desires” the office of bishop/overseer? Paul gave the Church a list of character qualities in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 3:2-7 that should seriously be considered before anyone desires to become a bishop or elected to the episcopacy. Bruce L. Shelley writes, “As Paul outlined the qualifications for church leadership in 1 Timothy and Titus, his criteria did not emphasize family line or some past rite. Instead, the focus was on the leader’s proven ethical character, on such qualities as being blameless, above reproach, not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to much wine, not pursuing dishonest gain . . . The basis for ministry was the leader’s continual commitment to live up to these standards” (Leadership Journal, April 1, 1988).
It is interesting that Paul used the word “desire” as a reason to seek this office. It is equally strange that the episcopacy, in those times, would have been the object of intense desire, particularly since it placed one in danger of being persecuted, endure sufferings, and even death. The job was painful and difficult. None of which seems to be the fear of any who pursues this office today. Most who seek such ecclesiastical duty look to it for fame, power, recognition, and avarice, never as a position of service. Herein lays the heart of the problem: Some leaders (not all) in a few denominational and independent churches today have lost their servant’s heart and now seek titles and positions to validate their calling. It is unfortunate that so many have not learned the discipline of real servant/pastoral leadership. It begins with serving people not being served by people. Jesus asked, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27-28, NIV).
What is so attractive about this position that someone would desire to become a bishop/overseer? Indeed it is a noble and honorable calling that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Those men and women who desire to serve the church in this office should prayerfully consider long and hard whether or not they are truly qualified to serve. The role and office of bishop is an apostolic and prophetic calling. The one, who speaks, speaks with a prophetic voice, which proclaims, “Thus says the Lord!” The church looks to him or her as the spiritual head and representative of Christ’s Church for direction, edification, and comfort. The central question then should be is that person who would be bishop willing to suffer, be persecuted, and die for the cause of Christ and his Church? Let us be clear of the distinction between the body of Christ and a denomination. The body of Christ is inclusive of all believers who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior not just a separate or sectarian group of believers who may think the church revolves around them. There are some who literally believe that if you are not a member of their particular group, church, denomination, or fellowship then you are not going to heaven.
I am a member of an obscure classical Pentecostal African-American denomination that was birth by my grandparents during the turn of the twentieth century. They were a very humble and an unassuming group of believers whose only purpose was to preach the kingdom of God and to share the love of Jesus Christ with fellow-believers. Those early church leaders were known only as “brothers” and “sisters.” The church then was a community much like the early church in the book of Acts (see Acts 4:32-35). They served one another, the poor and needy, and genuinely loved people. They wanted people to know of the love of Jesus Christ through their personal witness to salvation. They truly believed in His Second Coming; and they taught holiness and sanctification as the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of every believer so that each one would be prepared for His return. You don’t hear very many sermons on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, today. The airwaves are replete, however, with sermons and promises of material blessings and prosperity. Sadly, the Church is not preparing the people of God for the Lord’s return. True Kingdom ministry is a ministry that looks to the Lord’s return. “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)
My father was called to serve as bishop over the church after the death of his father, the late Bishop Judge King, in 1944. Jealousy and schism within the denomination created a volatile climate that led to the church ultimately splitting into two factions. My father never sought the office or wanted the title or position but in order to save his father’s work and the small group of followers from being scattered into the hands of wolves, he committed himself to defending the church and his call to serve. It was not a joyful time in the history of the Christ Holy Sanctified Church. Great men and women of God rose to the occasion under his leadership. Faithful men and women like Bishop S. O. Walton, Sr., Bishop Frank Randle, Jr., Mother A. L. Money, Mother Sarah A. King, and others joined him in a painful yet destined journey in the church’s history. Unfortunately, few in the church today can appreciate the church’s humble beginnings.
To be completely honest, I don’t enjoy attending conventions very much anymore. When I do attend, it’s mostly out of respect for those early church leaders who I once knew and respected. That is not to say that those presently in leadership are not worthy of honor and respect. I believe in giving honor and respect to anyone appointed and called to serve in the episcopacy—male or female. Each man or woman serves at his or her level of gifting, talent, special anointing, and ability. No one serves or leads at all times in the same manner or in the same way. Just as there were good and bad kings of Israel there are some good and bad leaders in the Church. I’ve fought many church battles over the years and served faithfully under the tutelage of three exceptional bishops. (Another personal mentor was the late Bishop E. F. Morris of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Association.) The list of bishops I’ve personally had the honor and privilege of knowing and serving under within Pentecostal, mainline Christian denominations, and independent movements would be too long to mention here. Naturally, I have a personal bias: my father, Bishop Ulysses S. King, Sr., was the greatest of them all.
I find it easier to be less critical of anyone’s leadership style by saying less and rather focus on each person’s positive and good leadership qualities. It is also wise to remember: Criticism goes both ways. One is wise to consider one’s own leadership abilities before he or she can be critical of another’s. It is more productive to place one’s energies in prayer. Does this mean the church should be silent when there may be a question of a bishop’s character, ethics, morals, or leadership ability? Absolutely not! The church should never have to suffer under bad or moral questions of leadership. Church leadership should have the resolve to act and act swiftly under clear and ecclesiastical guidelines and remove anyone who may offend the body of Christ or may be ineffective in performing his or her duties in the episcopacy for the good of entire Church.
The denominational church I grew up in is not the same nor should it be. Research show that many denominational churches are quickly losing their identity and relevance (Barna Research Group, December 7, 2009). Denominations are in decline. I hear a lot about what the church use to be but there’s little to remind us of what it is. I am not speaking of styles and codes of dress or denominational standards of holiness. It doesn’t take much to write about what the church is against; but what does the church stand for today? The late Bishop Ulysses King asked this question during a setting among church leaders in his denomination just a few years prior to his death. “How relevant is your church?” he asked. There was very little response and some didn’t understand the question. Bishop King saw the church changing and literally being ignored by society. He saw the church losing its voice because it was more concerned with internal matters and less concerned about reaching the world for Christ. Sadly the church has become more interested in titles, positions, and numbers than in missions/evangelism and outreach. Titles and positions are given out like gift cards at a Wal-Mart. Was this what the early church leaders envisioned? I don’t think so. I am certain that our early church founders would not approve of the direction the church has gone thus far. Yet in the midst of all this uncertainty, God always seems to raise up a servant-leader after his own heart to lead his people.
I recall attending a convention hosted by another denomination several years ago. While the speaker was giving the introduction to his sermon, the presiding bishop arrived late to the service. He stood patiently at the rear of the church to await the signal for him to make his entrance into the sanctuary. One of the official clergy sitting on the dais received notice that the presiding bishop was waiting to come in. The official clergy stood up and interrupted the minister midway into his sermon to ask the audience to stand while the presiding bishop and his entourage walked in. With revered applause, the convention delegates stood while sadly, Jesus waited. It was such a disgrace and offense to the preached Word that I got up to leave. Since when do we, as men, take precedence over the spoken and preached Word of God? Never! I am weary of these theatrics, and I know God is.
I’ve intentionally removed myself off the stage so that I may focus on my calling and appointed position to serve as pastor in the local church. I am clear of my purpose and destiny. I find affirmation in preaching the Gospel each week to those who faithfully attend our local church. Some call me Pastor King, Pastor Stephen, Stephen or Steve, and yes, even a few who knew me back in the day slip and (incorrectly) call me “Junior.” I know who and whose I am. I don’t need anyone to carry my Bible to and from the pulpit or wipe the sweat from my face with a large bath towel while preaching nor have the congregation stand before I enter the sanctuary. All glory and honor belongs to the One who alone is worthy to be praised!
There is so much talent in the church today, and no one should feel left out or jealous of anyone called to serve. Find your purpose and fulfill your destiny. I know this sounds cliché in the church community today; however, I honestly believe what God has for you cannot be taken from you. Greatness comes through faithful service not in titles and positions. If someone desires to be bishop, let them. Some of these new and young rising stars are just waiting for their time to shine and to lead the church and the people of God. Overall, I feel confident and assured of the church’s future and destiny, if it stays true to its mission and command of Jesus Christ to, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV). A new day is coming . . .
“Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt” (Exodus 1:8, NIV)