In the LDS church the bishop is responsible for making the general day to day decisions to ensure that the ward is functioning, and things are according to the general leaders plans as well as the plans of the next higher leader who is the stake president. This calling naturally has a lot of responsibility and a certain level of respect associated with it. Since this calling is so foundational to the spiritual development of the congregation of saints then it is important to look at the scriptures and see what they say about the office of bishop.
The New Testament describes the qualifications of the office of bishop however not much else. Paul while writing to Timothy who was the bishop of Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey, wrote in 1 Timothy 3:
A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity1 Timothy 3:2-4
This is honestly quite a list of requirements and shows how important the office of bishop is. These qualifications are also reiterated by Paul in Titus 1:5-9. Essentially bishops must be very good examples that others can spiritually rely on. Anything else may cause a spiritual stumbling block for someone and prevent them from drawing closer to Christ as a result.
For the office of bishop, we have far more information in the Doctrine & Covenants. This greatly clarifies the role and responsibilities of what a bishop should and should not do. The first bishop in modern times was Edward Partridge and we have D&C 41 where the Lord calls him and specifies his duties.
I have called my servant Edward Partridge; and I give a commandment, that he should be appointed by the voice of the church, and ordained a bishop unto the church, to leave his merchandise and to spend all his time in the labors of the church; to see to all things as it shall be appointed unto him in my laws in the day that I shall give them.D&C 41:9-10
Edward Partridge was called to leave his temporal pursuits and start to work for “the labors of the church” full-time. This was a calling focusing on the temporal needs of the church, seeking those out, and filling them. He was also to see to the law of God which interestingly was given 5 days later in D&C 42. Section 42 does describe God’s law, which is consecration, however in verses 33-34 it mentions clearly that the bishop was to seek after the temporal needs of the poor and needy. In addition, verses 71-73, says that the bishop and his counselors should be paid by the church for their time. This payment is either consecrated items from the members or a “just remuneration” which today would be money. This is to ensure that they can focus on their calling without worrying about supporting themselves and their families.
And the elders or high priests who are appointed to assist the bishop as counselors in all things, are to have their families supported out of the property which is consecrated to the bishop, for the good of the poor, and for other purposes, as before mentioned; or they are to receive a just remuneration for all their services, either a stewardship or otherwise, as may be thought best or decided by the counselors and bishop. And the bishop, also, shall receive his support, or a just remuneration for all his services in the church.D&C 42:71-73
It is important to note that the language of “just remuneration” was added by Joseph for the 1835 edition of the Doctrine & Covenants. This was because the church had largely failed to live up to the law of consecration at that time as taught by God and therefore the bishop and his counselors needed an equivalent means of support. This would indicate that Joseph felt this principle was still to be followed, but simply modified it as the circumstances deemed necessary.
In 1832 D&C 84 was received where God asked Newel K. Whitney, another bishop of the church, to “travel round about and among all the churches, searching after the poor”. Today we would call the ‘churches’ wards in the LDS church. However, the meaning is clear that the bishop was seeking after the physical needs and concerns of the members and help alleviate those temporal needs. It doesn’t say the bishop was to sit in the chief seat of a sacrament meeting and preside over everyone. It doesn’t say he was to receive confession in the place of Christ. It doesn’t say he is to have office hours and meet with people who may be poor. It says he was to seek after the poor and meet their needs. This is very much a proactive responsibility and not a reactive one.
The church today is very proud of the fact that the leaders are not paid for their service in the church. There have been numerous talks about this and it has even been a positive point of discussion when comparing the LDS church with other Christian churches. For instance, Elder Packer stated:
Did they also tell you that we have no professional clergy? All of us contribute our time, our talents, our means, and travel—all to help the work. And we’re not paid for it in money.Boyd K. Packer
This may technically be true as I am no accountant. However, it is in fact either totally wrong or quite misleading. The top leaders do in fact get paid for their work in the church, and get enormous perks, so claiming an unpaid clergy is provably wrong. The LDS church officially admits this by stating:
General Authorities … are given a living allowance which enables them to focus all of their time on serving in the Church. The living allowance is uniform for all General Authorities.Do General Authorities get paid?
The scriptures though do state that it is perfectly fine to pay those seeking after the temporal needs of the church, they shouldn’t though claim to be unpaid when they are in fact paid.
First it is important to note that not all church callings are worthy of support from the church. For instance, Mosiah 18:26 states that in general leaders in the church should not be supported by the church, but should in fact support themselves.
And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of GodMosiah 18:26
I think this certainly does make sense. When you are supported directly by anything, such as a church or specific group, then the person is certainly liable to adjust their behavior so that it aligns with the positive sentiment of the group. This would mean in the case of a church, such as the LDS church, having religious leaders supported directly by the church could mean the leaders would only deliver messages that members of the church would find pleasing. Leaders that did deliver messages that members found troubling to hear may be in danger of having those members no longer support them.
As was indicated previously in D&C 42 the bishop, who exclusively works for the temporal welfare of Zion, can be supported by church. This concept is specifically mentioned as the law of God. It is very interesting though in D&C 70:12-14 it specifically mentions that spiritual callings get spiritual blessings and temporal callings get temporal blessings.
He who is appointed to administer spiritual things, the same is worthy of his hire, even as those who are appointed to a stewardship to administer in temporal things; … Nevertheless, in your temporal things you shall be equal, and this not grudgingly.D&C 70:12-14
However today we have inverted this. The spiritual leaders at the top of the church get temporal assistance, and they almost always don’t need it, and the temporal leaders at the bottom, who almost always need the physical assistance, get the spiritual blessings instead. This is not what God said and thus it is frankly wrong. Why is it the leaders at the top of an organization almost always get the best of everything?
The Best Gifts
Another responsibility of the office of bishop is described in D&C 46. This section lists numerous spiritual gifts and then mentions in verse 27:
Unto the bishop of the church … are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God.D&C 46:27
As a shepherd of the flock of God the bishop is responsible for making sure that the works of God are manifest and that the people in the congregation are being fed properly. Therefore, if someone in the congregation is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for instance, the bishop should absolutely know it. This is promised by God and therefore should be exercised as a right for the bishop.
A good example of this is Peter in Acts 5. Peter was acting as a shepherd for the early church which was living a form of consecration with “all things common” among themselves. Chapter 5 describes how Ananias, and his wife Sapphira sold their possessions and give the proceeds to the church while retaining a portion for themselves. Immediately Peter knew they were lying. He didn’t have to conduct a “searching” interview, didn’t have to pray about it, and didn’t have to audit their situation. He knew and the penalty for lying to him, and God was death for both of them.
Judge in Israel
D&C 107 does clarify the office of the bishop. Verse 68 states, “the office of a bishop is in administering all temporal things.” This is pretty clear and is in line with the previous scriptures. Verse 72 continues and does state that a bishop is a “judge in Israel” however it is important to understand that full statement.
And also to be a judge in Israel, to do the business of the church, to sit in judgment upon transgressors upon testimony as it shall be laid before him according to the laws, by the assistance of his counselors.D&C 107:72
This verse is used by the modern church to justify the current practice of confessing our sins to our leaders and the leaders then acting as an intercessor for Christ. However, it doesn’t say anything like that. It says the role of a bishop is to: one do the business of the church and two to act as a judge when individuals come to him. It certainly doesn’t say that the bishop needs to meet with everyone and seek out ways to kick them out of the church or to tell them when God forgives them of their sins. There is actually nowhere in modern revelation which states that the bishop should receive confessions from members. Can God not forgive sins directly?
As was discussed, the office of Bishop is a very important calling, reserved for highly capable individuals, and certainly it is fundamental for the welfare and continuance of Zion. Today however the office of Bishop has been perverted into a strange mix of spiritual and temporal responsibilities when it was previously just a temporal calling. The calling itself was also a full-time responsibility where the bishop was supported by the church. This was initially by the consecrated offerings from the members and then changed to a “just renumeration” by Joseph after the law of consecration was abandoned by the church.
Lastly, bishops most certainly are to be judges in Israel. However, this certainly doesn’t mean they are to hold worthiness interviews or to be the most important person in any meeting. They are to ensure the proper operations of Zion and help hold individuals accountable. Today however they sit in the chief seats during meetings and act as spiritual taskmasters. This is not what God wanted the office of bishop to be. Christ told his disciples, in Matthew 23:11, “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant”. Bishops should be shepherds that lead their flock to the master. However how can we be led to the master if we are serving a different god?