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May 24, 2013 4:52 PM Baptist Bishops

By Ed Kilgore

Off-year elections being rare beasts, we are going to hear an awful lot between now and November about the Republican nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, whether or not party handlers get a grip on him and convince him to babble inanely and incessantly about jobs and fiscal responsibility instead of the topics that most obviously interest him. But as E.W. Jackson has risen to national fame, I’ve been asked by several people: Why does he call himself a “Bishop.” Isn’t he a Baptist and a politician?

Turns out it’s not as weird as it sounds to a lot of people. There is a small but significant trend among conservative evangelicals and specifically Baptists and pentecostals, primarily (though not exclusively, viz. the late and notorious Bishop Earl Paulk of Atlanta) among African-Americans, to use the term “Bishop” as a simple (and often self-designated) honorific for a prominent church leader.

This all sounds strange and even scandalous to those from traditions where “Bishop” connotes an exceptionally elevated position in a denominational hierarchy, and even more so to those who identify the title with an Apostolic Succession claiming to date from New Testament times. But from even my rudimentary understanding of Church History, the term “Bishop” (from the Greek episkopos, meaning “overseer” or “guardian”) originally just meant the principal celebrant of the Eucharist in any given church—what we would refer to now as a “pastor” or “rector.” As the early church grew, the Bishop’s assisting clergy, known eventually as “priests,” took over the daily ministerial duties in individual churches while the Bishop gradually became a figure with great spiritual and administrative authority.

So you could argue the title as appropriated by E.W. Jackson is closer to the original model than that of the powerful hierarchical figures with whom the term has come to be identified. Either way, I won’t begrudge him the prefix, and will be happy to say between now and election day: Man, that Bishop is crazy! We’ll see if he gains another title on November 5.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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