Bishop Eddie Long, leader of the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, is facing allegations that he molested four teenage boys. The Baptist Church started as an anti-authoritarian religious movement and is known to this day for its self-governing, egalitarian congregations. When did Baptists start consecrating bishops?
Within the last 20 years or so. The recent rise of mega-churches has changed the way some Baptists practice their faith. In the 1990s, popular leader Paul S. Morton broke away from the National Baptist Convention to form his Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. He stitched his member churches into a centrally run organization and consecrated those who oversaw multiple congregations or held leadership positions (including Eddie Long) as bishops. Today, the practice has spread far beyond Full Gospel, to other mega churches and even to smaller congregations that want to recognize their leader’s contributions. (No one polices use of the honorific.)
While St. Paul speaks of bishops approvingly in his first letter to Timothy, Morton probably got the idea from the Pentecostal or Charismatic tradition, where many leaders dub themselves bishops. In those denominations, the practice of consecrating bishops isn’t limited to African-Americans, as it seems to be among Baptists.
The Baptist bishop is mostly an American phenomenon, but there is at least one example abroad. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili heads the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. (That’s the former Soviet republic, not the state.) The influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which employs 35 bishops and archbishops to minister to the country’s 35 eparchies, or spiritual districts, seems to have outweighed the Baptist egalitarian resistance to titles.
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Explainer thanks David W. Key of the Emory University Candler School of Theology, Bill J. Leonard of Wake Forest University, and Doug Weaver of Baylor University.