Escobar, S.

Episkopé as Seen through South American Eyes




Episkopé as Seen Through South American Eyes


S. Escobar


At several points in the last five years bishops have hit the news in Latin America, in an unexpected way. We were used to the image of bishops — usually fat and old men — performing perfunctorily official duties at fixed dates of the year. We associated the image of bishop with a solemn figure extending his hand to be kissed by children, Indians and old women. Not so any more! Those bishops who hit the news are different characters. Like that lean, ascetic Spaniard, well-known as a defender of the Indians, whose life has been threatened several times in Matto Groso, Brazil. Or like that Lutheran bishop who did his best to save some human lives in Chile, and was asked not to return after one of his trips. Or like that serious thinker and teacher whose weekly Sunday messages on the radio are heard all over the province of Santa Fe in Argentina, and read in many papers all over the country on Mondays. Or like those seventeen bishops from Latin America and North America who gathered in Riobamba, Ecuador, when their meeting was interrupted by heavily armed military forces. They were rounded up, treated as common delinquents, taken to military barracks in Quito, after a rough trip in trucks, and then dismissed without any apologies.

Some of us, Latin American Protestants, were used to that kind of treatment from police forces ten or fifteen years ago, before the winds of religious freedom had blown around the world. But who would have dreamed ten years ago of Roman Catholic bishops being treated like that? Suddenly the average man on the street is watching the rise of a new kind of bishop in Latin America.

No one would have dreamed that university students, the intelligentsia and journalists would avidly wait to hear and read the latest pronouncement of a bishops’ assembly. But that is what I have witnessed in Peru, Brazil and Argentina in the last couple of years. The pastoral role of these leaders of the Church — teaching, guiding, encouraging, defending — is suddenly being taken seriously by many more people than in the past in Latin America. The position of a bishop is not anymore the comfortable crown of a priest’s career. It has become a dangerous position where every word and every move can mean attacks from left and right, problems


with the government, and even the threat of an “accidental” death; at least for some of the existing bishops, those who are shaping the new image that hits the eye of the average observer.

Of course, these are signs of change in the Church herself. Signs of a ferment which is running through the ranks of baptised people who are considered Roman Catholic and constitute the religious majority of Latin America. What course will this movement take? How will this ferment affect the daily life of the vast masses? All these are open questions. We have not yet seen enough to predict the answers.


Two Different Historical Outlooks

The picture of the contrast between the old image of the bishops and the new one that we have sketched has to be complemented by understanding another contrast of the past that has shaped the personal outlook of this writer. It is the contrast between a “Protestant” outlook, peculiar to Latin American Protestantism, and that of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism.

From the middle of the last century Protestantism has grown at a surprising rate in Latin America. We usually recognise at least three streams of Protestant advance. One would be the ethnic or “transplanted” communities that simple reproduced European Church patterns in Latin American soil. Usually they were not evangelistic of the native population. They even kept a foreign language in worship as a symbol of their “separate” existence in our nations. Such were the Lutherans in Chile and Brazil, the Anglicans in several countries, the Waldensians in Italian or Swiss colonies of the River Plate republics. In the second place we have the communities that were formed out of the evangelistic effort of missionary-minded denominations, and interdenominational independent or “faith” missions. These were Evangelical in their outlook and, in spite of their particular theological tradition, socially they adopted an Anabaptist or non-conformist stance. This can be understood as a reaction to established Roman Catholicism. In the third place we have the Pentecostal forces born out of local revivals, or as a result of Pentecostal missionary efforts from Europa and North America. This third group shares some elements of the Evangelical outlook and the Anabaptist stance that we have ascribed to the second group.

To a certain degree the first group kept an outlook of the relations between people and bishops that was similar to the Roman Catholic one. But it was considerably weakened by the simple fact that being expatriate communities, and minorities outside their own Constantinian milieu, the role of the bishop did not have the weight of social status that it had “back at home”.


The other two groups shared an ecclesiology that we could describe as “populist” using a modern political word. A strong emphasis on the local church or fellowship, on “democratic” forms of church government, on the Lutheran principle of the priesthood of all believers, and on the right and duty of every believer to be an active propagator of the Evangelical faith, created a dynamism and mobility which explains, at least in part, the amazing growth of the last hundred years. Here we see in action some of those elements that Roland Allen outlined as the condition for “spontaneous expansion” of the church. Only after the fifties have Roman Catholic scholars and church leaders begun to recognise that this advance was not just “sheep stealing”, that the Latin American masses were pagan or de-Christianised, and that the Roman Church had not in four centuries developed the means and dynamics to minister to her baptised masses.

The encounter of these advancing forces with the Catholic Church accentuated in the latter at some points the emphasis on authority of the hierarchy, social control of belief and practice, even use of the civil power to impose the official religion — all of these characteristics had become part of the Catholic Church pattern during the imperial domain of Spain in Latin America. We could also say that the Catholic reaction accentuated the “populist” ecclesiology of Latin American Protestantism.

The change that at this point in time we witness inside Roman ranks is partly the effect of this encounter and partly the result of Vatican II winds that were already in action at some focal points, even before the council. Closeness between pastors and people, mobilisation of laymen, the Bible in the hands of every believer, house meetings, joyful singing and spontaneous prayer, these are just some of the marks of Latin American Protestantism that are now being adopted by the Roman Church. It is true that sometimes the sanction and enthusiasm of a Dutch or Belgian missiologist has been necessary in order to have them accepted. But the Catholic believer knows that they were in existence, just around the block for decades, though only now are they imitated.


Questions and Challenges Ahead

We live in a new stage of protestant life that challenges us with critical questions. It is my opinion that several protestant bodies in Latin America are experiencing now a need for bishops. To begin with, there is a desperate need for pastors. “Populist ecclesiology” has its own limitations and we discover them as a second and third generation of Evangelicals grow up in our communities. There is need for pastors that will tend the flock, especially in times of crisis and transition, like the times we are facing right now. And then logically there is the need for shepherds to the shepherds. In critical hours we do not seem to have representative


voices that can speak with an authority that comes from the Word and the Spirit, and is consequently recognised by a people that is sensitive to the Word and the Spirit.

The ecclesiological question is one of the most important items for theology in Latin American Protestantism. And an important aspect of it is precisely the way in which these pastoral needs can be met in a creative way, both biblical and contextual. The Free Church impatience with institutionalised patterns of church authority can sometimes give way to poor substitutes for the pastoral task.

The authority pattern of some Pentecostal Churches in Latin America has been studied, and it shows the existence of a strong “caudillo” type of leadership, that is made up of a combination of father, boss and military commander. It seems adequate for migrant people who experience in the city the loneliness and the need for belonging of those who come from the rural areas. There are Pentecostal Churches which have an episcopal structure and bishops who are recognised as true “caudillos” and followed. The lack of articulation and definition of this pattern makes it impossible to find ways to check natural trends toward authoritarianism and open abuse. The same could be said of some other Evangelical and Free Churches.

On the other hand, big and powerful interdenominational organisations impose, through the media and massive mobilisation, some popular and appealing figures that tend to fill the role of bishops especially in the teaching aspects of that role. But teaching has to be given by persons who live with the people of God day after day, who face with them the problems, tensions, suffering and joy of daily life in a nation. A “star” that comes to a country for a week, fills a stadium during four nights, offers his opinion about everything and then moves on to the other end of the world to do the same, is not an authorised voice. However, the power of organisation, machinery and dollars give him the image of a bishop, and the platform to perform the role which is a poor substitute for real pastoral functions. Do not misunderstand me. We need the teaching ministry of the Word from people of God wherever they come from. But we should not impose on them the task of pastoring and teaching simply because they have a platform and we do not have bishops.

The bishops we need have to be Evangelical. This I understand to be people with a sense of mission, a clear idea of what the evangel is, and concern for the material and spiritual hunger of masses inside and outside the churches. Their very existence comes from the Evangelical zeal of those who came to evangelise even when some official voices in Christendom dismissed them, as in Edinburgh 1910.


Protestants like myself have admiration and expectations for the new breed of bishops that is appearing in the Roman Catholic Church. We hope that the kind of “disestablishment” process that this Church is experiencing in some countries will purify her and may even produce a New Reformation inside her. Meanwhile however we believe that we have a tremendous task of evangelising and discipling millions of pagans or nominal Christians, who show evidences of real spiritual hunger. And we also believe that there is more than ever a need to make clear through word and deed God’s Word of judgment and hope for societies that have the exterior signs of Christianity but have lost the spiritual dynamism of it in social life. The ecclesiological answer to the pastoral needs of our churches that I have outlined, cannot be in contradiction with the missionary and evangelistic thrust that has marked our churches.

Is this an impossible dream? No, a biblical pattern cannot be an impossible dream. It seems to me that as a process of disestablishment affects the Church of Christ in many areas of the world, Christians from the most varied backgrounds are starting to hunger for a renewed biblical vision of Church, people and bishops. We have seen some of them. Just some weeks ago I attended a conference of Anglicans from the diocese of the North of Argentina in Misión Chaqueña. Three hundred Christians from churches spread through four Argentinian provinces. Bishops and people sharing the same dust, the same poor food, the same risks, the same dreams, the same gospel, the same hope. Joyful in the fact of their growth, telling the miracles of God’s grace saving people today, encouraging one another, these brethren in Christ were typical Latin American Evangelicals. And they were people, pastors and bishops.