Biblical Church Government
By Thomas Taylor
What Is A Bishop?
What Is A Bishop And Is He Different Than A Pastor?
We sometimes see the word Bishop used in the New Testament. But what is a Bishop? The term Bishop is not used in Ephesians 4:11 as one of the ministry gifts; we only see Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher. So is a Bishop an additional ministry gift or included in the list under another name? Let’s look at some of the places the term Bishop is used in the New Testament.
1 Peter 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
We see a strong association here between the concept of the Shepherd, or Pastor, and the Bishop. The language would make it seem like a Bishop is equal to a Shepherd/Pastor. Even if this is not enough evidence to prove that a Bishop is the exact same office as a Pastor, we at least see the overseeing role of the Bishop. This eliminates the possibility that the Bishop is a member of the laity.
Php 1:1 KJV Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons
Paul was writing to a church – the Church of Philippi. In it Paul only addresses two groups of people in the church: Bishops and Deacons. From this we can quickly conclude that a Bishop is not a Deacon. I believe we can also make the case, as we review more Bible verses, that these are the only two types of leaders that run a local church. In other words, the Bishop is the Pastor – a full-time ministry position of overseeing the local church and called by God. The Deacon is also a leader but the position is reserved for the laity and called by God in serving under the Pastor in the local church.
Notice also that the word Bishops is plural in Php 1:1. There were multiple Bishops over a church in the days of the early church. Does that mean there should be multiple Pastors over a local church today? No, not necessarily. What has changed is how we define the word “church”. In the days of the early Church, a church would be defined by the name of the city, e.g. the church “at Philippi” (Php 1:1), “at Ephesus” (Eph 1:1), or “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th 1:1). Within the city would be multiple gatherings of believers. Today, we would call those gatherings “churches” instead of a whole city. So we must better define the language of the New Testament compared to what we mean by it today because they are two different things. We no longer say “the church at Dallas” or “the church at London”. If someone said that, the reply would be “Which church at London? There are several hundreds!”
The point being, when we see “Bishops” in the plural, it was referring to the Pastors that watched over the many gatherings of believers throughout a city. There was one city with several Pastors/Bishops overseeing several gatherings yet it was just called one church. I’m going to, for the sake of clarity in translating the culture of then to the culture of today, call those Pastors “local Pastors” for this series of articles because they very much correspond to what we call local Pastors today, i.e. a Pastor over one assembly – one local church. There was also a Pastor that oversaw all local gatherings (local churches and local Pastors) of an entire city. I will call him an overseeing Pastor to differentiate his role from that of a local Pastor and I will further prove these roles in this series of articles were the New Testament norm. Again, this is just a tool to take the culture of the early church and help us wrap our minds around it for today using today’s vernacular in a way that makes sense.
So when I talk about overseeing Pastors, I am referring to a Pastor over an entire city. Today there is no such thing. (The closest thing would be a mega-church which necessitates multiple Associate Pastors being overseen by the Senior Pastor as the overseeing Pastor.) When I talk about local Pastors, I am referring to the many Pastors overseeing the many gatherings of believers throughout a city. Today’s Pastors would equate to local Pastors.
More Scriptures Using The Original Word For “Bishop”
2Ti 4:22 KJV The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen. [The second epistle unto Timotheus, ordained the first bishop of the church of the Ephesians, was written from Rome, when Paul was brought before Nero the second time.]
Tit 3:15 KJV All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith. Grace be with you all. Amen. [It was written to Titus, ordained the first bishop of the church of the Cretians, from Nicopolis of Macedonia.]
The latter half of these verses in brackets are not in the original manuscripts. However, many scholars believe that Timothy was the Pastor of the Ephesian church and Titus was the Pastor of the Cretian church. Many translations have this part added giving some credence to the idea that they were indeed the overseeing Pastors. It certainly seems to the be the case since that is exactly what Paul was writing to Timothy about in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus about in Titus; about how to be a good Pastor. Again, this strongly implies the Bishop is the exact same office as Pastor.
Act 1:20 ESV For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it; and “Let another take his office”
Here in Acts 1, the Greek word for “office” is the exact same word for “Bishop”.
1Ti 3:1 ESV The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.
Here in 1 Timothy 3, notice that the overseer is an office. Amplified says it this way: 1Ti 3:1 AMP The saying is true and irrefutable: If any man [eagerly] seeks the office of bishop (superintendent, overseer), he desires an excellent task (work). Therefore, this is further evidence that the Bishop is one of the five-fold ministry offices but we see it under a synonym called “Pastor” compared to Ephesians 4:11. We can see by the function mentioned, that of overseer, that a Bishop is a Pastor.
1Ti 3:2 ESV Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
The word “overseer” here in 1 Timothy 3 is also the exact same Greek word for “Bishop”. Almost everyone agrees that 1 Timothy is Paul’s writing to Timothy about being a Pastor. But we see that Timothy, as a Pastor that oversees an entire city, needs to pick out Pastors under him to oversee local gatherings, local churches, throughout his city. So Paul gives Timothy the qualifications of the local Pastors under him. These qualifications can, of course, be applied to local Pastors today.
The Bishop is the same as the office of the Pastor. A Bishop oversees. Some oversee a single local assembly whereas others oversee an entire city of assemblies and Pastors in the early church. Today we tend to use the word Bishop as a high-order Pastor. I do not believe that is out of line but if anyone should have been the high-order Pastor it would have be Timothy. Yet we see Timothy is picking out Bishops under him for the city. So how we use the term Bishop today is even a bit off. If we are to be biblical, a Bishop is a Pastor and a Pastor is a Bishop. There is no significant difference between the terms in the New Testament.