What is a Bishop?

What is a bishop?

This is a often asked question I get. It’s a new question about an old term.

The word “bishop” is biblical. Different churches and denominations have used it to refer to church leadership and government throughout church history. Yet I often get questions about this term, as it has invaded Baptist ranks. Local churches within self-governing Baptist congregations have become consecrated bishops.

As far as I can tell, this trend began with the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship – a loose denomination of Charismatic Baptists. At least, this is when I caught wind of it. It wasn’t long before other upstart groups began making bishops. Then many pastors started naming themselves bishops. Baptist bishops are now everywhere. (For the record, I do not know of one White Baptist pastor who calls himself a bishop. Apparently this is a trend primarily among African-American Baptists.)

I recently saw an interview where several bishops were asked their take on the rise of “illegitimate” bishops. For all that was said, the interview did not seriously address the biggest question about bishops (or any subject): What does the bible say?

So what does the Bible say about bishops? What is a bishop? How does the New Testament understand the office of the bishop?

Answer: A bishop is a pastor is an elder is an overseer.

These terms are different ways of describing the same office: the pastor-teacher. The term “elders” (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:6) emphasizes the leader’s personal character. Pastors are to be mature, godly men. The term “bishop” (Phil. 1:1) or “overseer” (Acts 20:28) emphasizes the leader’s ministry task. He is to oversee the congregation of saints he is appointed to lead. And the term “pastor” (Eph. 4:11) emphasizes the leader’s ministry philosophy.  He is to lead, feed, protect, and care for the congregation as a faithful shepherd. The New Testament uses these terms interchangeably to describe spiritual leadership in the church.

For instance, Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17):

”Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” – Acts 20:28

Paul instructs the elders to watch over and care for (shepherd, pastor) the flock of God in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers.

Paul writes to Titus:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you… For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” – Titus 1:5, 7

Likewise, 1 Peter 5:1-2 says:

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight…”

Did you get that? Peter exhorts the elders to shepherd (pastor) the flock by practicing oversight.

The bottom line is that the Bible does not teach a leadership hierarchy in which bishops are over overseers who are over elders who are over pastors. There are only two biblical offices in the church: elders and deacons. Elders serve by leading. Deacons lead by serving. In the New Testament, deacons are called deacons. But elders are called pastors, overseers, and bishops. Different terms. Same office.

There are two mistakes we make in regard to the biblical terminology for pastoral leadership. First, we ignore the biblical terminology. Likewise, we misuse the biblical terminology. And this misuse of biblical terminology has led to the development of artificial congregational and denominational hierarchies. But our terminology should be a faithful representation of our doctrinal convictions.

I do not make these points to attack any person or group. I have friends who have been consecrated as bishops. I respect them. But I disagree with them on this point. More importantly, scripture disagrees with them. Isn’t that what matters the most?

We should strive to be biblically regulated Christians and churches. This requires that we refuse to embrace practices that are not biblically justifiable or contradictory to scripture. And we must be on guard against a fleshly preoccupation with titles. Our goal as pastors should not be to get “elevated” to the office of a bishop. May we be content to simply be faithful servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Feel free to offer your comments on this post and please share it with friends who may find it helpful. 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Lisa

    I know someone who was consecrated a bishop 4 years ago (Baptist). He once was pastor of a church but now is overseer to churches to churches in several countries which he visits several times a year; much in the manner spoken of in Titus:1:5, 7. He does not carry the ‘title’ in the manner of the Roman Catholic Church. Is this biblical?

  • http://www.payatasmissionoutreach.org/ Jack Wilson

    My feelings exactly. For the most part it is a title that many have given to themselves to try to say they are higher than someone else. With that said, let me introduce myself. I am Baptist Pope Jack!
    Only joking. I love my title, PastorJack. I know I serve my congregation and they have showed their love over and over. Could I get any higher?

  • Bishop Foxworth

    I have read your article and agree that we must be biblical in our approach to all things concerning the “The Faith”. I am concerned with a practice in the church that I cannot find biblical authority for, and that is congregational government.

    Where is it Biblical for a congregation to hire and fire a Pastor! I have witnessed some horrific procedures perpetrated against Godly men, just because a congregation was persuaded by a few in power to dismiss their Pastor.

    Bishop A Livingston Foxworth, Grace Church Of All Nations, Boston

  • Zach Davis

    Let me first say Dr. Charles, this blog entry is excellent and very biblically sound. I have recently been involved in several intense conversations concerning this matter. So how do we (the church in general) come to a consensus on the use of the term or terms that would properly reflect scripture? Furthermore, there has been a uprising amongst baptist to use the term however, pentecostals, charismatics and even the catholic church have built entire denominations, movements, reformations and etc off this wrong biblical interpretation.

  • http://www.youtube.com/revdehall Darrell Hall

    Great synopsis. The only white Bishop I can think of is the late, Bishop Earl Paulk of The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, I too only see this in the African American church. I appreciate your allegiance to Scripture. It was a pleasure to hear you for the first time this week at NCP 2014 in Duluth.

  • Faithful

    Thank you!! A Christian friend of mine was speaking to me today on this very thing today. He went from being a Minister ,to a Pastor ,then to a Bishop all in less than a year and says this all in the name of Jesus. He tole me he has hid divorce papers in hand to file. I explained that a Bishop is the husband of one wife. He then come back and say, there are many Bishops who are not married and has been divorce. At that point I knew he was not in it for the right reasons. All he talks about is money, and seems to love titles but denies that this is a motive. He seems to be money and title driven, but will not admit to it, or refuses to see it. Please pray with me for my Christian friend in the Name of Jesus and ask God to bring him back to his first love.Jesus Christ our Lord. .

  • http://twitter.com/PastorRileyF Riley Fraas

    Absolutely no problem with pastors of local churches going by the title, “Bishop.” In New Testament terms, that’s what they are.

  • Elder gab

    Very good article pastor; concise, yet enlightening. You said, “There are two mistakes we make in regard to the biblical terminology…. First, we ignore the biblical terminology. Likewise, we misuse the biblical terminology. And this misuse of biblical terminology has led to… hierarchies. But our terminology should be a faithful representation of our doctrinal convictions.” In my opinion, this statement reaches far beyond the scope of just pastoral leadership terminology: it also speaks volumes concerning the greater issue of biblical illiteracy, that is so prevalent, in the body of Christ.

    Grace, mercy, & peace – Elder gab

  • Bishop Carr

    I’m a white Baptist who refers to himself as bishop in an effort to reclaim the title from those who have hijacked it! It’s even catching on among the congregation!

  • Bongomin Alex

    H. B. Charles Jr, thanks for giving the differences of the offices of elders and pastors. intact many Christians are confused but i thanks God who led you to write this, may God bless you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/reverendvictor.williams ReverendVictor Allen Williams

    I know the bible is right, so I agree with your analogy on the subject. However I have another question for you. In the church that I am an associate minister they call the associates, elder as apposed to being called Reverend. They say that since there is no exact scriptural reference to a preacher beig called Reverend, and that since only God is to be reverenced, no man should be called reverend. They base some of their argument from psalm 111:9 (KJV), what do you think?

  • http://twitter.com/DPBC1 DPBC

    Though we have never met, when I read your works I cannot help but to blush as if it wrre my friend telling the story. Currently I serve as president of our state convention and find it interested that there are those in the convention who are Bishops, yet elected me as their President. Just saying. I look forward to your concerns regarding the “Apostle”

  • J.Marshall

    Well Said !!!!!!! This was so eye opening Thank you for sharing the biblical truth!!

  • H.B. Charles, Jr.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Deryk D. Hayes

    Pastor Charles I just wanted to say thank you for all sharing that you do. I always try to share your blogs and videos via FB, Twitter, and even get a quote or two on instagram since they’ve been helpful to me that others would find your website as a blessing. I look forward to the release of your book. Once again, thanks so much for taking the time to share!

    • H.B. Charles, Jr.

      Thanks Deryk. I appreciate your support and encouragement. The book will be released early May.

  • Barney Lewis

    All I can say is amen! Question, in your understanding are there still apostles and prophets?

    • H.B. Charles, Jr.

      Barney, I plan to write next week about the apostles.

  • D B Bennett

    Great Article Pastor on Biblical Literacy…..A lesson that is well overdue.

  • Wesley

    Biblical…….Brief……Excellent!

  • Rev.Johnson

    Great Bible lesson Pastor H.B.

  • formeitworks

    Pastor, Thank you for this article. Having grown up in the Baptist church (40+ years), it has only been recently that I have started hearing the title of “Bishop” within the Baptist church. I have raised that question several times myself. Thanks again. Grace, Peace, & Blessings.