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.