If you did not grow up in church, you may have wondered what precisely is a bishop. In movies, they are usually the bad guy—typically an ostentatious and craven villain using the church to enrich himself. Maybe to you, a bishop is just a chess piece or a guy in a pointy hat. Rarely are they portrayed as the compassionate man like the Bishop in Le Miserables who has mercy on the fallen Jean Valjean. Either way, there is a lot of confusion surrounding what a bishop is and what he does.
Are Bishops in the Bible?
For Bible-believing Christians, those who count it as God’s reliable source of moral and spiritual truth, this is the fundamental question: Are Bishops in the Bible? The answer to that question is a simple YES. Yes, they are. But the picture is not entirely clear and so we need to do a little homework to get our bearings.
We find bishops in the New Testament, and we find authorities like them throughout the entire swathe of God’s revelation in history. Moses and the High priests of Israel officiated in a bishop type role—both examples that early Christianity drew from. Let’s consider some texts.
First and foremost, Jesus himself is identified as the Bishop par exellelence’, which all Church leaders should emulate:
1Pet. 2:25 “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” (KJV)
Moreover, Jesus being our great high priest, this text shows that the concept of a chief shepherd and overseer of people’s souls was a familiar idea to Jews of the first century A.D.
The word “bishop” is translated from the Greek word “episkopos” which means “overseer,” “superintendent,” or “bishop.” Most Protestant Bibles translate the word simply as “overseer” to avoid the connotations of the high-episcopacy found especially in the Roman Church.
Second, in the Pastoral Epistles, those three letters (1 & 2 Timothy & Titus) addressed to the young overseers Timothy and Titus, we encounter this title used for leaders within the Church. Here are two examples:
1 Tim. 3:1 “The saying is sure: If anyone aspires to the office of bishop (episkopos), he desires a noble task. 2 Now a bishop (episcopos) must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher…” (RSV)
Titus 1:7 “For a bishop (episcopos), as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain…” (RSV)
Behind the Greek term episkopos lay the Hebrew term mebaqer, meaning the same—overseer or president. This role is even found in the Essene Jewish community at Qumran, from which we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. The idea of the community overseer is then by no means new or an innovation by the New Testament Church. The idea of an “overseer” or “bishop” comes from Judaism.
Second Temple Period Jews Doing What Jews Would Do.
The local synagogue, as it became a regular part of Jewish life in Palestine, required a structure and polity to organize it? Where would Jews naturally look for guidance in structuring their local worship community? Isn’t it probable they would look to the structure they were already familiar with? Wouldn’t they naturally look to their primary place of worship—the Temple? This is precisely what they did. The entire Old Testament priestly system was adopted as a general rule of thumb.
High priest = Overseer/President of the Elders
Priests = Elders/Presbyters
Levites = Assitants/Deacons
Jewish Christians, being the Jews they were, did not, therefore, invent a new system of leadership but continued with the synagogue polity they already knew, the very same polity originally modeled after the Temple administration. Moreover, the idea of meeting in the larger homes of wealthy patrons was no Christian invention either. The majority of synagogue meeting houses (like the “upper room” Acts 1:13) were in the homes of wealthy patrons. Archaeologists uncovered both a synagogue and an early Christian church dating around 4th century A.D. in the Syrian city of Dura Europas. Both were converted from regular common homes.
The leadership structures of the synagogue provided a dynamic and elastic model for the Church. This allowed both structure on the one hand, and elasticity for Christianity to become a movement on the other.
Development of a Title
Eventually, all Christians called only the president—Bishop (“episcopos”); they continued calling presbyters the same but also called them “priests” as well; they referred to the assistants as either “deacons” or even “Levites” interestingly enough.
During the final gasps of the Roman Empire, civil order in the various provinces began to break down. Some of the only substantial leadership people could look to were the bishops of local Churches. Out of these exigencies, the lines between church and state began to blur laying the foundation for the large administrative diocesan system of Medieval Christianity. This was not all a bad thing, but it certainly had longterm consequences for the health and wellness of the church.
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In upcoming posts, we will develop this role and the others within the Church more fully.