Sunday, March 03, 2024

Bishops in the Bible

While it may not sound much like it, the English word "bishop" comes from Late Latin episcopus, from Greek episkopos, presumably via the Old Saxon biscop rather than via the French évêque, both of which ultimately trace back to the same Greek root. (source)

In the New Testament, we see "ἐπισκοπή" (episkope), which is translated as the office of bishop (or bishopric), but is also translated as "visitation" in the sense of an inspection (Luke 19:44 and 1 Peter 2:12).  This word is related to the middle voice verb, ἐπισκέπτομαι (episkeptomai), which means to visit (often with the connotation of doing so to provide relief).  Thus, when Jesus says "I was sick, and ye visited me," this verb is used (Matthew 25:36) and James uses the same verb to describe pure religion as being "to visit the fatherless and widows" (James 1:27).  The verb seems to be derived from ἐπί (epi - meaning "upon") and σκοπός (skopos - "look/observe/watch").  There is a similar construction of "oversee" in English.  Peter also uses the related verb ἐπισκοπέω (episkopeo) to describe a similar action (1 Peter 5:2)

The noun, ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), is used both of Jesus himself (1 Peter 2:25) and of the human leaders of the churches in the New Testament.  In the following, we consider all the relevant uses in the New Testament of each of these three words.  I will use "bishop," even though that has come to have a "high church" connotation in the 21st century.

Acts 20:17-31

17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. 18 And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, 19 Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: 20 [And] how I kept back nothing that was profitable [unto you], but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, 21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: 23 Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. 24 But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. 26 Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I [am] pure from the blood of all [men]. 27 For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. 28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.

The word translated "overseers" is our noun (ἐπισκόπους).  It appears just once in this passage, but provides us with several observations.

First we see that already in Acts 20, Ephesus had multiple bishops, as ἐπισκόπους is plural.  Thus, a polyepiscopal model is present already in Ephesus.

Second, these bishops are described in term of having a shepherding role, as they are portrayed in a shepherd-sheep metaphor with respect to the other members of the church.    

Third, Luke uses bishops interchangeably with presbyters (πρεσβυτέρους) translated as "elders" here.  Notice as well that "of the church (ἐκκλησίας)" in verse 17 is singular.  

Fourth, while the shepherd metaphor and the word itself suggests a service role, the abuse of men referred to as "wolves," suggests a teaching role ("to draw away disciples (μαθητὰς) after them"). Disciples are typically associated with a teacher (διδάσκαλος).    

Philippians 1:1&4:22 Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: ...  All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar's household.

Paul's letter to the Philippians provides a few other details to flesh out our understanding of bishops.  There may be some ambiguity as to whether Paul and Timothy mean that they themselves are with bishops and deacons or whether those at Philippi have bishops and deacons with them.  I think the latter is intended.  

First, this passage suggests that Philippi (or Rome if the former view is taken) has more than one bishop.

Second, this passage suggests that bishops and deacons are distinct roles in the church, with "saints" being the general designation for the church members.

1 Timothy 3:1-7

1 This [is] a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; 3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; 4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; 5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) 6 Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

This passage includes both the "office of a bishop" (ἐπισκοπῆς) and the word "bishop" itself (ἐπίσκοπον).  The passage lays out the requirements of a bishop.  These requirements include an aptitude for teaching (διδακτικόν) as well as for hospitality (φιλόξενον).  They also include the need to rule (προστῆναι) well domestically so he will be prepared to care (ἐπιμελήσεται) for God's church.  The verb for taking care of the church here is the same verb used of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:34 and the host he pays in the following verse.  Likewise, this discussion of the qualifications of a bishop are immediately followed (1 Timothy 3:8-13) by a discussion of the qualifications of a deacon.

Notice that the qualifications, as written, seem to assume (or perhaps even require) that bishops will be married men with experience raising children.

Titus 1:5-9 

5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: 6 If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; 8 But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; 9 Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

Once again, "bishop" is used interchangeably with presbyter, and once again every city (singular) has elders (plural).  The qualifications are similar to those from 1 Timothy including a proclivity for hospitality and assumed experience as husband and father.

1 Peter 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

While this reference by Peter is to Christ as the Shepherd and Bishop, it nevertheless reinforces the idea that the role of Bishop is one that is pastoral.

1 Peter 5:1-4 
1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight [thereof], not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over [God's] heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.

This final example uses a verb (ἐπισκοποῦντες) to describe an action of the presbyters. Peter acknowledges the leadership role of elders, but exhorts the elders to lead by moral example and keeping in mind that they are under the chief shepherd, namely Christ.

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