This is an excerpt from my friend Jonathan Brenneman’s first book, I Am Persuaded. This book has helped people to cut through the authoritarian bias of many scripture translations and resolve confusion about topics like “spiritual authority,” “spiritual covering,” and “spiritual fathers.” The rest of the New Testament agrees with Jesus’ teaching that we are all brothers and that the greatest among us shall be the servant of all! Here’s one of the words that has been misconstrued to be a hierarchical office in the church. All scriptures in this post are from the King James Version.
The New Testament uses the word “bishop,” which in Greek is the noun “episkopos,” five times. Of those five times, one time refers to Jesus (who was an apostle). The Bible also uses “episkopos” in a way equated with eldership, just as the apostle Peter called himself an elder. In spite of this, men’s traditions have construed it, like the other words, to suggest a level in a hierarchy. In Scripture all of these words are often used interchangeably. In the following verse the translation of the verb “episkopeo” is emboldened. This is where we see the apostle Peter, who is an elder, exhorting fellow elders to “bishop” God’s flock.
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: 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; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)
The book of Titus also uses the words “elder” and “bishop” interchangeably. And in Acts chapter twenty, Paul calls elders “episkopos” (bishops).
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: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless…(Titus 1:5-7)
And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them… Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers. (Acts 20:17-18, 28)
Notice here again, that the contexts are plural. In 1st Peter, the author is commanding elders to bishop God’s flock; while in Titus, Paul is talking about appointing elders. In Acts, Paul is exhorting the elders of Ephesus. Nowhere in the Bible do we see a singular person who is THE bishop of a church, or THE pastor of a church!
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As they did with the word “diakoneo,” the KJV translators arbitrarily added the word “office” in the following passage, in such a way as to make it fit into their paradigm. This addition of the word “office” makes it seem that the function or position of a “bishop” is different than that of an elder or a deacon (servant).
This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work…(For if a man know not how to rule (proistemi) his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) (1 Timothy 3:1, 5)
In the continuation of this passage Paul uses the word “diakonos” (servant) in verse 8 and 12, and “diakoneo” (to serve) in verses 10 and 13. Verses 10 and 13 are where the translators also arbitrarily added the word “office” before the transliteration “deacon.” Because of the interchangeability of all these terms in scripture, I find it most reasonable to understand the whole passage in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 as simply referring to the same people, elders. Elders are appointed to serve (diakoneo), watch over (episkopeo), and care for (verse 5) God’s people.
How Does A Bishop “Watch Over” God’s Flock?
The word “episkopos” means an “overseer.” ((HELPS Word-studies www.HelpsBible.com 1985 epískopos – properly, an overseer; a man called by God to literally “keep an eye on” His flock (the Church, the body of Christ), i.e. to provide personalized (first hand) care and protection (note the epi, “on”).)) Its uses in the New Testament give us little context for a full understanding of the nature of that oversight. However, some contexts of the use of a verb form of the word and the way it was sometimes translated give us more insight into the role of an “episkopos” or bishop. The following examples suggest that the nature of the “watching over” that an overseer does is taking care of people, especially those who are sick or weak.
In Matthew 25, in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus is teaching us that whatever we do for the least of his brethren we do for him. In this instance, the word “episkeptomai” is used to describe how we serve others, and by implication how we serve Christ. He is not suggesting we are to be in some hierarchical role of bishopping!
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me… Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.(Matthew 25:36, 39-40)
What, then, is the nature of the “overseeing” that bishops are responsible for? Where we find that the KJV translates the word “episkeptomai” as “visited,” several other Bible versions translate it as “looked after” or “took care of” ((For example “looked after” in NIV and YLT, and “took care of” in GNB)) In the above Matthew 25 passage, try substituting “looked after,” “watched over,” or “cared for” where the words are underlined in verses 36 and 39.
It makes sense, doesn’t it?
Who did James command the sick believer to call to render care by praying and anointing with oil? The elders (see James 5:14) They look after or care for (bishop) the sick one. Again, we see the interchangeability of the terms “elder” and “bishop.” Here are more uses of the word “episkeptomai.”
And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.(Acts 15:36)
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.(James 1:27)
These verses which use the verb “episkeptomai” confirm the insight we get from Matthew 25 about what the role of an “episkopos” or bishop is. First Timothy 3:5 also confirms this, describing the role of a bishop as to “take care of the church of God.” Our study leads us to yet another word describing “service to” and “care for” others, as opposed to ruling over them!
What also amazes me is that Matthew 25 makes it so clear that when I “bishop” the least of these, I “bishop” Jesus! Additionally, Matthew 25 also uses the word “diakoneo” (serve, minister, deacon).
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matthew 25:44-45)
Matthew 25 teaches me that I can be a bishop and a deacon unto Jesus. If this is so, then being a “bishop” and “watching over people” can’t very well be a position of authority over people, can it? Rather, it’s a position of service. Being a bishop is a role of serving others by caring for them.
We “bishop” and “deacon” Jesus by serving others, just as at times in his life on earth Jesus needed to be cared for by those around him. We see this by the use of “diakoneo” in describing how certain women served Jesus and looked after him by providing for some of his needs.
I realized that when I was in Russia with friends visiting orphans and old shut-in grandmothers, we were “bishopping” them. I was filling the biblical role of a bishop. Yet I certainly did not have the sense of being over those seventy and eighty-year old ladies in any way! Rather, it was my privilege to serve and encourage them, as well as to lay hands on them and see them healed.
It’s also scriptural to say that as I “bishopped” them, it was my privilege to be “bishopping” Jesus!