The noun translated “bishop” or “overseer” in the New Testament is ÎµÏ€Î¯ÏƒÎºÎ¿Ï€Î¿Ï‚ (episkopos). There is also a feminine form ÎµÏ€Î¹ÏƒÎºÎ¿Ï€Î® (episkope), usually translated in the abstract. The verbal form is ÎµÏ€Î¹ÏƒÎºÎ¿Ï€ÎÏ‰ (episkopeo). The English terms “Episcopal” and “Episcopacy” come from these Greek terms.
The Ante-Nicene Father – those writers who came between the time of the writing of the New Testament and the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD – often taught that the “bishop” was a hierarchical position above the level of “elder” or “presbuteros“, and often in charge of multiple churches in a large city or region.
Today, while arguing that the idea of a “bishop” is not scriptural, many continue to hold to the concept of a “bishop” of a congregation while using a different title. For example, in his book Who Rules the Church?, Gerald Cowen states, “As pastor (bishop) he is the chief officer in the church. Overseeing implies that he has administrative responsibility for the entire operation of the church.” Similarly, John S. Hammett suggests that the term “overseer” refers to an “officer [who] gives overall administrative oversight and leadership to the church” in his book Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches.
In these two descriptions of the elder as “bishop”, the oversight described by the word “bishop/overseer” is related to an organization. Thus, the elder becomes one who steers an organization, who makes decisions that will aid the organization, who directs the future of the organization. But, is this the biblical use of the word “bishop/overseer”?
Consider two passages that use the noun form (“overseer”) and the verb form (“exercising oversight?”) respectively to describe the function of the elder: Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-2 –
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 ESV)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a 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, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly… (1 Peter 5:1-2 ESV)
In each case, “oversight” is related to caring for the people of God, not to taking care of an organization. Thus, in Acts 20, the elders of Ephesus – whom the Holy Spirit had made overseers – were to shepherd the flock of God, specifically by watching out for those who teach contrary to the Gospel (Acts 20:29-31) and by working hard with their hands, following Paul’s example, so that they would be an example to other believers and so that they would be able to share with others in need (Acts 20:32-35).
Also, in 1 Peter 5, each instruction for those elders who are “overseeing” deals with how to care for people. Perhaps a better translation than “overseeing” would be “look after” or “be concerned about”, both well within the semantic range of the verb ÎµÏ€Î¹ÏƒÎºÎ¿Ï€ÎÏ‰ (episkopeo).
But, what difference does it make? Why does it matter whether our pastors/elders “oversee” an organization or “are concerned about” the people of God. Well, for me, it makes all the difference in the world. As an elder, I want to know what God requires of me. Does God require me to run the church like a well-oiled machine? Or does He expect me to “look after” and “be concerned about” those believers around me? I believer God’s focus is people… and so, our focus should be people as well. If my focus is on people, I will respond differently than if my focus was on an organization. My priorities will be different if my focus is on people instead of an organization. My time, resources, and effort will be spent differently if my focus is on people instead of an organization.
What does a bishop oversee? I mean, what should a bishop be concerned about? People… or organizations. I choose people.