This is part 2 in a series on ecclesiology. Click here for part 1.
Anyone unfamiliar with the debates about church government probably will be confused by the title of this post. When we think of bishops, what usually comes to mind is a man with long and ornate robes that sits and rules over many individual churches (or parishes to use the correct term). Most people wouldn’t consider them as part of a local congregation, and many protestants wouldn’t want anything to do with them, as their various denominations don’t have any office called bishop. However, the Greek word for bishop, ἐπίσκοπος, (also translated as overseer), actually does appear in the New Testament, so Bible believers should be OK with using the term. The question, of course, is does the New Testament description of the office of bishops actually match what many today claim it should? Let’s take a look.
The first major point is to demonstrate that the term bishop and elder are used as synonyms, because then we can also use the passages that describe elders to know how many bishops an individual church should have. Paul, writing to Titus says the following:
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—6 if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for moneyThe New King James Version. (1982). (Tt 1:5–7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Note the fact that Paul here uses the words elder and bishop interchangeably. He starts off with the word elder, but then uses to word bishop to continue talking about the office.
Next up, we have Luke’s description of Paul talking to the Ephesian Church’s leadership in Acts 20. At the opening of the section he writes;
From Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.The New King James Version. (1982). (Ac 20:17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
After reminding them of his time among them, Paul tells those he’s sent for:
Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.The New King James Version. (1982). (Ac 20:28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
So here once again Paul is indicating the office of elder is the same thing as the office of bishop/overseer. He tells the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. This was not any sort of promotion, as nothing in the context would suggest that. It’s a declaration of what the elders already are. As a passing note, the verb to shepherd in Greek is where we get the word pastor. So not only are the elders bishops, but they’re also pastors. All three of these titles are synonymous (see also 1 Peter 5:2)
So now that we’ve established that elders and bishops are the same, can we say where in relation to local congregations the bishop is, and how many there should be? At the very least as we’ve seen already the church of the Ephesians had a plurality of elders. Additionally as we saw in Titus 1:5, Paul had told Titus in every city to appoint elders (plural), implying that each church should have at least two of them. This idea of multiple bishops per church is also seen of the Church at Philippi (Philippians 1:1) and interestingly enough, Jerusalem:
And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them.The New King James Version. (1982). (Ac 15:4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Even the church at Jerusalem, the mother church of all, had a plurality of elders. If these bishops are at every church in every city, clearly they do not rule over multiple churches. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see elders exercising authority over multiple churches at the same time. Bishops perform functions in the local congregation like visiting the sick (James 5:14), which would be hard to do if they were not around for each church. They both rule and teach (1 Tim 5:17) and teaching must happen in the context of the local church, or else how will the members hear the teaching? Additionally, the only two offices in the New Testament that have qualifications laid out for them are elders and deacons. If elders are meant to rule over many churches, there’s a missing office of local church leadership, as deacons aren’t a teaching/ruling office.
To close, I’d like to go through why God in His almighty wisdom would determine to have the local church governed with a multiplicity of elders. I can think of 3 good reasons:
1. It protects the preacher
Even the best of men are inclined towards puffing themselves up. Having a plurality of elders reminds preachers that they are not the only man the church depends on, and that others can do their job. Additionally, the burdens of the ministry of shepherding souls is hard, and having other men to share that burden is helpful to prevent any one man from burning out, or succumbing to sin.
2. It protects the church from ungodly men, or true believers that have fallen into gross sin
If one of the elders in the church falls into sin (whether because they were a true believer or not), there are men around with the same level of authority who can offer correction. With just one man in authority, its harder to bring a charge against that one man. Also, certain men might have a blind spot (say in dealing with sin in a family member), but with many pastors there are other more unbiased perspectives that can win the day.
3. It provides continuity if there’s an issue with the leadership
If one of the elders (even the primary preaching elder) dies, when there’s a plurality of elders there’s already men that can continue to guide the church. In a church with a single pastor, when that man dies or falls into sin and has to be removed, there is no one immediately to lead the church and provide teaching and preaching. This can lead to churches getting bad shepherds, as in their desperation to find someone to fill the void, they may pick someone who isn’t nearly as qualified or doctrinally sound as they ought. Or they may pick someone from the congregation who is qualified, but doesn’t have the experience of leading. Finally, for some churches that lose their pastor, they may disintegrate as they no longer have a preacher, and the members would be forced to go to other churches, if there are any good ones around.
Next in this series we’ll move onto looking specifically at what authority that the local church has. Stay tuned.
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