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BISHOP (Gr. episkopos, overseer). Originally the principal officer of the local church, the other being the deacon or deacons (1Tim.3.1-1Tim.3.7). The title “elder” or “presbyter” generally applied to the same man; “elder” referring to his age and dignity, and “bishop” to his work of superintendence. As the churches multiplied, the bishop of a larger church would often be given special honor, and so gradually there grew up a hierarchy, all the way from presiding elders to bishops (over groups of churches), then archbishops.

From the vulgar Latin biscopus, the word is often given as a translation of episkopos in the NT. An alternative translation is “overseer.” Within the NT it seems to have denoted a function of the ministry, and to be an alternative for presbyter (cf. Acts 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1:7ff.). Christ himself was regarded as the Bishop (1 Pet. 2:25). The origins of the monarchical bishop and the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyters, and deacons are wrapped in some mystery. Among the Apostolic Fathers* only Ignatius speaks of monarchical episcopacy, and with him the emphasis is on unity around the bishop in perilous times, not on the divine institution of the office. Gradually, with the disappearance of the charismatic ministry, the opposition from Gnosticism, and the imperial recognition of the church in the fourth century, the single bishop in charge of a diocese or group of churches emerged. Normally he was the head of a city or town church. Furthermore, with the adoption by the church of the divisions within the empire, there also evolved bishops among bishops-that is, pope, patriarch, metropolitan, and archbishop. The division of Eastern and Western Christendom, the close association of church and state, and the rise to power in the West of the see of Rome, had an important effect upon the development of episcopacy. During and after medieval times bishops were both spiritual and temporal lords. This tradition is still reflected in England, where a number of bishops have seats in the House of Lords.

At the time of the Reformation, Protestants wished to reform or to abolish the office of bishop, since its medieval accretions alarmed them. The Calvinist churches equated the office of bishop with that of pastor or parish minister. Lutherans saw the continuance of the office of bishop (if understood as a superintendent minister) as among the adiaphora (see Adiaphorists). This resulted in the retention of bishops in Scandinavia and their abolition in Germany. In recent times the office has been revived in Germany, but no apostolic succession is claimed. The Church of England retained a succession of bishops in the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism, and this has continued to the present. In some more recent denominations the title of bishop has been given to superintendent ministers—e.g., in American Methodism.

Within the Orthodox Churches bishops are chosen from the celibate priests in the monasteries by election at a synod on the advice of the patriarch. In the Roman Catholic Church the pope has the last word and he actually does the appointing-and they are responsible to him. Within the Church of England the chapters of cathedrals elect a bishop on the advice of the monarch. (Anglican churches elsewhere have a more democratic system.) In churches which claim the apostolic succession, consecration is normally performed by one archbishop and two bishops, a rule which was first agreed upon at the Council of Arles in 314. In other churches not claiming apostolic succession, choice is usually by a synod and installation into office by representatives of the synod.

Traditionally since early times, the bishop's ministry is seen to involve ruling, sacramental, and pastoral aspects. He rules both clergy and people in his diocese; he alone can confirm and ordain; and he is the chief pastor of the flock. Often a bishop is assisted by an assistant, suffragan, auxiliary, or coadjutor bishop. The insignia of a bishop include miter, pastoral staff, pectoral cross, ring, and caligae. Within ecumenical dialogue in recent times there has been much discussion as to whether episcopacy is of the esse, the bene esse, or the plene esse of the church.

W. Telfer, The Office of Bishop (1962); A.G. Hebert, Apostle and Bishop (1963); R.B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ (1966); L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1966, or earlier editions); see also documents of Vatican II on Church and Ministry.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

bish’-up: The word is evidently an abbreviation of the Greek episkopos; Latin, episcopus.


1. Use in the Septuagint and Classic Greek:

The Septuagint gives it the generic meaning of "superintendency, oversight, searching" (Nu 4:16; 31:14) in matters pertaining to the church, the state, and the army (Jud 9:28; 2Ki 12:11; 2Ch 34:12,17; 1 Macc 1:54; The Wisdom of Solomon 1:6). Nor is it unknown to classical Greek. Thus Homer in the Iliad applied it to the gods (xxii.255), also Plutarch, Cam., 5. In Athens the governors of conquered states were called by this name.

2. New Testament Use:

3. Later Development of the Idea:

According to Rome, as finally expressed by the Council of Trent, and to the episcopal idea in general, the hierarchical organization, which originated in the 3rd century, existed from the beginning in the New Testament church. But besides the New Testament as above quoted, the early testimony of the church maintains the identity of "presbyters" and "bishops." Thus, Clement of Rome (Ep. 1, chapters 42, 44, 57), the Didache, chapter 15; perhaps the Constitutions, II, 33, 34, in the use of the plural form; Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., iii.2, 3), Ambrosiaster (on 1Ti 3:10; Eph 4:11), Chrysostom (Hom 9 in Ep. ad Tim), in an unequivocal statement, the "presbyters of old were called bishops .... and the bishops presbyters," equally unequivocally Jerome (Ad Tit, 1, 7), "the same is the presbyter, who is also the bishop." Augustine and other Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries hold this view, and even Peter Lombard, who preceded Aquinas as the great teacher of the church of the Middle Ages. Hatch of Oxford and Harnack of Berlin, in the face of all t his testimony, maintain a distinction between the presbyters, as having charge of the law and discipline of the church, and the bishops, as being charged with the pastoral care of the church, preaching and worship. This theory is built upon the argument of prevailing social conditions and institutions, as adopted and imitated by the church, rather than on sound textual proof. The distinction between presbyters and bishops can only be maintained by a forced exegesis of the Scriptures. The later and rapid growth of the hierarchical idea arose from the accession of the Ebionite Christian view of the church, as a necessary continuation of the Old Testament dispensation, which has so largely influenced the history of the inner development of the church in the first six centuries of her existence.

Henry E. Dosker


I. Episcopacy Defined.

Episcopacy is the government in the Christian church by bishops. The rule of the Orthodox churches in the East, of the Roman Catholics, and of the Anglicans is that the consecration of other bishops, and the ordination of priests and deacons can only be by a bishop; and with them, a bishop is one who claims historic descent from apostolic or sub-apostolic times.

II. Offices in the Early Church.

In the New Testament, the office of bishop is not clearly defined. Indeed there appear to have been many degrees of ministry in the infant church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, presbyters or elders, bishops or overseers, and deacons.

Due allowance is not generally made for the mental attitude of the apostles and early Christians. They were looking for the speedy return of Christ, and consequently did not organize the church in its infancy, as it was afterward found necessary to do. For this reason, while the different persons who composed the body of Christian ministers did not overlap or infringe on each other’s work, yet the relative rank or priority of each minister was not clearly defined.

1. Apostles:

The apostles were undoubtedly first, and in them rested the whole authority, and they were the depository of the power committed unto them by Christ.

2. Prophets:

Next to the apostles in rank, and first in point of mention (Ac 11:27), came the prophets. So important were these officers in the early church that they were sent from Jerusalem to warn the rapidly growing church at Antioch of an impending famine. Then it appears that there were resident prophets at Antioch, men of considerable importance since their names are recorded, Barnabas, Symeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul (Ac 13:1). These men received a command from the Holy Spirit to "separate me Barnabas and Saul," on whom they laid their hands and sent them forth on their work. The election is conducted on the same lines as the election by the eleven apostles of Matthias, and Barnabas and Paul are hereafter called apostles. It is an ordination to the highest order in the Christian ministry by "prophets and teachers." Whether "prophets and teachers" refers to two distinct ministries, or whether they are terms used for the same one is uncertain. It may be that of the five men mentioned, some were prophets, and others teachers.

In Ac 15:32 we have given us the names of two other prophets, Judas and Silas. Paul tells the Corinthians (1Co 12:28) that God hath set some in his church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, and writing to the Ephesians he places the prophets in the same rank. "He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry" (Eph 4:11,12 the King James Version). And again, he says that the mystery of Christ is now "revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit" (Eph 3:5). The same apostle in that wonderful imagery of Christians being built up for a habitation of God, says they are "being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone" (Eph 2:20).

In the case of the ordination of Timothy, which Paul says distinctly was by his own laying on of hands and that of the presbytery, it is of great consequence to note that Paul says to Timothy that his ordination was "according to the prophecies which went before on thee" (1Ti 1:18 the King James Version). From this it would appear that the prophets, as in the case of Paul himself, guided by the Holy Ghost, chose Timothy for the overseership or bishopric, or it may be, which is just as likely, that Timothy was set apart by the laying on of hands by some prophets, to the rank of elder or presbyter which did not carry with it the "overseership." It is at any rate evident that in the selection of Timothy, Paul is insistent on pointing out that it was through the prophets (compare 1Ti 1:18; 4:14; 2Ti 1:6).

In Revelation, the term prophet constantly occurs as a term denoting rank equivalent to that of apostle: "ye saints, and ye apostles, and ye prophets" (Re 18:20); "blood of prophets and of saints" (Re 16:6; 18:24). The angel calls himself "thy fellow-servant, and of thy brethren the prophets" (Re 22:9 the King James Version). The words prophesy and prophesying are used in a general sense, and it does not mean that they were in every case the formal utterances of prophets.

3. Elders or Presbyters:

The ministry of the elders of the Christian church was modeled after that of the synagogue in which there were elders and teachers. The Christian elders or presbyters were most likely a council of advice in each local Christian ekklesia. They appear to act conjointly and not separately (Ac 15:4,6,22; 16:4; 20:17; Jas 5:14).

4. Teachers:

Teachers were the equivalent of those teachers or catechists of the synagogue before whom our Lord was found in the temple.

5. Evangelists:

Evangelists were persons who probably had the gift of oratory and whose function it was to preach the glad tidings. Philip was one of them (Ac 21:8). In the instructions to Timothy he is bidden to do the work of an evangelist, that is to say, to preach the gospel. This was to be part of his work in the ministry.

In writing to Timothy, Paul twice says that he himself was ordained preacher, and apostle and teacher. This does not mean that he held three grades of the ministry, but that his duties as an apostle were to preach and to teach. The fact that the apostles called themselves elders does not thereby confirm the view that the bishops mentioned by them were not superior to elders, any more than the fact that the apostles called themselves teachers, or preachers, makes for the view that teachers, or preachers, were the equals of apostles.

6. Bishops:

Bishops or overseers were probably certain elders chosen out of the body of local elders. Under the Jewish dispensation, the elders stayed at home, that is, they did no ministerial visiting, but it was soon found necessary as the Christian church grew to have someone to attend to outside work to win over by persuasion and exposition of the Scriptures those inclined to embrace Christianity. This necessitated visiting families in their own homes. Then, it became necessary to shepherd the sheep. Someone had to oversee or superintend the general work. The Jewish elders always had a head and in a large synagogue the conditions laid down for its head, or legatus, were almost identical with those laid down by Paul to Timothy. He was to be a father of a family, not rich or engaged in business, possessing a good voice, apt to teach, etc.

The term episkopos was one with which the Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles were well acquainted; and it became thus a fitting term by which to designate the men called out of the body of elders to this special work of oversight. Then, again, the term episkopos was endeared to the early Christians as the one applied to our Lord--"the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (1Pe 2:25). The duties of elders, or presbyters, are not clearly defined in the New Testament.

In the Acts, the term is found only twice, one in reference to Judas, "his bishopric (or overseership) let another take" (Ac 1:20 the King James Version), and in Paul’s address to the elders of Ephesus, he warns them to feed the church over which they have been made overseers or bishops (Ac 20:28). It is impossible to say whether this "overseership" refers to all the elders addressed, or to such of those elders as had been made "overseers," or "bishops."

In the epistles, we find the church more clearly organized, and in these writings we find more definite allusions to bishops and their duties (Php 1:1; 1Ti 3:1,2; Tit 1:7; 1Pe 2:25).

Paul tells Timothy, "If a man desire the office of a bishop (or overseer) he desireth a good work." "A bishop (or overseer) must be blameless" (1Ti 3:1,2 the King James Version). He tells Titus that "he is to ordain elders in every city" and that a "bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God" (Tit 1:5,7 the King James Version).

On the other hand, there are numerous texts where elders and their duties are mentioned and where there is no reference whatever to bishopric or oversight. The epistles show that of necessity there had grown to be a more distinct organization of the ministry, and that following the custom of the synagogue to some of the elders had been committed a bishopric or oversight. At the same time the rank of a bishop, or overseer, was not yet one of the highest. Paul does not enumerate it in the order of ministry which he gives to the Ephesians--apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

That Timothy had an oversight over the elders or presbyters is evident from the fact that Paul enjoins him to rebuke those that sin: "Against an elder receive not an accusation, except at the mouth of two or three witnesses. Them that sin reprove in the sight of all" (1Ti 5:19,20). This, of course, refers to a formal trial by one in authority of persons inferior to him in rank.

It has been asserted that the terms elder and bishop in the New Testament were equivalent and denoted the same office or grade in the ministry. This assertion seems unwarranted. They do not naturally denote the same grade any more than do apostle and teacher, or angel and prophet.

7. Deacons:

The deacons were the seven appointed to take charge of the temporal affairs of the church. Their appointment was perhaps suggested by the alms-collectors of the synagogue. In the New Testament they do not appear as deacons to have had any part in the sacred ministry, except, in the case of Philip the evangelist, if it be assumed that he was a deacon, which is uncertain. Nowhere is it recorded that they laid hands on anyone, or were considered as capable of bestowing any grace. In the epistles they are mentioned with the bishops--"bishops and deacons" (Php 1:1), thus showing the nature of their influence as the helpers of the "bishops" in the management of the growing funds, or properties of the church.

III. Episcopacy according to the New Testament.

The passages where the Greek word occurs which has been translated either as bishops, or overseers, are so few that they are enumerated: Ac 20:17,28: the Ephesian elders are stated to be bishops (or overseers) to feed the church; Php 1:1 the salutation of Paul and Timothy to bishops (or overseers) and deacons at Philippi; 1Ti 3:1,2 and Tit 1:7 give the exhortation to Timothy and Titus as holding the office of a bishop; 1Pe 2:25, where the apostle referring to Christ says, "unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls."

IV. The "Didache."

Passing out of the New Testament, we come to the early Christian writing, the so-called Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Setting aside the question for what class of Christians this document was intended, the clear fact stands out that at the date of its writing the two highest grades in the Christian ministry were still called apostles and prophets. Various dates have been assigned to this document ranging from 80 to 160 AD.

At the end of chapter 10, which deals with the thanksgiving or eucharist, the remark is made, "But permit the prophets to make thanksgiving as much as they desire." Chapters 11 and 13 deal with apostles and prophets. They were to be treated "according to the ordinance of the gospel." An apostle was not to be allowed to stay more than a couple of days at the utmost, and in no case was he to receive any money, else he was to be considered "a false prophet." A prophet could beg on behalf of others, but not for himself; but a prophet could settle among a congregation, and in that case he was to receive the same first-fruits "of money and raiment and of every possession" as the chief priest did under the old dispensation. It is to be noted that in reality the prophets, though placed second in order, were to be treated with the greater respect. If the prophet settles down, he becomes the man of the first rank in that Christian community.

Chapter 15 deals with bishops and deacons, and we are told that if appointed they rendered the ministry of prophets and teachers, but the warning is given, "Despise them not, therefore, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers." This shows that bishops were localized; and that while they could be appointed over a community, they were not considered as of equal rank with the prophets.

V. Clement of Rome.

Clement of Rome in his Epistle to the Corinthians says that the apostles preaching through countries and cities appointed the first-fruits of their labors to be bishops and deacons (chapter 42). It is usually said that Clement meant elders by the term "bishops," but it is much more likely that he meant what he said; that according to the tradition received by him, the apostles appointed bishops, that is, appointed bishops out of the elders--mentioned in the Acts. In chapter 44 Clement warns against the sin of ejecting from the episcopate those who have presented the offerings, and says, "Blessed are those presbyters who have finished their course."

The reason why the terms apostles and prophets fell into desuetude was, as regards the first, not so much out of respect to the original apostles, but because the apostles in the sub-apostolic age became apparently only wandering evangelists of little standing; while the prophets lowered their great office by descending to be soothsayers, as the Shepherd of Hermas plainly intimates. With the fall of the apostles and the prophets, there rose into prominence the bishops and deacons.

VI. Bishops and Deacons.

The deacons acted as secretaries and treasurers to the bishops. They were their right-hand men, representing them in all secular matters. As the numbers of Christians increased, it was found absolutely necessary for the bishops to delegate some of their spiritual authority to a second order.

VII. Bishops and Presbyters (Priests).

Thus very slowly emerged out of the body of elders the official presbyters or priests. To them the bishop delegated the power to teach, to preach, to baptize, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist; but how slowly is evidenced by the fact that so late as 755 AD the Council of Vern forbade priests to baptize, except by distinct permission of their bishop.

VIII. Ignatian Epistles on the Three Orders.

When we come to the Ignatian epistles written between 110-17 AD, we find a distinct threefold order. We have given us the names of Damas, for bishop, Bassus and Apollonius for presbyters, Zotion for deacon. Throughout these epistles there is no question that the bishop is supreme. Apostles and prophets are not even mentioned. The bishop succeeds to all the powers the apostles and prophets had. On the other hand, as with the Jewish elders, so with the Christian presbyters, they form a council with the bishop. Here we see in clear day what we had all along suspected to be the case in apostolic times: a council of presbyters with a ruler at their head and deacons to attend to money matters.

It is quite immaterial as to whether a bishop had ten or a hundred presbyter-elders under him, whether he was bishop in a small town or in a large city. The question of numbers under him would not affect his authority as has been claimed. The greatness of the city in which he exercised this rule would add dignity to his position, but nothing to his inherent authority.

From this time on it is admitted by all that bishops, priests and deacons have been continuously in existence. Their powers and duties have varied, have been curtailed as one order has encroached on the power of the other, but still there the three orders have been. Gradually the presbyters or priests encroached on the power of the bishop, till now, according to Anglican usage, only the power of ordaining, confirming and consecrating churches is left to them.

IX. Views of Reformers.

At the time of the Reformation there was a great outcry against bishops. This was caused by the fact that under feudalism the bishops had come to be great temporal lords immersed in schemes of political and material aggrandizement, and often actually leading their armies in times of war. Many of the bishops were proud and arrogant, forgetful that their duties as fathers of the children of Christ were to look after those committed to them with fatherly kindness and charity or that as pastors they had to tend the erring sheep with Divine patience and infinite love.

The bulk of the adherents to the Reformed religion, looking upon the bishops as they were and as their fathers had known them, recoiled from retaining the office, although their principal men, like Calvin, deplored the loss of bishops, and hoped that bishops of the primitive order would some day be restored. The present modern Anglican bishop seems to sum up in his person and office the requirements laid down by Calvin.


Thus the claim put forth by the Anglicans in the preface to the Ordinal may be considered as sound: "It is evident unto all men, diligently reading Holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church--Bishops, Priests, and Deacons."


Teaching of the Twelve Apostles; Clement of Rome; Shepherd of Hermas; Ignatian epistles; Muratorian Fragment; Works of John Lightfoot; Duchesne, Origines du Culte Chretien; Pellicia, Polity of the Christian Church; Bishop MacLean, Ancient Church Orders; Cheetham, Hist of the Christian Church during the First Six Centuries; Salmon, Introduction to New Testament; Elwin, The Minister of Baptism; Cruttwell, Literary History of Early Christianity; Potter, Church Government; Lowndes, Vindication of Anglican Orders; E. Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches; C. Gore, The Church and the Ministry; Thompson, Historic Episcopate (Presbyterian); Baird, Huguenots.

Arthur Lowndes


1. The New Testament Church a Spiritual Democracy:

As a spiritual and social democracy, Congregationaliam finds no warrant or precedent in the New Testament for the episcopal conception of the words "bishop," "presbyter," and "elder." It interprets epi-skopos, literally as overseer--not an ecclesiastical dignitary but a spiritual minister. It finds the Romanist view of Peter’s primacy, founded alone on Mt 16:18, contradicted by the entire trend of Christ’s teaching, as e.g. when referring to the Gentiles exercising lordship and authority Christ says, "Not so shall it be among you" (Mt 20:26 ff). He set the precedent of official greatness when He said "the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister," and that "whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister (servant)." Paul’s testimony confirms this in suggesting no primacy among the apostles and prophets, but making "Christ .... himself .... the chief corner stone" (Eph 2:20). The organization and history of the early Christian church establish this view of its simplicity and democracy. In Ac 1:20 the Revised Version (British and American) corrects the rendering "bishopric" (given by the King James translators, who were officers in the Episcopal church) to "office," thus, relieving the verse of possible ecclesiastical pretensions.

The church formed on the day of Pentecost was the spontaneous coming together of the original 120 disciples and the 3,000 Christian converts, for fellowship, worship and work, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Its only creed was belief in the risen Christ and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit; its only condition of membership, repentance and baptism.

2. Election of Officers by Popular Vote:

The apostles naturally took leadership but, abrogating all authority, committed to the church as a whole the choice of its officers and the conduct of its temporal and spiritual affairs. Judas’ place in the apostolate was not filled by succession or episcopal appointment (Ac 1:23-26). The seven deacons were elected by popular vote (Ac 6:1-6). One of the seven--Philip--preached and, without protest, administered the rite of baptism (Ac 8:12,13).

The churches in the apostolic era were independent and self-governing, and the absence of anything like a centralized ecclesiastical authority is seen by the fact that the council at Jerusalem, called to consider whether the church at Antioch should receive the uncircumcised into membership, was a delegated body, composed in part of lay members, and having only advisory power (Ac 15:1-29).

3. The Epistles not Official Documents:

The apostolic letters, forming so large a part of the New Testament, are not official documents but letters of loving pastoral instruction and counsel. The terms bishops, elders, pastors and teachers are used synonymously and interchangeably, thus limiting the officers of the early church to two orders: pastors and deacons.


4. Restoration of Primitive Ideals:

Under the spiritual tyrannies of the Church of England, during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, "bloody" Mary and ’Queen Elizabeth, the Dissenting bodies, chiefly the Congregationalists, returned to the simplicity and spiritual freedom of the primitive church. The issue was forced by two arbitrary acts of Parliament under Elizabeth: the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. Emancipation from the intellectual and religious tyranny of these acts was won at the cost of many martyrdoms. These struggles and persecutions wrought into the successors of Robert Browne, the father of modern Congregationalism, a deep-seated and permanent resentment against all forms of autocratic power in church and state. They challenged, at the cost of life, both the Divine Right of kings, and of bishops. They believed that in Christ Jesus all believers are literally and inalienably made "kings and priests unto God" (Re 1:6 the King James Version), actual spiritual sovereigns, independent of all human dictation an d control in matters of belief and worship. The Pilgrims expatriated themselves to secure this spiritual liberty; and to their inherent antagonism to inherited and self-perpetuated power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, must be credited the religious freedom and civil democracy of America.


For further study see Henry M. Dexter, Congregationalism, chapter ii; Dunning’s Congregationalists in America, chapters i, ii: Rainy, The Ancient Catholic Church.

Additional Material

BISHOP (elder) (ἐπίσκοπος, G2176, overseer, πρεσβύτερος, G4565, one older in years, presbyter). In the NT the words are used interchangeably for the same officer of the Christian churches.

Source of the terms


Classical Greek writings.

Επίσκωπος is used more commonly in the general sense of an overseer; less frequently as an official title. In Attic Gr. it was used to designate commissioners sent to govern new colonies or subject cities. In later Gr. it was used of officers and inspectors responsible for various municipal and commercial matters.


In the Manual of Discipline and the Damascus Document an officer of the community called a מְבַקֵּר, the exact Heb. equivalent of ἐπίσκοπος, G2176, an overseer or superintendent, is referred to frequently. He was responsible for examining and preparing candidates for membership, teaching the masses the works of God, caring for them as a father for his children or a shepherd for his flock, supervising commercial transactions, and matters of litigation (1QS 6:12-20; CDC 9:18-22; 13:7-19; 14:11-13). The extent to which the Qumran sectaries may have influenced the developing Christian Church is as yet a matter of conjecture.


Authority in the conduct of local affairs is in many societies given to a body of older men; thus the γερουσία, G1172, of Sparta and the aldermen of our day. The designation πρεσβύτερος, G4565, was used for officers of various Gr. cult organizations, and also for village magistrates in Egypt. The use of the word for an office in the Christian Church undoubtedly has a Jewish origin.

The authority of elders was recognized early in Israel’s history. Moses was commissioned to give God’s message to the elders of Israel (Exod 3:16), and they represented the people at important phases of the Exodus (12:21; 17:5; 24:1). It was out of the elders that a council of seventy officers was appointed to assist Moses in judging disputes (Num 11:16, cf. Exod 18:12-26). Elders had a continuing responsibility in Israel’s life, both on a local and a national level of administration from the time of Joshua to that of Ezra.

In the NT, particularly the gospels, one finds frequent reference to Jewish elders. Each Jewish community had its council of elders who bore responsibilities in regard both to civil and ecclesiastical affairs. They were elected by the community and in a solemn rite were appointed for life. The most important of these councils was the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, which acted as a supreme court of the Jews. While elders were not responsible for the worship of the synagogue, they were allotted seats of special honor, and often the synagogue rulers were elected from their number. The chief function of the elders was to study and teach the law, and apply it against offenders. They had amassed a vast body of precedents in interpretation of the law, called “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3-5).

In the Qumran covenant community, the elders enjoyed a place second only to the priests in their General Council (1QS 6:9). A council of the “especially holy,” composed of three priests and twelve laymen bore responsibility to maintain the standards of truth and righteousness. They were set apart after a two-year preparation (1QS 8:1-9:2).

Use in the NT

The word ἐπίσκοπος, G2176, is used once applying to Christ (1 Pet 2:25); elsewhere it refers to human leaders of the Church.

Development of ministry in the Early Church.

The identity of bishops and elders in the NT.

The evidence of the NT for identifying the office of bishop with that of elder is substantial: (1) Paul calls the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him (Acts 20:17). When he addresses them he says that the Holy Spirit has made them “bishops” (v. 28). (2) In Philippians 1:1 Paul addresses “all the saints...with the bishops and deacons.” If, in fact, there were three separate grades of office, it seems incredible that the second order, of elders, or presbyters, should be passed over. (3) Paul describes the qualifications for a bishop (1 Tim 3:1-7) and then continues immediately to describe those for deacons (vv. 8-13) without mentioning elders, though there were elders in Ephesus (5:17). (4) Paul writes to Titus, “I left you in Crete, that you might...appoint elders in every town as I directed you, if any man is blameless...For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless” (Titus 1:5-7). This passage seems conclusive.

The term ἐπίσκοπος, G2176, is never used of an itinerant preacher, but only for a fixed leader of congregational life. The fact that the term is used only in Gr. churches may argue for a Gr. origin of the term, being more familiar to them as a term for an official than the typically Jewish πρεσβύτερος, G4565.

The qualifications and responsibilities of a presbyter-bishop.

The qualifications of a bishop are listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9. His personal character must be upright, above reproach either from within or without the Church. He must be thoughtful, dignified and self-controlled, not a drunkard, nor violent, quick-tempered, quarrelsome, arrogant or avaricious, but one gentle in his dealings with men, and holy in his life before God. His home life is important; he must be married once only, and have a well-ordered home and disciplined children. He must be hospitable, and an apt teacher, who has matured in his knowledge of the faith, who holds firm to sound doctrine and is able to impart it to others, and to refute those who oppose the truth.

These qualifications also indicate the areas of responsibility of the bishops. They exercised in the main a twofold ministry—as rulers and instructors. These two functions may be compared with the work of pastors and teachers. They are indicated in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” It has been argued from this v. that while all elders rule, not all preach or teach. This is doubtful, however. Paul is rather saying that those who work hard at this side of their responsibility are esp. worthy of honor. Even if it be allowed that some elders may not have exercised a teaching ministry, there is no basis in this v. for supposing that the work of governing and the work of teaching were performed by separate members of the council of elders. The elders also had pastoral responsibilities, such as praying over and anointing the sick (James 5:14).

The appointment of presbyter-bishops.

The NT does not make clear the method of choice of office-bearers. In the case of Matthias it was by casting lots between the two nominees (Acts 1:26). In the case of the seven, it was evidently by popular vote (6:3-5). The choice of elders (14:23) would seem to have been made by Paul and Barnabas, though local opinion may have been consulted (16:2). This may have been so also in Ephesus and Crete, where the final appointment seems to lie solely in the hands of Timothy and Titus (1 Tim 5:22; Titus 1:5).

Where any mode of ordination or appointment is mentioned, it is by the imposition of hands, but one cannot give a simple answer to the question, “Whose hands?” In the case of the seven, it was the apostles’ hands. In the case of Paul, the hands laid on him in a ceremony which may have involved appointment as well as healing and confirmation were those of a humble disciple Ananias (Acts 9:15-17). When Barnabas and Paul were sent out on their special missionary task, the hands laid on them were those of their fellow prophets and teachers in Antioch (13:3). In the case of Timothy, Paul refers to the gift of God within him through the laying on of Paul’s own hands (2 Tim 1:6) and also the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (1 Tim 4:14). The laying on of Paul’s hands may have been at confirmation, but the context urges ordination. If so, most likely the two represent one and the same event, and Paul laid his hands upon Timothy in company with the elders. Bishop Gore (The Church and the Ministry, 236) argues that the function of laying-on of hands as a bestowal of the Holy Spirit for Christian life or ministerial office belonged in the apostolic age normally to apostles alone, but this conclusion is hardly warranted. The NT may be cited fairly as providing precedents for the right to ordain being exercised either (1) by apostles, or their delegated representatives, as Timothy and Titus, or (2) by the presbyterial college, or (3) by special divine calling, as that to Ananias or the prophets and teachers in Antioch.

The development of the monarchical episcopate

The apostolic age.

In the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) James acts as president. He takes precedence over Peter and John in Paul’s mention (Gal 2:9), receives missionary visitors (Acts 21:18), and in the Council sums up with some degree of authority (v. 19). Eusebius refers to James as the first bishop of the Jerusalem see. Some claim that the pastoral epistles show Timothy and Titus in the position of monarchical bishops over Ephesus and Crete. The angels of the seven churches (Rev 1-3) have been regarded as the bishops of the churches, but it is more likely that they symbolize the heavenly counterpart of the churches.

The sub-apostolic age.

Clement of Rome, writing about a.d. 96 makes no clear distinction between bishop and presbyter, but Ignatius, writing early in the 2nd cent., urges the need of obedience to the bishop, the chief officer of each local congregation, who is supported by presbyters and deacons, to maintain the unity of the church. The cause of this development cannot be stated with certainty. Clement of Alexandria quotes a tradition that the Apostle John authorized and developed the episcopal system in Asia Minor. Rothe and Gore see episcopacy as springing thus out of the apostolic office by apostolic authority. It seems more likely that it arose out of the presbyterial office through the need for one elder to assume responsibility in the local church, for presiding at the Eucharist, or for deciding which prophets and teachers should speak, or for maintaining relationships with other churches. Jerome states that it was in order to avoid schisms that the universal practice of electing one of the elders to be placed over the rest, responsible for the care of the church, was evolved.

Later development.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the concept of the function of the bishop was modified. Whereas to Ignatius the bishop was the center of unity of the local church, to Irenaeus he was the one who by virtue of his apostolic descent could guarantee the continuance of the true apostolic faith. By the time of Cyprian, however, a sacerdotal view of the ministry had developed, and to him the bishop is the vicegerent of Christ, God’s representative to the congregation, the indispensable channel of divine grace. This view has dominated subsequent thought in the Roman Church.

Modern systems of church government


The church is governed by bishops, who have charge, not of a single local congregation, but of a diocese of many churches. Only the bishop has the right to ordain, and he may ordain to any of the three orders of ministry: bishop, priest (presbyter), and deacon. Roman and Anglo-Catholics would insist that bishops trace their succession right to the apostles. Others would claim a historic episcopate tracing back many centuries. Some make no claims to historic succession, but term their elected leading ministers bishops.


The term “bishop” is not used, but a distinction is made between teaching and ruling elders (1 Tim 5:17). The teaching elder or presbyter is the minister of a congregation, responsible for its oversight, for preaching the Word, and for administering the sacraments. He is ordained by the laying on of hands of other teaching elders, for the service of the whole Church. The ruling elder is chosen by his local congregation, and ordained to office by his local presbyter. There is parity between teaching elders, and some would insist that this parity extends also to ruling elders.


The only officers recognized are pastors and deacons. In general, authority lies in the hands of the local congregation. Ordination of pastors does not convey any special endowment of grace, but is a recognition of the divine call and gift to spiritual oversight in a local congregation.


J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians (1868), 93-97, 179-267; E. Hatch, The Organization of Early Christian Churches (1881); C. Gore, The Church and the Ministry (1910); A. von Harnack, The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries (1910); H. B. Swete, ed., Essays on the Early History of the Church and the Ministry (1918), 57-214; H. W. Beyer, έπίσκοπος, in Kittel, TWNT II (1935, tr. Bromiley, 1964); K. E. Kirk, ed., The Apostolic Ministry (1946), 113-303; T. W. Manson, The Church’s Ministry (1948); K. M. Carey, ed., The Historic Episcopate (1954); T. F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood (1955); J. K. S. Reid, The Biblical Doctrine of the Ministry (1955); L. Morris, Ministers of God (1964).