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Bishop (elder)

See also Bishop

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).

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