What is a bishop? What is a biblical definition of bishop?

In the New Testament, bishop is a translation of the Greek word episkapos. The same word is also translated elder, pastor, or overseer. All of these words refer to the same role of the leader of a local church.

In the earliest congregations, the term elder was the most common name associated with a local church leader. By the time the apostle Paul wrote Philippians, however, in approximately AD 49, he referred to both elders and deacons.

First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 offer the most comprehensive look at what an elder is to be and to do. First Timothy 3:1-7 notes:

"The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer [bishop], he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil."

Many observations can be noted from this list. First, a bishop or elder is a noble role. Second, it is a role that requires a high level of personal character and spiritual maturity. Third, the bishop must be able to effectively teach others the doctrines of God's Word.

Two other aspects of the biblical bishop are also important to note. All of the pronouns used in reference to elders or bishops in the New Testament are masculine. Only men were permitted to serve as elders in the New Testament church.

Second, the term bishop has changed in church traditions since the New Testament period. Many layers of leadership were added to Western Christianity. By the time the Council of Nicea was held in AD 325, the term bishop was regularly applied to the Christian leader of each city or region. One bishop was responsible for several churches, overseeing the individual lead elders at each church location. Many denominations and church traditions continue this use of the term bishop today.

Again, the biblical definition of a bishop referred to the leaders of a local church. These were male leaders who had integrity, spiritual maturity, and the ability to teach God's Word effectively to others.

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