Bishops: The head leaders in a church.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 October
BISHOP 'bɪʃ.əp noun. A senior member of the Christian clergy. Usually in charge of multiple churches, like a district or diocese; usually empowered to appoint other clergy.
2. A chess piece. Each player gets two, and they only move diagonally; one on white squares, and one on black.
[Episcopal ə'pɪs.kə.pəl adjective.]

When Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus about church leaders, one particular word he used was ἐπίσκοπον/epískopon, “supervisor.” The King James Version translates this word as “overseer” Ac 20.28 KJV and “bishop.” 1Pe 2.25 KJV We actually got the latter word “bishop” from epískopon; you just have to drop the -on ending and swap the epí- for bi-, and soften the k sound. Language evolves like that.

Every church has supervisors of one form or another. But not all of ’em use the word “bishop” for them; not all of ’em are comfortable with that word, ’cause they think of it as a Catholic thing. So they use other words, like “pastor” or “minister” or “overseer” or “superintendent” or “president.” Varies from church to church.

Now, some of the reason people don’t wanna use “bishop” to translate epískopon is because of what “bishop” means nowadays: A person who supervises multiple churches, or multiple campuses of a really big church. (Although some pastors just want a more important-sounding title, so they use “bishop” regardless. Watch out for those guys. But back to my point.) They figure Paul was writing about the head leader in one particular church, so to their minds epíksopon means “pastor,” and that’s how they interpret it.

And they’re right. It is equivalent to what we mean by “pastor”—the person who supervises and shepherds a flock of Christians. Like Jesus. 1Pe 2.25 But you gotta remember in the first century, churches met in homes, and frequently and necessarily multiple homes. The person supervising one group, quickly found himself supervising multiple groups. Multiple campuses of the same church. Like bishops do nowadays. And over time, when churches moved into church buildings, bishops would be in charge of the church for the whole city, but they weren’t able to be in multiple places at once to run the services. So each individual service had a presbyter (who became what we now call “priests”) run things. Again, kinda like multi-campus churches today.

But we don’t have to call the head leader a bishop. Doesn’t matter what you call them: Pastor (senior pastor, head pastor, lead pastor, teaching pastor, pastor emeritus), priest, vicar, minister, reverend, apostle, prophet, chairman, president, senior elder, chief deacon. Wherever the buck stops, that’s who Paul meant. That’s your bishop.

For the sake of churches which get nervous about that title, I’ll just say “supervisor” from here on out.

Your church’s supervisor.

Yes, Jesus is the king of God’s kingdom, and reigns over every church. Or oughta; some sure act like he doesn’t. And definitely vote that way… but I digress.

Yes, the Holy Spirit leads the people of every church according to the Father’s will. Yes, our God reigns.

But Jesus has subordinates. Namely the people who supervise our churches for him. They’re his stewards, ministers, butlers, servants, slaves: They do as he says. And however we recognize their leadership, whatever titles we call them, they run the day-to-day or week-to-week operations of his churches.

Arguably Paul and the ancient Christians borrowed this idea from Pharisees. Pharisees created schools in each community to teach the Law to every generation of Jews, which is how they figured they’d keep the nation from backsliding. They, and we, call ’em synagogues. And each school had a supervisor, whom Jews nowadays call a “president,” over their schools. No it wasn’t the lead teacher—although it could be. This’d be the person in charge of the building, of keeping the services in order, of sorting out the teachers, and all the other administrative tasks which needed handling. Whenever Jesus or Paul visited a synagogue, this’d be the person who let them preach.

Ancient Christian churches borrowed most of the synagogue’s ideas. And of course this means we designated supervisors over the buildings and equipment, and the other church leaders. The job involves a lot of shepherding, so functionally they shepherd, or pastor, their people.

If it sounds like I’m describing a facilities manager, instead of what we nowadays think of as a pastor, yeah I kinda am. But the job evolved. ’Cause sometimes the church supervisor couldn’t find available teachers some days, so they had to teach. Sometimes they couldn’t find leaders to pray for the sick, or comfort the grieving, or advise the newbies, or prophesy to people who needed to hear from God… or clean the bathrooms after the seniors’ bible study discovered the danishes gave them the trots. In other words, they went from being the church coordinator to the church runner, as pastors and bishops tend to be today—more often than not, and whether they want it to or not.

Not every ancient church had only one supervisor. Timothy—arguably the guy supervising the whole of the church of Ephesus—was instructed by Paul to pick multiple supervisors for his churches. And as history shows, some of these supervisors worked directly under the people who appointed them, and some worked independently. Over time the ancient church became a hierarchy, with bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs. (Or for Catholics, bishops, cardinals, and popes; or for Protestants, superintendents, district superintendents, and presidents). Doesn’t matter the title.

And yeah, some Christians balk at the idea of any hierarchy in Christendom. Aren’t we all equal under Jesus? Absolutely we are, Mt 23.8-12 and every supervisor in Jesus’s kingdom should recognize this, and serve those who are under them instead of lording over them like a despot. When that’s the case, all the abuses which a hierarchy could inflict upon people, won’t happen. (Same as all the abuses any church government system—whether episcopal, presbyterian, or democratic—could inflict.) Either way, we all need to be accountable to one another.

Requirements for supervisors.

Anybody in a supervisory role should be a mature Christian; that should go without saying, but churches don’t always follow commonsense, and put people in charge based on their personal charisma, or because their parents were in charge, or for various other foolish reasons which’ll come back and bite them.

Paul laid on a few more expectations for supervisors as well:

1 Timothy 3.1-7 NLT
1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” 2 So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. 4 He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?
6 A church leader must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. 7 Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap.
Titus 1.5-9 NLT
5 I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you. 6 An elder must live a blameless life. He must be faithful to his wife, and his children must be believers who don’t have a reputation for being wild or rebellious. 7 A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money.
8 Rather, he must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life. 9 He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong.

Paul (and Jesus) require Christian leaders to have good character. Y’notice it’s their only qualification for leadership.

In contrast, churches tend to require other stuff. Usually that the leaders be orthodox Christians who believe all the same things they do. Usually that they feel “called” to leadership. Sometimes that they’ve gone to seminary and have some level of education—largely so they won’t go heretic, but often so they offer better advice than garden-variety laymen.

…Although you’ll notice plenty of pastors do crank out the same advice as garden-variety laymen. They swipe material from other Christians. They re-preach their favorite podcasts, teach out of their favorite Christian books, download all the same sermon outlines, and so forth. I don’t really have an issue with this, so long that these pastors aren’t plagiarizing, and use the scriptures to double-check everything instead of taking the previous preacher’s word for it. We all make mistakes, you know.

But for Paul and Jesus, it’s not what you know, it’s who you follow—and whether he produces any fruit in you. Bad supervisors, and fake teachers, are always detectable by their rotten fruit. Yet in our churches today, we permit far too many leaders, put far too many people in charge, who have the worst character.

We put people in charge because they have enthusiasm and charisma. Because they claim God anointed them. Their dynamism distracts people from the fact they produce bad fruit. Or they cleverly take the opposite tack: They fully admit they lack character, but because the kingdom’s about grace, right?—they demand grace from the church, and insist they should be able to keep leading us despite their bad behavior. Stupidly, we ignore Jesus’s warnings, ignore Paul’s instructions, and let ’em lead.

This should not be. Our leaders must be people of character. The reason people don’t trust Christians, and won’t come to our churches, is because we’ve let too many snake-oil salesmen, con artists, skeevy opportunists, and politicians infest our churches. We allow them to take charge simply because they pushed their way to the top, because they charmed us into forgiving their shady behavior, because we confused ambition for holy zeal, because we figure “anointing” means we can overlook bad fruit.

If such people are in charge of your church, get out. Go find a better one, with supervisors who act like Jesus instead of like lovable rogues. Go visit the church that all your neighbors are talking about—not because it’s a crazy spectacle, but because the Christians actually act like Christians, and the pastors and bishops actually act like Christ. Likely they act like him because they know him. So let them supervise you. They’ll lead you to Jesus. The others lead you away.