The word “bishop” appears in the Bible a total of 5 times in the New King James Version (NKJV). The Greek word translated as bishop is “episkopos” which means overseer or guardian. In this blog post, we will examine the 5 verses that mention bishop and understand the meaning and significance of this role in the early church.
In the New Testament church, the terms elder, overseer, and bishop generally referred to the same office. These were responsible for the spiritual oversight of local congregations. The qualifications and responsibilities of bishops are mentioned in several places in the New Testament.
Here are some key takeaways on the topic of bishops in the Bible:
- The word “bishop” appears 5 times in the NKJV (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25)
- It is translated from the Greek word “episkopos” meaning overseer or guardian
- Bishops had responsibility for spiritual oversight of local churches
- Qualifications for being a bishop focused on character and spiritual maturity
- Bishops were charged with protecting the church from false teachers and guarding sound doctrine
Let’s now look at each of the 5 verses that mention bishop and understand them in their biblical context.
1. Acts 20:28
The first mention of bishop is in Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders:
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. (Acts 20:28 NKJV)
Here, Paul addresses the “overseers” (episkopos) and commands them to “shepherd” or pastor the church. He reminds them that they are overseers appointed by the Holy Spirit. Their role is to spiritually care for and protect the church which Jesus purchased with his own blood.
The Ephesian elders functioned as bishops or overseers of the church in Ephesus. Their primary role was pastoral – shepherding and teaching the congregation. But they also had to guard the flock from false teachers and guide the church’s doctrine. Paul wanted them to take this duty seriously given the risks facing the Ephesian church.
2. Philippians 1:1
The next mention of bishop is in Paul’s greeting to the saints in Philippi:
Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: (Philippians 1:1 NKJV)
Here Paul addresses his letter to the saints along with their church leaders – the bishops (episkopos) and deacons. This indicates the bishops had an established office and responsibility in the Philippian church.
As overseers, they likely managed church matters, provided spiritual care for members, and maintained doctrinal unity. The bishops worked alongside deacons who served the practical needs of the congregation. This verse shows the organizational structure that was developing in the early churches.
3. 1 Timothy 3:2
Paul’s first letter to Timothy includes instructions for appointing bishops:
A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; (1 Timothy 3:2 NKJV)
Here Paul lists the qualifications for being a bishop in the church. They must have a godly character and reputation. Additionally, bishops must be able to teach sound doctrine to defend against false teachers (as Paul later warns Timothy about in 1 Tim 4:1-3).
The qualifications emphasize maturity and conduct fitting for spiritual oversight of God’s people. Being “husband of one wife” may also imply sexual purity and fidelity in marriage. These qualities befit the duties expected of early church bishops.
4. Titus 1:7
Similar to 1 Timothy 3, Paul’s letter to Titus also mentions qualifications for appointing bishops:
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 money, (Titus 1:7 NKJV)
Again the focus is on godly character and self-control. As “steward of God”, a bishop must live uprightly and discipline his own conduct. Drunkenness, greed, quick temper, and violence would compromise his spiritual leadership.
Like Timothy, Titus was tasked with appointing qualified elders who could effectively oversee churches on the island of Crete. Finding bishops of sound character was critical for the health and stability of these new churches.
5. 1 Peter 2:25
The final mention of bishop is a metaphorical reference to Jesus:
For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer (episkopos) of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25 NKJV)
Peter reminds his readers they were once lost without Jesus. But now they have returned to Jesus who is the “Shepherd and Overseer” of their souls. Here, Jesus is presented as the Chief Bishop who watches over the spiritual welfare of believers.
Of course, Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of the bishop’s role – he has flawless character, teaches sound doctrine, and protects his people. This verse portrays Christ’s absolute spiritual authority over the church, which earthly bishops were meant to emulate.
In summary, we’ve examined the 5 New Testament verses that mention bishop and the Greek word “episkopos”. We’ve seen that bishops functioned as overseers and shepherds of local congregations in the early church. They were responsible for providing spiritual care and leadership through teaching sound doctrine.
The qualifications for being a bishop focused on maturity of character and conduct befitting their position. As stewards of God’s church, they had to guard believers from false teaching and live above reproach. These verses give us insight into how local churches were organized under appointed leaders with official oversight duties.
Jesus Christ is portrayed as the ideal Bishop who has supreme authority and care over the souls of believers. The early church bishops pointed to Christ’s preeminent spiritual oversight of his people.
While views of church governance have developed over history, these passages remain instructive for the kind of spiritual leadership and character required for preserving church health and orthodoxy today. They remind us that those charged with oversight of God’s flock should be persons of spiritual maturity and integrity, well-equipped to guard sound doctrine and shepherd believers to maturity in Christ.