Weekly Word Definition – Bishop

Bishop

New Testament Use:

The word is once applied to Christ himself, “unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). It abounds in Pauline literature, and is used as an alternative for presbyters or elder (Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Tim. 3:1; Tim. 4:14; Tim. 5:17, 19). The earliest ecclesiastical offices instituted in the church were those of elders and deacons, or rather the reverse, since the latter office grew almost immediately out of the needs of the Christian community at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-6). The presbyter constitution of Jerusalem must have been very old (Acts 11:30) and was distinct from the apostolate (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; Acts 16:4). As early as 50 AD Paul appointed “elders” in every church, with prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23), referring to the Asiatic churches before established. But in writing to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1) he speaks of “bishops” and “deacons.” In the Gentile Christian churches this title evidently had been adopted; and it is only in the Pastoral Epistles that we find the name “presbyters” applied. The name “presbyter” or “elder,” familiar to the Jews, signifies their age and place in the church; while the other term “bishop” refers rather to their office. But both evidently have reference to the same persons. Their office is defined as “ruling” (Romans 12:8), “overseeing” (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:2), caring for the flock of God (Acts 20:28). But the word archeín, “to rule,” in the hierarchical sense, is never used. Moreover, each church had a college of presbyter-bishops (Acts 20:17, 28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 4:14). During Paul’s lifetime, the church was evidently still unaware of the distinction between presbyters and bishops.

Of a formal ordination, in the later hierarchical sense, there is no trace as yet. The word “ordained” used in the King James Version (Acts 1:22) is an unwarrantable interpolation, rightly emended in the Revised Version (British and American). Neither the word “cheirotonésantes” (Acts 14:23, translated “appointed” the American Standard Revised Version) nor katastésēs (Titus 1:5, translated “appoint” the American Standard Revised Version) is capable of this translation. In rendering these words invariably by “ordain” the King James Version shows a “victium originis”. No one doubts that the idea of ordination is extremely old in the history of the church, but the laying on of hands, mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; compare Acts 14:26; Acts 15:40) points to the communication of a spiritual gift or to its invocation, rather than to the imparting of an official status.

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 (Epistle 1, chapters 42, 44, 57), the Didache, chapter 15; perhaps the Constitutions, II, 33, 34, in the use of the plural form; Ambrosiaster (on 1 Tim. 3:10; Ephes. 4:11), Chrysostom (Hom. 9 in Ep. ad Tim), in an unequivocal statement, the “presbyters of old were called bishops …. and the bishop’s presbyters,” equally unequivocally Jerome (Titus, 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 this 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.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.