The Back Page
On Bishops and Elders
“We don’t have bishops and elders at Second Cape. Sounds sort of Catholic to me!” But the New
Testament church had both.
“Bishop” is how the KJV sometimes renders the Greek noun episkopos, “overseer, one responsible
to see to it that things are done in the right way, guardian.” We can hear our word “Episcopal” in
Although the New Testament envisions that every member— each with a unique contribution
—ministers in the church, it does not propose that they all launch off on their own, unexamined and
unaccountable. The word of God and people’s souls are too valuable for such a “method” so open to
error or abuse. So overseers were installed—not to be bossy, but to ensure that everything was done
properly, and all teaching biblical. The fact that bishops were to be genuinely helpful, not ivory-towered
bosses, may be seen in James 1:27, which says that pure and faultless religion consists of caring for
(episkopeō, a verbal form of episcopos) widows and orphans. 1 Peter 5:2–3 teaches that oversight
should be exercised (episcopeō) willingly, eagerly, and by way of example. Jesus is called the episcopos
of our souls (1 Pet 2:25).
An “elder” (presbyteros) is one who, because he is older chronologically and/or more mature
spiritually, is a leader. Cities, synagogues, and churches had elders. We can hear our word “Presbyterian”
in presbyteros. The elders helped the apostles decide whether Gentile Christians needed to submit to the
Jewish law or could trust in Christ alone (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 23), obviously a weighty issue. The elders at
Ephesus were entrusted with the care of the church—as both its overseers (episcopoi) and shepherds (or
pastors, Act 20:17, 28). Elders were to rule or lead (1 Tim 5:7).
Instructively, churches did not always choose their own elders. In Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas
appointed elders for the churches they had planted.
Church government in which the vote of the youngest and most carnal Christian counts as much as
does the counsel of a mature saint is a very Western (and particularly American) democratic idea. But the
question may reasonably be asked whether or not it is a biblical one.