The word we translate “bishop” means “oversee, look over.” It is a word interchangeable with elder. It is not a title or office, has nothing in particular to do with hierarchy as often applied by institutional polity and government, a leader over several other leaders or churches. It came to mean that after the Bible was written, and the word was supercharged with title by institutionalism. In that sense, “bishop” can mean oversight of a group of churches, of course, but that is not the Bible meaning at any point or in any Scripture.
If we look at the household of God, the oikos, as God’s big house, a spiritual ecosystem or matrix, instead of an institution, the OS of that spiritual matrix is like an operating system of a computer in this sense: oversight or OS and operating system or OS reveal similarities.
I’m going to say absolutely nothing about computers now. I’m going to relate the two concepts to the meaning of oversight in a spiritual matrix. The kingdom being spiritual requires a discussion of spiritual operations and makes the discussion of spiritual reality about spiritual dynamics.
The Bishop of the Absence of Dirt
We have a bishop at our Worship Center responsible and authorized to rid it of dirt. She cleans the facilities. She is the bishop of the absence of dirt. In every possible sense and meaning of the word, she is a bishop. She has a defined and designed scope of authority delegated by other oversight leaders. She has a standard of measurable results. She has values, beliefs, and behaviors consistent with kingdom culture in both her leadership qualification and her standard of excellence. The absence of dirt is a value of kingdom order applied to the tool we call “facility.”
She can pray, cast out demons, worship, and edify. She represents Jesus and my apostolic blueprint assignment. She stands up to the scrutiny of inspection. She gets Jesus, the kingdom, and me results!
She is the bishop of the absence of dirt.
Apply that understanding to oversight to see that both elders and bishops of all kinds, shapes, and sizes are prepared and positioned to do the work of ministry, and that whether or not the elder or bishop is a fivefold ministry leaders has little bearing upon the operational integrity of OS.
Elders and Bishops
The interchangeable design and definition of these words is pretty straightforward if we ignore the churchanity of titles designed and defined that are added as part of later governmental and institutional structures. Let’s ignore them completely and look at what the Bible says about oversight. Oversight runs through the kingdom matrix from top to bottom, side to side, bottom to top, and answers to the spiritual dynamics of the kingdom and its leadership.
Paul and Barnabas collected offerings and presented them to elders in Jerusalem. The elders were part of the council, including apostles, as part of the formation of an apostolic decree concerning non-Jews. A single body of council operates in oversight throughout this discussion. This council appears and functions when a matter requiring oversight arises at the level at which they provide oversight. The time required for such a council to form, consisting of expertise and experience answers to the 15-17 year period that passed before its appearance.
The word group itself provides history of use from “being old or older” to the special sense of “being representative or responsible”. The sense of honoring those of greater age carried to honoring those with expertise and experience in another sense. Greek language certainly extended from “older in age” to uses that signify administrative and judicial function. The function of elders continues to carry the weight of administration and judicial decision-making and problem solving with a dual sense of expertise and experience.
The word “elder” is not a technical title per se. That kind of formality is added to the term by the scope of function an elder is given. That is, “elder” applies to a job description of delegate authority.
Jesus in Oversight
Jesus uses the word with reference to the traditions of the Jews that accumulated as a basis for defining culture. In essence, His confrontation of the traditions that defined culture got Him killed. He made it clear that the traditions of the elders had made God’s expectations and intentions without effect. He represented His Father as His elder, bringing Father’s oversight to that culture.
His famous use of the word group for “oversight,” includes Luke 19:44:
They will level yo to the ground, your children within you, not leaving one stone upon another, because you did not recognize your season of oversight.”
Elders and bishopric having the same functional job description, this use of the term, episkopé, speaks to Jesus functioning in delegated authority, representing His Father’s interests in Jerusalem and Israel, and His life and ministry in terms of oversight function.
Erroneously Avoiding Error
Viewpoints of meaning for the word groups is as varied as definitions and designs for leadership. However, we should more properly refer to the revelation of the King for our understanding of leadership dynamics. Since the Reformation, we have fought a grand battle against Roman Catholicism by overreaction and overcompensation against Roman error or any perceptions of error that even resemble Roman Catholicism. We justified throwing out the Bible with these “that looks too Roman” knee-jerk reactions.
We don’t start with the Reformation to find kingdom leadership dynamics. We start with Jesus, the King! We don’t set up something on our own that keeps us on the other side of the valley from Roman error without setting up our own error.
We exponentially increase the error we set up by bragging that the polity and government must be so written in stone that no one can change it back to the Roman blasphemy. That is, going to the extreme exaggeration of overcompensation includes making the substitute impossible to change. In so doing, we simply set up our own faulty systems and end up as bad as the pope in that sense.
We redefined ekklesia and leadership roles for her in ways that were meant to save future generations from abuses of power, but we failed miserably. Abuses of power have been just as severe outside Roman error as within it.
This is not, however, meant as a polemic discussion of what isn’t eldership.
The term, presbuteros, first denotes advanced age. The term comes into applications of leadership because of the innate sense of honor and dignity it projects. While age producing respect for elders in the instance of advanced age, and the word answers to “experience”, the added sense of “expertise” comes into play with its use in reference to administrative and judicial leadership. So that the word carries both meanings – experience and expertise. An elder maturing in both matures in function, dignity, and honor.
A rich history of the use of the word in Greek culture is available as well as the rich history of the word usage in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. We have a lot of opportunity to see its use and meaning leading up to the application of the word in the New Testament Ecclesia.
Because James writes a book flavored with strong hints of Hebrew, we tend to find a first point of reference for defining elders with him. Our assumption that “elders” begins with Hebrew or the culture of Israel in Jesus’s generation is not justified by the New Testament. Remember that Jesus confronted the culture of His generation and nation as utterly bankrupt of kingdom purpose.
Simon Peter, however, spices his treatment of the terms from the same sources as James. He is, after all, sent to the circumcision. Yet, we still fail to see in Simon a foundation for understanding the identity or function of elders solely as a carryover from Judaism. The basis for expertise and experience upon which the traditions were built became the basis for justifying the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus.
Simon addresses the elders first, then younger people and then more generally to the entire kingdom. Simon sees elders everywhere there is Ecclesia, in other words, with a secondary dynamic of those following elder leadership. Elders operate in groups since the address and discussion always assumes a company operating in some organized way. Elders are not, however, equalized to the point that we see no variation in authority or responsibility. Some are worthy of double honor (whether this is monetary or not or measured both in monetary and authority, it is obvious).
That bishop and elder do the very same thing becomes apparent in Paul, and the terms are interchangable in terms of function in kingdom leadership. This is critical mass for understanding elders in the kingdom.
Bishop is always singular. Elders is always plural. The function matching is consistent, however, and the demand of a title fails to appear. As with all other kingdom leadership dynamics, we identify the function with a name to clarify what the King wants any leader to be and do. Without that clarity, we end up with false equality, false leaders of each of fivefold, and a failure to move leaders into higher levels of specificity in function as they mature. All these special concerns are vitally important to maturing the kingdom Ecclesia.
We see that bishop and elders do oversight with specific delegated responsibility and authority in Paul’s discussions with Timothy.
1 Timothy 5:17 – “The elders who lead well earn the value ascribed to elders in double portion if they are emptying themselves out with hard labor in communication and teaching.”
The word for “lead” is proistemi with the sense of positional leadership that releases rule, leadership, example that results in decision-making and problem-solving. Some elders stand before the people to communicate and teach in the sense of being the point of reference by which direction for that ruling is carried out. They give orders by setting order and training people to follow that order.
1 Timothy 3:5 – the overseer [verse 3] cares for God’s ekklesia by the same leadership (proistemi), doing so by his capacity to teach.” That is, as the fivefold prepare and position people to do the work of the ministry, the bishop and elders do the very same thing.
Paul discusses the same ideas with Titus about elders, giving the same criteria for function. Making decisions and solving problems by close proximity or involvement in people’s lives, living a life and lifestyle consistent with kingdom culture himself, the elder and bishop have matching criteria so that we can see a bishop is an elder but elders function in company or college.
My point is that the scope of bishop or elders can be narrowly defined by assignment, and that we have zero reasons to assume that both terms relate to fivefold ministry leaders; the function is consistent with the “prepare and position” these kingdom leadership dynamics provide kingdom citizens as they operate in building, body, and bride. While we have tended to assume that bishop and elders are other than the fivefold, we actually find this viewpoint more consistent with the treatment of oversight as the OS of the kingdom matrix.
Each bishop has definable oversight, but elders form into an OS. Operating together is not to be seen as “having a monthly meeting.” The OS operates SpiritFirst and assembles for assignment: think of the ekklesia in the same way. The definitions of Ecclesia follow leadership markers: that is, an Ecclesia is defined by assignments aligned in assembly, called together from within the kingdom to discuss, communicate, strategize, prepare and position, measure for accountability, authorize, supply, energize, and then “campaign”.
The oldest reference point for New Testament kingdom Ecclesia leadership with respect to elders is Acts. Both 14:23 and, of course, the grandaddy of them all, 20:17-38 when the description of Paul leaving Ephesus in proper order. We know that Paul and Barnabas always set elders in place, addressed Ecclesia wherever it manifested kingdom assignment through elders, and considered regional elders as foundational to the preservation of the apostolic foundations and blueprints by which kingdom was formed.
- Holy Spirit appointed them. This speaks directly to the special nature of calling we ascribe to fivefold ministry leaders. The language we need to use to properly discuss fivefold ministry leaders is the language Paul uses with respect to elders.
- The receive the assignment from apostles to maintain the maturity of the assignment as it expands.
- They are overseers ( the plural form here, “bishops as elders” in company) aware of God’s counsel or blueprint strategy for the kingdom Ecclesia for which they are now accountable, responsible to carry out the blueprint building according to plan.
- Danger from within and without becomes obvious to them because of their oversight position and perspective. They certainly have spiritual capacities necessary to this assignment, just as fivefold ministry leaders. They must act with courage and boldness against these dangers.
- The process of preparation and positioning for them is the same as the process they will lead for everyone else, just as Ephesians 4 assumes.
The term, episkopos, is only used by Luke in this Acts 20 passage, but he is the one who writes of Jesus’ use of the term with respect to oversight accountability. The point is that the only place this bishop form is used is a specific reference to elders in form and function. The elders as bishops are overseers, and elders as overseers is a group of bishops.
Thus, we see that bishop and elders are the same, and in comparison of function, we see that the closest we can get to the functionality of elders, as each bishop unique in function joins in college or company of council with other bishop overseers, is the fivefold ministry or kingdom leadership dynamics Jesus bestows upon the kingdom Ecclesia.
As to the assumption that elders are shepherds, closer examination reveals that this aspect of their leadership need not be the dominate aspect of each overseer and the terms that speak to involvement at the individual level do not require that all elders be shepherds. Luke records the inspired order and function of elders as overseers but assume a council, college, and company will carry out the fullness of this oversight.
We do not have n elders are shepherds” formula here. We have an OS for the Ecclesia that carries out personal, regional, kingdom oversight of apostolic blueprints and apostolic order.
Functions of OS include, but do not necessary demand that each overseer have all these capacities or functions:
- Teach as a communication of culture direction, bringing consistent, Biblical, apostolic order to the culture;
- Protect from all that lacks kingdom and kingdom culture authenticity, gently, firmly, consistently, in meekness, and above all, love;
- Discipline as part of the prepare and position mandate; prophet, apostle, teacher being the most funtional in discipling while shepherds are focused upon those unable to endure discipling because of immaturity or simplemindedness;
- Exhibit and example kingdom culture personally and domestically;
- Avoid the use of leadership authority in taking advantage of people for personal gain, control, fame, or fraud.
We will give little discussion here to the appearance of elders in prophetic picturing because that has special meaning other than the aim of this limited treatment of the subject.
We can ask John to address the role of apostle as elder since he seems to use the term with reference to himself, as Simon Peter. So that we see more clearly that apostles are elders, serve in the bishop role as it relates to oversight, and gives “leaders as overseers” a hearty hug. In fact, his talk of Diotrephes seems to point to opposition to oversight described best as fivefold ministry leaders with international scope of oversight.
Finally, I hesitate in all things to cling to Early Church Father writings for discussions of New Testament fundamentals, for two reasons:
- They are not the New Testament, so we have no guarantee that the writings are universal, inspired with inerrancy, applied in perspective that is eternal and universal, or even properly ascribed;
- They are usually discussions that bear little direct imprint upon the design and definition of Bible ideas, not written for the purposes we would use them if we were to make them a point of reference, nor do they always reflect a good viewpoint of “what people thought at the time closest to New Testament history.”
I conclude that bishop as overseer, one of the elders in council, company, and college, is a fivefold leader set in place by apostolic order as Holy Spirit ordains, with authority to carry out the “prepare and position” OS aspects of a spiritual matrix that produces a functional and operational building, body, and bride through kingdom Ecclesia.