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  Why Don't All Churches Have Bishops?

"I am a Christian Southern Baptist. Where are our bishops? I have asked this questions several times to our deacons and they didn't know what I was talking about until I showed them where the early church had bishops, according to Paul."

The passage our writer refers to is found most plainly in 1st Timothy. There we read, "The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task" (1 Timothy 3.1). There are several scriptural offices we still find in our churches today. The most common offices are pastors, deacons, elders, and bishops. The office of pastor is found only once and is a word best translated "shepherd" (Ephesians 4.11). The office of deacon is mentioned several time and is best defined in 1st Timothy 3.8-13. But it is the last two offices, the elders and bishops, where confusion tends to reign.

The word bishop comes from the Greek word episkopy and means overseer. In the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, and Methodist churches the bishops do just that -- they oversee a number of congregations.

The word elder comes from the Greek word presbuteros. It means elder and is used not only in reference to an office, but to one's age and/or status. The office of elder is not as well defined as the bishop or the deacon, but Titus 1.5-9 suggests the qualifications of an elder: "I left you behind . . .that you should . . . appoint elders in every town: someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; they must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but they must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. They must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that they may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it." The Presbyterian church uses this definition as its basis for their local church rulers, both clergy and laity. The problem is, Paul seems here to collapse the offices of elder and bishop into one office, using the terms synonymously. On the other hand, in 1st Timothy Paul writes as if the two offices were separate and distinct. In any event, elders were to be appointed in each town (Titus 1.5) and they were to be paid (1 Tim. 5.17-18). It is interesting to note that both Peter and John claimed to be elders, but no one in scripture is ever called a bishop.

As the church became more organized, the office of elder and bishop were collapsed into a single office. However, in the 1500s during the Reformation these two offices were separated and became distinct. In some churches several elders served within the congregation and were regarded as the spiritual leaders of the church. In other churches "elder" was the title for the pastor of the congregation. During this period many churches eliminated the office of bishop altogether in response to the Catholic church, believing instead that each church should be self-governing.

Today there are a variety of organizational structures in the church. Some churches have bishops but no elders. Others have bishops, elders, and deacons all of which are ordained positions. And still others have no bishops because the elders and deacons oversee individual congregations completely. Which structure is biblical?

All of the them. The authors of the Bible didn't dictate a structure to be used universally in the church. Some churches had elders. Others may have had bishops. John and Peter seemed to serve as overseers of several churches, but chose to call themselves elders, not bishops. In the end, we really don't know how the apostles chose to organize the church, but it's clear the church did get organized. I believe the writers knew that what works in one place may not work in another and so left the organizational principles to the discretion and wisdom of the local churches.

So, why aren't there any bishops in the Southern Baptist church? Because each Baptist church is organized as an autonomous congregation and they don't perceive a need for multiple church overseers. It's worked for the Baptists for hundreds of years now, and there doesn't seem to be any desire to change. So we'll have to rely on the axiom, "If it's not broke, don't fix it."

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