What The Bible Says About Pastors and Bishops

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

1 Timothy 3:1

If we picture a bishop, chances are we’re thinking of a Catholic member of the clergy dressed in long, white robes who wears that large hat.  If we talk about a pastor, we probably have in our mind a preacher, the man who gets in the pulpit every Sunday.  One thing we might not know is that the Bible uses the terms “bishop” and “pastor” interchangeably to refer to the same office.  Biblically, bishops and pastors are the same thing, and it might not be what we think.

The apostle Paul talked to “the elders of the church” in Acts 20:17.  He told them to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God…” (v. 28).  Notice that he called these elders “overseers” and told them to “shepherd” God’s church.  The word “overseer” comes from the Greek word “episkopos,” which is the word from which “bishop” comes.  “Shepherd” comes from the Greek word “poimein,” which is the term from which “pastor” comes.  A “bishop” is an overseer and a “pastor” is a shepherd, and both terms were used to describe elders in the church.

The apostle Peter also spoke to elders (1 Peter 5:1).  He charged them to “shepherd” the flock of God and told them to serve as “overseers” (v. 2).  Again, the term “shepherd” is the same Greek word translated “pastor” and the term “overseers” is the same Greek word translated “bishop,” and both terms are used to describe elders in the church.

Not just anyone can be an elder/bishop/pastor.  Paul laid out qualifications for this office (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), using terms of necessity like “must be.”  Unlike most bishops of Catholicism who are required to be celibate, the bishops of the New Testament are required to be married and raise believing children (1 Timothy 3:2, 4-5; Titus 1:5-7).  Even though pastors are commonly thought of as preachers, these family requirements would prevent some preachers from being considered pastors in the biblical sense.  For example, I had been a preacher for almost four years before I got married, with another eight years passing before I became a dad.  Both of my girls currently are too young to understand what is required of them to become believers in the biblical sense.  Therefore, I as a preacher cannot biblically be called a pastor even though I have been preaching for almost two decades.  This is because pastors and bishops refer to elders in the church, and one must be married with faithful children to serve in that office.

It takes a special person to serve as a bishop or pastor.  More accurately, it takes a very spiritual person to serve in that role.  That’s why Paul called it a good work (1 Timothy 3:1).  Elders are told to pay attention to themselves (Acts 20:28) and be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3)…the right kind of example.  That’s why the Timothy and Titus qualifications focus so much on the right kind of spiritual qualities God wants leaders in the church to have in order guide through their example the rest of the church to grow closer to Christ in these same ways.  God wants His overseers and shepherds to be “blameless” or “above reproach,” which does not require sinlessness (1 John 1:8) but does require a humble, penitent heart.  He wants elders to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3).  He wants pastors to “not be a recent convert” and to “be well thought of by outsiders” (vs. 6-7).  He does not want bishops to be “arrogant or quick-tempered,” but “a lover of good…upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:7-8).  He wants church leaders to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (v. 9).

Again, bishops and pastors must set the proper example…but examples must also be followed.  How many of these spiritual qualities are held by you and me?