“PASTOR” OR “BISHOP”—WHICH IS THE CORRECT TITLE?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“I was just wondering if Pastor is the correct term to use for the head of a local assembly? I know Timothy mentions Bishop, but most people still use Pastor.” Thank you for submitting, friend! We will get right to your question.
“Bishop” (or its variants) appears only six times in the King James Bible:
- Acts 1:20: “For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take.”
- Philippians 1:1: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:….”
- 1 Timothy 3:1: “This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.”
- 1 Timothy 3:2: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;….”
- Titus 1:7: “For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;….”
- 1 Peter 2:25: “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”
“Pastor” (or its variant) is the more common term, found nine times in the King James Bible:
- Jeremiah 2:8: “The priests said not, Where is the LORD? and they that handle the law knew me not: the pastors also transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal, and walked after things that do not profit.”
- Jeremiah 3:15: “And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
- Jeremiah 10:21: “For the pastors are become brutish, and have not sought the LORD: therefore they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered.”
- Jeremiah 12:10: “Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.”
- Jeremiah 17:16: “As for me, I have not hastened from being a pastor to follow thee: neither have I desired the woeful day; thou knowest: that which came out of my lips was right before thee.”
- Jeremiah 22:22: “The wind shall eat up all thy pastors, and thy lovers shall go into captivity: surely then shalt thou be ashamed and confounded for all thy wickedness.”
- Jeremiah 23:1: “Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.”
- Jeremiah 23:2: “Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.”
- Ephesians 4:11: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;….”
As you could see, “bishop” is less frequent than “pastor.” Save for a single reference in Ephesians, “pastor” is exclusively an Old Testament title. When titling church leaders, the New Testament uses “bishop” or “overseer.” We will look further at these individual terms.
We will start off with an investigation of the English terms.
“Bishop” is derived from an Old English word based on the Greek “episkopos” “overseer,” with “epi–” (“over”) and “–skopos” (“looking”). While usually appearing as “bishop/s/rick” (six times—Acts 1:20, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1, 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 2:25), “episkopos” is found once in the King James Bible as “overseers” as well. Notice Acts 20:28—“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Whereas “bishop” is about leading God’s people, “pastor” carries the meaning of feeding God’s people (although there is some overlap as you saw in Acts 20:28 a few moments earlier).
“Pastor” is from the Anglo-Norman French “pastour,” from the Latin “pastor” meaning “shepherd,” with “past–” defined as “fed, grazed.” In the Greek New Testament, the word is poimen, which is rendered both “shepherd” and “pastor.” (“Shepherd” as in—Matthew 9:36, Matthew 25:32, Mark 6:34, Luke 2:8, Luke 2:15, Luke 2:18, Luke 2:20, John 10:12, and Ephesians 4:11. “Shepherd” as in the Lord Jesus Christ Himself—Matthew 26:31, Mark 14:27, John 10:2, John 10:11 (twice), John 10:14, John 10:16, Hebrews 13:20, 1 Peter 2:25. “Pastors” as in—Ephesians 4:11.)
While beyond this study, you can see that our 1611 translators rendered the Hebrew word “raa” over 70 times in the Old Testament as “feed,” 60-plus times as “shepherd,” and eight times as “pastor.” Evidently, “pastor” and “shepherd” are synonyms—they can be used interchangeably, just as “bishop” and “overseer.”
As an interesting little tidbit, we quote one commentator: “A shepherd in the Near East was responsible for watching out for enemies trying to attack the sheep, defending the sheep from attackers, healing the wounded and sick sheep, finding and saving lost or trapped sheep, loving them, and sharing their lives and to earn their trust.” If we can take this and apply it to a spiritual setting (local church), we will better understand church leadership.
The bishop or overseer (episkopos)—by his very name—is a superintendent or supervisor. He leads or guides the local assembly in sound Bible doctrine and behavior. By God’s design, the bishop is the first line of defense against doctrinal error. The bishop not only makes sure things are done correctly (Christ-like) in the local assembly, he sees to it that any and all impurities are kept out of the church! He is a guardian, sentry, or watchman—experienced in the Word rightly divided, ready to spot error, warn others of the danger, and prevent the error from infecting the congregation.
The pastor or shepherd (poimen)—as his appellation implies—is the feeder or tender of the group. Imagine a shepherd tending to the needs of his sheep. As you can see though, there is some overlap with a bishop. Both the bishop and the pastor lead the group. The bishop guards against danger and error while the pastor feeds to produce saints who can withstand error. The bishop leads while the pastor cares. They are one individual but that one man serves two roles.
Quickly stated, the “bishop” is in the sense of “overseer” (watches over local group—same Greek word as “overseers” in Acts 20:28) whereas the “pastor” is in the sense of the “feeder” (like a shepherd feeding the flock, spiritual food being the Word of God). Is that clearer?
Earlier, we read about corrupt pastors in ancient Israel. The LORD God was very upset that they had misled His people, just as a lazy shepherd would fail to guide his sheep in the right, safe path. Read Jeremiah 23:1-2 again: “ Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.  Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.” Such scathing words could be uttered today in most churches! The average local church leader today is anything but a “leader”… and if leading, it is probably in the wrong direction!
As you stated, friend, “pastor” is the more common title for church leaders. This is likely because that word appears more often in the Bible text. Here is an interesting fact. While frequently called the “Pastoral Epistles,” the word “pastor” never once appears in 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon! The term “bishop” is used instead (1 Timothy 3:1-2 and Titus 1:7). Philippians 1:1 speaks of the “bishops and deacons” leading the church at Philippi. During the Acts period, the spiritual gifts of “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” were bestowed upon men (Ephesians 4:11). These supernaturally-imparted gifts are no longer being given because of the completed Word of God that has come and equipped all saints to do God’s will (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17). However, the roles of evangelists, pastors, and teachers still need to be filled. “For the perfecting [maturing] of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).
You have hinted at the controversy, so with all that has been said up to now, we might as well divulge the debate for those unaware. Some have gone to great lengths to passionately quarrel over whether “bishop” or “pastor” is the correct term. “Pastor” is for Israel’s program, it is said (not true according to Ephesians 4:11). “Bishop” is the proper term, they claim (there is some weight to this argument, but again, remember those definitions and the overlaps).
Personally, in light of what we have discussed in this study, I believe it to be a petty issue not worth our time. Provided that someone is not being called “apostle” or “prophet”—which is the most important issue about labeling church leaders today—I would not worry about getting caught up in the “pastor/bishop” issue. I know good men who use one or both terms. Furthermore, I have a friend in the ministry who prefers calling himself “pastor” because he lives in Mormon territory. Lest he advertise himself as a possible Mormon, he avoids using “bishop.” This should be considered as well.
The function of a “pastor” is still needed, for Christians still need to be fed the Word of God rightly divided (see Ephesians 4:11-12). “Bishop” is fine too, as Christians need to be led in the Word of God rightly divided (see 1 Timothy 3:1-2). Again, while some fervently argue over which is the correct term, I see no legitimate reason to accept one and reject the other. Church leader and church feeder are the roles, and there is some commonality. “Elder,” by the way, is an aged man in leadership (not necessarily physical age, but certainly advanced/experienced in the doctrine)—see 1 Timothy 5:1,17-19. There is some overlap here between bishops and elders, but that too is beyond the scope of this study. For more information, you can refer to our related studies below.
NOTE: If you missed the live streaming of my Grace School of the Bible graduation a few weeks ago, the video is now posted online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-TjUeG45yI&feature=youtu.be.
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