Your Pastor, Your Bishop - June 2019

By David K. Bernard     Do you have a pastor? Do you have a spiritual leader or leaders to whom you are accountable? Have you learned to submit to authority even when you don’t understand or agree with every decision? Do you respect, honor, and support spiritual leaders?

The Bible teaches that the answer to these questions should be yes, because God has appointed leaders to guide and protect us spiritually, and they are accountable to Him to fulfill this responsibility. “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17, NKJV).

Of course, no human authority is absolute. We follow leaders as they follow God and teach God’s Word. We shouldn’t follow anyone into unethical conduct, sin, or false doctrine. By having godly leaders, we fulfill a principle established by our unchanging Lord: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:7–8, NKJV).

This principle of authority applies to all Christians, including leaders, and to the larger fellowship of believers as well as the local church. Even the highest leaders must be accountable to one another and submit to spiritual authority in the body of Christ.

The New Testament uses three Greek terms for those who lead the local church: poimēn, pastor or shepherd; episkopos, bishop or overseer; and presbyteros, presbyter or elder. These terms refer to the same office. Each local church had multiple elders or bishops (e.g., Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1). We can regard them as the pastoral team of a large church or pastors of individual house churches in a city (e.g., Romans 16:3–5; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2). It appears that each church had a senior elder or lead pastor (e.g., Philippians 4:3; Colossians 1:7; Revelation 2:1). According to Paul, the elders (presbyteros) are to shepherd/pastor (poimainō) the church and to serve as overseers/bishops (episkopos) of the flock (Acts 20:17, 28). Similarly, according to Peter, the elders are to both shepherd/pastor (poimainō) and oversee (episkopeō) the flock, under the Chief Pastor/Shepherd (archi-poimēn) (I Peter 5:1–4).

In the second century, the term bishop came to be used for the senior pastor of the mother church of a city or region. Similarly, today we sometimes use this title for a minister who leads other ministers. When a senior pastor retires from a church, we sometimes call him a bishop, signifying advisory pastor, honorary pastor, or spiritual overseer. While these secondary uses of the term bishop are acceptable, because these leaders have positions of oversight, in the Bible the elders are simultaneously pastors and bishops (e.g., Titus 1:5–9). According to the New Testament, then, the senior leader who has the foremost spiritual and operational authority in the local church is both pastor and bishop. Whoever has the ultimate responsibility of guiding, feeding, protecting, and caring for the flock should have the corresponding authority as overseer.

In other words, in biblical terms your pastor is your bishop. He or she is both the church’s shepherd and overseer. The first title (pastor) speaks primarily of responsibility; the second title (bishop) speaks primarily of authority. The pastor is responsible to lead, preach to, teach, maintain, and grow the local assembly. To fulfill this responsibility, God gives the pastor the necessary authority, or oversight. The Bible also teaches organization and fellowship beyond the local church, including the associated principles of unity, accountability, and mutual submission. While pastors should thus be accountable to spiritual leaders beyond the local church (e.g., Acts 16:4–5), no one should seek to override the authority and responsibility of the senior pastor in the local church.

We are to recognize our leaders and hold them in high regard. “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (I Thessalonians 5:12–13). Their job is to govern, preach, and teach, and we are to give them double honor, which includes financial support. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (I Timothy 5:18, NKJV).

God has given pastors and other spiritual leaders to the church “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12, NKJV). These leaders encourage, prepare, and train believers so that everyone can find a place of service in the church. In this way the whole body grows to maturity.