From New World Encyclopedia

Bishops are senior level ecclesiastical authorities, found in some branches of Christianity, who are responsible for the leadership and governance of Church dioceses. Traditionally, Bishops have held vast powers in the Roman Catholic Church, and they are seen as the inheritors of apostolic succession. Organizationally, several churches utilize ecclesiastical structures that call for the position of Bishops, while other churches have dispensed with this office, seeing it as a symbol of power and authority.


The term bishop comes from the Greek word episkopos (επισκοπος), which means overseer, superintendent, supervisor, or foreman. Also derived from episkopos are the English words episcopacy, episcopate and episcopal. The role of the bishop stands squarely within the priestly tradition of the Old Testament era, and represents a continuity in the New Testament era. Deemed God's "steward", "overseer" and "Shepard," the "guardian of souls," the bishop represents the elder and learned leadership of developing Early Church communities that have extended into many religious communities today. These are especially part of what are called the Abrahamic traditions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Bishops in the New Testament

The New Testament uses the word episkopos five times.

  • Acts 20:28
  • Philippians 1:1
  • 1 Timothy 3:2
  • Titus 1:7
  • 1 Peter 2:25

Words related to episkopos are used in two other verses. Some English Bibles translate this word as bishop (King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc.), while others, attempting to distance themselves from certain types of church hierarchy, use a more neutral alternative, such as "overseers" (New International Version, English Standard Version, etc.).

The ministry of these New Testament episkopoi was not directly commissioned by Jesus, but appears to be a natural, practical development of the church during the first and second centuries C.E. The portions of the New Testament that mention episkopoi do not appear to be ordering a new type of ministry, but giving instructions for an already existent position within the early church. In places (particularly in the verses from the Epistle to Titus) it appears that the position of episkopos is similar or the same as that of presbyter (πρεσβυτερος), or elder, and, later, priest. The Epistle to Timothy mentions deacons (διακονοι) in a manner that suggests that the office of deacon differs from the office of the bishop, and is subordinate to it, though it carries similar qualifications.

In Acts, episkopoi are mentioned as being shepherds of the flock, imagery that is still in use today. The other passages from the New Testament describe them as stewards or administrators, and teachers. In 1 Timothy, episkopoi are required to be “the husband of but one wife.” It is unclear whether this forbids men who have married a second time in series, or polygamists. However, it is clear that the New Testament has no prohibition against bishops marrying and having children.

It is interesting to note that in the second chapter of 1 Peter, Jesus is described as 'the Shepherd and Episkopos of your souls' (τον ποιμενα και επισκοπον των ψυχων υμων).

Bishops in the Apostolic Fathers

At the turn of the first century C.E., the church started to acquire a clear organization. In the works of the Apostolic Fathers, and Ignatius of Antioch in particular, the role of the episkopos, or bishop, became more important.

"Plainly therefore we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians 6:1.

"your godly bishop" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 2:1.
"the bishop presiding after the likeness of God and the presbyters after the likeness of the council of the Apostles, with the deacons also who are most dear to me, having been entrusted with the diaconate of Jesus Christ" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 6:1.
"Therefore as the Lord did nothing without the Father, [being united with Him], either by Himself or by the Apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and the presbyters." — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 7:1.
"Be obedient to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was to the Father [according to the flesh], and as the Apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be union both of flesh and of spirit." — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 13:2.
"In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church." — Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallesians 3:1.
"follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; and to the deacons pay respect, as to God's commandment" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnans 8:1.
"He that honoureth the bishop is honoured of God; he that doeth aught without the knowledge of the bishop rendereth service to the devil" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnans 9:1.

— Lightfoot translation.

It is clear that, by this period, a single bishop was expected to lead the church in each centre of Christian mission, supported by a council of presbyters (now a distinct and subordinate position) with a pool of deacons. As the church continued to expand, new churches in important cities gained their own bishop, but churches in the regions around an important city were served by presbyters and deacons from the bishop's city church. Thus, in time, the bishop changed from being the leader of a single church to being the leader of the churches of a given geographical area.

Bishops and Civil Government

The efficient infrastructure of the Roman Empire became the template for the organization of the church in the fourth century, particularly after the Edict of Milan. As the church moved from the shadows of privacy into the public forum it acquired land for churches, burials and clergy. In 391, Theodosius I decreed that any land that had been confiscated from the church by Roman authorities be returned.

The most usual term for the geographical area of a bishop's authority and ministry, the diocese, began as part of the structure of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. As Roman authority began to fail in the western portion of the empire, the church took over much of the civil administration. This can be clearly seen in the ministry of two popes: Pope Leo I in the fifth century, and Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. Both of these men were statesmen and public administrators in addition to their role as Christian pastors, teachers and leaders. In the Eastern churches, the state power did not collapse the way it did in the West, and thus the tendency of bishops acquiring secular power was much weaker than in the West. However, the role of Western bishops as civil authorities, often called prince bishops, continued throughout much of the Middle Ages.

Sovereign Bishops

The most important of these prince bishops was the pope, who ruled as monarch of the Papal States by virtue of his title as Bishop of Rome. His authority over this kingdom in central Italy grew slowly after the collapse of Roman and Byzantine authority in the area. The Papal States were abolished when King Victor Emmanuel II took possession of Rome in 1870 and completed the reunification of Italy. This became a perennial source of tension between the Papacy and the government of Italy. In 1929, Pope Pius XI made a deal with the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini and became the independent sovereign of the Vatican, while giving up any rights to the rest of the former Papal States. He was recognized as an independent monarch by the Lateran Treaties, an authority the current Pope continues to hold. The only other bishop who is a head of state is the Bishop of Urgell, a co-Prince of Andorra.

Three senior bishops served as electors in the Holy Roman Empire. By the terms of the Golden Bull of 1356, the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne were made permanent electors, who chose the next Holy Roman Emperor upon the death of his predecessor. The Archbishop of Mainz was president of the electors and Archchancellor of Germany. Likewise, the Archbishop of Cologne was Archchancellor of Italy, and the Archbishop of Trier was Archchancellor of Burgundy. A number of other bishops within the Holy Roman Empire, although not being electors, were sovereign prince-bishops in their own lands.

Bishops holding political office

As well as the Archchancellors of the Holy Roman Empire, bishops generally served as chancellors to mediaeval monarchs, serving as head of the justiciary and chief chaplain. The Lord Chancellor of England was almost always a bishop up until the dismissal of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey by Henry VIII. Likewise, the position of Kanclerz in the Polish kingdom was always a bishop until the sixteenth century.

In France before the French Revolution, representatives of the clergy—in practice, bishops and abbots of the largest monasteries—comprised the First Estate of the Estates-General, until their role was abolished during the French Revolution.

The more senior bishops of the Church of England continue to sit in the House of Lords of Parliament, as representatives of the established church, and are known as Lords Spiritual. The Bishop of Sodor and Man, whose diocese lies outside of the United Kingdom, is ex officio a member of the Legislative Council of the Isle of Man. In the past, the Bishop of Durham, known as a prince bishop, had extensive vice-regal powers within his northern diocese—the power to mint money, collect taxes and raise an army to defend against the Scots.

Episcopacy during the English Civil War

During the period of the English Civil War, the role of bishops as wielders of political power and as upholders of the established church became a matter of heated political controversy. John Calvin formulated a doctrine of presbyterianism, which held that in the New Testament the offices of presbyter and episkopos were identical; he rejected the doctrine of apostolic succession. Calvin's follower John Knox brought presbyterianism to Scotland when the Scottish church was reformed in 1560. In practice, presbyterianism meant that committees of lay elders had a substantial voice in church government, as opposed to merely being subjects to a ruling hierarchy.

This vision of at least partial democracy in ecclesiology paralleled the struggles between Parliament and the King. Elements within the Puritan movement in the Church of England sought to abolish the office of bishop and remake the Church of England along Presbyterian lines. Further, the Martin Marprelate tracts attacked the office of bishop with satire. And finally, the vestments controversy led to further reductions in church ceremony, and labeled the use of elaborate vestments as "unedifying" and even idolatrous.

King James I, reacting against the perceived defiance of his Presbyterian Scottish subjects, adopted "No Bishop, no King" as a slogan; he tied the hierarchical authority of the bishop to the absolute authority he sought as king, and viewed attacks on the authority of the bishops as attacks on his own authority. Matters came to a head when King Charles I appointed William Laud as the Archbishop of Canterbury; Laud aggressively attacked the Presbyterian movement and sought to impose the full Anglican liturgy on each church. The controversy eventually led to Laud's impeachment for treason by a bill of attainder in 1645 and subsequent execution. Charles also attempted to impose episcopacy on Scotland; the Scots' violent rejection of bishops and liturgical worship sparked the Bishops' Wars in 1639-1640.

During the height of Puritan power in the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, episcopacy was abolished in the Church of England in 1649. The Church of England remained Presbyterian until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

Bishops in Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches

A bishop is an ordained member of the Christian clergy whom, in certain Christian churches, holds a position of authority.

Although many Protestant churches have rejected the place of bishops in church leadership, churches rooted in tradition continue to ordain bishops to lead the church. Bishops form the leadership in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, and the Independent Catholic Churches.

The traditional role of a bishop is as pastor of a diocese (also called a bishopric, eparchy or see). Dioceses vary considerably in their size of area and population. Some dioceses around the Mediterranean Sea which were Christianized early are rather compact; whereas dioceses in areas of rapid modern growth, as in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa]], South America and the Far East, are much larger and more populous.

One form for the coat of arms of a Roman Catholic bishop.

As well as traditional diocesan bishops, many churches have a well-developed structure of church leadership that involves a number of layers of authority and responsibility.

An archbishop is the bishop of an archdiocese. This is usually a prestigious diocese with an important place in local church history. The title is purely honorific and carries no extra jurisdiction, though most archbishops are also metropolitan bishops.
Metropolitan bishop
A metropolitan bishop is an archbishop in charge of an ecclesiastical province, or group of dioceses, and exercises some oversight over the other dioceses. Sometimes a metropolitan may also be the head of an autocephalous, sui juris, or autonomous church.
Suffragan bishop
A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to another. In the Roman Catholic Church this term is applied to all non-metropolitan bishops (diocesan and auxiliary bishops). In the Anglican Communion, the term applies to a bishop who is a full-time assistant to a diocesan bishop: the Bishop of Warwick is suffragan to the Bishop of Coventry (the diocesan), though both live in Coventry. Some Anglican suffragans are given the responsibility for a geographical area within the diocese (for example, the Bishop of Stepney is an area bishop within the Diocese of London).
Titular bishop
A titular bishop is a bishop without a diocese. Rather, the bishop is head of a titular see, which is usually an ancient city that used to have a bishop, but, for some reason or other, does not have one now. Titular bishops often serve as coadjutors or auxiliary bishop s. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, bishops of modern diocese are often given a titular see alongside their modern one (for example, the Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain).
Auxiliary bishop
An auxiliary bishop is a full-time assistant to a diocesan bishop (the Roman Catholic equivalent of an Anglican suffragan bishop). Auxiliaries are almost always titular bishops, and are often appointed as the vicar general of the diocese in which they serve.
Coadjutor bishop
A coadjutor bishop is a bishop who is given automatic right to succeed the incumbent diocesan bishop. The appointment of coadjutors is often seen as a means of providing for continuity of church leadership.
Honorary assistant bishop
This title is usually applied to retired bishops who are given a general license to minister as episcopal pastors under a diocesan's oversight.
A primate is the bishop of the oldest church of a nation. Sometimes this carries jurisdiction over metropolitan bishops, but usually it is another honorific. An exarch is like a primate in the Eastern churches. The title Presiding or President Bishop is often used for the head of a national Anglican church, but this title is not usually associated with a particular episcopal see like a primate. The primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church is chosen from among the diocesan bishops, and, while retaining diocesan responsibility, is called Primus.
A cardinal, although not until recently necessarily a bishop (e.g., Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac), is usually a primate, patriarch or titular bishop within the Roman Catholic Church. Their primary duty is to elect the pope.
Major archbishop
Major archbishops are the heads of some of the Eastern Rite churches in the Roman Catholic Church. Their authority within their sui juris church is equal to that of a patriarch, but they receive less ceremonial honors.
Catholicoi are the heads of some of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, roughly similar to a Catholic major archbishop.
Patriarchs are the heads of certain ancient autocephalous or sui juris churches. Some of these churches call their leaders Catholicos; the patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Egypt, is called Pope. While most patriarchs in the Roman Catholic Church have jurisdiction, all Latin Rite patriarchs, except for the Pope, are honorary.

Bishops in all of these communions are ordained by other bishops. Depending on the church, there need to be two or three bishops for validity or legality.

Apart from the ordination, which is always done by other bishops, there are different methods in different churches as to the actual choosing of a candidate for ordination as bishop. In the Roman Catholic Church today, the Congregation for Bishops oversees the selection of new bishops with the approval of the Pope. Most Eastern Orthodox churches allow varying amounts of more or less formalized laity and/or lower clergy influence on the choice of bishops.

The Pope of Rome, in addition to being the Bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church, is the Patriarch of the Latin Catholic Church. Each bishop within the Latin Catholic Church is only answerable directly to the Pope and not any other bishop except to metropolitans in certain oversight instances.

Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christian bishops claim to be part of a continuous sequence of ordained bishops since the days of the apostles, the apostolic succession. However, since a bull of Pope Leo XIII issued in 1896, the Roman Catholic Church has insisted that Anglican orders are invalid, because of that church's changes in the ordination rites. The Roman Catholic Church does however recognize as valid (though illegal) ordinations done by breakaway Roman Catholic bishops, and groups descended from them, so long as the people receiving the ordination conform to other canonical requirements. Roman Catholics also recognize the validity of ordinations of bishops, priests, and deacons in the Orthodox churches.

Bishops in other Churches

Some other churches, such as Lutherans, Methodists and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("LDS Church"; see also Mormon), also have bishops, but their roles differ significantly from the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican ones.

United Methodist Bishops

In the United Methodist Church, bishops are administrative superintendents of the church; they are elected for life from among the clergy by vote of the delegates in regional (called Jurisdictional) conferences and, among their duties, are responsible for appointing clergy to serve local churches as pastor, for performing ordinations, and for safeguarding the doctrine and discipline of the Church. The Jurisdictional Conferences, meeting every four years, are comprised of an equal number of clergy and lay delegates. In each Annual Conference, United Methodist bishops serve for four-year terms, and may serve up to three terms before either retirement or appointment to a new Conference. United Methodist bishops may be male or female. John Wesley made Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury superintendents for the United States of America in 1784, where Methodism first became a separate denomination apart from the Church of England. Coke soon returned to England, but Asbury was the primary builder of the new church. He did not call himself bishop, but eventually submitted to the usage by the people.

Notable bishops in United Methodist history include Coke, Asbury, Richard Whatcoat, Philip William Otterbein, Martin Boehm, Jacob Albright, John Seybert, Matthew Simpson, John Stamm, Marjorie Matthews, Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda, William Willimon, and Thomas Bickerton.

Methodists in Great Britain acquired their own bishops early in the nineteenth century, after the Methodist movement in Britain formally parted company with the Church of England. The position no longer exists in British Methodism, however.

Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

In the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, bishops are administrative superintendents of the church; they are elected by "delegate" votes for as many years deemed until the age of 74, then he/she must retire. Among their duties are responsibility for appointing clergy to serve local churches as pastor, for performing ordinations, and for safeguarding the doctrine and discipline of the Church. The General Conference, a meeting every four years, is comprised of an equal number of clergy and lay delegates. In each Annual Conference, CME bishops serve for four-year terms. CME Church bishops may be male or female.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Bishop is the leader of a local congregation, called a ward. As such, it is his duty to preside at sacrament meetings, assign local leaders, and participate in one-on-one interviews with his ward members for things such as temple recommends and confession.

Bishop is an office of the Aaronic Priesthood; in addition to his ward responsibilities, it is a bishop's duty to preside over the priest's quorum. Responsible for the physical welfare of the ward, he collects tithing and fast offerings and distributes financial assistance where needed.

A bishop is chosen from members of the local congregation by the stake presidency. After being called, he chooses his two counselors, and the three men together form a bishopric. Like almost all positions in the Church, bishops are not paid or reimbursed financially for their services and therefore have normal full-time jobs to provide for their families. A ward typically releases its bishop and calls a new one every five years or so; after being released, a bishop is usually still referred to by the title "Bishop" by the people he served.


In some smaller Protestant denominations and independent churches the term bishop is used in the same way as pastor, to refer to the leader of the local congregation. This usage is especially common in African American churches in the USA. In the Church of Scotland, which has a Presbyterian church structure, the word "bishop" refers to an ordained person, usually a normal parish minister, who has temporary oversight of a trainee minister.


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