The Good Work of a Bishop

In the writing of 1 Timothy, the author believes it to be a faithful saying that if one desired the bishopric that one desired a good work. I say bishopric and not “office” or “position” of a bishop (“overseer”) simply because that is absent in Greek. Rather, the term given is in the genitive case which indicates that it shows possession of something, hence translators including “office” or “position” of a bishop, or overseer. The only other time this term appears in the same case indicative of this function is in Acts 1:20 where it reads, “Let another take his office.” Literally, one could translate the Greek in Acts 1:20 as “let another take his bishopric”—a reference to the vacated apostleship of Judas Iscariot.

While often referring to an office of an overseer, I believe that viewing such as an office robs it of its function. The way some operate or don’t is more by their title than of the “good work” to which it should be viewed as. Being an overseer in the church of Christ is not just having a title, but a “work,” a good one at that, that includes pastoring and teaching. Overseers are to be active in their work and not passive, hence the author of 1 Timothy calling this a “good work.” Any overseer worth his salt will swiftly state that it is work, sometimes laborious and exhausting, but it is a work entrusted to those men whom God would have shepherd His church.

Three particular passages give us insight into this good work. First, in Acts 20:17, 28, the terms “elders,” “overseers,” and “pastor” are interchangeably used of the bishopric. Bishop is a synonym of overseer, elder of presbyter, and pastor of a shepherd (verbs). Paul had summoned the elders of Ephesus and encouraged that they pay attention to the flock over which they were made overseers. They were, therefore, to pastor the flock. Second, Titus 1:5, 7 urges that he appoint “elders.” Such men were to serve as “overseers” of the church. Third, 1 Peter 5:1–2 has the apostle exhort his fellow “elders” to “shepherd” the flock among them while they served as “overseers.”

The terms bishop/overseer, elder/presbyter, and pastor/shepherd were all used interchangeably of this one function in the New Testament. The terms used for the work as much as define how one ought to serve and do the good work of a bishop. For example, “elder” denotes wisdom that comes with age and, therefore, warrants respect. “Bishop” denotes a guardian of something entrusted to him. “Pastor” denotes tenderness and nurturing toward those in his care.

In every place and city, elders were appointed in the early church to see to the growth and fidelity of the congregation (Acts 14:23: Titus 1:5). Their oversight appears to have been limited to those over whom they had watched—note “every city” in Titus 1:5 and “among you” in 1 Peter 5:2. Several were always present, working together to do this good work (Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). No one man is able to do the work alone. No one man is superior to his other overseers, and the good work of a bishop is marked not by lording his authority over the flock—including those who minister in the congregation either as deacons or preachers—but by serving as an example to the flock (1 Peter 5:1–3).

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.

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