The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A bishop is an ordained priest who holds a specific position of authority in any of a number of Christian churches.


Bishops in the New Testament

The bishop's role is typically called the "episcopacy", because the word "bishop" is derived ultimately from the Greek word episkopos (επισκοπος), which literally means overseer or foreman. Episkopos is used in the New Testament in the epistle of St Paul to Timothy 3:1-7 and Paul's epistle to Titus 1:5-9, which contains a description for the bishop's qualifications and duties. The bishop's stated duties entail administration; the bishop is described as the "steward of God." (Titus 1:7, KJV) Those duties also include teaching; the bishop is enjoined to "hold fast the faithful word, as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers." (Titus 1:9)

The bishop must be even-tempered, sober, just, holy, and temperate; he should not be a novice Christian. A bishop is expected to rule his own house well, "having all his children in subjection with all gravity." He should be the "husband of (only) one wife." Whether this enjoins a bishop to have never been remarried, requires a bishop to be married, or simply disqualifies a candidate who practices polygamy are questions of interpretation about which there are several opinions. The New Testament does not prohibit bishops' marrying and having children (see history of Christianity).

The bishops are also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles 20:28, in which they are described as "shepherds". In Latin, a shepherd is a pastor. To refer to a member of the Christian clergy as "pastor" refers to the image of the bishop as shepherd of his "flock." The passage in Acts seems to view the office of bishop as referring to the same office as the "elders." The New Testament provides no examples of one bishop's retaining sole leadership of or authority over a church.

"Elders," "presbyters," or "priests"—depending on the translation—are also mentioned in the Epistle to Titus, in a manner that makes it difficult to determine whether a separate level of hierarchy above or below the bishop is intended; it seems that here the words are synonyms also. The Epistle to Timothy mentions deacons in a manner that indicates more clearly that the office of deacon differs from the office of the bishop, and is subordinate to it, though it carries similar qualifications.

Bishops in civil government

During Late Antiquity, as villas or other landed properties were given or bequeathed to the leaders of Christian communities, bishops often acquired the status of feudal lords. Where such properties had been confiscated by Roman authorities during the 4th century, they were ordered to be returned, under the Theodosian decrees of 391.

In the West, as the military protection offered by local representative of the Emperor dwindled or collapsed, the bishop remained the only figure to uphold law and order. The career of Leo I, Bishop of Rome, in representing the city in negotiations with Attila, is a case in point.

In the Eastern churches, latifundia entailed to a bishop's see were much less common, 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.

Bishops of the Church of England still sit in the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, as representatives of the state church. The Bishop of Sodor and Man is ex officio a member of Tynwald, the parliament of the Isle of Man

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

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 Emperor upon the death of his predecessor. The archbishop of Mainz was, in fact, the head of the electors. As electors of the Holy Roman Empire, these bishops were not the only bishops who were sovereigns in their own right, and governed their dioceses in civil as well as ecclesiastical matters. By virtue of their electorates, the archbishop of Mainz held the office of the High Chancellor of Germany, that of Cologne was High Chancellor of Italy, and that of Trier was High Chancellor of Burgundy.

But, of course, the highest prince bishop was the Pope, who ruled as monarch of the Papal States by virtue of his title as Bishop of Rome. His claim to this fief rested on the forged Donation of Constantine, but in fact 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 leader of the Vatican, while giving up any rights to the rest of the former Papal States, and he was recognised as an independent monarch by the Lateran Treaties, a throne the current Pope continues to enjoy.

Bishops in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches

Bishops are especially prominent among the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican Communion. Bishops are generally responsible for leading a large or heavily-populated area (a diocese, sometimes also called a bishopric or eparchy) and all the churches contained therein. Bishoprics in areas that were christianized early, especially around the Mediterranean Sea, are usually much smaller than those in areas christianized later, such as Northern and Central Europe and most colonial areas.

However, certain bishops have other responsibilities or honorifics:

  • An archbishop is a bishop in charge of an archdiocese, which is a prestigious diocese. The title is purely honorific and carries no extra jurisdiction, though some archbishops are also metropolitan bishops.
  • 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 bishop may also be the head of an autocephalous, sui juris, or autonomous church.
  • In Anglicanism, a suffragan bishop is a full-time assistant bishop (as opposed to an assistant bishop which is usually an honorary post for retired bishops), or a bishop responsible to another bishop. In the Church of England, the Bishop of Warwick is 'suffragan' to the Bishop of Coventry, the 'diocesan' bishop, though both live in Coventry. A list of all such bishops can be found here
  • In Roman Catholicism, a suffragan is a non-metropolitan bishop.
  • 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 bishop is often used for the head of a national Anglican church, but this title is not associated with a particular episcopal see like a primate.
  • 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 differen churches as to the actual choosing of a candidate for ordination as bishop. In the Roman Catholic Church today, bishops are generally chosen by 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. More information on this topic is needed.

Only a bishop can ordain a bishop, priest, or deacon.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and in the Eastern Rite liturgical tradition, a priest may celebrate the Divine Liturgy only with the blessing of a bishop. An antimension signed by the bishop is kept on the altar partly as a reminder of whose altar it is and under whose omophorion the priest at a local parish is serving.

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.

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion, the cathedral of a diocese will have a special chair set aside for the exclusive use of the bishop. This is the bishop's cathedra, which is often called the bishop's throne. In some other Christian denominations, other churches besides the cathedral will maintain a chair for the use of a Bishop when he visits their parish.

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; this gives rise to the phenomenon of episcopi vagantes. 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 clergy in regional 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. 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. John Wesley made Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury bishops for the United States of America in 1784, where Methodism first became a separate denomination apart from the Church of England.

Notable bishops in United Methodist history include Thomas Coke, Francis 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, however, in British Methodism.


Bishops of the LDS Church (whose role corresponds to that of the pastors of other churches) claim a restored apostolic succession (see Priesthood (Mormonism)). Methodist bishops do claim a type of theological apostolic succession through John Wesley, though Wesley himself was never consecrated a Bishop. Lutheran bishops do not claim apostolic succession, except in the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.

New Apostolic Church

The New Apostolic Church (NAC) knows 3 classes of ministries: Diacons, Priests and Apostles. The Apostles, all conclused in the apostolate with the chief apostle as head, are the highest ministries.

Of the several kinds of priest-ministries, the bishop is the highest one. Nearly all bishops are set in directly from the chief apostle. They support and help their superior apostle.


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.

See also

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy