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Difference Between a Bishop and a Pastor

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The hierarchy found within the Christian church can often be confusing, especially to non-Christians. There are a wide varieties of designations to describe different roles and levels of leadership. Some of the terms commonly used include pastor, elder, bishop, reverend, minister and priest. Currently, there are several differences between two of the most common terms-bishop and pastor- that should be noted.

  1. Literal meaning

The term bishop comes from the Greek word espiskopos which mean “overseer.” As Greek was the early language of the Christian Church, this term was often used in the same way that the word presbyteros was. Presbyteros  means “elder” or “senior” and serves as the root for the modern term priest. Starting in the 2nd century, with the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, the two terms were clearly distinguished and used in a sense of the order or office of bishop.[i]

The term pastor is derived from the Latin noun pastor which means “shepherd” and from its earliest usage it has always referred to a role within the church that takes on a task of spiritual shepherding within the congregation. In the New Testament, it was also synonymous to the term elder, although that is no longer the case.[ii]

  1. History

The terms pastor and bishop have two different histories in how they started out and in how their meaning evolved into its current definition. Early Christian churches, including the Church in Jerusalem, were organized similar to Jewish synagogues but included a council of ordained presbyters. Then in Acts 11:30 and 15:200, a collegiate governmental system is implemented in Jerusalem and led by James the Just, who is considered to be the first bishop of the city. At this time though, the words presbyters and espiskopos (later bishop) were used interchangeably and not in the sense to mean the holder of the office of bishop-which is the meaning that developed later. At this time the group of presbyter-bishops did not exert any power over the church; this was a function deferred to the Apostles or their delegates, who were better educated and highly respected. The modern meaning for bishop first occurs in Timothy and Titus in the New Testament, in which Paul commands Titus to ordain presbyters/bishops and exercise oversight while rebuking all other authority. As Christendom grew, bishops began to serve larger areas than individual congregations and instead appointed priests to manage each church as a delegate of the bishop.[iii]

Throughout history, the term pastor has been used in a much more generalized context and could be appropriate for describing anyone who filled the role as a spiritual shepherd within the Christian faith. In the Old Testament it is commonly referred to as a metaphor in which the feeding of sheep done by a shepherd is equated with the spiritual feeding of humans. Within the New Testament, it is used less frequently, and is typically referring to Jesus himself. In John 10:11, Jesus even refers to himself as the “Good Shepherd.”[iv] So while the two terms both reference individuals who provide spiritual guidance to the faithful, the term bishop has had a relatively rigid definition historically and in modern times when compared with the term pastor.

  1. Relation to different branches of Christianity

Currently, the terms bishop and pastor can appear in any of the branches of Christianity but they are typically used more frequently in some and not others. With bishops, the most common usage of the term appears in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran Church, the Independent Catholic Churches, the Independent Anglican Churches and some smaller denominations. These faiths typically exhibit a very rigid hierarchy even within the bishop classification and some examples of sub classifications include: Presiding or President Bishop, metropolitan bishop, major archbishop, archbishop, suffragan bishop, area bishop, titular bishop, auxiliary bishop, coadjutor bishop, general bishop, chorbishop, supreme bishop, and cardinal. You will see the term bishop in the Methodist Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Apostolic Church, the Church of God, the Pentecostal Church of God, Seventh-day Adventists and other, smaller sects.[v]

While the term bishop can be found across many, many different denominations within Christianity, pastor is only frequently used within Catholicism and Protestantism. In the Catholic Church, it is sometimes used to refer to the leader of an individual congregation as he would be their shepherd. But this only happens occasionally since most Catholics refer to the priest as Father. In Protestantism, the term pastor is much more encompassing and is likened to a job title that can be used for anyone who may fill the role as a spiritual shepherd, including ordained members of the clergy, lay people, and students of the seminary or graduates in the ordination process.[vi]

  1. Duties

Within the faiths that use the term bishop, there appears to be a much more defined and rigid collection of duties assigned to a bishop than we would see in instances where the term pastor may be used. Some examples of a bishop’s duties would be ordaining other bishops, priests and deacons, administration of the sacrament (sometimes with the assistance of other clergy), administration of the sacrament of confirmation, and performing blessings for the priests that grant them additional privileges, including celebration of the Divine Liturgy. The highest office within the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope, which is essential the bishop of Rome. All other bishops are answerable to him.[vii]

Since the term pastor is used in a much more generalized sense, the appropriate duties correspond to the context of the reference. For example, if it is used to refer to an office, such as elder, within the church, the duties would match those of the particular office.[viii]


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References :


[0][i] Bishop. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishop

[1][ii] Pastor. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastor

[2][iii] Bishop. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishop

[3][iv] Pastor. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastor

[4][v] Bishop. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishop

[5][vi] Pastor. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastor

[6][vii] Bishop. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishop

[7][viii] Pastor. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastor

[8]https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bishop_Patrick_Joseph_McGrath_070602_2.jpg

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