The clear majority of English translations render the word episkopos in 1 Tim. 3.1-2 and Titus 1.7 by means of one of two words: “bishop” (ASV, KJV, KNT, NAB, NRSV, Phillips, REB) or “overseer” (ESV, HCS, NASB, NCV, NIV 2011, TNIV).
Other renderings exist, but nowhere near in number to the use of the word “bishop” or “overseer.” For example: “church leader” (Good News), “church official” (CEV), “elder” (NLT), “leader” (The Message), and “presiding elder” (NJB).
But, we need not ask “With what rendering am I most familiar?,” but, “What does the word episkopos actually mean?” Surely the Spirit of God, working with the apostle Paul’s spirit, had good reason for this word choice, and if so, what might it have been?
To answer that question, lend your ear to Dr. Everett Ferguson, a long-time professor from years past at Abilene Christian University. Dr. Ferguson is a highly respected and internationally recognized scholar whose special expertise is in early church history. He is easily one of the finest scholars who has ever lived to stand within the heritage of Churches of Christ in modern times, having few true peers in his field within our heritage. In commenting on the way the word episkopos was commonly used outside of Scripture in New Testament times, Dr. Ferguson says it was:
“… used … for various kinds of managers, foremen, supervisors, and inspectors. It could refer to state officials with various civic functions, to supervisors at sanctuaries … to construction foremen, and in an educational context to tutors. … In a religious sense it could be used of the gods, who exercised providence and watched over compacts. … Whereas ‘elder’ emphasized more the age, experience, and judiciousness of the leaders of Christian communities, ‘bishop’ [episkopos] emphasized the more active side of their work in managing affairs, guarding the group, and directing activities.” (The Church of Christ, pp.322-323)
And so, when Paul spoke of church leadership and selected by the Spirit’s guidance the word episkopos to describe their place and purpose, he was simply choosing to use the word commonly understood by all in his time for someone who watched over others, guided their efforts, and generally supervised what all a group of people did.
In light of this fact, and if the conveyance of the original meaning of a foreign word in terms commonly utilized and understood today is the objective of translation, then it could easily and well be argued that the Common English Bible‘s choice of rendering the word episkopos with the word “supervisor” is, refreshingly so, the most accurate and truly communicative rendering of all the choices available to most English readers in the United States today.
No doubt, all too many people in the everyday, workday world have had the troubling experience of working under an unqualified or destructive supervisor. At the same time, a great many have been blessed with the joy of working under well-qualified and constructive supervision. If our experience has been primarily with the former, we ought not allow such experience to rob a very helpful word of its true meaning. Surely, the author of Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Paul, would be the first to agree.
* For more on the use of the word episkopos, as well as other words used directly in regard to the function and role of church elders, note an earlier post of mine on Feb. 2 of this year.