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A Profession For Professionals


Many of  today’s church practices are traditions that have been handed down to us from centuries past without any Biblical base.  Most local churches don’t teach church history so unless you’ve been to Bible College or have done lots of reading, you might not know about these things.  How can we learn from history if we don’t know the history to learn from?   This article points out a Bible translating and hermeneutical problem that has helped propagate an unbiblical understanding of the “office of  a pastor”.       


The word “office” is often associated with a particular job, as in “office of the president”.  This phrase tends to emphasize a position in an organization and not the actual work that is done by the one holding the position. 


In Christian circles the word “office” has been connected to the word “pastor”, as in “office of the pastor”, emphasizing the position held within the organization of the church.  For centuries pastoring has been understood in terms of an office, resulting in many being office holders performing duties that have no relevance to what Scripture teaches concerning pastors.


The concept  of the “office of a pastor” as being a profession for professionals was formalized in the fourth century when Christianity became the legal religion of the Roman Empire , and was further institutionalized by Catholicism in subsequent years.  The King James Bible that was first translated in 1611 further strengthened the concept of the professional pastor with its translation of 1 Tim. 3:1.  It says, “… if a man desires the “office of a bishop’, he desires a good thing”. The King James translators translated the word “bishop” from the Greek word “episkopos” which in its verb form means “to oversee”, and in its noun form means “an overseer”.  “Episkopos” is made up of two Greek words meaning,  “over” and “see”.  That’s why we end up with  “overseer”.


Many newer Bibles translate “episkopos” as overseer as they should because that’s what the word means.  For example the NIV (1984 edition) reads as follows,  “if anyone sets his heart on being an overseer…”     


So here’s the Bible translating and hermeneutical lesson.  The best way to translate any word, and in this case “episkopos”,  is to translate it as it was understood in the day and age in which it was written. You never translate a word, or interpret a passage that was written in the first century with a 17th century understanding as the KJV translators did in 1Tim. 3:1.  It completely changes the original meaning.  At one point in your life you’ve probably found  yourself in an argument saying, “you’re putting words in my mouth. I never said that”.  In like fashion the King James translators put their words into Paul’s mouth, or in this case , into his letter.  


So why did the King James people use the word “bishop”?  The office of  bishop had been well established as a profession for professionals through Catholicism. The Reformers did little to change this.  Men like Luther and Calvin still questioned the ability of the “ordinary Christian” to understand Scripture on their own. So whether realizing it or not, the King James translators made their readers understand Paul’s words with their 17th century understanding. These translators were inserting their interpretation of this verse into the translating process.  This is not right.    


Read 1 Tim. 3:1 from the RSV Interlinear New Testament. This is a Greek text and under each Greek word is the English equivalent.  The wording will seem a bit funny to you since the order of words in first century Greek differs from ours.  It says, “if anyone oversight aspires to, a good work he desires”.  


Look closely.  Do you see the word “office” in this English translation?  No you don’t. It’s not in the English translation because there’s no corresponding word in the Greek text.  Paul never used the phrase “office of a bishop”.  He never wrote the word office.  The word “office” was inserted by the King James translators based on their bias so their readers would have their understanding of this verse.  This is bad translating, and it’s done us all a disservice.  From the one word “episkopos”, meaning “oversee” came four English words, “office of a bishop” in the KJV.  I do realize at times you need to translate one Greek word into multiple English words, but not in this case.


By adding the word “office”, and by using the word “bishop” instead of overseer it changes the meaning to what Paul wrote.  This strengthened the old Catholic concept of the “office of a bishop or pastor” being a profession for professionals, and it’s stuck with us ever since.  This leaves us with an archaic Catholic understanding of a pastor that’s not Biblical.   


Also notice the phrase “desires a good work” in the RSV translation.  The word “work” emphasizes the actual process of  overseeing, not an office of an overseer.  The actual work of overseeing is more important than the title of the one doing the overseeing. As a matter of fact, the whole tenor of Scripture is more about doing and less about holding an office or having a title.  


So why is this a big deal?  Following Biblical teaching should be important, although I’m surprised how many Christians have little interest in the Bible.  Pastoring God’s people is not an office or a profession for professionals.  It’s being part of a caring body of elders who have been called by their Lord and empowered by His Spirit to serve and care for His people with all humility, and doing so according to Biblical teaching.  

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