Making Sense of Elders, Pastors, and Bishops

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The church is the church of Christ. Since it is Christ’s church, he decides how it is to be governed. But if you have been around the church for awhile, you are likely to have heard a variety of terms that can create more confusion than clarity—terms like pastor, shepherd, teacher, elder, bishop, overseer, and presbyter.

Pastors/Shepherds

The word “pastor” is most familiar to us. When we think of the primary officers in the church, we think of pastors. Interestingly, the English word “pastor” is only used one time in the King James translation of the Bible. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul says that God has given “pastors and teachers” to the church.

In the English Standard Version (ESV), the word does not appear at all. “Pastors” is translated as “shepherds.” Both are good translations. Even in the KJV, the same Greek word translated as “pastor” (poimēn) in Ephesians 4:11 is translated as “shepherd” in John 10:11 when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd [poimēn].” “Pastor” and “shepherd” are synonyms. When you hear “pastor,” think “shepherd.” 

Elders

In Scripture, the more common word used to identify the primary officers in the church is “elders.” The Greek word translated as “elder” is presbuteros (from which Presbyterians draw their name). A few noteworthy examples from Acts:

  • Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23).
  • The elders helped make the decision of the Jerusalem Council: “they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4; cf. Acts 15:2, 6, 22, 23).
  • Before Paul left Ephesus, he addressed the church’s elders: “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17). More on this chapter later.
  • When Paul visited James in Jerusalem, “all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18).

The pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) give the clearest instructions on who governs the church. Again, the primary officers of the church are referred to as elders:

  • “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).
  • “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).
  • Paul left Titus in Crete for this purpose: “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). 

James tells the sick to “call for the elders of the church” (Jas. 5:14). Peter exhorts “the elders among you” (1 Pet. 5:1).

Bishops/Overseers

In addition to pastors/shepherds and elders, the KJV also refers to bishops in a handful of places. In 1 Timothy 3:1, “if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” Then in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7, the qualifications are given for this office: “A bishop then must be blameless….”

The Greek word translated as “bishop” in the KJV is episkopos (from which Episcopalians draw their name). The word means “overseer” and refers to a person who has been appointed to have spiritual oversight of the church of God (Acts 20:28). The translation of “bishop” has caused significant confusion since, in many church traditions, a bishop has come to mean someone who has more authority than a local pastor or elder and usually oversees multiple congregations.

To avoid the confusion that comes from the baggage associated with the English word “bishop,” most modern translations have chosen to opt for “overseer”:

  • Paul told the Ephesian elders, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).
  • Paul writes to the saints at Philippi “with the overseers and deacons” (Php. 1:1).
  • “An overseer must be above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:7).
  • “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).

The Same Office

Acts 20 helpfully clarifies that “elder,” “pastor/shepherd,” and “overseer/bishop” refer to one and the same office. In this passage, Paul gathers the Ephesian elders, then calls them overseers or bishops who shepherd or pastor the flock. Paul “sent to Ephesus and called the elders [presbuteros] of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17), and exhorted them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to care for [poimainō, shepherd or pastor] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

In Acts 20, Paul gathers the Ephesian elders, then calls them overseers or bishops who shepherd or pastor the flock.

Paul also uses “elders” and “overseers” interchangeably in Titus 1:5–7: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer [KJV, bishop], as God’s steward, must be above reproach.”

Peter likewise refers to elders as shepherds and overseers in 1 Peter 5:1–2, “So I exhort the elders [presbuteros] among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd [poimainō] the flock of God that is  among you, exercising oversight [episkopeō], not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.”

Three Perspectives on One Office

The terms “elder,”  “pastor,” and “overseer” view the same office from three different perspectives. “Elder” emphasizes the kind of person who fills the office, and is by far the most common term for referring to the office, while “pastor” and “overseer” emphasize the elder’s responsibilities.

The terms “elder,”  “pastor,” and “overseer” view the same office from three different perspectives.

First, the term “elder” emphasizes that pastors live with the dignity and maturity of an older man, setting an example for the flock. One of the qualifications for an elder is that he is “not a novice” (1 Tim. 3:16). He must be a spiritual adult, not a spiritual child.

Second, the term “pastor” or “shepherd” emphasizes the elder’s responsibility to feed, guide, and protect the flock of God. They primarily do this through sound teaching, which is why Ephesians 4:11 refers to them as “pastors and teachers.” They could also be called “pastor-teachers.” While we sometimes call our pastors “the preacher,” the pastor must “preach the word … with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2), and the overwhelming emphasis in the pastoral epistles is on the responsibility for “sound teaching” (2 Tim. 4:3) (see “The Pastor’s Teaching Responsibility: A Pauline Theology of Pastoral Teaching of Believers”). A pastor is a local theologian in his congregation (see “Everyone’s (Not) a Theologian, But Pastors Should Be”).

Finally, the term “overseer” emphasizes the pastor’s responsibility to oversee and “rule” (1 Tim. 5:17) or govern the church. This does not primarily refer to administrative duties, but rather to spiritual oversight of the church. 

We would be wise to at least occasionally refer to our pastors as elders, overseers, and shepherds. Each aspect of the office is important, and it will help Christians to open their Bibles without being confused by the diversity of interchangeable terms. The church is the church of Christ, and we honor him when we seek to understand and obey his plan for its government (see also “Who Are the Elders in a Local Church?”).

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.