Pastors, Bishops and Elders
by Wayne D. Turner
Among many Christians today, there is considerable confusion about the scriptural identifications and distinctions regarding pastors, bishops and elders. The purpose of this article is to scripturally clarify these designations and to give an overview of the service required.
Our overview of this issue is best understood with a study of Acts 20. In this chapter, Paul stops off in Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem. While in Ephesus, Acts 20:17 says that Paul had called together, "the elders of the church." Acts 20:18-38 contains Paul's address to these "elders" on that occasion.
From a technical perspective, Acts 20 reinforces a doctrine about terminology used with regard to the pastoral ministry. In verse 17, the men who are called together are referred to as "elders." The Greek word there is "presbuturos." In verse 28, Paul refers to these same men as "overseers." That Greek word is "episkopos." It literally means "overseer" or "superintendent" and was used in the first century as a designation for the leader of secular projects as well. It is used 7 times in the New Testament and is translated "bishop" in the other 6 occurrences. That means that these very same "elders" are also referred to as "bishops" in the same address by Paul. There is no distinction in scripture between "elders" and "bishops" with regard to their position in the church. One more technical clarification is in order here. Verse 28 also contains the Greek verb, "poimaino," translated "feed" here. The definition of this word is "to tend a flock as a shepherd." It just so happens that the noun form of this word, "poimaine" is translated "shepherd" in every scriptural occurrence except one, Ephesians 4:11, where it is translated "pastor."
Other New Testament passages support the synonymous usage of these terms as well. Peter uses the same three Greek roots in I Peter 5:1-4, the only difference being that he uses the verb form "episkopeo" (translated "taking oversight") instead of the noun form "episkopos." In Paul's letter to Titus, he refers to these men as "elders" in Titus 1:5, but "bishop" in verse 7. It is clear that they were used interchangeably by Paul.
Conclusion: There is no distinction between a pastor, a bishop or an elder in the scripture. They all refer to the exact same office. Some have suggested that the three words speak to a different aspect of the pastoral ministry. Perhaps, but it is difficult to see that distinction in scripture. They are all scriptural terms designated for those who lead believers in the local church. To put it simply: A pastor is a bishop is an elder. Incidentally, if you do further study on this subject, you will observe that "presbuturos" has a triple meaning in scripture distinguishable only by context. Sometimes "presbuturos" is used as the designation for an older person without regard to church polity (I Timothy 5:1-2). It is also sometimes used to describe civil leadership (Acts 4:8 - "elders of Israel"). In all three contexts, the "elders" are those to whom others look for mature decision making.
Now that we know from scripture that pastors, bishops and elders all refer to the same position within the local church, let's take a closer look at this New Testament local-church position. What are the distinguishing characteristics of a pastor/bishop/elder? One only needs to combine the definitions of the three Greek words used to get a substantial picture of the pastor's function. He is one who "shepherds" (leads) the flock (local assembly of Believers) while taking responsibility for their pursuits in service ("bishop" = "overseer"). He also is charged with making mature decisions ("elder" = "mature person") on behalf of the flock. There is no New Testament specification as to whether or not pastors are supported financially by the local church; obviously some were and others were not. In viewing New Testament patterns of service, a plurality of elder leadership is seen in the local church (as in Ephesus, Acts 20:17), especially obvious in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:2,6,22). These men were not treated as a board of directors, but were rather men who were fully engaged in the pastoral leadership of the ministry.
That leads us to the qualifications of a pastor/bishop/elder. Two separate New Testament passages list the qualifications for this office, I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Paul makes it obvious in both of these passages that this is a position of example. Pastors are to be men who are good examples in their church and community. Potential candidates within the local church should meet the spiritual requirements in advance of their appointment to that formal position.
Following are the qualifications found in Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus:
As you can see, it's an example position. These are men who are led by God to serve in a pastoral capacity. It is my belief that their pastoral service will be observed by others as the indication that they are called to that position. I am convinced that only men who already minister to people as pastors should be considered ready for the formal position of pastor/bishop/elder. If one does not show that propensity to minister prior to being ordained as a pastor/bishop/elder, it is not likely that the laying on of hands (formal ordination) will bring about the transformation.