The Church: Elders, Overseers, and Shepherds

It has been shown that in the first century a local church, made up sometimes of hundreds of members, functioned as a single unit ruled over by a group of men called “elders.” It was affirmed that the church in that local capacity, under the rule of its elders, was the sole functioning unit of the first century church. There was no group of churches, grouped together as a unit, nor was there a human head over all those churches. Still, it cannot be disputed that there are references to shepherds, pastors, bishops, overseers, and presbyters. To whom did these terms apply if the church only had elders? Our object is to answer that question and also to show that the terms “elders,” “bishops,” and “pastors” do not refer to three different offices. Instead, these words are simply three different words for the same man or men.

In our quest for God’s truth and will, appeal will be made both to Paul and Peter. This article will show that the two were in perfect harmony on the issue before us. Then we will show that both these men used these terms and similar ones to identify the same men. We will then finally show the different rays of truth which come to us by the use of these different words.

Paul, in his writings, used the term “elder” and “bishop” to identify the same man. In his letter to Titus he wrote that Titus was to appoint elders in every city: “… if any man is blameless the husband of one wife, having children that believe … for the bishop must be blameless, as God’s steward” (Titus 1:5-7). Notice that Paul wrote of elders, then called them bishops. He made no distinction between the two. Furthermore, in Acts 20:17, Paul called to himself the elders of the church at Ephesus, addressing and reminding them of their sacred duties, charging them to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops” (Acts 20:18). These men were elders, but the Holy Spirit had made them bishops. He then adds they were to “feed the church of God” which he purchased with His own blood. The word “feed” is the verb form of “shepherd” or “pastor.” So in these few verses Paul identifies the men he called to meet him as elders, bishops, and pastors. Notice these are the same men yet called by three different names.

Peter is on the same page with Paul. Read 1 Peter 5:1-4. Peter addresses the elders “who have the oversight” (thus are “overseers,” the same word from which comes “bishop”). They were to “tend” (pastor, shepherd, feed). Both Peter and Paul them refer to elders as bishops (or its equivalent — overseer) and shepherds. Thus, they pastor, feed, and tend.

Why these various words? First, recognize that really three couplets of words emerge from all these: one a “transliterated” word (a Greek word made into an English one), and then an English word (the translation of the Greek word). The first couplet is “presbyter/elder.” The second couplet is “bishop/overseer.” The third couplet is “pastor/shepherd.”

The first couplet “presbyter/elder” identifies an elder as an older, mature, and wiser man. The word “presbytery” is found one time in the New Testament (1 Timothy 4:14). It means “an assembly of older men” and is akin to “presbyter,” translated in most places as “elder.” The qualifications for these men, found in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, show an elder must be mature. One thing he must not be is a novice (1 Tim. 3:6).

The second couplet is “bishop/overseer.” These two words are the same. The object of this word is to show that oversight is given into the hands of these men. They have a flock they “watch over” or “oversee.” Someday “they shall give account” to their Master as to how they dealt with each sheep under their care (Heb. 13:17).

The final couplet is “pastor/shepherd.” The word “pastor” when translated becomes “shepherd.” This word describes the nature and work of these men. They “feed” the flock. They watch for the souls of the flock — an awesome and grave matter indeed!

In Ephesians 4:11 Paul cities various gifts or works God gave His church. They are five different groups of men: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. In this list there is mention of neither “elder” nor “bishop,” but there was no need; the word “pastor” covers them. There is a difference between “evangelist” and “pastor.” There may be one or more evangelists within a congregation, but there is always a plurality of pastors in a congregation. “Pastors” and “evangelists” do not describe the same men (although an evangelist might be chosen also to be a pastor). “Pastors,” “bishops,” and “elders” do.

Jim McDonald