Three biblical words are used in the New Testament to identify men overseeing the spiritual matters of the local church. Though each word describes the same role, they individually highlight specific features of their responsibility.
The first word is “elder” (presbuteros), literally meaning an older man1, underlining his competence (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5). He demonstrates his suitability by his decorum and spiritual maturity. An elder must not be a novice (1 Tim. 3:6). This does not refer to physical age; instead it indicates that a spiritual novice is not qualified to lead the Lord’s people. One who is young in the faith does not yet have the biblical understanding and experience to guide other believers. Being thrust into leadership before he is ready could easily fill him with pride and its resulting condemnation.
Next is the “overseer” (episkopos), sometimes translated “bishop”2 (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1; Titus 1:7). This word highlights the character of the work, depicting it as “watching over”3 believers in the local church. The overseer keeps an eye on the spiritual condition of believers entrusted to them by Christ, the Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25). On behalf of Christ, they govern the spiritual affairs of the local church.
The final one is “shepherd or pastor” (poimen), the Greek word literally meaning one who is a shepherd4 (Eph. 4:11). The related verb (poimainō) means to feed, tend, care for, or shepherd (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2)5. This emphasizes the compassion that the shepherd has for the flock. His care for them must pattern the love, sacrifice, and selflessness of Christ, the good Shepherd Who gave Himself for the sheep (Jn. 10:11).
In Scripture, these three words are used interchangeably for the same men. For example, in Acts 20 Paul called for the elders (v. 17) and told them that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”6 (v. 28). He then goes on to tell them “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
Again in 1 Peter 5:1-2 we read, “The elders who are among you I exhort… Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly.” Here Peter exhorts the elders to shepherd or feed God’s flock, serving as overseers by watching over them.
Once again in Titus 1:5 we read “for this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.” Later in verse 7 Paul says “For a bishop (overseer) must be blameless,” the word “for” connecting it to the previous two verses.
God’s pattern is for a plurality of elders in the local church. Many references substantiate this (ex. Acts 11:30; 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:15; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet. 5:1). The only time the word is used in the singular is when it is referring to a specific person (ex. 1 Tim. 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1)
Second, one must serve willingly, exercised by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1; 1 Pet. 5:1). No one should ever be arm-twisted into this role. Third, pastors must be blameless, possessing the spiritual and character qualifications to lead the Lord’s people (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). Fourth, elders must lead by example, not as domineering dictators, remembering that the flock belongs to Christ, Who bought them with His Own blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:3). Therefore, elders are under-shepherds, stewards on behalf of Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). Fifth, Scripture never assigns a title of “pastor” to anyone exercising that gift.
In conclusion 1 Timothy 3:1 says, “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.” Shepherding is a noble, commendable, and vital work for the Lord.
- Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Publishers, 1985)
- This word is often erroneously used in Christendom to refer to someone overseeing a wide region but scripturally a bishop oversees the flock in a local church
- Vines op. cit.
- Vines op. cit.
- Vines op. cit.
- All Bible references from the NKJV
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