What is the difference between an elder, bishop, and pastor?

The Question

Serving in the context of the local church, I often receive questions from students, parents, and church family concerning the various leadership roles identified within the church. A mere tertiary understanding of Scripture will raise questions concerning the distinction and identity of roles such as elder, bishop, and pastor.

For today’s blog post, we answer the question, “what is the difference between an elder, bishop, and pastor?”

The Evidence

Acts 20:28 serves as the pivotal text for understanding these seemingly distinct and yet profoundly connected terms.

In Acts 20:28, a recorded exhortation by Paul to the elders of the Ephesian church says this, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (NIV).

Within this verse, we find three distinct references to elders, bishops, and pastors.

Paul is addressing this exhortation to the Ephesian elders because he “sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). 

By Acts 20:28, Paul identifies these elders as “overseers” appointed by the Holy Spirit and charged to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock.” The greek word episkopos literally means “an overseer” and is sometimes translated “bishop” in the English language. Our conclusion then is that Paul affirms the position of elder and overseer as one.

This same conclusion is drawn when Paul instructs Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5) and after listing qualifications of an elder (v. 6), he then states, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (v. 7). The King James Version translates overseer as bishop in Titus 1:7. Again we find the terms elder and overseer used interchangeably in Paul’s vocabulary.

In addition, Paul’s exhortation in Acts 20 includes the greek word poimainein. This Greek verb connotes the idea of shepherding a flock, our English word “pastor” deriving from this word. A brief discussion concerning the origin of this word can be found here.

Paul affirms these elders, appointed by the Holy Spirit as “overseers” of the flock, are to keep watch over it and themselves being charged as “shepherds of the church of God” (Acts 20:28).

Grudem affirms the usage of this greek verb poimainein connotes the meaning “to act as a shepherd” or “to act as a pastor” (Systematic Theology 913).

With this added verbage, we find Paul asserting elders as overseers of the flock called “to act as shepherds” and pastor the flock appointed to them by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is explicit in relaying the idea of elders, bishops, and pastor as one office.

The Conclusion

Church history may deem a deviation between the roles of elder, bishop, and pastor but the New Testament evidence affirms no such distinction between them. Though we may find a distinction in terminology, a distinction in office is not propounded by the apostle Paul. As one author contends, “these terms are used to refer to one office” (Practical Theology 293).

One may ask the question, “why are three terms used to describe one office?”

Baker’s Practical Theology offers an adequate explanation, the meaning of these terms suggests a threefold nature of the office (293).

  1. Elders were originally older, wiser men.
  2. Bishops were individuals in charge of a group of workmen.
  3. Pastors derived their names from shepherds.

The conclusion from these three terms suggests a uniformity in the character, nature, and function of a church officer. Godly men, exhibiting the proper qualifications, are appointed by the Holy Spirit and the church to serve the family of God. This service includes functioning in the roles of counseling, wisdom, instruction, managing, overseeing, shepherding, and pastoral care. In other words, the godly leader shepherds, instructs, and manages the church of God. Thus, the pastor is seen not only in the office of shepherd but also in the office of counselor and administrator. It is important to understand the priority Paul places on the elders to “be shepherds” to his people. Tending of the flock includes duties such as teaching, managing, counseling, rebuking, and pastoral care. However, the cornerstone of the elder’s responsibility is to shepherd and pastor his flock.

The Apostle Peter addresses the elders in his closing address to the churches dispersed through the five provinces of Rome, calling them to shepherd and “exercise oversight”(1 Peter 5:1-4). We find the usage of Peter’s terminology to include these three roles and yet one singular office as he addresses the “elders among you.”

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:1-4).

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