On Biblical Eldership & Church Government

Two offices and only two offices appear to have been established for church government: elders (or overseers) and deacons. This study will examine the offices that are laid out in scripture and how certain gifts can function within these offices. This is beneficial for anyone attempting to  re-structure or plant a Christian church that imitates the churches read about in scripture. It is also important for anyone seeking for spiritual gifts to flow as effectively as possible.

What this study is not:

A detailed history of the rise of church government over the centuries.

This study will strictly limit itself to the Bible. It didn’t take long ( by around 200 AD) for non-biblical titles and forms of church government to begin making its way into the church. Today we have churches that are congregation lead, pastor lead, elder lead or lead by man-made positions such as pope or cardinal just to name a few.

An attack against your church

One thing this study might show is that the model God gave us in scripture is only so detailed. One can look at the United States government and see various offices with specific terms, qualifications, pay scales and responsibilities.  There are very specific and detailed chains of command. Each state is allowed a certain amount of representatives and they must be elected and re-elected by certain measures, etc. The Bible does not go into nearly as much detail when it comes to church government. There is no outline that says how many ordained ministers a church must have, if those ministers should serve for a specific term, if ministers should use certain titles like teaching elder, administrative deacon, etc.

Having said that, if your church is set up differently than this study seems to conclude it should be, seriously examine the differences, but don’t feel like your ministry is somehow not blessed or lead of God just from this study.

What this study is:

An attempt to see God’s order for His church on earth established as best as it can be according to scripture.

The more in line we are with how God intended the gifts and offices to flow, the more effectively we can “be about our Father’s business.”

*Any time the word church is used in this study, it is referring to an assembly of Christ-followers, not a building or denomination. This was the original intention of the word ekkl?sia.

*All scripture is from the NKJV unless otherwise noted.

Outline

  • An overview of the office of Bishop/Overseer
  • Elder (or presbyter) and bishop/overseer reference the same office and are used interchangeably.
  • Did one elder/overseer exercise authority over the whole church or a group of churches?
  • Scripture always indicates a plurality of elders
  • What about Deacons?
  • Qualifications of an Elder/Overseer
  • Where did the word pastor come from?
  • Do pastor, elder and overseer refer to the same office?
  • Conclusion
  • Miscellaneous Notes

Summary of the first points:

Scripture shows two offices in the Christian assemblies: Elders and deacons. Elder ( sometimes called presbyter) and overseer (sometimes called bishop) represent the same office and can be used interchangeably. Elders are always referenced in the plural and were appointed in each town/city.

An overview of the office of Bishop/Overseer

1 Tim 3:1 NASB It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. bold mine

1 Tim 3:1 NKJV This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. bold mine

The Greek word for bishop/overseer is episkopos. It literally means an overseer. When the Greek writers were writing the word episkopos they were using a common term that meant overseer or supervisor. Episkopos could be used for any position of supervisor in that culture, whether someone in charge of a fishing team or a building team. It was not exclusive to the church or any religious title. The English word bishop came about as a transliteration of a word from the Latin Vulgate Bible. This basically means that a new English word was created in bishop. Because of this, the word bishop is now typically associated with the church. One would not call their supervisor at work “bishop”, they would call them what they are, a supervisor or overseer. This word is translated as overseer in most bibles and as bishop in the KJV/NKJV. Both overseer and bishop mean the exact same thing. Both are fine to use, but overseer is the more literal rendering of the word and probably better represents the original intention. Today when one hears the word bishop they often think of robed men in tall hats and taller churches. But the way bishop is used in the Bible is simply an overseer of a local Christian assembly.

1985????????? episkopos; from 1909 and 4649; a superintendent, an overseer:—guardian(1), overseer(2), overseers(2).[1]

lit., “an overseer” (epi, “over,” skopeo, “to look or watch”), whence Eng. “bishop,” which has precisely the same meaning, is found in Act 20:28; Phl 1:1;1Ti 3:2; Tts 1:7; 1Pe 2:25.[7]

Scripture makes it clear that bishop/overseer is an office or position in the church. It is a good work to desire (1 Tim 3:1). It is evident that this office was in common use among the churches because of the qualifications listed. In two different letters that God chose to put in his bible the author lists the qualifications of a bishop/overseer.

1 Tim 3:1 This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; 3 not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; 4 one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5 (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); 6 not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. 7 Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Tit 1:5-9  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— 6 if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, 8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.

Not only was this an office to be desired, but Titus was commanded to appoint people to this office in every city (Tit 1:5).

One may notice that in Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus to appoint elders in every city, then goes on to describe the qualifications for a bishop/overseer. This is because elder and bishop/overseer are used interchangeably. They refer to the same office.

Elder (or presbyter) and bishop/overseer reference the same office and are used interchangeably.

Scripture indicate in several places that the term elder and bishop/overseer refer to the same office.

One example is when Paul is addressing the church in Ephesus in Acts 20. Paul calls for the elders:

Acts 20:17  From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.

As Paul is addressing those elders starting at verse 28:

Acts 20:28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. bold mine

Paul addresses them as elders and then calls them overseers (episkopos).

Another example is in 1 Peter.

1 Pet 5:1-4 The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. bold mine

Peter addresses the elders and then mentions that those elders are serving as overseers (episkopos).

The Greek word used for elder is presbuteros.

G4245. presbuteros, pres-boo’-ter-os; compar. of presbus (elderly); older; as noun, a senior; spec. an Isr. Sanhedrist (also fig. member of the celestial council) or Chr. “presbyter”:–elder (-est), old. (Strongs)

The term could be used to refer to age and often does in many places in scripture. However, it is also a term for those spiritually mature that would be ordained to take oversight of Christian assemblies.

Press here to reveal more on why elder in this context refers to office rather than age.

Some make the case that every reference to elder in the New Testament church is simply referring to an aged person. To make this case, one should be able to insert “aged men” where elder is use and have it make sense. It doesn’t.

Here are some examples:

Titus 1:5

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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-

Insert

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint aged men in every city as I commanded you-

How does one appoint a person to be elderly in age?

Another example:

Acts 14:23

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So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Insert

So when they had appointed aged men in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Paul and Barnabas were making many disciples throughout the cities. In this case they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch (read Acts 14:21-28 for full context). The purpose of the visit was to check up on the churches there and strengthen them. When Paul and Barnabas saw they were faithfully following the Lord (vs 23), they prayed with fasting and appointed (KJV says “ordained”) elders. Paul and Barnabas considered this selection of elders important enough to fast about. They appointed elders in every church. A church starts when one person shares about Jesus with another and one becomes two; two people united in Godly fellowship. Eventually, no matter how small the church, spiritual leadership should emerge in the form of elders. To assume every church had aged men is not feasible. And even so, the qualifications for elder say that he should not be a novice (1 Tim 3:6). A 70 year old man can be a novice when it comes to spiritual things if he is new in the faith and a 40 year old man can be “elderly” in spiritual things, service and commitment to Christ. In the above example of Paul and Barnabas, the time from when they preached and gospel to Lystra, Iconium  and Antioch, left, and returned to appoint elders was not very long at all. It was almost certainly less than a year.

Should those who are physically elderly receive special honor? Absolutely. Should those who are physically elderly be respected for their wisdom and experience? Absolutely. But as the scriptures above shows, when the Bible references the word elder in terms of office, it seems to point to a spiritual maturity, not physical.

 

Here are some more viewpoints on elder and overseer referring to the same office:

Bishop an overseer. In apostolic times, it is quite manifest that there was no difference as to order between bishops and elders or presbyters (Acts 20:17–28; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3). The term bishop is never once used to denote a different office from that of elder or presbyter. These different names are simply titles of the same office, “bishop” designating the function, namely, that of oversight, and “presbyter” the dignity appertaining to the office. Christ is figuratively called “the bishop [episcopos] of souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).” Bold mine [2]

“Since episkopos is used interchangeably with “elder” (Gk., presbuteros), it is likely that these two terms denote the same office in the NT (many also equate episkopos with the “pastor and teacher” of Eph. 4:11). For example, in Acts 20 Paul summoned the Ephesian elders (v. 17), then stated that God had made them “overseers” (v. 28) to shepherd the church of God. Similarly, Titus is instructed to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5 HCSB), but when Paul gave the needed qualifications, he said, “For a bishop … must be” (Titus 1:7 NRSV; cp. 1 Pet. 5:1–2). Yet, the fact that episkopos and presbuteros are used interchangeably is not the only evidence that the two terms denote the same office. If episkopos and presbuteros are two separate offices, then Paul never delineates the qualifications for elders, a striking omission given the importance of this office. Also, both the episkopos and the presbuteros have the same functions, leading and teaching (cp. 1 Tim. 3:2, 4–5; Titus 1:7, 9 with Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17). Furthermore, nowhere are the three offices mentioned together (bishop, elder, and deacon), which suggests that a three-tiered ecclesiastical system is foreign to the NT. It is also likely that more than one bishop (or elder) led each local congregation (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; cp. Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1).” [3]

“Since the time of the reformation with the revival of the study of God’s Word and the assertion that it was the Church’s only authority, the identity of these two offices has again been discovered once again and widely accepted by scholars of every faith, both Protestant and Catholic, that “elder” and “overseer” are synonymous.” [10]

Elders are simply those who oversee Christian assemblies. It was not until the second century AD that certain religious men began making a distinction between bishops and elders[3].

Did one elder/overseer exercise authority over the whole church or a group of churches?

It does not appear so when we look at the churches in scripture, nor does it seem that Jesus or any of the apostles in scripture ever directed this type of monarchical episcopacy.

Two places in the Bible we read that elders (plural) were to be ordained in every city. Scripture seem to describe each Christian assembly/church as being self-governed by a local group of elders.

When Paul wrote to the Philippians he addressed his letter to the saints and specifically mentions the bishops and deacons in his greeting.

Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

In Acts 15 an issue was brought to Jerusalem. Peter spoke, and James spoke, yet they still conferred with the elders. Acts 16 says that the decrees for the early church were made by the apostles and the elders The Apostles had great influence due to their anointing and in this case, first hand experience with Jesus (they were the eyewitnesses of the gospl), yet the idea of church government being a dictatorship or monarchy is never seen in scripture. Galatians 2:9 describes James, Cephas and John as “pillars”, not dictators or singular supreme authority.

“There is no trace in the NT of government by a single bishop; the position of James at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 2:9, 12) was quite exceptional, and the result of his personal relationship to Christ; but influence is a different thing from office. Among the Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius is the only one who insists on monarchical episcopacy, and even he never states that this is of divine institution—an argument which would have been decisive, if it had been available for him to use. Jerome, commenting on Tit. 1:5, remarks that the supremacy of a single bishop arose ‘by custom rather than by the Lord’s actual appointment’, as a means of preventing schisms in the church (cf. Ep. 146).“ [4]

There is a practice in some organizations to refer to one man in charge of multiple churches as a “bishop”. Nowhere in scripture can one come to such a conclusion. To come to this definition, one must look at the church around 200AD and later after man had began adding his own definitions of church government. Bishops/elders were always listed in the plural and appointed in every church.

Scripture always indicates a plurality of elders

Acts 14:23 So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Acts 11:29-30 Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

Acts 15:2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.

Acts 15:6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.

Acts 16:4 And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.

Acts 20:17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.

Titus 1:5 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–

James 5:14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

1 Peter 5:1 The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:

Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

A group of elders is referred to as the eldership or presbytery.

1 Tim 4:14

NASB

Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.

NKJV

Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership.

What about Deacons?

This study is not going to go into too much information on the office of deacon, although it is important and must be a part of the church if one wishes to imitate the churches in scripture. Deacon is clearly an office.

1 Tim 3:10 But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being [found] blameless.

Deacon means servant. Not necessarily servant in a master/servant relationship, but one who serves and ministers. The qualifications for deacon are the same as for the elder, save the deacon does not need to be able to teach. It’s most likely that deacons were in charge of the practical administration of the church (finances, ministering needs, etc), while the elders were in charge of the spiritual feeding and spiritual oversight of the church. Both are very important.

???????? diakonos; of unc. or.; a servant, minister:—deacons(3), minister(7), servant(10), servants(9).[5]

1 Tim 3:8 Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, 9 holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. 10 But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. 11 Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. 13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

The first deacon model was probably birthed from the events in Acts 6. If this is the case, one can see that effective ministry needs both elders and deacons. The elders have a responsibility to commit their time to the word of God. Elders who try to feed spiritually, but also rule over the day to day operations of the administration of the church are doing themselves and the word of God a discredit.

Acts 6:2-3 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of [good] reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business;

Elder is not a new office in the New Testament.

Elder (from Easton’s Bible Dictionary)

“A name frequently used in the Old Testament as denoting a person clothed with authority, and entitled to respect and reverence (Gen 50:7). It also denoted a political office (Num 22:7). The “elders of Israel” held a rank among the people indicative of authority. Moses opened his commission to them (Exd 3:16). They attended Moses on all important occasions. Seventy of them attended on him at the giving of the law (Exd 24:1). Seventy also were selected from the whole number to bear with Moses the burden of the people (Num 11:16,17). The “elder” is the keystone of the social and political fabric wherever the patriarchal system exists. At the present day this is the case among the Arabs, where the sheik (i.e., “the old man”) is the highest authority in the tribe. The body of the “elders” of Israel were the representatives of the people from the very first, and were recognized as such by Moses. All down through the history of the Jews we find mention made of the elders as exercising authority among the people. They appear as governors (Deu 31:28), as local magistrates (16:18), administering justice (19:12). They were men of extensive influence (1Sa 30:26-31). In New Testament times they also appear taking an active part in public affairs (Mat 16:21; 21:23; 26:59).”

“The Jewish eldership was transferred from the old dispensation to the new. ‘The creation of the office of elder is nowhere recorded in the New Testament, as in the case of deacons and apostles, because the latter offices were created to meet new and special emergencies, while the former was transmitted from the earlies times. In other words, the office of elder was the only permanent essential office of the church under either dispensation.'”

“The ‘elders’ of the New Testament church were the ‘pastors’ (Eph 4:11), ‘bishops or overseers’ (Act 20:28), ‘leaders’ and ‘rulers’ (Hbr 13:7; 1Th 5:12) of the flock. Everywhere in the New Testament bishop and presbyter are titles given to one and the same officer of the Christian church. He who is called presbyter or elder on account of his age or gravity is also called bishop or overseer with reference to the duty that lay upon him (Tts 1:5-7; Act 20:17-28; Phl 1:1).” (3)

Qualifications of an Elder/Overseer

It’s first important to re-state that the office of elder was a position that could be sought after.

1 Titus 3:1 This [is] a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. bold mine

Yet the Bible also states that it was the Holy Spirit who appointed:

Acts 20:28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. bold mine

Scripture does not say how the Holy Spirit specifically confirmed offices of leadership. It was possibly revealed to the individuals in their own life and confirmed by a prophetic utterance of another. Looking at 1 Titus 3:1, it seems that a desire is needed initially. If someone met the qualifications of an elder and had a desire for the position, it was up to the Apostles of that time or the elders of that local assembly to assess the individual.  In Acts we see the appointment of elders with prayer and fasting then being commended to the Lord (Acts 14:23). It would seem that appointing of elders involved both the desire of the individual to be an elder and the confirmation of the Holy Spirit.

Any overseer in an assembly should have a desire for that office. This may seem like a small point, but there are some who may believe that taking oversight of a church is just their burden to bear and they should do it even though they don’t want to. Peter speaks against this:

1 Pet 5:1-2 The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:

Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; Bold mine

Shepherding the flock of God is done for the love of God’s flock, not by duty to the office. The Bible implies that a true shepherd will love and guard the flock regardless of office, title, payment or what may come (John 10:11-16). “Shepherding” and “pastors” will be addressed in further detail in another section.

Again, here are the qualifications the Bible lists. The fact that the Bible only lists qualifications for two offices, bishop and deacon, further supports the point that only two offices were utilized.

1 Tim 3:1 This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; 3 not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; 4 one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5 (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); 6 not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. 7 Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Tit 1:5-9  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— 6 if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, 8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.

Where did the word pastor come from?

The word pastor today is sometimes used as a title and office. Nowhere in the New Testament is any person given the title of pastor save for Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:4). One will never read of Lead Pastor Paul or Executive Pastor Timothy in scripture. This is not to say that there were no pastors in the Bible. Some believe that anytime the Bible is referring to an elder they are referring to a pastor and the two terms can be used interchangeably.  There is some scriptural support for this line of thought. But first let’s look at the word for pastor.

The English word pastor is used once in most English New Testaments (it does not appear at all in those that use the more literal rendering of “shepherd”):

Eph 4:11 And He Himself gave some [to be] apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,

?????? poim?n; of unc. or.; a shepherd:—pastors(1), shepherd(13), shepherds(4).[6]

The Greek word Poim?n means shepherd. The translation of Poim?n into English is shepherd, not pastor. Besides Eph 4:11, nearly every instance of the word Poimen in the New Testament is translated as shepherd. So where did the word pastor come from and why is it used in place of shepherd in this one instance? The word pastor is Latin. This word made its way into the English language and basically gave us a new English word that is now strictly associated with religion.

“The Authorized Version is notably more Latinate than previous English versions, especially the Geneva Bible. This results in part from the academic stylistic preferences of a number of the translators – several of whom admitted to being more comfortable writing in Latin than in English – but was also, in part, a consequence of the royal proscription against explanatory notes. Hence, where the Geneva Bible might use a common English word – and gloss its particular application in a marginal note; the Authorized Version tends rather to prefer a technical term, frequently in Anglicised Latin. Consequently, although the King had instructed the translators to use the Bishops’ Bible as a base text, the New Testament in particular, stylistically owes much to the Catholic Rheims New Testament, whose translators had also been concerned to find English equivalents for Latin terminology.[8] bold mine

“King James of England “authorized” and funded a translation of the Scriptures which he and Archbishop Richard Bancroft gave certain rules for the translators to follow. The third rule states, “The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.” This third rule deliberately says to use the word church instead of congregation (which was a proper translation of ekklesia). This rule also meant the translators had to use commonly accepted religious terms in contexts that pertain to God’s people, hence the use of words like [note proper translation is in parenthesis] church (assembly), pastor (shepherd), bishop (overseer), minister (servant), ministry (service), ordain (appoint), deacon (servant), baptize (this is a transliteration of baptizo, meaning immerse or submerge), & presbytery (elders). Modern translations have corrected the use of bishop and presbytery because of their catholic connotations but still retain the words that have protestant connotations such as church, pastor, minister, ministry, ordain, & deacon.”[9] bold mine

Pastor was basically a latin term associated with church that was put in the Bible in Ephesians 4:11 instead of the more literal English translation of shepherd.

So, as bishop/overseer are used interchangeably, pastor/shepherd will be used interchangeably for the rest of this study.

Do pastor, elder and overseer refer to the same office?

It has already been shown that elder and overseer are used to refer to the same office. It was stated at the beginning of this section that many believe the term pastor is a third way to refer to the same office. Here is the scriptural support for that:

Paul calls the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17) and tells them this:

Acts 20:28 “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd (poimain?) the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

Poimain?is the verb form of Poim?n. Poim?n is the thing (shepherd), and Poimain? is the thing shepherds do (to feed or to shepherd).

Elder, Overseer and the verb form of shepherd are used here to refer to the same group of people. Here is another example.

1 Peter 5:1-2 The elders(presbyteros) who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:

Shepherd(poimain?) the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers(episkopos), not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;

Once again, three descriptions are used to refer to the same office. There is strong support in scripture for the term pastor and elder being used interchangeably. Yet the fact is that no one person in scripture was ever referred to as a pastor in terms of office or title. I think the reason for this is because “pastor” is refering more to what the elders do. One way to look at it is like this: Elder refers to the man, Bishop/Overseer refers to the offices, and pastor/shepherd refers to what the elder does.

The offices and spiritual gifts

This study is not intended as an in-depth examination of gifts, yet it is important when studying church government to be aware of how gifts like leading/administration (Rom 12/1 Cor 12) and teaching (Rom 12) can interact with the offices. There appear to be elders who labor in teaching more than others (1 Tim 5:17), so one cannot make the mistake of thinking that all ordained elders are gifted in teaching and administration. An example is that some elders may be gifted in exhortation. They can speak words of encouragement to move to action and convict of sin (needed in the body),  but they may not be very effective in teaching deep, expository biblical studies (also needed in the body) unless they utilize the support of the elder/congregation member who has the gift of teaching. For an elder to think that he alone is burdened to see the complete vision of the church and administer all aspects towards that vision is again a potential fallacy in interpreting scripture. Those gifts can reside within the congregation as well. The elder is accountable to God for overseeing the spiritual leading/ruling of the flock and keeping it spiritually fed. Simply put: leading and feeding (spiritually). No more, no less. This may involve the gift of teaching, prophecy, administration or exhortation, but since scripture never intended church government to be a solo act, eldership and deaconship will (I believe) compliment each other’s weaknesses by their combined strengths. That’s the beauty of Jesus being the head and each of us members one of another. But this is not a detailed study on spiritual gifts. This section was just to point out that there is a difference between gifts and offices. Scripture would seem to show that there are two offices – the office of elder and the office of deacon – and many gifts.

Conclusion

I pray this overview of the office of elder in the church was beneficial. There is much more information that can shed light on this subject. Here are few important studies when attempting to further understand church government:

  1. Examining the elders of Israel in the Old Testament is very beneficial. Also, what might Israel had looked like had they obeyed God and not asked for a King?
  2. Looking at the word ekkl?sia, which is the Greek word for assembly (transliterated as church in many places) is also very important. How Jewish worship transitioned from the synagogue to the Christian assemblies helps us compare the churches of today with the churches in the beginning. Within this study one should examine importance of the breaking of bread and the involvement of multiple gifts during the service (1 Cor 14).

I’ve tried to be neutral in my personal beliefs and opinions while letting scripture speak for itself. Having said that, I’ll speak briefly from my own opinion that is based off of what I believe the Bible says. I think churches that are congregation lead or lead by a single man with absolute authority who is accountable to no one will not be as effective as a church lead by elders. Yet even a church lead by elders can fail or fall into corruption. This is because regardless of how a church is governed, it must be lead by the Holy Spirit. And it is my opinion that an elder led church that has the spiritual gifts working with and within the eldership all while utilizing the office of deacon will allow for the greatest flow of love, accountability, edification, correction, and most importantly, the Holy Spirit to move throughout its body. If the congregation is called to be subject to one another in love and humility, how much more the leadership?

The reader will notice that I did not go into detail on what titles or specific structure I believe a church should have (Elder Smith vs Bishop Smith, ruling elders and teaching elders, seven deacons for every one elder, etc). That is really up for the church to decide. I’d encourage any church to base their government structure on the Bible as much as is possible and not on the traditions of men.

Below are a few more notes I compiled while making this study. This list may grow or change as I come across different questions or ideas. Any comments or questions you have are welcome. I’m also interested to hear how your church is governed and what you feel the pros and cons of that government are.

Thank you.

——

 

Correcting an Elder/Overseer

Elders who continue in sin are to be rebuked (corrected) before all.

1 Tim 5:19-20 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.

Paul warns Timothy to not even hear an accusation however unless there are at least two witnesses. Any elder subjects himself to reproach from those in and out of the church by the very nature of the office. Because of this, and because of the position of honor and trust an elder holds, his standards are different than a layperson. While a single accusation against a layperson may apparently be heard, an accusation against an elder will not be considered without two or three witnesses.

It is unclear whether “all” in this passage refers to the other elders or to the whole assembly. It is most likely the other elders. Only as a last resort, should the entire church be involved in another’s sin (see scripture below).

Note: The above passage it referring to those who are continuing in sin. Correction should normally be done one on one for anyone initially, whether layperson or elder. Although, we do see occasional exceptions, like when Paul withstood Timothy to his face.

Matt 18:17-19 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell [it] to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” bold mine

When Timothy is told to not rebuke an older man is verse 1, this is referring to those who are elder in years.

1 Tim 5:1 Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort [him] as a father, younger men as brothers,

The word for rebuke in this passage is different than any other instance of the word. In fact, this is the only place in the Bible where this word is used. The word is epiplesso, and it means to strike or beat upon. What this means is not to rebuke an older man harshly. Those who are mature in age can be guided and corrected as one may correct their father, but never scolded or spoken to with any hint of disrespect, regardless of how young or old they are in the faith.

1 Tim 5:1 NASB Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers,

What I believe are some misconceptions about elders:

Elders must have children who are mature enough to live properly for Jesus or they cannot be ordained as elders.

No, but if elders have children, the elder should govern his family (wife & children) in a Godly way. If he is not devoted to the spiritual well being of his family he is not qualified to lead others spiritually. The bible stresses the importance of a man loving his wife as himself and being a devoted to his family. In fact, one who does not provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Tim 5:8  8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 

Unscriptural terms.

By unscriptural I simply mean they are not found in the Bible as titles or words used to describe church leadership.

  • Reverend
  • Father (father in faith maybe, but not as an office)
  • Pope
  • Arch-bishop
  • His Holiness
  • Your Grace
  • Cardinal
  • Pastorship
  • First Lady
  • Senior/General/Associate/Jr/etc. Pastor

 

 


[1] Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.

[2] Easton, M. G. (1996). Easton’s Bible dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[3] Merkle, B. L. (2003). Bishop. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen & T. C. Butler, Ed.) (220–221). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[4] g.s.m.w. (1996). III. The rise of monarchical episcopacy. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer & D. J. Wiseman, Ed.) (3rd ed.) (141). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[5] Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.

[6] Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.

[7] Vine, W. E. “Bishop (Overseer)”, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Blue Letter Bible. 1940. 24 June, 1996 3 Nov 2012.

[8] “Authorized King James Version.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Nov. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorized_King_James_Version>.

[9] Reyes, Michael. “Why Use the Word “Assembly” Instead of “Church”” : Why Use the Word “Assembly” Instead of “Church” N.p., 19 Aug. 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://love-god-love-others.blogspot.com/2010/08/why-use-word-assembly-instead-of-church.html>.

[10] Norbie, Donald L. New Testament Church Organization: Defined and Compared with the Major Ecclesiastical Systems. Kansas City, Kan.: Walterick Pub., 1977. Print.