Elders, Bishops, and Pastors
Unfortunately missing in many congregations, elders are one of the most important and ignored offices of a local church. Acting as the spiritual leaders of the local church, the primary work of the elders is to oversee and guide the congregation.
Referenced in the Bible as "elders", "bishops", "pastors" and "presbyters", they carry the heavy responsibility of "watching out for your souls, as those who must give account" (Hebrews 13:17). Since the Bible lays such a heavy responsibility on their shoulders, it should be important to us to examine the Bible teaching regarding the office of elder.
What is required for someone to be an elder? Two passages in the New Testament provide a list of qualifications for elders (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). But, can we modify these qualifications? What if someone is really good and meets all of the qualifications except one or two? Please notice how the apostle Paul begins the list of qualifications: "A bishop must be blameless, ..." (I Timothy 3:2). Since a bishop, or elder (the names are used interchangeably in the Bible), "must be" these things, then we do not have the liberty to modify the list in any way. To do otherwise would be in direct rebellion of God's will - "a bishop must be...". The qualifications from these two passages are summarized in the following list:
- husband of one wife
- temperate, self-controlled
- of good behavior
- able to teach
- knowledgeable and holding fast to sound doctrine that he may be able to both exhort and convict those in contradiction with Bible
- not given to wine
- not violent
- not quick-tempered
- not greedy for money
- not self-willed
- lover of what is good
- not quarrelsome
- not covetous
- having faithful children not accused of of dissipation or insubordination
- rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence
- not a novice
- have a good testimony of those outside the church
From these qualifications it is evident that an elder will be a mature Christian, exemplary in all areas of the Christian's life. Although circumstances may pressure us into overlooking some of these qualifications, we should remember that these requirements arise from God's wisdom, authority, and command - not man's.
Work of an Elder
This list of qualifications provides a good indicator of what the work of an elder will be, but we should look at other Bible scriptures to find out exactly what is the work and role of an elder.
The apostle Peter, who was also an elder, admonished elders in their work to:
"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; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." I Peter 5:1-3
From this passage we learn that elders are to serve as "overseers" for the "flock" among them. Therefore, elders are in an office with some authority to oversee the "flock", or local congregation, of which they are "among" and a member. Also, elders are limited to overseeing the flock "among them". They cannot oversee the affairs of other congregations, and correspondingly, neither can outside organizations intrude and oversee the affairs of the local congregation. This passage reserves that authority for the elders. So, what is the extent of this authority to oversee? Can elders determine matters of faith for their members?
To answer this question, please recall that it was the apostles to whom Jesus gave the power to determine matters of faith through inspiration of the Holy Spirit (John13:20; Matthew16:19; 18:18) . Therefore, elders cannot override the commands of the apostles who spoke in Christ's stead - by virtue of the lack of the authority of their office and the fact that elders today are also uninspired. This is probably the meaning of the statement from I Peter when he commanded them not to be "as lords over those entrusted to you". Elders cannot make decisions of faith for their members without "lording over them" (Acts 5:29). But, in all other matters we find that members of the church are to observe the following:
"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you." Hebrews 13:17
In this passage we see the primary emphasis of their oversight. Are they to be concerned with building maintenance, budgets, etc.? The answer is "somewhat", but only where it affects their responsibility to "watch out for your souls". It is the spiritual health of a church with which an elder is most concerned. This is further evidenced by the qualifications which state that elders must be capable to "both exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9-11; Acts 20:27-29). Therefore, part of watching out for souls is protecting the congregation from false doctrine as well as providing teaching that is profitable to their spiritual growth. However, please notice that elders do not counter false teachers through intimidation or sheer fierceness, but they stop false teachers by teaching "sound doctrine" so that even the false teacher is "convicted" of his error and "exhorted" to follow truth (Titus 1:9-11).
Finally, questions often arise about the many names that the Bible uses to reference elders, which include "elder", "bishop", "pastor", and "presbyter". Many denominations and churches practice having an "overseeing preacher" who shepherds the flock and is called a "pastor". Other denominations select someone to rule over the elders within a district and call him a "bishop". Some may continue building an elaborate hierarchy, creating offices that are not even found in the Bible at all, such as cardinal, pope, etc. However, the confusion can be resolved by returning to the Bible as a standard and implementing offices that are found only in the Bible and charging them with their proper Biblical mission and work. Given this goal, let us consider, "What does the standard say?"
When we compile all of the verses that use these references, we learn that the Bible actually uses all of these words interchangeably - they refer to one and the same office! Please note the following examples of this synonymous use:
- Bishop = Elder
- Elder = Overseer (Bishop) = Shepherd
"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 - if
a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful
children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.
For a bishop must be blameless ..."
"From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: ... '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.' " Acts 20:17, 28
The word for overseer is actually the same word that is translated "bishop" in other places. Please also see I Peter 5:1-5 for similar usage.
So, why all of the different names? Well, each name actually indicated something about either the character of the elder or his responsibilities. The word "elder" indicating his relative age and the maturity that should have come with it. "Overseers" denotes the responsibility to "oversee" and watch out for the congregation, and it comes from the Greek word episkopos which is also translated "bishop" in many places (I Timothy 3:2).
What about "pastor" and "presbyter"? To answer this question we have to look back to our list of all the spiritual offices found in Ephesians4:11: apostles, prophets, evangelists,pastors, and teachers . We have already discussed the offices of apostle and evangelist. Prophets are those who were not apostles but taught the gospel through inspiration, revealing the mind of God. Teachers also taught the gospel, but without the benefit of direct inspiration. This leaves only one office to assign between our two remaining offices of elder and deacon. We may eliminate "deacon" from this assignment, because the context of Ephesians 4:11 details the spiritual offices that were bestowed upon the church to promote its spiritual growth. Since the office of deacon is more of a physically centered office (Acts 6:1-4), it is understandably not included in the list found in. Although it is not considered a spiritual office or role, it is still considered as an office (Philippians 1:2; I Timothy 3:8-13).
Therefore, "pastors" (used only this one time here in the entire Bible) should be considered synonymous with the office of elder. This is reinforced by looking at the original word for pastor, which was poimen. This word meant "a shepherd" and was identical to the words for "shepherd" in other passages for elders that commanded them to "shepherd, or tend the flock of God" (except the other passages are the verb form of the same word - Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:1-5 ). The Greek word for "presbytery", found only once in I Timothy 4:14, meant "a body of elders". Therefore, one member of this body of elders could be called a "presbyter", although this label is never found in the New Testament.
Consequently, the words "bishop", "elder", "pastor", and "presbyter" all refer to the same office.
The office of elder is one of the most important but least appreciated offices. It is essential that we appoint qualified elders in each of local churches. Paul described a church without elders as having "things that are lacking" (Titus 1:5). This can be easily appreciated when we consider the need for faithful and sound spiritual leadership in every congregation. Moreover, we have learned that the office of elder is primarily a spiritual office that is responsible to "watch out for your souls" and to "shepherd, or pastor, the flock".
Because of the interchangeable nature of the references and by the process of elimination, we have also found that:
Elder = Bishop = Pastor (Shepherd) = Presbyter = Overseer
Each of these varying references were used because they denoted a certain aspect of the elder's character or work that was in central to the context.
Therefore, let us be diligent to assign this Bible office with qualified men, dismiss unqualified men from scriptural offices, and remove unscriptural offices from our churches; lest, we be found "adding to" or "taking away" from the will of the Lord.
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