Several terms are used in the New Testament to designate those who lead a local congregation. An understanding of these terms and their connection is essential to an understanding of the nature and purpose of this office.
The word “elder” is a translation of the Greek word “presbuteros.” It is found 67 times in the New Testament, and 62 times it is translated “elder.” It was commonly used to designate “an aged person.”
In 1Timothy 5:1 it contrasts an older man to younger men. In such instances age is the only point of consideration.
In Acts 20:17 the term is official and refers to leaders; to those that guide. The elders guide the flock. Age is but one of the qualifications.
They are to be men not only of age, but men that are mature, respected; men of recognized faith and integrity. This point is established in a number of ways, including the fact that a novice [neophutos-a new plant, i.e., a new convert to the faith] is not qualified to serve as an elder (1 Timothy 3:6).
Only one recognized and respected, able to teach, and to guide can serve as an elder.
The word “bishop” is found five times in the King James Version. In one instance it refers to Christ (1 Peter 2:25). In all the other passages it references those that are to serve as “overseers” (1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:7; Philippians 1:1).
The original word is “episcopos,” from “eph” – “over” and “skopos” – “overseers” (Acts 20:28).
A bishop is defined as an overseer, a supervisor, an inspector, or a superintendent. “Presbuteros” (elder) sets forth the type of man; the word “episcopos” (bishop) denotes the governmental responsibility involved in the office – this position: “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1).
Elders – bishops are to govern and lead. They are to “look diligently” and “take the oversight” willingly (1 Peter 5:2).
Oversight involves two specifics, guiding and directing. Of necessity it implies real connection with the members of the body; it rests upon association and involvement.
One cannot lead or guide, or know the needs and dangers faced by the members of the church from a distance or by proxy. They cannot provide leadership; they cannot correct, equip, and nurture the members apart from actual first-hand knowledge.
Elders (bishops) are to lead; in fact, they are to lead well (1 Timothy 5:17). The members of the congregation are to submit and obey them. As regards to the message taught, elders do not originate doctrine; nor do they rule by their own decrees.
Elders are to abide by the revealed will of God, and lead by abiding in it, and being personally obedient to it. There is no place for arbitrary or despotic rule in the church. They do not have the authority to change the word.
SHEPHERDS – PASTORS
The term “shepherd” is not applied in direct statement, but is implied in a number of passages in the New Testament. For instance the directive given by Peter establishes this to be true. He wrote to the elders saying:
“Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2).
Interestingly, the word “feed” is from the original word “poimaino,” which means to feed, or tend as does a shepherd (cf. Acts 20:17; 28). Contrast the KJV and the NKJV rendering of Acts 20:28:
Acts 20:28 – “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (KJV)
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.” (NKJV)
The word “pastor” is found only in Ephesians 4:11 in the entire New Testament. It is from the word “poimen” which indicates to “feed” or “tend.” It literally means to tend as a shepherd. Thus, the pastor is one that functions as “a shepherd or feeder.”
The Hebrew equivalent of this word is rendered pastor or pastors eight times in the book of Jeremiah. In other parts of the Old Testament it is rendered “herdsman” seven times, and “shepherd” sixty-two times.
The pastors, the elders, and the bishops are not three distinct groups of leaders. The terms are used to designate the same servant-leaders of the local New Testament church.
This is not a term used to define the office of elders, yet teaching is a central function of elders. In the New Testament a number of teachers are identified. Undeniably, the older women are to teach the younger women (Titus 2:3-5). Men and women (fathers and mothers) can and do teach children (Ephesians 6:1ff).
In a real and undeniable sense, teaching is the life of the church. Each congregation is finally the product of the teaching that it is given, and that it receives.
Undeniably, elders are to teach. To qualify for the role, they are to be “apt to teach,” (1Timothy 3:2). Not only apt to teach, but committed and capable.
Paul wrote of elders, “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” (Titus 1:9).
Paul directed that certain of them are to receive double honor. Note, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17).
They are to lead, not only by example, but by teaching; by instructing and equipping those who look to them for leadership. They feed the flock by teaching the will of God.
It seems evident that they can and in fact must do the work stipulated by Paul to Timothy. They should be credible links in the process of the continuation of instruction – the teaching of “faithful men.”
“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).
The charge given in Hebrews chapter thirteen is full of implication. The charge is to the members of the local congregation, yet it is about the elders.
“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).
Three obligations are implied in this text: (1) The members of the local congregation are to obey their overseers; (2) The overseers are to watch out for the souls of the members; (3) Both the overseers and the congregation shall give an account for their lives.
Since the brethren are to be subject to the leaders – the elders, these servant-leaders are duty bound to lead as did Christ, the chief Shepherd, and must never forget they are to protect and guide, they are to defend and help. They are never to act as a boss, nor as dictators.
Elders “watch for souls.” That is, they look to the spiritual well-being of those under their oversight. The role of elder is not one that is merely assumed. It is not a grant one gives to himself; it is a trust from the congregation to the elders.
It is to the benefit of the elders, and to the spiritual integrity, maturity, and security of the congregation under their oversight. An elder – the elders – must never lose sight of their spiritual calling (Acts 20:28).
The role of elder is formidable. Who, in fact, is worthy of this role? The Lord God does not demand the impossible. It is imperative that the man who desires the role of elder must give the most prayerful and conscientious attention to his life, his faith, his reverence for God, his love for the church, the quality of his devotion, his attitude, and his actions. This is to be thorough and ongoing.
For one to be casual or indifferent toward these things is to disqualify himself. For one to enter into this role, accept this appointment, and then function in a fashion that does not honor that which God requires, is to be a danger not only to the congregation that he is to serve, but endangers his soul.
To consider one’s personal devotion is a constant exercise, to commit oneself to be one with God is essential not optional. God is worthy of honor, and is to be had in fear. Elders are to be men of honor who fear the Lord, and serve Him with joy and gladness.
“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; nor as being lords 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 does not fade away” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Elders watch for souls, or they have no right to be called by that worthy designation. “Good-ole-boys” know how to placate and accommodate, but elders have a holy calling. They have the God-given obligation to watch for souls, and to do so as those who will give an account to God.