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Theology > Church > Church Government > Leadership of Elders


Several words are used in the New Testament to speak of those who lead the Church; each of the words conveys a specific trait, but all are essentially synonyms. The words are: Elder, Bishop, and Pastor.

Elder or Presbyter (presbuteros) – word denotes age, and speaks of one who is older and, therefore, wiser and more knowledgeable; the “elder” is also called an “overseer” in I Pet. 5:2, where both words appear thereby indicating their synonymous usage; presbuteros appears in Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4; 16:4; 20:17; I Tim. 4:14; 5:17; I Pet. 5:1, 5.

Bishop or Overseer (episkopos) – the word denotes rank, thus, a bishop is an overseer; in Acts 20:17, 28 “elders” is used in v. 17, while “overseers” is used in v. 28—the point is that the words are used interchangeably; thus, the two are identified as being the same position; the same is true in Tit. 1:5, 7; episkopos appears in Acts 20:28 and Phil. 1:1.

Pastor, Shepherd, or Minister (poimēn) – word appears 18 times in the NT; this Gr. word is translated “pastor” in Eph. 4:11, the only place so translated in the KJV—in the other passages the translation is “shepherd”; the pastor is also identified as a teacher in Eph. 4:11, so perhaps the best translation is “pastor-teacher”; the verb form is used in Acts 20:28 where the statement is “to shepherd the church of God” and in I Pet. 5:2 the “elder” is to “shepherd the flock of God”—this is the job of the Pastor-Teacher who is mentioned in Eph. 4:11; Jesus is called “the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul” (I Pet. 2:25), “the Chief-Shepherd” (I Pet. 5:4; Gr. is archipoimēn), and “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20).


These terms—Elder, Bishop, and Pastor—are interchangeable; this is established by the teaching of the Scriptures, and affirmed by the testimony of the early Church (Clement of Rome; The Didache; Jerome; Ambrose);

Jerome: “If anyone thinks the opinion—that the bishops and presbyters are the same—to be not the view of Scripture but my own—let him study the words of the apostle to the Philippians” (Commentary on Titus).

The function of Elders/Bishops/Pastors is twofold: one, they are to govern (I Tim. 5:7; I Pet. 5:2-5; Heb. 13:17), providing leadership for the local Church; and two, they are to teach (I Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Eph. 4:11). Their responsibility in governing is to make decisions that are consistent with the principles of Scripture and best for the spiritual life of the Church. Their teaching may be public or private, with the focus being the explanation of the Word of God.

The leadership provided by these individuals is spiritual leadership, that is, they do not lead in a physical or political sense, but in a spiritual sense. They have been appointed and equipped for this task by the Spirit. They are not to serve as “lords” over those they lead (I Pet. 5:3). They serve as examples, and their authority flows from the quality of their lives and the authenticity of their teaching.

Qualifications for this position are given in I Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5-7; following is a listing of some of the requirements:

“husband of one wife” (I Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6) – possible interpretations: one, married only once, so divorced man can never be an elder; two, an elder must be married, must have a wife; three, no man with multiple wives can be an elder, only one wife, so the verse is against polygamy;

“of good behavior” (I Tim. 3:2) – a general statement that speaks of the quality of life; numerous other traits are mentioned in the Text that could be included alongside this required trait, such as: “blameless,” “temperate,” “sober-minded,” “hospitable,” and “gentle”;

“able to teach” (I Tim. 3:2) – while all elders are to have teaching ability, some seem to have been more entrusted with the teaching ministry (I Tim. 5:17);

“not given to wine” (I Tim. 3:3) – not addicted to wine (see: Drinkers of Wine);

“not greedy for money” (I Tim. 3:3) – ministry is not for the purpose of making money;

“children in submission” (I Tim. 3:4) – refers to the time a child is living at home and is the responsibility of the father;

“not a novice” (I Tim. 3:6) – not a new convert.

In the churches of the New Testament there was a plurality of elders, with these elders having oversight of the individual church. There is no indication of an assembly with a single elder/pastor. And this is the only form of government mentioned in the New Testament; no other is revealed. All accretions beyond this form cannot be justified from Scripture; it should be noted that this form would also include the service of deacons who were added to assist the elders and to take care of the physical needs of the congregation.

Historical Note

Ignatius, martyr in Rome early in the Second Century, spoke of three levels of authority within the Church: Bishop – Elders – Deacons; he spoke of a single Bishop with a plurality of Elders, called a Presbytery, and the Deacons; he affirmed that the Bishop was a model of the Father, with the Elders serving as a model of God’s council and as the band of the apostles (Letter to the Trallians); he said to “obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undisturbed mind” (Letter to the Ephesians); additionally he wrote: “You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans). Note: In his Chronicle, Eusebius gives the date of Ignatius's death as AA 2124 (2124 years after Abraham), which would be the 11th year of Trajan's reign, i.e., AD 108.

The Presbytery could refer to the elders of a local church who in their meeting were led by the most respected member of the group; gradually this individual came to be referred to as Bishop in distinction from the rest who were known as Elders;

Or the Presbytery could refer to the Elders, or representative Elder, of each of the churches of a particular area; over this meeting one would preside, the Bishop, not in an authoritative position but in a pragmatic position to facilitate the flow of the meeting; perhaps this Bishop was the leader of the mother church in the area;

In either case the position of Bishop slowly came to have a more prominent position, an official position over Elders; this situation easily developed into regional Bishops and eventually a supreme Bishop.

Note: For this development, whatever the precise nature of the development,  there is no justification in the Scriptures.

Irenaeus (early Second Century-c. AD 202) in Against Heresies stressed the significance of apostolic succession in the person of Bishop and/or Elders in safeguarding the Faith and guaranteeing Orthodoxy; apostolic churches preserved the tradition, and those to whom they passed it down; prominence was given to the Bishop of Rome; it seems that his concern was not authority of the office but the accuracy of the tradition;

Note: Apostolic succession is not a term of Scripture, nor is the concept taught in Scripture, nor does it guarantee the tradition.

Cyprian (c. 200-258) affirmed that the unity of the Church was in the office of the Bishop; without the Bishop there is no Church; no salvation outside of the Church;

Note: The unity of the Church is in Christ, not in any bishop.

Jerome (340-420) stateded that “one presbyter was elected from among the elders . . . and placed over the rest” in order to avoid schisms.

Apostolic Constitutions (c. AD 375) – elevates the Bishop to a priestly position, an idea that had been gaining prominence; refers to bishops as “our high priests”; only the Bishop can ordain elders (priests) and deacons; only Bishops can remove priests from office, but cannot remove another Bishop unilaterally; only bishops and elders could baptize; deacons served the bishops;

Note: There is no Biblical justification for the office of priest today.  

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