Category Archives: episcopal

On Bishops, Elders, and Pastors

Ever wonder why some churches have elders and others have bishops? Or why some churches have pastors and others have priests?

I did a detailed study several years ago of the Greek words for elder, pastor, and bishop/overseer in the New Testament. I concluded the following:

“Pastor” simply means shepherd. So in scripture, the terms “pastor” and “shepherd” are interchangeable.

Likewise, in the New Testament, the terms “elder” and “bishop” (or “overseer”) appear to have been used interchangeably. In Acts 20: 28-32 and 1 Peter 5: 1-4, elders are given the task of both overseeing and shepherding. So it appears that in the early church, elders fulfilled both the pastoring and overseeing functions in general, including instruction in faith.

Yet in Ephesians 4: 11-13 Paul does speak of some who have a special calling to shepherd (“pastors”). There’s no indication that these pastors were elders. They may have been people who had a special calling to simply care for the members of the body and also to train others in doing so.

Also, in 1 Timothy 3: 1f., because the word “overseer” is used in the singular, there’s a slight implication that these overseers or bishops may have had a special leadership role of overseeing the elders and the congregation. My theory is that the terms ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ were used interchangeably initially but over time ‘bishop’ came to mean ‘the one(s) who oversee the elders and the church.’ There’s evidence in some of the writings of the early church fathers that ‘bishop’ came to have this meaning in the late first century or early second century.

So in the early church, the closest thing they had to what we think of as pastors today may have been the bishops (overseers). Of course, later, ‘bishop’ came to mean the person who had oversight of an entire region, but this doesn’t appear to have been the meaning at first.

Oddly, apparently the word “priest” is rooted in the Greek word “presbyter,” which means elder. This shows even more clearly that originally the leaders of congregations were elders. Sadly, the plurality of eldership fell out of use and ‘presbyters’ came to be only those who led congregations, the ‘priests.’ This is why the episcopal churches (that is, churches which have bishops–Catholic, Anglican, Methodist) equate elders with pastors.

In these episcopal churches, “elder” is synonymous with “pastor” or “priest.” And I think in the Baptist churches, the terms pastor, elder, and bishop are considered synonymous, which is why they have a board of deacons but not a board of elders.

The Presbyterian churches tried to recapture the plurality of eldership seen in the New Testament. Thus, the Presbyterians used to differentiate between “teaching elders” (pastors) and “ruling elders” (those who lead on the elder board). The pastor had various titles: pastor, “Minister of Word and Sacrament,” “teaching elder,” and the like.

There are many newer churches today which are trying to recapture the idea of plurality in church leadership which we see in the New Testament, but old habits die hard.