The Expository Files.

Elders, Bishops and Pastors: One Office or Three?

Acts 20:17-30

While talking with some white-shirted young Mormons one day, I asked them about the "Elder so-and-so" name tags they were both wearing. "How can you, both eighteen years old, be called 'elders'? Also, the Bible says that elders have to be married." Their response was something like this: "Yes, what you say is true, but you have elders and bishops confused. The Bible says that bishops must be married, not elders, and elders must simply be wise ones. God has given us wisdom."

What about that answer? Does it satisfy you? Does the Bible distinguish between elders and bishops? And, what do the words mean? Let's see.

Acts 20:17-18: "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: 'You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you'" (NKJ throughout, KJV in brackets).

After the riot at Ephesus, Paul left, and sometime later returned by that way. Rather than going to the city itself, he called the elders of the church to him at the seaport of Miletus. They came, and there he admonished them, and told them that he would not see them again. Notice, though, what the Scriptures say Paul called these men when they came to him:

Acts 20:28-30: "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [bishops], to shepherd [feed] the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.'"

When Paul called the elders, he addressed them as bishops and told them to tend, shepherd, or pastor the flock! If elders and bishops are distinct offices, occupied by different men, this would be senseless; but if the offices are the same, then it is logical. If they were different offices, when Paul called elders, no bishops would have been there to speak to. He told these men, elders and bishops, to "poimaino," or shepherd the flock. The root word is the word for a shepherd who guides and cares for his flock. Thus, in this passage, elders are the same as bishops, or overseers, and these men are to act as pastors and tend the flock, or church of God. Ephesians 4:11 makes the only reference specifically to a group of men called pastors, and here one could easily conclude that he was referring to this important work of elders who oversee and tend the church. Not three offices, but one!

TITUS 1:5-7 & I TIMOTHY 3:1-2
Titus 1:5-7: "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, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money"

1 Timothy 3:1-2: "This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach."

Titus is commanded to appoint a plurality of elders in every city,  and then Paul immediately lists the qualities that these bishops must have. Is it fair to draw a sharp distinction between the two given the natural flow from one verse to the other? Also, we see from 1 Timothy 3 that bishops are given similar and overlapping qualification. Only the attempt to later justify a distinction in offices that had already occurred historically could lead to an interpretation that these works are distinct.

1 Peter 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: Shepherd [Feed] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [taking the oversight], not by constraint 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."

This passage is much like Acts 20 in that all three words are used for the same office, and of the same men. Peter, an elder himself, exhorts other elders to carry out their duties as God directs. He tells them to feed, or shepherd, tend or pastor the flock which is among them. They are not to meddle in other flocks, but their own. Each church had its own "presbytery" (I Tim. 4:14: Phil. 1:1-2; Acts 14:23; Jas. 5:14).

In this feeding the flock the elders serve as overseers, or bishops.

The word "elders" is from the Greek presbuteros, which in turn is from the root presbos, or "old." Thus, elder refers to the spiritual maturity of the men who serve as overseers. They have a wife and children, and are not to be novices (1 Tim. 3:6). They are wise, seasoned, mature. Elder speaks to the character of the man.

"Bishop" or "overseer" is from the Greek episkopos. It is the word for superintendent, a manager. (Epi- over, and -skopeo, to look or watch.) It speaks to their responsibility and authority. The verb form of the word is used in 1 Peter 5:2, "exercise oversight." In 1 Timothy 3:1, the word is best rendered "overseership," since no word for "office" is actually present.

"Pastor" is from poimen, which as we have seen, is the word used for a shepherd, and thus of his word of feeding, guiding and tending the flock. The verb form is poimaino. In 1 Peter 5, all of these words and ideas are used of the same men. Peter himself is one of them, as a married man (Matthew 8:14ff).

This verse also teaches against the idea that there is another office above that of bishop, called an archbishop. Peter says that even he is simply a "fellow-elder," and that there is one "Chief Shepherd" or archipoimenos, Jesus Christ Himself. The Bible does not authorize the offices of Archbishops, Cardinals, Popes, etc. The only office over a bishop, elder or pastor is the Chief Shepherd Himself.

Conclusion: It is apparent that the organization and oversight of 1st century churches was much different than that found in most all denominations today. Let's be
careful when we read these verses not to "retro-fit" our current practices back onto the New Testament pattern, but rather change our practice and understanding to fit the New Testament.

 By Michael Schmidt
From Expository Files 1.2; February, 1994