Three Names for One Group of Men

By Royce Frederick

Several different terms may be used to refer to one person. For example, one man may be referred to as “husband,” “father,” “son,” “uncle,” “brother,” and “employee.” All of these terms refer to the same person, but each term describes him from a different viewpoint.

In the New Testament, we find the three terms “elders,” “bishops,” and “pastors.” All of these terms refer to the same group of men in the local church, but each term describes them from a different viewpoint.

They were called “elders” (Greek: presbuteros, sometimes translated “presbyters”) because they were selected from among the older men of the congregation. This refers to their age relationship to other members. It suggests experience and maturity.

They were called “bishops” (Greek: episkopos), which simply means “overseers.” This indicates their work relationship. They were responsible for overseeing the work and worship of the local church.

They were called “pastors” (Greek: poimen), which simply means “shepherds.” This refers to their care relationship to the other members. They were responsible for gently feeding and tending to the souls in the local church, just as shepherds care for sheep.

Several verses in the New Testament show that “ elders,” “bishops,” and “pastors” all refer to the same group of men in the local church:

“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 20:17-18, 28).

“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” (1 Peter 5:1-3). See Titus 1:5, 7.

The New Testament calls these men “elders” most often. The term “pastors” is used only once (Eph. 4:11). These men were selected according to specific qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). They were appointed to their work by apostles and preachers (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).

In the first century, each local church was governed by two or more elders, men who were members of that local congregation. Deacons helped them as special servants of the church (see Acts 6:1-6; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13). But men often love power (see 3 John 9; Matt. 20:20-28). Some churches began to be ruled by one man. By the second century, many churches were departing from the Lord’s way of governing. Local churches surrendered their independence and began to be ruled in groups, with each group under one man. Eventually, men were able to exercise control over churches in large regions, and even in foreign nations.

If we desire to please the Lord, we must go back to the Bible. We must restore the New Testament church by following all of His teachings about the church, including the way the local church is governed.