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 Vol. 5, No. 11 

November 2003

~ Page 9 ~

Elders, Pastors, Overseers,
Shepherds and Presbyters

By Richard Kelley

Image Leadership

There is perhaps not a more misunderstood subject in religious bodies today than that of the office of leadership. Why is it that men have come up with such strange ideas concerning elders, pastors, overseers, shepherds and presbyters? If all are depending on the Bible as their standard of faith, how could there be such division concerning what these terms mean? Does the Bible send a mixed message to men; does it say one thing to man A, and yet another to man B, and in contradiction they are both correct? God forbid! "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:33)! The Holy Spirit said through the apostle Peter, "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11). May we enter this study with a deep respect for the Holy Scripture "as it is in truth, the Word of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:13b).


There seems to be a dilemma among "churches" as to what "title" to give the preacher of the congregation. One could very easily turn on the local "religious" channel and find titles of all varieties. There is "Pastor X," "Bishop Y," "Elder Z," all of which are words found in the Scripture. But does this mean they are authorized to be used in this sense? Is the preacher authorized to wear the name "pastor" as a title in connection to his name? Let us simply define these words, the way the Scripture defines them, and get to the root of the dilemma. What would God call them?


What is an elder? There are religious bodies that use this title as mentioned before, "Elder Z," for example; is this authorized and acceptable to God? The most common scriptural usage of the word goes back to the nation of Israel. The Old Testament is filled with references to one being an "elder" (over 120 occurrences). It has references to the older sister, such as the case of Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:16), and the firstborn, such as Reuben, son of Israel (Num. 26:5). But mostly, it has reference to the older men of the congregation of Israel (about 98% of the time). The Hebrew word zaqen simply means, "old, aged, bearded" (Young 292). The New Testament writers (through inspiration of the Holy Spirit, 2 Peter 1:19-21) simply adapt the terminology to the Greek upon their usage of the word. The word presbuteros is used to describe those who are aged in about 90% of the occasions used. This appears to be used as a word to describe a person in relationship to another in respect to age, not a title to be worn by men such as "doctor."


"Pastor" is a word that is used with great frequency in modern times with regard to the proclaimers of God's message, the preachers. Regarding this word, we can find many Old Testament references. The word "pastor," most frequently used in the book of Jeremiah (2:8; 3:15; 10:21; 12:10; 17:16 and others), is the Hebrew word raah which can mean "be fed; devour; eat; fed; keep; (and) herdman; pastor; shepherd" (Young 38). The New Testament usage of the actual word "pastor," only appears one time, Ephesians 4:11. The Greek word poimen was employed by the Holy Spirit here to describe a "shepherd, feeder" (Young 734). The significance of this passage, in connection to the "pastor," is that the "evangelist" is also mentioned. However, the word "evangelist" is not the same word at all, nor does it carry the same meaning. Rather, the Holy Spirit chose the Greek word that means "one who announces good tidings" (Young 309). The obvious meaning of this is that the one who proclaims the message of good tidings is not the same as the pastor in this passage. The Scripture indicates a distinction between the two; to pastor is to "feed and oversee," whereas the evangelist is to "proclaim." The Scripture plainly teaches that these two are not the same.


Again, the Old Testament is the fundamental basis for information concerning the overseer. This comes from a Hebrew word such as natsachi, which means "to overlook" (2 Chronicles 2:18). It is also used in reference to an "inspector," through the word paqid (Nehemiah 11:9; 11:14; 12:42). The New Testament reference stands lonely, again, with but one reference to the term (Acts 20:28). "…feed the church of God, over which the Holy ghost hath made you overseers." This is the Greek word episkopos, which simply means "inspector" (Young 727). The word overseer, just as elder and pastor, are used to describe some aspect of the work entailed.


The common usage of the word is seen in the Old Testament references of over sixty times from the same Hebrew word as "pastor," raah. The meaning is identical, "to feed sheep." The New Testament continues using it in this manner with the Greek word anthropos (Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34; Luke 2:8; John 10:2; Hebrews 13:20 and others). First Peter 5:1-4 changes the sense of the meaning when he (Peter) applies it to Christ in comparison to those who already were shepherds, calling him the "chief shepherd." The Greek word used here is archipoimen, which bears that meaning (Young 877). The word indicates one of the attributes of the eldership, to feed the flock, rather than a title proper.


The word "presbytery" is found one time (1 Timothy 4:14). The Greek word translated "presbytery" is presbuterion. This word simply means "[a]n assembly of elders" (Young 770). The obvious message, concerning the passage in this perspective, is to show the nature of the office; it is to be constructed of two or more (plurality).

Back To The Dilemma

All of these names obviously refer to the same office, viz., the eldership. Each of them contributes to a sense in which the office is to be occupied. These are not formal titles (e.g., "Pastor X," or "Shepherd B"), in the same way that a carpenter does not call himself "Carpenter X." They do not refer to the ministers (Gr. diakonos, leitourgos, hupertes, heirourgeo; which all mean to serve, work, labor; [also] assistant, labourer etc.) (Young 663). The strict qualifications as set by God for the office are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-11. Although the names differ, they all represent the same office according to Scripture.

Elders -- show the age and wisdom needed to fulfill the office (1 Timothy 3:6).

Pastors -- expresses the idea of feeding the flock (Acts 28:20).

Overseers -- the nature of the watchmen, guarding against potential danger (Titus 1:9-10).

Shepherds -- the picture of just that, a shepherd guiding the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Presbyters -- the office is always spoken of as plural in number.

May we each strive to "do Bible things in Bible ways and call Bible things by Bible names," so we are sure to only "speak as the oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11).Image

Works Cited

Young, Robert. Young's Analytical Concordance. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

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