There is a growing consensus within the Christian community regarding the role and authority of the “Elder,” “Pastor,” and “Bishop”. Many people see these New Testament positions as simply different names for the same office. Comments such as the following are common:
“There is no distinction between a pastor, a bishop or an elder in the scripture. They all refer to the exact same office. . . To put it simply: A pastor is a bishop is an elder.”
“All three Greek words [presbuteros, poimen, episkopos] refer to the same men, the same work. Pastors, elders, bishops and overseers are the same. The Bible uses all six English words (bishop, overseer, elder, presbyter, shepherd and pastor) interchangeably to refer to the same men, and so should we.”
This study will attempt to show there is a difference between these offices, and that we should not conflate the terms. The proposition is that the Holy Spirit has used different words to describe distinct and separate roles within the church. Certainly there is some overlap between these offices, and we should expect to see some redundancy. However, an examination of the linguistic, lexical and relational usages seems to demonstrate unique differences.
The Greek word most often translated “elder” in the New Testament is “presbuteros” (pronounced pres-boo'-ter-os). Presbuteros is formed from the root word presbus. This word has the general meaning of:
- Old man, an older person, natural dignity of age, more advance in age, implying dignity and wisdom.
- Elder of Jewish/Christian Sanhedrin or Church, assembly of elders.
- Senators (Spartan Constitution)
- Local Dignitary
The overall meaning for the root word presbus can be summarized as: 1) an older person; 2) an ambassador; 3) administrative member of an assembly of elders; 4) involved with legislative and possibly judicial functions (senatorial position); and 5) a local dignitary.
When used to signify the comparative degree of a presbus (i.e.- “old man,” “an elder”), it is an adjective. When referring to a specific person, role or function (i.e.- a “leader” in the church), it is a noun. We will be looking at the noun for our study.
(The meaning of the Greek words in this study, is based upon their usage and common understanding from the time period when the New Testament was written. From now on, I will refer to this category by the technical term, “Lexical”).
The Lexical meaning of this word can be summarized as follows:
- Administered justice.
- Rulers of the people.
- Officials in councils - - presiding over assemblies. Management of affairs (members of the Sanhedrin.)
- Ranked superior in age- in terms of official responsibility. (“Representatives of the older generation as compared to the younger”)
- Representatives of the people
- Spiritual care, exercise oversight over, overseers.
- Leaders in Congregational settings, “committed the direction and government of individual churches”
- Teachers in church.
Several distinct definitions emerge from this list. The presbuteros function in an administrative (officials in assemblies), judicial (administers justice) and executive (congregational assemblies) roles within the church. They also serve as “teachers” and “spiritual care givers”; however, these duties do not uniquely define their position. New Testament scholar Gerhard Kittel makes the following insightful comment: “in the constitution of Sparta presbus occurs as a political title to denote a president of a college . . . Presbuteroi have administrative and judicial functions . . . . And are charged with supervision of the finances and negotiations with the authorities . . . [and] men belonging to the senate.”
Presbuteros is used 66 times in the New Testament. Regarding the administrative role, the presbuteros made managerial decisions—“assembled in council,” and “held consultation.” As executive leaders of the “church” they “persuaded the multitude”. Throughout Jesus’ ministry (and the Apostles’), they came with the challenge—“by what authority [power] do you teach in the temple?” Furthermore, they were involved in judicial activities—“they delivered Jesus to Pilate,” Jesus was “rejected of the presbuteros,” and was “accused of the presbuteros”.
In the Post-Resurrection era (i.e. the Christian Church), the functions of the presbuteros remained intact. The administrative capacity was seen when Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem and the presbuteros assembled “to consider the matter” of circumcision. Their executive decision was authoritative (in consultation with the Apostles), and their “decrees” were delivered to the churches. Their executive authority is seen at Ephesus, where Paul called the presbuteros together, giving them a mandate to “feed the church.” When relief was sent to the brethren at Antioch, it was sent to the presbuteros.
Their teaching responsibilities were affirmed as they labored in “word and in doctrine.” Their spiritual care can be seen in James’ call for the presbuteros to “pray over the sick. . . anointing them.” Both Paul and Peter addressed the presbuteros as “overseers”, showing that they fulfilled some of the same duties of the episkopos and the poimen (“bishops”, “pastors”).
In Titus 1:5-7 we see that the presbuteros and episkopos have overlapping roles. Paul exhorts the church to “ordain elders (presbuteros) in every city . . . For a bishop (episkopos) must be blameless . . .” Also, when Paul is addressing the “elders” (presbuteros) in Ephesus, he reminds them that “the Holy Ghost has made you overseers (episkopos)”. These passages affirm that a presbuteros CAN (and should) perform the duties of the episkopos but not the other way around. In a sense, the presbuteros must be a “master of all trades”—and the functions of the episkopos are included and incorporated into this office. Titus 1:5-7 confirms that the presbuteros is recognized as such through the ordination process. Furthermore, Paul calls for presbuteros to be ordained in “every city” and in “every church.”
The presbuteros were to be accorded double honor, and be “rewarded monetarily as is appropriate for the laborer is worthy of his wages.” Also, they “should not be accused unfairly or frivolously. An accusation should not even be received unless two or three gather to accuse and the ones who accuse are witnesses of the offense.” Interestingly, both Peter and John refer to themselves as presbuteros while Paul never does.
In conclusion, a linguistic, lexical, comparative overview shows that the primary functions of a presbuteros include administrative, legislative and judicial roles. Within the scope of their duties, are the functions of the episkopos (“overseeing,” etc.) and the “shepherding” roles of the poimen (“feeding,” “caring,” etc.). Dr. Mare summarizes these findings nicely: “Presbuteros is used in Christian contexts for leading officials in local (Acts 11:30; 14:23) and regional (Acts 15:2,4,6) ecclesiae (churches) to lead the church in doctrinal decisions (Acts 15:22f; 16:4), to be responsible for missionary endeavors (Acts 21:18,19), to supervise distribution to the physical needs of the congregations (Acts 11:30), and to guard churches from error (Acts 20:17-31). The position of presbuteros is confirmed through ordination, after a careful review of the qualifications by the church.”
The word translated “bishop” in the N.T. is episkopos (pronounced ep-is'-kop-os). Episkopos is made up of the words epi and skopos. The preposition epi has several definitions, but generally means: “towards,” “to,” “against,” “on,” “at,” “upon,” “near,” “for,“ etc. The root word skopos has the following meanings:
- Look, Peer into the distance at a goal, end, a mark.
- Examine, View attentively; look into one’s affairs- with reference to laws.
- Observer, Look out for, watch(er)- a hilltop or lookout-place, watch tower.
- Guardian, protector
- Spy, Scout, messenger sent to learn tidings.
The root word skopos has the general meaning of: 1) examining, looking attentively at; 2) watching; 3) guarding; and 4) scouting. Therefore, we could say that it refers to “looking towards,” “watching for,” “guarding at/near,” etc.
Episkopos is a masculine noun.
The meaning of episkopos is summarized as follows:
- Inspecting (an inspector sent to Athens by the states) (In Cynic philosophy- a “Cynic preacher tests men, whether their lives conform to the truth. . . [and] strives for perception of the truth as the basis of moral and rational conduct.”)
- Overseeing, a watch- one who watches over- a man charged with seeing that things be done properly. (In the Odyssey, an episkopos is an overseer over goods as the work of a ship’s captain or merchant”)
- Scout (In Homer’s writings, an episkopos means a “scout or a spy.”)
- Guardian (Office of guardianship within a group), Guarding the apostolic tradition, Protector (Plato asserts that the episkopoi is one who “sees to it that there are no transgressions.“)
- Superintendent- supervisor (In Athens, episkopoi were “supervisors sent to the cities. . . . And were in some sense governors.”)
- Judicial- There seems to be some judicial element to the function of the Episcopes (it seems a minor role as compared to the presbuteros). State officials seemed “to have discharged, or supervised judicial functions.”
In combination with the root word skopos, we see several unique definitions for the episkopos compared to those for presbuteros. While there are some overlapping qualities (overseeing, teaching), the core responsibilities are primarily supervisory, investigative and guardian. The definitions of episkopos imply the office has a more intimate contact with the laity than with the presbuteros, being less administrative and more personal (“inspecting,” “guarding,” “watching”).
Episkopos occurs five times in the New Testament, and confirms the basic Lexical meanings. Regarding the Guarding and Investigative functions—Paul reminds the bishop to be “vigilant.” He exhorts the bishop to “convince gainsayers, vain talkers, deceivers . . . .” He concludes by saying to “rebuke them sharply.” In 1 Peter 2:25, Jesus is referred to as the “guardian” (episkopos) of the soul. When speaking of supervisory function, Paul tells Timothy that the bishop must “rule his own house well. . . having his children in subjection.” He urges Titus that they “hold fast the faithful word . . . exhorting by sound doctrine,” while Peter commands them to “take the oversight . . . [and] feed the flock of God.” By extension, if the presbuteros is to be ordained as an episkopos, then an episkopos is also recognized through the process of ordination.
Other reasons why episkopos should be seen as a distinct role, 1) it is an “office”, “a man desires the office of a bishop”; 2) it is listed as distinct and separate with other offices, “with the bishops (Episkopos) and deacons”; and 3) the Apostles offices are included in being an episkopos, “his (Judas’) bishoprick (episkopee) let another take.”
In conclusion, the episkopos is a church officer whose roles include: “inspecting,” “overseeing,” and “superintending.” This Greek word was used specifically for those sent to conduct affairs of the state as a scout or watch of their jurisdiction. The position of episkopos is established through ordination. It is not a spiritual gift, and therefore there are objective criteria the church must evaluate before instating into position.
The word translated “pastor” in the New Testament is the root word poimen (pronounced poy-mane'). This masculine noun is akin to poia, which means “to protect.” It is related to the verb poimano, which has the general meaning of to feed or tend a flock, to keep sheep. It is also has a relationship with the noun poimne, which means a flock of sheep.
This word also has exclusive and inherent meanings that distinguish it from prebuteros and episkopos:
- Shepherd (Shepherd of sheep, oxen, people)
- Guardian, protector
- Tender care- nourishes, cherishes- not one who merely feeds
- Teachers of pupils
- Guide, leader of Christian communities
From a lexical standpoint, we can see that the word poimen contains several different meanings from the other two Greek words. This word specifies a position that is more nurturing and guiding. It does not have the administrative, judicial and executive meaning that presbuteros has, or the supervisory, investigative and oversight functions of episkopos. It does, however, include the teaching and protecting roles that are seen in the other two offices.
Poimen occurs 18 times in the New Testament, and the comparative survey confirms the preceding definitions. The nurturing function is seen in Matt. 9:36 and Mark 6:34, where Jesus has “compassion on the people.” The guiding role can be seen in passages such as “smite the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” Peter elaborates on sheep that have gone astray, whom Jesus, “Shepherd (poimen) of the soul,” rescues. At the birth of Jesus, there were “shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night.” John 10 refers to Jesus as the “Chief” poimen, and tells us that the sheep “follow” Him, and “hear His voice.” In Ephesians 4:13, we see that the poimen works with the church to promote the “unity of the faith,” “the work of the ministry,” and prevents “winds of doctrine from tossing” the church “to and fro”.
Interestingly, the role of poimen in the church is a spiritual gift. Unlike the prebuteros and episkopos, it is a position that is not established by a set list of “criteria” or confirmed by ordination. Rather, like other spiritual gifts, it is recognized or discerned by the church as a supernatural gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit. The qualifications for all spiritual gifts are those that involve the heart, and are given to those who are truly consecrated wholly to God.
A common mistake is to conflate the actions (verbs) of the poimen with the positions (nouns) of the presbuteros and episkopos. It is true that the latter two have responsibilities to “feed” the church of God and to “nurture”, but these actions cannot be construed to be the actual position itself.
In conclusion, we have seen lexically and comparatively that the poimen (translated as “shepherd” or “pastor”) fulfills the role of “guarding,” “teacher,” and “nurturer”. This position could include any role that does not involve judicial, administrative, authoritative, investigative, supervisory or managerial roles. The poimen is not a position which is established through ordination, but is a spiritual gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It is beyond the scope of this paper to enumerate all the positions or roles this could include.
The findings of this brief study reveal some interesting conclusions. We have seen that the functions and roles of the presbuteros (“elder”), episkopos (“bishop”), and poimen (“pastor”) are unique to each one. The presbuteros deals with executive, administrative and judicial areas, as well as teaching and supervising. The episkopos deals with supervisory, investigative and protecting areas, as well as teaching. The poimen functions primarily as nurturing, guarding and teaching. The presbuteros and episkopos are both recognized by external, objective criteria that the church evaluates, and then confirms them with ordination. The poimen, on the other hand, is a gift received from the Holy Spirit as a result of internal qualifications that the Spirit recognizes. The following table highlight the major findings:
|Mature (superior in age)||X||X|
|Leaders of Congregations||X||X|
So what? Why is this study important—or is it? There are two reasons why these findings are significant:
1) Many people today feel that they are “called to the office of pastor.” A common mantra is “the Holy Spirit has given me the gift of being a pastor—no one has the right to prevent the Spirit‘s calling in my life!” While it IS TRUE that the gift of the Spirit includes the poimen, it DOES NOT include the office of presbuteros and episkopos. As already mentioned, the latter two have specific objective, external check points that the church must evaluate before allowing anyone who feels “called” to fulfill their roles in the church. Scripture simply will not allow for a subjective, internal and gift-oriented rationale for becoming a modern-day presbuteros (“elder”) or episcopes (“bishop“).
2) On the other side of the coin, we shouldn’t be too quick to negate someone’s “calling” for the office of poimen. This spiritual gift is given by God, and it is to be used for His glory.