|A shepherd tending his flock in the Hungarian countryside|
So many churches today have unbiblical forms of government that are more like sixteenth century England than the first century. Many leaders like to take up titles like “senior pastor” or “bishop.” They use these to mean something quite different from what those words originally meant in the Bible. And churches sometimes use English words like “presbyter” or “elder” without a correct understanding of their historical meaning.
It’s very important that we use biblical terms for functions of church government, and that we understand their meaning, because these are directly connected with our practice. A wrong understanding of language leads to erroneous practices. So let’s see what the Bible teaches us about these terms.
First of all, there is the term “elders.” In many churches today, this simply refers to the church board, the board of directors, or the board of elders. In many cases, this is simply a group that provides approval for whatever the so-called “pastor” wants to do. In other cases, the board members run the church, and if the so-called “pastor” doesn’t do what they want, they fire him or put undo pressure on him. But we never see this in the Bible, so what does the Scripture teach us?
The elders in Scripture are always a group of men who have “the rule” in the local assembly. But they do so as humble servants, not as lords. The term “elder” actually comes from the Greek word presbuteros, where we get the English words “presbyter,” “presbytery,” and “Presbyterian.”
Aside from the fact that this word literally means “older” or “senior,” we cannot infer too much meaning from the term itself, except for perhaps the historical functions of city elders in biblical times. The elders would be seated in the city gate and people would bring issues to them for a judgment or decision.
The apostle Peter considered himself an elder, even though he was one of the original Twelve chosen by Jesus Christ. He walked with the Lord, served with Him, and even saw Him after His resurrection. Yet when he wrote to the elders, he simply referred to himself as a “fellow-elder” (Gr., sumpresbuteros). He wrote: “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed…” (1Pe 5:1). This is an important passage, because Peter did not use the title “Apostle Peter” or consider himself above these men in any way that would imply greater rank or greater importance.
Another important thing to note is that Peter referred to the elders as being “among” (Gr., en) the flock, not over it or above it. He wrote, “I exhort the elders among you…” And this is consistent with the way the apostle Paul described them. He wrote to the Thessalonians, "We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves." (1Th 5:12-13). So Paul also referred to them as “those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord.” But he didn’t actually say they were “over you.” In the Greek we see that he said they “have charge over you in the Lord,” which is not a matter of position but of responsibility, accountability, and authority.
At the end of Paul’s third and final missionary journey, he was heading back to Jerusalem. Because he was in a rush to get there by the Day of Pentecost, when he passed by Ephesus, he did not travel into the city. Instead he stopped at Miletus and sent word for the elders to come to meet with him. “For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.” (Act 20:16-17)
There was one church in Ephesus, as we can see from this passage. It was referred to as simply “the church.” Yet there was more than one elder. The Scripture says, he called to him “the elders of the church.” This is consistent with the usage of the term “elders” throughout the New Testament. And there is never any mention in Scripture of a “head elder,” “lead elder,” “key man,” or “first among equals.” These are all modern terms that men have come up with to describe their unbiblical approach to leadership.
Now let’s look at the term “overseers.” Our English word “overseer” comes from the Greek word "episkopos." This word has two roots – "epi" and "scopos." “Epi” is a Greek preposition that can mean things like "among," "upon," or "over." This is where we get words like “epicenter” meaning “upon the center” or “above the center”. The word “scopos” means "to watch, as a sentry or scout." From this word, we get our English words like “telescope,” “microscope,” and “periscope.” So when we put “epi” and “scope” together, in its noun form, it means someone who stands watch among the flock to watch over them and guard them.
The word “bishop” comes from this same Greek word (episkopos), but it's more a product of sixteenth century English language and culture. There is no sound, biblical reason to translate the Greek word "episkopos" as “bishop” in some places and “overseer” in others. In the hierarchical church, during the days of King James, certain men carried the title of “bishop.” And the purview of these men or area that they superintended was called a “bishoprick.” But those terms evolved long after the New Testament was written.
According to the biblical usage of the word "episkopos", these are the men who provide oversight in the local assembly. They must meet the qualifications outlined by Paul in the third chapter of the apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy. There he stated:
“It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” (1Ti 3:1-7).
In Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders, he said, “Be on guard for yourselves and for 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.” (Act 20:28). I want to draw your attention to the fact that he told these elders (Gr., presbuteros) that the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers” (Gr. episcopos). From Paul’s statement there on the beach, it is obvious that elders are overseers. These are not two separate role or offices. An elder is an overseer, which means that when we use terms like elder and presbyter to mean separate things, we are not doing so based on Scripture.
“Shepherding the church”
Perhaps the occupation that best illustrates the role of an overseer is that of a shepherd. A shepherd of sheep or goats stands among the flock to keep watch over them and guard them. So it is no wonder that in his historic, final meeting in Miletus with the Ephesian elders, Paul exhorted them to be on guard for all the flock among which they were overseers. The elders were supposed to protect the flock from dangers that may come from both outside the church and within the church – even dangers from among the group of elders themselves.
|A flock of sheep at pasture in Hungary|
In that address, if Paul had not gone on to use the word “shepherd,” we would still have enough information to infer that he was charging these elders/overseers to carry out the function of shepherds. But in fact, he did explicitly use the term “shepherd.” He told them “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Act 20:28). This is a verb from the Greek word poimaino. It means "to tend as a shepherd, to feed (cattle), or to rule."
In Peter’s letter to the disciples scattered “throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pe 1:1), he also appealed to the elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” (1Pe 5:2-3). He did not give them another title, but spoke of their proper function, which was “to shepherd the flock of God among you.” This is the same verb (Gr., poimaino) that Paul used in addressing the Ephesian elders. And it’s the same verb that Jesus used, when he reinstated Peter on the beach after his resurrection, saying to Peter, “Shepherd My sheep” (Jn 21:16).
There is another biblical word related to the verb “poimaino,” and it is the noun “poimen,” which means “shepherd” or one who tends a flock or herd. In the New Testament, this Greek noun poimen is always translated “shepherd,” except for one passage. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he wrote: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;”(Eph 4:11-12).
In most modern English versions of the Bible, this word “poimen” is translated “pastors” only in this passage. In this passage, the pastor or shepherd is one of five gifts Christ gave to the church, and the pastor cannot function independently from them. As with the other five gifts, the pastor/shepherd is given to equip the saints for works of service. The idea is that of preparing other people to do the works God created them to do, works that were prepared before the foundation of the world. The pastor is not given to the church to cast his vision or get people to follow his program. He is one who -- together with other elders -- has been given oversight among the flock by the Holy Spirit. So my main point here is that a pastor is a shepherd, who – as one of the elders -- should be shepherding or guarding God’s flock.
Again, note that Peter referred to the flock of God as being positioned “among” the elders, not “under” them. He said, “shepherd the flock of God among you.” And he specifically instructs the elders to “exercise oversight” (Gr. episkopeo). This is another Greek verb (related to the previously mentioned noun episcopos for “overseer”), which means “to oversee;” by implication “to beware:” - look diligently, take the oversight.
Peter specifically instructed these men how to carry out their function as elders, shepherding the flock, and providing oversight. He said they should do so by proving to be examples to the flock. They were to lead by their example, not by giving orders from on high, “nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge.” (1Pe 5:3).
Putting it All Together
I realize that certain words have come into use over the past two thousand years, since the New Testament was written, and others have taken on new meanings, such as bishop, presbyter, elder, home group leader, and pastor. However, we need to be very careful that our word usage reflects the original biblical meaning. The reason is that the original meaning of these words and the original practices of the first century church are closely tied together. If we want to function biblically as the early church did, then I think we should stick with using the same terms they did and make sure we do so with the same meaning they did.
While many people make titles out of words like "senior pastor," “bishop,” and “elder,” that practice is unbiblical, since Jesus explicitly said we were not to use titles. These terms were never meant to be titles but names of functions. There are too many title-holders today without biblical functions.
Here’s the formula to remember: elder = overseer = shepherding function. This does not mean that all elders are the gift of “pastor” as mentioned in Ephesians 4. An elder may be one of the other “five-fold” gifts, such as apostle, prophet, evangelist, or teacher. But he is still called to guard the flock and tend it. And an elder according to the will of God is also an overseer.
Finally, it's important to note that the elders are not a "board" either. They are a group of men who co-labor together in their oversight role. This is not something that can be done solely from the safety of a board room or a pulpit. It's a very "hands-on" function that requires being among the flock. Sometimes it may even "stink". Remember, if it's not relational, it will fail.
So if we want to be "bless-able," let’s put away the titles and start functioning biblically, using biblical terms with their original meanings for these functions. I think the fruit of this will bring glory to Christ and be worthy of His holy name.
Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.
Author's note: For a more thorough and complete study of this topic, please see the article by my friend, Jim Garret, called New Testament Church Leadership in the Local Church. It's an excellent resource for church leaders to read and put into practice. If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the other posts in this blog available through the Home page, such as A Tale of Two Kings, The Servant of the Lord, The Shepherding Role of Elders, Success in God's Eyes, Accountable, correctable, and teachable, A Personality Profile of the Apostle Paul, Persecuted or Popular?, and Having a Servant's Heart. You may also access my complete blog directory at "Writing for the Master."
Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International. He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission. www.dmiworld.org.