Why do we use the terms elder/overseer/pastor?
We use the terms elder, overseer (bishop), and pastor because these are the terms that the Lord used to define and describe this leadership position in his church. So let’s begin by looking at God’s Word to see how these terms are used to refer to the same office or position of leadership that God ordained in the church.
The term “elder” is most often used by the Lord in his Word to designate this office in the church. This word for “elder” in the Greek is the word that the Presbyterian denomination gets its name from. It’s a functional term. Like an elder in a community, an elder in the church describes someone who is spiritually mature and placed in a position of teaching and influence in the church. The term elder is used in 19 verses in the book of Acts and the Epistles in the New Testament: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; 5:19; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1, 5; James 5:14; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1.
The term “overseer” or bishop is the second most often used term by the Lord in his Word. It’s a title that’s synonymous with the term elder, and the word for “overseer” in the Greek is the word that the Episcopal denomination gets its name from. Like elder, it’s a functional term. It expands our understanding of this office that the Lord established in his church. Like an elder in a community, overseers are gatekeepers, who are given authority for oversight in the community of the church. The term overseer is used in 5 verses in the book of Acts and the Epistles in the New Testament. Note how God uses the term in conjunction with the term elder in both Acts 20 and Titus 1, reinforcing the fact these terms refer to the same, single office in the church: Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7.
The Greek word for “shepherd” is the word from which we derive the term “pastor.” This is the least used term connected with the office of elder or overseer, but it is an important term. The word for pastor is most often used in conjunction with describing the work of an elder, such as in 1 Peter 5:2. It’s only used once as a noun to describe a position or person who is a gift to the church, which is found in Ephesians 4:11. The 1 Peter 5:1-2 passage serves as a charge to elders in the church. It uses elder as the primary title for the office, but then also uses the terms for both overseer and pastor in order to describe the work of an elder: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight…” (italics added for emphasis).
Why do we have a plurality of elders/overseers/pastors?
Is a plurality of elders/overseers/pastors required in every church?
The first question is fairly easy to answer: We have a plurality of elders because a plurality of elders/overseers/pastors in a local church is the norm in Scripture. The evidence for this is overwhelming from the passages above dealing with the appointment of elders, Paul’s interaction with the elders in the church in Ephesus, and the other passages addressing elders in a given church.
In Acts 2, the church was born, and Acts 2:42-47 laid out the picture of this first church in Jerusalem, which included a church that was led by the apostles. These apostles, such as Peter and John, were the elders/overseers/pastors of the early church both in function and in title (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1)
In Acts 14:23, Luke stated that “they had appointed elders for them in every church.” The language in the Greek is clear. In these new churches, establishing biblical leadership was critical, and that included appointing “elders” (plural use of the primary title for this office) in “every church.” It’s important to note that this could be descriptive (describing what was done this one time in the early church), but it could be more than just descriptive if it is found consistently as the norm of what’s seen in the church. The additional passages below reinforce the norm of a plurality of elders – just as it’s the norm for a plurality of deacons – in a given church.
In Acts 20:17, Paul “called the elders of the church (in Ephesus) to come to him.” Again, the language of the New Testament isn’t ambiguous. In the church in Ephesus, there was a plurality of elders, and Paul called them and met with them before he continued on his journey.
In Titus 1:5, Paul said that “elders” were appointed “in every town.” While it doesn’t indicate that there was only one church in that town, that was the norm in the early church.
In Philippians 1:1, Paul addressed the “overseers” and “deacons” in the church in Philippi.
The second question is a little more difficult to answer: So is a plurality of elders required since it seems to be the norm in the New Testament church? We believe the answer is “no.”
The qualifications for an elder or overseer in 1 Timothy and in Titus do not specify that a plurality of elders must be appointed in every church. This is true, but it is equally true that the qualifications for deacons don’t specify this requirement either. However, in the case of deacons, it is assumed to be normative that there be a plurality of deacons to serve in a Southern Baptist Church. Why? Because many refer to Acts 6 as the institution of the office of deacon in the church. In this passage, seven men were appointed to serve in the church to administer the daily distribution of bread. While Acts 6 doesn’t explicitly use the title “deacon” for these men, most assume that they were the first deacons because their call and their work was aligned to the work of the deacon. What’s often overlooked, however, is that there’s also a plurality of elders in this same passage. The apostles, who were the pastors of the church in Jerusalem, speak in unison to the church to lay out the need for these men to serve alongside them: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (italics added for emphasis).
Others may argue that an individual elder/overseer/pastor must be the norm because Paul’s pastoral letters were written to individual men: Timothy and Titus. The problem with this assumption is two-fold. First, Paul wrote these letters to individual men he knew and who were important to him. They were personal letters of encouragement in the ministries of Timothy and Titus. This doesn’t automatically eliminate the possibility that there were or would be other elders working with either Timothy or Titus. Second, Paul does state the expectation that Timothy would train up other elders. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul called Timothy to identify other faithful men to train up for the work of teaching the Word: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”
While the evidence in Scripture points to a norm of a plurality of elders in a church and to the expectation that elders are training up other men for the ministry of the Word, Scripture does not state a requirement for a plurality of elders. It would seem that the age and size of the church would drive the need for a plurality of elders just as it would drive the need for a plurality of deacons to serve alongside them.
Are elders/overseers/pastors accountable to one another in their ministry of the Word?
If the norm is that a plurality of elders/overseers/pastors are serving in a local church, then how are these men organized to work together? Is there accountability to each other for their work in the ministry of the Word and prayer? The answer to the question of accountability is “yes.”
The birth of the church in Acts provides a picture of a group of men who were working together to teach and to pastor a quickly growing and quickly tested church. The apostles are the picture of co-laboring in the work of pastoring, and their example is one of accountability, which is seen through the challenges of growing the church from the Jews in Jerusalem to the Gentiles outside of Judea (Acts 10). It’s also illustrated in a beautiful way later in the church through the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. These men held one another accountable in their interpretation and submission to the Scriptures.
The New Testament itself also provides strong evidence in support of accountability among elders. The letters in the New Testament were letters written by elders/overseers/pastors such as John, Peter, Paul, and James, and they were written to other, specific elders (Timothy, Titus, and the elders in specific churches like Philippi, Galatia, Corinth, etc.) as well as to elders in the unspecified churches, such as in 1 Peter 5 and James. These letters are full of exhortations as well as rebukes and admonitions to the church, which give us a clear picture of accountability among elders in the early church.
Galatians 2:11-16 also give us the example of individual accountability among elders. Paul described how he addressed the hypocrisy of Peter’s behavior with Jewish and Gentile brothers. In Acts 20, we see how Paul charged the elders in the church of Ephesus to be faithful in their ministry, and he addressed how charges against an elder should be handled in the church in 1 Timothy 5:19-21. Additionally, Peter gave a similar charge and challenge to elders in the church in 1 Peter 5. In other words, there are numerous examples of individual elders holding other elders accountable in the ministry of the Word that we share in the Lord’s church. Accountability protects the interpretation and submission to the Scriptures among those who are responsible for the ministry of leadership in the church as an elder/overseer/pastor.
Can women serve as elders/overseers/pastors in the church?
In the section on the church in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the following is stated: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Notice a couple of important things about this definition:
- Pastor/elder/overseer is defined as a Scriptural office in the local church.
- The office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men “as qualified by Scripture.”
Elders/overseers/pastors are Scriptural officers in an office in the church that is reserved for men. This truth is found in the qualifications of an elder/overseer/pastor as a “one woman man” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). It’s also found in the restrictions of teaching with authority over the local church as seen in 1 Timothy 2:12-15, which directly precedes the qualifications for elders. Some argue this passage in 1 Timothy 2 is cultural in context and doesn’t apply today, but culture isn’t the basis of Paul’s argument in verses 12-15. Paul’s argument is grounded in God’s order of creation. This Scriptural justification isn’t limited to cultural context. This is a timeless truth based on God’s design for the complementary roles of male and female in his creation. It takes nothing away from the significance of the role and work of the gospel for women, but it calls the church to live by faith in God’s wisdom and design for the complementary roles of men and women in the home and in his church.