Three Words, One Office

The NT uses three corresponding words to describe this role of church leadership.


The first word is pastor or shepherd, an overarching word God chooses to describe the nature of this role (1 Pet. 5:2-3). It highlights the proper motive and manner of church leadership, leading a congregation of believers the same way that a shepherd leads a flock of sheep (John 21:16; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Furthermore, the role of a shepherd is a humbling task, not a glamorous one. A shepherd feeds his sheep (Psa. 23:2) and protects them (Psa. 23:4). In the same way, Christ expects pastors to perform similar duties for a church (see John 21:15-17, then Psa. 23:4, then Tit. 1:9-14, respectively). How does a pastor do this? He does so primarily through a biblical teaching ministry, feeding and protecting the church through sound doctrine. Ultimately, this term affirms that pastors must lead churches in submission to Jesus Christ, who is the chief shepherd of every church (1 Pet. 5:4).


Bishop or overseer is a second word that the NT uses to describe this role. It is derived from the Greek vocabulary of the first-century world. Gentiles used this word to describe the men that Rome assigned to oversee and govern a subjugated city on behalf of Caesar. Consequently, the church adopted this word to describe the men who pastored the church in any given city (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7). This word highlights the administration, organization, guidance, protection, and oversight that a pastor must provide to a church. Furthermore, it emphasizes the accountability with which a pastor will report to God, the divine overseer (Heb. 13:17). On one occasion, Peter describes Jesus as the foremost overseer of the church (1 Pet. 2:25).


Elder is a third word the NT uses to describe this role. It carried over from Jewish culture, in which it described a man who provided necessary leadership functions for his nearby synagogue. He guided in worship, provided biblical teaching, and governed administrative and relational affairs among the Jews of his city. Consequently, the church adopted this word to describe the men who pastored churches (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Jam. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1). This word places special emphasis on the spiritual maturity and Christian experience required of a pastor. Therefore, a novice should not serve in this role. A man whom the church does not respect may not serve in this capacity.

Together, these three terms – pastor, bishop, and elder – refer to the same role of church leadership. We recognize this not only because of their similar meanings, but because of the way that NT writers use them interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5-7; 1 Pet. 5:1-2).

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