Ben Reaoch | Category: The Church Community
This past Sunday afternoon a group of men gathered to discuss biblical eldership. We will continue this study over the coming months. One key thing to understand from Scripture is that these terms all refer to the same office.
The word that is used in 1 Timothy 3:1 is episkopos, and “overseer” is a very literal rendering of the word. This role involves watching over the flock. From the word episkopos we also get the word “bishop,” which shows up in some translations. The word bishop now carries the connotation of overseeing not just one congregation, but a large number of congregations. But in the New Testament this word refers to those men who are serving as overseers in a particular congregation. For instance, Paul addresses the letter to the Philippians in this way: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). So episkopos is one way of referring to this office of leadership in the church, translated “overseer” or “bishop.”
Another word that the New Testament uses for this office is presbyteros, which is translated “elder.” In 1 Timothy 5 Paul refers to “the elders who rule well” (5:17, see also 5:19). And in Titus 1, where Paul again gives the qualifications for elders / overseers, he says to Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). This also shows another very important point, namely, that there are to be a plurality of elders in each congregation. There is not to be only one elder in a church, but a group of elders serving together. We see this in other places as well. In Acts 14:23, telling of Paul and Barnabas, it says, “And when they had appointed elders (plural) for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (see also James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1). There are to be elders / overseers in each congregation.
Finally, this role in the church is also referred to in terms of shepherding. In Acts 20 Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders (presbyteros, verse 17), and he says to them in verse 28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopos), to care for (literally, “to shepherd”) the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The noun form of this verb, “to shepherd,” is used in Ephesians 4:11, and this is where we get the term “pastor.”
A pastor is a shepherd, an overseer, an elder. These are all synonymous terms in the New Testament, and we see in these terms various characteristics needed for this role. The term elder implies maturity and wisdom. Overseer connotes the oversight and instruction that this group of men must provide for the congregation. And pastor / shepherd gives us a vivid picture of how those who serve in this office ought to lead and protect the sheep. Elder, overseer, bishop, pastor, shepherd – these are all ways of referring to the same office as it is described in the New Testament.
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