'Pastor' is a common term used for a person who occupies a position of leadership in a local church. Normally, the primary responsibilities of this position involve preaching and personal ministry to members of the congregation. In churches with more than one staff member, it is not uncommon to have multiple pastors on staff, each with a more narrowly defined set of responsibilities, such as: youth pastor, adult ministries pastor, pastor of visitation and so on. The word pastor most closely corresponds to the word poimen in the New Testament, but there are other words that denote this position. Some denominations have the tradition that Pastors, Bishops (or Overseers), and Elders denote different positions. This interpretation does not hold up to Biblical scrutiny, however.

Bishops and pastors are not distinct from elders; the terms are simply different ways of identifying the same people. The Greek word for bishop is episkopos, from which the Episcopal Church gets its name. The Greek word for pastor is poimen. The textual evidence indicates that all three terms refer to the same office. The qualifications for a bishop, listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and those for an elder, in Titus 1:6-9, are unmistakably parallel. In fact, in Titus 1:5,7, Paul uses both terms to refer to the same man.

First Peter 5:1-2 brings all three terms together. Peter instructs the elders to be good bishops as they pastor: "Therefore, I exhort the elders [presbuteros] 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, shepherd [pomaino] the flock of God among you, exercising oversight [episkopeo] not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God."

Acts 20 also uses all three terms interchangeably. In verse 17, Paul assembles all the elders [presbuteros] of the church to give them his farewell message. In verse 28, he says, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [pomaino] the church of God."

In general usage, the term elder may be preferred because it seems to be free of many of the connotations and nuances of meanings that have been imposed on both bishop and pastor by our culture.

Episkopos , the word for bishop, means "overseer," or "guardian." The New Testament uses episkopos five times. In 1 Peter 2:25, Jesus Christ is called the episkopos of our souls. That is, He is the One who has the clearest overview of us, who understands us best, and He is "the Shepherd and Guardian of [our] souls." The other four uses of episkopos have reference to leaders in the church.

Episkopos is the secular Greek culture's equivalent to the historic Hebrew idea of elders. Bishops were those appointed by the emperors to lead captured or newly-founded city-states. The bishop was responsible to the emperor, but oversight was delegated to him. He functioned as a commissioner, regulating the affairs of the new colony or acquisition.

Thus episkopos suggested two ideas to the first-century Greek mind: responsibility to a superior power, and an introduction to a new order of things. Gentile converts would immediately understand those concepts in the term.

It is interesting to trace the biblical uses of episkopos. It appears in the book of Acts only once, near the end (Acts 20:28). Of course, at that time, there were relatively few Gentiles in the church, and so the term was not commonly used. But apparently as Gentiles were saved and the church began to lose its Jewish orientation, the Greek culture's word episkopos was used more frequently to describe those who functioned as elders (1 Timothy 3:1).

The New Testament bishop, or overseer, is in a unique leadership role in the church, specifically responsible for teaching (1 Timothy 3:2), feeding, protecting, and generally nurturing the flock (Acts 20:28). Biblically, there is no difference in the role of an elder and that of a bishop; the two terms refer to the same group of leaders. Episkopos emphasizes the function; presbuteros, the character.

Poimen , the word for pastor, or shepherd, is used a number of times in the New Testament, but Ephesians 4:11 is the only place in the King James Version where it is translated "pastor." Every other time it appears in the Greek texts, it is translated "shepherd" in the English version.

Two of the three times it appears in the epistles, poimen refers to Christ. Hebrews 13:20-21 is a benediction: "Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd [poimen] of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will." First Peter 2:25 says, "For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd [poimen] and Guardian [episkopos] of your souls."

In Ephesians 4:11, pastor [poimen] is used with the word teacher. The Greek construction there indicates that the two terms go together--we might hyphenate them in English ("pastor-teacher"). The emphasis is on the pastor's ministry of teaching.

Poimen , then, emphasizes the pastoral role of caring and feeding, although the concept of leadership is also inherent in the picture of a shepherd. The focus of the term poimen is on the man's attitude. To be qualified as a pastor, a man must have a shepherd's caring heart.

So the term elder emphasizes who the man is. Bishop speaks of what he does. And pastor deals with how he feels. All three terms are used of the same church leaders, and all three identify those who feed and lead the church, but each has a unique emphasis. ^[1]^

Notes

  1. ? Answering the Key Questions About Elders