The words elder, overseer, and pastor all describe the same authority of leadership within the universal church. However, since different denominations use these terms as though there are separate entities, the three offices are thought to have distinct meanings. Within the ultimate authority of the Bible and the Scripture, the terms elder, overseer, and pastor overlap in meaning. Indeed, Apostles Paul and Peter continuously interchange the offices of elder and overseer with the gift of pastor or shepherd. From this, it is clear that -- for the people they minister to, for, and with -- pastors are intended to have oversight. Thus, it is possible to say with confidence that those who have the gift to pastor also hold the office of elder and overseer.
Table of Contents
Two Parallel Directions.
The Human Overseer.
Fitness to Lead.
"Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding." (Jeremiah 3:15) 16
The office of elder, overseer, and pastor all hold the same office of shepherd, are interchangeable terms in Biblical times and should be so today. Various titles have been associated with the "head" shepherd according to different worldviews. The offices of elder, overseer, and pastor have been traditionally related to the priesthood. A comprehensive exploration of these roles will review the qualitative differences and similarities in the provision of service. The discussion reviews how a calling to shepherd God's flock may differ from the roles inherent in the offices of elder, overseer, and pastor. From the history of the Church, it is apparent that the biblical standard for the office of elder and overseer is in concordance with the roles of pastor and shepherd. Deeper consideration of the origins and applications of these titles can provide better insight into the intentions and purposes the roles have assumed, and support the articulation of the roles in the Church today.
In order to establish a foundation for the discussion of the historical evolution of the focus terms, this section will provide basic and commonly accepted definitions.
Pastor. The word Pastor is associated with the gift of spiritual oversight given by God to certain people[footnoteRef:1]. An associated presumption is that this God-given gift is characterized by an acceptance of responsibility and an expression of authority. Spiritual oversight is characterized by several aspects, which are central to the manifestation and functional use of the God-given gift[footnoteRef:2]. These aspects include the following: 1) Explicit study and exposition of the Word of God, and based on these activities, providing explanations to other people; 2) A fundamental understanding of the occurrence of human error in religious practice, the capacity to discern this error as it is manifested in various forms, and the capability to refute the occurrence of human error -- once it has been identified as such -- through reference to Scripture; and, 3) Spiritual access to the problems and needs of people through conversation with individuals, and providing the appropriate Scripture as a means of helping to solve the problems and answer the needs of those with whom one provides counsel.[footnoteRef:3] [1: Cox, D.R. (2003). Pastor, bishop, and elder: What's the difference? [Web]. Retrieved http://davidcox.com.mx/usa/our_promo/pastorelderbishop_whats_the_difference.htm] [2: Ibid.] [3: Ibid.]
To these basic aspects of the role of pastor, it is important to ensure that the role of a pastor is inextricably linked to a group to whom one functions as a shepherd -- one who is in charge of God's people.[footnoteRef:4] It should be evident that the gift given to a pastor is a calling that expressed the will of God for a particular person to locate in a specific place in order to "pastor" to a certain group of people.[footnoteRef:5] [4: Ibid.] [5: Ibid.]
Elder. The term elder is found commonly in the Old Testament. The literal meaning of the word refers to a person characterized by these two attributes: Age (older in comparison to others in a particular group) and wise (possessing more wisdom than others in the reference group).[footnoteRef:6] A member of a group is identified as an elder explicitly because of the qualities of character that they exhibit.[footnoteRef:7] Clearly in any given population, not everyone who is older -- that is, who qualifies as an elder in the age-related technical aspect of the concept -- is wiser. In the biblical context, there are many examples of Old Testament tribes and families -- inside and outside of Israel -- identifying their elders according to the manifestation of certain characteristics.[footnoteRef:8] Typically, Old Testament elders were older men who demonstrated leadership, nobility, wisdom, and bravery.[footnoteRef:9] From this basis, it is apparent that an elder is identified by the spiritual quality of his character, and not by some particular talent or by placement in an official capacity -- a position or office.[footnoteRef:10] In summary, "Within the context of the church, elders would be those men who are spiritually mature, very capable and able of leading others and ruling over the church."[footnoteRef:11] [6: Ibid.] [7: Ibid.] [8: Ibid.] [9: Ibid.] [10: Ibid.] [11: Ibid.]
Bishop (Overseer). The term bishop is associated with the word overseer, as a bishop is a man who is spiritually responsible to God and who is spiritually responsible for the church brethren.[footnoteRef:12] In his official capacity and the bounds of his definitive office, God holds the bishop responsible for a people.[footnoteRef:13] In order to assume this office, a person must also spiritually qualify as an elder, having been vetted and approved as such by the existing body of elders in the church.[footnoteRef:14] Following approval by church leadership and designated authorities, the bishop is to assume leadership of the church and conduct those activities that are required to lead the church.[footnoteRef:15] Should the bishop be found unworthy of the position -- in any way disqualifying himself because of his actions, behaviors, or communications -- a bishop may be removed from his position and replaced by another candidate for the position of bishop with the church.[footnoteRef:16] To summarize, the bishop or overseer is an individual who holds an office with the church that enables him to guide and lead the church members, and allows him to officially represent the church and to preside over its official business.[footnoteRef:17] [12: Ibid] [13: Ibid] [14: Ibid] [15: Ibid] [16: Ibid] [17: Ibid.]
To conceptually clarify the way these terms are used and the meanings they convey, consider the different roles a man may play and the titles that are associated with those roles. For example, a man can be at once a son, a brother, a husband, a father, and an employee. The roles are not at all contradictory -- in fact, they overlap and connect in important ways. These roles are defined by interpersonal relationships and the obligations and responsibilities that are created as a result of these relationships.[footnoteRef:18] In the same manner, the words used to refer to a pastor can be used interchangeably -- without contradiction -- in a manner that more richly expresses the any facets and nuances of the official life of a pastor.[footnoteRef:19] [18: Ibid.] [19: Ibid.]
Many would suggest that using the word bishop is confusing and may cause misunderstandings because of its long association with the Catholic Church.[footnoteRef:20] Hence, it has become increasingly common to hear the official church position referred to as that of an overseer, with the responsibility of the position described as oversight.[footnoteRef:21] The word pastor is used as both a noun and a verb. That is, when someone uses the term "to pastor," they refer to the spiritual gift that a man who is a pastor exercises.[footnoteRef:22] By extension, the term elder can refer to the spiritual character that a pastor must possess to qualify for the position and to be effective in the role.[footnoteRef:23] The term overseer, then, refers to a spiritual office in a church, and the term pastor refers to a relationship of spiritual oversight that exists between an individual man and a specific group of people.[footnoteRef:24] When a man who has been a pastor is not currently affiliated with a church -- in the common vernacular, is "between churches," he should technically not be referred to as a pastor.[footnoteRef:25] This is because a pastor is a man who has a spiritual gift that is being exercised within the context of a church -- a group of people.[footnoteRef:26] Without that relationship -- absent the provision of oversight for a group of people -- the man would properly be considered to be an elder, not a pastor.[footnoteRef:27] [20: Ibid.] [21: Ibid.] [22: Ibid.] [23: Ibid.] [24: Ibid.] [25: Ibid.] [26: Ibid.] [27: Ibid.]
Two Parallel Directions.
The early Church was growing in two parallel directions at once -- both horizontally and outward to spread the Gospel and vertically as it structured the organization to facilitate communication and to stabilize the local bodies of Christians as the Apostles went forward to distant lands. These two simultaneous dynamics of church growth…