Leading God’s People
There are six terms in the New Testament to designate Christian leaders—bishop, overseer, elder, presbyter, shepherd, and pastor.
These terms all refer to the same office. From Miletus, Paul called for the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17), yet he refers to them as “overseers” (Acts 20:28). “Overseer” and “bishop” translates the same Greek word. Paul told Titus to appoint elders (Tit 1:5); Paul refers to them as “bishops” (Tit 1:7). Peter tells elders (1 Pet 5:1) to shepherd the church (1 Pet 5:2). “Shepherd” here is the verb form of the word “pastor.” Peter also refers to these workers as “overseers” (1 Pet 5:2).
Although some groups differentiate between bishops, elders, and pastors, such a distinction was not known in New Testament times. If we are to be true to Scripture, we cannot differentiate between these titles.
This morning, we want to examine these titles and see what we can learn about the work of elders.
Bishop and Overseer
As we mentioned earlier, bishop and overseer both translate the same Greek word. The term is episkopos. “Epi” means “upon,” while “skopos” refers to a “watchman.” A bishop or overseer would then be one who oversees, one who watches over.
The New Testament refers to elders as bishops and overseers. “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil 1:1). “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work” 1 Tim 3:1-2). “A bishop must be blameless” (Tit 1:7).
The elders are to oversee the congregation.
The elders are to make sure that no false doctrine is taught in the church.
An elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2)—Elders must know Scripture well enough to defeat error and defend the truth. Elders are to exhort and convict those who contract sound teaching (Tit 1:9). Because elders oversee the teaching in a congregation, they are over those who teach. They decide who teaches and who doesn’t. They decide what is and what isn’t taught.
The elders oversee the distribution of money in a congregation.
When famine struck Judea, the disciples sent money to the elders y Saul and Barnabas (Acts 11:30). The elders today have a right to decide how best to spend the Lord’s money. Partly because of this duty, elders are not to be lovers of money (1 Tim 3:3).
Elders need to oversee the work of the local church.
They need to be sure that nothing unbiblical is taking place. They need to be sure that the local church is actively doing what God would have it do.
Presbyter and Elder
“Presbyter” and “elder” both translate the same Greek term.
The meaning behind this term is “older;” elders are to be older men in the congregation. Elders are not to be a “novice” (1 Tim 3:6). Elders are to be mature men who can lead the church.
Because elders are older, they should set an example of Christian living. Many of the qualifications for elders point to elders’ maturity. They are to be blameless (Tit 1:7). They are to be lovers “of what is good” (Tit 1:8). They are to be sober-minded (Tit 1:8). They must be well-respected by those outside the church (1 Tim 3:7).
Elders must be mature in their Christian lives. Elders need to be adding the Christian graces to their lives (2 Pet 1:5-7). Elders should be living the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).
Those who are younger need to be able to look at the elders as role models.
Pastor and Shepherd
“Pastor” and “shepherd” both translate the same Greek term.
The meaning behind this term is that elders should guide and direct the Christians in their charge. Elders are to “shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Christ gives some to be “pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). Elders must “shepherd the flock of God” among them (1 Pet 5:2).
Elders need to model their behavior after the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd knows his sheep (Jn 10:14).
Elders must know those under their charge. Elders need to know what is taking place in the congregation. Elders need to know who needs encouraging and who needs correction. Elders need to take notice of who is not in worship.
The Good Shepherd feeds his sheep (Jn 10:9).
Elders need to be sure that the congregation is receiving proper spiritual nourishment. Elders need to encourage Christians to spend time studying Scripture on their own.
The Good Shepherd guards his sheep (Jn 10:11-13).
Elders need to guard the congregation against false teaching. False teaching will lead many astray.
The Good Shepherd finds the sheep who have gone astray (Lk 15:4).
Elders need to seek actively those who have gone astray. A Christian should never fall away without receiving care from the eldership.
Elders have a grave responsibility.
Other Christians, too, have a grave responsibility—we must obey the elders. “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive” (Heb 13:17). “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders” (1 Pet 5:5).
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Owingsville church of Christ in Owingsville, Kentucky.