Elders, Pastors, Shepherds, Bishops, Overseers

Here’s an excerpt from tomorrow’s sermon at The Donelson Fellowship from 1 Peter 5:

I want to share with you the genius of the Lord when it comes to the organization of the church. There’s no doubt that God wants things to be organized. I’ve just finished studying the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, where the Lord meticulously organized the tribes and army and religious orders of Israel, with leaders and an organizational structure that is detailed and efficient. God isn’t a God of confusion but of order and organization.

As we read the New Testament we find there were two ordained offices in the church. In the early chapters of the book of Acts, the apostles were the natural leaders of the church, but they also chose deacons who helped them (Acts 6).

When the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, he addressed the book to the whole church, together with the overseers and deacons.

In writing to Timothy, Paul described the qualifications necessary to be an overseer or elder, and then he described the qualifications necessary to be a deacon.

Here in 1 Peter, we have the apostle Peter referring to the first of these ordained offices and he uses several different words or terms to describe the same person. He begins by saying: To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder….

• Elders

The Greek word is Presbyterous, from which we get our English word “Presbyterian.” It means an elder in the sense of leader. The leaders of ancient Israel were known as elders. It doesn’t have to do with their age as much as with their wisdom and maturity.   But now, notice verse 2

• Shepherd
• Pastor

He tells these elders that they are to shepherd the flock of God that is under their care. And the word “shepherd” has come down to us in English as “pastor.” A pastor is someone who leads the flock into pasture, someone who feeds the flock, someone who provides leadership and nourishment. So the words elder and shepherd and pastor are used here interchangeably. People occasionally ask me, “Does your church have elders?” I say, “Yes, we do; but we generally call them pastors.”

• Overseers
• Bishops

But that’s not all. Peter goes on to say: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers. This is the Greek word Episkopos, from which we get our English word “Episcopal,” and it is sometimes translated as “Bishop.”

So here you have five different terms to describe the same person in his various roles: Elder, Pastor, Shepherd, Overseer, and Bishop. This is the first of the two ordained offices in the church; and the other is the deacon.

The deacons help the pastor just like the Levites helped the priests, as in the book of Numbers. Together they represent the pulpit and the pew, the clergy and the laity. And when they are working together, hand in hand, that church is blessed.

Now, here’s the genius of God. There is no rigid system in the New Testament in which these two offices have to function. God didn’t give us a set of detailed charts telling us how to implement this system. So the basic organization can work in a underground church or in a megachurch. It can work in a church in the African bush or in an American urban center. It can work in a liturgical church or in a Pentecostal congregation. The Bible gives us the basic offices and the foundational structure, but it provides enough flexibility so that we really should never argue too much about church government. The Baptists do it one way and the Methodists do it another and the Presbyterians another. A small church does it one way and a large church does it differently. The important thing is for every church to have elders and deacons who will provide good, Spirit-filled leadership for the church.

One thought on “Elders, Pastors, Shepherds, Bishops, Overseers

  1. You have a lot of good points, thank you. I agree with all your points, except one. May I humbly pose a question to you? Do you think its blasphemy to refer to Elders/Pastors as shepherds of the church?

    In John 10:16 Jesus states that there shall be “one flock and one shepherd” -referring to himself as the only shepherd of His flock. All the biblical translations that I looked at including, but not limited to; NIV, KJV, NKJV, ASV, AMPC, etc., all translate Jesus claiming that there shall be “one flock and one shepherd”. To suggest that a Pastor/Elder is a “shepherd of the flock” is in direct contradiction/violation of the Gospel and Jesus’s teachings. Looking at 1 Peter 5:2 (using the same translations as above), only 2 out of the 5 translations use the word “shepherd” for Elders/Pastors.

    I believe there are a lot of passages in the Bible that supports John 10:16, including Ezekiel 34, 1 Peter 5, etc.

    -Almost all translations of 1 Peter 5:2 do not use the word shepherd and when they do its used as “shepherding”. Most of the translations actually use the words; “feed the flock” or “tend the flock” or “shepherding the flock”, etc.
    -Ezekiel 34 talks about the Lord being angry with the shepherds of Israel and that He will shepherd his own flock – referring to the coming Messiah (Jesus).

    There is no doubt that the Bible talks about Elders and Pastors being care takers, over-seer’s or even shepherding the flock. However I think a great multitude of Elders/Pastors get confused with the shepherding duty, and actually think that they are shepherds, when the truth is (and in accordance with scripture), they are not!
    Let me elaborate;

    Does sowing seed (farming)in your back yard make you a Farmer?
    Does building a chair (carpentry) make you a Carpenter?
    Does providing first aid (medical care) to someone make you a Doctor?
    Does performing mathematical calculations (engineering) make you an Engineer?
    Does shepherding a flock make you a shepherd?

    God is very meticulous in how he organizes things, as you rightly pointed out, so I think we can have assurance that He means what He says when Jesus claims to be the only shepherd of His flock! This is an important truth of the Gospel.

    I think this is why, in John 10, Jesus talks about the hired hand, and I think its plausible to suggest that he’s talking about future Elders/Pastors of his flock (church) here. The hired hand does shepherding work and helps the shepherd, but in fact, is not a shepherd.

    On numerous occasions Jesus corrected his disciples so that they would learn what it meant to be a leader in His Church – Jesus taught that they had to be servants. Not like the existing priest/elders/shepherds of Israel of the Old Testament who were abusing their spiritual authority and whom God himself declared that they would be stripped of that duty/authority.

    I think this idolatry thinking pattern of many Elders/Pastors is nothing new – it happened in ancient days, in Jesus’s time on Earth, and it still happens today. Elders/Pastors should be holding Jesus in high regard, but instead they diminish Jesus and elevate themselves to be shepherds of the flock. I think this idolatry thinking is the root cause of church pride, which breeds a multitude of other incorrect assumptions, and lastly – results in Church deterioration – which is what we’re seeing all over the world.

    Jesus taught to be a servant first, Elders/Pastors should be good examples of what a good disciple of Christ (sheep) should be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.