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.