What are Elders and Pastors?

The Leadership Structure of Christ’s Church

Every church is led by Christ if it is a New Testament church. “He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18).

When the church no longer obeys the Word of God, the presence of Christ leaves a church and Christ is no longer the ruler of the church. We may call the organization a “church,” but it is not, according to the biblical use of the term.

The final seat of authority in church government is best stated in terms of viewpoint. The congregations were charged to choose spiritual leaders. After that, the believers were charged to obey those who had the rule over them (Acts 15:2-4; 1 Tim. 5:17).

The apostle Paul encouraged the Philippian believers to continue in and strengthen their unity as a church (Phil. 2:1, 2) and pleaded with the Corinthians that they do everything within their power to correct and prevent divisions in their church (1 Cor. 1:10).

Because the Holy Spirit works through believers, he is able to freely lead a church when the members are yielded to his direction.

The pastor, who fulfills in today’s church the role of the New Testament elder or bishop (overseer), is responsible before God for the spiritual welfare of the church (Acts 20:28). At the return of Christ, he will judge and reward the pastors (elders) according to their faithfulness in leading the church to accomplish the will of God (1 Pet. 5:4). In one sense, everything a church is and does is an extension of the pastor’s personal ministry.

So much is this true, that the prophet identifies the similarity between the leader and his followers, “As with the people, so with the priest” (Isa. 24:2).

The office of the pastor is identified by various titles in different denominations. He is called Reverend, Pastor, Preacher, Bishop, Minister, Elder, Doctor, or some other title. It is sometimes awkward for a person of one church to address the pastor of another faith because of uncertainty of how to address him.

This problem has been complicated throughout church history where terms have been applied to the office in one culture only to remain after the culture has changed. The Roman Catholic Church uses the title of bishop to apply to a man who supervises many churches in a large area, whereas the New Testament applies it to the leader or leaders of one church.

At least seven different terms are used to identify men that filled the office of pastor in New Testament churches. Each of these words contributes toward a fuller understanding of the nature of the pastor’s office.


The first term (Greek: presbuteros) used especially in the Jerusalem church was “elder” (Acts 11:30). The term “elder” appears over twenty additional times in the New Testament. It was brought over from the Old Testament synagogue of those who were respected for their maturity and wisdom. The Book of Proverbs gives admonition to heed those who can make wise decisions.

While chronological age was certainly a consideration in identifying a man as an elder, the real emphasis is on wisdom and spiritual maturity. It is not advisable to place a young convert, even if he is saved late in life, in a position of leadership without his first being given the opportunity to gain spiritual maturity.

In listing the qualifications of a pastor, the apostle Paul warned, “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6).

The term “elder,” when-speaking of his function in the church, is always used in the plural (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1), supporting the idea of a plurality of elders in a single local church. In churches today we have senior ministers, youth pastors, ministers of music, and directors of Christian education, all considered pastors: Even in the New Testament where many elders existed in one church, there sometimes appears to be a hierarchy of elders.

There were many elders in the church of Jerusalem, but James was their spokesman. There were many elders at the Ephesian church (Acts 20:17), but Jesus addressed his comments to the angel (messenger) of that church (Rev. 2:1). Presumably this one was recognized by others as the spokesman.


The term “bishop” (Greek: episkopos) is also used to describe the office of pastor and the man who fills it. The term is translated “overseer” in Acts 20:28 and is used four other times as “bishop” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25). In one instance the reference is to Christ (1 Pet. 2:25).

The emphasis of bishop seems to be “one who takes the oversight of a church,” or the office of manager, superintendent, or chief executive officer of the church. Again, the term is always in the plural except where the qualifications of a bishop are given (1 Tim. 3:2).

It is largely an administrative term used to identify the work of these church leaders. Whereas the term “elder” implied the character of the pastor, the term “bishop” describes the nature of his ministry.


Probably the term “pastor” (shepherd) is the most common title used today by conservative Christians to identify their church leader. However, the term “pastor” except for one instance, is used always in the New Testament to refer to Christ. It is used to describe the ministry of shepherding and feeding the flock. It is not used in the Bible to describe a man in office, but only his ministry (Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:2). As the shepherd of the flock is responsible for the care of the sheep, so the pastor is responsible for the care of his flock (Acts 20:29; 1 Pet. 5:3).

First, the elder/shepherd is instructed to “take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). This makes a pastor responsible to watch over others to meet their needs. Sometimes a church member will become discouraged or backslidden. A pastor is the one who is responsible to see that this person is strengthened so he remains faithful or comes back into fellowship with the Lord.

Three times Jesus reminded Peter of his pastoral shepherding responsibility to feed the flock (John 21:15, 16, 17). This refers to his teaching ministry. To better accomplish this task, many pastors give leadership to such programs as Sunday school, youth clubs, or Bible study groups. Even when a pastor has delegated his ministry in part to others, he remains responsible before God for the feeding of the flock (Acts 20:28).

This is why a pastor should be involved in the selection of the curriculum used in his Sunday school and why teachers should cooperate with him. In a very real sense, the Sunday school teacher is an undershepherd of that part of the flock to which he is assigned.

Pastors should also protect their flocks. The apostle Paul recognized that “grievous wolves” would come from the outside and gain control in the church if the flock was not care-fully guarded (Acts 20:29). Sometimes, good men in the church may change and thus become dangerous to the security of the church (Acts 20:30). In both cases, the chief responsibility of protecting the flock falls on the pastors. Many times pastors may be misunderstood when they insist upon certain spiritual standards or certain emphases in special music or guest preachers.

Actually, they may be attempting to protect those Christians who do not understand the.total ministry that may be best for the church.

Most conservative churches use the term “pastor” to identify their church leader for cultural reasons. Often, the pastor who is a recent graduate is younger than his deacons, so the title “elder” seems inappropriate. The term “bishop” has come to refer to ecclesiastical hierarchy, thus becoming unsuitable for popular use in referring to pastors of the local church.

The terms “elder” and “bishop” are used interchangeably in Titus 1:5-7 and Acts 20:17-28, implying that these are two functions of the same office. A person grows into becoming an elder, but learns how to function as, a bishop.

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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