If we consider the history of Christendom, it should not come to us as a surprise that for many people, the terms pastor, bishop and presbyter designate different people. And yet, it caught me off guard. I did not expect everyone to be amazed how the New Testament presents a different perspective.
Each Wednesday afternoon at a retirement community located within walking distance of my office, a group of seniors from a variety of church traditions gather to study God’s word. On this particular day as we worked through 1 Timothy, wonder, excitement and surprise broke out on everyone’s face as they learned that the New Testament uses elder, shepherd and overseer interchangeably to identify the same church leadership function with three different descriptions.
For example, in Acts 20:17 Paul requested the elders (presbyters) of Ephesus to meet with him. When speaking with them he identified them as overseers (bishops) and pastors (shepherds) of the church of God (Acts 20:28). In similar fashion 1 Peter 5:1 provides instruction to elders, whom we learn are to shepherd God’s flock and be overseers (1 Peter 5:2). Similarly, Paul equates elders and overseers (Titus 1:5-6).
So why three different designations for the same person? It is actually quite wonderful. These terms of leadership originate from three different societal backgrounds. Everyone could relate to at least one, if not more of these leadership metaphors.
Let’s start with elders. From the Bible we are quite familiar with the language of elders sitting in the city gate (Deuteronomy 25:7), the elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16) or elders being listed among those influential leaders opposed to Jesus (Matthew 21:23). In a society shaped by male leadership, elders were those respected older men, who by their experience and wisdom had attained social influence.
When it comes to rural leadership, there are not many metaphors native to the countryside. However, the picture of a shepherd leading a flock and caring for them certainly jumps forth. Shepherds or pastors provide a rich tapestry of leadership evoking care, protection and guiding wisdom.
Long before it became a church term, the Greeks described as “onlookers” (episkopoi) those who graciously watched over and protected others. This largely urban term came to be extended to other arenas such as overseeing finances or a shipment of goods. Eventually the “onlooker” or overseer came to designate the office of those assigned with the responsibility of caring for someone or something. Within the Greco-Roman urban church context, describing someone as an overseer aptly communicated someone responsible for guarding and seeking the church’s well being.
It seems only natural that in a religious community arising out of a variety of backgrounds various terms for protective and caring leadership would be used to describe those older men who were pastoring and overseeing the church’s well being.
I feel we do a disfavor to congregants whenever biblical terms are used in unbiblical ways. This occurs, for example, if we make a distinction between a pastor and a group of elders.
It is reasonable to assume that whenever someone hears their church designate someone as a “pastor” or “bishop/overseer” that he or she would expect these terms to reflect how the Bible uses them. One group of seniors had this perspective. Unfortunately, their churches had not provided them with this blessing.