What is a pastor? Three words in the New Testament are used interchangeable to describe this office in the church: Pastor, Elder, and Bishop. Is it strange that the Bible uses multiple words to describe this office? Not any more than for Americans to describe our leader as, “President,” “Commander in Chief,” and “Leader of the Free World.”
So why would the Bible use more than one term to describe one role? Perhaps to describe the multi-faceted nature of the job.
The Greek word for “Pastor” is poimen, meaning “shepherd.” This term emphasizes the care and protection a pastor provides for his congregation.
The Greek word for “Elder” is presbuteros, meaning “older, mature.” This term implies the wisdom and maturity exhibited by this position.
The Greek word for “Bishop” is episcopos, meaning “overseer.” This word suggests the authority and leadership expressed by this office.
Side note: some have questioned whether “elder” is a legitimate title for the office of pastor. These people contend that the word is merely referring to older people in the congregation. Clearly there are some texts in which the word is used this way (Luke 15:25, Romans 9:12, 1 Timothy 5:2, KVJ) just like there are some texts where “shepherd” means a man with a flock of wooly animals (Matthew 9:36, Luke 2:8 KJV).
However, just like the word “shepherd,” can refer to an office of the church, so can the word “elder.” For instance, in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9, a list of qualifications is given to be an elder in the church. However, we understand that Paul is not suggesting that to be involved in the “Golden Agers” senior adult ministry, one must submit himself/herself to such qualifications!
In 1 Peter 5:1-3, all three terms (pastor, elder, bishop) are used in the Greek text: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd (pastor) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (overseer/bishop), not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
To be a pastor, one must fulfill all three expressions of the role: the caring shepherd, the wise man of maturity, and the leader with authority. And, more importantly, one must temper each role by the others.
For instance, if a man excercises soul care (shepherd), but does not lead with authority (overseer), the church will lack vision and direction. Or, if a man leads with authority (overseer), but does not exhibit wisdom and maturity (elder), he may lead the church in the wrong direction. And, without caring for the souls of the people (shepherd), he may become dictatorial and demanding.
Just like a proper understanding of God includes understanding all of his attributes (justice, mercy, righteousness, wrath, etc), faithfully executing the office of pastor requires understanding and practicing all three expressions of the role (pastor, elder, bishop).
While that may sound daunting, don’t give up: Christ has given us an example to follow. He is the “chief shepherd” (I Peter 5:4). and we are the under-shepherds. He is the head of the church, and we are His stewards (Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:9-16, Hebrews 13:17). We care for souls (shepherd) because He cares for souls. We exercise wisdom and maturity (elder), because He is the standard for wisdom and maturity. And we lead with authority (bishop), because “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto [Christ]” (Matthew 28:18). No matter which term your particular church uses, be sure you reflect all three terms found in Scripture.