“It is obvious too, from the teachings of the New Testament, that pastors and deacons are the permanent officers of Christian churches…Pastors and teachers, the same men, are the ordinary and permanent spiritual officers of the churches, while the office of deacon has special reference to the secular interests of churches” and “pastors and deacons are the only permanent Scriptural church officers.”[i]
In 1646, the London Baptist Confession recognized the same officers in their Article XXXVI:
“Being thus joined, every church hath power given them from Christ, for their wellbeing, to choose among themselves meet persons for elders and deacons, being qualified according to the word, as those which Christ hath appointed in His testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of His Church; and that none have any power to impose on them either these or any other.”
These two examples briefly demonstrate how Baptists speak of the two officers of the local church.[ii] With this (mostly) consistent assertion,[iii] an explanation must needs be made of three terms used in the New Testament – bishop, elder, pastor – and this reconciled with how Baptists can claim on two offices, instead of four or more. The Bible often uses different names to refer to the same person or thing.[iv] We must consider whether that be the case with these three terms. It is noteworthy that the meaning of these terms in Baptist usage does not necessarily correspond with the meanings of these terms in other denominations. Regardless of the current use of these words, in the Scriptures pastor, elder, and bishop are used synonymously. What evidence do we have for that?
First, let us notice briefly the New Testament use of this terminology.
Elder and elders (presbuteros; πρεσβυτερος) are used 68 times in the King James Bible. In the Gospels and sometimes in Acts, it refers to the elders of the Jews. In the following verses, it refers to an ecclesiastical office.[v] Acts 11:30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; Acts 16:4; Acts 20:17; Acts 21:18; 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Timothy 5:19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1 (2 times); 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1.
Bishop and bishops (episkopos; επισκοπος) are used five times in the King James Bible, four of which refer to officers in the church, and once to Jesus Christ himself. Episkopos is also translated “overseers” in Acts 20:28. Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25 (Jesus: For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.).
Pastors, or shepherds (poimen; ποιμεν) is used once in noun form, in Ephesians 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors (ποιμενας) and teachers (διδασκαλους). Jesus is called Chief Shepherd in 1 Peter 5:3-4, and elders by implication are shepherds who feed the flock.
Second, let us consider the biblical evidence for synonymous usage of bishop, elder, and pastor.[vi]
In writing to Titus, Paul uses elders (πρεσβυτέρους) and bishop (ἐπίσκοπον) interchangeably, noting also they must hold fast the faithful word (ἀντεχόμενον τοῦ κατὰ τὴν διδαχὴν πιστοῦ λόγου) – the food the pastor feeds the flock.[vii] He speaks of Titus’s purpose in Crete of ordain elders, then begins to speak of their qualifications prefaced with the word “bishop.” The “for a bishop” beginning of verse 7 indicates it connects back to the idea of elders in verse 5. They are connected. They are synonymous. Bishops are elders.
Titus 1:5-7 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders (πρεσβυτερους) in every city, as I had appointed thee: if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop (επισκοπον) must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;
Peter, writing to “strangers” scattered in various places, exhorts the elders in these places. To the elders he exhorts, Peter says these elders are to “bishop” (ἐπισκοποῦντες) and “pastor” (ποιμάνατε) the flock/church of God. Incorporated in the duties of the elders are found, in verb form, the names of the other interchangeable terms – episkopountes and poimavate.
1 Peter 5:1-3 The elders (πρεσβυτερους) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed the flock (ποιμανατε το εν υμιν ποιμνιον) of God which is among you, taking the oversight (επισκοπουντες) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.
Paul, on his way to Jerusalem, calls the plural elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him in Miletus. In charging the elders, he calls them “overseers” (bishops; ἐπισκόπους) who are to “pastor” (ποιμαίνειν) the church/flock of God. In this case, the noun form of episkopos is used directly, and again the pastoring is embedded in the verb form of feeding (poimainein) the flock.
Acts 20:17, 28 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders (πρεσβυτερους) of the church…Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (επισκοπους), to feed (ποιμαινειν) the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
In addition to the synonymous usage of the terms bishop, elder, and pastor, the collective and harmonious nature of the three terms may be deduced from the scriptural qualifications for office. First, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 details the qualification for the office of bishop – “A bishop then must be…” Comparing 1 Timothy 3:1-7 to Titus 1:5-9 demonstrates that the office of bishop and elder are the same office, with two descriptions. The Bible contains no separate and distinct qualifications for another office, except that of deacons, signifying that pastor needs no separate qualifications. It is the same office as that of elder and bishop. As early as the fourth century, Jerome made a similar observation in a letter to Evangelus: “Presbyter and bishop are the same; the one name describes the age of the man, the other his dignity. Hence instruction is given to Titus and Timothy about the ordination of a bishop and of a deacon; but there is absolute silence about presbyters, because the presbyter is contained in the bishop” (date of letter unknown).[viii] There are not three sets of qualifications for three offices, but one set of qualifications for the same office.
Denominations often use terminology that is not biblical (e.g. Pope, Archbishop, Cardinal, Doctor, Reverend, etc.), as well as use the scriptural terminology in ways that are not biblical (e.g., Bishop as a supervisor over a number of churches and pastors). It is an error to separate and isolate the terms bishop, elder, pastor and create different ecclesiastical offices for each.
C. N. Glover writes, “The word ‘bishop’ involves the authority given to the office by the Lord Jesus Christ. The word ‘elder’ involves the character of the man who fills the office, and the manner in which he fills it. The word ‘pastor’ involves the duties of the office of bishop, and the manner in which he is to perform them.”[ix] These three terms relate the office to its character, work, and qualifications. The term elder signifies experience, maturity, wisdom (e.g. “Not a novice”). The term bishop signifies administration, oversight, leadership (e.g. “take care of the church of God”). The term pastor signifies care, feeding, teaching (e.g. “apt to teach”). The office is imbued with dignity, direction, and duty. In the end, after providing their unique emphases, all three names meld into one work and one office.[x] This tri-unity of terms for one office corresponds with the plurality of the eldership and anticipates the unity that should appear among those plural elders who function together in this office work in a local congregation.[xi]
“Christ…gave gifts unto men…some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” Ephesians 4:7-16
[i] Church Manual, Designed for the Use of Baptist Churches, 1867, pp. 22-23, p. 32
[iii] Some Baptist churches have ruling elders and deaconesses, but usually consider this within the confines of the statement “two church offices.” Some few Baptists do not agree there are only two offices.
[iv] For examples: Simon, Peter, Cephas; Jesus: Shepherd, Bishop, Elder
[v] 1 Timothy 5:1 uses elder, but probably not for the office. The related terminology “presbytery” is used in 1 Timothy 4:14. A presbytery is a group of (ordained) presbyters (Gk.) or elders (Eng.). Other synonymous English terms are “the body of elders,” “the eldership,” and “the presbyterate.” “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (πρεσβυτερίου).” πρεσβυτέριον is translated “council” in Luke 22:66 in reference to Jewish elders. A Christian presbytery functions as a council to give counsel.
[vi] J. M. Pendleton explains it this way: “A bishop was a pastor of a church, and the New Testament, so far from encouraging a plurality of churches under one pastor, refers, in two instances at least, to a plurality of pastors in one church. See Acts xx. 28; Phil. i. 1. In the former passage [Acts 20:28] the elders of the church at Ephesus are called overseers, and the word thus translated is the same rendered bishop in Phil. i. 1; 1 Timothy iii. 2; Titus i. 7; 1 Peter ii. 25. Thus does it appear that pastor, bishop, and elder are three terms designating the same office. This view is further confirmed by a reference to Peter v. 1, 2, where elders are exhorted to feed the flock—that is, to perform the office of pastor or shepherd—taking the oversight thereof, etc.—that is, acting the part of bishops or overseers. For the word translated taking the oversight belongs to the same family of words as the term rendered bishop in the passages cited. It is plain, therefore, that a pastor's work is the spiritual oversight of the flock, the church he serves. Like a good literal shepherd he must care for the feeble and the sick, as well as for the healthy and the vigorous.” Church Manual, Designed for the Use of Baptist Churches, pp. 24-25
[vii] Here the elder/bishop is also called a “steward” (οἰκονόμον).
[viii] The Papal System: From Its Origin to the Present Time; a Historical Sketch of Every Doctrine, Claim and Practice of the Church of Rome, William Cathcart, Philadelphia, PA: Cathcart and Turner, 1872, p. 56; For Jerome, see also Letter 146, To Evangelus.
[ix] Glover’s Church Manual, Conrad Nathan Glover & I. K. Cross, Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1983 , p. 34
[x] It is possible, though not certain, that the three terms relate to the commission to evangelize, baptize, and teach. The apostles were sent to preach, to baptize, and to teach, and the bishops, elders, pastors, follow them in that work. There is one office, in three descriptions, capable of all three parts of the commission.