Pastor, Elder, and Overseer: A Baptist View

Dr. Denny Burk has been teaching through 1 Timothy during our Sunday School hour at Kenwood Baptist Church.  The following is a summary of one of his helpful explanations.

Baptists have historically equated the terms “pastor,” “elder,” and “bishop”/”overseer,” thus understanding all three terms to speak of the same office.  Other denominations have taught that each term signifies a separate office.  The New Testament seems to support the Baptist position.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul is writing to Timothy concerning Church offices.

1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2… [ESV]

The Greek word for overseer here is ἐπίσκοπος, which literally means “over-seer,” and transliterated into English the word is “bishop.”  This is the same word after which the Episcopalian denomination is named.  Paul goes on in verses 2-7 to list the qualifications for an overseer.  In Titus 1:5-9, Paul lists similar qualifications for Titus to follow when he appoints leaders, but here Paul introduces another term.

5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach… [ESV]

In this passage, Paul uses the terms “elder” and “overseer” interchangeably.  The Greek word for elder is πρεσβύτερος, which literally means elder or older man.  This is the same word after which the Presbyterian denomination is named.  In the same paragraph, Paul uses “elder” and “overseer” interchangeably.

Our English word “pastor” means shepherd.  The term “pastor” is used to identify an office of leadership in the church once in Ephesians 4:1, but it is used more frequently as a descriptor for the ministry activity of the overseer/elder.  Peter uses it this way in 1 Peter 5:1.

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: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you. [ESV]

The Greek word for shepherd is ποιμήν, which is where we get our word pastor.  The verbal form of this noun is used in vs. 2 to describe the office of elder: elders should shepherd; elders should pastor.

In Acts, Luke records a speech of Paul’s when he is speaking to the Ephesian elders (πρεσβύτερος).  Notice here how all three terms “elder,” “bishop”/”overseer,” and “pastor” are used to describe the same office.

17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them …28 “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” [NASB]

This is the clearest passage in the New Testament that these terms can be used interchangeably.  The evidence presented, the Baptist understanding of the office of pastor/elder/overseer is compelling.

Here is a Venn Diagram to summarize:

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