Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pastors, Bishops & Elders

In our Pastoral Ministry course, I argue that the terms Pastor (poimen), Bishop or Overseer (episkopos), and Elder (presbuteros) all refer to the same office. Below is a summary of that argument, along with a discussion on whether it plurality of elders is more biblically faithful than a single-pastor church:

- All three refer to the same person

--- Acts 20:17, 28 – “He sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. … Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

--- 1 Peter 5:1-2 – “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.”

--- Titus 1:5-9 – Paul exhorts Titus to appoint elders in every city, and begins listing qualifications, but suddenly changes to using the word “bishop/overseer” midway through the list.

--- No church in the NT is described as having more than two offices. Philippians 1:1 addresses the bishops/overseers and deacons; The Jerusalem church in Acts has elders and deacons (as well as apostles, but that is another matter altogether!); 1 Timothy 3 gives qualifications for bishops/overseers and deacons.

--- Gerald Cowen: “Although the term pastor is commonly used today as the title for the spiritual overseer of a congregation, it was probably never intended in Scripture to be a title but to be descriptive of what an elder does. … Bishop (overseer) also describes the nature of the work of the pastor-elder. It definitely does not describe a separate hierarchical office such as is found in some groups today. The most common term in the NT for this office is elder.”

- What about “plurality of elders” vs. “single pastors”?

--- Whenever the term elder or bishop/overseer is used in the NT, it is used in the plural, meaning that the churches customarily had at least two. There is no indication that any of them had any authority, oversight, or immediate responsibility for any other churches except the one local church they pastored.

--- This does not make “single-pastor” churches unbiblical. Church has changed in 2,000 years. Today there is no “Church of Greensboro,” as there was a “Church of Ephesus,” or “Church of Rome” in that day. There are many local churches. In that day, the church of a particular city did not meet in a single designated location. There are many indications in the NT that they met in homes. Each home-group may have had their own pastor-elder leading and teaching them. Therefore, there would be an obvious need for a plurality of elders in each church.

--- Even though there were multiple elders in each local church, there is some indication that one of them was the “Senior Pastor” (for lack of a better term). We find James (the half-brother of Jesus) as the presiding official over the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, though there were other elders in Jerusalem. In the letters to the 7 Churches in Revelation, each is addressed to the “angel” (aggelo├č, “messenger”, singular) of the church. Most agree that this reference is to the pastor. It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would instruct John to write a letter to a spirit-being to deliver to the church.

--- There is great wisdom in having multiple elders, though not all of them need to be “paid staff” of the church; however, there is no inherent sin in a single-elder church. The single-elder should be surrounded with other levels of accountability that will be lacking without the plural-elder structure.

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