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What does it mean to be an Elder, Bishop, Pastor?

In the development of the New Testament, which spanned a minimum of 48 years (48.A.D. to 96A.D.) and possibly longer if you take a different dating method; there are some internal developments to the ideas of bishop and elders. However, the basic idea is that pastors, elders, and bishops often referred to similar roles of leadership and oversight, especially as related to the true teaching of the Gospel and weighing out of morals for the individual Christian communities. The oversight of these elders/pastors was of course to function under the authority of the Apostles themselves who were still alive and well in the earliest period of formation. The “doing” or actions of these roles, was largely ‘shepherding’ focused and not ‘visionary’ or ‘CEO’ focused. The primary visionary work of a shepherd is to help people envision Christ.


As churches started forming, the term elder was borrowed from the Jewish synagogue which already had elders. For the Jews, a body of elders was chosen to direct religious worship in the synagogue.[1]

In the New Testament we read…

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. (1Ti 5:17 NAS)


1 Peter 5:1 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, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight…” (1Pe 5:1-2 NAS)

Elder comes from the Greek word “Presbuteros” which means a kind of overseer, especially as related to doctrine and morals.[2] Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in congregations as they went about their missionary journeys planting churches (Acts 14:23). This is a way of saying that they made sure there were shepherds who knew the teaching of Christ to guide people in faith, morals, and congregational organization. Obviously, this did not always go well, since we have numerous letters to the churches that were planted by Paul and others that needed correction in the teaching of Christ.

I think this is what some modern identities of Pastor (or elder) often miss. There is a picture of rosy perfection on Sundays and numerous strategizing sessions throughout the week, all the while ignoring that there are still plenty of Corinthian problems in the churches of today. This is true no matter how modern, cool, or relevant a church is. If needed I could cite dozens of doctrinal issues in the churches I have traveled in over the years. That is no small load of issues, and this goes for the mega-churches as well. This is one of the reasons that we need well trained shepherds, even more so than well-trained visionaries (in the modern sense).


The term bishop was a different name for the same office as elder, at least in the earliest formation of the Christian Churches. The word “bishop” had a Hellenistic rather than Jewish backdrop and gained traction in more Gentile Churches as the word of choice for the same thing that elder was to the Jewish Christians.[3] We see this word in our New Testament’s as well.

“Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers/bishops (episkopos) and deacons: (Phi 1:1 NAS).

Some translations use “overseer” instead of bishop, but the meaning is the same thing. Bishop means overseer or a superintendent who watches over the well-being of others. Jesus himself is called the “shepherd and bishop (overseer) of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). This really is where the idea of Pastor comes from also. Shepherd is the basic meaning of Pastor, which is also used of Jesus in this passage of Peter. Besides this passage, Peter also uses the word “elder” in the same context of shepherding (1 Peter 5:1-2).

The main point of elders and bishops (and hence Pastor’s too) is to shepherd God’s people, especially as related to the teaching of Christ and faith and morals.

Bishops and Elders

In the New Testament there is some discussion on ruling and teaching elders/leaders. We see this in the book of Timothy when Paul specifically uses the word “rule” connected with the elders (1 Timothy 5:17). The word “rule” means be the head of or direct.[4] And then, just after that, Paul mentions that some elders do the work of preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). Some scholars have pushed this distinction strongly, to say that there are elders who rule and elders who teach/preach. I don’t think the distinction should be a strong one, but it has helpful implications to merely say that some elders will be in the pulpit, and others just guiding the ship without being in the pulpit (and some both).

We can conclude from our small study of elders and bishops, that these “overseers” were the guardians of the truth of Jesus Christ in each congregation as well as oversaw the people they were responsible for. Moreover, we see the Apostles put elders/bishops over every church that they founded to have clear leadership in their absence.


Apostles means “sent ones” and specifically was referring to the 12 Apostles, although this is widened at least a few times, such as the case of Paul as well as Junia. Apostles, as we see them in reference to church leadership in the first century, were those channels of clear authority about Jesus Christ (doctrine and morals). The reason for this is clear, they were the eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. Therefore, their “deposit’ of truth could always be checked most clearly against what they lived out and heard from Jesus himself. Today, we do not have anything like these kinds of apostles. How could we? Jesus has ascended into heaven, the time of physical revelation of Jesus Christ is over.

I am not saying there are no such things as apostles today, just not apostles that were eyewitnesses of the living Jesus Christ. Therefore, some have made a helpful distinction that today we have apostles in the missionary sense, but not apostles in the doctrinal/eyewitness sense who function as the true authoritative channels for doctrine and morals. Therefore, local churches can not be held captive by rogue individuals who go and call themselves apostles and want to exercise random authority over churches. The individual church leadership structure (bishops/elders/pastors) still has authority over their own domain (local church) regardless of what title someone from the outside chooses

Apostles to Elders/Bishops

In the late 1st century (around the time of the book of Revelation), we have a comment from a church leader, that the Apostles made sure to hand the baton of leadership to Bishops before passing away (Clement of Rome). This shows that there would not be more “Apostles” in the sense that the first apostles had such sway over everything. There would be no more eyewitnesses of the physical Jesus.

The whole picture here is a bit more complicated, but as we draw closer into the second century, the idea of “bishop” is what is being offered to solve a whole host of problems (doctrinal, organizational, moral, social etc.) by one such Christian leader called Ignatius from Antioch. His writing comes to us very early, and the idea of the Bishop for him, seems to have some regional authority attached to it (See Ignatius of Antioch). In other words, elder/pastor still appears localized as shepherding a local church and Bishop starts, at least in his region, to have some regional oversight involved (it is possible this transition of extra oversight for the bishop happened a bit earlier than this).

Church Denominations and LWC

Church denominations often find themselves on some part of the spectrum of the development of leadership in the earliest centuries. Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal churches, sided with the development of “bishop” as having at least regional authority over many churches. Presbyterian, Lutheran, and other churches sided with what they saw as elder led churches. In these cases there might be one Pastor who is the elder of a given congregation who works with the other elders (pastors) of other like-minded congregations. Or, there might be a Pastor with a elder board of several other leaders to help guide and guard the truth. Much later, congregational forms of church government took place, where congregants voted etc.

LWC uses the word “elder” to convey the shepherding and guiding work of the Elder Board along with the Pastor. The way our constitution outlines this, does remind me of the late first century or possibly early second century leadership structure of the church.

For us, we work together with different skill sets and strengths for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and organization of the church. We function as shepherds of souls, under the great shepherd Jesus Christ.

I hope you enjoyed this partial study of these terms.

Pastor Isaac

[1] J.B. Lightfoot p. 17-20 [2] Frieberg lectionary for “elder” [3] J.B. Lightfoot p. 20 [4] Frieberg lectionary “rule”

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