Bible and notebook

As I continue writing about the various roles Jesus has placed within the church, we now turn our attention toward the role of elders.

Before we discuss the purpose of elders, there is a very significant question we must answer up front: Are the terms elders, presbyters, bishops, overseers, shepherds and pastors interchangeable in Scripture, or referring to separate roles?

As with each of these posts, I aim to use Scripture to answer the question as best as possible.

What the Scriptures say...

First, let's look at some Scriptures that speak to these various terms:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
(Eph. 4:11-13 NIV)

27 and ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
28 And some, indeed, did God set in the assembly, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, afterwards powers, afterwards gifts of healings, helpings, governings, divers kinds of tongues;
29 [are] all apostles? [are] all prophets? [are] all teachers? [are] all powers?
30 have all gifts of healings? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?
(1 Cor. 12:27-30 YLT)

1 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.
(1 Tim. 3:1 NIV)

23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
(Acts 14:23 NIV)

We'll be looking in more detail at the meaning of each of these terms in future posts, but for now, our focus is elsewhere.

Thankfully, a few passages mention several of these terms in the same context.

These verses are most instructive.

Paul wrote this to Titus:

5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.
(Titus 1:5-7 NIV)

Peter, toward the close of his first letter, wrote:

1 Elders who [are] among you, I exhort, who [am] a fellow-elder, and a witness of the sufferings of the Christ, and of the glory about to be revealed a partaker,
2 feed the flock of God that [is] among you, overseeing not constrainedly, but willingly, neither for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind,
3 neither as exercising lordship over the heritages, but patterns becoming of the flock,
4 and at the manifestation of the chief Shepherd, ye shall receive the unfading crown of glory.
5 In like manner, ye younger, be subject to elders, and all to one another subjecting yourselves; with humble-mindedness clothe yourselves, because God the proud doth resist, but to the humble He doth give grace;
(1 Pet. 5:1-5 YLT)

And lastly, Luke recorded the following from the historical account in Acts:

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.
(Acts 20:17-18a, 28 NIV)

These verses clearly show that, in the apostolic church, elders (presbyters), pastors (shepherds), and overseers (bishops) were interchangeable terms.

In the apostolic church, presbyters (elders), pastors (shepherds) & bishops (overseers) were interchangeable terms. Click to Tweet

What early Christians wrote...

When we look at the post-New Testament Christians' writings, we see a varying picture.

Some of these Christians recognized that these terms were interchangeable, as the Scriptures above indicate.

Consider the following quotes taken from David W. Bercot's A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs:

Our sin will not be small if we eject from oversight [or, from the episcopate] those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure, having finished their course before now. 
—Clement of Rome (c. 96 A.D.)

We refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles and is preserved by the successions of presbyters in the churches. . . . The faith preached to men comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. 
—Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.)

The church nourishes such presbyters, of whom also the prophet says: "I will give your rulers in peace, and your bishops in righteousness."
—Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.)

Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the churches. 
—Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.)

Looking to the appointed bishop, . . . John said, "This [youth] I commit to you in all earnestness." . . . And the presbyter took home the youth committed to him.
—Clement of Alexandria (c. 195 A.D.)

In respect of that which our fellow presbyters . . . wrote to me, I have not been able to reply by myself, since, from the first commencement of my episcopacy, I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion.
—Cyprian (c. 250 A.D.)

Yet there were other Christians, beginning with Ignatius in the early second century, who expressed a view that the bishops (overseer; Greek transliteration: episkopé) as a higher level of authority above that of presbyters.

Consider some of these quotes:

Being subject to the bishop and the presbyters, you may in all respects be sanctified. 
—Ignatius (c. 105 A.D.)

If the prayer of one or two persons possesses such power, how much more will that of the bishop and the whole church! . . . Therefore, in order that we may be subject to God, let us be careful not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop. . . . It is clear, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.
—Ignatius (c. 105 A.D.)

I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons. 
—Ignatius (c. 105 A.D.)

By some point in the second century, it became commonplace for there to be a single bishop, often accompanied by multiple presbyters, in individual locations.

[Clement of Alexandria] says that Peter, James and John (after the Savior's ascension), although preeminently honored by the Lord, did not contend for glory. Rather, they appointed James the Just to be bishop of Jerusalem. 
—Clement of Alexandria (c. 195 A.D.), as cited by Eusebius 

You should know that the bishop is in the church, and the church is in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the church. 
—Cyprian (c. 250 A.D.)

By the late fourth century, when Apostolic Constitutions was compiled, the traditions regarding presbyters and bishops were very verbose and ingrained and treated as law.

Neither a presbyter nor a deacon should ordain anyone from the laity into the clergy.
Apostolic Contitutions, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7.432

A presbyter blesses. . . . He lays on hands, but he does not ordain. 
Apostolic Contitutions, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7.494

If any presbyter despises his own bishop and assembles separately and prepares another altar—when he has nothing to condemn in his bishop either as to piety or righteousness—let him be deprived as an ambitious person. 
Apostolic Contitutions, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7.502

Conclusion

It is my conviction that, because:

  1. The Scriptures use the various terms interchangeably; and ...
  2. There is no hierarchy given in Scripture between elders, pastors, and overseers ...

... the terms were intended to be interchangeable and the elevated bishop "super-position" of authority that developed over time was not from GOD and has had significant negative consequences which ultimately include the entire papal system of Catholicism and the hierarchy of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

In fact, in my current understanding that this was the first major doctrinal departure of the mainstream church from the apostolic church.

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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