The Short Answer
There’s no biblical difference between pastors and elders. The two terms refer to one and the same New Testament church office.
Anyone who aims to parse out some distinction between pastors and elders is creating a modern invention and placing it on top of the biblical text. There may certainly be good reasons why a local church would use different titles for various church leaders, but the only case for doing so is a pragmatic or prudent one… not a biblical one.
Now, I hope you’ll read the remainder of this article in order to weigh the merit of my rationale for making such a claim.
Defining Our Terms
In the New Testament, the most common title or label for the leading, teaching, and shepherding office of the church is “elder” (πρεσβυτερος), appearing directly at least thirteen times in the New Testament. The word “overseer” (επισκοπος) is the second most common title for the office, and it shows up at least six times.
The label “shepherd” or “pastor” (ποιμην) is used only once as a label for the New Testament teaching and leading office of the local church. Most often (fifteen times), this word appears in the Gospels, and it refers to actual shepherds (tenders of sheep) or to Jesus as the metaphorical shepherd of His people.
Almost every time the label “shepherd” or “pastor” is used in the other New Testament books (besides the Gospels), it shows up in its verbal form (ποιμαινω). In other words, in the Bible, “shepherd” or “pastor” is usually what church leaders do… it’s not what church leaders are.
However, many Evangelicals today are familiar with the term “pastor” as a label for church leaders, because this word has been used by Protestants for hundreds of years. Baptists have been especially fond of the word “pastor” because it distinguishes Baptist church leaders from those of Presbyterian or Anglican churches.
Baptist churches have also often emphasized their understanding of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Because all Christians are in some sense “priests” (1 Peter 2:9), Baptists refuse to acknowledge a special clergy or ministerial class of Christians.
And yet, despite the Baptist allergy to a professionalized pastoral ministry, it is quite common for Evangelicals (including Baptists) to act as though pastors are indeed separated Christian professionals. For example, most Evangelical churches in America have no unpaid pastors. Such a reality betrays the assumption that pastors are professional (or at the very least vocational) Christian teachers and leaders.
Since the Bible most often uses the term “elder” and since many wrongly assume pastors must be paid professionals, I believe it is probably helpful for Evangelicals (especially Baptists) to recover the use of the term “elder” for the pastoral office.
Describing the Officers
The two offices of the New Testament are elders and deacons. The former is an office of servant-leadership and loving instruction, and the latter is an office of selfless service. In the Bible, church leaders are always elders, and deacons always serve both the elders and the church body.
In short, elders are qualified, recognized, and committed men who do the work of shepherding among a particular local church (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).
Here are the various ways in which the Bible describes and/or prescribes the function and responsibilities of those who serve in the office of elder.
- Acts 11:30 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) received material gifts from other churches in order to distribute them to the needy among their own congregation.
- Acts 14:23 – Multiple elders (πρεσβυτερους) were “appointed” by Paul and Barnabas in “every church” in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.
- Acts 15:1-29 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) are listed beside the Apostles as leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
- Acts 16:4 – Elders (πρεσβυτερων) are listed beside the Apostles as having made an authoritative decision regarding the clarity and extent of the gospel.
- Acts 20:17-38 – Paul addressed the elders (πρεσβυτερους) in Ephesus, calling them to “overseers” (’επισκοπους) of God’s “church” (’εκκλησιαν).
- Acts 21:17-26 – “All the elders” (πρεσβυτεροι) were gathered in Jerusalem to listen to Paul’s account of God’s work through his ministry, and Paul submitted to their counsel regarding his actions in their Jewish community.
- 1 Timothy 4:14 – A “council of elders” (πρεσβυτεριου) commissioned Timothy for the task of ministry.
- 1 Timothy 5:17 – Elders (πρεσβυτεροι) are those who “rule” or “manage” (προεστωτες [literally ‘stand over’]), and some elders make their living by “preaching and teaching” (λογω [literally ‘word’] and διδασκαλια).
- 1 Timothy 5:19 – Christians are to be alert to the possibility of slanderous accusations against an elder (πρεσβυτερου).
- Titus 1:5-6 – Elders (πρεσβυτερους) were appointed to churches in every town, and such appointments were necessary to put things in their appropriate order.
- James 5:14 – The elders (πρεσβυτερους) of the church (’εκκλησιας) are to pray for ill church members.
- 1 Peter 5:1-3 – The Apostle Peter wrote to the elders (πρεσβυτερους) among the dispersed Christians as a “fellow elder” (συμπρεσβυτερος), calling them to “exercise oversight” or “oversee” (’επισκοπουντες) the affairs of their respective congregations.
- Acts 20:17-38 – Paul says that the elders in Ephesus have been made “overseers” (’επισκοπους) in the “church” (’εκκλησιαν) by God Himself.
- Philippians 1:1 – Paul addressed his letter to the “saints” (‘αγιοις) and the “overseers” (’επισκοποις) and the “deacons” (διακονοις) in Philippi.
- 1 Timothy 3:1 – Paul labels the teaching and managing office in the church that of an “overseer” (’επισκοπης).
- 1 Timothy 3:2-7 – Paul describes the qualifications for anyone who aspires to the office of “overseer” (’επισκοπον).
- Titus 1:17 – Paul again describes the teaching and stewarding office in the church as that of an “overseer” (’επισκοπον).
- Ephesians 4:10-14 – Paul says that “shepherds” (ποιμενας) are gifts from Christ to the local church.
- 1 Peter 5:1-3 – Peter exhorted “elders” (πρεσβυτερους) to “shepherd” (ποιμενατε) the “flock of God among them.”
If one were to simply read the New Testament, without observing the use of various terms among modern Evangelicals, he or she would inevitably conclude that the leading and teaching and shepherding office of a New Testament local church is that of elder. Furthermore, he or she would also conclude that the office must be occupied by faithful and exemplary men, who would voluntarily take on the weighty task of caring for souls among a particular local church.
Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.