By David Pryor;Missionary to Paraguay, S.A.


Truth From Scripture

The first step in the study of any subject in God’s Word is a thorough reading of each portion of Scripture that has anything to do with that subject.  Doing so will identify the context, the “who, what, where, when, and why”, of each passage.  Understanding the context of any portion of Scripture is the key to “rightly dividing the word of truth”. 

There are two reference sources besides the Bible that I’ve found extremely helpful in searching the Scriptures.  Each one helps clarify the context and usage of words, thus helping with proper interpretation.

The first is The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, by James Strong.  This resource identifies where and how many times a particular English word appears in Scripture, plus the original Greek word from which it was translated. 

The second is Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine.  Although Strong’s Concordance contains a Greek Dictionary, Vine’s Expository Dictionary is more thorough.  In many instances all the occurrences and usages of a word are analyzed in a list, showing the different meanings as indicated by the context in each passage of the New Testament. 

With these resources at hand, let’s search the Scriptures for all the different words that refer to the man we call “pastor”.  In doing so, we discover that there are four English words in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible that are used interchangeably in the New Testament.  These words are pastor, shepherd, bishop and elder. 

Next, let’s take an in-depth look at the meaning and usage of each of these words.  This’ll take a little time, as we need to consider every occurrence of these words for the sake of accurate interpretation.  But, by doing so, we can rest assured that we will have discovered God’s true design for His church. 

Both of the English words pastor and shepherd are translated from the same Greek word (Strong’s #4166).  Therefore, they have the same meaning (Vine’s):  “poimen {poy-mane'}; a shepherd, one who tends herds or flocks (not merely one who feeds them), used metaphorically of Christian ‘pastors’.”

Shepherds in Reality – Translated as shepherd or shepherds, this word refers either (a) to actual shepherds or things having to do with shepherds (Matt. 9:36; 25:32; Mark 6:34; Luke 2:8,15,18,20; John 10:2,12), or (b) it’s used metaphorically of Christ (Matt. 26:31; Mark 14:27; John 10:11,14,16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25). 

There is one occurrence where a different Greek word is translated as shepherd.  That word (Strong’s #750) means “a head shepherd”.  It appears in 1 Peter 5:4 where Jesus is referred to as the “chief Shepherd”. 

NOTE: There is no reference to an “under-shepherd” or “under-shepherds” anywhere in Scripture.

Shepherds Metaphorically – As we’ve already mentioned, a search of Strong’s Concordance reveals that this Greek word is never translated as pastor (singular), and appears as pastors (plural) only in Eph. 4:11.

As for just how this word is used metaphorically of Christian “pastors”, Vine’s refers to the two places in Scripture where the context indicates such meaning:

“Pastors guide as well as feed the flock; compare Acts 20:28, which with verse 17, indicates that this was the service committed to elders (overseers or bishops); so also in 1 Peter 5:1-2, ‘feed the flock…taking the oversight’; this involves tender care and vigilant superintendence.”

With this in mind, let’s look at Acts 20:28 in its entirety:

“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Said by Paul to the elders (plural) of the church (singular) at Ephesus, v. 17)

From Scripture then, it’s apparent that those we call “pastors” are actually overseers called by the Holy Spirit to feed the church of God as shepherds would feed and tend to a flock of sheep. 

The same Greek word translated overseers above (and that only once in the KJV) is otherwise translated as bishop or bishops (Strong’s #1985).  Vine’s gives this definition:  “episkopos {ep-is'-kop-os}; literally an overseer (epi = over, skope­ō = to look or watch), whence English ‘bishop’, which has precisely the same meaning is found in Acts 20:28; Phi. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25.”

Let’s examine each of these Scripture references in more detail, and in light of their context:

Overseers – In addition to Acts 20:28, where it’s rendered overseers, this word is translated in the plural as bishops in Phi. 1:1.  There Paul is sending his greetings to the bishops and deacons (both plural) at the church (singular) at Philippi.

Office – Where the singular bishop is used, the passage is either (a) describing what a bishop should be (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7), or is (b) referring to Christ Himself as “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).

In association with this word are the terms office of a bishop and bishoprick.  Both are translated from the same Greek word (Strong’s #1984):  “episkope {ep-is-kop-ay'}; inspection (for relief); by implication, superintendence; -the office of a "bishop", bishoprick, visitation.”

In Acts 1:20 the term appears as bishoprick and is used as a reference to the empty position left by Judas Iscariot.  In 1 Tim. 3:1 the term is translated as office of a bishop and begins the passage on the qualifications for the position of bishop, or overseer.  This word is rendered as visitation in 1 Pet. 2:12.

To summarize, let’s now look at 1 Pet. 5:1-2 and see what it says about this issue of being an overseer

“The elders (plural) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder [#4850 – co-elder], and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;”

In this passage, as in Acts 20:17,28, we are told that the elders are to take the “oversight” and be the “overseers” of the flock of God. 

The Greek word from which we get the English elder, elders and eldest is an adjective, not a noun (Strong’s #4245):  “presbuteros {pres-boo'-ter-os}; the comparative degree of presbus, an old man, an elder.”

In its role as an adjective, Vine’s Dictionary shows that this word is used either of age or authority:

Age – In reference to age, or seniority, this word can mean (a) the older of two or more people (Luke 15:25; John 8:9; Rom 9:12), (b) a person advanced in years (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 5:1; 1 Peter 5:5; 2 John 1; 3 John 1), or (c) the forefathers of Israel (Mat. 15:2; Mark 7:3,5; Heb. 11:2).  The feminine of this adjective is also used of the older women in the churches (1 Tim. 5:2), not in respect of position, but in seniority of age.

Authority – In reference to authority, or position of responsibility, this adjective refers to one of three distinct groups: 

1.      In the Jewish nation, (a) the members of the Sanhedrin, consisting of the chief priests, elders and scribes, learned in Jewish Law (Matthew 15:2; 16:21; 21:23; 26:3,47,57,59; 27:1,3,12,20,41; & 28:12; Mark 7:3,5; 8:31; 11:27; 14:43,53; & 15:1; Luke 7:3; 9:22; 20:1; & 22:52,66; Acts 4:5,8,23; 6:12; 22:5; 23:14; 24:1; & 25:15), and (b) those who managed public affairs in the various cities (Luke 7:3).

NOTE: In 2 of these verses a slightly different form of the Greek word is used: presbuterion {pres-boo-ter'-ee-on} (Strong’s #4244); an assembly of aged men, denoting the Council or Senate among the Jews, Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5.”

2.      In heaven, the twenty-four elders around the throne of God (Rev. 4:4,10; 5:5,6,8,11,14; 7:11,13; 11:16; 14:3; & 19:4).

3.      In the Christian churches, those raised up and qualified by the work of the Holy Spirit, appointed to exercise the oversight over the churches. 

The Divine arrangement seen throughout the N.T. was for a plurality of these to be appointed in each local church (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phi. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Jam. 5:14).  They were appointed according as they evidenced fulfilling the Divine qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:6-9; 1 Pet 5:2-3).

The term bishops or overseers (episkopoi) indicates the nature of the work undertaken, while the term elders (presbuteroi) indicates the mature spiritual experience of those described. 

Since context and word usage are so important in properly interpreting Scripture, let’s take the time to analyze each verse that directly refers to elders in the context of the church.

First, there are the verses that refer to the apostles and elders (both plural) at Jerusalem (singular) (Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; & 21:18).

Next, we have the other references that mention elders (plural) in a church (singular).  Let’s look at these in their entirety:

·         “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” – Acts 14:23

·         “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” – Acts 20:17

·         “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:” - Phi. 1:1

·         “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:” – Tit. 1:5

·         “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:” – Jam. 5:14

Then, we have 1 Tim. 5:17, which refers to elders (plural) but without mention of a church: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.”

NOTE:  By implication, this would indicate that there are some elders who labor in areas other than the word and doctrine.

Lastly, in 1 Tim. 5:19, we find the only use of elder (singular) in connection with the church: “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.”

Angel – As a side note to what we’ve learned about this word, Vine’s points out that the word elder is nowhere applied to angels in Scripture.  Why is this important to mention?  Because some argue that the angel of each of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 1:1-3:22 was actually a “pastor”.

However, the Greek word used in those passages means: “aggelos {ang'-el-os} (Strong’s #32); a messenger (from aggello, to deliver a message); especially an ‘angel’". 

Even if we ignore the true meaning of the word angel, we can’t escape the fact that nowhere in Scripture do we find a pastor, shepherd, bishop or elder called a messenger.  To try to make these verses in Revelation “prove” that a church is to have only one pastor, is to deny the bulk of Scripture that proves otherwise.

Adopting – If we admit that our assumptions about one-man ministry are in error, we’re faced with many new questions.  How would we adopt a plurality of elders in place of a single pastor?  What would such a church be like?  How would it operate? 

All such questions can be answered in only one way, by searching the Scriptures.  Obviously, this deserves an in-depth study separate from our discussion here.  So, let’s conclude our time together by considering how we should respond to this truth we’ve discovered.

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