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Elders, Pastors, and Overseers: A Word Study

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

If recreating church government as it was in the days of the early or primitive church is your goal, then you'll be particularly interested in exactly what was considered an elder, a pastor, and an overseer.

I'm of the opinion that both a particular culture and the special needs of a church and a denomination will affect what is the best type of church government these days. But knowing what was the practice of the primitive church is important.

Three Synonymous Terms

Let's begin by looking at two passages where all three terms are used.

"To the elders (presbuteros) among you, I appeal as a fellow elder (presbuteros), a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds (poimainō) of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (episkopeō) — not because you must, but because you are willing...." (1 Peter 5:1-2)
"From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders (presbuteros) of the church.... Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopos). Be shepherds (poimainō) of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." (Acts 20:17, 28)

In this brief essay I don't intend to give full treatment to any of these key words, though you can refer to the endnotes for much fuller studies. My only point is that in the early church — at least at the time Paul and Peter were ministering from 50 to 65 AD — pastors, overseers, and elders were merely different words to describe the same leaders. I think that's pretty obvious from these two verses above. In the early church there seem to be just two offices local church offices — elder/overseer/pastor and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-10; Philippians 1:1). Only later, in the early second century did the church begin to take on a hierarchy of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.


While these words are used of the same church leaders in the primitive church, each of these words has its own particular flavor. Let's examine the definitions of the Greek terms.

Elder, presbuteros

"Elder" is the Greek noun presbuteros, from which we get the word "Presbyterian." The basic meaning is "pertaining to being relatively advanced in age, older, old." Then it used as the title of an official, "elder, presbyter." Among the Jews the term "elder" was used as the title of members of local councils in individual cities, as well as members of a group in the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.[1] Self-governing Jewish comminutes, usually had a ruling council to direct their affairs made up of respected older men, generally called presbyteroi, elders. One elder was usually recognized as a presiding elder.[2] In 1 Peter "the elders ... are a college entrusted with the guidance of the church, that is, that they are office-bearers."[3]

Pastor, poimēn

"Be shepherds" (NIV), "feed" (KJV), and "tend" (NRSV) are the Greek verb poimainō, "to serve as a tender of sheep, herd, tend, (lead to) pasture," then extended figuratively to mean "to watch out for other people, to shepherd, of activity that protects, rules, governs, fosters."[4] The word "pastor" (Greek poimēn) occurs only once as a noun that refers to a church officer (Ephesians 4:11) The verb is used more commonly to describe the function of pastoring or shepherding. The noun means "one who shepherds," and "one who serves as guardian or leader."[4]

Overseers, bishops, episkopos

"Serving as overseers" (NIV) "taking/exercising the oversight" (KJV, NRSV), is the Greek verb episkopeō, from which we get our word "Episcopal." The basic meaning is "to give attention to, look at, take care of, see to it." Here it has a figurative meaning, "to accept responsibility for the care of someone, oversee, care for."[5] In Paul's address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, it is used of church officers, "overseer or supervisor" (Acts 20:28), used synonymously with elders in 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7; and the subscriptions to both 2 Timothy and Titus. A half century later the word is used of those who supervise presbyters ("bishop"), as a church hierarchy begins to emerge. But at the time 1 Peter was written, the word isn't used in this later, specific sense. Beyer observes,

"The evidence of the New Testament is clearly to the effect that originally several episkopoi took charge of the communities in brotherly comity. It is also plain that the point of the office was service, and service alone."[6]

By the time of 1 Clement 42-44 there still seems to be an equality between episkopos and diakonoi with the presbuteroi.

"In Syria and Asia Minor at the beginning of the 2nd century the college of bishops which had originally led the churches had disappeared, being replaced by the monarchical bishop."[7]

No matter how these words are used today to describe church officers, in the primitive church, pastor, elder, and overseer were used synonymously.


Standard Abbreviations

  1. BDAG 862.
  2. K.N. Giles, "Church Order, Government," DLNT 219-226.
  3. Günther Bornkamm, "presbus, ktl.," TDNT 6:651-683, especially p. 665.
  4. BDAG 842. See also Joachim Jeremias, "poimen, ktl.," TDNT 6:485-502.
  5. BDAG 379.
  6. Hermann W. Beyer, "episkeptomai, ktl.," TDNT 2:599-622, especially p. 617.
  7. Ibid., p. 620.

Copyright © 2022, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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