By Bill Warren, Ph.D., NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question: What are the differences between “pastors,” “overseers,” and “elders” in the New Testament, and are these different types of church leaders or just one?
Bill Warren responds: For Baptists, the traditional terms for church leaders have been “pastors” and “deacons,” with the ministerial staff being placed under the larger category of “pastors” (increasingly with titles such as “Associate Pastor of” attached to staff positions).
On the other hand, some groups such as Presbyterians have traditionally included “elders” among the church leaders, often with three groups resulting (pastors or “teaching elders,” elders or “ruling elders,” and deacons) rather than just two.
Some Baptist churches have also gone to having a group called “elders” as part of the church leadership structure, with some confusion resulting as to how the “elders” fit into the traditional Baptist understanding.
As for the New Testament, some books like Hebrews and 1 John don’t address these offices, while others only mention them in passing. The Gospels and Acts, however, speak quite often about elders as Jewish leaders, so that term is not restricted to the church in designating leaders.
Acts also uses the term “elders” to refer to leaders in the Christian church, and notes that Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders” in the churches in Galatia founded on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). In Acts 20:17-28, Paul speaks to the “elders” of the church at Ephesus and calls them “overseers” (translated as “bishops” in some English Bibles, but meaning those leading and protecting the churches). This passage shows that the “elders” and “overseers” were actually the same people.
Philippians 1:1 mentions “overseers and deacons,” thereby showing that at least by the early 60s, two groups of leaders had developed in the churches. Ephesians 4:11 mentions “pastors” as leaders, the only clear use of this term as a title for a church leader in the NT (it is used many times to refer to Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” or “Pastor”).
But the key passages for understanding “elders” and “overseers” come in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul refers to the church leaders as “overseers,” yet in 1 Timothy 5:17 he speaks of the same group of church leaders as “elders,” showing that for Paul, the two are the same but can be called by either name.
Likewise in Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus to appoint “elders” in each city, yet in 1:7 he calls those leaders “overseers” as he describes their defining qualifications or characteristics. And in 1 Peter 5:1, Peter speaks of “elders” (with himself among them), then in 5:2 describes the elders as “shepherding” the flock and “overseeing” them.
So where does this lead us? The term “elder” is a more generic leadership term that was used beyond the church as a socially-acceptable term with solid roots in Judaism and the larger Greco-Roman culture. In the larger context, “elders” described especially the older heads of households who were respected community or group leaders. The terms “overseer” and “pastor” were more function-oriented, describing what church leaders did as much as who they were. But the same people are being described with all three terms in the NT. The elders are the church leaders who pastor the flock and oversee the church, even as 1 Peter 5:1-2 indicates.
Bill Warren Ph.D. is professor of New Testament and Greek, seated in the Landrum P. Leavell II Chair of New Testament Studies. He’s also founding director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies at NOBTS.