There are several different signifiers of leaders within a local church in the scriptures and none are without importance. The proper use of each name is important in understanding some quality regarding the office that the man holds. Let’s explore those a little bit here in this article.
Before we look at each specific name be mindful that in the New Testament there were Jews and Greeks. Two historically different cultures that were coming together as one people in Christ. While there are 6 different terms used to refer to the leadership in the church, those are really pairs of 2 - One term in Hebrew and its Greek counterpart. This use of language helps to clarify God’s will regardless of culture.
Both Elder and Presbyter speak to "Age" and “Maturity”
Elder - (This is a Jewish term) I Peter 5:1 - The Jewish people (Hebrews / Israelites) had been led by elders at least since the days of Moses. (Exodus 3:16) Elders were “senior” members of the family/tribe unit. These were not necessarily “elderly” men (although they certainly could be). But rather, men who had demonstrated maturity, competence, wisdom, and leadership. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish counsel of elders) had several requirements for those who served. The typical minimum age for a Jewish elder was 40 years-old (however on exceptional occasions as young as 18).
Presbyter - (This is a Greek Term) I Timothy 4:14 - This coincides with its Jewish counterpart and means “elder or “senior”. Again, not necessarily senior as we think of it. Both of the terms “elder” and “presbyter” are political terms of political office. For example, in the United States we have “senators”. The root of the word “senator” is the same for where we get our words “senior” and “senile” etc. However, in the United States the minimum age to be a senator is 30 years old. (Hardly what we’d consider “senior”). In the church, the term Presbyter speaks to the maturity of the individual in relation to the knowledge in the scriptures (“apt to teach”) as well as maturity in life (being married, having kids, established in the faith, etc.).
Both Shepherd and Pastor speak to “Work”
Shepherd - I Peter 5:2&4 - In the literal sense, a shepherd is one who “tends and rears sheep”. God’s builds a strong relationship to His people (followers) and the profession of shepherding from the beginning of Scripture to end (From Abel in Genesis 4 to Jesus and His church in the New Testament). Jesus is called the “Chief Shepherd” (I Peter 5:4) and uses shepherding imagery throughout His ministry as well (Luke 15 & John 10). But the physical illustrations are there for the purpose of guiding us in spiritual understanding - that “Shepherds” in the local church have the work of tending to the spiritual needs of the flock as they help rear them in the faith. Part of this work is guarding and protecting (Acts 20:28) against deceiving forces from within and without. Like a literal carnal shepherd, the spiritual shepherd in the Lord’s church is a worker; and his work is implied by the use of such descriptive titles. This is also seen in its synonym title...
Pastor - Ephesians 4:11 - From this text it is clear that part of the work and duty of a pastor is to help the flock to grow in faith and unity. The word pastor has the Latin origin of “fed” or “grazed”. This speaks to the care of the flock for which the pastor oversees. From Ephesians 4:11 we see that fits the description of the work perfectly. We know an essential qualification of the work is “apt to teach” (I Timothy 3:2). He helps to lead the flock in “being fed” or “grazing” on the food which is God’s word (Hebrews 5:11-14) Both terms “shepherd” and “pastor” best describe the duty and work of these men who commit themselves to the Lord’s service in this office.
Both Overseer and Bishop speak to “Responsibility” and “Authority”
Overseer - I Timothy 3:1 - The idea is one “watching over”. Within this phrase is an implied responsibility and authority. While it does also speak to the work of being vigilant, to me the idea speaks more to the church understanding the leadership role the Lord has placed upon these men. They are not being nosy to be in your business, to be watching out for you, or to be watching over you. While they are not “Overlords” (“Masters” in that sense), their overseeing is not one of the church serving them, but them serving the church. However, the church should do all that it can to make sure that work of service is not burdensome. For each will pay a price if they make it so. (Hebrews 13:17) Overseers have to give an account, and so do those they are “watching over”.
Bishop - Titus 1:7, I Peter 2:25 - Again, this word comes from a Greek word (related to “episcopal”) which originates with the idea of “above” + ”watching”. In older translations of the scriptures it is translated “Bishop” and in more modern translations it is translated “Overseer”. It’s a change that reflects the modern times, NOT the history or meaning of the original text. Again, “Bishop” inherently speaks to the same responsibility and authority of the word “Overseer”. They can be used interchangeably in that sense. The point being to the Bishops, “this is your responsibility and authority related to your work and service”, and the point being to the congregation, “You need to accept, respect, and honor this responsibility and service Bishops have.”
While this is not an official title or office we call these men by, it is clear from the scriptures that is what they are. They are not just “senior” members of the flock, “not just “caretakers” and “guardians” and not just “looking over” the church - but they are leading the local flock in spiritual growth, faith, and service unto God. Consider, only men worthy of each of these titles, are worthy to be leaders in the Lord’s church