Three Terms–One Office
by Tom McLemore
In the New Testament, the familiar terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” refer to one and the same office. This fact is established beyond question by two great New Testament passages (Acts 20:17-35 and 1 Peter 5:1-4). Once this fact is firmly grasped, a proper foundation is laid for correctly understanding any and all passages in which one or the other of these terms occurs by itself.
In Acts 20:17-35, we have the report of Paul’s meeting at Miletus with the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17). Paul charged these elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). Reference to the church as “the flock” which elders are to shepherd calls attention to the fact that these elders are pastors. The fact that they are overseers indicates that they were “bishops.” Paul was addressing individuals who shared one office to which three terms (“elders,” “bishops,” and “pastors”) were applicable.
In 1 Peter 5:1-4, the apostle Peter exhorts the elders who are among his readers (1 Peter 5:1). He urges them, “[T]end the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight....” (1 Peter 5:2). This indicates that the elders of whom he writes are also pastors of the flock, since they are directed to tend the flock. They are also bishops, since they exercise oversight in the process of tending the flock. Peter was writing of individuals who shared one office to which three terms (“elders,” “bishops,” and “pastors”) were applicable.
What do we learn from having established the fact that the terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” refer to one and the same office? For one thing, we understand the character of the one office to which the New Testament makes reference by means of the terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor.” Those who hold this office are elders (i.e., older), because those who rule the local congregation must be men of proven character, maturity, and experience (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-11). They are pastors because the members of the local church need to be led and fed. They are bishops because the local church needs to be overseen (Acts 20:28-30). Understanding these matters prepares the members of the local church to submit themselves to the help that the elders/bishops/pastors provide, by the Holy Spirit’s appointment, for our well-being (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13; Hebrews 13:7, 17).
For another thing, we learn why it is unscriptural for a local church to have only one “pastor.” According to the New Testament, every local congregation was ruled by a group of elders (Acts 14:23). For example, the church at Ephesus, whom Paul met at Miletus, the church in Philippi, the church of the Thessalonians, and those to whom Peter and the author of Hebrews wrote their epistles all were ruled respectively by a group of such men (Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13; 1 Peter 5:1; Hebrews 13:7, 17).
The concept of a preacher’s being “the pastor” is a complete fabrication that has no basis whatsoever in the teaching of the New Testament. If the preacher has also been appointed to the office of elder, it is scriptural to refer to him as “a pastor,” but never as “the pastor.” It is unfortunate that it has become common to refer to the epistles that were written to preachers (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as “the Pastoral Epistles.” Neither Timothy nor Titus were pastors (elders, bishops) as far as we know. Paul referred to Timothy as an “evangelist,” and Paul called Timothy’s work “your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). It is proper for preachers also to be called evangelists and ministers.
There is One, and only One who is rightly styled “the Pastor,” and that is Jesus Christ. Peter wrote, “And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). In fact, he is the only One who is rightfully called “the Bishop.” In 1 Peter 2:25, Peter wrote, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” Just as “bishop” and “pastor” are terms that refer to the one office of the elder when applied to men, we see that they refer to one Person when applied to Christ.
From all of this it is easy to see that Peter was never “pope” and that the New Testament gives no hint whatever of any such thing. Peter described himself as “a fellow elder” with “the elders among you” (1 Peter 5:1). In light of Peter’s understanding of his position, we can be sure that in John 21:15-19, Jesus was not appointing Peter to be “pope.” Jesus was indicating that when Peter was older, he would serve as an elder. The fact that “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” all refer to one and the same office, combined with the fact that there was no such thing as a solitary bishop ruling over any group of churches or individuals in the apostolic church, reveals that the hierarchy that is characteristic of Catholicism and some forms of Protestantism is totally without basis in the New Testament.
Please study these matters carefully and come to a thorough understanding of the manner in which the local church is to be governed according to the revelation of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Recognize what these matters teach about the importance of the local church’s submitting to those who have the rule over it. Practice referring to the elders of the church as the pastors and the bishops of the church, and learn not to refer to any preacher who is not also an elder as “pastor.” Utilize this information in helping your neighbors and friends to see that the denominational churches of which they are members are the creations of men and not of Christ.
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