Is there a distinction between elders and pastors?

There are three primary principles laid down in scripture relating to the working relationship of elders:

Eldership ought to be plural

  • All New Testament churches had plural eldership (cf. Act 15:2; Act 20:17; Ti 1:5; Jam 1:1, 5:14; 1 Pe 1:1)
  • James presupposes multiple elders available to pray for the sick (Jam 5:14)
  • Paul’s practice was to appoint multiple elders in each church plant (Act 14:23)
  • Paul summoned the elders (plural) at Ephesus (Act 20:17f)
  • Titus was commanded to appoint elders (plural) in every city (Ti 1:5)
  • Peter gave the responsibility of shepherding the flock to elders (plural) (1 Pe 5:1-2)

There is no formal distinction between elders, establishing parity between them.

  • The bible uses the terms ‘pastor’, ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ interchangeably (cf. Act 20:17, 28; Ti 1:5, 7; 1 Pe 5:1f).
  • When Paul summoned the elders in Ephesus, he called all of them not just their formal leader (Acts 20:17)
  • Paul calls all the elders to care for the church of God and watch over the flock equally (Acts 20:28), that is to the work of pastoral oversight
  • The elders collectively laid hands on Timothy together, rather than being commissioned by a formal leader (1 Tim 4:14)
  • James expects all the elders to be available to pray for the sick, not just one appointed as formal leader (James 5:14). This task is either done by all the elders collectively every time or it establishes that any elder is individually able to perform this role. In either case, the elders appear co-equal in function and responsibility.
  • Peter’s exhortations in 1 Pe 5:1-5 are to “the elders among you”, not merely the formal leader, establishing a level of co-equal parity in shepherding the flock, oversight and having the younger members subject to their lead.

The Bible sets aside special honour for those who labour in preaching and teaching

  • Scripture recognises that one (or more) elders may be set aside primarily for preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17) and this is worthy of special honour.
  • Paul commands Timothy specifically – not all the elders in the church – to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13) noting that this was what Timothy was set aside for by the eldership (1 Tim 4:14).

Taken together, churches ought to have a plural eldership, which is co-equal in both function and responsibility, with parity between them. There are biblical grounds to set aside one (or more) of the elders to dedicate themselves to studying the word for the preaching and teaching of the church. As Alexander Strauch rightly points out ‘to call one elder “pastor” and the rest “elders”… is to act without biblical precedence… It will, at least in practice, create a separate, superior office over the eldership, just as was done in the early second century when the division between “the overseer” and “elders” occurred’.[1]

The role of a full-time elder

It is, therefore, appropriate for a full-time elder to be set aside to specifically make the teaching and preaching of the word his first priority. This setting aside does not preclude him from taking on other tasks and ministries, however, these things ought not to take him away, or interfere with, his central focus on the word.

The concept of primus inter pares (first among equals) has no real biblical warrant. References to Peter taking a first amongst equals role rests on scant evidence. Against this, it should be noted that it is James, rather than Peter, who makes the final judgement at the Jerusalem council (cf. Acts 15) and Paul rebuked Peter with some authority too (Gal 2:11ff). The closest biblical referent is the distinction between the elder(s) set aside primarily to focus on the word and the other elders who – though co-equally charged with oversight, shepherding the flock, etc – are not called to this same focus on word-ministry. Any full-time elder has co-equal oversight for the flock as an elder amongst elders but holds the additional responsibility of being set aside to focus on the word and act as the primary outlet for teaching and preaching. This does not equate to the concept of primus inter pares. Such a concept necessarily undercuts the overt biblical principle of co-equal parity within the plurality.

Nonetheless, it should be emphasised that the setting aside of a full-time elder to primarily focus upon preaching and teaching is not instead of the other responsibilities of eldership – as if he only preaches and teaches – but rather it is in addition to those responsibilities common to all elders. It must also be noted that the one skill required of all elders is an aptitude to teach, which cannot be separated out from other aspects of church life. Teaching and preaching feeds directly into disciple-making, pastoral care, and overall leadership of the church. If the church is led through teaching and preaching, and the elders as a whole are responsible for directing the affairs of the church, it follows that preaching and teaching are the responsibility of the leadership as a whole, even if the bulk of it may be delivered by a recognised individual set aside for this task.

The role of the elder

Apart from the primary focus of the one(s) set aside to focus on the word, given the co-equal parity the bible establishes between each elder, all other tasks may rightly be shared between the elders. The bible does not offer any specific guidance as to how these tasks ought to be divided, except being sure not to take the one set aside to teach away from his principle focus on the word. This division of duties, therefore, is a matter of prudence.

As noted by Matt Perman at Desiring God, ‘although no one elder has greater formal authority than any of the others, certain elders will emerge as natural leaders in particular areas and thus provide helpful leadership that the other elders will generally respect. Also, it is appropriate for the elders of a church to focus on varying tasks’. Whatever the division of labour looks like in any given context, it is vital for each elder to be committed to the success of his colleagues. The success of an individual is success for the whole eldership and thus each must be committed to supporting one another in their various duties.

The biblical criteria for eldership contain all the necessary requirements of an elder. Most of these qualifications are commanded elsewhere in scripture of all Christians (e.g. not a drunkard). The only criteria specific to elders are “not a novice” (though it should be noted that no Christian is called to remain one) and “apt to teach”. Apart from teaching ability, all the qualifications for eldership are character-based and do not require particular skills.

If these are the biblical criteria for eldership, we ought not to demand that elders come with specific skill-sets and abilities other than that of teaching. To do so is to go beyond what the biblical data demands. Rather, elders are appointed according to character criteria and their divergent skills can be brought to boot on the various tasks shared out amongst the eldership, as their abilities allow.

Benjamin Merkle highlights four key tasks of the elder. He must be: (1) a leader, (2) a shepherd, (3) a teacher, and (4) an equipper.[2]

Leader: The Bible assumes the elder holds a certain level of responsibility that the congregation ought to recognise and to which the church must submit (cf. Heb 13:17; 1 Thess 5:12). The appointment of an individual to the office of elder by the church membership is both the recognition of their leadership and a statement of willingness to submit to it. Nonetheless, the leadership in the church is akin to that of a father leading a family (1 Tim 3:5f). Moreover, it is a humble leadership that is not domineering but leads by example (1 Pet 5:3; Heb 13:7). As elders we cannot ask people to do what we are not willing to do ourselves. We are called to a humble, exemplary servant leadership.

Shepherd: As the terms pastor (shepherd), elder and overseer are used interchangeably, all elders are called to shepherd because the church are pictured as sheep (1 Pet 5:2). As Merkle states ‘the shepherd’s primary task is not to run an organisation but to care for people’s souls. A pastor is not primarily a motivator, administrator, or programme facilitator, but a shepherd’.[3] Our example in this is Jesus, the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4), the one who lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11; 15:13). The primary task of the shepherd is to protect the sheep from the wolves that would damage them spiritually (cf. Acts 20:28f). Likewise, it is important for the elders to care for physical needs (cf. Jam 5:14; 1 Tim 3:4f). Nonetheless, elders are primarily responsible for soul-care of the members (Heb 13:17).

Teacher: Along with the elder’s call to lead, he is distinguished from a deacon by the call to teach (1 Tim 3:2). Elders are to lead people into sound doctrine and to rebuke those who depart from it (Ti 1:9). This role of teaching is also linked to our shepherding (cf. Eph 4:11). It is therefore the task of the elder to maintain word-centred ministry in the church. To approve those who teach it and to rebuke those who would depart from it.

Equipper: Just as Paul charged Timothy ‘what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also’ (2 Tim 2:2). Not only is the elder called to lead, teach and shepherd but they must be equipping future leaders who will be able to do the same.

[1] Strauch, A., Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, (1995)

[2] Merkle, B.L., 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, (2008)

[3] Ibid., p. 90