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Some Christian traditions—for example, Roman Catholics, Anglicans—hold that there are three biblically mandated offices in the church: bishop (overseer), pastor/priest/elder, and deacon. In the “high” church tradition, it is the unbroken line of duly consecrated bishops that actually defines the true church. The ground of this view is often found in the famous dictum of Ignatius toward the beginning of the second century: Where the bishop is, there is the church. Most recognize today that a more faithful rendering might be: Where the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be (Smyrn. 8:2)—which sounds a tad less definitional.1 In any case, the argument that the New Testament documents recognize only two church offices, viz. the bishop/elder/pastor, and the deacon, is by far the more common view among “low” churches, and, as everyone in the field knows, was nowhere better defended than by the Anglican J. B. Lightfoot in his commentary on Philippians.

Although the question—two offices or three—continues to be discussed from time to time, it rarely occupies center-stage in contemporary ecclesiastical discussion. The primary NT passages that tie together bishop, elder, and pastor are Titus 1:5–9, which unambiguously connects elder and bishop, and 1 Peter 5:1–4, which links all three descriptors (clear in the Greek text, not in all our translations). Because διάκονος (“deacon”) is commonly used to describe how all Christians must serve, a handful of scholars do not see “deacon” as a second office. But the context of passages such as 1 Timothy 3:8–10 suggests that the word “deacon” is not a terminus technicus, but can in the right context refer to a church-recognized office, even if in other passages it serves as a generic term for Christians.

My interest at the moment is not whether there is one office (as Benjamin J. Merkle maintains)2 or two, but in the office which in the NT is covered by all three terms: bishop/overseer, elder/priest, and pastor. To simplify the discussion a little, I shall choose overseer over bishop because the latter has become, in English, a technical term that refers to an ecclesiastical officer with jurisdiction that reaches over more than one local church (at least in White-American circles; this is less commonly the case in African-American circles). I shall choose elder over priest, because, despite the persistent efforts of some of my “low” Anglican friends to remind me that the word “priest” comes from the Greek πρεσβύτερος via the Latin presbyter, in modern usage, at least in most circles, “priest” translates ἱερεύς, and conjures up images of mediation that belong, under the new covenant, exclusively to Jesus Christ, or, paradoxically, to all believers, but not to restricted office holders.

So we are focusing on the person rightly designated overseer/elder/pastor—and the order in which I mention the three terms is not significant. Moreover, the three terms do not denote separable spheres of responsibility; rather, they overlap considerably. “Pastor,” of course, simply means shepherd, and derives from the agricultural world of biblical times in which shepherds led, fed, healed, protected, and disciplined their flocks. “Elder” springs from village and synagogue life, and carries an overtone of seniority, or at least maturity, that qualifies a person, ideally, for respect and for leadership responsibilities. “Overseer” conjures up administrative and ruling functions—functions that are not entirely absent from the other two labels.

Contemporary books and essays have tended to focus on four things about the pastor/elder/overseer. (a) The biblical lists of qualifications for elders (e.g., 1 Tim 3:1–7) are mostly made up of virtues and attributes that are elsewhere demanded of all Christians. The one exception is that he be able to teach. Others than pastors teach in the NT, but it is a requirement of all pastors/elders/overseers that they be able to teach, whether to large groups, in small groups, or one-on-one. A lot of discussion revolves around the preaching and teaching responsibilities of this office. (b) Recent years have witnessed a plethora of books and articles dealing with the plurality of elders. The shape of that discussion in Presbyterian circles is a bit different from what it is in, say, Baptist circles, but the discussion continues. (c) An extraordinary amount of energy has been devoted to ongoing debates about whether women may be pastors/elders/overseers—and if not, why not. (d) A number of helpful books and articles have been written of the “how to” variety: how to find and train elders, the importance of seeking out potential elders (e.g., 2 Tim 2:2), and the like.

Almost no attention, however, has been paid to the particular overtones cast up by the word “overseer.” Of course, something of oversight is taking place if one is actively attempting to find and train new elders, or if one is leading the other elders and the congregation itself in a difficult instance of church discipline, or if one is laying out a long-term preaching/teaching program. But it is worth pausing to reflect on why, when the chief ecclesiastical office is mentioned, “overseer” is one of the three terms used to describe it.

I know a pastor who, both in his teaching and pastoral care, is a good and godly man, and more skilled than most at those tasks. He became pastor of a small church, and under his ministry it grew to almost 600 people. Then, gradually, it began to decline. There were no splits, but people drifted away. When it shrank to about 250, he decided he should resign and move on. And if I had to put my finger on one big factor, perhaps the biggest, that contributed to this decline, it was that the man, though an able preacher, was a poor leader—i.e., he almost entirely ignored his episcopal responsibilities.

Another way to look at this is to consider the overlapping ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah. Nehemiah was clearly a gifted leader and administrator, but when it came time for the Bible conference, Ezra was the man who was called in—and he was a gifted leader and teacher, training the Levites in the massive work of teaching the people of God the Word of God. Both men were leaders; both appealed to the Word of God (Ezra to teach it and to arrange for others to teach it, Nehemiah to call the covenant people of God back to it, and to live out its precepts), but it was Nehemiah who was (if I may use anachronistic terms) more overseer than preacher.

Some make a sharp distinction between teaching elder and ruling elder, based not least on 1 Timothy 5:17. As far as I can see, however, an elder is an elder/pastor/overseer, never less, and every elder/pastor/overseer must be able to teach (1 Tim 3:2). In other words, it is difficult to warrant an absolute division of labor. But if all one means by the difference between a teaching elder and a ruling elder is a division of emphasis, one simultaneously does justice to 1 Timothy 5:17, and reflects the fact that one of the distinct labels for this office is overseer.

A substantial part of the ruling/oversight function is discharged through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. This is where a great deal of the best leadership is exercised: “What does Scripture say?” means “What does God say?” (cf. Gal 3:8). Therefore those whose peculiar responsibility it is to teach the Scriptures are helping the church hear what God says. In substantial measure, this is how the Head of the church exercises his leadership of the church.

But oversight of the church is more than simply teaching and preaching. Occasionally one observes a church where the senior pastor does most of the preaching to the entire congregation, while the “executive pastor” (overseer??) becomes responsible for everything else, including leading the other pastors, maintaining accountability, casting a vision for the next stage of growth and outreach, running the internship program, and much more. Nominally this frees the senior minister up for study, prayer, and preaching—what Acts 6:4 calls “prayer and the ministry of the word.” In reality, this fails to grasp that a comprehensive vision of the ministry of the Word demands oversight—not necessarily of the distribution of food to the needy, for which the seven (deacons?) were appointed, but of the entire direction and priorities of the church. Failure to see this as part of the responsibility of all pastors/elders/overseers (even though some may contribute more administrative gifts than others, while others will do more teaching/preaching) will result either in a church that is drifting, or in a church where the executive pastor actually steals the church away from the senior pastor (intentionally or otherwise).

To put this another way: As important and central as is the ministry of the Word of God, the thoughtful pastor/elder/overseer will devote time and energy to casting a vision, figuring out the steps for getting there, building the teams and structures needed for discharging ministry and training others, building others up, thinking through the various ways in which the gospel can be taught at multiple levels to multiple groups within the church, how to extend faithful evangelism and church planting, how to engage the surrounding world as faithful believers, and much more. Just because a person is an able preacher does not necessarily make him an able pastor/elder/overseer. Indeed, if he shows no propensity for godly oversight, then no matter how good a teacher he may be, he is not qualified to be a pastor/teacher/overseer. It is not for nothing that Scripture applies all three labels to the one office.

[1] Alternatively, Ehrman translates Smyrn. 8:2, “Let the congregation be wherever the bishop is; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there also is the universal church” (LCL).

[2] Benjamin J. Merkle, The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church, StBL 57 (New York: Peter Lang, 2003).

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