The New Testament epistles regularly speak of a plurality of church leaders, commonly called “elders,” “overseers,” or “shepherds.” In addition, deacons were appointed to meet various needs in the local church. As early as c. A.D. 50, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders . . . in each church” (Acts 14:23). A decade later, Titus is instructed to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is addressed to the “overseers and deacons” at Philippi (Phil 1:1). This conforms to the pattern stipulated in 1 Timothy 3 where qualifications for overseers (male only: 1 Tim 3:2; cf. 2:12) and deacons (both male and female) are given (1 Tim 3:1–7 and 8–12, respectively).
The synonymous use of “elders,” “overseers,” and “shepherds” is widely accepted today. Three primary New Testament references can be cited:
- Acts 20:17, 28: “Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. . . . Keep watch over . . . the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds . . .”
- Titus 1:5–7: “appoint elders . . . . An elder must . . . . Since an overseer . . .” (qualifications are the same as those for overseers in 1 Tim 3:1–7).
- 1 Peter 5:1–2: “To the elders . . . . Be shepherds . . ., serving as overseers . . .”
“Elder” refers to a stage of life, possession of life experience, and commensurate status in the church. “Overseer” refers to the function of giving oversight to the entire church. “Shepherd” (“pastor”) is a metaphor for personal care given to members of the church (Eph 4:11–12).
While elders are to lead by example (1 Pet 5:3), they do have genuine authority, and church members are enjoined to submit to them. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12 likewise commands believers “to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.” The biblical pattern is therefore for a body of male elders jointly to give oversight to the entire church, including one or several pastors who are devoted primarily to teaching and pastoral care (see esp. 1 Tim 4:14: “body of elders,” Gr. presbyterion; 1 Tim 5:17: “elders who direct the affairs of the church . . ., especially those whose work is preaching and teaching).
For a fuller treatment of elders and deacons, see my commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan). See also “Hermeneutical and Exegetical Challenges in Interpreting the Pastoral Epistles,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 7/3 (Fall 2003): 4–17; “The New Testament Pattern of Church Government,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 4/2 (2006): 24-42; and Chapter 12 in God, Marriage & Family.