Five Synonyms: One Office

by Jeff Smith

In the New Testament, we find at least five words that describe both the office an elder holds and the work that he does.

Elder is from the Greek word, presbuterous. Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every city” in Titus 1:5. The lexicographer, Thayer, comments that this particular term denotes the dignity of the office, describing the age and experience of one who holds it.

Presbyter is from the same Greek word, presbuterous. The reader will recall that this is the same word which is otherwise translated “elder.” In the original Greek, then, there is no difference at all between a presbyter and an elder. The word is transliterated by the King James Version in I Timothy 4:14, but later translations properly translate it as “eldership.”

Bishop is from the Greek word, episkopon. In Titus 1:7, Paul uses the word “bishop” as a synonym for “elder,” which he used in verse 5. “For a bishop must be blameless.” There is, then, absolutely no difference between a bishop and an elder. The two words simply describe the same office and work. Thayer comments on this word as showing the superintendent function of an elder over a local group.

Overseer is also from the Greek word, episkopon. Peter used it in I Peter 5:3 in teaching his fellow elders (verse 1). “Overseer,” then, is synonymous with elder, bishop and presbyter.

Pastor is from the Greek word, poimenas. It is used in Ephesians 4:11 as a noun, but more notably in Acts 20:28. Paul had called the Ephesian elders to meet with him in Miletus (verse 17): “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God.” The elders (or overseers) were to shepherd the church of God. They were to be the pastors. Peter uses the term in precisely the same fashion in I Peter 5:2, again addressing the elders. “Pastoring” is the work of a group of men also called elders; there must be a plurality of pastors in any local place to fulfill Bible precedent and authority (Acts 14:23).

In these five words, we do not have five distinct offices. Instead, we have a series of word pictures of the same office. In reality, the Greek only has three different words. Our first, presbuterous (translated elder and transliterated presbyter), displays the dignity and aged experience that is required for one to serve. Our second, episkopon (translated bishop and overseer), shows his role in overseeing the local group. Our third, poimenas (translated pastor), describes his vital function in shepherding the flock and protecting it from soul-killing wolves. With this study in mind, it is easy to see why elders are so important to the stability, unity and labor of any local church. There is no substitute for a qualified, diligent eldership.