There is no distinction between “clergy” and “laity” in the New Testament. Jesus is the only Judge and Legislator (Gal. 1:6-9, James 4:12). Jesus completely fills the role of priest, who intercedes and mediates between people and God (Heb. 10:14, 1 Tim. 2:5). All members of the church are equal brothers in Christ and serve one another (Matt. 20:26, 23:6-12).
Nevertheless, God ordained the office of shepherd to provide each congregation with supervision and leadership. “Paul … to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons…” (Phil. 1:1). “They had appointed elders for them in every church…” (Acts 14:23).
One way to understand the office is to define the three words used interchangeably for it throughout the Bible.
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight… (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
From Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them… “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God…” (Acts 20:17-18, 27-31).
These terms are not so much titles a man wears like a boastful badge of honor, but rather are descriptors of the work God expects of him.
“Elder” translates presbuteros, and means “older man.” This emphasizes the wealth of experience that comes with years of life. They take their thorough knowledge of God’s word and apply it to specific circumstances. They offer practical, Biblical advice on marriage, children, finances, communication, forgiveness, employment, worship, etc. They pass along the wisdom of their own successes and failures.
Furthermore, age generally makes a man settled enough to be unswayed by the thrill of newness (Eph. 4:14, Jude 3). Elders hold true to the Bible and do not allow the church to be swept away by progressive fads. But, good elders are not ornery and crusty, sticks in the mud who resist anything that seems slightly different. Men unwilling to embrace or even consider change are too inflexible to lead. If a shepherd brought his panting sheep to the same dry well day after day, his leadership would be questioned. Some of the men most faithful to God were Hezekiah and Josiah, who changed many things in Israel—they set aside decades of tradition in order to obey Scripture.
“Overseer” or “bishop” translates episkopos, and means “supervisor.” This emphasizes their position and stewardship. Overseers take the visions which God communicated (like Matt. 28:19-20) and translate them into specific efforts for the congregation. Overseers evaluate data to determine what is worth time and money. They gather input from the congregation to make decisions, and inspire cooperation. They don’t merely rubberstamp budget requests or waste time with deacon’s work (Acts 6:2), but proactively plan what the members implement.
Not every member will agree with every decision. But every member has great security in knowing that the overseers approach their decisions “as those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17). This relieves the members of the church of the burden of decision-making, and gives them the comfort that the ones making the decisions are authorized to do so. Of course, no man has the authority to change God’s word or tamper in non-spiritual areas of life. Overseers may say, “we shall take up the collection at the end,” but may not say, “we shall no longer take up a collection.” Overseers may say, “we encourage everyone to read a chapter of the Bible each night,” but may not say, “we require everyone to wear orange.”
“Pastor” (Eph. 4:11) translates poimenas, and means “shepherd”; it’s most often found in verb form. It emphasizes their work—leading, feeding, protecting God’s flock. Pastors are deeply concerned for the lives of the individual members. A pastor’s work is people, people, people.
Appointing elders is God’s desire. No congregation wants to be unscripturally organized, and if there are no qualified men to be found, the church must continue to do the best it can and develop its men. But, until elders are appointed, there is work to do to “set in order what remains” (Titus 1:5). Let study and prayer accompany these efforts!