Elders, Pastors, Bishops, and Bethlehem

Sunday Evening Message

I. Baptist Church Government Illustrated from Historic Baptist Confessions

The purpose of this survey is to show that historically Baptists have held to the view that the two ongoing church offices presented in the New Testament are elders and deacons.


Article 16:

The ministers of the church are, not only bishops ("Episcopos"), to whom the power is given of dispensing both the word and the sacraments, but also deacons, men and widows, who attend to the affairs of the poor and sick brethren.


Article 20:

That the Officers of every Church or congregation are either Elders, who by their office do especially feed the flock concerning their souls, Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2, 3, or Deacons, Men and Women who by their office relieve the necessities of the poor and impotent brethren concerning their bodies, Acts 6:1–4.


Proposition 76:

That Christ hath set in His outward church two sorts of ministers: viz., some who are called pastors, teachers or elders, who administer in the word and sacraments, and others who are called Deacons, men and women: whose ministry is, to serve tables and wash the saints' feet (Acts 6:24; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2, 3, 8, 11; and chap. 5).


Article 36:

That being thus joyned, every Church has power given them from Christ for their better well-being, to choose to themselves meet persons into the office of Pastors, Teachers (a), Elders, Deacons, being qualified according to the Word, as those which Christ has appointed in his Testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of his Church, and that none other have power to impose them, either these or any other.

1677 AND 1688

Article 26, paragraph 8:

A particular Church gathered, and completely Organized, according to the mind of Christ, consists of Officers, and Members; And the Officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the Church (so called and gathered) for the peculiar Administration of Ordinances, and Execution of power, or Duty which he entrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the World, are Bishops or Elders and Deacons.


Article 13:

We believe that a church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers. . . that its officers of ordination are pastors, elders and deacons, whose qualifications, claims and duties are clearly defined in the Scriptures.

1925 AND 1963

Article 6:

This church is an autonomous body, operating through democratic processes under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In such a congregation members are equally responsible. Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.


Article 9:

We believe that a true Christian church is a union of believing and baptized Christians, who have covenanted to strive to keep all that Christ has commanded, to sustain public worship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to choose among themselves shepherds or overseers and deacons, to administer baptism and the Lord's Supper . . .


Part 2, Article 2:

In addition to pastors or elder, the local church may have other responsible servants, for example deacons and deaconesses whose role it is to assist the pastors or elders in their ministry, by assuming especial responsibility for everything that relates to the material interests of the congregation.

II. References to Elders in the New Testament

Acts 14:23

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.

Acts 20:17

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.

1 Timothy 5:17

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;

Titus 1:5

This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.

James 5:14

Is any among you sick? Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

1 Peter 5:1

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.

III. Reasons to View the Terms "Bishop/Overseer" and "Pastor" as Referring to the Office of Elder


Four reasons to consider bishop/overseer as equivalent to elder in the New Testament church:

  1. Compare Titus 1:5 with 1:7 where bishop/overseer and elder are apparently interchangeable terms.
  2. In Acts 20 Paul calls the "elders" to come down from Ephesus. Then he says to them in verse 28 that God has made them "overseers/bishops" among the flock. So the elders are the bishops/overseers in Ephesus
  3. In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul says, "If any one aspires to the office of bishop/overseer, he desires a noble task." Then he gives the qualifications for the overseer/bishop in verses 2–7. Unlike the deacons, the overseer must be "able to teach" (v. 2) and in v. 5 he is said to be one whose management of his own household fits him to care for God's church. These two functions are ascribed to elders in 1 Timothy 5:17—teaching and governing. So it is very likely that in Paul's mind the bishops/overseers of 1 Timothy 3:1–7 are the same as the elders of 5:17.
  4. In Philippians 1:1 Paul writes "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops/overseers and deacons." These then seem to be the two offices of the church just as in 1 Timothy 3:1–13. But Paul appointed elders in all the churches (Acts 14:23) and so it is very likely that the elders of the church at Philippi were the bishops/overseers referred to in Philippians 1:1.


The office of bishop/overseer is the same as the office of elder in the New Testament. It is listed beside the office of deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–13) in such a way as to show that these two were the main offices by which the ongoing life of the church was to be managed.


  1. Ephesians 4:11 treats pastors and teachers as one group and thus suggests that the chief role of the pastor is feeding the flock through teaching, a role clearly assigned to bishops/overseers in 1 Timothy 3:2 and to elders in Titus 1:9.
  2. In Acts 20:28 the elders of Ephesus are encouraged in their "pastoral," that is, shepherding task, thus showing that Paul saw the elders as the shepherds/pastors.
  3. In 1 Peter 5:1–2 the elders are told to "tend the flock of God" that is in their charge. In other words, Peter saw the elders essentially as pastors or shepherds.


The New Testament only refers to the office of pastor one time (Ephesians 4:11). It is a functional description of the role of elder stressing the care and feeding of the church as God's flock, just as "bishop/overseer" is a functional description of the role of elder perhaps stressing the governing of the church.

Pastor and elder and bishop/overseer refer in the New Testament to the same office.

IV. The Responsibilities of Elders 

The responsibilities of elders are summed up under two heads: governing and teaching.


1 Timothy 5:17

Let the elders who rule [proestotes] well be considered worthy of double honor.

1 Timothy 3:4–5

He must manage [proistamenon] his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage [prostenai] his own household, how can he care for God's church?

Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2

The duty of elders to "oversee" or "supervise" the flock implies a governing function.

1 Thessalonians 5:12

But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you [proistamenous] in the Lord and admonish you.

(No reference to "elders" but the function of the leaders is governing and the natural assumption is that the leaders are elders that Paul had appointed.)

Hebrews 13:17

Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account.

(Obedience and submission implies a role of leadership and governance and again the reference is probably to the elders though the leaders are not described.)


Ephesians 4:11

Pastors and teachers are pictured as one office, so that the pastor (whom we have identified as an elder) has the responsibility of teaching.

1 Timothy 3:2

The overseer must be "able to teach." And we have seen that the overseer and elder are the same office.

1 Timothy 5:17

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

(Not that all don't have to be able to teach—they do; but some "labor," that is, they devote more time and energy to it, perhaps earning their living by it.)

Titus 1:9

He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.

(Not all elders need to be able to do public preaching. The requirement is not for a preaching gift, but for a solid grasp of doctrine and ability to spot and correct errors and explain biblical truth plainly.)


The function of elders may be summed up under two heads: teaching and governing. This sets them off from deacons whose assisting role we will study at a later time.

V. Our Concern with Biblical Church Governance

I have argued from the NT that there were two ongoing offices in the NT church for the management and care of the church: elders and deacons. In addition I have tried to show that elders are also called "pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11) and "bishops" or "overseers" (Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Timothy 3:1; Acts 20:17, 28). There is no church in the NT with only one "elder" (= pastor = bishop = overseer). Moreover elders and deacons have distinct functions: elders, governing and teaching; deacons, assisting with the manifold needs of the people. Both take their cue from the Lord: "Let the leader be as one who serves" (Luke 22:26).

On the basis of what we have seen, I suggest that we seriously reexamine our governance structure at Bethlehem which includes a Council of Deacons as the ruling board but defines no role in the church as that of elder.

The reasons for concern and for reexamination are at least these five:

  1. We could be structured in a way more closely conforming to the normal New Testament pattern ("Paul appointed elders in all the churches," Acts 14:23).
  2. We need to clarify the role of our deacons. Are they elders in the NT sense, or are they deacons? Right now they seem to be a hybrid as the "governing" board and yet with the name "deacons." And who are the "staff" in the NT understanding of things? Are we the "elders"? If so, how do we fit into the governing structure of the church? There is much confusion that keeps deacons, committees, boards, and staff from finding ourselves and our roles in the NT.
  3. We need to clarify the role women in relation to the diaconate. Why are there deaconesses? How do they relate to the deacons? Could it be that by investing the deacons with "elder" roles at Bethlehem, we have isolated women from the very role (deacon) where they should flourish?
  4. We need to provide more thorough care for hurting members and more consistent discipline for delinquent members. That this is not done as well as it should be is owing partly to the confusion of roles. Who is responsible, biblically, for this church-wide care of 1,000 people and for following through on disciplinary procedures?
  5. We need to develop an ongoing leadership team (elders) where the theological distinctives, the philosophy of ministry, and the vision of the future can be rooted more durably than in the paid "staff." The church should not be dependent on a few paid staff as the guardians of the vision.