Does the Bible Make a Distinction Between Elders and Pastors? (Some Further Reflections on Church Leadership from Ephesians 4:11)

Sunday I preached from Ephesians 4 on the subject of church leadership. You can listen to the audio from my sermon here. This post is in response to a text question I received, asking, “Does the Bible make a distinction between elders and pastors?” This is a great question, and I’ll try to do it justice.

When I preach, I always learn more about the particular Scripture text and subject, but sometimes my understanding dramatically changes, and that happened during my prep for this sermon.

Here’s what happened: I began my prep for Sunday with the understanding not every pastor is an elder–that elders and pastor-teachers are not necessarily the same thing. I understood Scripture to teach that there were three roles in the church that were related, but not necessarily identical: pastor, teacher and elder/overseer (hereafter just “elder”; I’m taking it for granted that the reader already views elders and overseers are identical. If you need convincing of that, go here).

I was staunch in this opinion, however, I now see that, while there are some elders who pastor, and there are some elders who both pastor and regularly teach (“pastor-teachers”), every pastor-teacher ought to be a elder in the church*. And every elder–whether called a “pastor” or not, is to “shepherd” the flock (to pastor = to shepherd).

Here is how I got there:

In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul writes that Jesus Christ has given gifts to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. It’s the pastors and teachers (hereafter “pastor-teachers,” since the grammar in the Greek supports seeing them as one combined role) who are given to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (4:12). This is the only time pastors (or “shepherds”) are listed specifically as church leaders, so the question arises: is Paul introducing a new category of leadership here, or is he referring to a role that he had previously described elsewhere, possibly with another term? As it turns out, this is the case; Paul is talking about elders.

Without doing a whole word survey of the New Testament, here are a few examples to establish the point:

  • In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorts local church elders to, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God….” Who oversees a flock? A shepherd (again, pastor is another word for shepherd).
  • In Titus 1:9, Paul says that an overseer, “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” In other words, overseers must be able to teach.
  • In 1 Timothy 5:17, the Apostle says that the elders, “who rule well” are to be “considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

So elders must be able to teach. Some elders spend the majority of their time and effort (labor) in preaching and teaching. And every elder is to oversee the flock–to pastor.

All this stacks up to make an convincing biblical case that, when Paul calls pastor-teachers a gift from Jesus to the church, he is referring to teaching elders–those elders who labor in preaching and teaching, in addition to pastoring the members of the church (the “flock”).

The biblical ideal, then, is that pastor-teachers are also elders.

*So where does this leave me? I am on staff as a pastor (pastor-teacher) but not an elder. That is, not yet. At Park we have staff and non-staff elders. Non-staff elders shepherd the flock through oversight and prayer (cf. Acts 6:4; Hebrews 13:17). Staff elders are Park’s pastor-teachers of Ephesians 4. Staff pastors who are not currently elders are working toward becoming elders, in pursuit of the ideal situation given in Scripture. During the interim period, non-elder pastors still shepherd, exercise oversight, and teach, all with delegated authority from the elders of the church (and, again, while pursuing the requirements of eldership).

In summary, I have become convinced that every elder is to pastor, and that Paul has teaching, pastoring elders in mind in Ephesians 4:11. I had seen three roles, but now I see just two: (1) elder-pastor and (2) elder-pastor-teacher. As a non-elder, this realization has convicted me of my own need to be pursuing biblical eldership here at Park.

In the real world, some pastors will not yet be elders, and some elders will not be thinking of themselves as pastors. We can thank God, then, that He has given us His word as a corrective, to guide us as we always strive to move in the direction of the biblical norm.

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