Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 10, 2010

The New Testament on Authority (Part 2: Pastors, Overseers, & Elders)

Yesterday we had a look at what Jesus had to say about authority.  While the Scriptures tell us plainly that the Lord delegated authority to the disciples, few would claim that He has conferred all His authority on church leaders.  It is important, therefore, to turn to the Scriptures to learn what authority He has specifically delegated to believers:
  • authority to cast out demons and heal sickness (Matthew 10:1)
  • to teach and baptize (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • to baptize in the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-21)
  • to build up and not tear down (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10)
  • to prepare God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4:11-13)

The pastoral epistles (Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy) shed additional light on the role of Christian leaders.  First, we should cover a little terminology.  The word translated as “pastor” doesn’t really appear in the Greek texts; it is poimayn, or shepherd.  Depending upon the translation, the word episkapo is rendered as “overseer” or “bishop.”  The word presbutero is rendered “elder” and more literally means, “older man (or woman).”  In some churches, these words have been used to construct church hierarchies in which the titles pastor, bishop, and presbyter convey rank within the organization.  In reality, these three words are used interchangeably in the New Testament:   “appoint elders (presbutero)…for the overseer (episkapo) must be blameless,”  (Titus 1:5, 7).  Peter very clearly explains that elders are to be shepherds:  “I exhort the elders (presbutero)…shepherd (poimayn) the flock…and when the Chief Shepherd appears…” (1 Pet 5:1-4)  Earlier in the same epistle Peter describes the Chief Shepherd as “the shepherd and overseer of your souls”  (1 Pet 2:25).

Having established that shepherd, overseer, and elder are all synonyms for the same person, let’s look a little more closely at what differentiates these people from other believers.  1 Tim 3:1-2 says, “Whoever aspires to the office of overseer desires a good work…the overseer must be above reproach…” (see also Titus 1).  The phrase “the office of” prior to “overseer” appearing in many English translations is an insertion that does not appear in the original text.  In fact, every occurrence of the word “office” with respect to the New Testament church (as opposed to the Old Testament priesthood system or the civil authorities) is absent from the Greek text and was added by translators.  An office is occupied by someone upon whom certain power and authority has been conferred in order to carry out official duties.  The New Testament never once speaks of “offices” in the context of the household of faith.  The authoritarian connotations are the result of translator insertions; they are not present in what we hold as inspired, the original texts.

Having eliminated the extraneous verbiage from this text, it is now time to turn our attention to the words that actually do appear there.  Episkapo means “overseer, one who exercises oversight.”  For modern American speakers of English, the word “overseer” probably brings to mind a plantation worker in charge of slaves, with the obvious authoritarian connotations.  But if we are to understand this passage properly, it is imperative that we strip away our historical and linguistic bias and discover what episkapo, or oversight, means in Greek: “to look upon or after, to inspect, examine with the eyes in order to see how he is, i.e. to visit the poor and afflicted, the sick; to look upon in order to help or to benefit; to look after, have care for, provide for.”

This word is generally translated as “visit,” as in “I was sick and you visited me,” (Matthew 25:36) or, “Let’s go back and visit all the churches we’ve planted and see how they’re doing” (Acts 15:36) or, “God visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name (or, as the Weymouth translation beautifully renders it, “God first looked graciously on the Gentiles to take from among them a People to be called by His name,” Acts 15:14).  An authoritative connotation is completely absent here.

Today I’ve made the case that the New Testament writers did not think of leadership in terms of “offices,” with the implication of authority, power, hierarchy, and the activity of a select few that accompany “official positions.”  In the next several installments, I’ll be arguing that much of what we consider the exclusive domain of clergy today was, in fact, handled by the faith community as a whole in the first century; and that the role of the elder was much more limited.



  1. good post Vic. I look forward to your other studies on this subject.

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