Presbuterous, Episkopos & Poimen

William J. Stewart

Anyone reading the title of this week’s article might very well say, “It’s Greek to me,” and would be right! The three terms above are from the Greek language, the original language in which the New Testament Scriptures were written. All three words refer to one position or office within the church, that of the elders. Some may, and some may not know what the elders of a church are, and therefore, we might find this to be a much needed study regarding the church that Jesus established.

PRESBUTEROS, when translated to our English language becomes elder or presbyter. The word contains with it a reference to age. In our common language, we use the word elder to describe one who is older than ourselves. We will note however, that within the church, the world elder is not only a reference to age, but also a position or office of the church. It is a position of authority and responsibility. Consider the following Scriptures:

“Now the apostles and elders [PRESBUTEROS] came together to consider this matter.” (Acts 15:6)

“Let the elders [PRESBUTEROS] who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine.” (1 Timothy 5:17)

“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders [PRESBUTEROS] in every city as I commanded you…” (Titus 1:5)

“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders [PRESBUTEROS] of the church, and let them pray over him…” (James 5:14)

EPISKOPOS, translated in English is an overseer or a bishop. It has reference to one who is seen as a care giver, or guardian for the church. Consider the following Scriptures:

“For a bishop [EPISKOPOS] must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money.” (Titus 1:7)

“Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [EPISKOPOS] and deacons…” (Philippians 1:1)

POIMEN, is translated to English as either pastor or shepherd. A pastor or shepherd is one who devotes themselves to the care of the flock which is placed under his control. Consider the following Scriptures:

“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors [POIMEN] and teachers…” (Ephesians 4:11)

It must be recognized that all three words refer to the same position within the church.

Or, in English,

This is not a widely understood concept, nor do many consider it at all. I would ask that you take some time to think about it. As you think, consider the following passages of Scripture:

“From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders [PRESBUTEROS] of the church…Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [EPISKOPOS], to shepherd [POIMEN] the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:17, 28)

“The elders [PRESBUTEROS] who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder [PRESBUTEROS] and a witness of the suffering of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed; shepherd [POIMEN] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [EPISKOPOS], not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly.” (1 Peter 5:1-2)

As both Luke and Peter write, they use all three Greek terms in the same context, regarding the same office, filled by the same men. Therefore, an elder is a presbyter, is a bishop, is an overseer, is a pastor, is a shepherd. They are all one and the same.

We see in Scripture the importance placed upon the need to have elders. The elders, set in place by God Himself (Ephesians 4:11), are to watch over, tend to and care for the flock of God. They are set in place as the shepherds of God’s people, and thus are the care takers of the spiritual needs of the church. We see it mentioned on a few occasions in Scripture where elders were appointed in every city. The need for such men is apparent. A flock without herdsmen will quickly go astray. Therefore, churches today need to endeavour to attain a point where they are able to have elders.

We must realize that there are certain qualifications given concerning elders. These qualifications must be met if one is to be a pastor for the flock of God. Consider the listing of qualifications which Paul wrote to Titus and Titus:

According to 1 Timothy 3:1-7

  • blameless
  • husband of one wife
  • temperate
  • sober-minded
  • of good behaviour
  • hospitable
  • able to teach
  • not given to wine
  • not violent
  • not greedy for money
  • gentle
  • not quarrelsome
  • not covetous
  • one who rules his own house well
  • not a novice
  • of good testimony with those who are outside (non-Christian)
According to Titus 1:5-9

  • blameless
  • husband of one wife
  • having faithful children
  • not self-willed
  • not quick-tempered
  • not given to wine
  • not violent
  • not greedy for money
  • hospitable
  • a lover of what is good
  • sober-minded
  • just
  • holy
  • self-controlled
  • holding fast the faithful word

The office of an elder is not to be taken lightly. The qualifications are very restrictive for the reason that God wants and needs the best possible candidates to lead His people. No owner of a company will hire just anyone to oversee operations. They want the best, and so does God.

A few final remarks concerning the pastors. Note, that they are always mentioned in a plural form. Acts 20:17, Paul called the “elders.” 1 Peter 5:1, Peter exhorted the “elders.” It is never one individual who “rules” over the church, but a group of people, the elders.

Also, we must note who it is that the elders have authority over. Peter wrote, “…Shepherd the flock of God which is among you…” Paul said, “…take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…” The number of bishops is always plural, but the jurisdiction of these overseers is singular. The elders in one church have no say over those in another. Each church is completely autonomous, and thus, as it was written, “…appoint elders in every church…”

Truly, we need to follow the design God laid out for the church, for in so doing, we will benefit. Remember, God is the master designer!!

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