Published: 11 July 2022

‘Pastor’ And Other Words The Bible Uses To Describe An Overseer

Overseer
Shepherd with his flock. Photo: BiblePlaces.com

This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” (1 Tim. 3:1 CSB)

Does it strike you as odd that Paul needed to tell the Christians in Ephesus that overseeing a congregation is a noble work? The fact that Paul wrote these words to Timothy suggests that corrupt church leaders in Ephesus had soiled the reputation of the role of overseer. Perhaps they had so tarnished the image of the role that respectable Christians didn’t want the job! They may have feared ruining their good name by being in that position. 

Christians from different church traditions use various terms to describe the role of the person who leads, oversees, or shepherds their congregations. Sometimes these descriptions can refer to the person behind the pulpit, or they may apply to positions within a church leadership hierarchy. More often than not, we use them as titles. However, we use these words differently than the New Testament does. 

The opening verses of 1 Timothy 3 describe the qualifications of those who may serve as pastors. Before we go further studying 1 Timothy 3, we must first understand how the New Testament describes pastors and the duties they are supposed to perform.  

Several descriptions for the same role

You may be asking, “What is an overseer and what does that have to do with a pastor?” Simply put, the words pastor, elder, overseer and steward are not talking about four different roles. The New Testament authors use all of these words interchangeably. They all refer to the same function. These are not titles, they are job descriptions. Each term helps to better describe the function of this role. The complete list is:

  • Elder or Presbyter
  • Overseer or Bishop
  • Pastor or Shepherd
  • Steward

Some of these words are redundant. For example, elder and presbyter are synonyms. The same is true of overseer and bishop. Likewise, pastor and shepherd are different words which mean the same thing. 

Interchangeability of terms

Let’s take a look at how the Bible uses these terms. As you read the verses which follow, note all of these descriptive terms apply to the same leadership role in the church. These are not different roles, but one single leadership role in the local church. 

Acts 20

17 Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and summoned the elders of the church. 

28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:17, 28 CSB)

Paul was passing through Miletus and from there called for the elders of the Ephesian church. Notice how Acts 20 refers to the same men as both elders, overseers, and shepherds.

Titus 1

5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you

7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, (Titus 1:5, 7 ESV)

Again we see elders and overseer referring to the same role, but Paul also adds the term ‘steward.’’

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 going to be revealed:

2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; (1 Pet. 5:1–2 ESV)

Like both Luke (Acts) and Paul (Titus), Peter also uses these same words to refer to the job of overseeing a congregation (flock) of Christians.

Just a casual reading of the above passages show that these terms are not referring to different functions nor to different levels of leadership in a hierarchical chain of command. They all refer to the same role in the church. They refer to those who have the spiritual oversight of a single congregation of Christians.

Why different words for the role of overseer?

The different terms describing this role (elder, overseer, shepherd, steward) all say something about the qualities and responsibilities of a pastor. The table below shows the Greek word for each of these descriptions along with a short definition of the word.

As you can see, ‘elder’ implies an older person who has gained the wisdom and life experience needed to carry out the important work of overseeing a church. The word ‘overseer’ suggests a supervisory or guardianship role. A shepherd (also known as a pastor) is a person who tends a flock of sheep. This term pictures a person who protects his congregation from danger and cares for those who are spiritually weak or sick. Finally, a steward is a manager of someone else’s property. One who stewards a group of Christians is taking care of those, who in reality, belong to Jesus. Such a person must be faithful and trustworthy to be given so much responsibility.

Not titles

Interestingly, ‘pastor’ seems to be the most frequently used word for the person who leads a church, but it is the least used term in the New Testament. The word ‘pastor’ only appears in Ephesians 4:11. Overseer, elder, and shepherd are the most frequently used terms in the Bible. Why would we zero in on the least used biblical description? Perhaps it is because we expect titles.

The words pastor, bishop, elder, etc. are almost always used by Christians as titles. The authors of the New Testament never used these terms as anything other than descriptions. Titles tend to set the title holders apart from ‘regular people.’ They only serve to make a distinction where God hasn’t made a distinction. The most prominent and respected leaders of the early church considered themselves to be servant leaders.

One should think about us this way– as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Cor. 4:1 NET)

An overseer is to be an example

Biblically speaking, a pastor is the same as a shepherd, elder, overseer, or steward. While God has delegated them the role of oversight, he has also told them how to exercise this leadership role: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3 ESV). To lead unbiblically puts the reputation of the role, and the church, at risk – just as happened in the church at Ephesus.