Pastors and Elders; Is there a difference?

jesusisthegoodshepherdI write this article from personal experience. Whatever denomination you are part of, as a follower of Jesus Christ, your local church has a form of “government”. The English word “government” comes to us via Old French, according to Online Etymology Dictionary. The meaning is “control, direction, administration”. The origin of the Old French word is of course the Latin, “gubernare”. The Romans borrowed the word from the Greeks, modifying the Greek word “kybernan” (pronounced cybernan). It was a nautical term for steering a ship in the right direction. A local church is made up of redeemed sinners who still fight a moment by moment battle against their sin nature and as a result, they need to be guided through life. God created man to be led by Him. Once mankind rebelled against God, we traded God’s leadership for the leadership of others. We still need to be led, even to this day. Communities and relationships fall apart if there is not strong leadership. Your local church needs leadership. God has provided leadership in the local church, just like He has established leadership in local, secular government. When God set the guidelines for leadership in the church, He chose mature believers who had certain experience and spiritual giftings to lead. God chooses what spiritual girts we receive upon salvation and He also provides ministry (service) for those gifts in order to build up the body of Christ. Biblically speaking, people do not choose a path to leadership in the church. God equips them and calls them according to His desire. In order to understand church leadership, we need to examine a couple of passages in the New Testament, passages that were written under the inspiration of God and these passages are the heart of God when it comes to church leadership.

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,

12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; (Ephesians 4)

Apostles are like missionary/church planters today. They take the Word of God to people who are not followers of Jesus Christ with the intent of making disciples and forming new local churches. Prophets are people who expound the Word of God, usually in the local church. They may or may not be pastor-teachers. They probably have the spiritual gift of teaching but not necessarily a shepherd. Usually, we call them “teaching pastors” today. An evangelist is someone sent out from the local body that remains connected to the local body. This person is sent out to the lost to share the Word of God with them. Apostles are sent out from the local church to start new ministries among nonbelievers. Evangelists bring new believers into the local body. The next category is pastor-teacher (in the original Greek) or as translated in many modern English translations, pastor and teacher. Pastor is the word for “shepherd”. A shepherd is one who guides others in the spiritual realm and that direction impacts the daily life. A pastor is charged with teaching (feeding people spiritual food from the Word of God). The pastor-teacher leads the people of the church. He does this by feeding them spiritual food from the Word of God. His job is to equip the believers and teach them how to feed themselves from the Word and serve one another and others. His manual is the Word of God and his text book for the “flock” is also the Word of God. These 4 positions in the church are leadership positions, people who are equipped by God with spiritual gifts and called by God to lead the local body of Christ, also known as the church.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the local church in the city of Philippi, we learn some new insights about leadership in the church.

1 Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: (Philippians 1)

Church leadership also includes overseers (elders) and deacons (literally “waiters”) which can be translated as “servants”. As you can see, the leadership of a local church should never rest on the shoulders of one person. There is a team of leaders who have been equipped by God, called by God, and matured by God to take on the task of leading the local body of Christ.

Some churches have adopted a form of government called “elder led”. The idea among many elder led churches is that they separate the office of pastor and elder. I was part of a church with a mantra of “elder” guarded and “pastor” guided. There was clear distinction between elders (overseers) and pastors. Elders were chosen from among the local body, men who were at one time, under the spiritual authority of the pastors and then were given spiritual authority over the pastors. As a student of the Bible for almost 20 years, I do not think that it is Biblical to distinguish between pastors and elders. Also there are practical reasons why this form of government is a bad idea. (separating pastors and elders and giving elders authority over the pastors) The Apostle Peter has the Biblical answer:

1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed,

2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;

3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (I Peter 5)

Peter was a pastor. He was called by God to shepherd the local body of Christ in Jerusalem. He was not the only leader in the local body. He was one of the leaders. Peter calls himself an elder who is charged with shepherding (pastoring) the local body of Christ. According to Peter, a pastor is an elder and an elder should be a pastor. God has given authority to pastors/elders to have over the local body of Christ. They are to lead in this authority, not as dictators, but as servant-leaders who set an example worthy to be followed.

Now, here is why separating pastors and elders is not practical, and a bad idea. You have men who are part of the local body of Christ under the leadership of the pastors. Then, from among the men, some are chosen as elders who are now given a position of authority over the pastors. What if one of the pastors had to correct the elder before he became an elder, when he was under the leadership of the pastor as a member of the local body? What if a pastor had to apply church discipline to that member who later becomes an elder? An elder has a sin nature just like all of us. What is going to keep that elder from taking revenge upon the pastor who used his God given authority to correct or discipline? We would hope that this “elder” would be mature enough in his walk with the Lord not to do this but, the Bible tells us not to give the devil a foothold. This form of government opens the door for the devil. Look at what the Apostle Paul shares with Timothy, a pastor in a local church.

1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom:
2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,
4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (II Timothy 4)

As a pastor, Timothy is to preach the Word. Part of preaching the Word involves to reprove (showing people where they are wrong). Another part of preaching the Word is rebuking (correcting) people. In an elder form of government where the elders come from among the body and have spiritual authority over the pastors, a pastor will always be hesitant to rebuke, correct, and apply church discipline because the person corrected may later become and elder and take revenge. Unfortunately, I have seen the bad side of this. Worse, I have experienced the ugly side of this. I experienced a member under my spiritual authority get raised to the position of elder, with spiritual authority over me. As soon as he was given spiritual authority over me, he began to make accusations, unsubstantiated accusations without witnesses. Because he was under my authority and then given authority over me, the devil took a foothold and created all kinds of problems.

One solution is to have all pastors in a church with an elder form of government be recognized as elders, like the Bible teaches and, have the elders be pastors (shepherds). This is consistent with Biblical teaching. When we distinguish between the function of elders and pastors, we have strayed from the Biblical model.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s