Quoted from “The Church of Christ”, A Biblical Ecclesiology For Today (pp. 318–329)
Everett Ferguson
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
Scripture Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV-CE)


Discussion of ordination leads to a consideration of those ministers appointed or recognized by the church. The New Testament provides for the continuation of ministers who will have a personal and living presence in the church. They, too, are God’s gift to his people, for they are part of his provision for the ongoing life of his church. These functionaries correspond to the threefold work of the church outlined at the beginning of this chapter.

The Gospel of Matthew, as noted above, emphasizes the time that Jesus spent teaching his disciples. This spiritual nurture of the disciples was a pastoral ministry. All ministry derives from Jesus, and the shepherds in the church continue this aspect of the all-encompassing ministry of Jesus. Christ and his gifts are the standard of all ministry in the church. Even so, he is the model of the pastoral ministry in the church. Jesus remains the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4) or “Great Shepherd” (Heb. 13:20). Other shepherds are “under shepherds,” extending the shepherding ministry of Jesus and serving under his example and directions.

The resurrected Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, commissioned Peter to “shepherd my sheep” (John 21:16; cf. vss. 15 and 17, “feed”). It is appropriate, therefore, that 1 Peter makes extensive use of pastoral language, describing Christians as sheep and Jesus, the author, and the elders of the church as shepherds. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian [bishop] of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25). Identifying himself as a “fellow elder” (or “shepherd,” 1 Pet. 5:1), Peter promises the shepherds of the church that “when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away” (1 Pet. 5:4). The pastoral language is applied to other apostles, as well as to Peter. The apostles as part of their founding of the church formed its first pastors or bishops (Acts 1:20). Paul presented himself, after Jesus, as a model for the elder-bishops of the church (Acts 20:17-35).

The function of shepherd or guardian was a definite office, or, better, “good work” (1 Tim. 3:1), or place in the church.


Three separate passages in the New Testament employ three distinct terms to describe the same group of functionaries in the church.

I exhort the elders among you to pastor the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight. (1 Pet. 5:1-2)

From Miletus [Paul] sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. When they came to him, he said to them: … Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [bishops] to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. (Acts 20:17, 28)

I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you… . For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless. (Titus 1:5-7)

First Peter says that the elders’ work is to pastor or shepherd the flock and be bishops (“exercising the oversight,” although some manuscripts lack this phrase). Paul addressed the elders as bishops (guardians, overseers), whose work was to be a pastor or shepherd. The letter to Titus equates elders with bishops, who are also stewards. These terms all describe the same class of functionaries in the church. The same task may have many names, even as the same title could be used of various activities (as may be seen in the broad application of diakonos, “deacon,” for many different functions—p. 334). The relationship of the Greek terms and their various English translations may be set forth in chart form:

Greek Transliteration Latin English
presbyteros presbyter senior elder (older person)
episkopos bishop supervisor (superintendent) overseer
poimen   pastor shepherd (herder of sheep)
oikonomos     steward (warden of sty)


Jesus was called shepherd and bishop (1 Pet. 2:25) but not “elder,” no doubt because that was a specific office in the Jewish society of his day which he did not fill. The absence of that term in reference to Jesus does not affect the general validity of the point that Jesus is “the bishop” of the church and that elders are extensions of his pastoral ministry.

The work of shepherds in looking after sheep—protecting them, leading them to water and pasture, caring for their injuries, seeking them when lost—from early times had become widely used in the Near East to provide imagery to describe political and religious leaders. This metaphorical use is reflected in the Old Testament (Isa. 56:11; Jer. 23:4; 50:6; Nah. 3:18; Zech. 10:3). Ezekiel 34 provides the most extensive use of the imagery, and in its condemnation of the leaders of Israel offers a negative description of the conduct that should not characterize shepherds. By way of contrast, the Johannine Jesus presents himself as the “Good Shepherd,” with a positive description of what a shepherd should be (John 10:2-16; cf. pp. 122-124 on this imagery for the church). Shepherds (or pastors, and equivalent to elders/bishops—Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2), especially in their teaching work, are among Christ’s gifts to his church (Eph. 4:11).

The elders in the early church derived their name and function, similarly, from Judaism, which had known this position from Old Testament times (Num. 11:16-24; Deut. 21:19-20; 1 Kings 21:8-11). The Jewish elders mentioned in the Gospels were most often members of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (e.g., Mark. 11:27; 14:53), but there were elders in the local Jewish communities, and these, too, are mentioned in the New Testament (Luke 7:3). The Jewish elders were older men of experience and wisdom whose principal function was judicial—deciding disputed cases, interpreting the Law, and administering discipline. They also preserved the traditions of the people (Deut. 32:7) and served as examples. Elders in early Christian congregations continued to perform the same functions—overseeing the affairs of the community (Acts 11:30), deciding disputes (Acts 15:6, 22), and preserving the teachings (1 Tim. 5:17). Since elder was already a title or position in Judaism, when it was adopted by Christians, there was already a definite concept in mind. Although a young man obviously did not have the maturity required for the office, the position was not tied to age per se.

As in Jewish communities, elders (plural) always appear as a collegial group in Christian congregations (Acts 14:23; 21:18; 1 Tim. 4:14; James 5:14; cf. Phil. 1:1, “bishops and deacons”). A plural leadership has its own dynamics. A singular leadership is more efficient, so governments and armies want a single commander, and businesses and institutions want a single executive. But Jewish and Christian communities at the turn of the era followed a different pattern. Where the goal is not efficiency but spiritual growth, there a plural leadership offers the advantage of multiple mature examples and the opportunity for understanding and judgment drawn from collective experience.

“Bishop” was used in Hellenistic Greek for various kinds of managers, foremen, supervisors, and inspectors. It could refer to state officials with various civic functions, to supervisors at sanctuaries (but without cultic functions), to construction foremen, and in an educational context to tutors. It also could be used of a scout or watchman, and in that sense it was used of certain philosophers. In a religious sense it could be used of the gods, who exercised providence and watched over compacts. Although the distinction is not rigid, in general elders appear in the New Testament in contexts more Jewish (Acts 11:30: James 5:14) and bishops appear in contexts more Gentile (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-2). Nevertheless, there was at Qumran a functionary similar to the Hellenistic bishop, the mebaqqer, an etymological equivalent in Hebrew of “overseer.” His functions included teaching and judging the members, handling the money of the community, assigning work, and examining new applicants for membership. Whereas “elder” emphasized more the age, experience, and judiciousness of the leaders of Christian communities, “bishop” emphasized the more active side of their work in managing affairs, guarding the group, and directing activities. The word “bishop” suggests more a singular role than a plural role, so when one chief elder emerged in some churches at the beginning of the second century, it was natural that this was the term used for this person.

Steward was another common secular term in Hellenistic-Roman times, but it, too, represents an institution known in Old Testament times (Gen. 39:4f.; Isa. 22:15; 36:3). Its use for an elder/bishop in Titus 1:7 reflects the household imagery of the Pastoral Epistles. A steward was a trusted slave or freedman charged with managing household or other affairs for the owner. The church is presented as the family or household of God the Father (1 Tim. 3:15); the stewards take care of its affairs for him. Since a steward took care of what was not his own but belonged to another, he was expected to be prudent (Luke 12:42) and above all faithful (1 Cor. 4:1-2), for he would have to give account to the owner (Luke 16:2; cf. Heb. 13:17). This title did not acquire the widespread currency in ecclesiastical usage that the other terms did.


Two clearly marked lists of qualifications of the bishop/elder are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. The contents are quite similar, but even the same ideas are often expressed in different wording. The purpose in both passages is to say, “This is the kind of man you want.”

The specific items may be grouped in certain categories. Most have to do with character and habits or temperament. Other qualifications relate to experience (“not a recent convert”—1 Tim. 3:6), reputation (“well thought of by outsiders”—1 Tim. 3:7), intellect (“an apt teacher”—1 Tim. 3:2), and domestic relations (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6). The last seems to have been particularly important as the training and proving ground for responsibilities in the church: “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:5).

Two opposite tendencies, both incorrect, have been exhibited toward these lists of qualifications. One is to set the standards so high that virtually no one can meet them and so not appoint men to the work. The other is to minimize the requirements with the attitude of choosing the best available even if unqualified. Both approaches have the consequence of ignoring or setting aside the instructions and thus not taking seriously the biblical standards for congregational leadership.


The responsibilities of the Christian pastor/elder/bishop may be learned from the New Testament in three ways: from the names given to them, from their qualifications, and from the specific instructions given to them.

Each name given to the congregational leaders suggests something different, but each supplements and enriches the other. The title “elder” indicated the community leaders, the honored men, who by reason of experience and wisdom were recognized as examples. They preserved the traditions and way of life, they interpreted the law, they settled disputes, and they assigned discipline. The title “bishop” suggested a manager, administrator, or supervisor. Since it did not have the specific content that the word “elder” had, it had the flexibility to develop according to the developments within the church. The position of “steward,” as someone who took care of the property of another, carries the idea of responsibility for seeing that jobs are done, for finances, and for general welfare. The term “shepherd” indicated a person with care for the well-being of others, responsibility to protect and provide for others. This imagery evokes the picture of a shepherd leading and the sheep following (cf. John 10:4).

The qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are not arbitrary but are related to the work to be done. Certain qualities are expressed because certain responsibilities must be met. Some of the items in the lists may serve as illustrations of the principle that there is a correlation between the qualifications stated and the duties to be performed. The overseer “must not be a recent convert” (1 Tim. 3:6), thus an experienced and proven leader, because in his position he had to know and understand the faith. He must be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7) because he represented the church to those on the outside. He must “manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4) because he did for the church what a father did for his family (or in this case a steward for the Father). He must be “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8) because he hosted the church in his home for its meetings and received Christians from other places. He must make proper use of money (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7), not just as a matter of reputation, but because he took care of the funds and property of the community. He must be peaceful (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7f.) because he was a peacemaker, a judge in disputes among the members. He must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2) because he was responsible for teaching in the church.

The specific instructions given to the presbyter-bishops reinforce the picture drawn from the names and lists of qualifications. First Peter 5:2-3 tells the elders to “shepherd” and “be a bishop”; the new information in the passage is the manner in which this is to be done. It is spelled out both negatively and positively in three antitheses: “not under compulsion [not of necessity] but willingly, … not for gain but eagerly [readily],” not as lords but as examples. The phrase “as God would have you do it” (missing from some manuscripts) admirably sums up the manner in which the work of the elder is to be done. There is no sense of tension between the elders and those with a gift, whether of speaking or of serving, mentioned a few verses before (1 Pet. 4:10-11).

Acts 20:28 tells the elders/bishops “to shepherd the church,” to “keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock.” The whole address in Acts 20:18-35 is pertinent, the special concern of which is warning against false teachers. Hence the need for watchfulness and to “be alert” (vss. 30-31). The tasks of the shepherd are to guard against enemies of the sheep and provide them with nourishment. For the latter, note the association of pastors with teachers in Ephesians 4:11.

Titus 1:9 continues the concern with instruction in the face of false teachers. The elder-bishop’s work is both positive and negative: to exhort in the truth and to reprove its opponents. “He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching so that he may be able both to preach [exhort] with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”

First Timothy 5:17 speaks of “the elders who rule well.” The word means literally those who “preside” or “stand in front of,” and so refers to those who lead, those who manage or conduct affairs, and then those who care for and provide for (cf. 1 Thess. 5:12; Rom. 12:8; 1 Tim. 3:4). Although all elders were to be capable of teaching (1 Tim. 3:2), not all “labor[ed] in preaching and teaching,” that is, gave much time and attention to it.

Several of these instructions (“rule”) and descriptions (“stewards”) imply what we would call administrative responsibilities. This responsibility is consistent with what has been seen about the activities of all the members. The elder-bishops give organization to the members of the body who are gifted in various ways, not by the elders themselves but by God. The elders do not grant to persons roles or gifts. They work these people into the work of the body. Even as in a human body we try to employ all the “members” appropriate to a task, so also in the body of Christ.

Elders were also leaders in prayer: Any who are sick “should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them” (James 5:14).


First Timothy 5:18 lays down the principle that it is proper to provide financial support for those elders who “labor,” who devote their time to the work of leading and teaching the people.

Moreover, respect for elders requires that an accusation against one of them must be supported by the evidence of two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19).

Other instructions about responsibilities of the people to their spiritual leaders do not employ the words for elders/bishops/pastors, but the teaching presumably covers them as well. Thus 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 commands the people to “respect” (know, recognize) their leaders and to “esteem them very highly in love.” Hebrews 13:7, 17 says to “obey” (trust in, follow) and “submit” (yield) to the leaders while imitating their faith.

These instructions, of course, are to be understood in relation to the principles of servant-leadership presented above and Jesus’ teachings about the attitudes of leaders (Luke 22:25-26). A people voluntarily submitting to those in whom they recognize the moral and spiritual leadership they want to follow is not the same as leaders insisting on being obeyed because of their position. The authority of elders/bishops is the moral authority that comes from their loving service, their example, and their spiritual knowledge and experience.


The construction of the Greek of Ephesians 4:11 brings “pastors and teachers” into close relationship as one category distinct from the preceding groups. The discussion of the work of elders/bishops/pastors above has highlighted their teaching ministry. Teaching might be done also by apostles (2 Tim. 1:11), prophets (1 Cor. 14:3), preachers (1 Tim. 4:6, 11; 6:2), deacons (1 Tim. 3:9), and women (Titus 2:4). Nevertheless, there were teachers in the early church who were neither elders nor any of these others, and to this class of functionaries attention is now turned.

Teachers shared with pastors the work of edifying believers. Some of these teachers apparently were specially inspired for this function (1 Cor. 12:28; cf. Acts 13:1 for the association of teachers with prophets), but inspiration was not essential to the teaching task (albeit performing the very important purpose of protecting the accuracy of what was taught), and the concern here is with teachers in the continuing life of the church.

Teachers were especially associated with moral instruction and the practical application of the revelation. The content of early Christian teaching may be categorized as exposition of the Old Testament in the light of Christ, preservation and application of the teachings of Jesus, and instruction on how to live as a Christian. Both doctrinal matters and elementary practical instruction were within the scope of the teaching ministry. Teachers thus contributed in an important way in the work of edification.

The activity of teaching occurs much more frequently in the early church than does the title “teacher.” The great majority of the occurrences of the noun didaskalos (teacher) in the New Testament are in the Gospels and refer to Jesus, who is frequently addressed with this title (e.g., Matt. 8:19; Mark 4:38). Perhaps his warning that “you have one teacher” (Matt. 23:8) helped to reserve the title for Jesus alone. As Jesus is “the Prophet” and “the Shepherd” of the church, so he is “the Teacher.” Nevertheless, as was true of other aspects of his ministry, others continued the function of teaching in the church, even if more often expressed in other words. He provided the model and example for future teachers.

The ability to teach is one of the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:7). The activity of teaching and the principle of financial support for teachers are expressed in Galatians 6:6, “Those who are taught in the word must share in all good things with their teacher.” There is a fellowship of teaching and learning; those who impart spiritual things should receive material support from those taught (cf. Rom. 15:27 in another context). The author of Hebrews expects Christians to become teachers of others: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12).

The fullest discussion of the teaching office in the church is found in the third chapter of James. Only superficially in contradiction to Hebrews 5:12, James warns, “Not many of you should become teachers … for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). As Peter identified himself with the elders (1 Pet. 5:1), James identified himself with the teachers. His reminder of the seriousness and importance of teaching is followed by the discussion of the use of the tongue (James 3:2-12). Teaching requires the use of the tongue, and the ease with which the tongue sins explains the strictness of the judgment on teachers and the caution against a hasty desire for the position of a teacher. If one could avoid sinning with the tongue, he or she would be a perfect person. The teacher, however, has no choice but to speak, and so accepts the greater risks and responsibilities of the use of the tongue. The last paragraph of the chapter (vss. 13-18) returns more directly to the function of the teacher. James talks about the wise person, picking up the theme of wisdom from the Old Testament. In addition to kings, priests, and prophets, Judaism had known the office of the wise (cf. Jer. 18:18). These were teachers, and they produced the wisdom literature of the Jews. In later Judaism the rabbis continued to be known as “the wise.” James contrasts the heavenly wisdom to be exemplified by the true teacher with earthly wisdom. His words are a challenging description of the qualifications and work of the Christian teacher.


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