Pastor, Bishop, and Elder:
What's the difference?

by David R. Cox
(c) 2003

When we look at the issue of pastor, we need to understand all we can about what the Bible says about this ministry. To briefly give an overview, the Bible uses the terms, "pastor", "bishop" (or overseer), and "elder" interchangeably for the most part. But there are subtle differences between them.

Definition of "Pastor" - This term is dealing with the gift of spiritual oversight. It is a spiritual ability that God has given some which revolves around several key elements:
(1) studying and expositing the Word of God, explaining the results of those studies to others,
(2) understanding the human error in religion (heresy, disobedience) and being able to discern that in people, groups, movements, organizations, etc, and refute that from Scripture. 
(3) being able to spiritual access the needs and problems of a person from talking to him, and to solve these problems by means of explaining Scripture to answer those problems and needs.

In addition, the pastor is not really a pastor without a group to pastor. No shepherd of sheep is really a shepherd unless he has a charge, likewise a pastor of God's people. We would include in the concept of "pastor" a calling which has to do with God making clear His will that a specific pastor is to be in a specific place (with a specific group of people).

Definition of "Elder" - Elders go way back into the beginning of the Old Testament. The word literally means somebody older, and presumably wiser than the rest. Elders come into being because of the character quality that they possess. Within the framework of the Bible, we should say that not everybody that is older is wiser, and for example the families and tribes in the Old Testament (even outside of Israel) would restrict "their elders" to certain ones of the older men which have manifested character in the form of leadership, wisdom, nobility, and bravery (doing what others would be too scared to do themselves). Eldership is not focused on the talent or the official position (office) but rather on the spiritual quality of the character of the man.

Within the context of the church, elders would be those men who are spiritually mature, very capable and able of leading others and ruling over the church, WHETHER THESE MEN ARE OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED OR NOT. Some churches may have men qualifying to be elders that they simply do not recognize. This is sad but it happens.

Definition of "Bishop" (overseer) - The bishop is the one man who is spiritually responsible to God and before the brethren for the church. This means that he is officially the one God will hold responsible. He has a definite office, which he must enter only after his spiritual qualifications (that he is elder material) have been checked and approved, and the church approves him.

Once approved, he is to take the leadership and lead the church. If he disqualifies himself, the church is to remove him from his position and find another. This term refers principally to the office, by which he leads, guides, presides, and officially represents the church.

Three different terms, one man. To clarify the usage of these terms in the Bible, consider the terms, "father", "husband", and "employee". One and the same man can occupy all three terms without any problem. They speak of relationships and obligations and responsibilities. Likewise these terms for pastor can be used interchangeably. If you want to be technical, the term pastor refers to the spiritual gift that the man exercises. The term elder speaks of the qualifying spiritual character that the pastor needs. When you speak of bishop or overseer you are really referring to the spiritual office of a church. Because of the misuse of the term bishop in the Catholic church, we would tend to shy away from using that term because it may cause misunderstandings. When referring to the official church position, we would prefer the term "oversight" or "overseer". Likewise the term pastor is only used when it is referring to that relationship of spiritual oversight between the man and others. It really is a misuse of the term to refer to a pastor between churches as "pastor". A pastor has a spiritual gift that he exercises in the context of a group of people (a church). Without the group of people, he really is not a pastor, but rather an elder. 

We note finally the exact terms in a few specific passages. If you study this you will find the fine definitions between the terms comes through a little better.


The word only occurs in English once in the New Testament KJV, Eph. 4:11, as a gift that God gives to the local church. It occurs in Jeremiah in the Old Testament eight times, 2:8; 3:15; 10:21; 12:10; 17:16; 22:22; 23:1-2.

KJV Ephesians 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;

We would note that this single use of the word is referring to a spiritual gift within the local church in the church age. This is only thing that it can possibly be. To reject pastors on any basis must have a clear and unequivocal explanation that is not forthcoming. Note that many people would link the two gifts together "pastors-teachers". I do not think this is justified. The gift of pastor is spiritual oversight, and the gift of teacher is pure feeding. There may be some overlap, but we can see the same overlay with the gift of evangelist and pastor. Likewise, the rebuking of sin aspect of the prophet overlaps with what a pastor does, as at times the gift of apostle (which is essentially that of missionary, i.e. evangelism and church planting).

KJV Jeremiah 2:8 The priests said not, Where is the LORD? and they that handle the law knew me not: the pastors also transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal, and walked after things that do not profit.

KJV Jeremiah 3:15 And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.

KJV Jeremiah 10:21 For the pastors are become brutish, and have not sought the LORD: therefore they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered.

KJV Jeremiah 12:10 Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.

KJV Jeremiah 17:16 As for me, I have not hastened from being a pastor to follow thee: neither have I desired the woeful day; thou knowest: that which came out of my lips was right before thee.

KJV Jeremiah 22:22 The wind shall eat up all thy pastors, and thy lovers shall go into captivity: surely then shalt thou be ashamed and confounded for all thy wickedness.

KJV Jeremiah 23:1 Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD. 2 Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.

We would note here that all of the uses in Jeremiah are talking about a person who is in spiritual oversight over God's people. Jeremiah 3:15 is very clear what God's will is in the matter. Although most of these passages have to do with a person in spiritual oversight over God's people, we cannot help but notice that most of them are rebukes of these people for not doing it correctly!

Other translations of the concept "pastor". We must realize that the origins underlying our English version is a much more authoritative battle ground. When we look for the Greek and Hebrew words for "pastor", we see a larger context and use of the same concept.

"Pastor" Hebrew - 07462.  ra`ah

This word occurs 144 times in the Old Testament. We should note that the word can be used as a verb or a noun, "to pastor" or "pastor" (a person). The word is typically translated "shepherd".

Strong's definition of "ra'ah" - a primitive root; to tend a flock; i.e. pasture it; intransitively, to graze (literally or figuratively); generally to rule; by extension, to associate with (as a friend):--X break, companion, keep company with, devour, eat up, evil entreat, feed, use as a friend, make friendship with, herdman, keep (sheep)(-er), pastor, + shearing house, shepherd, wander, waste.

What we learn from studying these passages is that the pastor very simply was a caretaker of the sheep for the owner. There is a big difference made in the Bible between a true pastor seriously undertakes his duty and charge even to risking his own life, welfare, and personal security, and a hireling which takes the easy route and flees from danger leaving the charge to fight for themselves. No surprise here. Anybody that has been a church member under a hireling pastor and one that has been under a true man of God dedicated to his charge and duty can recount numerous examples of how one impressed him and the other disappointed him.

Complete listing of all occurances of Hebrew "ra'ah", "pastor" or "to pastor" Strong Number 07462

After studying the issue of pastors, we find that the concept behind the English word "feed" is not sufficient to grasp the Hebrew concept "ra'ah". The Hebrew concept is to pastor, not to feed. We reiterate the principle tasks of a pastor again, (1) to feed, (2) to warn and protect from danger, (3) to make pastoral visits (fix whatever is wrong). This is the concept behind the Hebrew word. At times "feed" is adequate, and at other times it is not.

Study notes on "ra'ah". We would amplify from the above study a few keys points.

  • Shepherds seldom take care of their own sheep. A study of the passages of shepherds reveals that seldom are the shepherds the owners of the sheep, most commonly, they are either the children of the owner, hired laborers from outside the family, or someone other than the owners.

  • Sheep that have no shepherd. This is a disastrous state of affairs in the Lord's opinion. This phrase is always used in a negative, condemning manner. The believer that has no one to properly "shepherd" or "pastor" him is at a great disadvantage, never being what is God's will. Examples  Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16 "as sheep that have no shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master".

  • Shepherding means making executive decisions (leadership) for his charge. In the case of Saul, God placed Saul as king of Israel, and to describe this (new) relationship Israel was to have with their leader Saul, God says "thou wast he that leddest out and broughtest in Israel ...Thou shalt feed my people Israel, and thou shalt be a captain over Israel." 2 Samuel 5:2. In 1 Chronicles 11:2 the linkage is even clearer, "Saul was king, thou [wast] he that leddest out and broughtest in Israel: and the LORD thy God said unto thee, Thou shalt feed my people Israel, and thou shalt be ruler over my people Israel." The point is that God draws a very clear relationship between governing and ruling and the term "shepherd" or "pastor". In relationship to David, this is nicely noted, "So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands." Psalm 78:72. This reveals that the key aspect of shepherding is quite simply leadership, good leadership which can only come out of the clean heart of a good man of God. Ecclesiastes 12:11 brings out a wisdom aspect of this leadership.

  • Shepherding involves organization of God's people into units (churches). "My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray" Jeremiah 50:6. Pastors are supposed to gather God's people into the flock (the local church) and organize them and their activities so that they can do the purposes that God has set for them. For a shepherd to scatter or drive away God's people from the fold is work directly in counter of the purposes of God for the pastor. By many pastors do exactly this because their concept is to use God's people, once the members they have get "burned" (have bad experiences with the pastor) and leave, the pastor goes recruiting more. There is a constant turn over, and the few that stay through it all is because they have learned to ignore all the bad and improper things the pastor does. This is not the way God planned it to be! Woe to the pastor that does not do everything in his power (including checking his speech and actions) to keep the people of God in his church from getting mad, being offended and leaving. God will judge him harshly for what he does to God's people. 

  • The shepherd's job involves procuring good pasture and clean water. This means that he is constantly on the hunt for the benefit of his charge. In the Old Testament usage of "shepherd" (of animals), we see the shepherds or herdsmen often at strive with other herdsmen over water or pasture. This does not condemn strive between churches, but it does point up the fact that this is the major concern of the pastor. He is consumed by this. His life is made difficult because this drive within him forces him to walk long miles into the desert in order to procure good things for his charge. Note: Proverbs 10:21 lips of the righteous "feed" many. Proverbs 15:14, the foolish "shepherd over" foolishness, they are dedicated wholly to it.

  • Shepherding involves defending the sheep from dangers. We need to understand the shepherding goes beyond just putting food out for the sheep (or taking them to it). Involves the welfare and well-being of the sheep, whatever that involves, fighting off predators, or even applying medical remedies to problems. 1 Samuel 17:34, 40 (shepherd's bag); Isaiah 31:4. Note that the job of pastoring involves destroying and breaking (Jer 2:16) as much as healing and building. Many times you have to destroy what Satan has built on the foundation before you can begin to build what God wants. In the case of false doctrine, heresy, or other things that such as misplaced priorities, you have to destroy these before you can really progress for God. A pastor does not hesitate to do what is necessary to accomplish God's purpose.

  • "Wandering" is shepherding. In Numbers 14:33, the concept of "wandering in the wilderness 40 years" is "shepherding" or "pastoring". The idea is to go from place to place in search of water and food. This is at the root of the idea of shepherding. The pastor of a church "wanders" with his congregation every Sunday from one subject in the Word of God to another, seeking for good spiritual food.

  • To pastor is to be a friend, companion. The idea of friendship comes from companionship. This highlights that pastoring is much more than just feeding, but it is a mutual relationship of providing for one another (leadership in exchange for sustenance. Judges 14:20; Proverbs 13:20; 22:24; 28:7; 29:3.

  • Warnings of God to the shepherds of Israel. Isaiah 54:11 criticizes the shepherds of Israel with two key criticisms, (1) they are greedy, not for taking, but for not refraining their taking to what is just, and (2) they do not understand. This last point is interesting, spiritual pastoring is all about teaching, and the last thing you want is a teacher that he himself does not understand. This is the worse criticism that can be leveled against a teacher, "you yourself do not understand what you are doing, what you are teaching, your own subject matter!" God's indictment against them is that they are self-serving, occupying the position for what they themselves can get out of it without really undertaking the burden of the position (the welfare and well-being of the sheep). 
    Jeremiah 2:8
    brings another clarification here,"they that handle the law knew me not . . . walked after [things that] do not profit". Ignorance of who God is and what God is like, and what God likes and dislikes is also a grievous charge against the pastors. These pastors feed the sheep with things that do not profit (as per the owner of the sheep, God). God has a plan and agenda to be carried out for the sheep, and the pastors are to execute this agenda and plan. When they "occupy space" but do not accomplish these basic most plans and agenda of God, then they are to be highly condemned.
    Jeremiah 3:15
    "pastors according to my heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding".  Clearly the desire of the Lord is that the believer is given a constant diet of knowledge of God and the things of God, and understanding about these things (explanation or exposition of God's Word). This will only happen when men are called of God, gifted by God, and dedicate their lives to doing this the way God wants it done. Key here is focus on the Word of God (actually reading it, dealing with the text) and understanding it (explaining it simply so that the people understand the sense Nehemiah 8:8, and can use it usefully in their own lives, making personal application).
    Jeremiah 10:21
    "Brutish" means to kindle like a fire, to consume like a wildfire. This is linked with not seeking the Lord. Although every shepherd lives of the fruit of the flock, there comes a point when he "consumes his capital" (the flock) and this is a grievous crime. The owner allows him latitude in personally partaking of the fruit (wool and milk) but never does the owner forgive consuming the flock.
    Jeremiah 12:10 "many pastors have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot." The point here is how they treat their charge. God switches to a steward's relationship towards the vineyard he is charged with keeping. He uncaringly treads on it, treating it as if it were unimportant, as though he could care less if he does damage or benefit to it.

  • At times the term "shepherding" is used in a negative sense, to treat roughly, to consume (justly or unjustly). Apparently even in the Old Testament the misuse of the pastoring office was notorious. Job 24:21; Psa. 80:13.

  • God clearing makes a parallel between what God does to men, and what a shepherd does to his flock. See Genesis 48:15; God is our Shepherd. Psalms 23:1; 78:71; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jer 31:10.