Do the titles elder, overseer, and shepherd refer to one and the same office? The answer is yes, and a brief survey of a few NT passages will provide ample evidence for such a conclusion. The basic thesis of this article is that the overlap of terminology from one title to the next in a number of texts clearly shows the offices of elder, overseer, and shepherd to be one and the same.
Elders Are Overseers
Paul clearly equates elders with overseers in Titus 1:5, 7. Paul tells Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete,” namely, to “appoint elders [presbuteros] in every town” (Titus 1:5). Immediately after telling Titus to appoint elders, Paul then gives some initial qualifications for elders (Titus 1:6) and then gives his reason for doing so: “For an overseer [episkopos], as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7).
The equation of elders with overseers is seen again in Acts 20:17, 28. Luke records that Paul “sent to Ephesus and called the elders [presbuteros] of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17). In addressing these elders, Paul stated to them that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos]” (Acts 20:28).
Elders Are Overseers Who Shepherd
To quote Acts 20:28 again, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit had “made them overseers [episkopos], to care for the church of God.” The infinitive “to care” is literally rendered “to shepherd” (poimainō). Paul saw shepherding as the primary role of elders who the Spirit had appointed to be overseers. What is helpful to notice at this point is that Acts 20:17, 28 uses some form of all three terms to refer to the same office: elders were appointed overseers to shepherd.
Elders Shepherd by Exercising Oversight
Peter likewise exhorted “the elders [presbuteros] among you” (1 Peter 5:1) to “shepherd [poimainō] the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2) and to do so by “exercising oversight.” The participle “exercising oversight” (episkopeō) is the verbal cognate of the noun “overseer” (episkopos) and is subordinate to Peter’s imperative to shepherd (“shepherd the flock of God, exercising oversight”). Though Peter does not identify elders as overseers, he does tell them to shepherd by exercising oversight. It seems fair to conclude that Peter would say that those who exercise oversight could be called overseers who, in this case, are elders. Similar to Acts 20:17, 28, Peter uses some form of all three terms to refer to the same office in 1 Peter 5:1–2: elders were to shepherd by exercising oversight.
Christ Is Both Shepherd and Overseer
Another helpful text in identifying overseers as shepherds is 1 Peter 2:25. Peter refers to Christ as “the Shepherd [poimēn] and Overseer [episkopos] of your souls.” Though Peter was not speaking of shepherds and overseers in general, the overlap in terminology with reference to Christ has bearing upon how this terminology is used for shepherds and overseers in general. If Christ is both Overseer and Shepherd, it is easy to infer that overseers and shepherds in general are one and the same as well. The overlap in terminology in Acts 20:17, 28 and 1 Peter 5:1–2 makes this conclusion all the more certain.
With this being my first article on this site, let me say thank you to Scott Aniol for his gracious invitation to regularly write for Religious Affections Ministries. I simply hope to echo the Scriptures in order to be a help to any and all who read. I pastor First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, and I am an Applied Theology Ph. D. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (graduating this May, assuming all goes well with my dissertation defense). My concentration is in Christian Leadership, so my contributions will be primarily limited to pastoral and practical theology.