The Difference Between Elders and Pastors


John Brown of Haddington, Systematic Theology, pp. 568-569.

It is plain from Scripture declarations that Christ has appointed rulers in his church that are not appointed to preach the gospel (Rom 12:7-8; Heb 13:7,17). Different gifts qualify men for teaching and for ruling (Eph 4:7). Such rulers are necessary for the assistance of pastors (Gal 2:9-10; Acts 6:2-4; Exod 18:17-23).

The complete form of every Christian congregation requires several elders (Acts 20:17-38; Acts 14:23). Christian churches have courts similar to those Jewish ones which had the power of excommunication; and which consisted of elders ruling as representatives of the congregation (Matt 18:15-17; Num 35:24; Deut 19:12; Josh 20:4,6; Exod 12:3,21); by comparing of which texts we find that “congregation” denotes rulers of it. The Seventy [i.e. the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament)] use the very word ecclesia, which is translated “church” in Matthew 28:17.

But the divine appointment of ruling elders is still more evident:

1. From Romans 12:5-8, “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.

Where we find in the one body of the gospel church prophesying, which includes teaching and exhortation, which may correspond with teachers and pastors (Eph 4:11); and ministry, answerable to the deacon that gives out the church’s charity, and shews mercy in visiting the sick and imprisoned, and to the elder that rules with diligence. Here different gifts, given to profit withal, infer different offices (Eph 4:7-11; 1 Cor 12:7-8). Here is one that rules characterized by different gifts, and different work.

2. From 1 Corinthians 12:28, “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

Where we find governments, that is, governors, even as miracles denote workers of miracles, set by God in the Christian church. While they are represented as different from helps or deacons (Acts 6:1-6), their designation of governments marks that their office is chiefly, if not solely, executed in ruling. It much more properly denotes them rulers of church members, than mere managers of church money.

It is further observable that God has set some, not all, [exclusively as] governments or governors in the church.

From 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

Where some elders are represented as worthy of double honour, though they do no more than rule well, while others are represented as more worthy of double honour because they not only rule well, but also labour in word and doctrine. All which elders belong to the church (compare 1 Tim 1:19; 1 Tim 4:14; 1 Tim 3:15). Kopiontes labouring” doth not denote uncommon diligence, but the common duty of all gospel ministers (1 Cor 3:8; 1 Thess 5:12; John 4:38). Malista “especially” always in the New Testament distinguishes persons or things of the same general class, one from another (Acts 20:38; Acts 23:26; Acts 26:3; Gal 6:10; Phil 4:22; 1 Tim 4:10; 1 Tim 5:8; 2 Tim 4:13; Titus 1:10; Phil 16; 2 Pet 2:10).

Not only do most of the chief Fathers in the Christian church declare for ruling elders, but even Papists and Episcopalians, who inveigh against them, have a shadow of them in their chancellors, officials, commissaries, wardens: and bishops having no care of souls, are lay elders properly so called. Independents also manage most of their congregational affairs by a few of their number.

The necessary qualifications of ruling elders are:

1. True piety (1 Tim 4:12; 2 Tim 2:21-22).

2. Capacity for judging causes (1 Chron 12:32; Deut 1:13; 1 Kings 3:5-15; Isa 11:2-5; Num 11:16-17).

3. Wisdom, prudence, and uprightness of conduct, connected with a good report from others (1 Tim 3:1-8; Ps 101:2-8).

Their ordination ought to be transacted in much the same manner as that of teaching elders or pastors (Acts 1:15-26; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14).

Their duty in general is to rule well; particularly:

1. In judging the agreeableness of doctrines to the word of God, judicially declaring what seems good to the Holy Ghost and to them, in controverted points of principle or practice (Acts 15:28-29; Acts 16:4; Rev 2:2; Acts 20:17-31).

2. In admitting persons to church-fellowship on proper qualifications (Matt 16:19).

3. In directing or encouraging church-members to observe Christ’s laws, for the honour of God and their own mutual edification (Heb 13:7,17).

4. In taking care that all the ordinances of the gospel be duly preserved in their purity and perfection (Song 1:7-8).

5. In carefully watching over the moral behaviour of church-members, instructing, admonishing, exhorting, comforting, or rebuking them, as they find cause (Heb 13:17).

6. In visiting the sick in body, or distressed in mind (James 5:14).

7. In making provision for the poor, or other expenses necessary for promoting the spiritual welfare of the congregation (Acts 11:27-30).

8. In judging the case of offenders and penitents, in order to censure the former, and absolve the latter (Matt 18:15-18; Matt 16:19).

9. In regulating diets of fasting, thanksgiving, the Lord’s Supper, etc. (1 Cor 14:26,40).


11 thoughts on “The Difference Between Elders and Pastors

  1. The above incorrect. The writers of the New Testament used “pastor” and “overseer” to describe “elders”… 1 Peter 5 “To the ELDERS among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be PASTORS of God’s flock that is under your care, OVERSEEING them… And when the Chief Pastor appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (see also the synonymous use in Titus 1 and Acts 20). Furthermore, according to 1 Timothy 3, elders must be godly men who are “apt to teach.”
    1 Timothy 5:17 allows for a distinction of gifting and labour within the office of elder… But it’s still the same office and same kind of ministry.
    It’s been almost 500 years since the Reformation, and we still need to debate this?


  2. All bishops/overseers/pastors are elders, no one disputes this. The point is that some elders rule only while others rule and preach. This has been the ubiquitous position of the universal Church all along and does not originate with the Reformation and certainly has no been disproven since then. Samuel Miller has an entire book about the Ruling Elder that can be accessed for free here, I highly recommend it!


    1. Thanks for the response Paul. I’m aware of the history of teaching at the during the beginnings of the Reformation. The problem is, your assertion that “some elders rule only” is found no where in Scripture (if it is – can you point it out to me?). If some elders were to “only rule,” why must all elders be “apt to teach”?


  3. Being “apt to teach” does not mean that it is their primary function to preach and it doesn’t make them Teaching Elders; that would ignore the distinction Scripture makes between Elders that only rule and Elders that rule as well as preach. There are several ways that Ruling Elders teach without making them Teaching Elders. Rev. William Davidson wrote:

    “The Ruling Elder should be “apt to teach.” It is his duty to visit the sick, and converse and pray with them (James 5:14) to speak occasionally in prayer-meetings, Sabbath-schools, and church courts; to converse with those who are inquiring about salvation, and teach them what they need to know; to hunt out baptized youth, and open up to them the high privileges and the solemn obligations of their position; to instruct the ignorant and reclaim the erring of the flock; to visit and condole with the orphans, the widows and all those in affliction or adversity; to catechise the children of their respective districts, and converse and pray with families from time to time; to reclaim erring brethren, and influence worldly men to come to Christ and receive a better portion; to be able to give infidels a reason for the faith that is in them, and by sound doctrine to exhort and to convince the gain-sayers. Surely, therefore, it is desirable that the Elder be apt to teach. He should not only be a man of sound mind, sound faith and enlarged views; ho should also, upon occasions, be able to make a respectable statement, defence and commendation of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus.”


    1. Thanks for your reply. I understand Davidson’s pragmatic argument, but I still see no indication in Scripture that there will be elders who *only* rule. It’s just not there. We might just have to agree to disagree on this one. As long as you affirm all elders (whether ruling/teaching/etc) occupy the same office I don’t think you’re in any serious error.


  4. I am less concerned about the preaching/teaching and ruling distinctions, and more concerned that calling teaching elders “pastors” appropriates all of the scriptural shepherding metaphor to teaching elders alone.

    If you ask folks in your congregations, “Who is your pastor?” will they identify their closest ruling elder? Or will they identify the teaching elder who preaches most Sundays? And yet, I don’t see how Scripture makes a distinction between ruling and teaching elders in their obligations to shepherd. Truly, both are pastors. But because our colloquial language supports teaching elders as “pastors,” people gravitate to them for their shepherding needs. Speaking with a ruling elder seems sub-par; they must speak with the “pastor.” Etc.

    If we were to rectify this, we would either identify all elders as pastors (teaching and ruling pastors?), or else identify all men as elders – and abandon the word “pastor” altogether. Given the prominence of the shepherding metaphor in Scripture, in both OT and NT, I think it would be preferable to keep the word “pastor,” but only use it with parity – if the preacher is going to refer to “Pastor Jim,” another teaching elder, he should also refer to “Pastor Bob,” a ruling elder.

    My concern is not at the level of recognition. My concern is who the congregation expects to shepherd them (in all the varied ways that word implies), and what ruling elders expect from themselves.



    1. I think you’re on the money. I’ve been struggling with a way forward, as I’m working in a tradition that *theoretically* affirms the one office of elder. However, in practice the “teaching elder” is seen by the congregation as very different from the others. It’s unhelpful, like you mentioned, with regard to pastoral care and expectations of elders. Clarifying that all elders are pastors together, seems a very wise and necessary way forward.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s