Elders and Pastors:
Is there a difference?

I was thinking about your sermon from a deacon's ordination and about the various roles of men in the church. I wondered if you could point me toward more information about the role of and differences between the offices of pastor and elder in Scripture.

Thank you for the question. I don't know of any Scriptures that specifically speak of the differences you mention, but let me explain more fully what I believe and maybe the question will answer itself.

Elders is an office that comes out of the Old Testament. They helped rule over the nation of Israel. Their origin appears to have started in the days of Moses when he attempted to settle all disputes himself. In Exodus 18, Jethro, Moses father in law, advised him not to continue that for fear that he would "wear away," Ex 18:18. So men were selected to have the Spirit of God placed on them. They were not THE leader of Israel. Moses was. They would take care of the matters they could but the more difficult matters were to be brought to Moses, the leader selected and gifted by God at the time in Israel. While these men were not called elders at that moment in time, most believe this is where the office began.

In the New Testament, the office came into the church with the Jews. There is no record of the office ever starting or being created in the church. That is no problem. Men of age, wisdom, and experience who are filled with the Spirit can use their experiences to help others and to help in leading the church. In fact, there should be many such elders in every congregation.

But Paul referred to some offices as those specifically given to the church by God. He mentioned four offices in Ephesians. From the context, these are unique offices started or authorized in the church by Christ (or His Spirit) after the resurrection. Notice neither deacon or elder are mentioned. While some think one of these offices is the same as the elder, that is speculation as the Holy Spirit did not use the words for those callings here. Of course all positions are important to the church's wellbeing, but the fact that all are not mentioned here indicates that these offices are different, unique.

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

We know that not everyone who is an elder or a deacon is also an apostle or a prophet. The office of apostle and prophet are uniquely-gifted offices which are marked by a unique calling and empowering of God. Even so, it would stand to reason that apostles and prophets are likely to be elders (i.e. older, wiser men who have some experience to help shape and guide them). Notice that without a pause, Paul mentioned two others offices: evangelists and pastor-teachers. (Some consider the last one to be two separate offices but I do not.) Since there is no breaking of the thought in this verse, there is no reason to suppose the last two offices are not as unique in their giving as the first two. Granted, the last two may be more subjective for they are not typically marked by the performance of miracles or telling of the future, but the sentence structure would argue they are all of the same kind (i.e. God-called and uniquely gifted offices.) Again, since not all elders are apostles or prophets, there is no reason to assume that all elders are evangelists or pastor-teachers either.

I would go further and say that a person who has been called and gifted to be a pastor is not necessarily gifted and called to be an evangelist or vise-versa. I know that while I do feel God has called me to pastor-teach, I do not feel called or gifted to be an apostle, a prophet, or an evangelist.

That God-called roles do exists is seen in Acts.

Ac 13:2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.

Here, God specifically called two men for a task that He desired them to fulfill. It seems that with the calling, God also gave certain gifts (abilities and desires) that made them capable of fulfilling that role. Could other men have gone? Yes. Others could and did follow doing similar work, but these two were uniquely gifted and called to go. We can see this not only in the calling which is recorded at the beginning of their ministry, but also in the results experienced during their ministry and after.

I think Scriptures bear out that those who are called by God to any office manifest a difference in their abilities. You mentioned a recent deacon's ordination. If you will recall, I specifically mentioned that the church could not call a man to be a deacon, only God could do that. All our church could do was to give to the man the title of deacon. Why? Because if God had called him to that position, God would have equipped him in such a way that the calling should be obvious to the church. Speaking of the office of deacon, Paul wrote:

1 Tim 3:10 And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.

Notice Paul said they should be "proved," indicating there should be some evidence. Our church had seen the evidence that this man we ordained had been called. The ordination service was another step in looking for that evidence as the man was examined (question about his life, his beliefs, his testimony) by others who had similar callings to see if we should give him the title of a deacon. The church and the body of ordained men believed there was such evidence, so we gave to him the title, but God has already given him the gift and ability.

Does that mean that no one else could do some of the tasks that a deacon does? No, but it does mean that the evidence that God called this man to do those tasks was manifested in a unique way, one not obvious in others.

With this background, let me summarize what I believe about these two offices and briefly state some specific reasons. I believe every pastor ought to be an elder (older, more experienced, wise, and a proven spirit-filled leader) but not every elder has been called to be a pastor. I do not know that there is a Scripture that proves that, but there are many things that have pointed me that way.

(1) The thoughts that I have shared from Ephesians 4:11.

(2) The fact that in the Old Testament, the elders were leaders in Israel but not THE leader.

(3) That fact that everything must have "a" head, including a church. Pastor Adrian Rogers used to say anything that has no head is dead and anything with two heads is a freak. The Christian family is alive and made up of two or more living, potentially spirit-filled believers, but still God appointed one to be the head. If every elder is a pastor, where is the head? I have noticed that some churches that are run by "counsels" (deacons, elders, bishops, etc.) usually appoint or vote one in their group to be the "head," but would it not be better to seek out one that God has called and gifted to that position?

(4) The lack of desire in most men of the church. Not all are willing to make the sacrifices to be God's shepherd. In fact, there are very few. Most men will spend 40 or more hours in their career and work, giving God and His church only their left over time and energy. While some good pastors are forced to work and pastor, it has been my observation that a God-called man only works TO pastor. His heart is in the church God has called him to lead and not his secular job. Lack of desire to put God's work first is in itself is an indication that God has not called them to pastor. Giving authority to those God has not called and equipped to lead is a dangerous thing.

(5) The lack of ability in many. I have seen many who believe they have been called to preach, to pastor, or to lead in some position of the church, but they had no ability. That does not necessarily mean that they were teaching error or leading in a sinful direction, just that God was not blessing them in the Word. Maybe what they said was true but had no depth. Maybe it had some depth but had to be borrowed from others who were gifted and called by God. Some just lack the ability to read and understand the Scripture, which is an indication that God has not gifted them to handle the Word as a pastor-teacher. Others lack in ability to move people for God. I hate to say it but I have sat under preachers and "pastors" whose presentations were just dull, lifeless, and boring. While church is not for entertainment, certainly those called by God do not lull hungry souls to sleep.

Well, I do not know if I have explained this to your satisfaction or not. If not, let me know and we can talk about it. This is more a topic of what I have gleaned from Scripture in combination with life than just from Scripture itself.