Q: I have observed that there are several words used in the New Testament to designate those who have the oversight of the church, “elders,” “presbyters,” “pastors,” “shepherds,” “bishops,” and “teachers.” Why does this variation exist, and what is the meaning of each term?
A: Each of these words is properly applied to those who are overseers of the church, and all are applicable to the same men; but, these words are not of the same origin, and some differ also in the work and functions which they describe, although others are not of different meaning, differing only in origin. For example, the word “presbyter,” is anglicized (given English form and spelling), and taken from the Greek text into English directly. It is from the word presbuteros, and is the equivalent of our English word “elder.” The word “elder,” as the dictionaries indicate, comes into our language from the Anglo-Saxon, where it meant old, though now it designates one mature. It will be seen that the words “presbyter,” and “elder” mean the same and differ only in the fact that one comes to us directly from Greek, the other from the Anglo-Saxon language.
Similarly, our English word “bishop,” from the Greek episcopos, means “overseer,” and the words, bishop, episcopos, and overseer all mean the same, differing only in their origin. Episcopos is from the Greek language; bishop came to us from the Latin language, and “overseer” comes to us down through early English from the old Anglo-Saxon.
So, too, of the words “pastor” and “shepherd” from the Greek poimen. The word “pastor” is of Latin origin; “shepherd”, Anglo-Saxon. Though differing in origin and form, they describe the same functions.
There are thus three pairs of words, embodying three different duties. In studying them, it is helpful to note the following classification:
Presbuteros (Greek) elder (Anglo Saxon) designates maturity
Episcopos (Greek) bishop (Latin) overseer (Anglo-Saxon), oversight
Poimen (Greek) pastor (Latin) shepherd (Anglo-Saxon) tending, feeding
Occasionally, these words are used interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5,7). Additionally, elders are called teachers because of their obligation to impart instruction.
(Dripping Springs church of Christ, Dripping Springs Texas – http://www.ds-churchofchrist.org)