On the Office of Pastor-Teacher, and Church Polity

Overview of the Office of Pastor-Teacher in the Church, and How Church Polity Needs to be Flexible


This lesson goes over the responsibilities pastor-teachers have in the Church – all of which revolve entirely around the Word of God. Different teachers can exercise this same gifting in different ways, all while individually following the paths God has laid out before them. For this reason, flexibility in church polity (that is, local church organization and governance) is very much a feature not a bug, despite what groups that emphasize ritual might say to the contrary.


Q: What exactly is the role of an “elder” or “pastor” in the Church?

I have been looking into the Church office known as “elder” or “pastor.”

As best I can tell, several different words in the Greek are used interchangeably in scripture to refer to this office:

It seems to me that while all these words refer to the same office in the Church, not every person filling the office needs to “wear all the hats.”

That is, there may be a division of labor wherein one person focuses on complicated teaching, one focuses on overseeing a church’s fiscal policy, a third focuses on “people stuff,” and so on.

Is this correct?

On the responsibilities of teachers in the Church

Yes, this line of thought (namely, that people all individually fulfilling the office of pastor-teacher can have their gifts – and the responsibilities going along with them – manifest in different ways) is essentially correct, although see below for some specifics and caveats.

These titles are largely interchangeable

In the “qualification lists” for elders (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9), some of these Greek words you’ve pointed out are used interchangeably. Even the ones that aren’t equated directly like this must refer to the same office: people in the Church with authority, the ones running things. (Contrast deacons, who also directly serve the Church, but in a capacity without authority. That is the essential difference between pastor-teachers and deacons – authority).

This office centers on the teaching of the Word of God

One particularly important thing to note is that these folks must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). To emphasize this crucial point, myself and others often refer to the group of people under discussion here as “pastor-teachers.”

Using this less-common label instead of more conventional ones (like “pastor” and “elder”) can be advantageous since these more conventional ones – at least depending upon who is using them – have much problematic connotational baggage that has been built up over the years (centuries, even).

For example, some people tend to view “pastors” with blinders on – the people who conduct marriages and funerals, the people who visit the sick in the hospital, and unfortunately – much, much more commonly than we would wish, though not universally the case – the people whose “teaching” consists of nothing more than the delivering of motivational speeches like clockwork on Sunday mornings, sprinkled liberally with anecdotes, pop-psychology, and rhetorical flourish (but shockingly little scripture and exegesis). The problem with all this is that these expectations can in reality have little to do with the Church office as it is outlined in scripture, inasmuch as these folks actually ought to be nearly 100% focused upon studying and teaching the Word of God, rather than having their attention constantly stolen away by other things (compare Acts 6:2-4). If the Church dumps all the work the body of Christ ought to be about onto the shoulders of these men alone, how can they possibly do their real jobs properly? Where did we pick up the idea that so many obligations fall to them, but somehow not to us? This ought not be so.

Anyhow, elders/overseers/shepherds/teachers/stewards have a whole host of responsibilities that can vary from individual to individual – but everything revolves around the Word of God:

  • Elders dispense wisdom based on their advanced knowledge of the Word of God. (Age has little to do with it – see 1 Timothy 4:12. It is spiritual maturity that is important).
  • Overseers steer the Church, making decisions and determinations based on their detailed understanding of the Word of God.
  • Shepherds lead and pasture their flocks in the truth of the Word of God.
  • Teachers explain and expound upon the meaning of the Word of God.
  • Stewards manage and organize the resources necessary to support the teaching of the Word of God.

Failing to appreciate this point largely turns pastors into masters of ceremonies rather than teachers and explainers of the Bible, which is the whole point of their office in the Body of Christ. Each of the various facets of the office relate to the Word of God in a slightly different way, but they all relate to it.

Cautionary note

You should not give ear to any individuals who claim any of these labels without also clearly demonstrating an accompanying focus on the Word of God. Would you place your physical welfare in the hands of a surgeon who only paid lip service to medical and surgical knowledge? Then why would you put place your spiritual welfare in the hands of self-professed pastors who only pay lip service to the Word of God?

You will know them by their fruits (compare Matthew 7:15-20). It matters not what other people think of self-professed teachers, by the way. A large group of people praising someone’s so-called teaching means nothing if it does not in fact cut straight the Word of Truth (compare 2 Timothy 2:15). False teachers will always be popular because there will always be those that are not actually interested in making the sacrifices the truth demands of us, instead preferring to listen to the nice-sounding lies.

Individuals can mix and match responsibilities in practice

Above, I emphasized that teaching the Word of God is the core commonality that all “modalities” of the office have in common. However, the exact specifics of different pastor-teachers’ ministries will vary. Compare 1 Corinthians 12:4-6.


That is, there may be a division of labor wherein one person focuses on complicated teaching, one focuses on overseeing a church’s fiscal policy, a third focuses on “people stuff,” and so on.

Based on the above understanding, I can get behind this statement as long as all the people in question are engaging in their respective responsibilities by focusing on the Word of God, as is proper.

All these things are not mutually exclusive, by the way. That is, manifestations of the different emphases can and often do resemble “cocktails” more than discrete categorizations.

Thus, flexibility is critical

If not all pastor-teachers will do things exactly the same way due to having slightly different sets of talents, callings, and ministries, it should be sort of obvious that Church structure and polity must be flexible.

In fact, the New Testament is actually quite vague on specifics of church polity. Why? Because while the end-goal (spiritual growth and edification of the Body of Christ) never changes, all the circumstances that go into realizing that end goal can vary wildly across times, places, cultures, and so forth.

For example, the specifics before the common man was literate were obviously different than after widespread literacy and ubiquitous availability of the Bible in everyday languages (like English and German) rather than Latin. In the same way, the internet is once again reshaping the way in which truth can be communicated, and thus the way in which churches can be organized.

Cautionary note

This idea here of variation and flexibility across circumstances (times, places, cultures, etc.) is one of the reasons why groups that make a huge deal out of specific rituals (e.g., Catholics, Orthodox folks, certain groups of ritual-heavy Protestants) are dangerous. That is to say, they try to stamp out individual variation within groups of believers around the world, and try to enforce a standard practice that is simply not there in the Bible. (Even though they will no doubt assert that it is there in the Bible, or say that their tradition and/or central authority mandating such practice is equal with scripture anyhow, so we need to do it anyway, even if the Bible doesn’t talk about it).

They may insist that this is because “the gospel does not change according to our cultural preferences.” Fair enough. I agree – the truth is the truth, and we’d best respect that. But that argument is actually a false equivalency, for extremely specific ritual practice is not equivalent to the gospel.

Practitioners from these groups will no doubt protest that I am being unfair and only knocking down a straw man. That, for example, their hyper-ritualized form of communion is actually what scripture teaches about the matter (and that every other practice other than their very specific one is “wrong”). And therefore, that you can’t call a group of poor laborers in a slum huddled around praying over a pot of soup “communion” because there is no official priest with orders from Rome (or wherever else) waving his hands and converting things into the literal flesh and blood of Christ.

I submit that this is nonsense. Access to God is not gatekept by mere human authority that presumes to tell others what to do… but instead we are bound by what scripture actually says, and by that alone. As long as the truth is taught as it ought to be and the little else that the Bible actually does say on the matter of local church polity is truly fulfilled – such as assemblies being conducted “decently, and in good order” (compare 1 Corinthians 14:40) – then that is all that we ought to say on the matter.

Despite this fact, many modern churches squabble about church polity all the time

One telling symptom of decay presently apparent in the Church visible is the willingness people have to fight about and divide over matters of church polity that are intentionally left vague in scripture. The irony would be amusing were it not so chilling as a symptom of Laodicean lukewarmness.

In this way, some people will wage bloody battles down to the last man on issues of church polity that scripture says nothing about, while completely neglecting to properly study and teach the Word of God, which is the only thing that actually matters.

That this is not the case for absolutely all modern churches in no way diminishes the point that it is the case for a large number, truly.

Do Elders Need to be Physically Old? Do They Need to be Married?


In this lesson we examine in more detail a couple of the requirements for elders mentioned in the books of 1 Timothy and Titus. Specifically, we examine whether pastors/elders need to be physically old or not to be qualified for the office (they do not have to be – for example, see Timothy – but it is not uncommon for this to be the case), and also whether or not they need to be married to be qualified for the office (they do not – they just can’t have more than one wife if they are married).


Q: Do elders need to be, well, elderly? Do they need to be married?

OK, so all these words are talking about the same people. I guess that makes sense.

You mentioned that since we have 1 Timothy 4:12, we know that “elders” don’t have to be, well, elderly. Is there anything at all we can go on with respect to age?

For example, 1 Timothy 3:6 (NASB) states that an elder must be “not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into condemnation incurred by the devil.” Doesn’t this imply someone who is at least somewhat on in years?

There is also Titus 1:6 (NASB), which states that an elder must be “the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of indecent behavior or rebellion.” Doesn’t being married and having kids imply a certain age?

Also, does this passage mean that pastor-teachers have to be married? What about Paul?

Elders do not need to be grey-haired, nor do they need to be married

Do elders have to be physically old?

By way of introduction, let me state that etymologically speaking, πρεσβύτερος – the Greek word commonly translated “elder” – does literally mean “old man.” There is no getting around this.

However, this does not necessarily mean that elders have to be physically old. Why? Because, as already mentioned, we have a direct counterexample in scripture in 1 Timothy 4:12.


Also, etymology does not at all matter in translation. I truly mean this – not at all!

This may come as a shock if you’ve never heard it explained before, but in determining the meaning of words in translation and interpretation, rather than etymology, the things that matter are how words were actually used in the time period that they show up in scripture, their specific context (i.e., other nearby words in the passage, the structure of the specific sentence, whether the passage they show up in is poetry or prose, etc.), and a couple other such considerations.

The fact that words can and do change their meanings over time (no matter what their original etymology-derived meanings may have been) complicates lexicography to an exceptional degree – not just Biblical lexicography, but also lexicography generally. Biblical lexicography is no exception, however.

What we might say is that it is common for older people to be wiser and have more experience, such that Church leadership often does end up as a collection of old men in practice. As a tendency or heuristic, it’s reasonably accurate.

But, as with Timothy, there are some young men who are far advanced spiritually for their years. And there are also some very foolish old men, with hearts largely darkened to spiritual truth.

Biblical examples

Jesus was 30 when he began His public ministry… and if any teacher in the history of the world was qualified to start sooner, it would have been Him. John the Baptist also started his public ministry when he was 30.

Cautionary note

Jesus is so exceptional that it is typically dangerous to consider ourselves similar to Him in our decision-making. We are not God like He is, after all.

This is why “What would Jesus do?” is somewhat useless as a concept – it is always more appropriate to ask “What does Jesus want me to do?”.

All this said, it is still not particularly out of place here to make the observation that Jesus was 30 when he began His public ministry. That is not exceptionally young, but it is also not exceptionally old.

The Levites are described as beginning their service at 20, 25, or 30, depending upon their specific roles. See Ezra 3:8, 1 Chronicles 23:27, Numbers 8:24, Numbers 4:3. (Accounting for the differences is mostly a matter of context and exactly what tasks are in mind for those appointed. Many exegetes believe that those Levites entering the temple at the younger age of 20 were largely serving as apprentices, for example).

Naturally, people who are older will have more experience to draw on, and that is definitely advantageous. However, the thing that is really more important than chronological age is “spiritual age” – how mature is the man in question in spiritual terms? A man in his early 20s who is gifted and properly prepared to teach the Bible may be more advanced in “spiritual age” than a man in his 60s who has not put in the requisite effort over the years, but instead squandered all the opportunities before him.

To conclude, then, we don’t have anything in the way of scriptural examples with Church leadership younger than probably 25ish, but even if a man starts teaching several years before this, what really matters anyway is his level of spiritual maturity. Since it seems that most all people in Church leadership have historically started before or around 30 or so, it is definitely not proper to mandate that all pastor-teachers in the church be grey-haired (even if some or even many of them are in practice).

Do elders have to be married?

First off, formally speaking, Paul was an Apostle (with a capital A) – one of the true twelve. Apostles were a different office in the Church than pastor-teachers (compare Ephesians 4:11). It is definitely proper to view Paul as possessing the spiritual gift of teaching (which underpins the Church office of pastor-teacher), but he carried much more authority than rank-and-file teachers on account of his Apostleship. Regardless:

The NASB’s translation “husband of one wife” in Titus 1:6 is actually pretty good. The Greek reads μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ, which is quite literally “a one-woman man.” Rather than requiring all pastor-teachers to be married (which would sort of fly in the face of Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 7, for example), this verse is prohibiting polygamists from serving as pastor-teachers within the Church. (It may seem kind of strange to us to explicitly forbid such, but polygamy was something more common at the time this epistle was written than in our own day). If you wish to sacrifice brevity for clarity: “An elder shall have either no wife or one wife, but not multiple wives.”

Back to the “big picture”

Spending time detailing exactly what scripture says and means (as we have been doing here) is never a bad thing. However, it does bear repeating again that the Bible is really quite flexible on matters of church polity. Thus, completely switching focus from macro-level generalities to micro-level specifics is somewhat hazardous. For this reason, we shall now return to a higher-level perspective.

In practice, here is how Church organization works:

  • Whenever there is a group of people meeting (a church; Greek ἐκκλησία = assembly), there will be a group of people in charge. (Biblically speaking, these people are to be men – compare 1 Timothy 2:12). These people are the elders.
  • If the church is worth anything, there will be Bible teaching going on. Inevitably, one or more of the elders will do the bulk of the teaching. It is probably most common for one person to carry most of the primary teaching load (although things do not have to be this way).
  • Thus, whether or not those teaching have authority de jure, they will have it de facto. The man (or men) teaching will exercise primary spiritual leadership over the local assembly.

Anything and everything else on top of this is just window-dressing. There is nothing inherently wrong with window-dressing, mind you, but issues arise when people start getting exercised doctrinally about matters of window-dressing.

Trying to write down lots of rules and regulations about who can or cannot serve as elders (that is, more on top of what we already have from scripture), what specific things elders ought to do day-to-day, and so on only serves to obfuscate the core points of church organization, as outlined above. Things get even messier when rather than just being honest and admitting that their rules are arbitrary, people try to rationalize them by “supporting” them with scripture (which is actually nothing but twisting scripture and pulling things out of context).

All of this “noise” also serves to distract from the primary purpose of assembly: orthodox, substantive teaching of the Word of God that builds up the Body of Christ (compare Ephesians 4:16).

Additional Clarification, and Other Offices in the Church


In this lesson we go over some specifics in a bit more detail, and also briefly go over the other offices in the Church mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, including Apostle, prophet, and evangelist. While there are no more Apostles or prophets nowadays, evangelists are another still-active office in the Church.


Q: Am I understanding everything correctly? What about other offices in the Church?

A few understanding checks and lingering matters of clarification:

Q1. Spiritual age not chronological age is important

It’s spiritual age rather than chronological age that is really important, although there aren’t any biblical examples of really young people (as in teenagers or children) exercising leadership, so common sense takes us at least a ways.

Is this correct?

Q2. On Timothy’s age

Paul’s statements about Timothy’s youth would thus be targeted at getting old people to listen to a full-grown man (albeit a rather young one) rather than a child, right?

Q3. Examples of non-married pastor-teachers?

Are there any examples of non-married pastor-teachers to point to? 1 Corinthians 7 does certainly set things straight on how we ought not view marriage as a positive requirement, I’m just curious if there are actual examples straight from scripture.

Q4. The high-level view of church polity

So the logic basically goes “All churches have people who teach and therefore have authority, whatever you want to call them. Everything else matters not in the specifics.” Is that right?

Q5. Other offices in the Church from Ephesians 4:11

One other thing I’m curious about:

You made a distinction between Paul as a “capital A Apostle” and rank-and-file pastor-teachers. Ephesians 4:11 also mentions prophets and evangelists. Are these the other offices within the Church?

Additional explanation

A1. Spiritual age not chronological age is important

It’s spiritual age rather than chronological age that is really important, although there aren’t any biblical examples of really young people (as in teenagers or children) exercising leadership, so common sense takes us at least a ways.

Is this correct?

This is essentially correct (although see the discussion on culture and adulthood below).

Do also note that it is probably right and good for some young people – those beginning to manifest leadership and teaching gifts – to step up and help lead their peers within their own age group. This is different from these people completely taking on the Church office of pastor-teacher, but it is nonetheless worth mentioning.

A2. On Timothy’s age

Yes, you have it right here – Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 4:12 are aimed at getting people to listen to a full-grown man (even if a young one), not a child. Paul picked up Timothy on his second missionary journey (see Acts 16:1ff). Regardless of Timothy’s exact age at this point, he traveled with Paul and Paul’s other companions for some time. (This large dose of serious life-experience no doubt helped Timothy grow up quickly if he wasn’t already mature before joining Paul’s party). Without getting into the nitty-gritty details of dating Paul’s writings, Paul wrote 1 Timothy a good number of years after first picking up Timothy. Common sense tells us that Timothy must have been at least a somewhat older teenager before joining Paul (since travel in antiquity was so harsh and inhospitable, he would have been an immense burden in the traveling otherwise), so he’s likely in his 20s or 30s when Paul is writing 1 Timothy 4:12. (And of course Paul had handed him the reigns of leadership in Ephesus some time before this – compare 1 Timothy 1:3).

Worth pointing out is that “adulthood” is a concept that is very strongly culturally conditioned. For the vast majority of history, girls were considered to be women (and of marriageable age) once puberty hit and they started menstruating. Boys were a bit more variable by culture, but we’re still usually talking teens rather than 20s in most times and places. Considering lifespans were noticeably shorter until recent times, you sort of see why people took on the full adult mantle sooner.

The same can still be true even nowadays, by the way. Kids in difficult circumstances (e.g., having to take care of younger siblings due to the absence of one or both parents) tend to grow up real fast, no matter their chronological age. In the United States, our society has pushed back full adulthood and independence until early to mid 20s (for most people), but this is, objectively speaking, somewhat artificial.

All this is a long way of saying that squinting too closely at this concept of “only somewhat-older adults can be pastor-teachers” is still problematic if you try to force one culture’s definition of adulthood on a different culture. This example hopefully helps illustrate why I have been so strongly making the point that the specifics of church polity are purposefully left vague in scripture.

A3. Examples of non-married pastor-teachers?

Barnabas is an example of a pastor-teacher who was not married (compare 1 Corinthians 9:5-6).

Regarding scripture as a whole, you might also consider Elijah and John the Baptist (who is typologically connected to Elijah). Moses was married (twice), but Elijah never was.

Jesus Himself is also an example of an unmarried teacher, but He had a very special mission and calling. While we certainly can (and should!) learn from His life and His example, our purpose here in this world is necessarily different from His. (Compare the cautionary note from before).

A4. The high-level view of church polity

So the logic basically goes “All churches have people who teach and therefore have authority, whatever you want to call them. Everything else matters not in the specifics.” Is that right?

Yes, you have things right here too. It really is that simple!

The catch in our current lukewarm times is that what many churches today call “teaching” is not in fact the sort of teaching that ought to be aspired to:

  • Some places get so focused on specific things (such as, for example, very literal 6000-year-old young earth creationism, political activity to organize against abortion legislation) that they do a poor job teaching all the other important things they ought to.
  • Some places teach that which appeals to the “itching ears” of those they fleece, out of impure motives. One thinks of the prosperity gospel and money-hungry televangelists.
  • Some places don’t teach much of anything so terribly wrong, but spend most of their time only talking about such comfortable things as marriage, family, and God’s love and grace. None of these things are doctrinally incorrect, but the problem is that there’s a lot more to the Bible than just these things.
  • Etc.

It is perhaps the third type of church from above that more commonly show up in American Evangelicaldom, and it is also the most dangerous in some ways, for it is at the same time actually Bible teaching, yet not completely as it should be. It is a pale simulacrum next to the real deal that teaches the full realm of biblical truth (compare 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – all scripture is important, not just the fluffy comfortable parts), but is close enough that it is not recognized by many as problematic.

In any case, while it is true that “church polity” is no more than those with authority teaching the truth – however exactly that gets set up in any specific case – the point is that they need to be properly teaching the truth in an in-depth and substantive way, otherwise all else is for naught.

A5. Other offices in the Church from Ephesians 4:11

You made a distinction between Paul as a “capital A Apostle” and rank-and-file pastor-teachers. Ephesians 4:11 also mentions prophets and evangelists. Are these the other offices within the Church?

Yes, Prophet and Evangelist are two other offices in the Church. In addition to the roles mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, we also have deacons (coming from the Greek word διάκονος). Deacons serve the Church as well, but in a lower-profile way that does not involve the exercising of authority, as already mentioned. They are still critically important though (compare the thrust of 1 Corinthians 12).

To make some additional points:


There were no more Apostles after the true twelve (the twelve Jesus picked less Judas Iscariot plus Paul). Apostles were critical in the early Church, and God cemented their authority by enabling them to do miraculous works and signs. They (or those under their authority) also wrote the New Testament, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

There are still people today who claim to be “Apostles.” Run far away from such people.


The Old Testament prophets proper (like Elijah) are somewhat distinct from the “prophets” mentioned here in Ephesians 4:11. During the early days of the Church, the canon of scripture was not closed and there was a serious supply problem in the texts of scripture. In antiquity, all written works were enormously expensive, and literacy was only a blessing the rich and powerful enjoyed. (I’m generalizing, but you get the idea).

How then were people in the early churches supposed to learn and teach? It’s all well and good to have Paul and/or his associates drop by every couple years, but what about the rest of the time?

The short answer is that the Lord empowered certain individuals in a miraculous (though not ecstatic) way to be able to communicate His truth in the absence of the completed written Word. These are the “prophets” mentioned here. As the canon of scripture closed, the need for this gift lessened and eventually ceased altogether, such that believers stopped receiving this special temporary empowerment long ago. (You should also run far away from people today claiming to be modern day “prophets”).

You can read more about these folks in BB5: Pneumatology on Ichthys.


Of the roles mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, evangelists and pastor-teachers are the only folks still in operation. (The two gifts/offices are not mutually exclusive either, particularly inasmuch as most evangelists end up being the ones to teach the new believers in their care the core essentials of the Christian faith). As discussed above, Apostles and prophets were temporary offices in the Church during the early days, and are no longer around.

Evangelism (as opposed to teaching) is concerned with giving the good news of the gospel (that is, after all, what the Greek verb εὐαγγελίζω means literally – announcing good news). The word “evangelism” has taken on a great deal of baggage over time too (just like “pastor”), such that it is generally best to ignore anything people say about it unless directly backed up from scripture.

Some Christians are naturally better at accumulating contacts and sharing Jesus Christ with them. After such gifted people grow to spiritual maturity and prepare themselves responsibly, they are the “boots on the ground” (so to speak) for sharing the gospel with the world.

As a rule of thumb, evangelists are responsible for sharing the gospel with people, and teachers are responsible for teaching them everything else after that. Thus, at some point all evangelists (unless they are themselves fully dually gifted as teachers) will need to “hand off” their charges to a gifted and prepared teacher.

Alongside teaching, evangelism is the one other effort that all churches ought to be formally supporting. Whether this takes the form of supporting gifted and prepared individuals engaging in local outreach or supporting similar individuals engaging in overseas missions (or both), the exact mechanics of church-supported evangelism are, as with most other matters of church polity, largely left flexible for individual churches to decide for themselves. The main point is that evangelism is a crucial responsibility of the Church, rather than something that is optional or unimportant.

Just how the internet and other modern communication mediums have greatly broadened how Bible teaching can proceed in our modern world, so too have these things greatly increased the possibilities open to gifted evangelists.