Question: According to the Scriptures, is there any difference between the office of a bishop and that of an elder?
Answer: In common usage in the nominal church and otherwise, there is a considerable difference between them; but according to the Scriptures, there is no difference in the office designated by these two terms. This is evident from the following facts:
(1.) The two Greek terms refer to the same office. The word usually translated bishop is episkopos, from epi, meaning upon or over, and skopos, meaning a watcher, an overseer, a guardian. Hence a bishop is an overseer. The word generally translated elder is presbuteros, literally meaning an older, elder, more mature person. In the local church, an elder is an elected servant who is regarded as more mature in the qualities needed to fill this office, one who is capable of serving the spiritual interests of the local church. The word bishop refers more to the burden, or toil, of the service, and the word elder to the honor of the office.
(2.) The terms bishop and elder are used interchangeably in the Scriptures. The very persons who are called “elders” (presbuteroi) in Acts 20: 17 are called “overseers” (episkopoi) in verse 28. Similarly, the term “elders” of Titus 1: 5 corresponds with the term “bishop” of verse 7, and the qualifications are given in verses 6-9. These offices are identified also in 1 Peter 5: 1-4 as referring to the same persons.
(3.) The Apostle Paul in addressing the Philippians (1: 1) does not use the Greek word for elders at all, but refers to them as overseers, bishops (episkopoi). Thus he speaks of all the officers of the church at Philippi as bishops and deacons. The fact that the Apostle used the plural of the word bishop here, as in Acts 20: 28, proves that he did not use the word in the modern, nominal church sense of bishops, of whom there are not several in one church, but used it in the sense of the elders.
(4.) The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3: 1-13 mentions only two offices in the local ecclesias, calling the first bishops (verses 1-7) and the other deacons and deaconesses (verses 8-13).
Because of the widespread and general misuse of the term bishop, referring to a much higher office in the church then that of a local elder, it seems preferable to use the term elder to designate the main office in the local church.
We might ask why elders are not mentioned in the list of church servants given in 1 Corinthians 12: 28 and Ephesians 4: 11. Since (1) the Bible uses the term elder also for offices higher than that of a local elder, that is, the twelve Apostles, and the non-Apostolic general elders, “secondarily prophets,” who also served the church in general; and since (2) elders were not mentioned in those passages, it is evident that the ones meant by the expression “pastors, even teachers” justifies the absence of the word elders from these passages. The “pastors, even teachers,” that is, the local elders, have as their essential function the instructing and other shepherding care of the local churches.