One of the most fundamental differences between the churches of Christ and all other religious institutions can be seen in the matter of church organization. In Titus 1:5, Paul left specific instructions for Titus to appoint elders throughout the island of Crete. Given what the New Testament says concerning elders and local congregations, we understand that Paul here speaks of each city having a single congregation, and not of a hierarchy overseeing a multiplicity of congregations.
From the earliest days of the church, even in the days when the apostles were still active, the local church was overseen and led by elders. According to the biblical record, James was the first martyr among the apostles in Acts 12. But at the conclusion of chapter 11 we see relief from the brethren in Antioch being sent to the elders of the church in Jerusalem (11:27-30). Even Peter himself, being an apostle, also served a local congregation as an elder (1 Peter 5:1-4).
When Paul and Barnabas made their journey into Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Cilicia (Acts 13-14), they made it a priority to appoint elders in every church (Acts 14:23).
Paul’s second journey into that region led to the establishment of the church at Philippi. Yet, in the short time after that event, Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, specifically addressing the overseers, also called elders (cf Titus 1:5,7).
Finally, in Acts 20, Paul called for the elders of the Ephesian church to meet him in Miletus (v 17). During this meeting, the elders are also identified at “overseers” who were to do the work of shepherding the flock (v 28, cf 1 Pet 5:2).
But what kind of leadership or oversight do we find among most groups today? Among evangelicals, most are committed to the one-person “pastor system.” The NT never presents a church as being led or overseen by one person called the “pastor.” The only time “pastor” is found in the English text is in Ephesians 4:11. In every other instance where this word is translated, it appears as “shepherd.”
In the New Testament, elders, overseers (poorly rendered “bishops”), and pastors (properly, “shepherds”) all refer to the same men functioning in the same office.
God’s plan for church leadership is a plurality of men serving to lead, feed, and oversee the work of the local congregation. These men must meet the largely parallel qualifications enumerated in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.