Pastors

The word “pastor” is found once in most English translations of the Bible, typically in Ephesians 4:11. Poimēn, the Greek word used here, is found seventeen other times throughout the New Testament. In all those other cases poimēn is translated as shepherd. This brings up an interesting question. Why is the word translated differently in Ephesians? The word “pastor” is actually the Latin word for shepherd. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, concludes Ephesians 4:11 with the words, “alios autem pastores et doctores.” We have of course dropped the word doctor, which means teacher, but have held on to pastor. All translation relies on a degree of interpretation. When translators hold on to the word “pastor” they are following the traditional English interpretation of this verse.1 For this reason, the English Standard Version does away with the word pastor altogether and instead uses the word “shepherd” in Ephesians 4:11. Realizing this brings up another question. Why is the pastor the primary leadership role in many churches if the Bible doesn’t mention them?

The main reason, as with the translation, is tradition. (An examination of that tradition would be interesting, but I will not go into it here.) There is a certain irony in that the denominations which most like to proclaim their freedom from tradition and rituals and their utter dependence on Scripture alone also tend to be the ones led by pastors.

The most frequently mentioned leadership role of the early church is that of elder or presbyteros in Greek. The modern Presbyterian denomination received its name from its emphasis on elder leadership. Looking through Scripture, we can see that the elder was the traditional position of authority and leadership in Jewish culture. Naturally, as the infant church realized its need for a structure of leadership, it looked to the culture in which it was growing for models. Paul appointed elders in every church he started (Titus 1:5). Both Peter and John considered themselves elders in addition to being apostles (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1). Importantly a church never seems to have just one elder, there are always multiple elders.

Paul mentions another office of leadership in 1 Timothy 3 called the overseer. In Greek it is the word episkopos, which by a certain linguistic wrangling became bishop in English. You might also recognize the origins of the word Episcopalian in it as well. This office seems to consist of managing a church. It should be noted though that these two offices are very fluid. In Acts 20, as Paul talks to the elders of the church at Ephesus, he calls them overseers. He does the same thing in his letter to Titus. The titles appear to be used almost interchangeably.

Reading up to this point, you may have come to the conclusion that I am anti-pastor. However, that is not my intent in writing this post. First, I think tradition is a good thing. Every church has traditions and rituals, whether they take the form of burning incense or placing greeters at the church entrance. Christians must seek to cultivate traditions that build up the church. There are many benefits to the tradition of pastor leadership.

Second, I am motivated by a concern for shepherding within the church. Many of the people we call pastors do little pastoring in the Biblical sense of the word. To give a quick description of a pastor’s role, I think it is to nourish members of the church through teaching and discipleship and to protect them from false teaching and error, so that they may grow into Christian maturity. Instead, modern pastors are called on to be administrators, managers, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. They find little time left for shepherding, which is often the reason they entered professional ministry in the first place. In Scripture, the administrative work of the church appears to fall within the offices of overseer and elder. Our confusion in terminology seems to reflect our confusion in practice.
Consider the fact in Scripture that there are no instructions for selecting a pastor or shepherd, while there are instructions for selecting elders, overseers, and deacons. However, shepherding is certainly to be practiced by elders and overseers. Paul in Acts 20 and Peter, in the fifth chapter of his first letter, exhort elders to shepherd their flock. It is one of their functions, not the office itself. Scripture also doesn’t limit shepherding to elders.

Ephesians 4:11 lists the roles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and shepherd and teacher. (There is some translation debate on whether Paul intended to separate shepherds and teachers or if he is referring to a shepherd-teacher role). Presumably, one can be an apostle, prophet, or evangelist without being an elder. Someone then should be able to be a shepherd or pastor without holding the office of elder. As can be seen from the verses which follow the list, all of these roles are necessary for the growth of the church. When we neglect shepherding, we hinder the growth and maturity of our churches.

Distinguishing shepherding from the offices of elder and overseer also affects the debate about women’s roles in church. Paul’s statement that elders and overseers should be the husband of one wife and other related verses are obviously the subject of much debate. Shepherding is free from such entanglements. Men and women are both free to be shepherds, if they have been given that gift.

So far I have only given a quick definition of shepherding. To actually delve into a Biblical description of shepherding would add several more pages. I will break off here then and leave the task to someone else if I don’t get to it.


1. Looking at the most prominent English translations of the Bible, the first to use the word pastor in Ephesians 4:11 appears to be the Geneva Bible, written in 1587. All previous translations: Bishop’s Bible (1568), Miles Coverdale Bible (1535), Tyndale Bible (1525), and The Wycliffe Bible (1395) use the word shepherd. After the Geneva Bible came the 1611 King James version, which probably helped to cement the use of the word pastor.

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