What Is a Pastor?

by Jefferson David Tant

The term "pastor" is a familiar term to people in most denominations. It is usually applied to the men or women who stand before the congregation and deliver a message from the Word of God as the preacher. And in many situations, the pastor is the one who has the position of authority in the church.

The question is whether or not this practice is in accordance with the teaching of the Bible. We want to examine what the Bible teaches about pastors and their roles.

There are three words in the original language of the New Testament Greek, that describe this function. Depending on your translation, there are at least two English words that are used to translate each of the three Greek words.

  • "Presbuteros" is translated as "elder" or "presbyter." It should be obvious that the Presbyterian Church derives its name from this in reference to its form of government. Is it clear that this refers to someone who is older in years? "Comparative of presbus (elderly); older; as noun, a senior…" [Strong's Greek Dictionary]
  • "Poimen" is translated as "pastor" or "shepherd." We see the similarity between "pasture," where the sheep graze, and "pastor," describing one who cares for the sheep. Strong's definition is pretty straightforward: "a shepherd (literally or figuratively):--shepherd, pastor."
  • "Episkopos" is the third term, and is translated as "overseer," or "bishop." Once again, we can see the tie between "episkopos" and the Episcopalian Church. Strong defines the word as "a superintendent, i.e. Christian officer in genitive case charge of a (or the) church (literally or figuratively):--bishop, overseer."

These terms all apply to the same work or office. They just describe different aspects of the work. Presbyter or elder obviously refers to an older person, thus someone 20 or 30 years of age would not qualify. A pastor or shepherd is easily connected to the work that is to be done — caring for the flock. Then overseer or bishop refers to the leadership role, a position of authority.

In looking at various scriptures, we can see that these three terms all refer to the same person. In Acts 20:17, we find Paul summoning certain men to come to Miletus so he could spend some time with them. "From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church." In his charge to them, he gives this admonition: "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). Thus all three Greek words are applied to the same men.

Another example is found in I Peter 5:1-3: "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock." In this passage, Peter uses all three Greek terms, one as a noun, and two in the verb form.

Question: Are the terms "pastor" and "preacher" synonymous?

We run into a problem when we consider the qualifications that are given for the pastors or elders.

Consider a few of the qualifications cited in I Timothy 3:1-6: "It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. Not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?, and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil."

In Paul's instruction to Titus, he gave similar instructions. "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled" (Titus 1:5-8).

Now notice a few of the pertinent qualifications for one to be qualified to serve as a pastor, elder, or overseer.

  1. The instruction is given to men, not women, therefore women are not to be considered for this responsibility.
  2. These men are to be married, therefore single men cannot serve as pastors.
  3. These men are to have children who are believers, for that is one way they prove their ability to lead others. Thus even a married man who has no children cannot qualify.
  4. He must not be a young man, for those appointed are called "elders."
  5. He must not be a new convert, but one that has time to study and be seasoned in the Word.

Another consideration is that we never see a single pastor in a Biblical setting. On Paul's first missionary journey, as he and his companions were leaving the area after preaching in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they first "…appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed" (Acts 14:23). In noting Peter's address in I Peter 5, he writes to the "elders among you." It is obvious that the Lord does not want a "one-man rule." History is full of abuses that have come from power invested in just one man. This is what God's Word teaches, but as we look around, we see thousands of pastors that do not meet the qualifications that God has set in place.

Ephesians 4:11-13 sheds some light on the distinction between elders and preachers/ evangelists. "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ."

The work of apostles and prophets was a miraculous office, and it is still with us through the inspired Word. Today we have evangelists, pastors, and teachers. The work of evangelists, pastors, and teachers continues with the responsibility to teach the Word of God (evangelists and teachers) and care for the church (elders).

In searching the Scriptures, we see the serious responsibilities given to those who are designated as pastors or shepherds, elders or presbyters, and bishops or overseers. They are to

  1. Guard the flock (Acts 20:28)
  2. Be able to teach (I Timothy 3:2)
  3. Be an example (Hebrews 13:7)
  4. Watch for souls (Hebrews 13:17)
  5. Refute false teachers (Titus 1:9)

One other point should be considered, and that is the practice in many denominations of allowing women to serve as pastors. We have already noted that the references in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are related to men — those who have wives. There is another passage that has a bearing on the matter, and this is I Timothy 2:12: "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet." This clearly prohibits a woman from having a place of prominence in standing before a congregation where men are present and delivering a sermon, or serving in some authoritative way.

Biblical teaching about pastors is not ambiguous but is very clear. One wonders why so many denominations either do not understand or refuse to follow what God's Word teaches. Perhaps their situation is similar to that of the Sadducees when Christ answered a question they had put to him: "But Jesus answered and said to them, 'You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God'" (Matthew 22:29).

We must be careful to respect the teaching God has given us, so that we "may learn not to exceed what is written" (I Corinthians 4:6).

Does our Lord teach about pastors and their role in the church? We have shown several passages that deal with this subject, thus we must consider II John 9: "Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son."

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