What is a Pastor?

According to Webster’s Dictionary a pastor is “a priest or minister in charge of a parish or congregation” which I think probably is a good definition of most people’s idea of a “pastor”.  Another one would be someone who rules over a congregation (see Hebrews 13:17 KJV).  The title “Pastor” is normally (not every time) placed in front of a person’s name, in order to elevate that person to a position of authority over the rest of the church.

However the Bible doesn’t recognize anyone in charge of, or ruling over, a congregation, although it does talk about the deeds and doctrine of the Nicolaitans which God hates. It doesn’t say what their deeds and doctrine was but the name Nicolaitans is from the meaning of “conqueror of the people” giving us the idea of the priesthood being over the people, ruling over the people and the people obeying them.  The Nicolaitans spirit had already infiltrated the church while the apostle John was still alive.

So where do we get the word “pastor” from?   The only place in the New Testament is Ephesians 4:11 where it says, “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelist; and some, pastors and teachers”.  Now there is nothing wrong with God’s word but what is misleading is the translation of the Greek word, “poimen” which is translated as “pastor” in some versions of Ephesians 4:11 but in every other place in the New Testament that the word is used it is translated as shepherd, which is a better translation.  

So a pastor is, according to modern thinking, someone in charge of a congregation who rules over the congregation while a shepherd is someone involved in guiding, feeding and watching over the flock, someone who leads by example.  Another name that is used for someone who guides, feeds and watches over the flock is an elder, who is someone older in the faith or more mature as regards spiritual experience.   An overseer or bishop is an elder, and the terms ‘overseer’ and ‘bishop’ (both from the same Greek word) indicate the nature of their work, which is someone who looks over or watches over a group of people.

In Acts 20:17 we are told that Paul, who was at Miletus, sent to Ephesus, and called over to him the elders of the assembly, then in verse 28 he says to them, “Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, wherein the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God, which He has purchased with the blood of His own.” (JND version).

We can see from the above passage that it is the elders that pastor or shepherd God’s flock not one man.  Robertson states, “The ‘elders’ are not ‘apostles’ but are ‘bishops’ (cf. Phil.1:1) and with ‘deacons’ constitute the two classes of offices in the early churches.  Ignatius shows that in the early second century the office of bishop over the elders had developed, but Lightfoot has shown that it was not so in the first century.” (Word Pictures in the New Testament III).  However  in the New Testament Church there are not "offices" as such but rather "ministries" or "functions" or "service".  The problem with using the term "office" can give the idea that they hold a "position of authority" in the church and therefore rule over the church, their word  being the final authority in the individual Christians life. The elder should be an example to the flock not someone who is over others.  The same with a deacon, it is not an "office" but rather a ministry of service to the church.

The Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:1-3 says, “The elders which are among you I exhort who [am their] follow-elder and witness of the sufferings of the Christ, who also am partaker of the glory about to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God which [is] among you, exercising oversight, not by necessity, but willingly; not for base gain, but readily; not as lording it over your possessions, but being models for the flock.” (JND) Note that Peter at this point is specifically giving instructions to the elders, it is concerning the flock of God, not their own flock, and it is not by lording it over them but by being models to them.

It is interesting to note that the church epistles aren’t written to the leaders (although they include leaders) but specifically to the whole church (certain letters were to named individuals in the church i.e. Timothy, Titus etc.).  

Peter mentioned being “models to the flock”, this is what a leader is; someone who goes first, leads the way, and therefore is an example to others.  In Hebrews 13:7 we are told, “Remember your leaders who have spoken to you the word of God; and considering the issue of their conversation (conduct, manner of life), imitate their faith.” (JND), (brackets mine).

Of course in any group of leaders you will most likely have one that naturally takes the leadership, there is nothing wrong with this and the responsibility of the other leaders is to watch over every decision and act of leadership to make sure that the leader stays balanced and humble.  I think one person who is humble and spiritual would be far better leading a church than several arrogant carnal Christians however better still if all leaders are humble and spiritual.

Now the leaders do have a great responsibility towards the church and the church should submit to them as also it should submit to one another.  Hebrews 13:17 says in the KJV, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch over your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

The KJV was written with a bias towards leaders in the church being over the flock and ruling them as we now have in the high church such as bishops etc. and in most other churches as pastors.  If we look very closely at the above passage we will see it in a different light.  “Obey” is from the Greek word “Peitho” which actually means “to persuade” or “to win over” E. W. Vine says that “The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion”.  It is related to trust and implies obedience produced by trust.  So “obey” is more “Be persuaded by those you can trust”.  What does “That have the rule over you” mean? Well the KJV is implying that the leaders of a church rule over the flock. The actual translation is not “have the rule over you” but just, “your leaders”, it is those who watch over your souls, those who have proved themselves as trustworthy by being models to the flock giving an example for others to follow, it is these that we need to give voluntary submission to.  We could say, “Be persuaded by those leaders that have earned your trust”.

So yes we do need leaders, mature men of God who watch over and care for the flock of God, and yes, when we know we can trust them we should submit to them.

Mark Greenwood

October/ November 2015