On one occasion, when I was a young preacher in my twenties, an elderly man prayed from the pulpit that God would bless “our pastor” as he preached the sermon that day. This man had been raised in a denomination that believed all preachers were pastors. Apparently, he had forgotten, or never been taught, that the term “pastor” actually means shepherd and is one of three designations used for church leaders in the New Testament. The term he used with reference to me actually applied to the leaders of the church where I was preaching at the time. The belief that all preachers are pastors is common among religious people today. In fact, more religious people today think of a preacher as a pastor than a pastor as an elder. By way of contrast, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our fellowship is that we never refer to our preachers as pastors. What does the Bible say about preachers and pastors?
In speaking of those who lead the church, Paul said that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). The English translation “pastor” comes from the Greek noun poimen and is normally translated “shepherd.” The verb form of this noun is used to describe the work of elders (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28). In Ephesians 4:11, note that “some” modifies both pastors and teachers while apostles, prophets and evangelists are each modified by “some,” which is evidence that pastors and teachers are from the same group. Note also that not all teachers are pastors, but all pastors are teachers (1 Timothy 3:2).
The peculiar translation of “pastor” is a concession to modern denominational usage and carries with it all the baggage the modern meaning suggests, which is not helpful if we are interested in what the word originally meant. Therefore, it would be better if poimen were translated “shepherd” as it is elsewhere in the New Testament ( cf. KJV, NASB, NIV, RSV). Paul’s statement in Ephesians 4:11 probably refers to the preaching elders of 1 Timothy 5:17. Notice, for example, the verb form of poimen used by Paul when he addressed the Ephesian elders at Miletus: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). In this context, being a shepherd had to do with proper teaching (v. 30), and the preaching elders of Ephesus were the ones who would have the most opportunity to lead the church astray through false teaching.
Of the four categories of church leaders in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teaching pastors), the first two are foundational and temporary (cf. 2:20; 3:5) while the last two represent a continuing ministry in the church. In addition to special gifting by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13; Luke 11:49; Acts 1:8; 2:43), the apostles had unique qualifications that prevented a continuous succession (Acts 1:21-22). Prophets were also gifted by the Holy Spirit but prophecy was not to be permanent (1 Corinthians 13:8). On the other hand, evangelists and teaching pastors have a ministry that will continue to benefit the church after miraculous gifts have ceased.
The idea among many denominations that preachers are pastors is closer to the truth than our idea that they are not. The mistake that is often made, however, is to assume a single pastor in each church. Such concepts as “senior pastor” or the idea that a preaching elder should be distinguished from the other elders is not biblical. This is the mistake of Ignatius, who seemed to believe that the term overseer (bishop) applied only to the preaching elders, or only to one preaching elder in a city. Yet, even in Ignatius’ day, this transition from a plurality of elders had not taken place in all the churches, and some churches, like the influential church in Rome, did not adopt the singular bishop form of leadership until sometime after Ignatius.
J B Myers