What Is a “Pastor”?

By Jason Jackson

“Is the term ‘Pastor’ a proper title for ministers of the gospel?”

Three verses in the New Testament include the word “pastor” (in various forms): Ephesians 4:11, Acts 20:28, and 1 Peter 5:2.

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul discusses various roles that Christ placed in the church. He intends for “pastors and teachers” to serve in the church. The expression “pastors and teachers” identifies a single group.

Homer A. Kent writes, “Pastors and teachers are named as one grammatical unit (by use of just one article in the Greek text)” (72). Pastors (i.e., shepherds), as they care for the flock, are also teachers.

In Acts 20:28, Paul again refers to pastors. Here, however, he uses the verb form of the word, which is translated “to feed” (ASV) or “to care for” (ESV). Pastors feed, tend, and protect the church. They are to do all the things that a shepherd would do for a flock. Note in this verse that the church is called “the flock.”

Similarly, in 1 Peter 5:2, Peter encourages these servants by saying, “Tend the flock of God.” The word “tend” is again the verb poimaino, which W. E. Vine defines as, “to act as a shepherd” (427).

From these verses we learn that pastors are to act like shepherds by caring for the flock, and this care includes teaching.

But a closer look at these verses will demonstrate that the responsibilities for pastors involve more than teaching.

In Acts 20:28, Paul identifies those who are to “take heed … to all the flock” as “bishops” (i.e., overseers or administrators).

Likewise, Peter instructs these servants to “act like shepherds” as they “oversee” the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2). This exhortation is addressed to “the elders” (1 Pet. 5:1). We observe how the words “bishop” and “elder” are interchangeable in another passage as well — Titus 1:5-6.

These terms — elder, bishop, and pastor — are used of the same service in the church. These words describe a man who is older and experienced in the faith (i.e., an elder); a person who is a decision-maker, manager of church affairs, and leader (i.e., bishop); and one who maintains a careful watch for the spiritual needs of all the members of the flock (i.e., a pastor).

When other passages are considered, we learn that pastors, bishops, or elders must meet scriptural qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), and they serve in a plurality over a single congregation (Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23; 1 Pet. 5:1-2).

B. F. Westcott observed, “From a consideration of these passages it is evident that there was not as yet a recognized ecclesiatical hierarchy” (62).

The modern-day “pastor” system is as much a departure from the New Testament pattern of church organization as is an ecclesiastical hierarchy. No one man can assume the role of “the pastor,” whether by title or by practice, for a congregation. Neither can a congregation delegate one man to be the sole church manager, regardless of the unanimity of vote or the crises at hand.

The Lord’s plan is for qualified men to serve together over a single, autonomous congregation. Less than ideal circumstances never justify unscriptural arrangements in church matters — any more than a lack of water justifies sprinkling as an alternate form of New Testament baptism.

By considering these New Testament passages, we conclude that all pastors are ministers (i.e., servants), but not all ministers are pastors.

Ministers, or preachers of the gospel, primarily work in the study and teaching of the Word (1 Tim. 4:15-16; 2 Tim. 4:2-5). They may function as a pastor/elder as well, if they are qualified. The apostle Peter was both a preacher and elder (1 Pet. 5:1). And Paul indicates that there may be elders who devote themselves full-time to the work of teaching the Word (1 Tim. 5:17).

It is the case, however, that many preachers labor in congregations in cooperation with pastors/elders, as did Timothy and Titus.

These complimentary roles of service were designed by Christ to lead all members to serve God according to their abilities (Eph. 4:12). In that respect, all Christians should be “ministers” of the gospel. Working together with preachers and elders, the whole congregation can grow according to the Lord’s plan.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Kent, Homer A. 1971. Ephesians: The Glory of the Church. Chicago, IL: Moody)
  • Vine, W. E. n.d. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. McLean, VA: MacDonald.
  • Westcott, B. F. 1998. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.