Pastor, A Word Study

Having established that the church is simply the assembly of God’s people at a particular place and time, we can turn to questions about how it is to function. In today’s culture, a first matter of importance is its leadership. In Protestant churches, the pastor is the main leader. Elders, bishops, priests, and deacons are also all important positions that are handled differently by different denominations. We will spend a few days looking at each of these terms, especially as it relates to church governance.

Given the prominence of “the pastor,” we may be amazed to discover that the word is only applied once in the New Testament to the church’s human leadership. The Greek word is poimen, and it occurs in this context only in Eph. 4:11, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors [poimen]and teachers.” (NIV) Against this, the word is used a total of eighteen times in the NT, and in every other case is usually translated “shepherd” (see Matt. 9:36; 25:32; 26:31; Mark 6:34; 14:27; Luke 2:8, 15, 18, 20; John 10:2, 11, 12, 14, 16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25). Further, in every instance except those in Luke, the word is used either directly or indirectly to describe Jesus. He is constantly called our “shepherd.” This is a particularly good translation, as poimen is used in the Greek translation of the OT to translate the word ro’eh, which means “shepherd” or “herdsman.”

Given this, there seems to be no reason not to translate poimen in Eph. 4:11 as “shepherd” as well (we should note that the English word “pastor” comes directly from the Latin word for “shepherd”). Further, grammatical evidence indicates that “pastors and teachers” are not two different offices, but rather describe a common function of these people. That is, pastors (shepherds) are those who teach and guide the church, pictured as God’s flock.  Thus, even though the title “pastor” is not one the Bible gives the leaders of the church, it does describe the manner in which they are to function.

This is confirmed in the fact that the verbal form of poimen, which is poimaino and means “to shepherd,” is used eleven times in the NT (Matt. 2:6; Luke 17:7; John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 9:7; 1 Pet. 5:2; Rev. 2:27; 7:17; 12:5; 19:15). Each of the usages in John, Acts, and Peter command the church’s leadership to “feed the flock.”

By far, “shepherd” is not the predominant word the NT uses to describe “the pastor.” The term, though, does well describe what such a one is to do. He is to feed the flock of God’s church, especially by teaching. When we compare this with the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, it is evident how great a responsibility this really is. When we consider, then, the role of the pastor, we would do well to keep in mind the picture of a shepherd and all that comes with it.

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