Who Is a "Pastor"?
By Lance Mosher
Many churches have someone who brings a weekly message to them. I have heard this person referred to by several different titles. The two most common are preacher and pastor. Very often, people treat these two words as if they mean the same thing. The issue is that the Bible teaches that preacher and pastor are not interchangeable words. The words that are interchangeable with pastor are elder, bishop, overseer, shepherd, and presbyter. Therefore, when referring to the work of the church, pastor = elder = bishop = overseer = shepherd = presbyter.
The English word, pastor, in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word, poimen. Poimen can also be translated as shepherd. A pastor/shepherd is devoted to caring for the flock and doing everything he can to be sure that the sheep are safe, fed, and under control. “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors [poimen] and teachers.”
The English, New Testament words, elder and presbyter, are both translated from the Greek word, presbuteros. In English, we use elder to describe someone who is older and deserves respect. The same emphasis is on the Greek word, presbuteros. When referring to an elder in the church, we are not only referencing age and respect, but also a responsibility that comes with the position of elder. “The apostles and the elders [presbuteros] came together to look into this matter” (Acts 15:6). “The elders [presbuteros] who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders [presbuteros] in every city as I directed you” (Tit. 1:5).
The English, New Testament words, overseer and bishop, are translated from the Greek word, episkopos. A caregiver or guardian comes to mind. “For the overseer [episkopos] 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” (Tit. 1:7). “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [episkopos] and deacons” (Phil. 1:1, NKJV).
We have six words in English to describe the same position (or office) in the church, where the Greek uses only three words. “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders [presbuteros] of the church. ‘Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [verb form of poimen] the church of God which He purchased with His own blood’” (Acts 20:17, 28). “Therefore, I exhort the elders [presbuteros] among you, as your fellow elder [presbuteros] and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd [verb form of poimen] the flock of God among you, exercising oversight [episkopos] not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). In these two passages, Luke and Peter both use all three Greek words interchangeably. When they refer to the elders, they are also referring to the shepherds, pastors, bishops, overseers, and presbyters.
In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, we find certain qualifications of elders/pastors. Looking at those two passages together, we learn that an elder must be blameless, the husband of one wife (a pastor must be married), temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous, one who rules his own house well, not a novice, of good testimony with those who are outside (non-Christians), having faithful children (a pastor must have children), not self-willed, a lover of what is good, self-controlled, holy, and holding fast the faithful word.
Why does God put so many qualifications on those who would be appointed as pastors? The office of elder is not to be taken lightly. A group of men that are supposed to shepherd the flock must know the way to the Master before trying to guide others to Him. God needs the best possible candidates on earth in the position of leading the greatest family on earth. Think of God as being the C.E.O. of the most important organization in history. Is He going to put just anybody into the overseers’ chairs? No, He’s going to make sure they are qualified and able to protect and run their own lives and families before He puts them in charge of His family of believers.
We’ve established that pastor equals elder and does not equal preacher. Peter tells the elders, “Shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). The elders are in authority over the local congregation (“among you”). Therefore, the elders in one congregation have no say over the flock in another. Every local church is autonomous (e.g. Acts 11:22), while every church makes up the universal church (Eph. 5:25). Although each church has its own set of elders, if the elders meet the qualifications found in the New Testament, there will be unity among the churches of which Christ is the head.
Again, pastor and preacher are not interchangeable. All pastors are teachers and preachers of the Word (not always in a public sense) (1 Tim. 3:2), but not every preacher is a pastor. Someone might ask, “What’s the big deal if we change some words around?” The big deal is that if God’s word makes a distinction, we should be aware of it, teach it, and honor it. We should do everything possible to practice Bible things in Bible ways using Bible names.
Except where noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation