What is a Pastor?

By Royce Frederick

Do you use the term “Pastor” without really understanding what it means in the New Testament? Here are some facts which are often overlooked regarding this term:

“Pastor” is found ONLY ONE TIME in the King James Version and the New King James Version of the New Testament: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11).

“Pastor” DOES NOT MEAN “preacher.” Many people today call every preacher “pastor.” But the New Testament never uses “pastor” to mean “preacher.” Occasionally, a preacher may also be appointed as one of the pastors of the local church, but most gospel preachers are simply preachers. Most pastors are not preachers, and most preachers are not pastors.

“Pastor” MEANS “shepherd.” In 1611, when the translation called the King James Version was completed, the people in England commonly used the term “pastor” for a person who tends sheep. Jesus is called “the chief shepherd” (1 Peter. 5:4). The English translators would have been equally accurate if they had translated it “the chief pastor.”

“Pastors” are the SAME MEN as the “elders” and “bishops” of the local church. Most often, these men are called elders (sometimes translated “presbyters”). They are also called bishops (meaning “overseers”) and pastors (meaning “shepherds”). 1 Peter 5:1-2 and Acts 20:17, 28 show that all of these terms refer to the same group of men.

Peter told “the elders” to “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers...” (1 Peter 5:1-2). So in these verses, the elders (presbyters) are told to shepherd (to pastor, tend, feed) the flock and oversee (bishop) the church.

Speaking to “the elders of the church” from Ephesus, Paul said, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:17, 28. So, Paul told the elders (presbyters) that they were bishops (overseers), and they should shepherd (pastor, tend, feed) the church.

There is NEVER ONLY ONE pastor (elder, bishop) over any local church mentioned in the New Testament. Every time the New Testament refers to the elders of a local congregation, there are always two or more men serving together (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:4; 20:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; Phil. 1:1).

Several SPECIAL QUALIFICATIONS must be met by each pastor (elder, bishop) before he can be appointed as one of the pastors of the local church (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). Among other qualifications, a pastor must have a wife and children, he must be older (elder), and he must not be a new convert. These are not required of a preacher (see Acts 8:4; 9:18-20).

The pastors HAVE AUTHORITY to make decisions for the local church, and this is an area of authority which the preachers and other members do not have (Heb. 13:17; 1 Tim. 5:17, 19; 1 Thess. 5:12-13). The pastors do not have the authority to disobey or change the teachings of Christ revealed in the New Testament (see 1 Tim. 5:19-21; Titus 1:9; Jude 3). But they do have the authority and duty to make decisions in overseeing the local church’s work.

The pastors (shepherds) must TEND THE FLOCK just as shepherds tend sheep. All members of the local church, including preachers, should care about all the other members and try to help their brothers (Gal. 6:1-2; 1 Cor. 12:25-26; James 5:19-20). However, if the church has pastors, the primary responsibility for tending the flock belongs to the pastors (elders, bishops) of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). These men should work together as a team of shepherds, guiding the members, seeing that they are properly fed spiritually with God’s word, helping them in distress, and seeking them when they go astray. The shepherds must watch for false teachers and stand against anyone who would harm the flock (Acts 20:29-31; Titus 1:9-11).

Some members expect a preacher to do the primary shepherding. When they have a problem, many members call for a preacher first, not for the elders (see James 5:14). Instead of following the Lord’s way of organizing the church, some members want one man to rule over the local church, like churches of men around them. Such members are like the Israelites who told Samuel, “Now make for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). By rejecting the Lord’s way, they were rejecting the Lord (8:7) and committing great wickedness (12:17).

Some pastors abandon the very difficult work of shepherding the flock. Sometimes the pastors expect a preacher to do that work for them. This may occur because the pastors have become tired, discouraged, or distracted by multitudes of details in the work of the local church. The pastors can certainly enlist the help of preachers and faithful members in the work of teaching, exhorting, and restoring weak members. And deacons can be appointed to relieve the pastors of some jobs (see Phil. 1:1; Acts 6:1-6; the qualifications for deacons are given in 1 Tim. 3:8-13). But the pastors must not forsake their job as the shepherds of the flock.

Some preachers take over the work of shepherding. Sometimes a preacher who genuinely loves all the members may forget that he is not one of the pastors. He may forget that he should be teaching and exhorting the pastors to do their work. It may happen that he gradually takes over the shepherding, without intending to replace the pastors. But some preachers desire to pastor the flock and rule over the church. Far too often we see a preacher take over the work of shepherding and begin making disciples for himself. Eventually, such a preacher may oppose the pastors (elders), leave the church, or divide it and take part of the flock with him (Acts 20:29-30).

The Lord’s way is best. To be His church, we must use New Testament words the same way the Lord used them — in speaking and in doing (2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; Matt. 28:20). Through His word, He directs us to select and appoint qualified pastors (elders, bishops) in every church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). And, as members, we must try to make their work more joyful. We do this when we obey the elders (Heb. 13:17) and “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thess. 5:13; see 1 Tim. 5:17).