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What is a Pastor? Examining the Biblical Job Description of the "Poimenas" of Ephesians 4:11

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by Keith Schooley




It is well known that the title of "pastor" refers to a "shepherd" in both Greek and Hebrew. Many therefore endeavor to find the duties of a pastor by analogy to those of a literal shepherd, spiritualizing the physical duties involved, so that "feeding" may represent (for example) preaching the Word, leading sheep to new pasture represents leadership, and the overall caretaking responsibilities involve meeting people’s needs on an individual basis. The problem with this understanding is that there are no inherent controls on the analogy itself—those making the analogy may interpret any duty in any manner they choose. The usual understanding that emerges from this approach lays great emphasis on personal care for the congregation by the pastor, which may or may not be what was intended by the New Testament use of the term to describe a type of leader within the church.


A better method of discovering the meaning of the title, "pastor," would be to analyze the metaphorical uses of that word in Greek and Hebrew, to discover what aspects of literal shepherding are applied to other occupations, what these aspects have reference to, and to what persons or offices they are applied. Once we understand how the terms for "shepherd" are used metaphorically throughout scripture, we may then better understand how they would have been understood to apply to the title named in Ephesians 4:11.


In that passage, the Apostle Paul cites the office of "pastor" (poimhn) along with those of apostle, prophet, and evangelist (the office of teacher, as we shall see, is probably coordinate with that of pastor), but gives no content to the position so named. In order to discover what the Biblical understanding of that office is, we shall 1) review the metaphorical uses of poimhn and its cognates in the New Testament, as well as its equivalent in Old Testament Hebrew; 2) attempt to discover synonomous offices/titles in the New Testament literature and similarly trace their usage; 3) tie the material thus gathered into a biblical "job description" of the pastor as that role is conceived in the Scriptures.


I. "Shepherd" and Its Cognates in the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures

1. Poimhn, Shepherd, Pastor

The only usage of poimhn in the New Testament for an office of the church is that of Ephesians 4:11.1 Leaving aside references to actual shepherds (all of which occur in Luke’s infancy narrative), the predominant New Testament use of this term refers to Jesus in his unique role as messiah—specifically, in His laying down His life for the sheep (i.e., atonement through the cross). This is an important point to observe, because many simply identify Jesus as "shepherd" and then press the analogy between Jesus and the local pastor of the church. However, when one examines the specific claims to "shepherding" made by or about Jesus in the New Testament, we find that they are few in number and specifically salvific in nature. The synoptic references to Zechariah 13:7, "Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered," can only have reference to Jesus’ crucifixion, as can such statements in John 10 as "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (v. 11) and "I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . only to take it up again. . . . I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again" (vv. 15, 17,18). These passages refer clearly and specifically to Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, and they are the only passages in which Jesus clearly refers to Himself as shepherd. The implication here is that the local pastor cannot be a shepherd in the same sense that Jesus was, and so, to discover the content of the pastor’s "shepherding" responsibilities, one must look elsewhere than to simple analogy to Jesus.2


Outside Ephesians, only Matthew 9:36 and Mark 6:34 (parallel synoptic accounts) have possible reference to anyone other than Jesus; in both cases the crowds following Jesus are described as "sheep without a shepherd," without comment on who the needed shepherd would be. Matthew adds vv. 37-38: "Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’"3 It is therefore possible that "shepherd" in v. 36 is coordinate with "worker" in vv. 37-38, and that the "workers" Jesus has in view are to be "shepherds" (i.e., pastors). This is followed in Matthew by the sending out of the Twelve on their first mission. However, in the Markan parallel, Jesus himself responds to the need and "began teaching them many things"; i.e., one would be led in Mark to identify the needed "shepherd" with Jesus himself. In fact, "sheep without a shepherd" cites Numbers 27:17, in which Moses petitions God for a leader over Israel, and God appoints Joshua as Moses’ successor; in which role Joshua functions as a type of Christ (cf. "I will raise up a prophet like you [Moses]," Dt. 18:18). In drawing a parallel between the situation at hand and that of Moses, Jesus evidently had two analogies in mind: himself in the role of Moses, his successors as shepherds (Matthew), and himself in the role of Moses’ successor (Mark).4


The contexts (apart from Eph. 4:11) in which poimhn is found, then, offer little information on what the biblical role of the pastoral office ought to be. They either refer to literal shepherds, to Jesus in his unique atoning/salvific role, or have uncertain reference to "workers" in the harvest; the most that can be inferred is that "harvesting," or salvation of souls, is involved. However, a further element of the pastoral office may be deduced from the context of Ephesians 4:11 itself: in the expression, touV de poimenaV kai didaskalouV, "and some to be pastors and teachers," the use of "and some" to cover both "pastors and teachers" (as well as the omission of the article before "teachers," according to Sharp’s Rule5) not only allows but actually suggests rather strongly that these offices were intended to be considered together in a single category, or possibly as metonymous expressions for a single office: the pastor-teacher. It is reasonable to infer from this construction that teaching is to be understood as a principle element of the pastoral office.

2. Poimainw, to shepherd, pastor, tend, rule

Three uses of the verbal cognate poimainw help us to fill out the content of the term "pastor" in Ephesians 4:11; i.e., explain something of what it means to "pastor" or "shepherd" the congregation of believers.6 In Jesus reinstatement of Peter after His resurrection, in the second of the three "Do you love me?" interchanges (John 21:16), Peter is enjoined by Jesus to "Take care of (poimaine) my sheep." What this "taking care" would involve is not explicitly told, but it is (in Peter’s case, at least) clearly to be an outgrowth of his love for the Lord, and would result in captivity and martyrdom, and brings to fruition Jesus’ original call to him: "Follow me" (vv. 18-19).


In his farewell address to the elders of the Ephesian church, the apostle Paul charges the elders to "Keep watch over youselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God" (Acts 20:28). In this passage we are given to understand that the "elders" (to whom Paul is speaking, vv. 17-18) are also called "overseers," and that it is they who are to shepherd the church; i.e., the pastoral office is to be identified with that of an "elder" or an "overseer." Moreover, Paul seems to explicate what he means by poimainw in vv. 29-31 by two coordinate expressions. In the first (v. 29), he warns that "savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock." In the next verse, he explains that "men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them." Then he warns the elders to be on their guard and recalls to them his constant warnings for the previous three years. Here, watchfulness with regard to false teachers and warning the people concerning them is the evident practical import of the descriptive verb poimainw.


1 Peter 5:2 calls upon the "elders among you" (i.e., among the church worldwide; cf. 1:1-2) to "Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers." In this we see confirmation that "elders" are to be identified with "overseers" and charged with "shepherding"; we see also that "God’s flock" (i.e., the congregation) is in some sense "under" the elder’s "care." Vv. 2b-3 indicate, by three contrasted pairs, the manner in which "shepherding" ought to take place: "not because you must," "not greedy for money," "not lording it over those entrusted to you"; but rather, "because you are willing, as God wants you to be," "eager to serve," and "being examples to the flock." In verse 4, a reward (the "crown of glory") is promised from the "Chief Shepherd" to those who faithfully serve in this capacity.


If we identify the verbal poimainw with the conduct of the "pastoral" office, it follows from these three passages that 1) the office of "pastor" is to be identified with that of "elder" and "overseer," and therefore what is said about these offices is in turn applicable to the pastor; 2) its motive ought to be out of love for the Lord and a willing eagerness to serve (rather than out of compulsion or greed); 3) its conduct involves serving God’s people and exemplifying the new life before them; and 4) its content specifically includes watching out for false teachers and warning the people of them; i.e., teaching against false doctrine as it appears.


Before turning to the offices that we’ve seen are identified with the pastorate–"elders" and "overseers"—we will take up the Hebrew background of "shepherd" and "shepherding" and investigate what connotations the NT readers may have been expected to bring to their understanding of the terms.

3. Râ‘âh, to tend (a flock), graze; rule; a shepherd, leader, ruler

Used as a noun, râ‘âh frequently refers to literal shepherds. When applied metaphorically, however, its most common usage is with reference to leaders in general, without specifying what type of leadership is envisioned; the context, however, often makes clear that military and/or judicial-royal leadership is understood. A few other references clearly indicate foreign rulers or military leaders. In addition to these references, there are a few in which a specific human person is indicated: a successor to Moses, i.e., Joshua (typologically, Jesus); Jeremiah; Cyrus; and Moses. Of these, only Jeremiah is not a judge, military leader, or king. It is often used with respect to God, and a few times with reference to the messiah.7


Used as a verb, râ‘âh most often refers to the literal tending of sheep, as a rule understood primarily to involve feeding and leading to fresh pasture. Used metaphorically, it often refers to God’s provision for His people, frequently with reference to Israel’s restoration. When referring to human leadership, the civil leadership of kings or judges is usually assumed: judges or kings are often clearly in view in the context, and leaders, when their specific office is not identified, are often compared to (or replaced by a type of) King David. Râ‘âh is never used with clear reference to priests, and only once to prophets, in Jeremiah’s self-reference. It can refer to feeding or taking care of oneself, and can be used metaphorically. The general sense of this usage seems to be the responsibility of the leader/shepherd to provide for the needs of his people/flock. As these needs are generally either undefined or understood to be the physical needs for food and water, there is little OT direct evidence to guide one in determining how to meet the spiritual needs of the NT church (although this may provide a basis for the mandate for the church to provide physically for those who are in physical need). Emphasis seems to be placed, however, on the attitude of the "shepherds": whether they provide for their own needs at the expense of the people, or whether they give primary regard to the needs of the people.8


In Ezekiel 34, a seminal text in this regard, the Lord pronounces judgment upon the "shepherds (civil leadership) of Israel,"9 on the basis that they "only take care of themselves" and do not "take care of the flock" (vv. 2-3). The Lord’s specific indictment of the shepherds is that they do not help the weak, sick, or injured; that they do not rescue strays and the lost; and that they have ruled the flock harshly and brutally, benefiting themselves with the best the flock has to offer (vv. 3-4). The result of this neglect and abuse is that the sheep are "scattered," a recurring term used frequently to describe bad or nonexistent shepherding. God’s response to this situation will be to hold the shepherds accountable and remove them from their position (v. 10); to rescue His flock, search for His sheep, and tend them Himself (vv. 11-12), and to take care of the injured and weak (v. 16). His shepherding also involves meting out justice upon the sheep as well as the shepherds (vv. 17 and 22) and, as a culmination, placing over them "one shepherd, my servant David" (typologically, Christ), who will "be their shepherd" (vv. 23-24). The rest of the chapter describes the restoration of Israel in the Messianic Age.10


From this OT background, we may draw a few conclusions that one may expect the early church to have understood by the term, "shepherd/pastor." 1) God Himself and Messiah are to be understood as the preeminent Shepherd(s); "pastors" are therefore delegated extensions of His leadership. 2) Shepherds in the OT denote civil leaders and not prophets or priests; pastoring in the church should then refer primarily to leadership within the church, and not to priestly (sacerdotal) or prophetic functions of ministry. 3) The welfare of the sheep/people is to be the shepherd/pastor’s primary concern. Specifically, the weak, sick, or injured ought to receive concern and care, and lost strays are to be sought out for restoration. Above all, the flock is not to be scattered, i.e., unity, direction, and correction are primary responsibilities of the pastor.


In bringing together the Hebrew and Greek terms for shepherd/pastor and their verbal equivalents, we see that 1) the motive of pastoring should be love for the Lord, and willingness to serve as His delegates, for the benefit of His people; 2) the conduct of pastoring should be that of servant-leadership: exemplifying the new life, caring for those with needs, and guiding, directing, correcting, and unifying the congregation as a whole; 3) the predominant method of pastoring should be sound teaching, especially to protect against "wolves," i.e., warning people of false teachers as they arise.

II. Terms Identified with "Shepherd"

1. PresbuteroV, elder

PresbuteroV is used to designate an office of the church only in Acts, in the Pastoral Epistles, and in some of the general epistles; the term was evidently taken over from the Jewish use of "elder" (zâqên) to designate leaders (originally, probably heads of families) within Israel. Elders act as the representatives of churches, receiving monetary assistance and meeting together to resolve doctrinal disputes (Acts 15); they seem to appear first in Jerusalem and are later appointed in the churches by Paul, who still later passes the responsibility of appointing elders to (at least) Titus; and were seen as Paul’s successors in Ephesus (Acts 20). They are to be treated with respect in accordance with the gravity of their office; accusations against them are not to be frivolously entertained, but treated seriously if proven (1 Tim. 5:19-20). They are to be called for in times of need for prayer (Jas. 5:14). The work of at least some of them is described as "preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). 11


The qualifications of a presbuteroV are laid out in Titus 1:5-9. Briefly, they are: to be "blameless," identified in v. 7 by five things it is "not": overbearing, quick-tempered, given to drunkenness, violent, and in pursuit of dishonest gain; to be "the husband of one wife,"12 and one whose children are obedient believers; to be hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined; and to be one who holds firmly to the basic gospel message, so that he may encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. The emphasis seems to be laid upon moral and ethical character, along with fidelity to the gospel message and the ability to teach it properly. These qualities confirm what has already been discovered about the "shepherd": that he should both practice and teach the content of the gospel.

2. EpiskopoV, overseer, bishop

EpiskopoV is evidently a Gentile equivalent to presbuteroV; both terms were taken from generically used designations of leaders in Jewish and Greek settings, respectively.13 The evidence seems to indicate that, during the writing of the New Testament, the two terms were synonymous, although presbuterV may have been being replaced by episkopoV as the church became progressively more Gentile in orientation.


The most helpful passages in understanding the episkopoV are from the requirements laid out for the office in 1 Timothy 3:1-10 and Titus 1:5-9, the latter having been examined with reference to the presbuteroV since the Titus passage uses both terms. Besides those qualifications already considered, 1 Timothy 3 adds that the office consists of a "noble task"; that the overseer must be respectable, not quarrelsome, not a recent convert, and have a good reputation with outsiders.


Most of the qualifications of elders and overseers are basic moral, ethical qualities that are elsewhere urged upon believers in general; those in leadership are therefore expected to be exemplary in these matters. It is worth noting, however, the differences between the qualifications of elders/overseers and those of deacons (evidently, lay leadership): while many qualifications are equivalent, those specifically enjoined upon elders/overseers seem to stress self-control in interpersonal relationships, personal holiness and love for what is good, self-discipline, hospitality, and in three citations (1 Tim. 3:2, 5:17; Tit. 1:9), ability to teach.


It would appear that the terms "elder," and "overseer," considered together, constitute one who is set apart and appointed for leadership in the church, one who leads by example and exemplary moral character, and who faithfully teaches and preaches the gospel. They connote leadership and mature Christian character. These qualities may be understood as applying to the pastorate as well.


III. Evidence from Specific Texts

1. Didaskalia, Didaskw, and Related Words in the Pastoral Epistles

The epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are generally understood as focusing on instruction in the conduct of the pastoral office (and of church leadership in general), as the common designation of "pastoral epistles" indicates. These epistles should be considered a seminal text for the understanding of the pastoral office.


The Pastoral Epistles lend a great deal of support to the idea that the New Testament pastoral office is largely conceived of in terms of teaching. Various forms of the didask— root occur 27 times in these three brief epistles.14 This is out of 210 occurrences in the New Testament as a whole (13%), of which most of the rest are references to Jesus. There are only 64 references in all the epistles combined, so that the Pastorals contain 42% of the epistolary references to teachers, teaching, doctrine, and instruction. While the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation contain the most of the didask- roots in the New Testament, the pastorals contain the highest frequency of these roots.


An examination of the passages involved indicate that the writer is primarily focused on the teaching role of the church leader; either Timothy or Titus themselves, or the elders/overseers that they are appointing. The leader is to oppose false teaching (1 Tim. 1:3-7, 4:1-3) by pointing out the "truths of the faith" and the "good teaching" he has followed (1 Tim. 4:6), and by commanding false teachers to cease (1 Tim. 1:3) and by silencing those who are "teaching things they ought not to teach" (Tit. 1:11). He is to "command and teach these things" and to "devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Tim. 4:11, 13). He is to "teach the older men," "teach the older women," "teach what is good," "encourage the young men," and "teach slaves" (Tit. 2:2, 3, 6, 9). He is to "give the people these instructions" (1 Tim. 5:7), and to "teach what is in accord with sound doctrine" (Tit. 2:1). The leader is to "correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine" (2 Tim. 4:2-3). In his teaching, the leader is to "show integrity, seriousness, and soundness of speech" (Tit. 2:7-8).


The leader is to keep what he has heard from the Apostle Paul as "the pattern of sound teaching" (2 Tim. 1:13), and to entrust Paul’s words to "reliable man who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim. 2:2). The elders whom he appoints are to be considered worthy of "double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). Such an elder is to "hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (Tit. 1:9). Scripture is recognized as "God-breathed and . . . useful for teaching" (2 Tim. 3:16).


In short, the primary mission of the pastor, as described in the Pastoral Epistles, is to teach. This includes teaching of scripture, doctrine, and godly morals; it includes opposing false teachers; and it is to be done both by verbal means and by personal example.

2. The Choosing of the Seven in Acts 6

A final consideration is to examine to choosing of "the Seven" in Acts chapter 6. In response to a dispute in the church involving meeting the physical needs of people, the apostles decided that seven men should be chosen to take care of the daily distribution of food (vv. 1-3). Whether these were forerunners of the later office of deacons is disputed, but the rationale that the apostles gave for their action is highly worthy of note: they stated that "it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables" (v. 2). While the apostles’ role in the early church cannot simply be equated with the role of the modern pastor, their role certainly included that of the modern pastor—they were considered the leadership of the church and were responsible for teaching (Acts 2:42, 6:2). Acts 6 therefore gives strong precedent for lay leadership to take on some of the caretaking responsibilities of the church in order to allow the pastor to avoid neglecting his responsibilities to ministering the word of God and praying.




There are some who would equate the ministry of a pastor exclusively with doctrinal instruction. This position is not borne out by the present study. A pastor’s responsibilities include serving others, exemplifying his message through his daily actions, loving his people, and a concern especially with those who are weak and in need.


However, a much more common view of the pastor in the church, often arrived at by default rather than analysis, is to regard the pastor as the chief worker of the church. Tasks of administration, visitation, counseling, assuaging difficulties, and many other, individually minor, demands on his time have the combined effect of squeezing out what scripture regards as the pastor's primary responsibility—that of teaching the people of God the truths of God’s word and principles of godly living. Many pastors are pressured by people in their congregations to be "more visible" or "more accessible." Those who demand these things have little understanding that time spent in private study or in the solitary prayer closet may be of much greater value to the Body of Christ than endeavoring to be seen doing what the people want the pastor to do.


If the call on a person’s life to pastoral ministry is truly of God, then it is to do the work of God, which is described and exemplified in scripture. It is not necessarily to do the work expected by congregants. Churches need to allow their pastors to involve lay leadership in circumstances that do not require a pastor, and members of congregations need to accept a visit or some other ministry by a brother or sister in Christ as just as valid as the same thing being done by a pastor. People naturally feel honored when the pastor takes time out of his schedule to meet personally with them, and they enjoy seeing him involved in community affairs. But when a pastor spends the majority of his time "taking time out" to do these things, he risks neglecting the gift he has been given; just as bad, he often finds himself trying to operate outside of the gifts God has given him, because God has given him gifts appropriate to the ministry He has called him to, not necessarily the one people expect from him. The success of the modern megachurch may be due partly to the fact that a senior pastor, often a gifted preacher and expositor, is freed by his staff to actually do the work he has been called to do. How much more effective might the Church be if all those who are called to teach the word of God were able to do the same thing?

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