One of the driving contentions of this website is that our definition of the term “pastor” must come from the Scriptures. For any man called to pastor, his understanding of the meaning of that word and the function of the pastor should not just come from experience or observation. For example, neither your childhood pastor nor a CEO of a business should serve as the definitive source from which you define the term pastor. Neither should your understanding of the role of pastor come from the job description of the church you serve. All of these sources are only helpful in so far as they reflect what Scripture says about the nature and role of pastoral leadership.
But even before we can answer the question what is a pastor, we must first recognize that not every church uses the term pastor. In fact, no consensus exists among Christians as to the English word used to refer to the leaders in a church. For some, the common term is pastor, sometimes with additional church leaders referred to as worship pastors or youth pastors. The term elder is used in some Christian traditions, while others refer to their leaders as bishops. These terms aren’t even stable within denominations. In the Southern Baptist tradition, the earliest version of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925) referred to the office of the church as “bishops, or “elders.” By 1963, this had been changed to “pastors.”
Why such apparent confusion? Several biblical terms are used somewhat interchangeably to refer to church leaders in the New Testament. First, the word Greek word translated “pastor” is closely connected to the word for “shepherd.” So in English translations you will rarely find the word “pastor,” but you will find references to leaders shepherding the church. Second, the word overseer is used to refer to church leaders in passages such as 1 Timothy 3:1-2. Some translations render this word as “bishop,” but for our purposes here, we will refer to overseers. Third, church leaders can also be referred to as elders, such as in Titus 1:5 where Paul told Titus to appoint elders in the church at Crete. Finally, the author of Hebrews used the term “leader” several times in Hebrews 13 to refer to the leaders of the church.
Just a few examples will suffice to show the general overlap of these terms in the New Testament. In Acts 20, Paul called together the elders of the church at Ephesus so that he could address them as he was on his way to Jerusalem (20:17). But when Paul gave commands to these elders in Acts 20:28, he told them to shepherd (pastor) the church of God, over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers. In this one chapter in Acts we have three terms used for the same group of leaders. As elders, they were given oversight of a church, and they were called to shepherd that church.
In 1 Peter 5, Peter addressed the elders of the churches to whom he was writing. He called them elders in 5:1, and then in 5:2, he told the elders to shepherd (pastor) the church of God. As they shepherded, they were to exercise oversight. Peter then went on to give instructions to these elders on how they should shepherd or oversee the church. The author of Hebrews used one other term closely related to this concept of oversight. Three times in Hebrews 13, the author of Hebrews referred to the leaders of the church. The readers of Hebrews were to “remember our leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). In 13:7, the church was to obey their leaders since their leaders were keeping watch over their souls, and in 13:24, the author of Hebrews sent greetings to the “leaders and all the saints.”
One of the implications of the uses of these terms in the New Testament is that churches actually are supposed to have leaders. In an increasingly anti-authoritarian culture, some would argue that churches don’t have to have leaders. After all aren’t we all a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). But a leaderless church is not an appropriate implication of the priesthood of the believer. The New Testament clearly teaches that the church is to have recognized leadership, and in fact, Titus 1:5 teaches us that this recognized leadership is necessary for a church to function properly.
The contention put forward here is that these four terms used in the New Testament, pastor, elder, overseer, and leader, refer to the same biblical office. A close examination of each of these terms can help us craft a careful, biblical definition that answers the question what is a pastor. So when we come to the question of what is a pastor, the more pressing issue is not what term will we use to describe this office, but what kind of person should this pastor/elder/overseer/leader be, and what should this person do? We find that the background for all these New Testament terms is found first in the Old Testament. So before moving to New Testament, we must first trace significant uses of these terms in the Old Testament.