Few offices in the church have stirred as much controversy or confusion as that of pastor. Some denominations claim that pastors (or priests) are necessary to intercede on behalf of the people before God. Others claim that the office itself is never called for in Scripture, and that the church should be “organic” with every church member functioning on a coequal basis as the Holy Spirit leads. As this article will hopefully show, the truth lies with neither extreme.
According to the Apostle Paul, Jesus gave “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12, NKJV).
Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus explains that these “gifts” (or people) were intended by Jesus to advance His work via His church. This passage is notable, because it is the only time that the Greek word “poimen” is used to denote a church position. “Poimen” means “shepherd” and is the basis for the English word “pastor.”
The significance of this word becomes clearer when one considers how often Jesus refers to His followers as “sheep” (John 10:1-6; John 21:16-17, etc.). Paul’s use of the term “poimen” in Ephesians 4 thus indicates that Jesus calls some (but not all) of His followers to serve as leaders (or “shepherds”) of His church.
Pastors, Elders, and Bishops
Peter confirms the interchangeable nature of the words “pastor” and “elder,” when he exhorts the “elders” to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve” (I Peter 5:2, NIV).
The word “elder” is also used, on occasion, to denote an older person (I Timothy 5:1), but a pastor need not be an “elder” in the sense of age. Timothy, after all, was evidently fairly young (his mother and grandmother both apparently still living) and was taking over as head pastor in Ephesus (I Timothy 4:12).
A pastor is, however, not to be a “novice” to the Christian faith (I Timothy 3:6) and must accept the responsibility of leading by example (I Timothy 4:12).
What about the office of bishop? By the second century, bishops were serving as regional heads of local congregations, thus giving rise to the hierarchical character several denominations manifest today. In the first century, however, it appears that a bishop was essentially the same as a pastor.
The only possible distinction might be that a bishop was the senior pastor. Timothy, for example, was taking the office of bishop (I Timothy 3:1) and was serving in an oversight capacity in relation to other elders (or pastors) in the church (I Timothy 5:19). There’s not enough scriptural or scholarly evidence, however, to make too much of this distinction. For all practical purposes, Timothy (as a bishop) fulfilled the same basic role as any pastor or elder.
The Argument Against Pastors
It may be surprising to some, but many Christians dispute the office of pastor itself. In Pagan Christianity?, authors Frank Viola and George Barna advocate strongly for the “organic” model, arguing that most of today’s church traditions (including paid clergy, ordered services, etc.) have pagan origins. In an “organic” church, they write approvingly, “everyone is free to function, share, participate, and minister spiritually during gatherings, so the creativity expressed in them is endless” (Viola, Frank and Barna, George. Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. Tyndale, 2008).
While Viola and Barna (and others in the organic church movement) convincingly argue that some church traditions stem from pagan cultures or other religions, they overreach in some of their conclusions. It’s true that centuries of practice and church politics, as well as diverse cultural influences, have added aspects to church life that are not found in Scripture, but some of their claims and proposed conclusions go beyond the evidence.
God’s Design for Church Leadership
While the church is universal in scope, it was intended to be locally organized. And pastors are at the center of that local organization, being tasked with pastoral “oversight” and ultimately being held responsible to the Chief Shepherd (I Peter 5).
Paul also gives instructions on how local assemblies should compensate elders in I Timothy 5:17-18. How organic church advocates like Barna and Viola can read that passage and still maintain that having and paying clergy is “Pagan” (and not Christian) is often viewed as perplexing, to say the least.
The biblical principle is clear: Pastors, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and within the parameters of their biblical qualifications (I Timothy 3:1-7; I Peter 5:1-4), are to lead and take care of their respective local congregations. And those local churches in turn are to follow and take care of their pastors (Hebrews 13:17; I Timothy 5:17-18).