Many of people are interested in becoming pastors. However, do the folks who desire the role of pastor understand it biblically? Let me go ahead and tell you: If you’ve come to this lesson to find out how to become a preacher, then you don’t understand the biblical role of pastor. Therefore, although this lesson isn’t what you were looking for, it’s exactly what you need.
The word pastor is one of the most misused words in the religious world today. In this lesson, we are going to study who is a pastor and how to be qualified to become a pastor. So far in this lesson, I have used the word pastor seven times, which is six times more than the Bible uses it. That’s right; the word pastor only appears one time in the English Bible. And if that fact surprises you, stick around. There may be more surprising Bible facts around the corner.
The English word pastor is translated from the Greek word poimen, which can also be translated as the noun shepherd. A pastor is a shepherd of God’s people, God’s sheep. What do shepherds do? Basically speaking (we’ll go deeper on this in a moment), shepherds care for the flock. They feed, protect, and lead. There are different leadership roles in the church, and they often overlap, which is where I think much of the confusion about this word comes from. Not every leader or feeder of the church is called a shepherd (or a pastor) in the Bible. The word pastor is a reference to a specific role, one in which someone is appointed to after meeting certain qualifications (which we will explore later). So, just because someone feeds or leads God’s sheep does not mean he or she is a pastor.
Okay, brace yourself for the next couple of minutes. We need to make some important detailed points, but then we will pull it all together the simplest way we can.
Pastor ≠ preacher
The biggest misapplication of the word pastor in religion today is when people call the preacher—or the evangelist—the pastor. And sometimes this trickles down to other roles, like calling the youth guy the “youth pastor.” We don’t see it in English, but in the Greek, the word evangelize is directly related to the word gospel, which means good news. Evangelize is the verb form of the noun gospel, so to evangelize is to gospel-ize; it’s to good news people. But that’s not how we speak, so maybe it’s better put this way: A preacher, or an evangelist, is one who delivers the good news of Jesus and His kingdom to other people. In 2 Timothy 4, the apostle Paul says that preaching the word, even when Satan makes it difficult, fulfills the service and work of—not a pastor, but—an evangelist. John the Baptizer was a preacher, or evangelist (Matthew 3:1); so was Jesus (Matthew 4:17); as were all of the apostles (Matthew 10:7). However, just because they were preachers (or evangelists) does’t mean they were pastors. In fact, the Bible lists evangelist as a different role than pastor.
Notice the one time the word pastor appears in the English Bible. In context, the apostle Paul is urging the church to grow in Christ and use the different roles and gifts God has given to each Christian.
And He Himself 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
Grammatically, the word teachers is connected to the word pastors in this passage, so they are not meant to viewed as two separate roles, but one role: pastors/teachers. With that in mind, do you see the different roles present here? God gave: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers in His church. There is obviously some overlap, as all of them listed require communication and teaching (that is, feeding of the flock), but not all of the roles are the same. Again, this passage is the only time the word pastor is used in the English Bible. And really, to be consistent, it should be translated as shepherd, but because of the Latin influence on English, we have two words—shepherd and pastor. They mean the exact same thing. Did you notice pastor is listed separately from evangelist, those who preach the good news? A careful Bible student will notice and appreciate that preachers/evangelists are not the same thing as pastors.
So if the word pastor doesn’t refer to the evangelist or preacher, what does it refer to? The elders (also known as bishops) of the church.
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.1 Peter 5:1–4
Peter instructs the elders of the church to shepherd the local Christians. In English, the word shepherd can be a noun, as in, “That shepherd over there is fantastic. In fact, that shepherd is out standing in his field.” 🙃 In this passage, however, shepherd is used as a verb. The elders are to actively shepherd. Remember when I said, “The English word pastor is translated from the Greek word poimen, which can also be translated as the noun shepherd. A pastor is a shepherd of God’s people, God’s sheep”? The verb shepherd here is poimainō. See the connection? A pastor shepherds. A pastor is a shepherd. And, as Peter describes him, he is an elder of the church. Additionally, he is an overseer of the local flock. Or, as this word can also be translated, he is a bishop.
Let’s pause for a moment and put it all together simply for a couple of takeaways so far:
1. The elders (aka pastors) are one role in the church, and the evangelist (aka preacher) is another role. I have known many professing Christians refer to a church’s preacher as the pastor. However, that is not a biblical model. Remember that, biblically speaking, a preacher is not the same thing as a pastor.
While I was preparing for this lesson, someone noticed this fact in the Bible, and then asked, “What’s the big deal if we just fall in line with the rest of the religious world and refer to the preacher as the pastor? After all, doesn’t he do some of the tending to the sheep?” Good question. If we see a distinction in the Bible and ignore it for convenience’s sake, whose authority are we really following? The Lord gave the church both pastors and evangelists for the equipping of the saints. If we try to merge the two roles into one, we lose God’s model for the body of Christ, no one wins, and we are not fully equipped.
2. Just as body of Christ is often another way to reference the church of Christ, the Bible also uses multiple words to reference the elders of the church. And just like always, God has a reason for doing things. Multiple words for the same thing can give us different aspects of a role. Although each of these words references the same position in the church, they give us different angles. For example:
- The word elder and presbyter should bring to mind age, respect, and experience.
- The words pastor and shepherd should call to mind duty and sacrifice.
- The words bishop and overseer remind us of responsibility and authority.
And that’s exactly what the apostles instruct regarding this position in the church. When directing the elders of different congregations, Paul and Peter use all of these words.
The elders… Shepherd the flock, oversee them, and be examples to the flock.1 Peter 5:1–2
From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church…. 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
He also told them to watch and guard the church from wolves in the following verses. In Titus 1:9, Paul says pastors must be able to exhort the church with the word of God and convict false teachers of their error. Surely, there is overlap here with the role of an evangelist, but it is still the case that preachers and pastors are not the same thing.
Churches are to have multiple, local pastors
Two more things to notice:
1. When pastors are appointed in the New Testament to a local church, there is always more than one. As we have already seen, the church in Ephesus had multiple elders (Acts 20:17).
In Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, Paul and Barnabas:
appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.Acts 14:23
Paul instructed Titus:
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.Titus 1:5
And Peter addresses the elders of the church in his letter, as does Paul in the book of Philippians. Every time a church in the New Testament had pastors, the church had multiple pastors. If a church has only one pastor today, they are not following the biblical model. They do not have Jesus’ authority to appoint only one pastor. It should be questioned with an open Bible, and the church should repent and follow what Jesus has instructed.
2. Local pastors are always, well, local. Did you see the second theme in all the passages we just referenced? The elders in Ephesus were to take heed to the flock among which the Holy Spirit had appointed them (in other words, not some other flock). The church in Philippi had their own elders. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Titus was to appoint bishops—remember bishops, elders, and pastors are the same people—he was to appoint bishops in every city. Peter instructed the elders to, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you.” They had no authority in the congregation in the next city.
Some religious groups try to appoint bishops or pastors over multiple flocks, but again, that is not a biblical model. It might seem like I get joy out of pointing out what “many religious folks” are doing wrong. Certainly not! It should be the case that all of us, as careful Bible students, take a stand on Scripture. And when we see something we’re participating in that is not what Jesus expects, we must allow Him to shape us into His image more and more. Correction, repentance, and transformation is part of the disciple’s journey.
Here’s the wisdom in God’s requirement that pastors only shepherd the local sheep. When Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, he reminds his audience of this fact of shepherding:
To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.John 10:3–5
Jesus is surely the Good Shepherd. He has also placed local shepherds in His assemblies around the world. When a group of Christians need examples to follow and people to feed them, they should appoint those from among themselves whom they already know and trust to do the job.
How can I become a pastor?
Now that we understand what a pastor is, we can begin to address these questions biblically. To become a preacher or an evangelist, Jesus doesn’t seem to require much except faithfulness to the gospel and a devotion to teaching His word truthfully to the lost and the saints, even when it’s hard. And we can study that in another lesson. However, Jesus did give us a list of qualifications for people to become pastors, those who would tend the sheep inside the local flock.
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop [this word literally means overseer], he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.1 Timothy 3:1–71
There are two ways we must see this list. First, given that the inspired apostle begins the list with the word must, we know this is a list of qualifications. Given that these are requirements, you can look at them as boxes one must check in order to be a candidate for his local congregation. For example, if he is not married, or if he’s married but doesn’t have children, but he is an excellent teacher, he’s still not qualified to be a pastor. By no means does that suggest he’s a lesser citizen of the kingdom of God. There are other things he can do for the Lord than serve as an elder.
Those who are pastors must also meet the qualification of being able to teach. Although preachers are not automatically pastors, it may be the case that one or more of the local pastors do the preaching for a congregation.
In addition to viewing this list as qualifications, we should also view them as qualities, which is the main point. Paul explains why it’s important for any candidate for overseer to be married with children. He says, “if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” (NASB). Although ensuring the boxes are checked, that’s not the point. The point is to ensure the man has gained the experience necessary as a disciple who’s been a Christian for quite some time in order to shepherd God’s sheep, in order to guide them in the way. What does it mean for him to be gentle, hospitable, temperate, and not greedy? In most cases, you can tell if a man has these qualities. And when it comes time to appointing elders, it would be worth your effort to do good word studies from multiple Bible translations on these subjects.
Hang on, what did I say? “The point is to ensure the man—“ This entire time I’ve been assuming the pastors are men. Why? Because the Holy Spirit says an elder must be the husband of one wife. It’s not an assumption. It’s Scripture. If you’re going to appoint a woman as one of the pastors of a church, you must first disregard or discredit these passages. Again, just because someone doesn’t meet the qualifications, does that mean they’re a lower-class citizen? Gender roles in the church would be another study for another time, but hear me say now: By no means! The same apostle who says there are different roles for different ages and different genders also says:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28
Different roles, yes. Different value, certainly not.
Preachers, evangelists, pastors, shepherds, elders, presbyters, bishops, overseers. We hope you now have a biblical understanding of these words and roles.
- See also Titus 1:5–9. ↩︎