Were Early Preachers Called “Pastor”?

Were early preachers called “pastor”?

Were Early Preachers Called “Pastor”?

Richard Hollerman

I have noticed over the years that people write to me and refer to their preachers with the use of a variety of terms. Is this good or bad? Does it matter what we call someone with a status of this nature?

Some may dismiss this as “religious diversity.” Others may say that what really counts is what a certain leadership does and it isn’t that important what they call themselves or what we may call them. They say this to avoid the charge of legalism, something that has become a very negative term! They would say that we must avoid “legalism” at all costs. In other words, let people call themselves what they wish—it shouldn’t mean anything to us.

How do we look at this issue? What were the early preachers of the Word called and what term or terms should we use today? While the meaning of all these terms is most important, we also must recognize that any “religious” terms we may use reflect something good or something bad about the heart. Jesus said, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34). In other words, we reveal something about our inner selves by listening to the scriptures regarding Biblical terminology. We must only use those terms that properly and accurately portray Biblical truth and reveal what God through the Holy Spirit would want.

Just as Moses was told to “make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5), so also the Christian should seek to do all things in life according to the “pattern” that we see expressed in the new covenant writings—the New Testament. How did the early believers live, what did they say, and what didn’t they say?

We all know that in the early community of Christ (as described in our New Testament writings) there were such functionaries or positions as prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1; 15:32), elders (Acts 11:30; 14:23), servants [deacons] (1 Timothy 3:12-13), and preachers (1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11). Do we use the same terms today?

Let’s Focus on the “Pastor”

Probably we all recognize that a leading term in use today for a preacher or leader in a congregation or church is that of “pastor.” Doubtless it is true that all of our readers either have heard of this term or maybe they use the term themselves. It surely must be a leading word in our religious vocabulary.

The one who leads a congregation may go by the title, “Pastor” so and so. Maybe we’ve heard of “Pastor Jones” or “Pastor Jim.” Or we may read or hear of “William Smith,” the “Pastor” of First Street Church; or perhaps “Pastor Smith” of the local Baptist or Methodist Church. Surprisingly, we may even read of “Pastors” (plural) Bill and Mary Jones. The fact that no woman is referred to as a Pastor in the New Testament should be of interest to every reader who reveres God’s Word!

It will probably come as a shock to some of our readers that the term, “Pastors” is found merely one time in the New Testament! This single occurrence is in Ephesians 4:11: “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.” Although some believe that the position of “pastor” here is the same as the “teacher,” others divide them and see two different positions—that of the pastor and that of the teacher.

The term, “pastor,” is from the Greek poimen, “a shepherd, one who tends herds or flocks” (W. E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). The English word “pastor” “is derived from the Latin word pascere, which means ‘to feed’” ( William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).

We can get a better idea of the work or function of the “pastor” by reading Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for 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.” Notice that another term for the pastor is “overseer” (episkopos). The “pastor” is the same as the “overseer” in a congregation. Further, this same functionary is called an “elder” in verse 17.

In 1 Peter 5:1, Peter addresses the “elder” then says, “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God” (v. 2). Thus, the “elder” (v. 1) is the “shepherd” (v. 2) and is also the “overseer” (v. 2). These are not three different positions, but one position having three different labels. We might also note that Paul wanted Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5), then he calls these elders the overseers (v. 7).

Having the Label Doesn’t Make the Position

Although thousands of people may use the term “Pastor,” this doesn’t say that they fulfill this Biblical position. For example, the elder/overseer/shepherd was to be an older man, not a younger man! Further, the elder/overseer was to be married with children, not an unmarried man (Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:2). Furthermore, the one who fulfills this work is to be a man (a male), not a female (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). This shows that many people today do not meet the Biblical criteria since they are younger in age and experience, they are women (rather than men), and they are unmarried rather than married with children. Can you see how people today have confused this position?

Another observation is that men (elders, overseers, shepherds) were never given the title “Pastor” (shepherd). This term was merely descriptive of the work that the overseer or elder was to do; it was never intended to be a title. In other words, no one in the New Testament was called “Pastor Paul” or “Pastor James” or “Pastor John.” The term was merely meant to refer to the shepherding work that the elder or overseer was to do. It was not a title, such as “Mister” or “Officer” or “President.” Apparently in New Testament times, people were simply called “Paul” or “James” or “John”—without an accompanying title.

A Part of Religious or Churchly Jargon

If “Pastor” was not used as a title in the New Testament or in New Testament times, how do we account for the fact that it is so widespread today? One reason is that the term is obviously an integral part of churchly talk. It is religious jargon. Probably without thinking, someone may want to lead a congregation and he thinks that this means that he will be called “Pastor Bill” or “Pastor Tom.” Or, in a more formal way, perhaps “Pastor Jones” or “Pastor Smith.”

Since the term is just part of religious and churchly terminology, wouldn’t it be best to discard it completely? Throw out the term “Pastor” as well as other unbiblical terms—such as “Reverend,” “Doctor,” “Bishop,” and all other religious titles!

This would be a good time to begin seeking a more Biblically refined language. Also, now would be an ideal time to restudy the organization of the early community of Christ and seek to use Scriptural terminology to refer to Scriptural terms. Let’s renounce the pride, the arrogance, the ecclesiasticism of religious terms and churchly jargon! Let’s be Biblical in our thinking and in our speaking!




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