“Is the Pastor In?”: A Brief Look at a Misnomer

Posted on September 7, 2013 by

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The telephone rings and I answer it. The person on the other end asks the following question: “is the pastor in?” To which I reply, “No, we have no pastors, but I’m an evangelist can I help you?” The phone is silent for a few seconds, often followed with some stuttering; the refrain repeats uneasily, “is the pastor in?”

I am not purposely being difficult. I am however being biblical. I receive letter after letter, and call after call, where people (usually salespeople) are looking for or seeking “the pastor”. They are seeking the preacher but that is not the preacher’s title, nor description in the New Testament.

It is a rather unfortunate situation. It is also very awkward. I am often introduced (sometimes even by Christians) or greeted as a “pastor”. It really chills the occasion when I say, “no, I am not a pastor, I am an evangelist.” Somehow, that just rubs the world of Christendom the wrong way.

Maybe I should find a better time or way to correct that misunderstanding. In fact, there is a wholesale need to correct this application of the term “pastor” to the preacher.

The biblical use in the New Testament makes it clear that this is one of a few terms used with reference to a select group of congregational leaders.

Elders, Overseers, and Pastors (Shepherds)

It is just seems ingrained within the world of Christendom that the preacher must be a “pastor” of some kind. J. W. Roberts writes:

Some think of a priestly group; some think of the ministry of the Word and the preacher or ‘pastor’ of the flock; others with the metropolitan or diocesan concept think of the denominational ‘bishop.’ In truth, Paul means none of these.[1]

Roberts is correct. In Acts 20.17, the “elders” were summoned from Miletus to Ephesus; these “elders” were qualified by the Holy Spirit to be “overseers” in the church “to shepherd” the church (Acts 20.28).

Students of the New Testament are quite observant that these terms refer to the same office. In fact, one can see the interchange of these terms in 1 Peter 5.1-2, “I exhort the elders among you to pastor the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight.”[2]

Notice the three terms used in 1 Peter 5.1-2 which are exclusively for “a body of men in the primitive churches called elders.[3] The “elders” (Grk. presbuterous) are to “pastor” (Grk. poimaino) the church, employing “oversight” (Grk. episcopountes). The New Testament demonstrates that each congregation had a plurality of men so described (Phil. 1.1-2, etc).

To apply the term pastor to an evangelist/preacher is to do so without New Testament precedent. “Such is a non-biblical use of the term ‘pastor,’ in spite of the popularity of such in modern society.”[4]

Does it Really Matter?

When a practice has no biblical basis, should we not simply abandon its use? This is at the heart of the problem.

Timothy and Titus represent a category of Christian workers known as “evangelist” (2 Tim. 4.5) who “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4.2). This is their “ministry” (2 Tim. 4.5). The main obligations of the work are explained in 1 Timothy 4.13, 15 and 2 Timothy 4.2-5.

In summary, it has been observed by Earl D. Edwards that “every aspect of their work had meaning only as related to ‘the Word.’”[5] When one evaluates the basic responsibilities found in these passages a few things are evident:

The evangelist had the duty, first of all, to ‘preach’ the Word and then ‘correct’ those who did not follow that Word, and even ‘rebuke’ those who attempted to undermine the Word. He was also to ‘encourage’ with gentleness that Christians might follow the Word without becoming discouraged. In addiction he was to ‘devote’ himself to the ‘public reading’ and ‘teaching’ of the Word.[6]

While the elder (pastor/overseer) must have the capacity and ability to be a teacher (1 Tim. 3.2) in order to shepherd the flock, it is clear that the evangelist holds a complimentary role for congregational development and public proclamation of the gospel.

The preacher’s work is not the elder’s work. The most important qualification for the evangelist is that they are “faithful” recipients and heralds of the message (2 Tim. 2.2). An elder, also, may fulfill the role of an evangelist (1 Tim. 5.17; Eph. 4.11); however, a preacher is not necessarily a pastor.

Not all faithful males may serve in the office of a pastor, for these men must possess specific qualifications (1 Tim. 3.1-7 and Tit. 1.5-9). Thus, the use of the term “pastor” to refer to the “preacher” is incorrect – a misnomer – and should be abandoned.

Concluding Thoughts

Some may be thinking, “No, I don’t buy it. A pastor is the one who leads the flock.” To which I would argue in response, “yes, pastors after a biblical pattern do lead the flock of God.” But our discussion is centered on the misuse of the term, and consequently to a blending of two distinct ministries found in the New Testament church.

There are those who are elders (overseers, pastors) which serve in a very unique office only after they met the qualifications set forth by the Holy Spirit (1 Tim. 3.1ff; Acts 20.28). There are others, however, who serve as heralds of the word; that is to say, they preach the word as they labor along side the pastors of a particular congregation (Eph. 4.11).

Consider this final thought. Suppose one encounters a missionary from the Latter Day Saints, who in fact use the title “Elder”. “Elder Smith” however is a young man, single, and has no children. Yet, the inspired instruction from the Apostle Paul clearly indicates that the man must be of age (hence the term elder), must be a married man (1 Tim. 3.2), and have children over which he has shown leadership (1 Tim. 3.4-5).

Can we honestly say, in light of the biblical data, that these young men flashing the “Elder” badge are elders after a biblical order? Hardly, This is precisely our point. The New Testament use of the term elder (overseer, pastor) applies to a very uniquely qualified man, as he serves within a group of other men of equal caliber. Let us seek to call biblical things with Bible names, and do Bible things in biblical ways.

Sources

  1. J. W. Roberts, Letters to Timothy (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1961), 26.
  2. Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 318-23.
  3. John W. McGarvey, The Eldership (1870. Repr. Murfreesboro, TN: DeHoff Christian Bookstore, 2002), 9.
  4. Wayne Jackson, Before I Die (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications, 2007), 82.
  5. Earl D. Edwards, “The Evangelist in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus (Book 1),” Alternative 8.3 (Summer 1982): 19.
  6. Edwards, “The Evangelist in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus (Book 1),” 19-20,
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