What Is a Pastor?

When most religious people think of the word “pastor” they have in mind the primary leader of a congregation, or of a certain section of a congregation. They may think about the “youth pastor” who organizes trips, devotionals, and encourages involvement among the teenage youth group. Or they may bring to mind the “senior pastor” who is responsible for most of the preaching that is done at the congregation, or the associate pastor who does much of the hospital visiting. Whatever your idea of a pastor is, there is an excellent question to ask yourself: “Is the Bible’s description of a pastor the same as my idea of what a pastor is?” Let’s explore what the Bible has to say about pastors.  

The term “pastor” is found in Ephesians 4:11: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” It is translated from the Greek word poimen, which means “a shepherd” or a person who herds sheep (Danker, et. al., 2000 p. 684). It is used to describe actual shepherds in the birth story of Jesus in Luke 2:8. But it has an expanded meaning that includes the idea of spiritual shepherds who oversee a flock of “sheep” or Christians, as it is used in Ephesians 4:11. The apostle Peter elaborated on this idea of spiritual shepherding when he wrote: “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder…. Shepherd the flock of God which is among you serving as overseers…and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” In Acts 20, we read that Paul “sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church” (20:17). While giving them instructions, he said, “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” (20:28). From these references we understand that the term shepherd is used to describe a spiritual overseer of the Lord’s Church. The word “pastor” is simply the Latin translation of the word “shepherd.” Thus, we can see that the term “pastor” originated from the biblical discussion of spiritual leaders in the early Christian church.

It is interesting to note, however, that there is a specific group of leaders that are instructed to “shepherd” or “pastor” the flock of God. From 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20, we learn that the “elders” of the church were the ones instructed to “shepherd” or “oversee” the flock. If that is the case, what does the Bible say about elders? Thankfully, we have been given some very clear references to the spiritual office of “elders.” In Titus 1:5, the apostle Paul explained to 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.” The word translated “elders” comes from the Greek word presbuteros. While it is true that this word sometimes is used simply to describe those who are older as compared to those who are younger, it is also the case that it is often used to describe a spiritual office held by those who shepherded the church. This is established by the fact that Titus was instructed to “appoint elders in every city,” and Paul provided a detailed list of qualifications for those “elders” that included much more than one’s age. Thus we can know that a pastor (shepherd) was the same as an “elder” and this office was that of a spiritual overseer of a local church (in every city).

What might come as a surprise to some is that the term “bishop” is also linked to the terms “elder” and “shepherd” (or pastor). In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul gives a list of qualifications similar to the one found in Titus, but he begins the list by stating, “A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife…” (3:2). The term “bishop” comes from the Greek word episkopos which means “overseer” (Danker, et. al., p. 299). Recall that in Acts 20:28, Paul called the elders from the church in Ephesus and explained that they were to take heed “to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” The term translated “overseers” is from the Greek word episkopos. When we refer back to Titus, we see that Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders, and then after giving some of the qualifications, stated, “For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God” (Titus 1:7). Here again the Bible uses the terms to speak of the same office. Thus, the elders, or shepherds (or pastors) were the bishops (or overseers) of the church. We do not find that these are separate offices in the church, but words that all describe the same leaders, simply giving subtle descriptions of what they do as the spiritual leaders, such as shepherd or oversee the flock.

If it is the case that the New Testament uses the terms “elders,” “shepherds,” “pastors,” “overseers,” and “bishops” to speak of the same spiritual office, what does that mean for the Lord’s church today? First, it would indicate that anyone who is a “pastor” or “bishop” should have the qualifications for those offices that are listed in Titus and 1 Timothy. Those lists present straightforward personality traits and life situations that all who “qualify” as pastors or bishops must maintain in order to spiritually oversee the church of the Lord. Without going into an extended discussion of each item on the lists, we can see why an “elder” or “bishop” must not be “greedy for money” if he is to lead the Lord’s church. Furthermore, we can understand why an overseer must not be addicted to alcohol or be violent.

It is true that people can appoint anyone they want as their “spiritual leaders” and call them whatever they like. By that I mean, could a religious group appoint teenage alcoholics who love to fight and are greedy and covetous to be their spiritual overseers, and use the terms “elders” or “pastors” to describe them? Certainly they could. But that would not make them pastors in the way the New Testament describes a pastor. Notice that in Acts 20:28, Paul told the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit had made those men elders. How does that happen today? Since we know that all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and the Bible writers such as Peter and Paul were inspired when they penned the books of the New Testament (2 Peter 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:13), then we can conclude that in order for pastors to be appointed today “by the Holy Spirit” they must meet the qualifications found in the New Testament. Just because a group of people refers to someone as a bishop or pastor does not mean that person actually meets the qualifications of a bishop or pastor as found in the New Testament.

A close look at the qualifications for pastors (bishops, elders, overseers, shepherds) reveals that many people who are called pastors or bishops would not qualify as such under the New Testament. For instance, Paul told Timothy that “a bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2). He instructed Titus that a man could be appointed as an elder (or bishop) if he was “blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children” (1:6). Notice that one of the first qualifications mentioned in order for a person to be a spiritual overseer of the Lord’s church is that he is married to one woman. Would this apply to many who are called pastors or bishops today?

When it becomes clear that many who are called pastors, elders, or bishops in certain religious groups do not meet the qualifications that are inspired by the Holy Spirit, an attempt is often made to “bend” the qualifications. For instance, we are often told that it is not necessary for a pastor to be the husband of one wife; it would be fine if he were not married. We are told that “the qualifications” are not so strict as to exclude unmarried men or even women from the office. There is an obvious problem with such reasoning. Which of the qualifications can be omitted? Would those religious groups argue that it would be acceptable to have a greedy bishop, or an alcoholic elder, or a violent pastor? You see, once humans begin to amend the list of qualifications to their own liking, it is no longer the Holy Spirit’s qualification list being used to appoint bishops and elders, but an uninspired, humanly devised (or revised) list.

A study of the term pastor as it is used in the New Testament helps us arrive at another interesting biblical concept. In each of the references to the office of pastors (bishops, overseers, elders, shepherds) we see that the New Testament consistently refers to a plurality of these spiritual leaders in each church. In Titus 1, Paul told the young preacher to “appoint elders (plural) in every city.” Peter wrote, “The elders (plural) who are among you I exhort” (1 Peter 5:1). In Acts 20 we see that Paul “sent to Ephesus and called for the elders (plural) of the church” (20:17). Acts 14:23 explains that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders (plural) in every church.” The idea of a single spiritual leader overseeing a church or congregation of the Lord’s people is found nowhere in the New Testament. As J.W. McGarvey noted: “There is no proposition in reference to the organization of the primitive churches upon which scholars and critics are more perfectly agreed than that every fully organized church had a plurality of Elders” (1950, p. 66).

If we compare the biblical idea of a pastor to that found in many religious groups today we discover that the Bible and those groups present opposing ideas. The biblical picture of a pastor is that of a spiritual leader who meets specific qualifications and who works in conjunction with other pastors who meet the same qualifications to shepherd the church of God of which they jointly have been appointed as overseers. Does your view of a pastor correspond with the view found in the Bible? Does the religious group that you associate with have a biblical arrangement for its spiritual leadership? If it does not, wouldn’t it be wise to begin your search today for a congregation of the Lord’s church that does have pastors who have been appointed by the Holy Spirit to overseer the flock?


Danker, Frederick William, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).

McGarvey, J.W. (1950), The Eldership (Murfreesboro, TN: Dehoff Publications).


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