Much has been said and written, in the time since Christ’s ministry on earth, of the supposed office of “pastor.” Unfortunately, a great deal of this writing has been crafted from pure and simple speculation. More of it is grounded in isogesis: the time-honored art of reading into scripture whatever you want it to say. The simple fact is that the word is mentioned once in the English New Testament, and that one mention does not even attempt to define what constitutes a “pastor.” Any definition given to this English word is purely a man-made invention. I hope, in writing this post to draw the reader into what has been, for me, a fascinating examination of the term, its history and the way it has been misused and abused throughout time, and even to this day.
The Greek word “poimen” is used in scripture 17 times. Of these, the King James version translates 16 as “shepherd” and one time as “pastor.”
Notably, all 16 instances where the word is translated “shepherd” refer either to literal shepherds (such as those who came to worship Christ at his birth) or to Christ himself.
The sole exception is Ephesians 4:11 – “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of description around that word, does there? No definition of a “pastoral office”?
Let us see if we can parse the word a bit, and determine whether there is any support at all for the modern day pastor that rules the pulpits of our churches.
The verb “poimaino,” derived from the noun “poimen,” is used eleven times in scripture. In seven of these instances, it is translated as “feed” (a duty with which any shepherd would be quite familiar, having to ensure that his flock was always well fed.)
Those who wish to support the position of an authoritarian pastor will be quick, I am sure, to realize that the other four are translated, “rule.” But two things ensure that this does not give pastors the authority to rule over churches.
The first is that each of the four times the word is translated “rule” is again referring to Christ. It is true that the duties of a shepherd can be said to be “ruling” over his flock, but the context of these passages in scripture seem to indicate that this is a duty Christ jealously guards for himself.
How, though, do we know it is not a mere mistranslation of the word, and that God in fact does intent pastors to be “rulers”? We know this conclusively from one of the last conversations recorded between Jesus and Peter.
In John 21, Christ three times asks Peter to take special care for his people. But what, precisely, does he ask of Peter? In English, it simply reads like three separate requests to “feed my sheep.”
The Greek, however, tells a different story. First, Christ uses the word “bosko,” which is translated “feed” and is specifically derived from a root that means “to nourish.” He then switches to “poimaino,” and finally back to “bosko.” Nowhere is it indicated that the “ruling” or “governing” functions of the word are in any way meant to apply to this situation. It is clear that he is asking Peter to shepherd his flock, not to rule it.
So we have one instance of one person being given special “shepherding” duty. We have another instance where the English translators chose to translate the word “shepherd” as “pastor” instead. It seems pretty clear that among the gifts Christ gave to his church are those specifically gifted with the ability of “shepherding,” but does that really mean that there is a special office created for that purpose? Future posts here will examine the same question with regard to other so-called “offices” in the church, but particularly in terms of “pastors,” does such an office even exist in scripture?
It seems clear that the only basis for this office is a misreading (or at the very least a very selective isogetical reading) of Ephesians 4:11. What does the term “pastor” (or “shepherd,” if you prefer) mean in this situation? It seems to have garnered to it authority to rule and govern and subjugate others to one’s teaching, but such authority is not evident in the passage, or indeed in Scripture. Why does it not simply mean “one who nourishes”? Why does it not simply mean “One who points on the right path”?
“But Mike,” you might say, “do not modern day pastors do these things?”
I would answer that certainly some do . . . but I would also respond with a question of my own.
Why do we need a special office to do these things? Do not we do them for each other, all the time?
But no, instead we have created a special office that conflates the functions of “evangelist” “shepherd” and “teacher” – sometimes with the apostle and the prophet thrown in.
Such a position, certainly, is not found in scripture.
There is one more thing to note. It is apparent from these verses that Christ intends to have believers fulfill some functions for each other analogous to the roles a shepherd fulfills for his flock. But lest there be any doubt remaining over whether those roles are encompassed in a special office, let me leave you with a final verse.
Christ speaks, in Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, about the construction and composition of his kingdom. In this passage, he uses the sheep-based analogy extensively. He speaks of sheep that know their shepherd’s voice. He speaks of robbers and strangers and thieves. He refers to himself as the “good shepherd,” and to the fact that He would give his life for his sheep.
He also introduces a concept that would have been foreign to his Jewish audience, but would have been comforting to John’s universal one: The concept of other sheep “not of this fold” (i.e., Gentiles) that must be brought into it. Finally, at the end of verse 16, he says “and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
Not multiple pastors in cities all around the world
Now there is an exciting concept – an almighty God who personally cares about my spiritual nourishment, rather than a Pastor who chides me for not showing up every Sunday.
I want to be perfectly clear here, that I am in no way impuning any specific person who happens to be employed as a pastor by writing this post.
I have been profoundly influenced by pastors in my life – most especially by the pastor who performed my wedding ceremony. Two of the best friends I ever had are currently studying and hoping to serve in a pastoral capacity. There is no doubt in my mind that God works through pastors, in some instances . . .
. . . my only point is this: God works through pastors, and through those who have voluntarily placed themselves under the authority of the pastoral office. But that does not mean that the office itself was created by God. The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that it was not. God has used Pastors mightily . . . just as he has used Presidents, professors, and other teaching and governing positions created by men.
God works in the lives of those under pastoral authority. I can say this conclusively because he worked in my life while I was still voluntarily under the authority of pastors.
I can also conclusively state that God can work just as well . . . in my case, better . . . without a pastor interceding between us.
That is all. Thank you for reading.
3 Responses to I Don’t Believe in Pastors
Thanks for an intriguing blog and especially for the “journey” story – can’t wait to see how it works out.
I am a pastor but I agree with most of what you say. I do however think there is a role to be played by pastor – but it needs redefinition.
I include here part of my essay in preparation for ordination. If you’d like to read the whole thing I can send it to you – just contact me by email.
The Scriptural role of the pastor/teacher.
The main reference to the role of the pastor/teacher is found in Ephesians 4: 11ff. The role of the pastor/teacher, along with the other ministries, is defined as follows, “. . . to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ . . .” (NIV). It is not a position of authority but of responsibility. Responsibility to ensure that all God’s people are equipped for the works of service they are called to, to build up the body towards unity and maturity. It is a role of nurture (pastoring) and equipping (teaching) to ensure that the body remains functional.
These “offices”, however, are merely one part of the body, with equal significance to the other parts, not in authority or hierarchical position over the others. They are to complement and nurture the gifts of all the members of Christ’s body, the Church. As already alluded to, they are also to function within the context of servant leadership, not to grasp at their position, in emulation of Christ (Philippians 2: 5-11).
The pastor/teacher could even continue in the tradition of a full-time paid leader. “Gifted teachers are to live by the Gospel. They are to be paid a living wage. There should not be many of these. James 3: 1” (Christensen, The Apostles’ Doctrine: 22).
It would also appear that the pastor/teacher is not the only one appointed (or ordained) to the sacraments . The sacraments are intended for the whole Body, not any one individual. “Nowhere in the NT is a particular office associated with the ministry of the Lord’s Supper” (Ferguson (et. al) 1988: 431.
Sinton argues, from an Anglican perspective, that, “…the unity of the universal church of Christ is intended to have visible expression and that the tradition which down the centuries maintained mutual recognition and intercommunion between Christian congregations needs to be taken very seriously” (in Beasley-Murray, 1993: 144).
I would argue that tradition needs to be weighed up against Scripture, and where there are obvious errors we may need to forsake tradition despite the effects on unity. This can be seen in issues like the ordination of women, where tradition has been challenged despite the effects on mutual recognition and intercommunion. If one fundamental can be argued without losing mutual recognition and intercommunion then why can others not be equally challenged?
Within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) ministers are ordained to Word and Sacrament. Local Preachers are trained and allowed to preach, but not to administer the sacraments. This would appear to go against the biblical concept of Body ministry outlined above and the fact that the sacraments are instituted by Christ for His Body, not for select individuals only.
In the context of every member ministry, every member should be allowed to administer the sacraments if they do so with the authority of, and in accountability to, the local church of which they are a member.
Many people employed in a full-time pastoral capacity within the MCSA are not allowed to administer the sacraments because the structure of the church does not allow “laity” this privilege. This means that, although they are sometimes expected to visit the sick (and at times dying), they are not legally allowed to administer the sacraments.
This is even true of probationers. Ministers in training and preparation for ordination are placed in positions of leadership (sometimes in isolation) and have to be given special dispensation to administer the sacraments.
It must be understood, that I do not advocate the misuse of the sacraments, but that in the context of every member ministry, every member should be allowed to, in accountability to the body, administer the sacraments. This is not the exclusive function of any one part of the body, especially the pastor/teacher, whose function has been clearly pointed out above.
It’s so encouraging to realize that many of us are hearing the same thing. I recently posted about this at my blog: Spiritual Gifts and Roles vs. The Clergy – and also this: Leaders, are you protecting your ministry?. If you have a change, please take a look. I would love to know your thoughts. Thanks for the great post. -Tina
“poimen” occurs 18 times, not 17. It is translated as “shepherd” 17 times and “pastor” once. Once again we say thank you the the translators of the KJV for a job well done. It should be translated shepherd of course and it the same office (and a duty) of the elders. Cross-ref with Acts 20 :17, 28.