Should we call church leaders “pastors”?
Exploring the Biblical motif
Most evangelical circles use the term “pastor” to refer to those who lead the church. This name comes directly from the Latin word for “shepherd” (pastus) but is ultimately derived from NT Greek word for “shepherd” (poimén). The idea of a pastor being a “shepherd” is not as common in scripture as other Biblical descriptions (e.g. elder, overseer). However, the Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 5, exhorts the leaders of the church to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). Why is this the case? Why does Peter seem to sum up the role of an elder (or leader of the church) as an act of “shepherding” the church? Furthermore, should we rethink the use of this shepherding language and go with an alternative (perhaps "bishop")?
Now, I am not going to be arguing for a definitive term that all churches and congregations should use to describe their leaders. In fact, scripture uses multiple words interchangeably for this role (overseer, elder, and pastor). However, I do want to show that Peter’s use of this description reveals something deeper. This description is rooted in an Old Testament understanding of God as the great shepherd of his people and the leaders of his people as his representative undershepherds. In the New Testament, Christ is the Chief Shepherd of the church and its leaders are intended to reflect his character and represent his leadership as his undershepherds. In doing so, I hope to show the weight of what it means for the pastor to be a shepherd and defend the term as a good one to describe the role of those who lead God’s churches.
The Old Testament picture
Peter’s understanding of the shepherd metaphor is heavily rooted in its Old Testament usage. In the OT, the shepherd motif is used in two main ways. First, it is used to describe God’s relationship to his chosen people. There are times when the metaphor is used without elaboration to refer to God being the good shepherd of OT believers (Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Ps. 80:1; Is. 53:6; Jer. 13:17); however, there are other times when it describes God’s leading of his people (Ps. 23; 77:20; Is. 40:11; Ez. 34:11-13), God’s protection of his people (Ps. 23; Ez. 34:25-31; Zech. 10:3), and God’s loving care and provision for his people (Ps. 23; Is. 40:11; Ez. 34:13-16; Zech. 10:3).
Second, the OT authors use the shepherd motif to describe the relationship of God’s appointed leaders to his people. We see that God appoints leaders to act as shepherds of his people on his behalf (Num. 27:16-17; Ps. 77:20; Jer. 3:15; Ez. 34). These shepherds are expected to lead God’s people (Num. 27:16-17; Ps. 77:20), teach God’s people (Jer. 3:15; Ez. 34:1-3), and care for God’s people (Ez. 34:4-6). There are also times when God condemns these leaders for failing to in their role as undershepherds (Ez. 34:1-10; Zech. 10:3). Therefore, we see that God is the ultimate shepherd of his people; however, he appoints leaders to act as his representative undershepherds. Consistently in the OT, these shepherds fail and God promises to raise up a shepherd like David that will establish a covenant of peace and will rule forever (Ez. 34:23-31).
The New Testament picture
As we move to the New Testament, we see a similar progression. First, we see that the promise of God for a shepherd like David is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ (Heb.13:20). The gospel writers make it clear that the flock of God is also Christ’s flock and they are his sheep (Matt. 18:10-14; 26:31; Luke 12:32; John 10:1-18; 21:15-17). Unlike the evil shepherds of the OT that were selfish and abusive (Ez. 34; Zech. 10:3), Jesus is the good shepherd that seeks out his lost sheep (Matt. 18:10-14) and even lays down his life for them (John 10:1-18). Peter, earlier in his letter, reminds his readers that they were straying sheep but were brought back to Christ, the “shepherd and overseer of their souls” (1 Peter 2:25).
Furthermore, we see the continuation of the leaders of God’s people acting as his representative undershepherds. These “pastors” are appointed by God like in the OT (Acts 20:28-29; Eph. 4:11) and are commanded to watch over, teach, care for, and protect his flock (John 21:16; Acts 20:28-29; Eph. 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4). They are to reflect the character of Christ and will have to give an account to God for their leadership (Heb. 13:17).
Why does Peter use the term in 1 Peter 5?
In this culminating passage, Peter exhorts the leaders of the church to “shepherd the flock of God that is among [them]” (1 Peter 5:2). This allusion to the OT metaphor further enforces the idea that God is the ultimate shepherd of his people and that his appointed leaders are his representative undershepherds. It is probable that this statement also echoes the command of Jesus to Peter himself to “feed [his] sheep” (John 21:16).
Peter continues by addressing the intended character of these undershepherds. They must exercise oversight not under compulsion, for shameful gain, or by domineering over the sheep. Rather, they must do so willingly, eagerly, and as examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3). These descriptions reflect the character of God and contrast the evil shepherds in the OT (Ez. 34:1-10).
Finally, Peter points to Christ as the “Chief Shepherd” (or Senior Pastor) that will come and reward his faithful undershepherds with the “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Jesus will come and gather his flock once again and bring them to the place where God’s promised covenant of peace will be realized and Christ will rule as the good shepherd of his people forever (Ez. 34:23-31).
Why Peter's use of "pastor" is a good one
It is clear that Peter is not being inventive with his use of the shepherd metaphor. Rather, his use reflects a rich background in the OT understanding of God as the shepherd of his people and his appointed leaders as his representative undershepherds. Furthermore, he illustrates the NT reality that Christ is Chief Shepherd of his church and his appointed leaders are intended to represent his leadership and reflect his character until he comes again.
The terms “elder” (presbúteros) and “overseer” (epískopos) are also filled with meaning and are not throw-away terms. However, the picture of the church leader being a “shepherd” is one that faithfully describes the role that a pastor is called into. Those who are pastors must ask if they are truly reflecting the Chief Shepherd they are called to emulate. Furthermore, they must be reminded that the flock belongs to God and we are merely called to be undershepherds of him. We lead, we feed, we protect, and we care for Christ’s sheep. Anyone who holds the office of a “pastor” is called to a weighty task. May we represent Christ well as we “shepherd the flock of God that is among us” (1 Peter 5:2).
FOR FURTHER STUDY:
Davids, Peter H. The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.
Harink, Douglas Karel. 1 & 2 Peter. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009.
Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.
Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003.
Smith, Steven W. “Jesus Christ, the Good to Great Shepherd.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 56, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 53–63.
Griffiths, Jonathan. "The role of the elder, bishop, and pastor." The Gospel Coalition.
Merkle, Benjamin. "Hierarchy in the Church." 9Marks.