Pastors – A Description, but also an Authority
In churches of Christ, we have always sought to make a clear distinction between our preachers and our pastors. This is sometimes awkward, because so many of our religious neighbors believe that every preacher should be called a pastor. As a preacher, it is not uncommon for me to meet someone of a different faith background – whether at a hospital or a funeral home or simply a visitor at Great Oaks – who will refer to me as pastor. I realize they are trying to show me a measure of respect as a preacher, but when it’s appropriate, I usually say a quick, kind word to explain in churches of Christ we just use the description “preacher” or “minister,” and that we have a group of “pastors” who lead each congregation, but I’m not one of them. At the very least, I’ll let them know they can just call me Tim.
Why be so careful to make the distinction between preachers and pastors? Well, our understanding of Scripture is that a preacher and a pastor are two different roles. A pastor is a word for shepherd, and in the Bible, each church was to have men – who were called elders, bishops, or pastors – who were to shepherd that congregation (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4). A preacher was to teach the word of God, but is never called a pastor, or shepherd, unless that preacher was also serving as an elder (like Peter did, as 1 Peter 5:1 shows).
However, you occasionally hear people within churches of Christ who have decided to stop holding that distinction between preachers and pastors. In fact, you even sometimes hear preachers who call themselves pastors, often with defense that sounds something like this: “Well, a pastor is a shepherd, and as a preacher I’m shepherding people more than our elders are. I’m the one visiting people in their homes. I’m the one setting the vision of the congregation. I’m the one doing most of the work shepherding these people toward heaven. If it talks like a duck and looks like a duck it must be a duck. So I believe I am a pastor, and it’s appropriate to take that title.”
What should we think about that reasoning?
Well first, here’s where they’re right:
1) They’re right in saying many elderships don’t fulfill their God-given role. Sadly, many elderships don’t shepherd the way they should. Shepherds should be involved in the lives of the sheep in a personal way. When they’re not, many preachers feel like “lone rangers” trying to do their own job plus the job of the elders, which leads to great frustration on the part of preachers, who want God’s kingdom to flourish.
But it seems to me that churches of Christ are realizing more and more the need for elders to not simply be a “board of directors,” but to also function as ministers/servants who lead the way in teaching and encouraging the Christians in their faith. I know at Great Oaks, our elders are constantly seeking ways to do better at shepherding individuals and families, and I’d like to believe that most elderships are striving for the same thing.
2) They’re right in saying that elders are not the only ones who should be “shepherding.” Do preachers help “shepherd” people towards heaven? Yes, absolutely. By teaching and encouraging and ministering, they help people get to heaven. But wait a second, shouldn’t every Christian be teaching and encouraging and serving each other? Therefore, don’t we all have a role in shepherding each other? Yes, absolutely.
Since every Christian should help in the shepherding of each other to heaven, should every Christian then call themselves a “pastor?” The logic already sounds a little silly, which leads us to…
And here’s where they’re wrong:
1) They’re wrong in forgetting that the “shepherd” role was implied to have some authority with it. The shepherd wasn’t ONLY someone who helped the sheep; the shepherd was ALSO IN CHARGE of the sheep.
For example, look at the shepherd description given to elders in 1 Peter 5:1-4. Peter tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you,” and then notice how he describes that shepherding: “exercising oversight.” (v 2). A shepherd had “oversight” authority. And verse 3 points out that the Christians in the flock were “allotted to your charge.” Shepherds were in put in charge of the flock. Thus Jesus is called the “Chief Shepherd” in verse 4, which is a reference to His authority over His church.
Shepherds had a measure of authority with the sheep! They were in charge of the flock – defending them, caring for them, disciplining them, and leading them where they needed to go. It’s not enough to say, “I help people get to heaven, so I must be a pastor.” A pastor is not just someone who helps people get to heaven. A pastor is someone who has authority over the sheep. And only God can give that authority, right?
2) They’re wrong in forgetting that God uses the “shepherd” description more specifically, and we should honor that.
The New Testament teaches that every Christian should be helping each other get to heaven (Heb 10:25, for one example). The New Testament also teaches that every Christian should grow to take on leadership roles as teachers (Heb. 6:12). The New Testament also teaches that every Christian should help care for each and bear each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:1-2). Yet the New Testament restricts the description of “shepherding” to elders alone. In commanding elders (and only elders) to be the shepherds of each church, God was granting them a measure of authority that he has not granted to preachers or anyone else.
In spite of our various forms of leadership within the church – and preachers do play an important role of leading people into an understanding of the word of God – we must keep the authority in the church where God wants it to be. God has given the “qualifications” of who He wants to be the shepherding authorities in each church (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Tit. 1:5-9). Elders are put in charge of churches; preachers are not.
We all have a role in shepherding each other, but we are not all shepherds. Only God can make you a shepherd and put a flock under your charge. As the Bible describes it, elders are the shepherds/pastors, given the authority of God to oversee a church.
The distinction between preachers and pastors is a biblical one. It is a distinction of authority, not just a description of how people function. It was a distinction that God made, and it’s one I believe we should continue to honor.