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Can we find a better church system than pastor-congregation?
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Can we find a better church system than pastor-congregation?
By Toli Bohonik
Toli Bohonik, his wife and three children live near Seattle. Mr. Bohonik has fellowshipped among the Churches of God since 1967 and is a 1971 graduate of Ambassador College.

SEATTLE, Wash.--One of the most prominent offices in Christianity today is that of church pastor. Most Protestant Christians are accustomed to having one man lead their congregation. Most people assume that the modern-day hierarchical office of church pastor comes directly out of the New Testament.

But is that true? Can you find today's office of church pastor in the pages of New Testament?

The surprising answer is no!

Not in New Testament

The office of church pastor, where one man is in charge of a church congregation, is not in the New Testament. It did not exist in the first-century church. You can look throughout the entirety of the New Testament and you will not find one person who is named as a church pastor. Nor will you find a single instance in the New Testament where just one person is in charge of a first-century congregation.

Elders are named. Apostles are named. Evangelists are named. Deacons are named. But not one pastor is named by name in the New Testament.

Why are no pastors named by name in the New Testament? What did "pastors" do in the first century? And where did today's office of pastor come from?

This brief article answers these interesting questions.


'Pastors' appears only once

The word pastors occurs only once in the New Testament. It is in Ephesians 4:11, where Paul describes the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Let's read verses 8-12.

"Therefore He says: 'When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men' . . . He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ."

The Greek word translated "pastors" in verse 11 is poimen, which is used 18 times in the New Testament and translated only this one time as "pastors." The other 17 times it is translated as "shepherd" or "shepherds."

What does poimen mean? It means someone who tends sheep.

The gift of poimen is the gift of shepherding people. It is the task of teaching, leading and caring for the people of God. It is a job; it is a function that can be done by many people in a congregation.

Just as there are several shepherds who tend a flock of sheep, this gift is most often given to more than one person in a congregation, both men and women.

Different meanings

Many references to literal shepherds appear in the New Testament; one is in Luke 2:8. Here poimen refers to literal shepherds.

". . . Now there were in the same country shepherds [plural] living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night."

More than one shepherd typically cared for one flock. The shepherds worked together to keep the sheep fed, healthy and safe.

In Paul's day shepherds found themselves at the low end of the social ladder. They lived out of doors, they worked hard, and they generally had no opportunity for promotion or advancement.

In today's hierarchical world pastor and shepherd convey two very different meanings.

Pastor has the connotation of an important church office. But shepherd brings to mind someone who has the job of feeding and caring for sheep, just as we read in Luke 2:8.

The vast majority of Christians do not understand the intent of Paul's teaching in Ephesians 4:11. When Paul said poimen he was talking about a gift of the ability to shepherd people, not a church office. It is a gift that generally goes to a number of people in a congregation, not just one.

Shepherding people

Any with the gift of shepherding are expected to feed the flock of God. The gift of shepherding involves correctly teaching the Word of God and providing clear direction to the members of a congregation.

Notice what Jesus said to Peter in John 21:15-17 the night before He was crucified. Jesus uses the analogy of a shepherd feeding sheep, and He tells Peter to feed His lambs.

Peter was grieved because Jesus said to him three times: "Do you love Me?"

So Peter responded to Him: "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You."

Jesus replied to Peter, "Feed My sheep."

In verses 16 and 18 the Greek word bosko is translated as "feed." It refers to feeding or tending sheep. In verse 17 the Greek word poimaino is used for "feed." It also refers to caring for sheep.

Poimen, poimaino and bosko have similar meanings. They all have to do with feeding and tending sheep. But they do not refer to an office or a position in an organization. There is no connotation here of hierarchical rule.

All elders are to shepherd

During Paul's third missionary journey he dealt with the subject of shepherding God's people.

Paul had traveled from Antioch in Asia to Athens, Greece. The apostle then traveled back through northern Greece and sailed back to Turkey. He was on his way to Jerusalem.

Because the journey was a dangerous one, he had to take the long way to Jerusalem, so he traveled south along the coast of the Aegean Sea through western Turkey and stopped at the city of Miletus.

He asked all of the elders in the congregation in Ephesus to meet with him in Miletus.

He was hurrying to Jerusalem. Stopping in Miletus rather then Ephesus apparently saved him quite a bit of time. He wanted to talk with these elders one last time; he knew he would never see them again.

In Miletus one of the most important things Paul told all of the elders in Ephesus was that they were to "shepherd the church of God." They were to do their job, to shepherd the Church of God.

Here Paul uses the Greek word poimaino for shepherd. Paul did not appoint one elder to be the church pastor in Ephesus; the congregation in Ephesus did not have a church pastor.

The details of this particular visit are recorded in Acts 20:17-28, especially verse 28:

". . . From Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know . . . I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house."

Continuing in verse 28: "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."

Paul's final instruction to these folks was that they should "shepherd the Church of God," showing that shepherding was to perform a common task, not hold a title or occupy an office.

Paul did not create a hierarchy. Nor did he put one man in charge of the church and call him a church pastor. Paul could have done that, but he did not.

The Holy Spirit was not creating a hierarchy or a church office. Here the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to tell the elders that they had the common job of shepherding God's people.

Peter instructs the same

The apostles Peter, James and John were sent to minister to the circumcision; that is, those who were Jews and Israelites (Galatians 2:9).

Peter wrote the epistles of 1 and 2 Peter to what was then called the Jewish church; it consisted of the scattered Jews and Israelites who had accepted Jesus as Savior. These congregations of the Jewish church were scattered in many nations.

Two main Christian communities existed towards the end of the first century: gentile churches and Jewish churches.

The two groups had distinctly different cultures. A gentile church would maintain the basic culture of its host nation. Therefore the gentile churches manifested many cultural variations.

On the other hand, the Jewish church had a much more consistent culture and tradition, regardless of the country in which the congregation was located.

In the epistle of 1 Peter the apostle Peter tells the scattered elders of the Jewish churches the same thing Paul told the elders of the gentile congregation in Ephesus: that all elders are to shepherd God's people. Peter did not create a hierarchy; he did not appoint one man as a church pastor.

"The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you . . ." (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Roman contact

So we see that the Jewish and gentile churches were taught the same thing, that all of the elders in a congregation are to shepherd the flock of God. They are to work together to spiritually strengthen and nurture the people of God in their congregations.

In the first century there were no church pastors. In fact, there isn't one recorded instance where the word shepherd or pastor is used as a title.

There was never one person, one church pastor, in charge of a congregation in the early church. The office of church pastor developed over centuries only after the gentile churches had had prolonged contact with the Roman Empire.

How hierarchy developed

It took more than 200 years from the time Jesus began preaching to the time that the office of church pastor became fully established in Christian congregations. This was long before the Catholic Church had fully developed into what we see today and long before the Protestant Reformation.

The office of church pastor didn't come from a denomination; it came from what early Christians saw was happening in Rome.

After the first century, Christians began to pattern their form of organization after what they were familiar with in the pagan Roman Empire. It was what they knew, and, more important, it was what worked for the world empire of that era.

The New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia presents some history concerning how the office of church pastor developed.

In the article titled "Ministry" the editors write:

"It may be said generally that about the close of the first century every Christian community was ruled by a body of men who are sometimes called presbyters (elders), sometimes but more rarely bishops (overseers), and whom modern church historians are inclined to call presbyter-bishops. Associated with them, but whether members of the same court or forming a court of their own it is impossible to say, were a number of assistant rulers called deacons."

Twofold ministry

The presbyters and deacons formed what historians call a "twofold" congregational ministry. There were just elders and deacons; there was no church pastor. The encyclopedia article continues:

"During the third century, rising into notice by way of geographical distribution rather than in definite chronological order, this twofold congregational ministry became threefold in the sense that one man was placed at the head of each community with the title of pastor or bishop (the titles are interchangeable as late as the fourth century at least).

Yea, threefold

"In the early centuries those churches, thus organized, while they never lacked the sense that they all belonged to one body, were independent self-governing communities preserving relationships to each other, not by political organization embracing them all, but by fraternal fellowship through visits of deputies, interchange of letters, and in some indefinite way giving and receiving assistance in the selection and setting apart of pastors."

It is important to note that this "threefold ministry" of elders, deacons and a church pastor was not part of the original first-century church. Nor did it come from first-century Judaism, as some have claimed.

The article continues: "When we add to them the decisive statements of Epiphanius (Haeresis, xxx.18), that the Jewish Christians (Judaizing) organized their communities with archons and an archisynagogos like the Jewish synagogues of the Dispersion and unlike the Christian churches, all the evidence makes it impossible to believe that the earliest Christian organization was simply taken over from the Jewish."

The first-century Jewish Christian congregations did not follow the example of the gentile church; they did not have the office of church pastor in their congregations.

Jesus is the Chief Shepherd

Up to this point this article has made the point that there are no pastors named by name in the New Testament. That is absolutely true when it comes to mere men. Not one mere man is named and given the title of pastor or shepherd.

But one shepherd is named in the Scriptures: Jesus. Jesus is called the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd of sheep and the Chief Shepherd.

Many assist Jesus in shepherding God's flock, but there is only one Chief Shepherd.

"Now may . . . that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will . . ." (Hebrews 13:20-21).

Jesus is called the Chief Shepherd in 1 Peter 5. The Greek for "Chief Shepherd" is archipoimen, which means head shepherd or chief shepherd. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, the one and only archipoimen in the Christian church.

"And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away" (verse 4).

Some other way

Jesus, the very Son of God, is the only one who is named as a shepherd in the New Testament. See John 10:

". . . He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.

"And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (verses 1-5).

Jesus spoke a parable: ". . . I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep" (verses 7-11).

Only one shepherd is named in the New Testament: Jesus Christ. He is the one who pastors each Christian congregation. He is the one who shepherds all of His people. Others who have the gift of shepherding assist him, but He is Christianity's sole Shepherd and Pastor.

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