By William J. Imrisek
Words are merely symbols that convey meaning. They may signify objects, actions, abstract or concrete ideas and concepts, emotions and feelings, etc. Good communication depends upon speaking so as to be understood. As the apostle Paul recognized, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?” (1 Cor. 14:8-9).
Man’s ability to communicate effectively depends upon his ability to utilize words properly. He must use words that are familiar to his hearer. He must also attach to these words the same meaning that his hearer understands them to possess. When either one of these principles is violated a breakdown in communication occurs, with the end result of a misunderstanding or a complete failure to understand.
I recall an instance several years ago in which I and the one with whom I was speaking were guilty of violating this latter principle. We were talking about the manner and habits of “gophers.” However, as the conversation progressed it became evident that we were not speaking about the same creature. I soon learned that my friend was referring to a tortoise, common in the southern coastal states, which the local people called a “gopher.” But to a homegrown Northerner such as myself the only type of gopher of which I was knowledgeable was a rodent, similar in appearance to a squirrel, which burrows tunnels through the soil of the Midwestern prairies in search of roots and plants for its next meal. In our conversation we were using the identical word symbol, but we were each attaching to it a different meaning. This resulted in a temporary breakdown in communication.
This same problem can occur when we are studying or expounding the scriptures. We may use biblical terms and think that we are expressing biblical ideas, but unless we are attaching to these terms the same ideas that God attaches to them, we are misunderstanding Him. Thus it is possible for a person to use such terms as “faith,” “works,” “born again,” “saved by grace,” “church,” “bishop,” “priest,” “confession,” “baptism,” “repentance,” and “confirm,” all biblical terms, but attach a different meaning to them than that given to them by their use in the Bible. The result is a failure to understand God as He has spoken.
As a preacher I often encounter this problem when trying to explain to people the type of work that I do. Almost invariably they will respond, “Oh, then you are a pastor.” I must then stop and explain to them that I am not a pastor, but rather a preacher or evangelist. But this usually only confuses them. They have learned to associate the terms “pastor” and “preacher” with the same function. They fail to realize that in the Bible a preacher is not the same as a pastor. Their error lies in giving a biblical term an unbiblical meaning. In this case, it usually results in a perversion of both the work of a pastor (in its biblical sense) and the work of a preacher (in its biblical sense).
The Work of a Pastor
The word “pastor” is found only one time in the New Testament of our English Bibles, this being in Eph. 4:11. And although the function of a pastor is not here specifically identified, it is seen to be distinguished from that of the evangelist (or preacher). “He (God) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teacher.” Thus, the Bible identifies these two function separately.
Although the word “pastor” is found only this one time in our English translations, the Greek word from which the term “pastor” is translated (poimen) is found fifteen more times in the Greek, and is elsewhere translated in the New Testament as “shepherd.” It describes one who feeds and tends a flock of sheep. It is used in its literal sense in such passages as Matt. 9:36 and Luke 2, 8, 15, 18, 20. Metaphorically, Jesus is referred to as a shepherd (John 10:11, 14; Heb. 13:20). Likewise, it is used as a descriptive term to identify the servants of God who have been given the responsibility to shepherd, feed, and tend the flock of God (Eph. 4:11), the church. We can therefore learn more about who a pastor is by examining the scriptures and recognizing to whom this identical responsibility of shepherding, feeding, and tending God’s flock has been given.
The scriptures inform us that this responsibility has been placed in the hands of men who are called “elders” and “overseers” or “bishops.” For example, in Acts 20:1728 it is said of Paul that “from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them . . . Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock of God over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed (poimaino) the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Here we see that elders (also called overseers) were given the responsibility of feeding or pastoring the church of God. The term “elder,” from the Greek, presbuteros, meaning “aged person” is used synonymously with the term “overseer.” Overseer comes from the Greek, episkopos, and is also translated in the Bible as “bishop” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7).
Peter likewise tells us that the work of elders was that of overseeing and feeding the church of God. He says, “The elders (presbuterois) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed (poimaino) the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (episkopeo) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). We can conclude then that the terms “elder,” “bishop” (overseer), and “pastor” all refer to the same person: “elder” referring to his physical age as well as to his spiritual maturity; “bishop” describing his function of overseeing the church; and “pastor” designating his responsibility to feed and tend the flock of God so that their spiritual appetites will be completely satisfied.
Although the word “elder” signifies seniority in years, maturity, and experience, a man does not become a pastor or bishop by reason of years alone, but rather by right of qualification (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and appointment (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). It is God’s will that there be elders in every local church where there are men qualified (Acts 14:23). Thus we read about elders in the churches of Ephesus (Acts 20:17), Philippi (Phil. 1:1), and also Jerusalem (Acts 15:4). It will be noted that in each church there was a plurality (always more than one) of elders. No single elder was exalted over another, but they all shared equally in the responsibility given to them. In addition, their oversight was limited to the “flock of God which is among. you” (1 Pet. 5:2).
As Christians we have responsibilities toward these men. They are watchmen for our souls. Therefore, we are commanded to “obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief” (Heb. 13:17).
These men rule not as lords or dictators over God’s church, but as servants, leading us by their instruction (Heb. 13:7) and their example (1 Pet. 5:3), correcting us as faithful watchmen, and feeding us with the wisdom and instruction which is from God (Acts 20:28). We must respect these godly men and give them the honor which is due to them (1 Tim. 5:17). These are the men that the Bible refers to as pastors, bishops, and elders.The Work of a Preacher
But I am not a pastor. I am a preacher. And as a preacher I do not have the oversight or rule over the church of God. Rather, as a member of the local church I must also submit to the elders as those that have the rule over me, and I must not seek to usurp their authority. I must give them the honor that is due to them, and I must maintain the proper distinction between the function of a pastor or elder and the function which I must fulfill as a preacher.
Inherent in the work of the evangelist or preacher is the proclaiming of the good news of Jesus Christ. He must proclaim the word of faith whereby souls might be saved (Rom. 10:13-17). He must bring this message to the lost so that they might learn of it, believe, and be baptized (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Eph. 3:8-10).
He also has a reciprocal responsibility to those who have had their sins forgiven to “teach them to observe all things whatsoever I (Jesus) have commanded” (Matt. 28:20). He must “put the brethren in remembrance of these things” in order to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6). He must be a defender of the gospel (Phil. 1:17), ready to “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). His life must be a reflection of the gospel which he preaches, and he must be an example to the believer as well as to the unbeliever (1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7-8). He labors for the Lord among the lost and among the saved, and stands accountable to his Master (1 Cor. 4:1-5).
The distinction between a pastor (or elder) and a preacher (or evangelist) is seen not only in the function which each must perform but also in the qualifications which each must possess. Inherent in the definition of the term “elder” is that he be an older man. An evangelist, however, may be a younger man, such as Timothy (2 Tim. 4:5; 1 Tim. 4:12). Likewise, among the qualifications for an elder is that he be the husband of one wife and have children who are faithful to the Lord (1 Tim. 3:2, 4, 5; Titus 1:6). But a man who is a preacher need not be married or have a family. The apostle Paul referred to himself as a preacher (1 Tim. 2:7). Nevertheless, he was unmarried (1 Cor. 7:8). Thus, although he was a preacher, he was not qualified to be a pastor.Conclusion
Many have erred in believing that a preacher is inherently a pastor. They are guilty of an unbiblical use of the word “pastor” and, more often than not, have placed upon the preacher a function and responsibility not given to him by God. The preacher is not the shepherd or pastor of the local church. This responsibility rightly belongs to those men who are qualified and appointed, men whom the Bible calls elders and bishops.
In order to understand God we must understand Him as He has spoken. We do not have the right to redefine His. words. Such would be dishonest.
Let us be careful lest we have misunderstood God by mishandling His word (2 Tim. 2:15). Words are important. They are the means by which God has chosen to communicate His will to man. To fail to understand God as He has spoken is to fail to understand His will.
Truth Magazine XXI: 22, pp. 343-344
June 2, 1977