What’s in a word – Pastor

There are three ways the word pastor is commonly used – a function, a title and a job. What does the Bible say about this?

The function

There is only one verse in English translations that has the word pastor, Ephesians 4:11. But not all translations use pastor in that verse – on biblehub.com 23 out of 28 translations use pastor1. The other five translations listed on that website use shepherd. The greek word is poimen meaning shepherd. In the 16 or so other verses in the New Testament that have the word poimen it is translated shepherd. Why is “pastor” used in Ephesians?

The english word pastor comes from the latin word pastores meaning shepherd. There were several translations of the Bible in use in Europe soon after the Reformation. Then the King James version was commissioned (1611) and became the prominent english Bible. King James’ project manager Richard Bancroft gave instructions to the translators, including the requirement that the new translation support the existing structure and traditions of the Church of England2. Previous translations such as the Bishops Bible and Geneva Bible were used as starting places for the new translation. When you look at the 8 or so “old english” translations they nearly all use shepherd in Ephesians 4:11. Why did the King James version use pastor? Maybe because it was politically expedient rather than a good translation? Pastor was a special religious word that does not appear anywhere else in the Bible and can be, and is, used to support a church structure that is really derived from the Catholic tradition of centuries past.

If the better translation shepherd is used in Ephesians 4 what do we have? Gifted people (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers) are provided by God for the church to equip the saints (all believers) for the work of ministry and to build up the whole body until we become spiritually mature. The other verses where shepherd is used, excluding the ones referring to literal shepherds with literal sheep and the ones addressing the Lord Jesus as the chief shepherd, then work in with Ephesians 4:11 to give a picture of people gifted in caring for believers. The image of a shepherd caring for and guiding the sheep is actually a good one for the role these gifted people can have in the local church.

But shepherds and elders (the word used in most places in the NT for church leaders) are not the same thing. Elders are entrusted with oversight of the life and teaching of a local church. Someone with the gift of shepherding, like the other gifts, may be an elder or may not be. An elder is a leadership role in the church, shepherding is a spiritual gift.


1. accessed 16 November 2018
2. “The old ecclesiastical words [are] to be kept, viz. the word ‘church’ not to be translated ‘congregation’ etc”. https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/uploads/content/bible_in_transmission/files/2011_summer/BiT_Summer_2011_Campbell.pdf accessed 15 Nov 2018

Leave a Comment