Home > Uncategorized > The word “pastor” doesn’t occur at all in the New Testament.

The word “pastor” doesn’t occur at all in the New Testament.

Jesus the Great Shepherd

Jesus the Great Shepherd

Does it not surprise anyone how little the word pastor is used in the New Testament (NT)? Actually the word “pastor” doesn’t occur at all in the NT! The plural form “pastors” is used but, fascinatingly, only one time…


And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ. (Eph 4:11-12)

That is very interesting to me as I survey the typical church in the Western world with its plethora of “Pastors”:

Lead Pastor
Associate Pastor
Worship Pastor
High School/College Pastor
Family Pastor
Student Ministries Pastor
Youth Pastor
Small Groups Pastor
“Parking Lot” Pastor

You get the idea!

Getting Back to our New Testament Roots.

The word “pastor” is usually translated throughout the NT as “shepherd” as in — He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd [pastor]; and He began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Or this: The shepherds [pastors] went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (Luke 2:20)

“Shepherd” was the key understanding for the word we now use over and over “Pastor”. The complete use in the NT is as follows: shepherd 15 times, [Jesus as] Shepherd 2 times, and pastor 1 time.

Inexplicably, in the verse mentioned above (Eph. 4:11), the word “pastors” is used instead of “shepherds”. The context is Paul describing the “gifts” that Christ gave to the body of believers as He ascended on high back to heaven, similar to a conquering hero as he returns to his city from the battle field!

These gifts are gender neutral and seem to come with no apparent qualifications. Please note that! They were for

“the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” Eph 4:12

Gifts edify and build up the body!

Conversely, what we will find in the NT is that Paul, after he had planted a church in a certain area, would have elders appointed as soon as possible. These men were raised up “from the field” and were never “imported in” as is so common today.

The responsibility of “eldering” is another ball game, however. Any man could “aspire” to be an elder (overseer); that was considered a “fine work he desires to do”. (I Tim 3:1) Yet it was another matter entirely if he qualified!

I know that many of you will say:“Hey Jeff, we call them pastors today but they are fulfilling the role of a Biblical elder. Certainly you can admit to that?”

Well, here is where the rubber meets the road!

What is the Biblical role of an elder?

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men [elders] will dream dreams.” Act 2:17

1. Elders are old men.

The NT basically uses the word elder to mean old men. (Old men = elders Strong’s G4245 – presbyteros). The truth of the matter is, the NT uses the word “elder” often like we would use the words “seniors” or “elder statesmen” in today’s language.

Among the NT Christians of the apostle Paul’s day, the term was used to describe those who had influence and responsibility over the individual house churches.

One can only imagine that these elders were older men!

“Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14)

“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” (1Tim 5:17)

To me it is clear that elders are old men. Pastors, or better said, “shepherds” are gifts to the body that are gender neutral and are called to care for the flock of God, just like prophets are called to edify the body and teachers instruct the body.

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (I Cor 14:26)

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation. (Rom. 12:6-7)

2. The NT uses the term elders and overseers interchangeably.

Here is where, I believe, the Bible gives us air tight discernment on the meaning of elder (and overseer) and shows us that the word “pastor” is not used interchangeably, which has fed the argument for so long!

Here it is in black and white:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered… (Titus 1:5-7 NASB)

From Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time… Be on guard for yourselves and for 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. (Act 20:17-18, 28 NASB)

An elder is an overseer but here, in two clear passages, elders are never called “pastors” and are not to be considered synonymous. There is no Biblical precedent for simply saying that the pastor is an elder!

The apostle Peter even told the elders to shepherd (or pastor) the people:

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you… [to] shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God. (I Pet. 5:1,2)

“To pastor” was “to shepherd” the flock of God and could be done by those with this gift “at anytime and as the occasion warranted”. I see the same thing in the gift of evangelist. He or she would use their gift at anytime and as the occasion warranted it. These gifts are for the “body at large” and are and mobile expressions of the Holy Spirit, not limited to a local setting only!

You may have a “local elder” but there really is no such thing as a “local pastor”, strange as that may sound.

3. The role and qualifications of elders.

As the apostle Paul was heading back to Jerusalem in time to celebrate the Passover, he hurriedly called “elders of the church” to meet him on the shores of the Mediterranean by Miletus. HE DID NOT CALL THE PASTORS!

He exhorted the elders and gave them (seemingly their final) instructions for their unique ministry, among which came up the subject of money:

“I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You [elders] yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (Act 20:33-35)

To both Timothy and Titus — his junior colleagues — who were to follow after Paul and appoint elders in each city, Paul left very specific instructions for the qualifications of elders. I have not found in the Bible any similar qualifications for pastors!?! Have you?

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim 3:2-7)

Regrettably, the KJV Bible and many other translations use the more formal word “bishop” instead of the more precise “overseer”. “Bishop” was preferred by the actual King James I of England to keep the official power in the hands of the church! I reject this position. Sadly we have inherited this from the 1600’s and it still lays a heavy burden on the church in its attempt to function as a New Testament body.

New wine needs fresh wineskins.

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’” Luke 5: 37-39

Dear friends, we desperately need new wineskins for the church. Our inherited model from the 1600s is not making it. More churches close down every day than are opening. Most churches, statistically, have plateaued and are in survival or maintenance mode!

Therefore I offer my humble advice to all pastors.

1. Quit. Stop and get out. In a real sense you have to “fire yourselves” because no one else will! See if indeed you qualify as a Biblical elder. Re-enter the working world and follow Paul’s advice to the Ephesian elders: “[my] hands ministered to my own needs…”

2. Keep on ministering as shepherds to the body of Christ!

A shepherd in the Near East was responsible for watching out for enemies trying to attack the sheep, defending the sheep from attackers, healing the wounded and sick sheep, finding and saving lost or trapped sheep, loving them, and sharing their lives and to earn their trust. (Blue Letter Bible)

3. Join with others who are calling for a Second Reformation of the church!

The First Reformation was about faith — “justification by faith alone”– but was unable to reform church structure, although many had it in their hearts (Martin Luther for one). Some did address it, like the Swiss Brethren, but were literally killed off by the “official church” before its impact could be felt.

The time has come for a Second Reformation which address the wineskin, that vessel into which we pour the Spirit of God and keep it alive and growing! The book “The Shaping of Things to Come” (Frost/Hirsch) addresses these issues and is highly recommended.

The fermenting of new wine builds up pressure in its container which can burst old skins. We cannot function in “old wine skins” that divert the flow of God’s power through a professional class of pastors. We must have a return to the New Testament responsibility and function of elders in our churches.

In Him,

Jeff Gilbertson

P.S. Some years ago I was led down a similar path that I am suggesting for pastors. I was a missionary for over 20 years on three continents until I realized that the word missionary is not even in the Bible! Of course there are apostles and prophets that lay and build the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20) but I could find little to no concept of today’s modern missionary in Scriptures. For more on this please consult the writings of Roland Allen. See my Top Ten Reading List on this blog.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bxrealx
    September 19, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    We need more of this defogging of our orthopraxic understanding. Thank you. 🙂
    I also recommend the book



    • Anonymous
      July 24, 2015 at 1:13 PM

      and remember – there’s no church buildings that we are to attend every week.for we are the temple of God not a building

  2. September 2, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    First I want to say thanks for writting this. I was just going to do the same. It is good to know we are not alone. My heart breaks for the state of the church today. I have been spending a lot of time in prayer over this. We need God to move. I don’t think however that it is going to be a revival as we usually see but a great persicution, that puts the church in order. We always see learning come through adversity in the scripture. I’d love to know what you are doing and share what I am doing. Thanks Darren

  3. Paul
    December 31, 2015 at 12:39 AM

    Great article! There is little more in Ephesians 4:12 “He(Christ) gave some to be pastors… to BUILD the BODY of Christ! Pastors purpose not only to build, but to equip saints for the same purpose: to build the body. The real church, the bride of Christ! Until bride is ready, wedding does not start. Not “church” organization, denomination, building, congregation, etc., but the unity of saved people: until we all reach unity in faith and knowledge of Christ. Then we become mature, and connected into one organism, function as one body of Christ.
    And the body is to build itself up in love!(Ephesians 4:16) Real CHURCH has one purpose only: to get ready for the bridegroom. Christ is not going to marry the kingdom or members.
    St.Paul calls himself master builder! Not only to plant, to water, but to build.(1 Cor.3:10) Seems like non builders took over, time to give power back to builders of the body of Christ.
    70% call self Christians, not build, not discipled, not Great Commissioned (Matthew 28:20)

    • April 30, 2016 at 9:39 AM

      thanks for this article. I share the same point of view. so, am happy to know am not alone. let’s join our plea unto God for a change. Thanks once more.

  4. Anonymous
    May 27, 2016 at 5:27 AM

    Read your bible…Eph 4:11, And he gave some apostle, some pastors, some teachers, etc.

  5. Richard Moore
    June 8, 2016 at 3:23 PM

    Actually to be accurate, there is no such thing as “pastor” whatsoever. The Scriptural passage you cite, correctly translated means Shepherd. And in its context it cannot mean the same things as an “Apostle”, “Prophet”, “Evangelist”, or “Teacher”. Think about that! The TRUE hierarchy of The Church was a plurality of Elders (Which later became priests), and Overseer whom was also an Elder (Which later became “Bishop”), and Deacons. So where in that hierarchy is there “pastors” wether singular or plural? Now think about what “Shepherds” are in society. They have been and still are Military, Police, Fireman, Paramedics, Doctors, etc. Study history, and research the Knights, and others. The term “Shepherds” are those that watch out over, protect, and care for the flock. There are not a plurality or replacement of what already had come into formation!

  6. Anonymous
    June 29, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    Praise the Lord it’s hard to find truth but I am in a place My life that I am defending God word and nothing else, thanks for some good and real information because I really didn’t think no one else believe what I read in the BIBLE. Dr.Cole

  7. Salty
    August 20, 2016 at 1:36 PM

    Finding this post is an answer to prayer. God is good.

  8. Anonymous
    January 5, 2017 at 2:51 PM


    • Chrisraheem
      December 6, 2017 at 8:59 PM

      Hello dear brother/sister; actually, the word pastor (when pertaining to men) occurs twice in the NT and neither time does it refer to a “position” or “title”. In Acts 20:28 it’s used to describe the function of an elder, and in Ephesians 4:6 it’s used to describe one of the gifts that Christ gave to build up His body.

  9. Trevor Chinsamy
    May 30, 2017 at 5:34 PM

    Beautiful article , just had a debate with a “pastor ” a few minutes ago telling there is no such title as a ‘PASTOR” but he should actually be called an elder . Your explaination in regards to Eph 4 and saying they are gifts is spot on . Than you my good brother in Christ . Let every man be a liar and GOD be true.

  10. angel
    August 4, 2017 at 5:54 AM

    Great point brother .my opinion is Jesus told us to make disciples not pastors or etc like you mention is all gifts not positions unfortunately now in are time we see people following man’s teachings and now following Jesus teaching this was a great article thank you.

  11. Lettherebelight
    October 8, 2017 at 3:02 PM

    The word “church” is NOWHERE found in the scriptures. The scriptures say:” Congregation/ Assembly”. They were first called : “Anointed ONES” in Antioch. Acts 11:26. May Yahweh bless you.

  12. December 2, 2017 at 4:48 AM

    Thank you for your article. I realize you wrote it 6 years ago but I would love to pick your brain more on this subject so that I can get a better understanding.

  1. July 26, 2013 at 12:32 PM

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