Biblical pastoring: Definitions

This is part two of a three-part series on the biblical theology of the pastorate: A unique role; Biblical definitions; and The pastoral team.

Biblical Definitions

Based on our understanding of the pastor’s function from part one, it is now important to define a couple of terms – three, in fact. The New Testament writers, especially Paul and Peter, use three distinct words in reference to pastors. Since these are used interchangeably, we can infer that they each bring a unique aspect to the pastoral ministry. The Greek words are επισκοπος (episkopos), πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), and ποιμην (poimen), and are usually translated, respectively, as overseer, elder, and shepherd. Notice these words and concepts used in reference to the same people (emphasis added).

So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away. 1 Peter 5:1-4

From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, telling the elders of the church to come to him. When they arrived, he said to them… “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. Acts 20:17, 28

It seems from these passages that “elder” was the official title or office held by certain men within the congregation. These elders, then, had two main categories of responsibility toward the people within the local church: overseeing and shepherding.

The Pastor as Shepherd and Overseer

The word ποιμην (poimen) occurs eighteen times in the New Testament. What makes this more than a random fact is that in every case, except one, it is translated “shepherd.”[1] It is that one other instance with which we are interested – Ephesians 4:11.

It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers…

In the Old Testament, Jeremiah and Ezekiel referred to the leaders of Israel as unfaithful shepherds because they did not lead the people, their “sheep,” the way God would have them go.[2]

An “overseer” (επισκοπος, episkopos) in the Roman world “frequently refers to one who has a definite function or fixed office of guardianship and related activity within a group.”[3] So an “overseer” was tasked with guarding, supervising, and ruling from within a group of people.

Shepherding and overseeing are actually very similar in their scope. Both include aspects of watching, protecting, and leading. The shepherd and overseer have to be aware of the dangers that those in their care may face. They both must make sure that their followers are not only kept from danger but also led to those pastures (literally or figuratively) that are healthy and nutritious.

How does this fit with the elders’ teaching role? Paul summed it up quite nicely for Titus:

He must hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught, so that he will be able to give exhortation in such healthy teaching and correct those who speak against it. For there are many rebellious people, idle talkers, and deceivers, especially those with Jewish connections, who must be silenced because they mislead whole families by teaching for dishonest gain what ought not to be taught. Titus 1:9-11

It is the responsibility of the elders to feed and guard primarily through the “healthy teaching” of the Scriptures. By providing good spiritual nutrition and correcting bad teaching, the elders create the best possible environment for the people under their care to grow.


[1] Matthew 9:36; 25:32; 26:31; Mark 6:34; 14:27; Luke 2:8, 15, 18, 20; John 10:2, 11, 12, 14, 16; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25

[2] For example, see Jeremiah 2:8; 10:21; 12:10 and Ezekiel 34.

[3] s.v. επισκοπος, Walter Bauer, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), BibleWorks, v.8.