Why Are Church Leaders Called Pastors?

Seeing the growth of the church was spreading beyond their direct reach and time, Jesus’ Apostles began to appoint leaders in every local church to bear some of the responsibilities entrusted to them (Acts 14:23; 1 Pet 5:1-4).[1] The leaders are called by three interchangeable, but not synonymous,[2] names in the New Testament: πρεσβυτέρους/presbuterous (translated elder or presbyter), ἐπισκόποις/episkopois (translated overseer or bishop), and ποιμένας/poimenas (translated as shepherd or pastor).[3]

In many churches today, these leaders are most frequently called pastors from the third title above. What does the term pastor mean? The term comes to English from Latin, meaning shepherd, herdsmen, or one who feeds. God used this term to communicate what He wants the leaders of His church to be and do. When we survey the shepherding motif in the Bible, at least thirteen aspects of shepherding surface.

First, pastors love their flock.

A clear manifestation of this motive in regards to the shepherding task is found in John twenty-one in the recommissioning of Peter. Peter had denied Jesus three times before Jesus’ death. Once the Resurrected Lord appeared to Peter, He asked Peter whether he loved Him three times. When Peter answered in the affirmative, Jesus directed Peter in the way to express that love: “Tend My lambs (Βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου)…Shepherd My sheep (Ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου)…Tend My sheep (Βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου)” (Jn 21:15-17).[4] Love for Jesus is rightly expressed by love for His sheep. As Jesus commissioned Peter to shepherd from a right motive, Peter would commission other shepherds in kind. (1 Pt 5:2).

Second, pastors express self-sacrifice toward their flock.

Once Jesus had recommissioned Peter to the shepherding task, He warned Peter of his future martyrdom and commanded, “Follow Me!” (Jn 21:18-19). Jesus connected Peter’s role as a shepherd to suffering. This calling of Peter is consistent with the previous biblical pictures of the Messianic Shepherd. Zechariah prophesies the way God’s people would be restored to Him after their sin and idolatry. He writes, “Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, And against the man, My Associate…Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered” (Zech 13:7). Klein states:  

[T]he servant in Isaiah 53 and the shepherd in Zech 13 share much in common. They suffer because it was the Lord’s will for them to do so. Both experience death wrongfully and evoke sorrow and consternation among the people for the wrong done to them. Most importantly, both figures suffer in order to effect purification for sins. The result of the suffering of the servant and the shepherd will bring great benefit to God’s people.[5]

Jesus Himself said that He, as the Good Shepherd, lays down His life for the sheep. In contrast to the thief, robber, stranger, wolf, and hired hand who just want to use the sheep for their own benefit, Jesus shows Himself selfless and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sheep.

 In Ezekiel thirty-four and Jeremiah twenty-three, God rebukes the shepherds[6] of His people because they were using the flock for their own benefit and the flock’s detriment. In contrast, a biblical pastor must be willing to spend Himself sacrificially for the benefit of his congregation. No one should undertake such a calling who is unwilling to give of himself freely.

Third, pastors show compassion for their flock.

Recalling the succession of Joshua to a shepherd-like role for Israel (Num 27:17), Matthew and Mark comment on the attitude of Jesus toward those in need. The evangelists record, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Abbott-Smith explains that the noun form of this verb, σπλάγχνον/splagnon, refers to the “inward parts” such as “heart, liver, lungs, etc.” and indicates “the seat of the feelings and of the feelings themselves.” He explains that the New Testament usage usually speaks of “feelings of kindness, benevolence and pity.”[7]

Jesus’ shepherding compassion in Matthew’s Gospel motivated Him to travel so He could proclaim the gospel and heal (Mt 9:35), an antithetical action to that of the shepherds of Ezekiel thirty-four who “have not strengthened…have not healed…have not bound up…have not brought back” the sickly, diseased, broken and scattered sheep (Ez 34:4). This compassion compelled Jesus to send out His disciples to act in the same way (Mt 10:1). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ compassion motivated Him to teach the crowds and to feed them miraculously (Mk 6:33-42). He likewise involved His disciples in His shepherding activity (Mk 6:41). Even though the work may be continually demanding, present day biblical shepherds must continue to feel compassion for the spiritually needy and must not grow emotionally calloused. 

Fourth, pastors carry a concern for the eternity of their flock.

In Psalm 28:9, David supplicates, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance; Be their shepherd also, and carry them forever.” David ties shepherding to the eternal salvation of God’s people. After using the shepherding verb וּֽרְעֵם (Be their shepherd), David describes part of the shepherding task as וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד־הָעֹולָֽם (carry them forever). Brown, Driver, and Briggs indicate this particular usage of the Piel Imperative verb as to “carry, bear continuously.”[8]  This usage of the verb indicates an eternal dependence upon God as Shepherd.

The writer of Hebrews urges his readers to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls…” (Hb 13:17). While the typical words for shepherding are not present here, there can be little doubt that pastors are in view.[9] David Allen explains, “The verb translated ‘keep watch’ implies constant vigilance, wakefulness, or sleeplessness…The shepherding aspect of pastoral duty seems to be implied in this verb, and this is supported by the author’s reference to Jesus the great Shepherd of the sheep in the benediction in v. 20.”[10] Pink also states of this passage, “The true under-shepherds of Christ have no selfish aims, but rather the spiritual and eternal good of those who are entrusted to their care.”[11]

In Ephesians four, Paul explains that God gave the teaching offices, including pastors, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).  Jesus’ goal in gifting pastors was the spiritual and eternal well-being of the His people.[12] Eduard Thurneysen communicates the importance of this spiritual and eternal concern in the life of individuals and states, “the content of the proclamation of pastoral care can be no other than the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ…The power of forgiveness consists precisely in the fact that man is reclaimed for God, in body and soul, and brought under his hand…”[13] Biblical pastors must be motivated by an eternal concern for their congregations that causes them to direct individuals to the gospel of Jesus for comprehensive salvation.

Fifth, pastors realize accountability to the Chief Shepherd for their flock.

When Jesus recommissioned Peter, He referred to the object of the shepherding activity “My sheep” and “My lambs” (Jn 21:15-17). The flock did not belong to Peter but to Christ. Peter expressed this idea to the shepherds that he instructed when he referred to Jesus as “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Pt 5:4).[14] Paul calls the flock “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Jesus, Peter, and Paul reveal that shepherding is an act of stewardship and with all trusts of stewardship, accountability will occur (cf. Mt 25:14-30).

 Peter expresses the positive side of this accountability as he reminds the undershepherds that the Chief Shepherd will  appear and reward His faithful servants with “the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pt 5:4). The writer of Hebrews speaks of the accountability of shepherds in a more neutral way as he says leaders are “those who will give an account” (Hb 13:17). Ezekiel spoke of shepherding accountability in a negative way, in terms of judgment. The shepherds of his day had shepherded poorly and selfishly, allowing the sheep to go unfed and to become prey. Therefore, God would remove them as shepherds and remove the privileges of shepherding (Ez 34:7-10). Biblical shepherds tend their congregations faithfully because they will one day answer to the Chief Shepherd and receive a verdict from His hand.

Sixth, pastors provide spiritual sustenance for their flock.

The Old Testament verb for shepherd, רָעָה/ra’ah, means “pasture, tend, graze”[15] and carries the idea of leading sheep to pasture to find food. The King James Version captures this idea when it translates the term as “feed” on multiple occasions.[16]

Jesus serves as a positive example of this shepherding task. His shepherding-compassion led Him to “teach them many things” (Mk 6:34) and also to provide physical sustenance in a miraculous way that would draw their souls to the spiritual nourishment offered. The shepherds of Ezekiel thirty-four serve as a negative example. God indicted them, “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock” (Ez 34:3). Cooper provides aid to understand the metaphor of feeding the flock when he states, “Kings and leaders often were called ‘shepherds’ in the ancient Near east…They bore a primary responsibility for the moral and spiritual direction of the nations.”[17]

In Psalm twenty-three, David writes, “I shall not want” because the LORD is his Shepherd. David then answers the manner in which his Shepherd provides, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul” (Ps 23:2-3). The green pastures were a remedy to hunger and malnourishment. The quiet waters prevented thirst and dehydration.  This is how the LORD as Shepherd “restores my soul.” The word for restores used here, יְשֹׁובֵב/washuvev, is a Polel Imperfect verb that is used figuratively here to mean “restore, refresh.”[18] The sheep eat from the LORD’s provision and are refreshed. But the nature of the LORD’s provision must be addressed. David used a cognate of this term in Psalm 19:7, מְשִׁיבַת/mashuvet, having the similar idea which Brown, Driver, and Briggs express as “to bring back heart…refresh.”[19] In Psalm Nineteen, it is the Law of the LORD that is “restoring the soul.” The nature of pastoral sustenance is the Word of God. Thurneysen writes, “pastoral care must be practiced. But it must be pastoral care in which the Word of God retains its self-sufficiency and stand over against all human piety and in which man does not cease to be its pupil.”[20] The Biblically faithful shepherd will feed His congregation from nothing but the Word of God.

Seventh, pastors provide spiritual protection for their flock.

. In Psalm twenty-three, David is not afraid even though he walks through “the valley of the shadow of death.” VanGemeren explains, “This imagery is consistent with the shepherd metaphor because the shepherd leads the flock through ravines and wadis where the steep and narrow slopes keep out the light. The darkness of the wadis represent the uncertainty of life.”[21] The presence of the LORD is a constant comfort to David and reminder that he is protected. David then mentions the tools of the Shepherd, one of which is the “rod.” The Hebrew word שֵׁבֶט /shevet, translates as “rod, staff, club, scepter”[22] and here likely refers to a club for guarding against predators and thieves[23].

Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders includes the command to “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” (Acts 20:28). After directing these elders to shepherd, he warns them that false teachers will come. This is the reason they must “Be on guard.” A Biblical shepherd will guard and warn his congregation against false teaching and impious living.

Eighth, pastors cultivate a relationship with their flock.

In John 10:11-18, Jesus states, “I know My own and My own know Me…they will hear My voice.” Borchert explains, “The use of ginōskein (“know”) here is far more than cognitive (factual) knowledge. The relationship between Jesus and his sheep is modeled on the relationship between Jesus and the Father (10:15).”[24] The shepherd spends long days, nights, and weeks with his sheep. He learns his sheep’s personalities, habits, and weaknesses. The sheep are able to discern their shepherd’s voice among other noises and other shepherds’ voices.[25] Thomas Oden applies this concept to knowing the terrain in which the sheep travel and pasture.[26] VanGemeren explains that David’s use of the covenant name of God, יְהוָה/Yahweh, and his emphasis on “my” in Psalm 23:1 speaks of the personal nature of God’s relationship with His people.[27] Biblical shepherds will take time to know their congregations, corporately and individually. The pastorate is no place for one uninterested in God’s sheep.

Ninth, pastors lead their flock.

The LORD, as Shepherd, “leads” (נָחָה /nachah) His sheep in paths of righteousness (Ps 23:3). God promised His people that one day He will provide “shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding” (Jer 3:15). The metaphor here of feeding is the idea of governing.[28] Matthew combines two prophesies in a way that links shepherding and leadership (Mt 2:6). He quotes Micah 5:2 to show that a “ruler” would come from Bethlehem and, drawing from Micah’s pastoral description of this ruler (Mic 5:4), Matthew appends the call for a Davidic Shepherd-King from Second Samuel 5:2. This would have been a natural connection for Matthew to make as shepherding was a common metaphor for civil leaders in Ancient Palestine (cf. Num 27:15-17). Also, Abbott-Smith lists the definition for the verb ποιμανεῖ in Matthew 2:6 as “to tend, shepherd, govern.”[29] The idea of shepherding and leadership cannot be neatly separated. Likewise, Paul and Peter link the idea of shepherding with that of leadership when they use the terms, ἐπισκόπους (overseer/bishop) and ποιμαίνειν (shepherd) as descriptions of the same office (Acts 20:28; 1 Pt 5:1-4). Biblical shepherds must lead the congregation to desire, seek, and obey the Word of God.

Tenth, pastors will separate their flock.

In Ezekiel thirty-four, God portrays Himself as the true Shepherd of His people who will “judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats…between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” (Ez 34:17-22). God would remove and punish those who did not belong in His flock. Likewise, Jesus portrays Himself as the eschatological Shepherd who “judges as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mt 25:32). Köstenberger notes that in John ten, Jesus’ sheep listen to His voice and those who do not “demonstrate that they are not God’s sheep.”[30]

Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom to His Apostles (Mt 16:15-19) which are expressed through church acceptance and discipline (Mt 18:15-18). The verbs “bind” and “loose” connect these passages and their ideas together. As pastors are the leaders of local congregations, and as the idea of shepherding always includes separating between sheep, biblical shepherds must lead their church in guarding the sheepfold from goats and unrepentant sheep through carefully checking the salvation of those who join and by leading the church to discipline members whose lives do not match the church’s confession.[31]

Eleventh, pastors heal their flock.

Heil explains, “In God’s castigation of Israel’s leaders as shepherds in Ezek 34:4-5 healing is among the responsibilities they have neglected” but Jesus on the other hand would fulfil this work faithfully.[32] But how are pastors to bring healing to their flocks? Physical issues and spiritual issues are not disconnected. Sometimes, physical ailments are caused by sin (Jn 5:14). James tells us that the sick should call on the elders who will come and anoint them with oil and pray over them. Anointing with oil is tied to repentance of sins[33]. Pastors should encourage their church members to investigate their own hearts for unconfessed sin and repent, receiving grace from the Lord. As congregants confess their sins, the pastors should pray for them that they may receive physical healing (Ja 5:16). But how can one know what is sin? Pastors must faithfully and systematically feed the sheep the Word of God, whether in the pulpit or the counseling room. As they do so, congregations will avoid physical ailments brought on because of sin but also will receive spiritual and emotional healing from God’s Word.

Twelfth, pastors train others to shepherd their flock.

New Testament churches always had a counsel of pastors, often called elders (Ac 14:23; Ti 1:5). Paul directed Timothy to take what Paul taught him and teach it to faithful men who could teach it to others (2 Tm 2:2). Biblical pastors should be cultivating qualified men that they might one day become part of the church’s episcopate (council of overseers or elders).

Matthew and Mark reveal Jesus inviting His disciples to participate in His shepherding work (Mt 9:36-10:1; Mk 6:33-42). Jesus commissioned Peter to shepherd (Jn 21:15-17). Peter referred to Jesus as Chief Shepherd while guiding fellow shepherds in their mutual task (1 Pt 5:1-4).[34]

Thirteenth, pastors will call others to become part of their flock.

While evangelism is not a primary function of pastors as pastors, it is still an aspect of shepherding as it intersects with pastors’ responsibility to model the Christ-like life and to lead the flock in evangelistic efforts (see my previous article, Is Evangelism My Pastor’s Job? No…and Yes.) Jesus said, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).[35] Biblical pastors will seek to gather other sheep who are willing to follow the Chief Shepherd and will seek to disciple them for the Chief Shepherd.

The New Testament leaders of the local church were referred to as pastors and directed in their work by shepherding language. Present-day pastors must look to the historical, cultural, literary, and theological background of shepherding found in the Scriptures. Such a survey will yield several aspects of the work of shepherding which, when developed, will glorify King Jesus, edify the flock, and provide a greater sense of fulfilment and reward to the shepherds.


[1]  Benjamin Merkle makes this speculation after noting that Luke speaks of the Apostles and Jerusalem elders working together in Acts 11:30 but as Acts progresses, the Apostles are mentioned less and the elders more in Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2014), 610.

[2] While all three terms refer to the same office, they each are built from a different cultural background and therefore bring a different nuance to that office.

[3] See Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-5; and cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9 for the interchangeability of these three terms for the same office.

[4] In a footnote, Gerald L. Borchert explains, “In the case of the Johannine use of the words for love and shepherding, the reader should not focus on the change of the Greek words but concentrate on the growing impact of Jesus’ statements” in John 12-21 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2002), 335.

[5] George L. Klein, Zechariah (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 389. 

 [6]Kiel and Delitzsch explain that shepherds in these contexts refer to “rulers alone, but more particularly by the primary passage already referred to (Jer. 23:1-8), where we are to understand by the shepherds, kings and princes, to the exclusion of priests and prophets, against whom Jeremiah first prophesies from v. 9 onwards…” in Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 9: Ezekiel Daniel Trans. James Martin and M.G. Easton, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 288. Yet, the context of Jeremiah twenty-three clearly reveals prophets to be in view as well.

[7] G. Abbott-Smitt, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1922), 414.  

[8] F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an Appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 672.

[9] See Hebrews 13:7 where the same leaders are in view and are those who “spoke the word of God to you.” This teaching ministry is consistent with the “pastor-teachers” of Ephesians 4:11 and the overseers in 1 Timothy 3:2 who must be “able to teach.”

[10] David L. Allen, Hebrews (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 624-625. 

[11] Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954), 1243.  

 [12] See Frank Thielman’s excellent discussion of this idea in Ephesians, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 280. 

[13] Eduard Thurneysen, A Theology of Pastoral Care, Trans. Jack A Worthington and Thomas Wieser, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1962), 67. 

[14]See Schreiner 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 233. 

[15]  F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an Appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 944.

[16] For examples see Gen 29:7; 1 Sam 17:15; 2 Sam 5:2; Ps 28:9; Prov 10:20; Is 40:11; Jer 3:15, 23:2; Ez 34:2.  

[17] Lamar Eugene Cooper, Sr. Ezekiel (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 298. 

[18]  F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an Appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 998.

[19] Ibid., 999. 

[20]  Eduard Thurneysen, A Theology of Pastoral Care, Trans. Jack A Worthington and Thomas Wieser, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1962), 33.

[21] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 254.

[22] F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an Appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 986.

[23] See Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 1-50, (Waco: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 1983), 207.  

[24] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12-21 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2002), 335.

[25] Ibid., 330. 

[26]  Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1983), 52.

[27]  Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 253.

[28] C.F. Kel and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 10: The Minor Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 328.

[29]  G. Abbott-Smitt, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1922), 370.

[30] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Shepherds and Shepherding in the Gospels” in Shepherding Go’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond, eds. Benjamin L. Merkle and Thomas R. Schreiner, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2014), 48.

[31] See Eduard Thurneysen’s chapter “Pastoral Care as Church Discipline” in A Theology of Pastoral Care, Trans. Jack A. Worthington and Thomas Wieser, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1962) and Joseph Flatt Jr’s chapter “How Shall I Respond to Sin in the Church?: A Plea to Restore the Third Mark of the Church” in Reforming Pastoral Ministry: Challenges for Ministry in Postmodern Times. John H. Armstrong, Ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001).

[32] John Paul Heil, “Ezekiel 34 and the Narrative Strategy of the Shepherd and Sheep Metaphor in Matthew” in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (October 1993), 701-702.

[33]  Kurt A. Richardson, James (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1997), 232-234. 

[34] See Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 222.

[35] See Derek Prime and Alistair Begg. On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 61; Alex D. Montoya. “Outreaching” in Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 60-61.

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