Recently, John Piper announced that Jason Meyer will succeed him as the “Pastor” of Bethlehem Baptist Church… but is it proper to use the title “Pastor” for any leader?

The announcement of the transition reads as follows:

Moved: That Bethlehem Baptist Church call Jason Meyer as Pastor for Preaching & Vision effective January 1, 2013, and that John Piper’s title be changed from Pastor for Preaching & Vision to Associate Pastor for Preaching & Vision, effective January 1, through March 31, 2013.

But the part that struck me as ironic, was in the middle of a letter announcing the new “Pastor“, Piper quotes this passage in Matthew that seems to contradict the very purpose of the letter. he writes,

This is not about honor. We have a clear teaching from our Lord Jesus on this:

You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:8–11).

I get to be the greatest for three months!

So which is it?

Is it like Jesus says, that we should not call another person by titles of “Teacher” or is it like Piper says in the letter, that it is important for church-leaders to use big long titles before our names?

To be clear, this post is not about Piper.. or Bethlehem Baptist Church… or any of the thousands of churches that follow this same tradition.  I know nothing personally about Piper and can only assume that one day our Father will greet him in heaven and say to him, “well done my good and faithful servant.”… but I also know that he wont say “welcome to heaven Pastor John.”

So I ask that you would lay aside your personal affection for anyone you know and love as “pastor”.  This post is not about demonizing men (or women) who use the title “pastor” or calling into question their devotion to Jesus Christ.  All I ask is that you look at the word “pastor” and reason with me from the Scripture to discern its right use.

The story above is just one example of thousands that in my mind illustrate a fundamental abuse of the biblical term “pastor” that needs to be corrected.

In total, the greek root “ποιμην” is used 40 times in the NT. The most relevant uses of the Greek word “ποιμήν” are in the following 18 examples.

  • 11 times ποιμήν is used in Matthew, Mark, and John predominantly as an analogy; as Shepherd is to Flock so God is to Israel.
  • 4 times ποιμήν is used in Luke in reference to the shepherds who came to see the birth of Jesus.
  • 2 Times in Hebrews and Peter in reference to Jesus as the Shepherd of God’s covenant-people (The Church).
  • 1 Time in Ephesians in reference to a Gift from God’s Spirit used to establish the Church and help Her grow in maturity.

In every case, ποιμήν is translated as “shepherd” except in the King Jams which unfortunately translates it as “Pastor”.  And it is this single use and translation of Eph 4:11 that has become the sole foundation for the modern practice of giving everyone who leads the church the title of “Pastor”. But here is a much better translation to consider:

Ephesians 4:11–14 (ESV)

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [ποιμήν] and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Nowhere in the New Testament is the word “ποιμήν” used as a title for leaders in the church and this understanding has shaped my own practice.

When I first planted Reunion Church many years ago, people would come into our fellowship and say to me “Hello Pastor Joe” and I would usually reply, “Hi, it is great to meet you, but please feel free to call me Joe.

Why was this my response? Because I wanted people to know that my title was not “Pastor”.  I did not want a title to become a barrier to our true relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ.  I did not want my gift of “shepherding” to be reduced to an honorary title of man-made tradition; because being a “shepherd” is so much more important than being called a Pastor.

So regardless if one prefers to use the term “pastor” or “shepherd”… the real question remains, what is a “ποιμήν”?

What is “Pastor”

  • Pastor” is NOT a title of leadership.
  • Pastor” is NOT the name of church-office.
  • Pastor” is NOT about wielding power over others.
  • Pastor” is NOT a synonym for “Elder“.

BUT

  • PastorIS one of five foundational gifts given by the Holy Spirit to help build Church.
  • The Gift of “Pastoring” IS given to some big brothers and sisters so they can guide their younger siblings into maturity.
  • The Gift of “Pastoring” IS given to each Elder so they can model servanthood to the flock.

So taking all this into consideration, what about women?  Should women be “Pastors” in the church?  That is the next post…

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for emerging leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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