A Biblical Theology for Pastoral Ministry

Someone asked me if I ever published any of my academic articles in my blog. I said no, because I did not think anyone would be interested. However, after some thought, I figured…why not. If no one reads this article, I’m at no loss. That being said, below is a short essay I wrote on a biblical theology of the pastoral ministry. Let me know your thoughts, and if you would like to see more of this kind of writing.


The office of pastor within the church is complex because its origin is not well known. Poimen is the original Greek word found in the New Testament that was later translated to pastor in Latin which means shepherd. In the new Testament, poimen occurs eighteen times in the noun form. Of those eighteen times, only once is poimen not in the context of sheep. That is Ephesians 4:11. Sometimes the author used poimen in the literal use describing a man who inded watches sheep for his livelihood. Other times the author used the poimen quoting Jesus who identified himself as the good shepherd. The authors certainly used shepherd in a spiritual context, such as 1 Peter 2:25 where the author named Jesus as the “shepherd and overseer of your souls.” However, only in Ephesians 4:11 does the author appear to list poimen as potentially an office within the church. 

 Poimeno is the verb form and means to shepherd, tend, or care. The New Testament used this verb form eleven times, and every use is in the context of leading people. The English Standard Version translates poimeno to “rule” three time all of which refer to Jesus’ kingly authority over his people.[1] Thus, the role of a pastor carries authority, and this authority is to emulate Jesus’ authority over his people. As Jesus rules and reigns over his church, so the pastor must emulate and accurately represent Jesus’ rule and reign. 

The Greek usage of both the noun and the verb form that shepherd is more of an action or behavior of the pastor than the title of a church leader. This is problematic for Baptists as the preferred title is “pastor.” This is not to say that the title of pastor is unbiblical because the Scriptures define the actions of an episkopos and presbyteros by shepherding. 

What then should a church do that uses a term for her leadership that is a stretch for biblicism? The answer is three parts. First, a survey of New Testament church leadership will give clarity to the position even if the title is different. Second, the Old Testament gives context to a shepherd leader because this is the tradition out of which the church was born. Third, the New Testament gives directives for how a church leader ought to conduct himself in such a way that is authentic to biblical.

As Daniel L. Akin and R. Scott Pace wrote, the goal of a theological inquiry into the position of the pastor is a two part endeavor determining who a pastor is and what he does.[2] This first section seeks to explain who the pastor is. Parts two and three seek to answer the more important and complex question of what he does. Both aspects are important because behavior is a result of identity, and identity is a result of calling. The easier part is to identify the pastor in Scripture according to position. The complex part is to identify how the pastor leads in a way that exalts Christ, edifies the body, and invites the lost to faith in Christ.

Survey of New Testament Church Leadership

 The New Testament identifies two primary offices with the leadership of a local church. The first for consideration is the office of elder. Presbyteros is the Greek equivalent to elder. It occurs sixty-six times in the New Testament. Acts 11:30 is the first occurrence of elder in context to the leadership of the local church. In the gospel accounts and the beginning of Acts, presebyteros is in the context of the elders of the community, namely the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. For example, Acts 6:12 reads, “And they stirred up the people and the elders and scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council.”[3] The early church used the same language because of the cultural context, but there is a strong difference between the elders of the community and Judaism versus the elders of the church. From early on, the church developed the use of elders in its structure. Mark Dever noted twenty times presbyteros applied directly to the leadership of the church.[4]

Elders not only occur in the New Testament church, but the apostles directed their appointment. Akin and Pace wrote that Paul instructed his “apostolic delegate,” meaning Titus, to appoint elders in every town according to Titus 1:5.[5] Paul himself appointed elders in the Galatian church in Acts 14:23. Peter identified himself as an elder exhorting other elders within the recipient church of his epistle in 1 Peter 5:1. John identified himself as an elder in both 2 John1 and 3 John 1. These men would have been pastors of churches. In some cases, these men were founding pastors of churches. Thus, the apostles equate the office of elder and pastor. 

Most of these references note elders as plural. In fact fifty-seven of the sixty-six times presbyteros occurs in the New Testament the word is in the plural. John D. Barry noted in 1 Timothy 4:14 there was a “council of elders” at the church in Ephesus implying there was an organized administrative body.[6] Paul did not give any specifics to the organization of the elders in the church. Akin and Pace added that a council of elders does not equate a spiritual board of governors or a co-pastor model.[7] There is not a directive for how a local church ought to organize its body of elders, but there is an implication that it should have a body of elders.

In 1 Peter 5:1-4, Peter gave a list of exhortations for elders. This is not necessarily a list of qualifications, but were exhortations for how elders should lead. Importantly, Peter instructed the elders to “shepherd the flock of God.” Literally, the language is to “poimanaite to poimnion,” a double usage of the imagery of shepherding. Peter instructed elders to have a pastoral role in the care and leadership in the local church.

Finally, an elder is a teacher. In Titus 1:9, Paul clearly noted that elders were first to be firm in their faith in the Word, and they should be able to teach the Word to others. Akin and Pace felt so strongly about this subject they wrote, “…to be clear: a non-teaching elder is an unscriptural position.”[8] The elder may not primarily teach to fulfill his duties in his local church, but his ability to teach is a requirement. 

The second term is episkopos translated as overseer. The New Testament refers to the episkopos ten times. The qualifications for an overseer are listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 The Episkopos is a person who has a position of authority and influence within a local church. According to Akin and Pace, the overseer is a servant leader who seeks to empower the church members and not wield his power over them.[9] Episkopos means to give oversight and direction to the local church as it seeks to fulfill the mission of Christ. 

Episkopos occurs in both the plural and the singular, and nowhere is there a group of overseers as is for the elders. Dever argued that presbyteros, episkopos, and poimen are synonymous and interchangeable.[10] Akin and Pace argue for the interchangeable nature of the titles noting that Paul wrote his epistle to Titus instructing him to appoint elders in Titus 1:5 then used overseer interchangeably in verse seven.[11] However, an early interpretation of the position of an overseer comes from Ignatius who interpreted a single overseer aided by elders and deacons in the local body.[12] There are many interpretations to the apparent structure. There could have been a group of elders with only one overseer. The overseer himself was an elder, but the elders were not all overseers. The lack of specifics when it comes to structure could mean that there is some flexibility within the local congregation to self determine its leadership structure so long as there are elders and at least one overseer. 

Finally, a pastor is not a deacon. The English word deacon is a transliteration of the Greek word diaconos. A deacon is someone who serves the local church, but in a different capacity than an overseer or elder. Barry noted that deacons made small scale decisions that aided to execute the decisions of the elders.[13] Paul writing to Timothy clearly noted two different positions. He wrote in 1 Timothy 3 of the qualifications of an overseer in verses one through seven and the qualifications of deacons in verses eight through thirteen. A deacon is a subservient role to that of the elders and overseers of the church. Dever had an interesting insight noting that Jesus used diaconos three times in John 12:26, “Whoever deacons me must follow me; and where I am, my deacon also will be. My father will honor the one who deacons me.”[14] The implication is that a deacon is a servant role to Christ. 

Of course in Acts 6:1-7, the quintessential description of a deacon is one who served the widows in the early church so as to protect the time of the apostles in Jerusalem. Acts 6 serves as the foundational passage for deacons and their qualifications. Note their qualifications are much less stringent than those of the overseers or elders. A pastor must qualify to the highest standards of spiritual maturity and faithful integrity because of his increased influence.

Pastoral Leadership in the Old Testament

 The imagery of a shepherd is as old as history. The first use of the word comes from Genesis 4:2, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep.” The literal translation is that Abel was the shepherd of the flock. Both Hebrew words ro’eh and so’noccur throughout the Old Testament in reference to shepherds and their flocks. Abel’s work was an extension of Genesis 1:26 where God created man to have dominion over the beasts of the field. 

As stated earlier, a central description of the pastor/overseer/elder of the New Testament church was that of a shepherd. The position of shepherd in the local church is much more focused upon the character and conduct of the pastor than his position. The New Testament bases the ethos of the pastor shepherd in that of service, care, and guidance. However, the pastoral ethos was not developed in a vacuum nor contrived from the free thinking minds of Jesus’ disciples. The New Testament is the teachings of the disciples based on the teachings of Jesus and the metaphor of a shepherd from the Old Testament. 

The Old Testament is full of shepherds. Jewish history is replete with the number of shepherds, but the nature of these shepherds is important for the development of a pastoral theology. The first important shepherd is that of Moses. Moses wrote many narratives about the founding of Israel, and it began with the shepherd Abraham. Abraham was a shepherd who found favor with God, and by Genesis 13:2, Moses recorded him as being “very wealthy in livestock.” The Hebrew word for livestock is miq neh, and it can be used to include cattle, flocks, or both. Abraham’s son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob were both very successful shepherds. Jacob proved to be a very skilled shepherd, successfully experimenting in animal husbandry in Genesis 30:37-43. When Jacob moved his family to Egypt during the famine, the Pharaoh gave him the land of Goshen because of his skill as a shepherd in Genesis 47:1-6. Pharaoh even requested the Israelites shepherd his herds. Thus, the Israelites’ origin is in shepherding.

According to Timothy S. Laniak, God was the Shepherd of Israel, and the patriarchs, kings, and prophets were undershepherds to him.[15] The rich history of shepherding in Israel caused the Israelites to relate to and consider God as their shepherd. Jacob on his deathbed referred to God as his lifelong shepherd in Genesis 48:15. The trope of God as shepherd has continued ever since. The psalmist noted that God led his people like a flock in 77:20.

Laniak further argued that God’s guidance of Israel through the wilderness was unique to his shepherding character.[16] During the exodus God guided his people with the pillar of cloud and of fire, leading them to destinations that they might be safe as a shepherd guides and protects his sheep. God’s presence guiding the Israelites is what set them apart from the other nations.[17] God’s provision and protection are intertwined with his shepherd leadership of Israel in the Exodus. On multiple occasions God supplied water and food for the Israelites that they would find nourishment. A shepherd is constantly considering the nourishment of his flock, because the nourishment of the flock determines the health of the flock. God not only set the tone for a shepherd in supplying the physical needs of his people, but he was the spiritual shepherd of Israel. 

Moses sits as a highly esteemed shepherd in Israel’s’ history, because it was his shepherd background that prepared him to lead Israel through the exodus. Had Moses not spent forty years in Midian he would not have been prepared to lead the people out of Egypt and through the wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula. Moses became the extension of God’s shepherding leadership for the people of Israel when the Lord appeared to him in the bush and sent him back to Egypt to free Israel. Laniak stated that Moses became the embodiment of God’s undershepherd because he spoke for God, enacted the plagues for God, and led the people out of Egypt that God’s people might be free to worship him.[18]

David became the shepherd king of Israel. When Samuel found David, he was a young boy not even old enough to serve in Israel’s army, out in a field tending sheep. Even Samuel did not go looking for a shepherd king, but as recorded in 1 Samuel 16:7 and 16:12 God is the one who looked into the shepherd’s heart and saw a king. In 2 Samuel 5:2, David is identified as both the shepherd and the king at the uniting of Israel. Laniak wrote, “Israel received its desired king, but only on the condition that it understand his role as derivative from and dependent upon the rule of YHWH, the flock’s true owner.”[19]

Pastoral Leadership in the New Testament

Moses’ leadership in the exodus and David’s leadership as the shepherd king set the context for Jesus who would lead God’s people out of spiritual bondage and become their messianic king. Mark 6:34 says, “When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  Laniak argued that Mark intentionally depicted Jesus as a shepherd using language of the exodus and the wilderness. 

Jesus is the good shepherd. In John 10:1-21, Jesus is on full display as the shepherd leader that he intends for his church. Here Jesus modeled what he expected of his shepherds and contrasted his expectations with the actions of the Pharisees from the prior chapter.[20] The good shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know him in 10:3-4. The good shepherd guides the sheep to good pasture in 10:9. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep as opposed to the hired hand who flees before the wolves in 10:11-13. Jesus was fulfilling the promise and prophecy of Micah 2:12-13 because Jesus is the legitimate shepherd who leads the sheep.[21]

Peter would later write reflecting on Jesus’ teachings that overseers are shepherds under the authority of the chief shepherd in 1 Peter 5:1. Peter began his epistle writing to all Christians, but he was carefully laying the foundation for the character of Jesus as shepherd. Peter noted that Jesus is the “shepherd and overseer of our souls” in 1 Peter 2:21-25. Thus, when Peter arrived to chapter five he had already surveyed the character and leadership of Christ that a shepherd must emulate. 

Finally, there is the eschatological destiny of the shepherd. In Revelation, Jesus is both lamb and shepherd. John wrote, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes.”[22] Jesus is the sacrificial lamb that shepherded his flock to spiritual salvation. In leading people to salvation, Jesus fulfilled the archetype of Moses’ shepherding Israel in the exodus. Furthermore, the lamb is on the throne of heaven. Thus, Jesus as messiah fulfilled the archetype of David as the shepherd king. Jesus is the chief shepherd, and the flock belongs to him.


The pastor is an elder of the church. He has spiritual maturity, and has withstood the highest level of scrutiny that he might be above reproach since he bears the undershepherd responsibility of Jesus. As an elder, he works in collaboration with the other elders of the church to shepherd the people to draw nearer to the chief shepherd who is Jesus. The flock of the congregation does not belong to him; he is an undershepherd and an extension like Moses.

A pastor may be an overseer. With only the concept of shepherd and elder, the pastor could potentially be a chaplain who spends most of his time petting and caring for the sheep. With the addition of the title overseer, the pastor becomes a leader. He must lead the flock to the pastures where the Good Shepherd wants them. Furthermore, the undershepherd is to aid in bringing more sheep into the fold as Jesus who was the sacrificial lamb and king. 

Finally, the pastor must remember that his role as an undershepherd is temporary. The eschatological future of the reigning shepherd, king Jesus is certain. He will gather his flock to himself, and he will no longer have need for the undershepherds. The pastors position is short and fleeting, because his goal is to deliver the flock to the shepherd of their souls. 


Akin, Daniel L., and R. Scott Pace. Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017.

Barry, John D. “Early Church Governance.” Edited by John D. Barry. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Dever, Mark E. “The Church.” In A Theology for the Church, edited by Daniel L. Akin, 766–856. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007.

Earley, Dave. Pastoral Leadership Is: How to Shepherd God’s People with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

Laniak, Timothy S. Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible. New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) 20. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Merkle, Benjamin L. “The Organization of the Church.” The Gospel Coalition. Accessed May 17, 2022. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-organization-of-the-church/.

[1] See Revelation 2:27, 12:5, and 19:15.

[2] Daniel L. Akin and R. Scott Pace, Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), 15.

[3] Acts 6:12 English Standard Version (ESV). All biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[4] Mark E. Dever, “The Church,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007), 800.

[5] Akin and Pace, Pastoral Theology, 154.

[6] John D. Barry, “Early Church Governance,” ed. John D. Barry, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[7] Akin and Pace, Pastoral Theology, 155.

[8] Dever, “The Church,” 156.

[9] Akin and Pace, Pastoral Theology, 153.

[10] Dever, “The Church,” 801.

[11] Akin and Pace, Pastoral Theology, 154. 

[12] Barry, “Early Church Governance.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dever, “The Church,” 799.

[15] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 87.

[16] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 84.

[17] See Exodus 33:15-16.

[18] Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 87.

[19] Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 102.

[20] Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 210.

[21] Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 213.

[22] John 7:17