Pastor or Minister?

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Is the person up front every Sunday morning a pastor?  Or are they a minister?  Does it make a difference?  To most people, it probably doesn’t make a difference.  Maybe it shouldn’t.  But I want to take a few paragraphs to explain my personal conviction of why those who are up front each week (and others who are involved in pastoral ministry) should be called pastors rather than ministers.

As I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, I’m currently working through the book of Ephesians.  At one point in this beautiful book, Paul writes,

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son ofGod, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 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.

Eph. 4:11-14

In this passage, Paul is referring to gifts that God has given his church.  And contrary to most ‘spiritual gifts’ passages, the gifts in view here are offices within the church.  Without getting into the debates about the current existence of apostles (there aren’t any), prophets (no comment), and evangelists (definitely), I want to focus only on the final two (or one) office: shepherds and teachers (or shepherd-teahcers).  This is akin to the modern-day office of pastor in the church.  And that’s the term that is used here: shepherd, or pastor.

It is significant that Paul doesn’t refer to this office as a ‘minister’ but rather a shepherd for two primary reasons.

First, the term shepherd or pastor more accurately describes what the pastor does.  The biblical image of a shepherd is one that is used throughout Scripture for the leaders of God’s people.  In the Old Testament, Israel’s leaders (both secular and spiritual) were referred to as shepherds (cf. Ezek. 34 for a nasty indictment of Israel’s leadership).  This term is used in the New Testament as well for those who guide God’s people spiritually under the direction of Jesus himself (cf. 1 Peter 5).

Second, and more importantly, it is significant that Paul uses this term because of what comes next.  In v. 12, Paul describes why God has given these gifts to the church: to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.  Why is it important to not call pastors ‘ministers’?  Because all of God’s people are ministers.  We are all involved in the work of the ministry, not just those who are up front on Sunday mornings.  When we refer to pastors as ‘ministers,’ we are implicitly stating that the work of ministry is only done by a select few, and that the recipients of this ministry are those who attend the church.  But that’s not the case at all!  All Christians by definition are involved in ministry; pastors are there to guide and shepherd and equip those who do the actual ministry–to one another, and to those in their communities.  This does not mean that pastors aren’t involved in ministry; no, as God’s people they too should be involved in ministry; but that ministry is done in addition to or as a part of their ministry of equipping the saints.

Before people object, I want to make it clear that this is a bit of an overstatement.  I realize that this is much more of a ‘cultural’ or ‘traditional’ thing (neither of which is bad) rather than a theological thing.  It is my personal conviction that the implications of what we call those in vocational ministry are significant enough to be intentional in our choice of words, but I also don’t think that people are necessarily wrong when they call a ‘pastor’ a ‘minister.’  I would encourage a thoughtful reflection on the theological language that one is using, and that those who refer to their pastors as ‘ministers’ prayerfully consider calling them ‘pastor’.


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