Shepherds? Pastors?

A Study of the First Century 'Poimen'

One of the most frequent word pictures of God in Scripture is of a Shepherd of His people.

Later writers, particularly John and Peter, place Jesus in the same role.

Among the gifts the Christ gave His people following His resurrection was pastors (Eph. 4:11). There is something vital in the concept of shepherd or pastor that we need to understand. This concept of a shepherd is conveyed in scripture by the original word poimen (probably pronounced "poy-MAIN").

This is the second concept used to describe the epis-kopoi we studied in a previous article.' Poimen is usually translated shepherd, but one time as pastor (Eph. 4:11). Many have trouble properly understanding this word family, even as we also do episkopos. In my opinion, though the King James' translation committee blinded us to the real meaning of episkopos, it has been modern denominations which have contributed a major part to the confusion over the poimen word family.

Even though it appears only once in the English language New Testament (KJV), many religious groups have appropriated pastor as a title for their preacher or leader of their local congregation. Some churches avoid the term pastor altogether.

Having grown up in Church of Christ churches (some with a capital "C" and some with a small one), I have seen brothers carefully avoid the term pastor. It was easier not to use the word at all than to explain how "our definition" of pastor was different from its use in other churches. Can you question that since the original use of the term, there has been a change in meaning of this perfectly good word?

Some Definitions

Most dictionaries define pastor as: a minister or clergyman, one having spiritual care of a number of persons.

The adjective, pastoral, is something having to do with a pastor. It involves a minister, or a clergyman, or his duties.

A pastorate is the office of a pastor; or a body of pastors. Dictionaries are telling us that the pastor fills an office and holds some official position in the church organization. Only a slight "flavor" of feeding a flock ever appears in today's definitions.

What do the Greek experts say?

Strong's Concordance defines poimen, as a shepherd or a pastor, either a literal or figurative one. The work poimaino - is to tend as a shepherd or as a supervisor; to rule.

The respected Thayer says that the person is a herdsman, especially a shepherd. He also says, "In the parable of the shepherd, others have committed themselves to his care and control. They follow the shepherd's precepts." He concluded that the poimen is really "the presiding officer, manager, director, of any assembly; Christ the Head of the church is one, so are the overseers of the Christian assemblies pastors."

Thayer continues, saying that the pastor's work is "to feed, or to tend a flock, to keep sheep, to rule, to govern ... the church. To furnish pasturage or food; to nourish; to cherish one's body; to serve the body; to supply the requisites for the soul's needs."

Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich define the original word as a shepherd, a sheep-herder; one who leads the Christian churches. They said that a pastor "leads the Christian churches along with other church leaders (that is, the bishop)". By their definition, the work is "literally tend a flock... figuratively, the activity that protects, rules, governs, fosters ... the symbol prominently in mind; of the direction of a congregation ... of the administration of a congregation ... protect, care for, nurture."

There is no question but that, though these men are well educated in the original language of the New Testament, their perceptions have been vividly colored by both the usage of the King James Version and the practice of the Catholic and Protestant churches though the past 2000 years. It becomes obvious to me when I look at only their first definitions of each word. When I do that, I get shepherd; a herdsman; to feed; to tend a flock; sheep herder. That's exactly what this word family means.

However, they cannot help but put on their "church" glasses and tell us what the function is in the modern church. They forget the real meaning of the word and say these men are administrators, rulers, governors, they give precepts (laws) for others to follow. What a difference between what these men say and what God said! By no means were they ignorant men, but they were not aware of being subtly mislead.

The religious world including "restoration churches" has bought the whole package. Today these shepherds are no longer seen as what they were among the first century disciples. Instead, today they give precepts (laws) which others must either follow or be considered unfaithful to the Lord! Unfaithful to the Lord?! That idea just goes to show how insidious this doctrine has become. People shift logical gears without even realizing it. Being unfaithful to the precepts of men is not equivalent to being unfaithful to the Lord! (Mt. 15:9; Mk. 7:7; Col. 2:22). This is a modern tradition. We did not learn it from God! (2 Tim 2:15).

But who are these shepherds? What should they be? What should they do?

The Shepherd's Shepherd

Let us allow scripture to define its own terms.

In the Greek version of scripture quoted by Jesus and his contemporaries, the Psalmist used the same term when he said "the Lord is my Shepherd." If so, shouldn't our Lord be the example of what a poimen should be? As Peter puts it:

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd [poimen] and Guardian [episkopos] of your souls (1 Pet. 2:21-25).

In 1 Peter 5, Peter calls Jesus the "Chief Shepherd":

Shepherd the flock of God among you, not by way of compulsion but willingly according to God, nor from eagerness for base gain, but eagerly, nor as exercising lordship over the lots [those allotted to your care -- NASB], but becoming examples of the flock; and when the chief shepherd appears you will receive the unfading crown of gloryy (Marshall"s translation).

This passage teaches that Jesus is the primary One who looks after us. He watches intently so he may supply whatever we need. Another meaning is that our earthly poimen, who watch for us so they may supply our needs, have Jesus as their own example of what to do and how to care for the flock.

The poimen should shepherd the flock as the "chief shepherd" would. The persons, who in this capacity are serving others, should frequently ask themselves, "What would Jesus do in this situation?"

A Shepherd's Staff or a King's Scepter?

It seems to me that there is always a danger of mixing metaphors. When this happens, we consequently come up with a muddled picture doctrinal error. It has happened in this case, as well. Mixing pictures of Jesus Christ has invented error, which has been taught, believed and practiced.

We have several pictures of Jesus in scripture. One is the "shepherd picture". It shows us Jesus as a shepherd. He leads by example. He feeds. He tends. He cares for His sheep. He seeks the lost sheep. He heals the sick. He fends off enemies with His shepherd's staff.

Another picture is Jesus Christ as King. In it Jesus rules over all from the authority of His throne at God's right hand. He rules by precept (law). He is ruler over all others in this "king picture". In His right hand is His scepter, a sign of His position of power and authority to rule over all.

Shepherd and King these are separate and distinct pictures of our Lord, meant to teach us different aspects of His role in our lives. When we mix these metaphors, the result is error. Is it a mixing of these ideas of king and pastor which has given us today's church ruler instead of shepherds?

Perhaps it is, since these "rulers" sometimes seem confused about whether to feed the flock, or rule by their own laws. Whether to be out front, ahead of the flock, leading to green pastures and quiet, pure waters, or having the flock obey commands by being "under (oversight) rule". Whether to drive away the wolf with the shepherd's protecting staff, or to command the wolf to leave and enforce it with the scepter of authority.

Do you consider it strange that men were never told to imitate our Lord's kingship and His authority? His image as our Shepherd, Guide, Feeder, Care-Giver, Protector and Friend is the pattern for our own lives and for our poimen.

"The Good Shepherd"

Jesus teaches us about this relationship between the shepherd and sheep. In John 10:14, He relates an allegory of Himself:

But, he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out ...

As the "good shepherd" knows his sheep and his sheep know him, so it also should be with our earthly shepherds. They have a responsibility to those they lead. Just "being acquainted with" individual sheep is not enough! To the contrary, the good shepherd will know each individual well; will know their needs and supply them; will know the degree of spiritual maturity of each, in order to properly feed them; will know them enough to recognize when one is straying, the will "seek the lost" and bring them back into the flock.

Of course, this picture argues for small flocks of sheep with one shepherd each. How can the shepherds in today's larger and larger flocks give this kind of care and leadership?

In short, like Jesus, our earthly poimen should know each disciple in his care very well - well enough to know the needs, the hurts and losses, the joys and happinesses, the ambitions, the griefs and troubles of each. The shepherd needs to know everything there is to know about the well-being of each sheep in the flock so every needs can be supplied.

Perhaps you know men today who have been selected and designated by a church to serve as shepherds, and who are not capable of watching over many of the disciples in their care. There are sheep in the flock ("people in the pews"?) who could tend their shepherds much better than the tending they're getting. They study more, they have grown more, they spend more time guarding the souls of other disciples, they teach other disciples more than their shepherds are capable of doing ... and the list could (sadly) go on. So then, in cases like this, just who is feeding whom? Who is watching over whom? Who is the poimen? Just who is the "tend-er" and who is the "tend-ee"? Selecting and appointing someone to be a shepherd in a flock, certainly does not give the abilities needed to do so.

The followers of the Good Shepherd are loyal to Him.

And a stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers (Jn 10:5).

They follow him because he shows by his example that he is a worthy leader and should be followed:

This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which he had been saying to them (Jn. 10:6).

Even though he had been teaching these principles all along, the disciples still did not understand. Sadly, they are not alone! It seems to me that many today have the same trouble understanding and implementing what Jesus was telling his disciples. We prove our own lack of understanding by placing men in the role of poimen who are literal strangers to those they should lead men who do not know, and sometimes do not try to know, the real needs of the sheep in their care. Why do we wonder that they are not "followed"?

Our Lord makes shepherds, churches do not! Saying some words or holding some ceremony does not make a person capable of leading as the Chief Shepherd leads. Only the Lord can give those abilities. Men can only recognize and follow. The shepherd is the natural leader, the feeder, the one who nurtures and gives care, while driving away all danger. The true shepherd is the one who teaches, pastors, feeds. Not the one who believes it is his responsibility to carry the key to the thermostat lock box, but who is incapable of teaching.

Paul's Perfect Picture of Pastors

Luke relates the instructions of Paul to the Ephesian elders (presbuteros) as he was seeking them for the last time:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you careful watchers [episkopous], to shepherd [poimen] the assembly of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears (Acts 20:17-38).

These men are called watchmen (episkopoi), shepherds (poimen) and older ones (presbuteroi). Paul makes a strong comparison of their total responsibilities to the work of a literal shepherd. His entire discourse is pertinent to their work. Otherwise, it would not have made sense to have them come all the way from Ephesus to Melitus just to hear him speak in generalities.

Paul was an episkopos, a poimen, a presbuteros, himself. He reminded them of what he had done during three years among them, and held up his shepherding works as an example for their own activities. Please observe that he told them to imitate his own actions. They should work among disciples as he had done among them:

serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials ...

keeping back nothing that was profitable ...

teaching publicly and from house to house ...

solemnly teaching repentance and faith toward God and Christ ...

considering their own lives of no value compared to solemnly teaching the good news of the grace of God ...

being innocent of the blood of all men ...

admonishing night and day, tearfully ...

having no strong desire for anyone else's possessions or wealth ...

working to support both himself and others doing the Lord's work...

being an example of how they should work hard so they could supply the needs of the "ailing ones" (Marshall's translation) ... reminding them that the Lord said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" ...

Does this list sound like any spiritual shepherd that you know? This is not a life of managing, giving orders, adjusting the thermostat, issuing precepts, governing, ruling ... as some of the language experts have said.

No, please take off your "church glasses" so you, too, can see this person is not "appointed" to this work. Nor does an "appointment" cause one to become a vigilant, self-sacrificing, humble, giving, working, servant of the flock. Either one is or one is not. No "appointment" can change that. This shepherding business is a very difficult job, and it is difficult to fill. The job of shepherd is one of intense, sincere work. It is not an honorary position!

Paul told these Ephesians: "These are your responsibilities." Being "appointed" does not magically make one capable of doing them.

One of the characteristics Paul told Timothy that these people must have is:

He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the assembly of God?) (1 Tim. 3:4, 5);

To take care of manage is not in the modern sense of a "manager", but rather is translated from a word which means care, attention, to take care of a person or thing with the mind directed toward the object cared for. So it is vital that these leaders be capable of feeding, caring for, nurturing and bringing others to maturity, just as a father does his children.

To Titus, Paul expands the thought:

...holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not for the sake of sordid gain ... (Titus 1:9-11)

In caring for the flock, the one who is on guard, must be constantly vigilant, always willing to go even to the extreme of laying down his own life for the sake of those whom he watches over as the "good shepherd" does (Jn. 10:11).

One example for the shepherd is Paul, but the Supreme example is our Lord himself:

Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, Jesus our Lord... (Hebrews 13:20)

Our Jesus, our Great Shepherd and Watcher for our souls our poimen, our episkopos was never a manager over the business affairs of His disciples. Was He? (I recall that even someone else "carried the bag.")

So, what should our earthly shepherds be? Why should our poimen be relegated to such human trivialities as business manager, boss, ruler? There are hungry souls to be fed a diet ranging from milk to strong meat, ravening wolves to be recognized and driven away, and false teachers whose mouths must be stopped. There is danger to be recognized from among these shepherds themselves.

It seems to me such a tragedy that some of the flock's greatest enemies are wolves in shepherd's clothing.

Pray that God will have mercy on our souls!