No one in the leadership of the early church was called by the title “Pastor.” The word used was poimen, a shepherd or herdsman. Metaphorically it implied a leader who could feed, guard and otherwise tend the flock. The title described the function.
The more I learned of the responsibility of being a pastor, the more I realized it was primarily a description, not a title. This simple observation, I believe, highlights most of the problem with titles. If we viewed them as a description of ministry rather than a mark of honor, we would use them more sparingly and with greater discernment.
This line of thinking made me realize that there are quite a few titles that I wasn’t sure I really understood. Defining the terms refines my approach to my own calling and to the leaders I associate with in church life. In the definition, we can get a much better idea of when the title is warranted—and when it should not be acknowledged. To properly evaluate a leader, that is, to “consider the outcome of their way of life” (Hebrews 13:7), one needs to understand the leader’s responsibilities and authority. This is as important to the rest of the congregation as it is to those striving to be good leaders.
There are probably some that I’ve missed in this collection, but these are the ones I’ve most often encountered. I begin with the names given in Ephesians 4:11, frequently called the five-fold ministry. Some of these terms are translations from the original biblical languages. Others are of more recent origin, but have become associated with church leadership. Some are primarily Protestant, some Catholic, and some Orthodox, though there is considerable overlap. Please feel free to send me any additional titles that would be appropriate for this study.
Apostle—apostolos: One sent as a messenger or agent, the bearer of a commission. The defining element of an apostle is the aspect of being sent. The twelve apostles were first called apostles when they were sent out in pairs. The name indicated their mission, not some special designation of status. It did not take long before the twelve were honored and revered to such an extent that the title was imbued with reverence, but ultimately, it just means one who is sent with a message. The term missionary is probably the closest modern analogy, though it is not identical. (For a more detailed study of “apostle” see the Word Study: apostolos.)
Prophet—prophetes: In ancient Greek literature, this word denoted an interpreter of oracles or of other hidden things. The biblical counterpart had a similar function. A prophet is a spokesman for another or an interpreter for a deity. The Old Testament word, nabiy’, means an inspired person.
Evangelist—euaggelistes: One who announces glad tidings, a bringer of good news. The word, as it is used in the New Testament, is a little ambiguous. Timothy, who is not otherwise called an evangelist, is instructed to “do the work of an evangelist.” The sense is that an evangelist brings a message of hope, joy and encouragement. It has become associated today primarily with itinerant ministries, but that is hardly the essence of the term. Most traveling preachers in my experience, given the tone and content of their message, act more in the role of a prophet than an evangelist.
Pastor—poimen: One who tends flocks or herds, who acts as a guardian, a shepherd or herdsman.
Teacher—didaskalos: This term simply means teacher or master.
Bishop (sometimes translated “overseer”)—episkopos: An inspector, overseer, a watcher, guardian. An overseer is a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly. Inherent in the term is the idea of investigation and inspection. An overseer functions as a manager, helping people to find their place and coordinate their efforts for maximum effectiveness.
Elder—presbuteros: Elder or senior, older and more advanced in years. This term refers to those whose age and experience has brought them wisdom. They are looked to as leaders primarily because they have proven that they have wisdom. The terms elder and overseer or bishop are used in the New Testament almost interchangeably.
Deacon—diakonos: One who renders service to another. This term is perhaps one of the most poorly understood of the words denoting leaders. A deacon has come to mean a person who ranks just below a priest or who helps the pastor with various functions, a man who executes the commands of another. In Protestant churches, this is often relegated to things like building maintenance. The word itself, however, just means servant. It is the same word that is translated “Minister.” Any genuine minister is a deacon by definition.
Preacher—kerux: A herald, public messenger, in the New Testament, a proclaimer or publisher. The content of a preacher’s message is different from teaching. It involves exhortation, admonition and encouragement. Modern terminology often makes a distinction between teaching, which is the conveying of information, and preaching, which is considered more inspirational. The New Testament terms are pretty close to this distinction.
Reverend: A term that did not come into use until about the fifteenth century, deriving from a French origin. It essentially means “worthy of respect.”
Clergy: Another word derived from French, with roots in Latin. Clergy were clerics or learned men with great knowledge. The word referred to the office or dignity of a clergyman.
Priest: The English word priest derives from the Greek word presbuteros, or elder. This gives some idea of the early association of wisdom from experience being a part of the character of a priest. At some point, however, “priest” and “elder” became separated and the word priest became the English translation of the Hebrew word kohen, the Greek word hiereus, and the Latin word sacerdos. Each of these has a similar meaning. The Hebrew priest was defined as someone who stands in the place of another and pleads his case. Both the Greek and the Latin words referred to someone who performs sacred rites. The Latin concept also included the word pontifex, who was a priest of the highest ranking college. Pontifex was associated with bridge building, largely because in pagan practice, a river was considered to be a god and before building a bridge, a priest had to be involved in order to make sure the river god was appeased. All of these meanings involve acting as the liaison between God and man, that is, helping people connect with and communicate with God. Believers in the early church embraced the concept of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5, 9), not just the leaders. This was not much different from the Jewish idea of a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6).
Father—pater: Ancestor, founder of a race, remote progenitor. Originally used of clergy to show respect, the term indicates a source or origin. A Father is looked upon as the person through whom spiritual life, blessing and understanding flow to his followers.
Abbot/Abbess: Derived from the Aramaic abba, an endearing reference to father. As such, they started with the same connotations as father, but came to be used as a title of honor.
Cardinal: Originally Latin, meaning principal, chief, essential. The use in church began when the elders of the church in Rome were referred to as the presbyters of the chief or cardinal church of Rome.
Pope: Originally from the Greek, the word simply meant patriarch or bishop.
Patriarch: The leader of the Orthodox church, however, this position is not viewed in the same way as the Catholic Church perceives the Pope. A Patriarch was considered as one of a counsel of overseers, the leader among equals.
Monk: A term from the Middle Ages that referred to a religious hermit. The name means “alone.”
Friar: A word similar to monk, but with different nuances. It means “brother.”
Rabbi: Not used in Christianity, but the early church, being Jewish, recognized the use of this title. It means Master, or learned one.
These terms are used today without much thought about their meaning or the function that they are intended to describe. By considering the descriptive qualities, we get a much better picture of what leaders are supposed to be doing. It is of interest to note that the further a term’s meaning is removed from a biblical source, the more it becomes associated with honor and respect and the less it has to do with ministry and service.