Preliminary observations from ongoing research into the history and evolution of the word “pastor”
Eusebius’ magisterial work entitled Ecclesiastical History, written in four editions between 311-324AD, spans the history of the church from the time of Christ to the time of Constantine: about 300 years. The volume comprises a total of 10 books. Remarking on Eusebeius’ brilliance, Kirsopp Lake notes, “Part of his great claim to distinction is that when writing philosophy he never neglects history, or philosophy when writing history” (1926:xv).
Eusebius, himself a bishop of the church in Caesarea, uses the word ποιμήν as a title or an office of certain central figures who were recognized as having care for churches. In some places, the word is synonymous with bishop and elder. For example, “Of the martyrs in Phoenicia the most distinguished were those devoted pastors [gr. ποιμένες] of the spiritual flocks of Christ: Tyrannion, bishop of the church of Tyre; Zenobius, a presbyter of the church at Sidon; and Silvanus, bishop of the churches about Emesa” (H.E. VIII.13.3). In another place, it seems ποιμήν is distinct from the bishop and not as prominent in the ecclesial hierarchy, “Thereupon a very large synod assembled at Rome, of bishops in number sixty, and a great many more presbyters and deacons; while the pastors [gr. ποιμένων – genitive case] of the remaining provinces deliberated in their places privately concerning what ought to be done” (H.E. VI.43.2).
Those who held the title ποιμήν seemed to have responsibility for all believers in a city. There was generally only one ποιμήν as we see in Dionysius the ποιμήν of Corinth (H.E. III.4.11). Other prominent ποιμήν included Onesimus in Ephesus (H.E. III 36.5), Marcus in Alexandria (H.E. IV.11.6), and Cyprian of Carthage (VII.3.1). Their role seemed to include occasionally meeting with their peers to address issues of heresy as with Novatus (VI.43.2) and Paul of Samosata (H.E. VII.27.1).
In his 1904 translation of Ecclesiastical History, Arthur McGiffert exclusively translated ποιμήν as pastor. In Kirsopp Lake’s 1926 translation, the word is translated “shepherd” on two of the twelve occasions (III.37.3, IV.24.2). Of note in these passages, ποιμήν is distinguished from the apostles and evangelists.
In a comparable history of Christianity, Socrates of Constantinople (380-439AD) uses the accusative form of ποιμήν four times. Three of those instances refer to a person (H.E. I. 12, II.23). In Book I.12, the word is used twice and the English translator, A.C. Zenos, decided to translate the first instance as shepherd and the second as pastor. In this verse, Spyridon was clearly a bishop as is consistent with Eusebius’ understanding of the ποιμήν.
“With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd [gr. ποιμένα], that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor [gr. ποιμένα] of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric” (H.E. I.12)
In a single instance in Book II.10, ποιμένα is used to describe Christ as a shepherd.
The question arises as to why Eusebius and Socrates used the word ποιμήν at all. The New Testament uses ποιμήν 18 times and in only one instance is it used to refer to a position in the church (Eph 4:11) alongside of four other positions. One other time, the verb form of ποιμήν is used to describe what leaders did in caring for the Christians (1 Peter 5:2).
In 13 pieces of literature of the Apostolic Fathers dating from 67-180AD that I examined, the word ποιμήν is used once in reference to God being the shepherd of the church (Ignatius’ Letter to Romans 9), once in reference to Christ (Barnabas 5), and as a metaphor for those who lead a spiritual flock (Ignatius’ Letter to Philadelphians 2). All other references to church leadership use apostle (40+ times), prophet (50+ times), teacher (10+ times), bishop (80+ times), elder (30+ times), and deacon (30+ times).
Translators make decisions that occasionally reflect a personal interpretation, even bias, more than the original author’s intent. There is little doubt that Eusebius and Socrates were not thinking of a “pastor” in any sense of an understanding of their English translators. The inconsistency and apparent arbitrariness of indiscriminately using “pastor” betrays the consistent and precise use of ποιμήν in the New Testament as well as in the literature of the Apostolic Fathers.
Over the centuries, the unfortunate consequence of elevating “pastor” as a title has discriminated against other roles and functions in the church which were clearly present even in the time of Eusebius and Socrates. For example, Socrates writes about the continuing presence of the prophet and apostle in the third century, “Hence it was that a little while before the time of Constantine, a species of heathenish Christianity made its appearance together with that which was real; just as false prophets sprang up among the true, and false apostles among the true apostles” (I.22).
We are living in a period where the position of “pastor” is frequently assaulted. At times, the assaults are self-inflicted as evidenced by the moral failures of a few prominent contemporary pastors. At other times, the assault comes from denominational leaders judging the actions of a local congregation’s decisions on who can become a pastor. Still at other times, the assault is from various church and social pressures as Lifeway Research’s Greatest Needs of Pastors study revealed. Understanding the history of church leadership might prove instructive as a path forward.
The leadership of the early church, from its inception to the time of Constantine, exhibited a cooperative approach where bishops, elders, and deacons were partners in the work of the church. Ignatius of Antioch exhibited this idea when he continuously identified with the deacons even though he was a bishop (Letter to Magnesia 6). The work of the church consistently focused on ensuring the doctrine of Christ’s followers, especially belief about Jesus in the midst of a growing number of Christological heresies. The work encouraged Christians to act properly with each other as well as in the community. In essence, early church leadership focused on the spiritual care of the believers and their reputation in the world.
That leadership worked in concert with apostles and evangelists who were also members of the church and continued to advance the gospel around the world through planting more churches. Eusebius records,
“Then starting out upon long journeys they [apostles] performed the office of evangelists, being filled with the desire to preach Christ to those who had not yet heard the word of faith, and to deliver to them the divine Gospels. And when they had only laid the foundations of faith in foreign places, they appointed others as shepherds, and entrusted them with the nurture of those that had recently been brought in, while they themselves went on again to other countries and peoples, with the grace and the co-operation of God. For a great many wonderful works were done through them by the power of the divine Spirit, so that at the first hearing whole multitudes of people eagerly embraced the religion of the Creator of the universe.” (H.E. III.37)
The cooperation between all church leadership (bishop, elder, deacon, apostle, prophet, evangelist, and teacher) is critical in the proper formation and health of εκκλησία. In our current ministry climate, this might demand a readjustment of ministry focus. To properly align with the New Testament and subsequent examples in church history, the church today should focus in at least four primary areas: theological education that ensures proper Christology (the role of the teacher); care for the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation (the role of the shepherd, aka ποιμήν); justice in the community as a way to establish the reputation of Christianity (the role of the prophet); and church planting for the ongoing expansion of the gospel locally and around the world (the role of the apostle and evangelist).
ποιμήν in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History
III.4.11 – Dionysius of Corinth
III 36.5 – Onesimus of Ephesus
III.37.3 – “And when they had only laid the foundation of the faith in foreign places, they appointed others as pastors [shepherds in Lake, gr. ποιμένας] and entrusted them with the nurture of those that had recently been brought in, while they themselves went on again to other countries and nations, with the grace and the cooperation of God.”
IV.11.6 – Marcus in Alexandria
IV.24.2 – “And as the heretics, no less then than at other times, were like tares, destroying the pure harvest of apostolic teaching, the pastors [shepherds in Lake, gr. ποιμένες] of the churches everywhere hastened to restrain them as wild beasts from the fold of Christ, at one time by admonitions and exhortations to the brethren, at another time by contending more openly against them in oral discussions and refutations, and again by correcting their opinions with most accurate proofs in written works.”
VI.43.2 – “Thereupon a very large synod assembled at Rome, of bishops in number sixty, and a great many more presbyters and deacons; while the pastors [gr. ποιμένων] of the remaining provinces deliberated in their places privately concerning what ought to be done.” Regarding Novatus.
VII.3.1 – Cyprian of Carthage
VII.27.1 – “But all the other pastors [gr. ποιμένες] of the churches from all directions, made haste to assemble at Antioch, as against a despoiler of the flock of Christ.” In regards to Paul of Samosata.
VII.30.1 – “The pastors [gr. ποιμένες] who had assembled about this matter, prepared by common consent an epistle addressed to Dionysius, bishop of Rome, and Maximus of Alexandria, and sent it to all the provinces.” Regarding Paul of Samosata’s heresy of the nature of Christ
VII.32.12 – “The church of Laodecia was honored by two such pastors [gr. ποιμένων] in succession, who, in the providence of God, came after the aforesaid was from Alexandrian to that city.”
VIII.13.3 – “Of the martyrs in Phoenicia the most distinguished were those devoted pastors [gr. ποιμένες] of the spiritual flocks of Christ: Tyrannion, bishop of the church of Tyre; Zenobius, a presbyter of the church at Sidon; and Silvanus, bishop of the churches about Emesa.”
X.4.1 – “A certain one of those of moderate talent who had composed a discourse, stepped forward in the presence of many pastors [gr. ποιμένων] who were assembled as if for a church gathering, and while they attended quietly and decently, he addressed himself as follows to one who was in all things a most excellent bishop and beloved of God, through whose zeal the temple in Tyre, which was the most splendid in Phoenicia, had been erected.”
ποιμήν in Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History
I.12 – “With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd [gr. ποιμένα], that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor [gr. ποιμένα] of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric.”
II.10 – And in one Lord Jesus Christ, his Son, God the only-begotten, through whom all things were made: begotten of the Father before all ages, God of God, Whole of Whole, Only of Only, Perfect of Perfect, King of King, Lord of Lord; the living Word, the Wisdom, the Life, the True Light, the Way of Truth, the Resurrection, the Shepherd [gr. ποιμένα], the Gate; immutable and inconvertible; the unaltering image of the Divinity, Substance and Power, and Counsel and Glory of the Father; born ‘before all creation’; who was in the beginning with God, God the Word, according as it is declared in the Gospel,273 and the Word was God, by whom all things were made, and in whom all things subsist: who in the last days came down from above, and was born of the virgin according to the Scriptures; and was made man, the Mediator between God and men, the Apostle of our Faith, and the Prince of Life, as he says,274 ‘I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.’
II.23 – “And rejoice in having attained the object of your prayers, you who have supplied with meat and drink, by your supporting letters, your pastor [gr. ποιμένα] hungering and thirsting, so to speak, for your spiritual welfare.”
Interested in more church history? Coming this Fall from Ephesiology Masterclasses
Practices of the Ancient Church
Practices of the Ancient Church will challenge students to consider the practices, apologetics, theology, and conciliar nature of the church in her first two centuries. The course focuses on ancient writings that solidified apostolic traditions contained in the New Testament and combatted the emerging threats of the many forms of Gnosticism as well as other heresies. Students will see the emergence of a conciliar theology that was held everywhere, by everyone, for all time, especially manifesting in the atonement idea of Christus Victor. Additionally, students will identify a historical thread that ties Christianity of the 21st century back to the Christianity of the late 1st to 2nd centuries.
You must be logged in to post a comment.