How Christians Change Words

I am doing a study on how Christians use words, taking a look at reading some of the Inklings, namely Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis. But I ran into this nugget from a blog post by Logos software bible scholar, Mark Ward, author of the extraordinary Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, that I reviewed last summer.

So, what is a “pastor?” Furthermore, what is an “elder?”

I have already written about that elusive term “elder.” So, let us focus on the former here.

Oddly enough, for the word “pastor,” the venerable King James Bible (KJV) only uses that exact word once in the whole Bible, Ephesians 4:11. Otherwise, the term “pastor,” from the Greek word poimen, is translated as “shepherd,” as in being a shepherd of sheep.

Notice that in Ephesians 4:11, the word pastor does not describe an office, but rather a particular spiritual gift. Elsewhere, the concept of pastor/shepherd describes a certain function in the church. Notably, that same concept of shepherding is used to describe the function of the elders (from the Greek, presbyters) of the church in Ephesus, who are charged by Paul (Acts 20), to care for the flock, and protect them from spiritual wolves, that threaten to come in and devour the sheep (Acts 20:28-30).

The word elder, and its related term, overseer, do correspond to a type of office in the church, as in 1 Timothy 3, as one who is “able to teach,” “not a recent convert,” and so on. This meshes well with the function of pastoring the flock.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, or beating it to death, ponder a moment again about that word elder. Oddly though, Christians today typically do not always regard the word elder has having the same sense of pastor. Often, we split the concept of elder from pastor. Many churches will have a group of elders, but those elders are different than the pastor or pastors, which can be really confusing.

Then there is the term overseer. The old King James Version translation of that Greek word, episcopos, “bishop,” does get used by different denominational groups. Furthermore, for those traditions that tend to predate the Reformation, there is the terminology of priest, that is sort of, but not quite, synonymous with the Protestant pastor, but that is another whole intricate discussion.

But for some odd reason, the term pastor appears to win out, above them all, to describe the leader of a church, in many evangelical circles. I typically hear someone called “Pastor Bob,” but never “Shepherd Bob,” and only sometimes “Elder Bob.” Never have I heard someone called “Overseer Bob,” or “Church Leader Bob,” despite the fact that most modern translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 speak of the word overseer or the phrase church leader, to describe an elder. Rarely do you hear “Elder Bob” mentioned as the “Pastor.”

As Mark Ward points out, this is an example of when a metaphor, becomes so stable over time, that it effectively becomes a whole new word. If I could pay money to get every student of the Bible to grasp this, I would surely go broke.

To be a pastor was once used to describe a practice in animal husbandry. Now a pastor has become almost exclusively an ecclesiastical term. You rarely see a shepherd caring for their flock of sheep, in industrial, modern societies. But when observed, I never hear the term pastor used, only shepherd.

A pastor is nowadays almost always a “religious” term.

What was once a metaphor to describe the function of an office, has now become the office itself. Rightly or wrongly, that is what Christians do to words. Language changes.

…..Which just goes to prove that a lot of the discussions we have in our churches today about church governance can be exceedingly difficult, when we do not share a common vocabulary, by not recognizing how metaphors change character over time, to create new meanings.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: