The Plurality of Gifts and the Importance of Pastors: Towards a More Polycentric, Polyvocal, Intercultural Church

by | Dec 15, 2023 | Bible & Theology, Bible Devotional Series | 0 comments

I hear people questioning the use of the term “pastor” and its biblical basis these days. I also hear people asking for more diverse, polycentric, and team-oriented approaches to ministry. In this post, I start by exploring the importance of the role of “pastor” and then discuss how we can move toward more polycentric forms of ministry.

The Biblical Case for the Importance of the Pastoral Role

The argument that the term “pastor” is used only once in the Bible, hence questioning its significance, oversimplifies the complexity of Biblical language and interpretation. The reason the term “pastor” has persisted in the English language is not some kind of “fraud” but because the term has solid and well-known biblical foundations. While it’s true that the English term “pastor” appears once in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11 in many translations), this doesn’t mean the role and function it represents are similarly limited. Here’s why:

1. Translation and Language Variance: The Bible was not originally written in English but in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The English term “pastor” translates from the Greek word “poimen,” which literally means “shepherd.” This term, and its related verb form “poimaino” (to shepherd), appear numerous times throughout the New Testament, often in contexts clearly referring to the spiritual leadership of the Church (e.g., John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2).

2. Conceptual Continuity: The role of a pastor is closely associated with other Biblical terms such as “elder” (presbuteros) and “overseer” (episkopos), which are used interchangeably in passages like Titus 1:5-7 and Acts 20:17,28. These roles, including the pastor, collectively refer to the same office of spiritual leadership within the Church, so their frequency and function must be considered holistically.

3. Shepherd Metaphor: The Bible often uses the metaphor of a shepherd for leaders who care for, guide, and protect God’s people. This is true in the Old and New Testaments (Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, John 10). The pastoral role embodies this shepherding function, even if the specific term “pastor” isn’t always used.

4. Contextual Interpretation: Biblical interpretation is not simply about counting word occurrences but understanding the text’s concepts, principles, and themes. Even if a term is mentioned just once, it can carry substantial weight if it is deeply embedded in a significant theological context, like the pastoral role in Ephesians 4:11-16.

Therefore, while it may be tempting to discount the role of the pastor based on a single direct reference, such a view fails to consider the richness and depth of Biblical language, context, and metaphor. The pastoral role is deeply embedded in the Biblical narrative and theological instruction, far beyond the isolated use of the English term “pastor.”

The term “pastor” carries deep historical and theological significance, deeply rooted in the Christian faith. To appreciate this term’s true meaning, it is essential to understand its Biblical basis and foundation.

The term “pastor” originates from the Latin word “pascere,” which means “to feed.” It is derived from the metaphor of shepherding, which is prominent in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It signifies one who tends to, cares for, and guides a flock, the flock metaphorically representing the congregation.

In the Old Testament, shepherding is used as a metaphor for leadership. One of the most well-known illustrations is found in Psalm 23, where King David describes the Lord as his shepherd, guiding him to green pastures and still waters. This shepherd role assumes the duties of protection, guidance, and provision, thus setting the tone for pastoral responsibilities. The prophet Ezekiel also draws upon this metaphor in chapter 34, where Israel’s leaders are rebuked for failing to shepherd their people properly.

The New Testament deepens the meaning of “pastor” by connecting it to the person and work of Jesus Christ. In John 10:11, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This statement, which denotes self-sacrifice for the flock’s welfare, further establishes the pastoral role’s expectations.

Moreover, the term “pastor” is explicitly mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-13, where the Apostle Paul lists pastors among the gifts given to the Church for its edification and the believers’ spiritual maturity. The pastoral role, as presented in Ephesians, includes teaching and guiding the church in understanding and applying the Word of God.

1 Peter 5:1-4 provides additional insight into the role and responsibilities of a pastor. Peter exhorts elders (a term used interchangeably with “pastor” in the New Testament) to shepherd God’s flock willingly, not for dishonest gain, but eager to serve. The passage concludes with the promise of an unfading crown of glory awaiting faithful shepherds, highlighting the reward for those who undertake pastoral responsibilities seriously and sincerely.

Moreover, pastoral responsibilities are underscored in Paul’s pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). These letters give specific instructions about how pastors should lead, teaching sound doctrine, promoting godliness, and refuting those who contradict the truth.
These references make it clear that the term “pastor” finds its basis and foundation in the Bible. It illustrates the responsibilities of spiritual leadership and points to the divine example of shepherding set by Jesus Christ Himself. The role of a pastor, then, is not merely a professional title; it is a sacred vocation, a divine calling to nurture, instruct, guide, and protect the spiritual well-being of the Church.

Therefore, the Biblical basis of the term “pastor” is significant for understanding the Church’s leadership structure. It also serves as an instructional model for those called to pastoral service. This model emphasizes the crucial virtues of humility, self-sacrifice, service, love, and steadfast adherence to the Word of God.

Here is an outline of the biblical basis for the term “pastor.”

1. Ephesians 4:11-12: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” This verse explicitly mentions the term “shepherds,” translated as “pastors” in some versions, indicating that pastors are a divine provision for the Church’s edification.

2. Jeremiah 3:15: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” Here, God’s promise to provide shepherds (or pastors) emphasizes the pastoral role’s knowledge and understanding provision, reinforcing the pastor’s role as a spiritual teacher and guide.

3. 1 Peter 5:1-4: “So I exhort the elders among you… shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight… And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” This passage provides a clear model for pastoral leadership and reiterates the shepherd imagery, linking the term “elder” to the pastoral role.

4. Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The role of the pastor is further emphasized here as Paul tells the elders (pastors) to shepherd (care for) the Church, underscoring the pastoral duty of spiritual oversight.

5. John 21:15-17: In this passage, Jesus commands Peter to “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.” While the term “pastor” is not used explicitly, Jesus uses shepherd language to describe the pastoral role of feeding (teaching) and tending (guiding and caring for) the flock.

6. 1 Timothy 3:1-7: Here, Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers (also known as bishops or elders), essentially providing a job description for pastors. This passage supports the pastoral role by defining its responsibilities and moral qualifications.

7. Titus 1:5-9: Like the passage in Timothy, Paul gives Titus the task of appointing elders (pastors) in every town and provides a list of qualifications and responsibilities these individuals should possess. It validates the pastoral role and sets a standard for those aspiring.

8. Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” This verse emphasizes the authority of pastoral leaders and the immense responsibility they carry for the souls under their care.
Examining these passages shows that the term “pastor” (or its semantic equivalents: elder, overseer, shepherd) has robust Biblical support. The verses highlight different aspects of the pastoral role, including teaching, guidance, care, authority, and the moral and spiritual qualifications necessary for the position.

In conclusion, the term “pastor” has a profound Biblical basis and foundation. The Bible paints a picture of pastors as shepherds of God’s flock, responsible for their spiritual guidance, growth, and protection. Consequently, the pastoral role becomes a profound calling that requires deep commitment and dedication. Understanding this Biblical basis helps us appreciate the immense responsibility and honour associated with the term and the service it represents.

Moving Beyond a Focus on One Ministry Function or Office

In many contemporary churches, there exists all-encompassing labelling of paid church workers as ‘pastors.’ This monolithic terminology often constricts the understanding and execution of church ministry to a singular pastoral model, often embodied by the ‘Senior Pastor,’ who becomes the primary vision caster, decision-maker, and shepherd. However, this tendency to funnel all church duties through the pastoral lens can overlook the diversity of spiritual gifts referenced in Ephesians 4 and other biblical passages, ultimately limiting the church’s potential for a more inclusive, diverse, and empowered ministry.

Moving Beyond the ‘Single-Gifted Pastor’ Paradigm

A crucial step towards a more diverse and polyvocal church lies in deconstructing the archetype of the ‘single-gifted pastor.’ This model often hinged on a male figure akin to the Old Testament ‘anointed one,’ risks reducing the multiplicity of spiritual gifts and roles within the church to a narrow, one-dimensional vision of ministry.

In Ephesians 4:11-12, the Apostle Paul outlines a multiplicity of roles—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Each of these roles carries unique gifts for the edification and equipping of the saints. Churches should consider how to cultivate an environment that encourages and empowers people to discern and exercise their specific spiritual gifts rather than pushing everyone into a pastoral mould.

Embracing Unity in Diversity

A transition towards a more diverse and inclusive ministry model requires embracing unity in diversity. This approach echoes the nature of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—distinct yet perfectly united and mirrors the diverse yet interconnected Body of Christ.

This means promoting a more humble, collegial leadership style marked by mutual submission, respect, and collaboration. Instead of a top-down approach, where one senior pastor directs the vision and operations, decisions should be made collectively, allowing different voices and perspectives to be heard.

The Body Concept: Valuing Every Member

The body concept in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is an essential framework for a more inclusive and effective church. In these passages, Paul uses the metaphor of a body to explain how each member of the church, like each part of a body, has a unique role to play.

No part is insignificant or disposable; all are needed for the body to function properly. When churches recognize and affirm the unique contributions of each member, they can foster a healthier, more vibrant community that reflects the body concept described by Paul.

Towards a Polyvocal, Polycentric, Team-Focused Model of Ministry

To achieve these objectives, churches should consider adopting a polyvocal, polycentric team model of ministry. This approach recognizes different members’ unique roles, voices, and gifts and allows for a more flexible, mission-oriented ministry.

Instead of maintaining a static, ‘modal’ church that primarily cares for insiders, churches should aim to be ‘sodal,’ equipping believers for mission and reaching out to those on the fringes or outside the church. This can help the church maintain a healthy inward focus while being outward-oriented, fulfilling the dual call to nurture believers and share the gospel with the world.

So, while the ‘pastor’ role has its place in the church, the richness of church ministry cannot be encapsulated by this single term or role. The ministry model outlined in Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and elsewhere in the New Testament suggests a more diverse, collaborative, and empowering approach. By embracing this model, churches can become more inclusive, effective, and faithful to their biblical mandate.

The Biblical Case for Polycentric, Polyvocal, Intercultural Ministry Teams

The biblical case for diverse, polycentric, intercultural teams in ministry rests on several scriptural principles that underscore the importance of diversity, collaboration, and shared leadership in the church.

The Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31): Perhaps the most potent biblical image advocating for a diverse, polycentric ministry model is Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body. He explains that just as a body is composed of many different parts, each with its unique function, the church comprises diverse members with distinct gifts and roles. None is superior or inferior; all are essential for the body to function correctly. This image suggests a polycentric model of leadership, where different leaders, like different body parts, have unique but equally important roles.

The Gifts of the Spirit (Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Ephesians 4:11-16): These passages outline a variety of spiritual gifts that God gives to believers, including teaching, prophecy, apostleship, leadership, and others. The diversity of these gifts suggests that God intends a variety of roles and functions within the church. This not only allows for diverse teams but necessitates them if all these gifts are to be used effectively.

Shared Leadership in the Early Church (Acts 6:1-7, Acts 13:1-3, Acts 15): We see multiple instances of shared leadership in the book of Acts. When the apostles could not manage all the church’s responsibilities, they appointed seven men to take over certain duties (Acts 6:1-7). Later, in Acts 13, the Holy Spirit directs the church in Antioch to set apart Paul and Barnabas for missionary work, a decision reached by a group of prophets and teachers. Then, in Acts 15, we see the leaders of the early church meeting together to make crucial decisions about the direction of the church. These examples highlight the collaborative, polycentric nature of leadership in the early church.

The Priesthood of All Believers (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10): This concept suggests that all believers have a role in ministering to others and representing God to the world, not just a special class of priests or pastors. This idea supports a polycentric model by emphasizing the value and responsibility of all members, not just those in official leadership positions.

Mutual Submission and Service (Philippians 2:1-11, Ephesians 5:21): The New Testament calls believers to mutual submission and humility, following the example of Christ, who took on the role of a servant. This critiques hierarchical leadership models and supports a model where leadership is shared, and leaders are first and foremost servants.

So, while the specific structures and titles we use in the church today may not all be found in the Bible, the principles of diverse, polycentric, and collaborative leadership are deeply biblical. They reflect the nature of the Body of Christ, the variety of the gifts of the Spirit, the practices of the early church, the priesthood of all believers, and the call to mutual submission and service.

Conclusion: Valuing the Role of ‘Pastor’ While Pursuing Polycentric, Intercultural Ministry Teams

The Bible values the role of ‘pastor’, and so should we. But we must also develop polycentric, intercultural ministry teams to promote holistic mission and ministry, the ministries of the whole Body of Christ, the gifts of the Spirit, shared leadership, the priesthood of all believers, and mutual submission and service.

A polycentric, polyvocal, intercultural Christian ministry team is a dynamic group of Christian leaders embodying diverse cultural backgrounds, spiritual gifts, and roles, all working collaboratively towards a shared mission.

‘Polycentric’ emphasizes the team’s multiple leadership points, reflecting a distributed model where leadership is shared and decentralized rather than focused on a single individual or role. Regardless of their specific role or gift, each leader is valued for their unique contribution to the team’s mission.

‘Polyvocal’ underscores the multitude of voices within the team. Each team member is encouraged to express their perspectives, insights, and experiences, fostering a rich dialogue that strengthens decision-making and enhances their capacity to connect with diverse groups. Including multiple voices also mitigates the risk of a single narrative or perspective dominating the team’s approach, thus creating a more balanced and inclusive ministry.

‘Intercultural’ denotes the team’s diverse cultural composition and commitment to intercultural competence. The team values and leverages the cultural diversity of its members, appreciating the distinct nuances that different cultures bring to the understanding of scripture, faith, and practice. This diversity enriches the team’s ability to minister in an increasingly multicultural world, enabling them to connect with, understand, and effectively serve people from various cultural backgrounds.

This model of Christian ministry moves beyond traditional, hierarchical structures and towards a more inclusive, collaborative, and culturally sensitive approach that reflects the diversity and unity of the Body of Christ. It draws on the rich tapestry of gifts, perspectives, and experiences within the team to create a more effective, adaptive, and resilient ministry.

May we value the pastoral role while developing polycentric mission and ministry teams.

Graham Joseph Hill


Appendix: Functions or Offices?

Understanding the pastoral role as either a “function” or an “office” is a subject of debate within Christian theology, and both perspectives have biblical and theological arguments in their favour.

1. Pastor as a Function

This perspective views the pastor as a person performing certain roles or duties within the community of faith.

Biblical and Theological Arguments For:

The term “pastor” derives from the Latin for “shepherd,” suggesting an active, caretaking role. The Bible often uses shepherding metaphors (e.g., Psalm 23; John 10) to describe spiritual leadership, indicating the functional role of a pastor.

In Ephesians 4:11-12, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are listed as roles given “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry.” This suggests a functional understanding, where these roles are gifts from Christ to help the church grow and function.

Biblical and Theological Arguments Against:

This view could lead to overemphasising the performance aspect, potentially fostering a consumer mentality among congregation members, who view the pastor’s role as simply providing services.

The New Testament speaks of elders (presbyteroi) and overseers (episkopoi), indicating more permanent, official positions, which could be interpreted as offices rather than mere functions.

2. Pastor as an Office

This perspective understands the pastor as an official position or office within the church, often imbued with a certain authority.

Biblical and Theological Arguments For:

Passages such as 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 discuss the qualifications and duties of elders/overseers in a way that implies an official office. The people holding these positions are expected to be of good character and able to teach and lead.

The laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6) suggests a formal installation or ordination into an office.

Biblical and Theological Arguments Against:

Viewing pastoral ministry solely as an office could risk creating a rigid, hierarchical church structure that may not reflect the mutual edification and diverse spiritual gifts described in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12.

The term “pastor” itself is not used extensively in the New Testament, which could suggest that it was not understood as a formal office in the early church.

3. Majority Consensus

The majority consensus among Christian denominations often depends on their particular traditions and interpretations of the Bible. Many Protestant traditions, particularly those with an evangelical or free church tradition (like Baptists or Pentecostals), lean towards the “function” interpretation. They emphasize the priesthood of all believers and spiritual gifts and may not have as structured a hierarchy. On the other hand, more liturgical and traditional Protestant denominations (like Lutherans or Anglicans), as well as Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, tend to view the pastoral role more as an “office,” emphasizing apostolic succession and a more formal church hierarchy.

That said, it’s important to note that the dichotomy isn’t absolute. Many churches and theologians see aspects of function and office in the pastoral role. They might say that pastors have an official position within the church (office) but that this position involves carrying out certain tasks and roles (function).

4. The Same Debate Exists for Other Ministry Functions or Roles

The debate about viewing certain roles as a “function” or an “office” can be applied to other ministries within the church, such as those of apostle, prophet, teacher, and evangelist. The nature of these roles and their function or office status can be interpreted differently across various Christian traditions.

1. Apostle: Traditionally, the term “apostle” is associated with the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus, as well as Paul, to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. The word “apostle” means “one sent forth,” indicating a functional role. However, many traditions view apostleship as an office, given that the apostles held a unique and foundational role in the early Church (Ephesians 2:20). The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, teaches the concept of apostolic succession, viewing the bishops as successors to the apostles. Some Charismatic and Pentecostal groups use the term “apostle” more broadly to refer to certain authoritative, often church-planting, leaders today.

2. Prophet: Prophets in the Bible functioned as God’s spokespeople, delivering His messages to the people. This indicates a functional role. However, prophets also had a recognized status in the community, suggesting an “office” (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11). Like “apostle,” the term “prophet” is used in some Charismatic and Pentecostal circles today to refer to people believed to have a particular gift of prophecy or revelation.

3. Teacher: The role of a teacher is clearly a functional one, but the New Testament also speaks of “teachers” in a way that suggests a recognized position within the community (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11). In many Christian traditions today, the role of “teacher” might be associated with both an office (such as a Sunday School teacher or a theology professor) and a function (anyone explaining or interpreting the Bible for others).

4. Evangelist: The term “evangelist” comes from a Greek word meaning “bringer of good news,” suggesting a functional understanding. The New Testament seems to refer to people who proclaim the gospel, especially in places where it hasn’t been heard before (Acts 21:8, Ephesians 4:11). This could be viewed as a specific role or office within the church. Still, it could also be seen as a function that all Christians are called to perform to some extent (Matthew 28:19-20).

The arguments for and against viewing these roles as functions or offices would be similar to those for the pastoral role. Some people may emphasize the functional aspects, focusing on the tasks these roles perform, while others may emphasize the office aspects, focusing on the authority and recognition associated with these roles. And as with the pastoral role, these other roles may be presented as offices and/or functions.

Graham Joseph Hill

Rev. Dr. Graham Joseph Hill serves as Mission Catalyst for Church Planting and Missional Renewal with the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT, Australia. Previously, he was the Principal of Stirling Theological College (Melbourne), the Vice-Principal of Morling Theological College (Sydney), and an Associate Professor at the University of Divinity, Australia. Graham is an ordained and accredited minister with the Baptist Churches of Australia. He has planted and pastored churches and been in ministry since 1988. Graham is the author or editor of 13 books. Graham writes at

Graham's qualifications include: Honours Diploma of Ministry (SCD), Bachelor of Theology (SCD), Master of Theology (Notre Dame), and Doctor of Philosophy (Flinders).

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