Preacher facing congregation

Defining “ordain” and “pastor”

Evangelicals are wrestling with what to do with these two terms. My church is typical of many other churches. Our bylaws define “pastor” as a full time paid ministry staff who is also an elder. Since Dennis retired our only official pastor is Jay. Gerry S. is now full time paid ministry staff and an elder, but not yet congregationally voted to be a pastor (we overlooked the congregational vote required in the bylaws). He will soon be Pastor Gerry. Then he will be Pastor Gerry though not ordained and I will only be Elder Gerry though I am ordained.

Here is our current definition of “ordain:”

When appropriate, the elders shall call for the public ordination of a pastor. Ordination means that a man (1) satisfies the biblical qualifications for an elder, (2) is considered by the elders and the church to be called by God to the ministry of the gospel, and (3) is commissioned by the church to an appropriate avenue of such ministry. The appropriateness of ordaining a man serving in a non-pastoral ministry (e.g., missionary) will be evaluated by the elders.

At the time this definition was written, ordination (an extra-biblical, culturally-defined term) was almost always for pastors (mentioned once in the Bible, but certainly a culturally-defined term), usually meaning a preacher, the leader of the church in our church, or as a missionary sent from our church. It was normal to “commission” chaplains who hadn’t already been ordained as pastors. The government currently recognizes both terms – commission and ordain.

What do we do with other full time ministry staff who are “shepherding” (pastoring) people but who are not elders? They are not “pastor,” but people are calling them “pastor.” What term do we use when we introduce them when they are doing something on stage in a Sunday service?

“Pastor” is also changing to mean a full time ministry professional who does shepherding of people in a church, not just the preacher dude. The professional norm for chaplains is now ordination. Virtually all chaplains are now ordained though most had never been nor will be full time pastors of churches.

I want to see evangelical churches go with the current professional standard rather than the older professional standard. What makes that hard is that we still have in our minds and emotions that “ordain” means “pastor” which means a person is or could be the preacher, leader of a church. The change is wrenching because the terms have strong emotional attachments. The older definitions have almost biblical authority for people who came into leadership in the church a couple of decades ago. In a soft complementarian church like Grace (my church), women are leaders, but not elders. So terms such as  “ordain” or “pastor” confuses people who still reference their older definitions and emotions get all the higher.

I wish we were going with biblical terms like elder and deacon. Then God would tell us what to do and it would all be easy; well, easier. There are huge cultural ramifications to those terms too!

About Gerry Breshears

Dr. Breshears is a Professor of Systematic Theology and Chair of the Center for Biblical and Theological Studies at Western Seminary. In addition to his three decades of educational ministry at Western, Dr. Breshears has taught at numerous Bible colleges and seminaries around the world, such as Lebanon, Ukraine, Netherlands, Taiwan, Poland, Canada, and the Philippines. He has also been published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including the Journal of Psychology & Theology and Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Dr. Breshears is also the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society and continues to serve on the regional executive committee of that organization. Dr. Breshears serves as a preaching elder at Grace Community Church. He and his wife, Sherry, have been married since 1968, have two sons, one daughter, and are enjoying their season of life as grandparents.

2 thoughts on “Defining “ordain” and “pastor”

  1. Great job Gerry, you know how to bring all the confusion to the surface. Why don’t you just call those who lead ministries but are not elders ‘director’ i.e. Director of Children’s Ministry; Director of Youth Ministry, etc. etc. Not much chance of people calling Matt “Director Matt”. I think part of the problem is humans love titles, which I think is what Jesus was getting at in Matt. 23:1-12.

  2. If you think of the meaning of the American word “director” it is full of connotations of authoritarianism and such. Ironically many churches have taken this term from business and substituted it for the term pastor and given it to women who, they often believe, should not have any authority over men at all. Strange world!

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