The term “pastors”, a translation anomaly?

Please note that this article is a work in progress. There may be some additions, changes, corrections etc.

I believe that English Bible translations over the past 4 plus centuries have done a significant disservice to the Protestant church’s understanding of church polity by their translation of Ephesians 4:11.  In all English translations since the Geneva Bible of 1599 (that I have perused), with the exception of the ESV and Young’s Literal Translation, the Greek word poimēn in Ephesians 4:11 is translated “pastors”.  The word poimēn (ποιμέν/ποιμένας) simply means “shepherd(s)” and every other instance of it in the New Testament is so translated (with some minor variations – i.e. John 21:16).  But English Bible translators, for some reason, reserved a special word for poimēn in Ephesians 4:11, the word “pastor(s)”.  Why?

Prior to the Geneva Bible, English translations used the word “shepherd” to translate poimēn.  This includes the Wycliffe Bible of 1395, the Tyndale Bible of 1525, the Myles Coverdale Bible of 1535 and the Bishops Bible of 1568 (see StudyLight).  But for some reason the Geneva Bible translated the word “Pastours” (sic) and shortly thereafter so did the King James Version of 1611 as have most major Protestant translations since then.

The fairly comprehensive article in Wikipedia on the Translation of the King James bible makes this observation:

The Authorized Version is notably more Latinate than previous English versions, especially the Geneva Bible. This results in part from the academic stylistic preferences of a number of the translators – several of whom admitted to being more comfortable writing in Latin than in English – but was also, in part, a consequence of the royal proscription against explanatory notes. Hence, where the Geneva Bible might use a common English word – and gloss its particular application in a marginal note; the Authorized Version tends rather to prefer a technical term, frequently in Anglicised Latin. Consequently, although the King had instructed the translators to use the Bishops’ Bible as a base text, the New Testament in particular, stylistically owes much to the Catholic Rheims New Testament, whose translators had also been concerned to find English equivalents for Latin terminology.*

That observation intrigues me.  That helps me understand where terms such as “bishops”, “pastors” and “deacons” come from.

My contention is that if, over the past several centuries, this verse had been translated with the normal sense of the words (as the ESV does):

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, … (as per the ESV for Ephesians 4:11-12)

then as the church studied the verses below a number of things would have been clear:

  1. In the Church there is no special/distinct office called “pastor”1
  2. Watch-care within the local church (under Christ) falls to specific men who are appointed by the Holy Spirit to be overseers.
  3. These overseers are called elders.
  4. Elders have the solemn responsibility to shepherd God’s precious flock.
  5. These shepherds are a gift from Christ Himself to his Church.
  6. Included in the elders’ shepherding ministry is preaching and teaching.

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 1Peter 5:1-4

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you…  Titus 1:5

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.  Acts 14:23

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: “… 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.” Acts 20:17, 28

For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be … [a list of qualifications] Titus 1:7

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be … [a list of qualifications]  1Timothy 3:1-2

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:173

Then the word poimēn (ποιμέν) [shepherds] in Ephesians 4:11 would have been understood to refer to those shepherding men, elsewhere identified as elders, whose responsibility it is to oversee the church of God.  The word would not have come to be identified with some new office for an individual who stood apart from the elders and who was the “primary leader” in the local congregation.  It would have been understood more clearly that the gift that Jesus was giving to His church was men of action and watch-care (shepherds) and not men of position (as the word pastor has come to imply)2.


  • 1I recognize that “The word pastor comes from the Latin word pastorem, which means to shepherd.” (Wikkipedia) That is just the point, however, the use of a Latin word created an artificial distinction.  The verb form is never translated “to pastor/pastoring” etc. (ποιμαίνω  poimainō – to shepherd).
  • 2This would be corroborated by the way that the end of Ephesians 4:11 is structured with the words “pastors and teachers” (τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους) – the two words joined with a single conjunction – possibly implying two facets of a single role.
  • 3All Scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version. All extra highlighting and other emphasis is mine.
  • *Wikipedia – (emphasis in bold, mine).
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2 Responses to The term “pastors”, a translation anomaly?

  1. Doug Warkentin says:

    Good work on the research. I’ve used some of what you’ve written in a request to the ISV as to why they have chosen to translate it a Pastor. Will let you know what their response is.

  2. Carlos says:

    The Douay-Rheims New Testament published in 1582 also uses “pastors” so the Geneva Bible (published in 1587) was not the first.

    I have no idea as to whether or not the Douay-Rheims influenced the Geneva or not but it may have.

    Still…I don’t understand the logic of using a Latin word “pastor”.

    I know that there was also some kind of debate between Tyndale and Thomas Moore where Tyndale argued for the use of “pastor” as being more exegetical correct I think than otherwise but despite great effort I have not been able to find the text of that debate anywhere online.


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