“Servant,” and not “pastor” is the most important and prominent, biblical term for any Christian believer in church leadership! Surprising? It was to me. Like most church people I had accepted the common belief that a lead elder in the local church is properly called “pastor” because the idea of pastor (or shepherd) is the key to understanding the role and title of that church office. Yet, it is not.
In the New Testament, perhaps the most descriptive word that illustrates what it means to be an elder as a spiritual leader in Christ’s Church is that of “shepherd” or “pastor.” Indeed, that is the term and the paradigm for true biblical leadership.
However, the overarching model in Scripture for a pastor, which ties all other roles and duties together is that of servant, just like Jesus the grand Servant. Christ declared that anyone who desired to be great in his kingdom must be a servant, just as he had come not to be served but to serve, even to the point of sacrificial death (Matt. 20:26-28). That was God’s mission for him – the eternal Son of God came to be a man, and in a radical reversal of human proclivities became a lowly slave in order to accomplish the high purposes of God (Phil. 2:7; Heb. 12:1-2). He was and is the perfect prophet, priest and king, the wonderful shepherd, teacher, healer, and savior; but he executed all those roles through God-ordained, God-directed service. Jesus was and is the consummate humble servant (Isa. 49:5; Luke 22:27; Heb. 3:1-6), the One who was self-sacrificing (John 10:11, 15; cp. Luke 10:34, 35).
Jesus made it clear that the manner in which his disciples were to function, rule, lead, and shepherd the citizens of God’s kingdom was in the form of a willing servant and a humble slave. That was the object lesson the Master taught in Luke 22 when he said that while he sat as the premier one at the table he really sat as servant. Then, when he wanted to summarily demonstrate what he had been teaching all the while about the nature of his disciples’ role and position in the Kingdom, he dressed down and acted just like a common slave washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). This living parable was punctuated by Christ’s own teaching: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” (Jn. 13:13ESV). In other words, they were right to address and treat him as dignified royalty. Yet though this King of kings and Lord of Lords had every right to claim his place and title he does something dramatically profound, once again a reversal to humanity’s sinful nature – he declares himself an honorable servant: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14)! And should his disciples be as dense as many of us, he explains exactly why he said and did what he said and did: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:15-17). Christ’s people are servants, and leaders in Christ’s church are servants of servants. A major reversal from the natural world! That’s the nature of Christ’s kingdom and Church.
To understand how radical and also how degrading was Christ’s self-imposed position and the place of his disciples we must understand the nature of the ancient slave.
There were several Greek terms for servant or slave. The first and more common word was doulos that identified the person as being on the opposite side of the class spectrum of freeman or citizen master-owner. A doulos-slave was owned either by the government or by a personal master. The public doulos-servant had no rights, but could control a city’s treasury and, as such, wield considerable influence. The doulos-slave owned by a personal master was the more common type of servant. As a non-person he or she had absolutely no rights: no right to marriage, to children, or to protection as a person, but merely protection as the master’s property. The slave existed for the master’s purposes. The will and desires of the master were to be obeyed and fulfilled. Anything the master wanted of the slave he got – anything!
The Romans had over a dozen different terms that defined the nature of the slave’s duties: a cook, farmer, footman, gardener, messenger, prostitute, steward, storekeeper, etc. In other words there could be specialist slaves and those might include the role of teacher or physician. A doulos-slave could be given the responsibility to oversee the finances and run the household, in which case he was a household steward who had control over the master’s other slaves (Matt. 8:9).
There was also the pais or paidos, which described someone of a child’s status (Matt. 2:16; Luke 8:51). When these terms referenced an adult it was to identify a servant or slave who would most likely always remain in that status of a “boy” unless some gracious circumstance emancipated him and brought him to the legal status of a man.
Another type of servant was a diakonos who rendered service, help or aid to another, many times voluntarily. Usually the tasks were of a necessary, but mundane or menial nature. The very term itself did not necessarily mean he or she was a slave; but he or she served or ministered in some capacity. The individual could be a waiter at a special function or a household servant. The diakonos-servant may or may not have been paid. Those godly men specially gifted and filled with the Spirit of God whom God called to serve alongside the apostles in order for the apostles to dedicate themselves to the tasks God had ordained for them were called deacons (diakonos) (Acts 6).
One other Greek term the Bible uses is the huperetes-servant. This was an assistant or helper who was given the task of carrying out the expressed will and explicit orders of another. He could be a court officer (Matt. 5:25), an officer in the Jewish Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:58), a king’s attendant (John 18:36) or an attendant in a synagogue (Luke 4:20).
Of all those above the most contemptible, despicable position of that day was that of a doulos-slave. Yet, it is that very classification Jesus, Lord of the universe, took upon himself (Phil. 2:6-8). Jesus was God’s master servant who came to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45; Luke 22:27). He is the glorified paida-servant of God (Acts 3:13; 3:26; 4:27, 30). Jesus fulfilled the model of God’s Old Testament doulos-slaves Moses (Deut. 34:5; Ps. 105:26; Mal. 4:4; Rev. 15:3), Joshua (Josh. 24:29) and King David (2 Sam. 3:18; Ps. 78:70; Luke1:69; Acts 4:25). Jesus came not only as God’s slave but came to be a diakonos-servant to Israel (Rom. 15:8). Like a perfect slave, Jesus put his life subordinate to the cause of the Father’s will.
As the steward-slave, Jesus was and is the overseer of God’s other servants or slaves. He told the disciples that if anyone would serve him that person must follow him, and wherever Jesus would go his servant would also be there. Not only that, those who serve the Christ-Servant will be honored by the Master-Father (John 12:24-26). Later, Jesus identified another position his disciples have – they would also be his friends (John 15:15-27). His point was not that they were emancipated from serving their Father-God, or Christ, or one another, but that they were now privy to understand the will of the Master in some ways similar to Jesus. But the specific will they were to understand was the inevitability of being persecuted and suffering just like their fellow doulos-servant Jesus (John 15:20) would be. All true disciples of Jesus Christ are doulos-slaves of their Master. And therefore all disciples hold that same level status with all the other doulos-slaves of God.
Jesus, the master servant, orders his subordinate servants to minister just like him (Matt. 20:25-28; 23:11-12; Mark 10:43, 44; Luke 22:26-27; John 13:1-20). That means Christ’s disciples, who would be given the Holy Spirit, would be empowered as apostles to lay the foundation for the New Testament people of God. Being ministering servants they had Christ’s delegated mandate and authority, and indeed were to administer their positions first and foremost as servants to the Lord (1 Cor. 4:1-2; Tit. 1:7). After Christ’s death and resurrection this rag tag group of class-inferior men was elevated to a remarkably high and lofty position in the eternal body of Christ. Nevertheless, they and all those who immediately followed in their footsteps had the mind of Christ in them. That is, since Jesus set aside his rightful place as God and lived for others as the Servant of servants (Phil. 2:3-7) they did too. If he did, and they did, so should we.
In the New Testament the term that most frequently classifies one in the role of oversight and administrative rule in church government, is not “pastor.” For that noun is used only once, in Ephesians 4:11 and the verbal form “to shepherd” is used in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. The overwhelmingly most popular terms for this role are the doulos-slave or diakonos-servant. The person in this position is a serving minister. However, the challenge we have today is the word minister tends to pack baggage that escapes the lowly, humble service role of a slave. Perhaps the pastor should be labeled slave or steward-slave? Yet again, he is a slave to Christ and of God, who sacrificially serves others (John 10:11, 15; cp. Luke 10:34, 35). Other slave-disciples are not masters, even over the specially called and ordained minister, the supervisory servant of God’s household.
The identities given to the apostles, elders and pastors in the New Testament fully illustrate this. They are all classified as doulos-slaves or diakonos-servants that do specific ministries (Acts 6:4; 2 Cor. 3:3). Peter, James, John, and Jude are doulos-slaves of God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:1; James 1:1; Rev. 1:1; Jude 1:1). Paul uses doulos-slave and diakonos-servant at least as often as the title apostle. This is because more than anything else he is called to serve God, the saints (Rom. 15:25; 2 Cor. 8:19), and even Gentile unbelievers. He is a doulos-slave (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10, Phil. 1:1; Ti. 1:1) and a diakonos-servant (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25). At his conversion, God abruptly called and appointed Paul to be God’s huperete-servant (attendant, assistant who carries out the explicit orders of his master) of the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles (Acts 26:16-18). Paul identifies what he does service or ministry (Acts 20:24, Rom. 11:13, 2 Cor. 3:1-6; 4:1-2, and 1 Tim. 1:12). Luke later says that he received his information for the Gospel record he wrote from the eyewitnesses and huperete-servants of God’s Word (Luke 1:1-2).
These apostles were not the only slaves or servants. Paul’s young protégé and fellow servant Mark, author of the Gospel, was useful for diakonos-service (2 Tim. 4:11), as was Paul’s son in the faith, Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 4:5). Phoebe, a godly woman and friend of Paul’s was a kind of servant (Rom. 16:1-2). Other men, often recognized as church planters or pastors were diakonos-servants, commonly translated ministers: Archippus (Col. 4:17), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), and Tychicus (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7).
The ways in which God’s slaves or servants minister vary. They are to serve as slaves to God (2 Cor. 6:4; Tit. 1:1, 7) and of Christ (Phil. 1:1; 2 Tim. 2:24). These ministers must understand along with others that their lives and ministries are living sacrifices to God (2 Sam. 24:24; Acts 20:24; 21:13; Phil 2:7; 3;7-8; 2 Tim. 4:6). Through love they serve one another like a doulos-slave (Gal. 5:13), using whatever gift(s) God gives in order to doulos-serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10). The Corinthian church, fellow-saints and servants with Paul, did this when they ministered to the saints in Jerusalem through their financial gifts (2 Cor. 9:1, 2, 11, 12).
All believers in Christ are equal as humble slaves (Acts 2:18; 1 Cor. 7:22; Eph. 6:6; Col. 4:12; 2 Tim. 2:24). They are called to do God’s bidding, serve Christ, and minister to one another. Yet, as we have seen, some of these slaves have been called, gifted, trained and ordained to be steward-slaves in a special office ordained by Christ (2 Cor. 3:9; 4:6; Eph. 4:11ff). These stewards administrate and oversee God’s household by means of God’s Word through love (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 6:34; Acts 20:20; 1 Cor. 12:28, 31; Col. 1:28; 1 Tim. 1:3; 3:2, 16; 4:11-12; 6:2-5; Jas. 3:1 Rev. 7:17). Additionally, they serve in the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). Performing service in Christ for God’s people (2 Cor. 4:5) ministers are to do so with diligence (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:15).
These special types of servants, placed in their respective roles and particular office, are answerable to God. They are to live for Christ, never to be ashamed of him (2 Tim. 1:8-11; 2:11-13), always to be focused on Christ (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21; 2 Tim. 2:8-13) and always ready to suffer for Christ (Luke 21:19; 2 Tim. 2:3-7; 3:10-12).
Therefore, the ministering elders are called to train and discipline their lives for godliness (1 Tim. 4:7-11) so as to become and serve more and more like Jesus Christ the perfect servant (Matt. 20:25-28; 23:11-12; Mark 10:43, 44; Luke 22:26-27; John 13:1-20; 2 Cor. 3:10; 1 Tim. 4:14-15; 6:11; Tit. 2:12; 2 Pet. 1:4). After all, the pastor or elder is to model Christ (2 Cor. 12:18; 1 Thess. 2:10-12; 1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:3). The ministering elders are also to put to use the good gift(s) the Lord has placed upon them. What’s more, they are called upon to fan the flame or rekindle the gift(s) of God in their lives (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).
Further, these ministers are to serve God’s people as Christ’s stewards, meaning their priority is to serve the Lord before serving others (Acts 20:19; Gal. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:4; Eph. 6:6-7; Col. 3:22-24), and to serve the Lord by serving others. Biblically, ministers are not cater to, aim to please, or fear people (Gal. 1:10; Deut. 10:12; Eccl. 12:13; Ps. 118:6; Isa. 12:2; 2 Tim. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:17; 2:17). No judgment is to be leveled against them by fellow servants of Christ based upon the personal preferences or desires they might have (Matt. 20:20-28; Rom. 14:1-4). As Bob Schaper, a seminary professor, often told his students, “I am your servant, but you are not my master.”
While the slave or steward is the all-encompassing paradigm for those who have been gifted, called, tested and ordained to the office of ruling or teaching elder they minister primarily through God’s Word (Mk. 6:34b; Jn. 21:15ff; Col. 1:28; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:1ff; Jas. 3:1) and through the various roles identified by God in his Word. The roles include serving as a shepherd (Jer. 3:15; John 21:15ff; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:12), a professor-teacher, a preacher, parent, a peacemaker, a mentor and model, and as an evangelist. The servant-minister is also described in roles as an athlete (1 Cor. 9:24-25; Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:7-8; Heb. 12:1), a craftsman-worker (2 Tim. 2:15; 1 Tim. 5:18), a farmer (2 Tim. 2:6), messenger (2 Cor. 8:23), a soldier (Phil. 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:3-4), a steward (1 Tim. 4:12; Ti. 2), and a good worker (2 Cor. 6:1; Phil. 2:25).
Since “servant,” and not “pastor” is the most important and prominent, biblical term for a Christian believer in church leadership it would do all of us well to take that to heart. How should those of us who are ruling and teaching elders think about our roles? Like servants of Christ. How should those of us who are ruling and teaching elders function in our roles? Like servants of Christ.
Dr. D. Thomas Owsley is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ft. Collins, Colo.
(Adapted from Chapter 8 of my book, The Perfect Pastor? FL: Xulon Press, pp. 131-135.)
Blogging at http://imperfectpastor.wordpress.com/
 Bauer, 1979; BibleWorks 5, 2002; Brown, 1979
 BibleWorks, 2002; Cowell, 1980, pp. 95-107; Davis, 1912, pp. 90-97; Frame, 2006; Gill, 2006; Glancy, 2006; Stark, 2003, pp. 295-300.