. Language Cannot Sit Still, Even in Church

Language Cannot Sit Still, Even in Church

An editor once told me I could not say that a certain contemporary theologian “channeled” Jonathan Edwards. It felt too New-Agey to him.

Usually I accept 100% of an editor’s suggested changes. I feel safer that way. But this time I protested. I felt that the editor was channeling persnicketiness. A brief tug-of-war ensued. He won; he happened to be my teacher.

Our friendly dispute offers yet another lesson about language that will be helpful for your Bible study.

Channel is, yes, a word used in New-Agey, séancey kinds of circumstances. It’s a metaphor: when Shirley MacLaine channels some spirit, she is “like” a narrow length of water connecting two larger bodies, only it’s not water but some spiritual essence that is flowing.

But languages never stop changing—a fact I never tire of mentioning, because it is so significant for Bible interpretation and for contemporary communication of the Bible’s message to others.

English has now developed a new metaphor off of the original one (!). People now commonly say things like, “President X channeled President Lincoln.” Such a sentence is not claiming that President X is engaging in New Age mumbo jumbo. No, in his mannerisms or decisions or wording he somehow mimicked Lincoln so well that it was like he was channeling him. This new sense of channel, says my dictionary, means “emulate or seem to be inspired by.”

This is the way language works. Physical things like channels become metaphors. And then those metaphors become so stable that they become, essentially, new words. People forget the old, literal meaning, or see it as a different word altogether. And then yet new metaphors are built off of the new word. (Language is so cool!)

And if you have a feeling that language shouldn’t do this, that it should just stop fidgeting and sit still, especially in church, take note: this very feature of language is found in the Bible.

Think of the word “pastor.”

The KJV uses the word “pastor” only once, in Eph. 4:11. It translates the Greek poimen. But everywhere else in the New Testament, seventeen times, this word is translated “shepherd.” Why did the KJV translators (and others to this day) choose “pastor” in this one place?

Because the context clearly shows that we’re talking about an established office in the church; the “shepherd” metaphor had become stable and, therefore, dead.

Our English word “pastor” has undergone the same process. It comes straight from the Latin word for “shepherd.” But you and I don’t hear pastor as an animal husbandry metaphor anymore. Similar things have happened with drug czar, for example, though my impression is that czar hasn’t gone quite as far on the dead-metaphor path. There’s still a whiff of Old Russia in the English word.

But, again, when I say the word pastor, I don’t smell sheep. If you insist that “pastor here in Ephesians 4 means shepherd,” you won’t quite be right. There’s a substantial difference between the two words.

My linguistics hero John McWhorter says, “One of hardest notions for a human being to shake is that a language is something that is, when it is actually something always becoming.” (3) The Greek of the New Testament is frozen in time, but all its words were undergoing this same process. Understanding this feature of language is helpful for careful, accurate Bible reading.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash.

Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • After Father brought me to the place of actually knowing Him at the age of 64. The first thing He told me, “My Words have become poisoned with the application of familiarity.”
    The first Sunday I was back at our Church, I noticed how we use the word Gospel as if it had a life of its own,
    We must stay alert to His Spirit!

  • Where is there other NT evidence that “pastor” considered “an established office in the church”?

    The apostle Paul’s clear practice was to establish elders in every church. In Acts 20:17, 28, he addresses those elders, telling them that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers/bishops and that they are to feed/shepherd/pastor (verb form) the flock. In 1 Peter 5:1-2, the apostle Peter does exactly the same thing, addressing elders, calling them overseers/bishops, and telling them to feed/shepherd/pastor (verb form again) the flock.

    Usage of NT terminology for church leaders is as follows: elder (presbuteros)–16X, overseer (episkopos)–6X, shepherd/pastor–3X (two of those are verbs, tied directly to the function of elders), manager (proistamenous)–2X, leaders (hegoumenoi)–3X, servant (diakonos)–3X (each in contrast to elders; of course, diakonos is widely used in a broader sense unrelated to church leadership.

    It seems to me that elders/overseers/shepherds and deacons are the two NT church offices. For the most part, we do not consider evangelists, and teachers as “established offices” in the church. To consider “pastor” as an established office distinct from elder seems to me to be a later invention, not the pattern of Scripture.

    P. S. Mark, I thoroughly enjoy your work!

    • Richard, thanks for the kind word—and, even more, for the interaction with my piece. I agree about the two church offices, for precisely the exegetical reasons you mention. So by calling “pastor” an office, I don’t mean to suggest that it is a distinct office from elder/overseer. I mean instead to say that it was a recognizable role with its own label. I’ve been instructed not to hedge too much (that was hedging…) on the Logos blog—people don’t like to read all the qualifications academics hide behind. But if I could walk back one thing I said, just a little, it might be that “shepherd” was a “dead metaphor” by the time of Ephesians. I don’t know that. I’d suggest only that Eph 4 shows it was on its way. Then again, if someone said, “I don’t think it was there yet: let’s translate poimen with ‘shepherd’ in Eph 4″—as the ESV in fact does, I wouldn’t complain too much. In fact, this is just the sort of difference between Bible translations that I find helpful. If I didn’t read Greek, this would make me sit up and take note. And because I do, I still take note: it raises the question, “What was the status of this metaphor when Paul wrote Ephesians?”

      I don’t think is mere arcanery. I think it’s an exegetically helpful question. To the degree that “pastor” loses its connection with the “shepherd” metaphor, perhaps (one might argue) it has become unmoored from imagery that God intends to stick.


  • Thanks for your gracious reply. As for the status of the shepherd metaphor when Paul wrote Ephesians, the only other NT references outside of the Gospels are Hebrews 13:20 and 1 Peter 2:25. Both of those clearly refer to God’s people as sheep in relationship with Jesus, the “great Shepherd” or “Shepherd and Overseer [episkopos] of your souls.” Those two texts are more a parallel to the Chief Shepherd [archipoimen] of 1 Peter 5:5 than they are to the pastor/shepherd [poimen] of Ephesians 4:11. In John’s Gospel, which is likely later than any of the epistles, the term appears only in chapter 10 where Jesus uses it to describe His own life and ministry.

    It seems to me that, as I stated in my earlier comment, we need to take pains to keep elder/overseer-bishop/pastor-shepherd tied together in the same office the way both Peter and Paul do.

Written by Mark Ward