We Are Broken in Our Focus on Pastors

There is no ‘position’ of pastor in the Bible.

Did you hear that?

There was no position of pastor that needed to be filled in the New Testament.

When John Winebrenner repented of an institutional reading of the Bible and read it with fresh eyes, he saw and argued that there are only two ‘offices’ in the New Testament: elder (which he believed to be synonymous with ‘overseer.’) and deacon.

In the first century churches, to whom we say we look for our example, no church had a pastor.

No congregation had ‘A Pastor.’

At least not that I can see. And I’ve been looking hard.

I believe that this needs to be a major area of study and repentance for us.

Some of you may be thinking, what about Timothy and Titus? The letters written to them are called ‘Pastoral Epistles’ after all.

But why?

Here’s a key question:

Do we find this pastoral lens to ministry in the Bible, or do we bring it to our reading of the bible?

Please stop and think about this.

Does the Bible actually say that Timothy and Titus were pastors the way that we think of the role?

In Titus’ case, Paul says that the reason that he is in Crete is to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Obviously this does not correspond to what we think of as a pastor today.

Timothy likewise is seen in various cities throughout the New Testament and is in Ephesus primarily to refute false teaching (1 Timothy 1:3) and thus solidify an ongoing shared ministry of good teaching (2 Timothy 2:2).

Both Timothy and Titus are instructed make sure that there are mature elders and deacons.

Elders and deacons are THE ministry leadership teams in the local church.
Yet today, these roles are considered ‘lay leaders’ and serve in very different ways then ‘the pastor.’

The reality is this: our current ministry structure does not reflect New Testament practice.

So, in my estimation, we ought to either repent or admit that we want something other than New Testament ministry practice.  Maybe we think we can do it better?

John Winebrenner saw only the ‘offices’ of elder and deacon, but recognized that in the N.T. not all elders had the same gifts to serve the church. Some were apostles. Others were prophets or teachers or evangelists or shepherds.

Even though Peter was obviously an apostle, he also referred to himself as an elder – in the same ‘office’ as local church elders, a connection he makes explicitly (1 Peter 5:1).

But there’s no indication that shepherd was an office. A job. An official role to be played.

There was nobody called pastor in the first century church.

It’s true that elders had a responsibility collectively to ‘shepherd the flock.’

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be…” 1 Peter 5:1-2

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Acts 20:28

So, while we can see that elders (collectively) had a shepherding responsibility, none that we know of was called ‘the pastor.’

Winebrenner picked up the Presbyterian view of a particular elder as ‘teaching elder.’ In this presbyterial model, there are a group of local church elders known as ‘ruling elders’ and one or sometimes more elders known as ‘teaching elders.’ This is the role that has become or is synonymous with ‘pastor’ today.

Seemingly, this understanding is based on 1 Timothy 5:17. “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.”

Does this really teach a totally unique role of ‘teaching elder’ and the others as administrative type elders? When Paul refers to directing the affairs of the church, does he have in mind upkeep of the facilities and organizing the committees? I think not.

Here’s the bottom line: If all we had was the Bible and no history of post biblical tradition, we would never, ever think that each congregation ought to have ‘a pastor.’

The New Testament shows us a very different focus: On multiple giftings. On every believer as empowered as a gifted disciple of Jesus all working together for the glory of God, the spread of the gospel, and the maturity of all believers in Jesus.

If Ephesians 4 is true, it is imperative that we repent.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:11-16)

Sometimes folks quote this passage and then talk about how pastors need to not just ‘do ministry’ but also equip others. While it’s true that shepherds (the word associated with pastor) need to be equipping, shepherds alone can never accomplish this. This passage says so.

We need apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers in our body – the Churches of God – or we will never become mature.  We can see the fruit of that right now.

I want to repeat that.

If what we really care about at the core is better shepherds, we will never become mature.

We haven’t so far.

We are hurting.

And instead of repenting of our unbiblical view that ‘pastor’ is the leadership role in the local church, we focus on making our pastors better.

We’ve tragically misread Ephesians 4 and now proclaim that pastors need to be better at learning how to think like apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers.

Folks, Paul is talking about different people here! No person has all of these gifts.  Jesus never intended there to be one leader in a congregation known as a pastor and having all of these gifts.

The New Testament screams shared ministry!

Like a body – every part interdependent and each doing it’s part.

And friends, the head of this body isn’t a pastor. It’s Jesus!

We must repent of our focus on ‘pastors.’

Until we do, Jesus’ power for his church will be handicapped.

Lord Jesus, help me repent! Help us dig back into to the word that we think we’ve understood better than we have.  Help us repent of the belief that any one person is the lynchpin of ministry for the local church.  Help us together figure out how to structure our ministry around how you’ve gifted, not what we want.  Have mercy on us.

5 thoughts on “We Are Broken in Our Focus on Pastors

  1. Dan, I have been uncomfortable with “Pastor” as a title. I don’t think we should be concerned about what people call us. However “pastor” does appear to be used as a job description i.e., pastoring is what elders do. As you pointed out the word pastor is used in several places in the Epistles.
    I don’t think we should throw out the word but it may need some clarification. I would be perfectly happy to be known as an elder and i have let it be known as I served in a church that I was an elder serving in a leadership position.
    I see the idea of person being called to serve as the leader of a church and receiving compensation as a separate issue. I believe Paul argues for compensation in 1 Cor. 9 though he refuses it for himself. It can also be suggested that when Paul talks about being worthy of double honor he has money in mind.
    One thought that occurred to me though is that when we read about the gifted people in Eph. 4 they are identified by their giftedness so we have apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. So at some level there were those known as pastors because they had been given the gift of pastoring.

  2. As I re-read my comment i think I could have simplified it by saying that in at least one place in the New Testament the word “pastor” is used as a noun. In other places It refers to what leaders do. There were pastors in the church of the New Testament. I am emphasizing this not so much because of your post, Dan, but because i have read so much that suggests the term pastor is never used. Paul wrote in the Ephesians passage quoted in the post that Christ gave to the church Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers. I take this to mean that there were some people known to the Church as pastors.
    I agree that the word is overused today.
    One of my pet peeves is the tendency of some to start calling themselves Pastor because they have credentials. Not everyone who leads a church is a Pastor and not all Pastors lead churches if I understand Eph. 4 correctly.

    1. Lew, Thanks for jumping in. I don’t see anybody in the N.T. church using titles and I don’t think anyone did. Paul often says that he is called to be an apostle but nobody calls him ‘The Apostle Paul.’

      To the core issue of my post though… We tend to read this as a question of ‘what’s the best term or title for our church’s leaders.

      That’s not really what I care about. Specifically, there are two things I think we need to figure out how to repent of. The first is a sharp distiction between pastor (or teaching elder) and other elders (ruling elders).

      New Testament churches didn’t have a single leader in a special role. Elders were elders – with different gifts collectively needed to oversee (yes, shepherd) congregations. As I said in the post, I find the long held idea of ‘those elders who teach and preach’ being the foundation for teaching elders turned ministers turned pastors/clergy VS ‘ruling elders to be EXTREMELY weak. I don’t think we can hang our whole system on that one verse.

      The direct repentance of this looks like the persons we have currently credentialed (pastors / ministers / whatever) seeing themselves as a true team of equals with the other (usually not credentialed, financially supported) elders. And those elders need to see themselves not as administrators but as the shepherding (in the broad sense) team in that local context. Much more could be said about this.

      The other area of repentance that I’m convinced we need is to stop seeing ‘pastor’ as a composite role of all of the gifts needed. When we credential (license / ordain) people, we should be helping them discern whether they are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors(shepherds) or teachers and not assume that pastor and teacher is all there is or all we need.

      Much more could be said, but those are a couple of the big things I’m trying to get at. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond! Peace.

  3. Dan, I have thought about this post quite a bit (if my two other comments don’t already show that). So, I did some more reading and researching.
    I think your post is somewhat related to my post on identity. For many people “pastor” is their identity. A writer once told the story of a retired priest who went to the airport regularly to have himself paged. He is not alone in struggling with his identity and we need to be clear that “pastoring” is not our identity or a title.
    I see this in my role as chaplain in a VA hospital. The policy is that I am to be called chaplain, but I do not introduce myself as Chaplain Button. I say, “I am Lew Button, one of the chaplains”. This may seem like parsing words but to me, it is an identity issue. I am a child of God, blessed, forgiven, redeemed, etc. first and foremost. One day I will not be a chaplain, but I will always be a son of God.
    This may point to a way we can influence the pastor culture. Maybe, instead of saying, I am Pastor____ we can begin with our name and then say we serve as a pastor. In our culture, most people understand what pastor means. I don’t see any reason to change to “I am a shepherd”.
    To emphasize this last point, I did a word study. I looked at Eph. 4:11 in 31 different translations. In 26 translations, from the 1611 version of the KJV and the Geneva Bible of 1569 to our most recent translations, the Greek word “poimen” is translated, pastor. The word pastor comes to us from the Latin word for shepherd and has been used in the context of the church since the time of Gregory the Great.
    In French, Swedish, Danish and the Bishop’s Bible, the word “poimen” is translated, shepherd. However, those who lead churches in France call themselves Pasteur (Pastor) so the word pastor has a long history and is understood by most people.
    What I found when I was in France was when I told people I was a ministere (minister) it required an explanation. Most people understand what I mean when I use the word pastor.
    I also went back to the Greek of Ephesians 4:11 to review what Paul was saying. First, in this passage, the word “gift” is not charismata but domata. It seems Paul is here emphasizing not the individual gifts God gave to each one but rather that these individuals are themselves the gifts Christ has given the church.
    Secondly, the Greek says, “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists and the pastors and teachers”. It is significant that Paul uses the definite article before apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors but not before teachers. I don’t think the Granville Sharp rule applies here. That would make it read “Pastors/teachers” but clearly he is connecting the role of teacher and pastor.
    This may not add much to your post, Dan, but I hope you see that I agree that we need to move from identifying ourselves as pastors. Besides the identity issues that it raises there is also the concern that we put ourselves in a class separate from those we lead.

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