Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More on "pastors"

Objections to the Multiple Pastor Model

by Mark M. Mattison

The evidence is clear and unambiguous - the New Testament Scriptures nowhere support the idea of the one-man pastorate. Nor do they support the artificial distinctions we've created between elders and pastors. In spite of these facts, however, Christians everywhere - including Protestants who profess sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and the Priesthood of All Believers - try to justify the clerical system they have inherited. On the one hand this is understandable, since dismantling the clergy entails radical changes in the life of the church (very positive changes, we would argue). Furthermore, even pastors and church leaders who want to conform their ministries to Scripture manage often to do little more than adapt Scriptural language to contemporary practices.

For example, many believe that although pastors are elders, elders are not necessarily pastors. It is as if there are two classes of elder: "lay elder" and "lead elder." The "lay elders" are ultimately subordinate to the "head elder" or "chairman of the board of elders," the "pastor." Unlike the "elders," who provide some spiritual leadership, the "pastor" is the ordained, professional "minister" of the church; he's still the one whose name appears in the bulletin, whose ministry is celebrated on "Past or Appreciation Day," who's addressed as "the pastor."

Yet this semantic compromise does not go far enough. If any distinction between "elder" and "pastor" is preserved, the equality of the leaders will brought into question. The common bond of presbyterial (elder) leadership will quickly be lost in the shuffle the moment the pastor is singled out as somehow the leader of the leaders. We must recognize not only that "pastors" are "elders," but also that "elders" are equally "pastors." Both Paul (Acts 20:17,28) and Peter (1 Pet. 5:1,2) instructed the church's elders to pastor or shepherd the flock. Notice in this last Scripture that Peter did not write to the pastors and their "chief pastor," for the "chief pastor" is Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 5:4). There is no Scriptural sanction for a hierarchical distinction among the elders.

Timothy and Titus

It is frequently objected that Timothy and Titus prove the exception. In many ways these men, and particularly Timothy, inspire and comfort young seminary graduates who otherwise would have to struggle with their obvious lack of spiritual qualifications. This is not in any way to denigrate these dedicated young people who are bright, intelligent, motivated, and probably better educated than the previous generation of pastors and seminary grads, probably better educated than me. It is to say, however, that no amount of dedication, education, and "fire for the Lord" can make up for the accumulated wisdom which comes from years, even decades of hands-on church work. But how can someone gain this practiced wisdom without being a pastor/elder in the first place? Must not young seminarians enter the pastorate and "earn their laurels"? The answer is that aspiring pastors (elders), regardless of the amount of education they have received (or whether they have received a seminary education at all), need to be discipled by experienced pastors (elders) for a considerable length of time - certainly much longer than the typical year or two of "internship" so common in the denominations.

Nevertheless, Timothy and Titus are cited as the exception to this rule. A cursory reading of the letters written to them may seem to reinforce traditional pastoral practices. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are even popularly known as "the pastoral epistles." Paul addresses Timothy as a "minister" (1 Tim. 4:6) who is not to let himself be looked down upon because of his youth (4:12). Furthermore Paul gives Timothy extensive instructions about church teaching, practices, and the qualifications that elders and "deacons" should have. He writes similarly to Titus that he should appoint elders in Crete (Tit. 1:5), and tells him what qualifications he should seek in potential elders (vv. 6-9).

From this it has been gathered that Timothy and Titus were the ancient counterparts to our modern seminarians; young men (likely in their twenties) who were installed in congregations to single-handedly oversee the affairs of the church, delegating their authority by appointing and supervising elders underneath them.

But this reading cannot be sustained. First, we do not know how young Timothy really was. That is a relative judgement. We call Bill Clinton a "young president," but he certainly is not in his twenties. Timothy could have been forty - perhaps young in comparison to other church leaders. After all, the first generation of church leaders in Jerusalem would have been well into their sixties or seventies at that time. Perhaps most church leaders in Timothy's time were in their fifties at least. We simply do not know; given this sliding scale of possibilities, this one verse can hardly be used to overthrow the overwhelming evidence from the rest of the New Testament that church leaders are to be mature and experienced Christians.

Second, neither Timothy nor Titus were pastors. Paul encouraged Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5, NIV). Timothy and Titus were evangelists, "apostles" in a secondary sense, who travelled with Paul and others to organize and strengthen churches. A cursory reading of the New Testament will demonstrate that these two men were not permanently stationed in Ephesus and Crete respectively; they were all over the Roman world.Reference1 After Timothy was finished in Ephesus, he was to leave and join Paul in Rome (2 Tim. 4:9-13). Similarly, Titus was to join Paul at Nicopolis (Tit. 3:12). Paul had left him behind in Crete to "straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town" (1:5). Titus was not the pastor of a church; he was an evangelist who was helping to organize several churches on the island.

This practice of appointing elders after churches had been organized was the standard in Paul's missionary journeys. In Acts we read that after Paul and his companions had evangelized Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra (13:13-14:20), they returned to those cities (14:21), encouraged and strengthened the churches (14:22), and appointed elders (14:23). If we compare this pattern to the instructions written to Timothy and Titus, Paul's method becomes apparent. Before elders were appointed they needed to be observed and tested (Tit. 1:6ff). When churches were formed and the Holy Spirit was given (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11,12), it would eventually become apparent who had been gifted in terms of leadership. If that gift were corroborated by the observable qualifications of maturity and steadfastness, those leaders would be officially recognized ("appointed") by the churches and/or apostles as elders. This two-fold qualification (Spirit gifting and seasoned wisdom) is similar to that described in Acts 6:3, where the Apostles instructed the Jerusalem Hellenist Christians to "choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the spirit and wisdom" (NIV).

All of this is critically important, because it establishes a consistent pattern of church leadership. Pastors (elders) in the early church weren't shipped off to Jerusalem or some other place to receive their academic training as youths, then exported to some congregation they had never seen before. If a young person insists on going to a seminary, then let him return to his own church after graduating. Let him return to the authority of his local church body where he may continue to study and practice ministry under the auspices of the congregation and its leaders. The people of the congregation, who know the elder-to-be, will be much better suited to gauge his developing maturity and qualifications than any denominational ordination or licensing board. The practice of shipping young people away from their home congregations (where their authority may be undermined by recent memories of youthful escapades) is as unscriptural as "ordaining" these elders at age 20 while "lay" elders are "elected" at age 50.

Pragmatic Objections

If the Scriptures themselves will not support the traditional pastoral practice, however, there are far more compelling ways to defend it. The irony is that these objections, which are by far among the most popular, are usually invoked by those who profess sola scriptura (Scripture alone).

One such argument is that someone must be "in the office" (assuming the church owns a building) or "on call" forty hours a week, ready to respond to pastoral emergencies. If the elders/pastors are working during the day, are they not inaccessibl e?

The best solution to this problem is to train self-employed and retired men and women of the church to respond to emergencies in the body. In an ideal setting, some of these retirees should be leaders of the church anyway (elders). They should be the ones on-call if other elders of the church are busy at work and if the crisis cannot wait another few hours. Furthermore, many emergencies can (and perhaps should) be just as well attended by members other than official leaders. Visitation, comfort, and counsel is well within the potential grasp of most church members.

Involving other church members in such ministerial functions is the most effective way to break down that clergy/laity distinction. "The most pernicious influence of that distinction," writes R. Paul Stevens, is:

Secularization by copying the world's leadership patterns. In the Greco-Roman world the municipal administration had two parts: the kleros (clergy, the magistrate and the laos (layperson), the ignorant and uneducated citizen. The same defamatory distinction prevails today when people argue for secular management structures in church organization and when, in response to an appeal for the full liberation of the laity, one hears the jibe, "Would you go for medical help to an untrained doctor? Why would you trust your soul to a nonprofessional?"Reference2

Responding to this argument that churches must be led by professionals, Vernard Eller writes that the early churches:

Were "do it yourself" organizations, sometimes in extremis. Paul, apparently, would convert a few people, start a congregation, and then move on. At times he would leave or send one of his helpers to give some leadership, and sometimes the new Christians were entirely on their own. In any case, it is plain that the people did their own "doing" rather than hiring experts to do it for them.Reference3

Perhaps the most compelling objection to the Scriptural ministry model is that the New Testament way of doing things is no longer relevant. This argument was put to me often when I was searching for a house church to join. I was told that it simply wasn't possible anymore. We no longer live in the first century; we don't wear togas, carry oil lamps, and practice foot-washing. We have buildings and institutions; they didn't. These things require different organizational structures.

But even if we choose to argue for ministry models on practical and utilitarian grounds instead of Scriptural grounds, it seems to us that the New Testament model is still superior to the traditional model. What better way to circumvent pastor burnout and congregational apathy than to distribute the work of ministry?

The Right Thing to Do

We are not saying that institutional churches today aren't doing anything right, nor are we saying that God has not done great things through many godly pastors and churches through the years. We know for a fact that He has blessed many ministries and churches under a variety of circumstances, and we praise Him for that. We are saying only that the pastoral model most often emulated tends to hinder ministry efforts rather than help them.

Perhaps an analogy may be in order. The invention of the heavy plough revolutionized agriculture in Western civilization. Might the implementation of a biblical ministry model do the same for our churches? If God has given us great harvests through our use of the rudimentary plough, what might he grant our ministries when we start using the grand plough which He has designed for our use? And at the other end of the orchard where some pastors are about to drop from fatigue for trying to till the seemingly impenetrable soil, what could be more germane? We have no desire to add to the pressure and grief of the church's already strapped leaders by criticizing their ministries or their intentions. Our intent rather is to prevent problems like pastor burnout and congregational apathy. Putting Christian ministry back into the hands of the entire priesthood - the members of the local church - is in the final analysis the only solution to the vexing problem.


1Cf. Acts 16:1-4; 17:14,15; 18:5; 19:22; 20:4; Rom. 16:21; 1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10; 2 Cor. 1:1; 2:13; 7:5-7,13,14; 8:6,16,17,23; 12:18; Gal. 1:2,3; Phil. 1:1; 2:29-23; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 3:2,6; 2 Thess. 1:1; 2 Tim. 4:10; Philem. 1:1; Heb. 13:23.

2R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press), 1985, p. 21.

3Vernard Eller, The Outward Bound: Caravaning as the Style of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 1980, p. 25.