Monday, 21 January 2008

Pastor, Who Are You?

“It was he who gave 
some to be … 
(Ephesians 4:11)

The God-given gifts to the church
Probably one of the most common and at the same time most misunderstood positions in the institutional church is that of “pastor.” In Ephesians 4:11 Paul says, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” What do we see here? Here Paul seems to be listing five “gifts” (gifts, not offices) of the church. These are, (1) apostles, (2) prophets, (3) evangelists, (4) pastors, and (5) teachers.

I did a little research in the “NIV Exhaustive Concordance” which is for the NIV translation of the Bible what “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance” is for the KJV translation of the Bible. It’s interesting that the word “Apostle” appears 21 times and “Apostles” appears another 57 times for a total of 78 times in the New Testament. The word “Prophet” appears 238 times (65 in the NT) and “Prophets” another 245 times (89 in the NT) for a total of 483 times (154 in the NT alone). The word “Evangelist” and “Evangelists” appear only 3 times in the entire Bible. The word “Pastor” doesn’t appear at all, while the word “Pastors” appears only once, and that is in the above text of Ephesians 4:11. The word “Teacher” appears 68 times and the word “Teachers” appears 73 times for a total of 141 times.

What did I learn from this little exercise? I learned that the word “Pastors” only appears once as a noun in the entire Bible and we’ve created an entire doctrine of the role of “Pastor” from one little and almost obscure verse. Isn’t that a little ironic? I think so. The truth of the matter is, there are more references to “snake handling” in the New Testament (snake: 5 times; snakes: 6 times; NIV) than there are to “pastors.” The truth of the matter is, there is more biblical justification for snake handling than there is for the office of pastor.

What does a pastor do? Well, he preaches, teaches, baptizes, marries, buries, conducts the Lord’s Supper, administers, visits, evangelizes, acts as a community liaison, and is an ex-officio member on all church boards. There are probably a host of other duties as well that are often thrown into the mix. However, given the single occurrence of the word “pastor,” how did we come to create this massive doctrine of the role?

It’s probably much easier to define the role of “prophet” given its 483 appearances in the Bible. Even from a New Testament perspective, the word “prophet” appears 154 times. Are there to be “prophets” in the New Testament church? That fact seems almost undeniable. We can fairly easily come up with a good description of the role of “prophet” given the amount of times the word occurs. What is a “prophet?” It is someone who speaks forth that which God spontaneously brings to his or her mind. In the New Testament sense, the gift/role (not “office”) of the prophet must agree with God’s word as we find it in our Bibles.

The second greatest occurring word from Ephesians 4:11 is the word “Teacher” or its pluralized form. This word shows up 141 times. We have a pretty good grasp of what we mean when we speak of a “Teacher.”

“Apostles” also occurs quite regularly making its debut 78 times in the New Testament. This most often refers only to the original witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, although Paul used the term in reference to himself (1 Cor. 9:2) suggesting that the term also applied to pioneer church planters.

“Evangelists” appears far less than the previous gifts. It is mentioned only three times. Still, we can fairly easily understand what the word means. In the early church they were the ones who first brought the Good News. Today the term is usually used of people who don’t represent one specific faction of the church, but rather whose (“ministry?” – for lack of a better word) transcends any specific local congregation. The term “para-church” comes to mind, as does the name “Billy Graham.”

However, the term “Pastor” is much less clear. What does it mean? Oh, I know what it’s come to mean. It’s come to mean a Christian minister who spiritually nourishes and cares for a local congregation. But is that what God meant by that term? How do we know? If our Bibles are the final authority and guide, then it seems right that if something either isn’t in the Bible or isn’t at all clear from the Bible, then we had better not go developing important doctrines on that subject. Do we have a clear picture of what a pastor is based only upon the Bible? No, we don’t. Then can it really be said that a “pastor” is one who has been given the authority to minister and care for the local congregation?

Creating doctrines from obscure passages
There are plenty of other obscure passages in the Bible that we don’t go making key doctrines out of. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:29 speaks about those being baptized for the dead. Psalm 137:9 makes reference to smashing babies against the rocks. These are the only occurrences of these ideas, but we certainly don’t go making key doctrines out of them. Some cults like the Mormons have justified baptism for the dead based upon that one little verse, but most Christians seem to know better than to do such a thing. In the same way, there are at least 7 incidents of cannibalism in the Bible (Lev.26:29; Dt.28:53; 2Ki.6:28; Jer.19:9; La.2:20; 4:10; Eze.5:10). Does anyone justify eating each other based on those verses? Of course not! While we’ve been wise in using proper hermeneutical practices in these previous three examples, why have we seemingly failed to do so with regard to the office of pastor? I wonder.

Some say that a pastor is a “Shepherd.” In fact the NIV Exhaustive Concordance under “pastor” says simply “(KJV) see Shepherd.” As I looked up the occurrences of the word “shepherd” in the concordance, there seems to be only two ways that the word is used in the Bible. First, it is used in an agricultural context of taking care of sheep. Are we to thereby assume that such passages are all metaphors in that we are all the sheep and our pastors are all our shepherds? Even if such passages were all to be understood metaphorically, and I don’t think that they are, why then confuse people by using titles such as Pastor _____? Why not rather speak of such a person as Shepherd _____? Certainly at least then we could maybe get a little better picture from Scripture of the role implied.

Secondly, it’s used in reference to Jesus Christ. As best as I can tell, it never seems to be used with reference to a local church pastor. Jesus alone is to be our “shepherd” or our “pastor.” Psalm 23:1 says, “The Lord is my shepherd…” To further this thought, given that there is such a discrepancy in teaching among pastors, is it really possible that they are all right? When one pastor says this, and another one says that, and another one says still something else, who are we to listen to? I’m much more comfortable in letting Jesus alone be my “pastor” or my “shepherd.” Still, there can be no denying the fact that “He gave some to be pastors” (Ephesians 4:11). What then does the word pastor mean in context to the local church and what is his role? That remains a biblical mystery to me. All that I know is that I am becoming less and less comfortable with the way the typical role of “pastor” is carried out in most institutional churches today. So if it’s not to be inferred biblically that a pastor ministers to and cares for a local congregation, then whose responsibility, if anyone’s, is that?

The plurality of elders
The word “pastor” and “elder” have also often been taken synonymously. I am a little more comfortable with the word “elder” than “pastor.” The NIV Exhaustive Concordance lists the word “elder” 188 times (59 of which are in the New Testament). Throughout the Gospels the word “elder” seems to be used mostly within Judaism and in the context of the chief priests and teachers of the law.

When we come to the book of Acts, we see that even Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in each church” (Acts 14:23) suggesting a plurality of elders. Likewise, 1 Timothy 5:17 speaks about “the elders who direct the affairs of the church,” which again suggests a plurality of elders.

The elders are the spiritual leaders of the church unlike the deacons who simply looked after the physical needs of the people (Acts 6:1-7). One can more easily justify making an office of “elders” for the local church body than one can of “pastor.” At least with regards to “elder” there is biblical support for doing so.

Who then are the elders to be in the church? The first prerequisite is that they be mature in their faith and not new converts. Paul warned Timothy to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). Some cults such as Mormons have in error turned teenage boys into “elders” when they go on their “mission.” How can an 18-20 year old be an elder? They haven’t even begun to live yet and certainly don’t have the wisdom of a mature faith to guide anyone in their own spiritual pilgrimage. Certainly Paul’s warning to Timothy is a wise one.

The responsibility of “pastor” is every believer’s equally
1 Corinthians 14: 26-31, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (emphasis mine).

The responsibility for the ministering, teaching, spiritually nourishing and caring for the church belongs to each member of the body. By this I don’t mean those who have taken out official membership in a local congregation. No, what I mean by member is anyone who has been born again, regardless where they fellowship. No one person, pastor or otherwise, has spiritual authority over another. The only exception is when it comes to individual family units. Who has spiritual authority over children and youth? Not a “Youth Pastor” for the Bible doesn’t even speak of one. No, the only spiritual authority over children and youth is the father and mother of the household (Ephesians 6:1). Who has spiritual authority over the unmarried woman? Not the pastor, but rather her father. Who has spiritual authority over the married woman? Not the pastor but rather her husband (Ephesians 5:23; 1Cor. 14:35). Who has spiritual authority over the man? Not the pastor, but rather Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 5:23b).

I was speaking to a friend and mentor of my daughter's recently. She is significantly older than my daughter and is a former high school teacher of hers. She was discussing her upcoming marriage and shared that she asked a mutual friend of ours to officiate at her wedding. One always thinks of this role as being fulfilled by a “pastor” or judge, but apparently anyone can obtain a license to officiate a specific wedding on a specific date (While this was the case in Alberta, apparently it now no longer is). When I asked her about it, she said in effect that, “He is the most godly man I know.” It’s interesting that our friend is not an “official” pastor and yet she ranked him as being godlier than any “official” pastor that she knew or ever met.

I believe that the lesson here is that all God-given gifts, including that of “pastor” (whatever that really is), are to individual ordinary people who have been born again by the Spirit of God and are not to be taken as “offices” in some institutional church. We are all equal and the only “Pastor” that any of us share is Christ Jesus alone. He alone is the Great Shepherd.

Who really leads and teaches us anyway?
When I was pastoring in one church, I remember one brother who would often say in error that we couldn’t have just anyone teaching because otherwise it would be, in his words, “the blind leading the blind.” But was he correct in that assumption? I don’t believe so. Consider all the heresies that ever plagued Christendom. Where did they come from? From some rogue crackpot preacher standing on a street corner somewhere? No, they came from church leaders inside institutional churches. So much for the argument of the blind leading the blind. Two verses quickly come to mind.

Jesus said, “But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you …But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes he will guide you into all truth” (John 14:26, 16:13). Did Jesus say that Pastor _____ would teach you and me all things, and guide you and me in understanding truth? No, He said that the Holy Spirit would be our guide in matters of truth. Who will remind us of the things that Jesus said? Is it the pastor? No, according to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit. If we have in fact been born again, then it is the Holy Spirit who dwells within each of us and it is He alone who is also our guide and teacher.

John said, “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing that you received from him remains in you and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him” (1 John 2:26-27). First of all, there are those who are trying to lead us astray in this whole matter. We would do well to beware of anyone who would want to be a leader over us. Secondly, there is an “anointing” in each genuine believer that remains in each believer (it’s not going anywhere) and as such it is each individual’s personal anointing by the Holy Spirit that teaches each genuinely born again believer. It is not the anointing of the so-called leaders that teach you and me, but rather it is our own personal anointing that teaches us all things. Are there then such things as the “blind leading the blind?” Among non-Christians that may be possible, but not among the genuinely born again! Jesus said, after all, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). If it is the Father who has drawn me to Him, then it is also the Father who will see to my teaching through the Holy Spirit.

What is the role of a “pastor” then? While I once thought I knew, in recent times and up to the time of this writing I am less than sure. After all, as we already mentioned, how can we build an entire doctrine of the role of “pastor” from a single occurrence of the word in Scripture? Yet, there is no disputing that the gift of “pastor” is there. The only question is, what is it really?

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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