Rethinking Church, Part One: The Centrality of the Pastor

People have become disillusioned with the institutional church and are leaving it in droves. From all the statistics I've read the reasons vary, but a large number who've left are leaving not because they've left Jesus, but because they feel the institutional church has. As a result, many are leaving it and finding more authentic community outside of its walls, myself included. They are done. Josh Packard was correct in saying, 

"The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they're dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they've decided they are better off without organized religion." - Source: Meet the Dones 

This post is part one of a five-part series I'm calling Rethinking Church. In this post, we're simply going to sort out what a pastor is. This will be the foundation for the posts that follow. I'll be writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. I thought it good to start by looking more closely at the role of pastors because I feel one way the modern institutional church has complicated things and come off the rails is by making the pastor the focal point of the church, not unlike the CEO of a corporation. This top-down approach to doing church has been handed to us by hundreds of years of church tradition, not by any mandate found in scripture or coming from God. 

From my own experience and my conversations with others, I see at least five areas where I believe the institutional church has erred to varying degrees, opening the door to a structure within the church that is crippling it and causing disillusionment in those that have left. I'm writing this series in the following order: 

I strongly urge you to read these in the order written as each one builds on the previous. 

Not surprisingly, the New Testament talks about pastors. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul reminds us of the gifts God has given to his church for the specific purpose of building itself up in love. He says, 

"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11)

 Did you know this is the only occurrence in the New Testament, outside of references to Jesus himself, of the word translated here by the ESV as "shepherds" when written in the context of describing the body of Christ? But please don't take my word for it. Do the research. Your version may read "Pastors" (NIV, NASB, KJV). I'm good with either translation. Both convey what I think is the point of the passage. The body of Christ has been given shepherds (pastors) ultimately for the equipping and building up of itself in love. But this is the only time in the entire New Testament that this noun translated pastor or shepherd appears, outside of clear references to Jesus. And there's nothing here describing anything specific regarding how that building up and equipping is to be done or what it's to look like. 

But we've turned this one verse into a thing. We've institutionalized the pastor and made them into something bigger than real life - something bigger than any of us can handle, including the pastors themselves. Remember, I'm speaking from experience as one of those pastors. The pastor has become the central figure in most of our western church structures. It's been that way for a long time. We've provided them with special chairs to sit in, apart from the rest of us, or placed them on an elevated platform apart from the rest of us, or both. Sometimes, we even require them to live on the church property (enter, the parsonage) separated from the rest of us in the community. But thankfully, that is less common than it used to be. Communication on Sunday is one-way for the most part, from them to us. We address them using honorific titles that mark them out from the rest of us and puts even greater distance between us and them. Worship, communion, baptisms, etc. all flow through the pastor or the clerical staff under the direction of the pastor. The pastor's under an incredible amount of pressure from both without and within. It's unfair to both the pastor and to the rest of the assembly and in my opinion, it's killing genuine community. I'm speaking from both personal experience and observation. 

But we didn't get here by accident. It may surprise you to know that our journey here was intentional and it began a long time ago with one of the church's apostolic fathers. Apostolic father is the title usually given to the church leaders of the early second century - those whose lives either overlapped the lives of the last Apostles (the twelve) and were directly influenced by them, or were close associates with someone who knew one of the twelve Apostles personally. 

One such apostolic father was Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius of Antioch (died AD 110) was a pastor (bishop) in the church at Antioch in the very early 2nd century. He had a passion for Christ and for unity in the church at a time marked by sharp divisions. However, in his zeal to preserve unity, he began making what I believe is a very harmful distinction between pastors, elders, and bishops and the rest of the people that resulted in a hierarchy of top-down rule imposed on the body of Christ. That distinction is still with us today in many forms. He was among the first to make a sharp distinction between bishops (pastors) and elders and was the first to elevate the role of bishop (pastor) to a harmfully authoritative one. 

Ignatius was condemned to death by the Roman authorities for simply being a Christian and as he was being escorted to Rome to be executed, he wrote seven letters to seven different churches. In his Letter to Smyrna (ca. AD 110), he wrote: 

"Shun divisions as the beginning of evil. Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters as the apostles; and respect your deacons as you would respect God's commandment. Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church. (Emphasis mine.) 

Kudos to Ignatius for his zeal in trying to address hurtful divisions in the body of Christ. That being said, there are a couple of things we need to talk about in this quote. The first is what I've already alluded to, namely that Ignatius drew a sharp distinction between a bishop (overseer) and a presbyter (elder). What I find intriguing about this is that while the New Testament makes no such distinction, Ignatius was already formulating that distinction early in the second century, some 10-15 years after the death of the last apostle, John. In the New Testament, "elder" and "bishop" refer to the same person and are used interchangeably to describe different functions of the same gift (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). But by AD 180, the sharp distinction that Ignatius initiated in his writings was universally accepted as the norm. It became the accepted norm in the local assemblies by the end of the second century to have one bishop ruling and several elders under his authority. By the middle of the third century, this pattern was solidly in place. The bishop served as sole leader in the local assembly in almost every way and the elders took on a secondary role under the top-down direction of the bishop. Sound familiar? 

Justin Martyr (mid 2nd century) preferred to call the single bishop the "president of the brothers." In almost every way, the bishop came to possess sole authority in the church and slowly became her focal point. He led corporate worship, oversaw church discipline, had sole authority and responsibility in the appointment of new bishops and elders, did all the baptizing, and presided over the Lord's supper. This system flourished even more under Constantine (early 4th century) as the pastor became a state-sanctioned professional paid position, and continues in many forms to the present day. But there's too much info there to put in this blog post. Grab a good book on church history and check it out. The bishop could delegate some of these responsibilities to "his" elders, but ultimately, he had sole authority in these matters. I could say a lot about this, but let me summarize by saying that the beautiful gift given to the body of Christ of pastor, shepherd, bishop, or overseer got messy right away as it moved away from the clear model found in the New Testament of a plurality of elders shepherding, equipping, serving, and guarding the church in such a way so as to promote the priesthood of all believers, to shutting down any chance the priesthood of all believers ever had of functioning as communication became one-way and unilateral top-down authority was imposed to keep divisions at bay. 

Dealing with divisions in the church can get ugly (been there, done that), but Ignatius' remedy for disunity in the church was to implement, reorganize, and restructure the church's "leadership" by infusing it with a dominating, authoritative power foreign to the New Testament and then insisting that everyone in the church submit to it. "Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters [elders] as the apostles" creates an environment in the body of Christ that is both overwhelmingly burdensome and ripe for abuse of power in the wrong hands. Add to it statements like, "Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop" and "Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes" and we find ourselves being immersed into a burdensome top-down authoritative Clergy-Laity distinction because the entire church is built around one professional person (not Jesus) and if that one person fails to show up, the poor laity is hosed because the rest of us have been told we're unqualified to do anything without the professional pastor in the room. 

I don't believe this is what Jesus intended for his body. Tradition has given this to us, not the Bible and not the Holy Spirit. Jesus asked some pointed questions about traditions taking precedence over God's revealed will: 

“And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? ...So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God." (Matthew 15:3, 6

Pastors, Elders, Bishops, and Overseers 

One question we have to ask is how to sort out these terms. How does the New Testament use the terms pastor, elder, bishop, and overseer? The answer is surprisingly simple: all of these terms are used interchangeably to refer to the same person. Consider the following: 

Now from Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.... "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood." (Acts 20:17, 28, emphasis mine) 

In this beautiful scene of Paul's final farewell to the Ephesians, he calls for and meets with, the elders of the church. It's important to note that this word is always in the plural when referring to elders in the church (cf. Acts 14:23, 15:6, 1 Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1). The idea of a sole elder or a senior elder is foreign to the New Testament. Note also, that the elders Paul is talking to have been gifted by the Holy Spirit as the church's overseers. The elders are the church's overseers (your version may translate "overseer" as "bishop"). To oversee or bishop the church in this context means to watch over and protect it from ravenous wolves determined to destroy the flock by polluting the gospel. These wolves emerge both from within the assembly and from outside. 

Bishoping (if I can use that word) or overseeing is one function of the elders and in this context, it has to do with protecting the church from self-centered wolves. The elders in this instance are the bishops/overseers. Three terms, one group of people. This is reinforced in Paul's letter to Titus: 

"This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain," (Titus 1:5, 7 emphasis mine)

Paul left Titus in Crete to tie up some loose ends in the newly planted congregations there. Namely, to appoint elders (plural) in every town. Note once again how Paul uses the terms elder and overseer (again, your translation may use bishop in place of overseer) interchangeably to refer to the same person. Elders=Overseers. Elders=Bishops, Overseers=Bishops. These same elders are also the church's shepherds or pastors: 

"So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3 emphasis mine) 

Not surprisingly, Peter follows the same pattern of plurality in addressing the elders of the church as Paul did. But he does something a little different here. He uses overseer (bishop) as an action of exercising oversight. The elders as overseers are to exercise oversight of the local assembly. As I noted above, overseeing has to do with protecting the church from those who would seek to corrupt the New Covenant gospel of grace. That makes sense. It has nothing to do with position, rank, power, or authority, as we will see in part two of this series. But then Peter introduces a third concept: elders (overseers or bishops) are instructed to shepherd the flock. Your translation may read "feed the flock." In much the same way as he chose an action to show that elders (or bishops) exercise oversight of the flock, he chose an action word to show that elders (bishops or overseers) also shepherd the flock. The word translated shepherd or feed in this passage is a verb form of the word shepherd or pastor in Ephesians 4:11. The elders are also shepherds who shepherd the local assembly. In other words, the elders are also pastors who pastor or shepherd the church. The idea of elders also being the church's shepherds or pastors takes us right back to Ephesian 4:11 where I started this blog. 

"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers," (Ephesians 4:11)

Let me remind you of what I said earlier: your translation may read "pastors and teachers." What can we conclude? The elders of the church are also its overseers or bishops, as evidenced by their exercising oversight, and they are its shepherds or pastors, evidenced by their feeding, pastoring, or shepherding the flock and caring for the people. In the New Testament, elders = overseers = bishops = pastors = shepherds. These are different aspects of the same person or people within the local congregation, given to it for equipping, protecting, serving, and the building up of itself in love. 

But beginning with Ignatius, we didn't waste much time in turning it into something else. Something harmful to the functioning of the church and crippling to the priesthood of all believers. In the New Testament, "elders" is the most common term used in referring to the church's shepherds. But as we've seen, Scripture uses other terms like "overseer," "bishop," "pastor," and "shepherd" to emphasize and describe different functions or aspects of the same person. As we will see in part two of this series, these descriptions were never intended as titles of honor, authority, power, or distinction to set apart one group of people in the church from another. 

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis mine)

Up Next: The pastor's calling, authority, and the use of honorific titles

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