In the summer of 1990, while pastoring a
denominational church in rural Mississippi, 1 felt led to teach a Bible study
series on the New Testament pattern for the church and its
leadership. We were not very far into this study before I began to seriously
question the scripturalness of many of our church practices and
traditions. Most troublesome was the question of whether or not my
own position as the Pastor of a local church was a scriptural one.
I had always assumed that the one-Pastor system, being the pattern
followed in the overwhelming majority of churches today, was founded
upon Scripture. But as I began to earnestly study the Scriptures on the issue of
church leadership, one disturbing question kept intruding itself-a
question I present here for the sober consideration of the reader. Where in
Scripture is there warrant for one man to be the spiritual leader and
authority over the local church?
Never mind that this is
the pattern unquestioningly followed throughout Christendom today. Where is it
in Scripture? As I searched the length and breadth of the New
Testament, it became obvious to me that such a pattern was nowhere to be
found. Rather, I found that the primary role in shepherding the New
Testament churches was exercised, not by a solitary Pastor, but by a
plurality of men, described as "elders" or overseers.
when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting,
they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)
From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders
of the church.... He said unto them... Take heed therefore unto
yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you
overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with
his own blood. (Acts 20:17-28)
Paul and Timotheus, the
servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at
Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: (Phil.1:1)
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order
the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I
had appointed thee: (Titus 1:5)
Is any sick among you? let
him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him
with oil in the name of the Lord: (James 5:14)
The quotation above from Acts 20 makes it clear that the "elders" and
"overseers" are the same persons, and that it is they who are given
responsibility to shepherd, or pastor the church of God. ("Shepherd" is the
literal meaning of the word "pastor.") So while others besides elders
may exercise a pastoral gift-Bible teachers, for instance, there is no hint in
Scripture of anyone claiming to be "the Pastor" of a local church and
assuming a position of oversight apart from and superior to the work of the
elders. We read nothing of a "Senior Pastor," or "Presiding Elder."
Such titles, in fact come perilously close to blasphemy, since Christ
Himself is spoken of as "the Chief Shepherd" (1 Peter 5:4).
The apostle Peter confirms that the terms "elders" and "overseers"
refer to the same persons, and that their work is that of pastoring
the flock: The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a
witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory
that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking
the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for
filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; (1 Peter 5:1-2)
we read in Ephesians 4:11 that God has given "some as pastors" (literally,
"shepherds"), can we not assume that this refers primarily to these
elders, or overseers, and not to a one-man office about which the rest of the
New Testament is completely silent. Nor is all this mere wrangling
The point to be fixed clearly in the
mind from the above scriptures is that, in the New Testament, churches were
never shepherded by one man, whatever his title or designation, but
by a plurality of men. Further, the clear impression given by these
scriptures is that elders were generally raised up by God from within the local
church, not hired and imported from outside-and certainly not from
the ranks of a professional "clergy".
This gives rise to
another question. Where in Scripture is there any such thing as a servant of the
Lord contracting to receive a stated salary from a church? The New
Testament clearly sets forth the principle that those who preach the gospel are
entitled to "live from the gospel" (Matt. 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 9:14; 1
Tim. 5:17-18), but there is never any indication that this involves a
stated salary, but rather, free will gifts:
Let him that
is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good
Now you Philippians know also that in
the beginning of the gospel... no church shared with me concerning giving and
receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once
and again for my necessities. (Phil. 4:10-16)
the lawyer and Apollos on their journey diligently, that nothing be wanting unto
them. And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary
uses, that they be not unfruitful.(Titus 3:13-14)
case in Scripture of a "minister" receiving a fixed salary occurs in Judges 17-a
situation filled with compromise and idolatry!
But did not Jesus say, "The laborer is worthy of his hire" (Luke 10:7)? True,
but the briefest glance at the immediate context, where these
laborers are instructed to carry neither purse nor scrip, and to "eat and drink
such things as are set before you"-shows that a fixed salary was the
last thing our Lord had in view. Yes, the Lord's laborer is worthy of his hire,
but who is it that "hires" him? In whose employ is he--the church's
or the Lord's? Surely the Lord's, but the system of a salaried
pastorate implies otherwise. I cannot help but believe that the present-day
"Pastor search" process, complete with resumes, salary negotiations,
trial sermons, and the like, is a grievous offence to the Spirit of God. Again
our urgent question must be: where is all this in Scripture?
Where also is the notion that the public ministry of the
Word is to be confined to one man in a local church, and that it is
contingent upon him being "ordained" by some human authority? On the contrary,
we read: Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other
judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold
his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn,
and all may be comforted. (1 Cor 14:29-31)
one's view concerning the nature of the gift of prophecy and its validity for
today, it is abundantly clear that the practice of one man
monopolizing the public ministry of the Word was utterly foreign to the New
Sad consequences So when
confronted with the plain teaching of Scripture, I could not escape the
conclusion that the oversight of the local church is to be exercised
by mature brethren raised up by the Holy Spirit from within the church. and that
public ministry of the Word is open to any brother who has been
divinely gifted for it. In Contrast, most churches today entrust the spiritual
leadership of the congregation and the vast majority of the public
ministry to a solitary Pastor, who is chosen from among the
professional "clergy," imported from outside the church and promised a fixed
salary for his services. Can the reader-with his New Testament open
before him-deny that this is a drastic departure from the scriptural pattern?
Indeed it is, and it has had predictably severe consequences on the
spiritual life of churches. The following are only some of the problems that are
created or aggravated by this unscriptural one-Pastor system:
(1) Perpetuates the deplorable distinction between
"clergy" and "laity." No more pernicious device of the devil has ever
been deployed than this utterly unscriptural distinction. Pastors today grieve
about being unable to involve the "laity." without ever considering
that it is the very system of dividing Christians into two classes
that is to blame.
The answer is not to "involve" the
laity, but to abolish it! Away with the idea that Christian work is the province
of a special few!
(2) Causes believers to
neglect their own responsibility for witnessing to the lost, encouraging the
brethren, in-depth Bible study, visiting the sick, etc., out of a
conscious or subconscious assumption that these are "the Pastor's Jobs." Often
the only one visibly working for Christ in the community is the
Pastor, whose witness is impaired by the fact that he is perceived as
paid to do so, And how rare is serious Bible study outside of the Pastor's
study! There is a widespread delusion that only the "ordained" Pastor
is qualified to mine the riches of God's Word, and that only he is responsible
for using the Word to encourage the brethren and warn the lost. As a
result, men who have been believers in Christ for thirty or forty years and "by
this time ought to be teachers" are still being spoon-fed them-
selves. (Heb. 5:12) In our churches today this is not the unfortunate
exception. It is the norm. Of all the damage wreaked by the unscriptural system
of handing over the ministry of the church to a single professional
(or in larger churches, a staff of professionals), this debilitating
effect on the men of the congregation is perhaps the most tragic.
(3) Leaves little or no room for the exercise of spiritual gifts,
other than the Pastor's, in the gatherings of the church.
(4) Leads to churches being built in the flesh, as programs, promotion, and the
Pastor's personality must replace the spiritual gifts of the body.
(5) Produces widespread discouragement among Pastors, who
are trying earnestly to fill an unscriptural role.
Denies Pastors the fellowship in the ministry they so desperately need. Usually
the difference in spiritual vision and ministry responsibility
between the Pastor and the congregation is so wide that his only meaningful
fellowship is with other Pastors, who are not fellow-laborers in the
same field, but have their own fields to worry about.
Tends to negate the presidency of the Holy Spirit in the church.
Though the Pastor may earnestly seek the mind of the Spirit, his pein
the church. Though the Pastor may earnestly seek the mind of the
Spirit, his perception is clouded by his own personality, desires, etc. How much
better, when formulating plans or making a decision, for the elders
as a group, along with other spiritual men, to come before the Lord in prayer.
(8) Since one man is given responsibility for the entire
ministry of the church-and since no one man has all the gifts-Pastors
are forced to spend much of their time doing ministry they are not
supernaturally gifted to do, or else that ministry goes undone.
(9) Creates a situation where one person, the Pastor, can
turn a doctrinally sound church into a heretical church overnight.
Having multiple elders, while not providing absolute immunity from doctrinal
error, is a powerful check against heretical teaching.
(10) Leads to a paralyzing shortage of national Christian workers in
many mission areas, because of the assumption that these workers must
be professionally trained and imported from outside the church. Where is the
confidence that the Lord has already supplied the body with the
leadership gifts needed?
(11) Puts undue pressure on the
Pastor's wife and children, as they are forced to live in a "fishbowl"
environment as "the preacher's" family.
are but a sampling of the consequences that I believe can be laid squarely at
the feet of unscriptural beliefs and practices concerning the
Some Objections Answered
Objection 1: The proper role of a pastor is not to assume the entire ministry of
the church, but to mobilize and equip the saints to do the work of
the ministry. Therefore, most of the problems you have listed are results, not
of the single-Pastor system itself, but of the abuse of that system.
Reply: Since the single-Pastor system is universally
beset with these problems, the burden of proof lies on its defenders to
prove that the system itself is not at fault, particularly since it
is a system with no warrant in Scripture. The concept of a church led
by a Pastor-equipper who mobilizes the saints to do the work of the ministry
sounds attractive, but the experience of thousands of frustrated
Pastors testifies that it simply does not work. There is simply too deeply
ingrained a perception in the minds of the congregation that
Christian work is for a special few. The clergy-laity gap is the great
demobilizer of the saints. Anyone trying to abolish that gap is
doomed to failure while clinging to a system where one man, professionally
trained and credentialed, is viewed as "the Minister." Incidentally,
those who espouse the concept of the Pastor- equipper normally have a
very limited notion of what the "work of the ministry" includes. For instance,
even the Pastor who makes equipping the saints an emphasis of his
ministry will normally call a fellow clergyman-not someone from the
congregation-to fill the pulpit when he is away.
2: The approach you have suggested would produce incompetent church leadership
at best, and doctrinal mayhem at worst.
This is a serious charge because it I implies that the Holy Spirit is
incompetent in placing the proper leadership gifts within each
church. Is it seminary training that qualifies a man for leadership in the
church, or the gifts of the Spirit? We have often been guilty of
giving lip service to the latter, while placing greater weight on the former.
Objection 3: The word "overseer" is singular in 1 Timothy
3:2 and Titus 1:7 where the qualifications of the overseer are
described. This suggests at least the possibility of "overseer" being a one-man
Reply: It is a most natural use of language to
employ the singular when describing the qualifications of a position. For
instance, I might say, "A United States Senator (or even, the United
States Senator) must be a man of integrity. honor, etc." without in
the least implying that there is only one United States Senator, or even one per
state! To stress Paul's perfectly explicable use of the singular
here, while ignoring the overwhelming evidence of the rest of the New Testament,
would be a strange and twisted exegesis. At any rate, a closer look
at Titus 1:5-7 rules out the possibility that Paul was advocating a
one-pastor system. How can the use of the singular "overseer" in verse 7
possibly imply that each local church is to have only one overseer,
when two verses earlier Paul had introduced the subject by reminding Titus of
his instructions to "appoint elders [plural I in every city"?
To my mind, this is conclusive.
Objection 4: Were not the
"Pastoral Epistles" addressed to single individuals?
Reply: This objection is based on the common misconception that Timothy and
Titus were each "Pastors" of local churches. This is simply not true.
To quote from the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary: "Though these letters do
furnish worthwhile directions for pastors, the addressees were not
Pastors in the usual present-day sense of that term. Rather, they were Paul's
special envoys sent by him on specific missions and entrusted with
concrete assignments according to the need of the hour."
Objection 5: What about the leadership role of James at Jerusalem
(Acts 12:17). Epaphras at Colossae (Col. 4:12). And Epaphroditus at
Philippi (Phil. 2:25)?
Reply: This objection, which I have
heard used in defense of the one-Pastor system is a patent example of reading
the Word of God through the distorting lens of tradition. James, the
Lord's brother, was an apostle (Gal. 1:19). not a Pastor. Epaphras
was an evangelist. The "fellow bond-servant" of Paul who brought the gospel to
the Colossians (Col. 1:7). (Strange that if he were "Pastor" of the
church at Colossae. he is never seen as present there, but always with Paul
elsewhere!. (Col. 4:12; Philem. 23) Epaphroditus is simply described
as one of Paul's fellow-workers who was sent by the Philippian church as a
minister to his needs. All this is evidence for the one-Pastor
Objection 6: Do not the "angels" of the churches
in Revelation 2-3 refer to Pastors (e.g. "To the angel of the church in
Ephesus write...," etc.), and is there not one per church?
Reply: No person reading the New Testament apart from
preconceived notions would ever imagine that the "angels" of
Revelation 2-3 refer to Pastors. Although the Greek word angelos may be
translated "messenger," in every other occurrence of the word in
Revelation-and it occurs 76 times!-it unquestionably refers to literal angels.
If it does mean "messenger" in Revelation 2-3, it still could hardly
be stretched to mean "pastor." In every case where the New Testament
uses the phrase messenger of..." (e.g. "messenger of Satan," "messengers of
John," etc.), it always describes by whom the messenger is sent,
never to whom. In other words, "the messenger of the church in Ephesus"
would not likely mean a messenger sent to the church, but a messenger
sent by the church, perhaps as part of a delegation to minister to the apostle
in his exile on Patmos and to receive instructions from him.
Objection 7: Perhaps the many New Testament references to
multiple elders are due to the fact that, while each church had only
one elder or overseer, each city had several different churches. For instance,
when Paul writes to "the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi,
including the overseers and deacons" (Phil. 1: 1), there may have been a number
of congregations in Philippi, each with their own overseer, or
Reply: This reasoning may seem to answer certain
passages, but it utterly falls apart in view of others, such as Acts 14:23
("So when they had appointed elders in every church...), James 5:14
("Let him call for the elders of the church"), etc.
Objection 8: Even if it can be proven that the New Testament churches had
multiple elders that would not necessarily be normative for the
church today. After all, everyone agrees that believers in the Jerusalem church
sold their goods and had all things in common, yet who suggests
returning to that pattern today?
Reply: To say that the
pattern of the New Testament church is not normative for us today is tantamount
to saying that God has left us without any pattern at all.
Distressing thought! Has God really left us at the mercy of human ingenuity in
deciding how the ministry of His Church is to be ordered? Rather, let
us say with the Psalmist, "I esteem right all Thy precepts concerning
everything" (Ps. 119:128). In regard to the selling of goods by believers in the
Jerusalem church: (1) The passage in question, Acts 2:42-47, does not
say that all those who believed sold all their possessions. This was not
"Christian communism" as it is sometimes pictured. The use of the
imperfect tense in verse 45 implies that from time to time, as
necessary, they sold their goods to distribute to brethren in need. (2) I, for
one, am not prepared to say that the example of these early Jerusalem
saints is not the norm for believers today, particularly in light of the words
of John's epistle: But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his
brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how
dwelleth the love of God in him. (1 John 3:17)
Objection 9: You cannot deny that God has through the years mightily blessed
many Pastors and churches who have used the one-Pastor system, and
continues to do so today.
Reply: No one would think of
denying this. Yet the problems mentioned above cannot reasonably be denied
either. And who would claim that the fruitfulness of the Church as a
whole is anywhere near the divinely intended level? Besides, it is a
mistake to think that because God graciously blesses someone operating under a
certain set of beliefs or practices, that He thereby endorses those
beliefs or practices. God has, for instance, greatly used many preachers,
teachers, and missionaries who have held to the teaching that
Christians may lose their salvation. Yet few who are taught in the Scriptures
would suggest that this view therefore has God's sanction, or that it
is unimportant to uphold the scriptural teaching of Salvation. Praise God,
He does not require us to be perfect in our interpretation of
Scripture before He will use us. If so, who could hope to be used?
But as we are given further light on the Scriptures, it is our duty and our Joy
to conform our beliefs and practices as nearly as possible to the
Word of God.
Objection 10: A multiple-elder system might
well solve some problems, but at the same time it would create a whole new set
of problems of its own.
Reply: This I willingly
admit. When, however, you are operating under a scriptural pattern, the problems
that arise are scriptural problems. That is, they are problems that
have been anticipated in Scripture and for which guidance is provided in
Scripture. Also, let us not forget that, quite apart from the
question of what problems might be solved or created, we ought to
follow the New Testament pattern simply because it is the New Testament pattern.
We conform to the authority of Scripture as a matter of principle,
not for pragmatic reasons. But when we do so, we invariably find God's way to be
the best way.
Objection 11: Surely you don't think all the
problems you mentioned would vanish if our churches simply changed their pattern
Reply: Unfortunately, no. Not
overnight at least, particularly where the clergy-laity mentality has been
firmly entrenched for decades. But even in such a case a return to
the New Testament pattern, if wholeheartedly adopted by the local church,
would certainly produce a dramatic effect. The manifold problems and
unscriptural attitudes nurtured by the false clergy-laity distinction
could at least begin to be resolved. In other situations, where a fresh start is
possible (such as on the mission field, in new churches, or with new
converts), these problems can be avoided altogether.
shall we say then? The one-man pastorate, far from having the sanction of
Scripture, is essentially a "Protestantized" holdover from the Roman
Catholic clerical system. For those of us who claim the Bible, rather than
tradition, as our authority, it is time to fervently search the
Scriptures to see if these things are so. (Acts 17:11) I would that every
reader of this booklet might share the blessing I have found by
"turning my feet to His testimonies" (Ps. 119:59) and choosing to meet in
fellowship with those who gather in New Testament simplicity and
order. I have written more about this in a small booklet entitled, What
I Have Found: My introduction to "brethren" assemblies. *
A free copy may be obtained by writing to the publisher of this
booklet. Published by Spread the Word 2721
Oberlin Drive York, PA 17404