From time to time people ask why we don’t have a senior or lead pastor as many other churches do. After my recent post Just call me Curt, I received quite a few questions regarding the nature of our church leadership, and why we’ve structured it this way. This is an important issue, and so we’re going to devote some attention to it. In this post, I’m going to give a basic overview of our leadership structure and the biblical reasons for it. In subsequent posts, I’ll tackle some of the most common objections to our type of church leadership.
While there are specific biblical reasons for our approach—and we’ll examine them—it might be helpful for me to share my experience in discovering these scriptural principles. My story is by no means unique. I’ve heard similar accounts from many others.
In the early 90s, I was part of a church in the Calvary Chapel movement. Calvary Chapels typically put great emphasis on being biblical in their approach to Christian teaching and ministry. Most of them show a healthy balance between heart-felt, passionate worship and solid, expositional teaching of the Word. I eventually was invited to become part of a small group of leaders being trained to become pastors. I felt God’s leading into a ministry of pastoring and teaching, which, as I understood it, meant serving under the leadership of a senior pastor or, quite possibly, as a senior pastor myself. Because I desired to do everything in a biblical manner, I sought to be a good student of the Word and see just what the Bible had to say to me as a future pastor.
You can imagine my surprise when I could find no mention of senior pastors in the Bible, and only one place where the English word “pastor” was used at all! That was it. There were no passages describing the “pastor” of a church, or directly addressing pastors. It was confusing, to say the least.
But I wasn’t satisfied with this, and resolved to dig more deeply into the original languages. The Greek word translated ‘pastor’ in that single reference (Ephesians 4:11) is poimēn. Unlike the English word ‘pastor,’ poimēn is used 18 times in the New Testament. It’s translated ‘pastor’ only once; the other 17 times, it’s rendered ‘shepherd.’ This made sense to me. I knew the English word pastor means shepherd. This connection is even more clear in Spanish, where there is only one word used. For example, El Buen Pastor is often used as a church name: The Good Shepherd.
So now I could search out what the Bible had to say concerning those who shepherded or pastored the churches. Again, I was surprised. According to Scripture, the people responsible for the shepherding/pastoring of the church are the elders or overseers of the church.
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them, “. . . 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 20:17-18, 28
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder . . . : 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; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
1 Peter 5:1-3
As I studied these, and other, passages, it also became clear that the apostles were using the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ interchangeably. The Acts passage above demonstrates this well. Paul is speaking to the elders of the church, refers to them as overseers (or bishops in some older translations), and then tells them they are to be shepherds/pastors of the church of God. In 1 Peter 5, he describes one of the duties of these elders as “watching over” the flock, which more literally means ‘overseeing’ them, again using the terms synonymously. And, again, these elders are to be shepherds/pastors of God’s flock. Paul’s instructions to Titus provide us another example of the interchangeable nature of the terms elder and overseer:
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless . . . since an overseer manages God’s household.
Also, according to 1 Timothy 5:17, the elders of the church are the ones doing the preaching and teaching, not the “senior pastor.” I was finding that the biblical model of pastoral leadership seemed surprisingly different from what I had seen in church ministry.
The Bible never specifically addresses ‘pastors’ because it usually refers to the pastoral leaders of the church as ‘elders.’ The elders were the pastors of the New Testament church. There is no biblical distinction between an elder, an overseer/bishop, and a pastor of a church. Elder and overseer are different terms for the same church office, and pastor describes the function of these leaders (what they do, i.e. they shepherd the church).
Not only do we not find any churches in the Bible led by a senior pastor, we don’t find any examples of one man serving as the sole elder or pastor of a church either. But while the traditional office of pastor is strangely missing from Scripture, there is a clear pattern of each church being led by a group of godly elders/pastors. The first Christian church was led by a group of 12 apostles, with no one taking a separate office of “senior apostle.” This model is consistently followed and taught throughout the New Testament:
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders [plural] for them in each church [singular] and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
. . . Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.
. . . To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
1 Timothy 5:17
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.
Is any one of you sick? Call the elders of the church to pray over you . . .
The Bible definitely shows a strong pattern of each individual church being led by a group of leaders. And, again, it never shows one man taking a senior pastor role. We are given accounts in Scripture of elders being appointed, qualifications for elders, and instructions given directly to elders. But with all of the issues the churches were facing, and all of the letters being sent to the churches, we don’t have even a single letter sent to “the pastor” of the church in Corinth, or Ephesus, etc. From our modern perspective, that’s a pretty shocking absence. We have no account of the appointment of a senior or sole pastor, no qualifications for a senior or sole pastor, and nowhere is “the pastor” of a church directly addressed.
If we are going to designate one leader as the pastor of a church, in distinction from the other elders, the burden is on us to show how this is scriptural. As Alexander Strauch has pointed out, the Bible gives us far more information concerning the plural leadership of the church than it does many other important teachings, such as baptism and communion. Can we ignore it?
By using different terms interchangeably for the same church office, Scripture demonstrates it isn’t the name of the leadership position that’s important but the nature of the leadership role. Whether we call these leaders elders, overseers, bishops, ministers, or pastors, the important thing is we’re following the biblical model of church leadership by a council of leaders with no leader promoted to authority over the rest.
The purpose of this post is to explain the reasons for our church leadership structure, not to attack any other churches. It was encouraging to me to find I wasn’t alone in seeing these discrepancies between common traditional models and the scriptural pattern, that pastors and scholars have been discussing these issues throughout much of the history of the church. The consensus among an overwhelming majority of biblical scholars is that the first century church was led as I’ve described above. And more churches every day are committing themselves to applying these New Testament principles of church leadership.
One last point: I find it very compelling that the only use in Scripture of the Greek word for a chief or head pastor (archepoimēn) is used specifically of Christ in 1 Peter 5:4. We need to be wary of encroaching on the authority of our Lord. The body has only one Head; the kingdom has only one King. The elders/pastors of a church are merely under-shepherds who look to the Chief Shepherd of the flock for his will concerning his sheep. Like good sheepdogs, we don’t draw the sheep after us; we direct their attention continually to the Shepherd. My prayer is we would be very sensitive to the leading and guiding of our ‘Senior Pastor,’ and that we would be faithful to fulfill his will, for his glory and the benefit of his people.
If you’re interested in studying more on this topic, I would recommend Alexander Strauch’s excellent book Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. This book has become the standard work on church elders and pastoral leadership. (We have a copy in the church library.)
As I mentioned, I’ll be covering some of the most common challenges to this view in upcoming posts. If you’d like to submit a challenge of your own, let me know!
Elders and pastoral leadership series:
Why we don’t have a senior pastor [see above]