This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.
Some people think the ministries of Peter and James show a senior pastor role in the New Testament churches. Let’s consider each of these key leaders.
Most evangelical Christians reject the idea that Peter was the “Pope” of the New Testament church—and for good reason, since this is not taught anywhere in Scripture. But I find it curious that many of these same people accept the idea that Peter was in leadership over his fellow apostles, a kind of “senior apostle,” even though this idea relies on some of the very same assumptions! Of course, the most important question is: What does Scripture say? What role does the Bible show Peter filling?
Since our current topic is primarily an in-house debate among evangelical believers, I’m going to skip the peculiarly Roman Catholic claims about what Scripture says about Peter, such as him being the rock on which the church is built, receiving the keys of the kingdom, etc. I don’t mean to seem dismissive of any Catholic readers of this blog, but exploring these claims would take us too far afield from the issue at hand.
Something we should notice when examining the biblical references to Peter is that he’s never given a title that is distinct from that of the other apostles, and he’s never instructed to serve in a role that is distinct from theirs. Everything he is called to do, the other apostles are called to do as well. We also see events in Peter’s ministry that don’t fit easily into a senior pastor model. When Peter returns to Jerusalem after evangelizing and baptizing the Gentile Cornelius and his household, he is criticized for his actions and has to give an accounting (Acts 11:1-18). Earlier, when the apostles heard about the conversion of Samaritans, “they sent Peter and John” to Samaria to check things out (Acts 8:14). There is no indication at all that Peter initiated this mission; the apostles evaluated the situation together, made their decision as a group, and exercised their collective leadership by sending two of their number, Peter and John, to Samaria.
Of course, as we continue reading these passages, we can’t help but notice how prominent Peter seemed to be among the apostles. Almost from the beginning, if someone is going to say something, it’s likely to be Peter! He serves as a kind of spokesman for the group. And he continues to be prominent through the birth of the church and into the first part of the book of Acts. The question is: Does this prominence mean that Peter exercised a leadership over the other apostles and a role distinct from theirs? The answer is: Not by itself. We need to know more.
If a football player gains greater recognition and attention than his teammates, does that mean he has an official leadership role over them? Maybe; maybe not. We understand that sometimes prominence is just that—prominence. This gives us an opportunity to clear up a common misunderstanding regarding church leadership by a council of elders. Sometimes people assume this requires each elder to minister in exactly the same way and to have the exact same prominence. But it doesn’t mean this at all! Elders are going to have different strengths and different mixes of spiritual gifting. Some will be gifted teachers, and their teaching should be appreciated and respected. Others will be better leaders than teachers. Some will thrive in a very public leadership role; others will prefer more behind-the-scenes administration. Still others will be better at pastoring as counselors or in informal discipling. But they still all lead and pastor the church as a group.
There is nothing about leadership by elders that would preclude God from using one of the elders in a very public, prominent ministry. But this doesn’t mean that this elder is now the pastor of the church (or the ‘senior pastor’). It simply means that his ministry is more public and well-known than his fellow pastors. Just because I’m currently the only elder supported full-time, and so do most of the adult teaching, doesn’t mean that I’m the pastor of the church. It just means that I’m serving in a different capacity than my fellow elders. But we still lead and pastor the church as a group.
There is nothing in the biblical accounts of Peter that contradict the New Testament pattern of church leadership I described in my original post. On the contrary, Peter fits this model of shared, plural pastoral leadership of the churches very well.
James is also sometimes mentioned as a biblical example of a senior pastor. There are a couple of reasons for this. First we notice that he seems to be distinguished by name from the other elders in one passage (Acts 21:18), and possibly a second (Acts 12:17). What do we make of this? It could be the same kind of prominence we saw with Peter. But there’s something else we have to consider. In Galatians 1:19, Paul seems to indicate that James is an apostle. If this is so, doesn’t it make sense that, as an apostle, he would be distinguished from the other elders?
The only other passage that might show a senior pastor role for James is found in the account of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. After many other leaders speak, James gives his krino (verse 19). Some Bible versions translate this as James giving his “judgment,” which seems to imply that James is formally leading the council and thus declares his final judgment. But this isn’t the only way to translate this Greek word, and other translations read that James is giving his “opinion” or telling the others that “I think that . . .” The problem is that this one word is just not conclusive enough to establish, by itself, such an authoritative role for James in the Jerusalem council. Indeed, it can easily lean the other direction, which seems to me to better fit the context of Acts 15.
The most that one could say, based on the examples of Peter and James, is that sometimes one (or more) of the elders may become more prominent in their service than the other elders. Of course, this doesn’t contradict the New Testament pattern of shared, plural pastoral leadership of the churches. And this is a far cry from expecting that each church will have one—and only one—of these prominent leaders, and formalizing this prominence into a church office that is distinct from that of the other elders, and a leadership role that isn’t mentioned anywhere else in Scripture.
Elders and pastoral leadership series:
Challenge 2: What about Peter and James? [see above]