A biblical case for senior pastors?: Two questions

Most evangelical churches today have a senior or lead pastor. Can we make a solid, biblical case to establish this practice? For those who are part of a church that has both elders and a senior/lead pastor, here are two questions I invite you to answer:

Why do you have elders?

In my experience, many respond to this question with a robust, thoroughly biblical explanation of the role of elders in the local church. Our churches must have elders because of the clear teaching of Scripture, they insist. They frequently describe the normative need for elders in each church, the plurality of elders, the pastoral nature of the ministry of elders, etc.—drawing directly from clear New Testament passages—in ways that might cheer the hearts of the strongest proponents of biblical eldership. But then we ask the follow-up question:

Why do you have a senior/lead pastor?

scratching-head. . . ummm . . . . . . There can be a long pause at this point. We sense the need for a similarly robust, equally biblical explanation for this (presumably) key role . . . but it seems surprisingly difficult to find. One can rely on a pragmatic response: ‘There has to be one key leader, you know.’ Or we could resort to conjecture or speculation: ‘Well, the New Testament church had strong, prominent leaders, so . . .’  Or we can just blindly follow tradition. But I can’t seem to find anyone presenting a strong, clear, biblical case for the normative senior/lead pastor. Any takers?

9 thoughts on “A biblical case for senior pastors?: Two questions

  1. IMHO, I believe the role of the Senior Pastor is similar to the role of the vice president or provost at a college. If Pastor or President position is vacated, He or she is not a shoe-in (or guaranteed) the position. He or she (if he or she is interested in the #1 position) have to go through the interview process, as well.

  2. Hi, RWL. That’s an interesting take on how someone might step into the #1 position. What I’m asking for in this post is a strong, clear, biblical case for the normative existence of that #1 position (i.e. senior/lead pastor) in the local church.

  3. I think that Jesus is the MODEL role of the “good pastor”. He shows headship and concern for the leading of the sheep. So, I am not totally convinced that Paul, or Peter, for example weren’t acting as a main leaders of the sheep, neither do I think that in present times we shouldn’t have main leaders of sheep. In fact, I think it leads to confusion when there isn’t one main leader, recognizing Jesus as the head of the church, to model sincere pastoring of the “sheep”. That being said, I do think that a team of elders or pastors is Biblical to help the “Senior Pastor” stay in line with Biblical teachings.

  4. Hi, Lori. Thanks for the comment. Jesus is definitely the perfect model of a Good Shepherd; no Christian would argue with that. Of course, that doesn’t lend support to any particular view of church leadership.

    Thinking that multiple leaders, without one main leader, leads to confusion may be your personal opinion, but it’s just that—a personal opinion. This isn’t making a biblical case utilizing direct scriptural teaching. This would be the pragmatic response I mentioned in the original post.

    And, no disrespect intended, but not being “totally convinced” that Paul or Peter wasn’t acting as a main leader of the sheep isn’t either a strong or a biblical case. Are you totally convinced—from specific, clear passages in Scripture—that they were functioning as senior pastors of specific local churches (not as church-planting Apostles of Christ, which is a very different role)? If so, what passages of Scripture present this clear and compelling view?

  5. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but for this particular comment thread, I’m not looking for personal views or opinions. I have many other posts on elders and pastors where we can debate pragmatic issues and personal views. (And that’s an interesting conversation; please do post there.) But here I’m only asking for a strong, clear case for the role of senior/lead pastor that is drawn directly from New Testament passages of Scripture (as the case for church elders is drawn directly from Scripture). Thanks!

  6. Curt,

    There are at least a couple of reasons why your question needs to be rephrased. First, in a few Christain denominations, particularly non-denominational churches, there is a difference between the Pastor (lead) & the Senior (VP/Provost) Pastor. Sometimes the Pastor’s spouse is the VP or Senior Pastor.

    Second, the Bible does mention about Church organizational dynamics. In 1 Corinthians 12:28 (NIV), Paul states: ‘And in the Church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers (pastors?), then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.’

    Since there are no more apostles or prophets in today’s society (at least I haven’t heard or seen one? Maybe the definition of apostles or prophets changed?), then next in line to lead the Church would be the Teachers (Pastors)? What does Paul mean when he says ‘appointed’? Do we need to look into other translations or transliterations of the verse or of the word ‘appointed’, since I am only using the NIV translation? Is he speaking in terms of a bureaucracy? Organizational heirarchy? Leadership?

  7. RWL,

    First, in this post I’m not addressing all churches or denominations. I specifically addressed this to churches who have both elders and a senior or lead pastor.

    Secondly, I’m familiar with a number of denominations, I’ve spent most of my ministry in nondenominational churches, and I’ve studied this subject extensively. Before today I had never heard anyone equate the position of senior pastor with that of a provost or vice president. I’m not saying this doesn’t exist, I just wonder how common this view is. Can you refer me to specific churches that make this connection?

    There is an ongoing discussion as to whether there’s any difference between a “senior pastor” and a “lead pastor.” Most seem to see this as a distinction without a difference, and I would agree. Regardless, my challenge is to churches that have either a senior pastor or a lead pastor.

    Regarding 1 Corinthians 12:28, this verse is part of a 3-chapter section specifically addressing questions concerning spiritual gifts, not organizational dynamics. This verse contains a list of people with certain gifts. Other than apostles, no one listed here constitutes a formal church office (and the word ‘apostles’ can be used in a broader sense than Apostles of Christ). I can’t recall any biblical commentary that views this as presenting some kind of organizational hierarchy.

    But, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume it does. So, after the apostles and prophets, we find listed the teachers. And, according to Scripture, what church leaders are required to be able to teach, and specifically tasked with teaching the church? The elders/overseers (Titus 1:9; 1 Timothy 3:2; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). And who is a church supposed to financially support so they can dedicate themselves to a ministry of studying and teaching the Word of God? According to 1 Timothy 5:17 that would be, again, elders. (And note: it’s not just a sole teaching elder a local church is to support, but elders [plural] who teach.) So even assuming your view of organizational hierarchy in 1 Corinthians 12:28, how does this establish any kind of strong, clear case for the role of senior/lead pastors?

  8. Curt,
    My wife and I both grew up in a head/lead/senior pastor modeled church. Through a series of things that have happened over the past couple of years, we’ve come to question the idea of this model as being biblical. After looking in the Bible and online for those who have considered this question longer, I am coming to the conclusion that this model does not seem very biblical at all. Recently, my wife came across your blog and, after reading some of your posts and comments, we feel that we are coming from the same place. What is was very exciting is that fact that you mentioned you were considering a church plant in Placerville, which is around a 45 minute drive for us. I am very curious to know how that is coming along. How can we help?

  9. Hi, Benjamin. Thanks for the encouraging comment. That’s usually not an easy conclusion to reach. I’d like to hear more about how you got there.

    We’re still in a very early stage of a possible church plant, still considering whether this is the right step and the right area. In a few weeks I’ll be meeting with some district leaders from our association of churches (the EFCA). After that, I’ll be meeting with more local pastors (starting with EFCA pastors in nearby communities) to gain insights and see if there’s a core group of people wanting to be part of a new church, either in Placerville or an outlying town.

    The best thing we can do right now is pray, and we’d appreciate your prayers! I also need a good job. Where are you guys? Feel free to email me directly: cparton@icloud.com.


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