A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of “plural eldership.” I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.
In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?
We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.
I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.
First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.
Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.
While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.
Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.
Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?
Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:
“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”
If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?
But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.
Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.
Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)
There’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!
Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.