So what exactly do elders do?

I’m going to move on to other topics (I promise!), but some have responded to the series on team pastoral leadership by asking, “So what do elders do?” If our traditional understanding of the pastoral role isn’t entirely accurate, what would a biblical job description for these church shepherds look like? Here is an explanation of the role of the elder, as drawn from Acts 6:4; 20:28-31; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:6-11; James 5:14-15; 1 Peter 5:1-3.

Pray for the church
The elders are to devote themselves to praying for the spiritual health and vitality of the people in the church, and to lift up to God any needs of the people.

Teach the church
The elders are to be involved in teaching the people the Word of God and overseeing other teachers in the congregation, to make sure that the body is well-fed spiritually, so that the people might grow as fully committed and mature followers of Christ.

Lead the church
The elders are to be continually seeking the will of God for the direction of the church by constant prayer, study of the Scriptures, and wise consideration of the needs and opportunities of the church. They should regularly seek the input and counsel of others in the body, and then should lead in applying biblical principles to specific situations and circumstances.

Care for the church
The elders should demonstrate loving concern for the spiritual well-being of the people in the church. They are to be available to pray with and counsel anyone in the body struggling with spiritual, emotional or physical problems.

Guard the church
The elders are to be constantly on guard against any false teaching or harmful behavior in the church. They must be able to refute false teaching and act decisively against any destructive activity.

Equip the church
The elders are not responsible for all the ministry within the church, but through their ministry (as described above) they are to equip their brothers and sisters in the body to minister to each other and serve one another in love. The elders should help the people discover their spiritual gifts, provide opportunities for them to use and strengthen their ministry skills, and train new elders and pastors.

A couple of final points that I think are very important:

  • Not all elders will be equally gifted in every area of responsibility. Some elders will be better leaders than teachers. Some will be excellent at teaching in small groups or one-on-one, but not at teaching in large group settings. This is healthy and one of the reasons why the biblical pattern is a group of leaders pastoring the church. The strength of the different elders will complement and balance each other. However, all of the elders should be involved, in some way, in each of these areas of ministry.
  • Not all elders will pastor as a full-time vocation. Some will be supported financially by the church, particularly those who devote great amounts of time to studying and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18). However, each elder shares in the responsibility to shepherd the church of God, and no elder is to be elevated above the others.

A few remaining challenges

This post is the last 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.

I’m going to wrap up this series by discussing the remaining common challenges to the idea of each church being led by a team of elders.

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear model. We have freedom to structure our church leadership in a way that works best for us.

Some people claim that the Bible is so ambiguous or inconsistent about leadership structures that we can simply use whatever works for our particular situation. It’s true that the New Testament doesn’t provide us with elaborate instructions on the minute details of church leadership. And this does give us great flexibility in applying scriptural principles to different cultures and contexts. But there is actually amazing consistency in how the New Testament describes the pastoral leadership of the original churches. James, Paul, Peter and Luke all describe the churches as being led by a plurality of elders.

James’ letter is most likely the earliest letter included in the New Testament, dating from the early to mid 40s AD. He refers to church leadership by elders in James 5:14. On the other hand, Peter’s teaching on elders comes late in his life (1 Peter 5:1-4). In the book of Acts, Luke recounts how Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church during their very first missionary trip (Acts 14:23). Years later, Paul is still following the same pattern, directing Titus to appoint elders in each town in Crete, and writing fairly detailed instructions to Timothy regarding the appointment and ministry of the elders of the church. We see this leadership structure for the churches consistently utilized and taught throughout Paul’s apostolic ministry.

As I noted in a previous post, we have accounts of elders being appointed, qualifications listed for elders, and instructions addressed directly to the elders of a church (with no mention anywhere of a sole, primary or senior pastor). Not only do we see this impressive consistency regarding the pastoral leadership of the churches throughout the New Testament, we have much more biblical teaching regarding church elders than we do for such important practices as baptism and communion. We can’t simply pretend that God hasn’t provided this pattern for us. And we shouldn’t introduce another form of church leadership unless it has clear biblical precedent.

The church can’t be led by a committee, it needs a primary leader.

It’s unfortunate that this challenge is heard as often as it is, because it’s really kind of a cheap shot. This is what, in logic, is called a “straw man argument.” It’s trying to cause your point to seem stronger by making your opponent’s view sound silly and easily torn apart (hence “straw man”). Why would I describe this challenge as a straw man argument? Because no pastor or Bible scholar who teaches about the church being led by a plurality of pastoral elders ever advocates for the church being led by a “committee.” They may use terms such as ‘council of elders’ or ‘pastoral team,’ but they don’t refer to committees. Committees don’t have a very good connotation for many of us, so using this kind of pejorative term is a way of stacking the deck against one’s opponent. We should never use a description for our opponents’ viewpoint that they wouldn’t use themselves.

Of course, the real problem with this challenge is that it’s not accurate. The implication here is that no one elder can ever exercise significant leadership beyond that of the other elders. They all have to be equally involved in every decision or ministry. But this just isn’t the way biblical elderships operate. For example, if the church is beginning a construction project, and one of the elders has considerable expertise in construction, then his leadership will be respected and probably followed (as the other elders consider and approve his ideas). If an elder has vast experience and wisdom in financial matters, then his voice will carry much greater weight when approaching fiscal decisions, and the other elders will respect his leadership.

Leadership by a council of co-equal elders doesn’t prevent God from using one man in a special, dynamic way. If one of the elders has a tremendous teaching or evangelistic gift, then the other elders will strive to give him ample opportunity to fulfill this ministry. What this model does resist is trying to see one elder as the primary leader in each and every situation, and formalizing this primary leadership into a ‘senior pastor’ role that is absent from the New Testament. In many churches, the plural leadership model serves to free a gifted pastor/teacher to pursue the ministry that best suits his gifting without the need for him to try to be all things to all people.

The famous Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers was reputed to have argued: “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” I would agree. But just who is the head of the body of Christ? Isn’t that Christ himself? If the church has a primary or senior pastor who is viewed as the head of the church (as Rogers was advocating), doesn’t Rogers’ axiom actually argue against such a senior pastor model? Wouldn’t this constitute two heads of the body—Christ and the senior pastor? According to Rogers’ own argument, shouldn’t we view such a leadership structure as a freakish anomaly? The elders are not the heads of the body; they lead the body in seeking the will and direction of our Head. And they resist the temptation to assign that primary role to one of their own.

But we’ve never done it that way before! And what about all the churches that have senior pastors? Are they all wrong?

In many discussions about church eldership, it eventually becomes obvious that this is the underlying objection. Most of us prefer the familiar. We don’t like change, especially when it seems to go against the norm. Of course, whether a practice is familiar or not is ultimately irrelevant. The real question  for us must be: What does the Bible teach? And we can see in our history, and in Scripture itself, that the majority can be very wrong. Even if churches follow an unscriptural model of ministry for 1000 years, it doesn’t somehow sanctify it and make it healthy.

When Martin Luther opposed unbiblical practices in the church of his day, he was faced with these same kinds of challenges. How could he think he was right and everyone else wrong? (Although many others had opposed the same unbiblical practices.) How could he have the audacity to oppose the established tradition of the church? His response was simple; it was bold, yet humble. If anyone could show him in Scripture where he was in error, he would repent. But if they could not, he could do nothing else but accept the witness of God’s Word over accepted, traditional practice, no matter how well established. Those of us who are proponents of what we see as a biblical form of eldership—the pastoring of the church by a group of co-equal elders with no elder elevated above the rest—would invite the same correction and take the same stand.

Encouragingly, there have been many throughout the history of the church who have called us back to this scriptural model. Today, there are more churches who follow such a biblical structure than most people realize. And more and more churches are returning to these New Testament principles of pastoral leadership. It can be helpful to learn about real churches who follow such a model. If you’d like to check out some examples, just email me [see here].

Many wonderful people of God are serving as senior pastors, or serving in churches that have senior pastors. We would never want to dismiss them or ignore the good that God is doing through them. Still, we must continue to strive to be as biblical in our church practices as we can be, and to lovingly challenge our brothers and sisters where we feel they are diverting from what is scripturally normative. The more we follow God’s plan for the church, the more our churches will be healthy and thriving, the more of a vibrant witness we’ll be to the world around us, and the more we will glorify and honor the One whose church it actually is anyway.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges [see above]

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

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.

If you’ve ever served in leadership in a Calvary Chapel or Vineyard Christian Fellowship, chances are you’re familiar with the term “Moses Model” or at least the idea behind it. This teaching isn’t new; we see it much earlier in church history. It’s essentially a mono-episcopal model, with one bishop/pastor overseeing each church. This particular version of the model was most clearly articulated by Chuck Smith, longtime senior pastor of the original Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, CA.

“Pastor Chuck,” as he’s affectionately known throughout the Calvary Chapel movement, first showed that the leadership structure for the people of Israel could be charted as a pyramid, with the people on the bottom, the priests and judges above them, Moses at the top, with God over all. Then he taught that we should follow this pattern in the church and pictured it with the people on the bottom, the elders/deacons/assistant pastors above them, the pastor on the top by himself, and Jesus over the pastor. (You can find this teaching and the diagram below presented in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel by Chuck Smith.)

There are many serious problems with this approach. To begin with, Moses led the entire people of God (probably more than two million people), not just a local gathering of Israelites. If we consistently apply this model to the church, it would lead us to something closer to a Pope than a local pastor. Thankfully, we know that Moses’ role was a unique one, and that he didn’t foreshadow the New Testament local pastor, but the New Testament Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 1:17; Acts 3:22-23; Hebrews 3:1-6). Moses was the mediator who went between God and the people. Today, the pastor doesn’t fill that priestly role—Jesus does (1 Timothy 2:5).

While many insist that the pyramid is actually turned upside down, with the pastor serving the entire body, it still leaves a diagram showing not “one mediator between God and man,” but two—Jesus and the pastor. This is revealed to be more than just a diagram fluke by a pattern of unhealthy authoritarianism. I should hasten to say that many Calvary Chapels and Vineyards are pastored by loving, humble men who seek to do the best for the flock. But the leadership model itself opens the door for serious abuses of authority.

Most of the people in the churches don’t see any of this. But when you become a leader, you’re taught not to question the leadership or views of the senior pastor (publicly or privately). To challenge him is seen as a sin just as Aaron and Miriam sinned by challenging Moses. To even ask questions is often seen as being divisive, and if those questions involve the senior pastor, you’ll be told to “touch not God’s anointed” (misusing Psalm 105:15, and also 1 Samuel 24:6 and 26:9-11). You’re taught that if you can’t agree or follow the senior pastor, then you should quietly leave the church and go someplace else.

Chuck Smith illustrates this extreme view of authority in a story he tells in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel. The church in Costa Mesa had started a local Korean fellowship, which was pastored by a medical doctor. After some time, the new fellowship appointed a board of elders. The Korean congregation had grown quite large, and the elders began urging the pastor to give up his medical practice and serve the church in full-time pastoral ministry. The pastor disagreed, and went to Chuck Smith for advice on how to handle these conflicting viewpoints as to how the church should proceed. Pastor Chuck’s solution? Fire the elders! Apparently, when there’s a difference of opinion between the pastor and the elders, the way to handle this is to get rid of the elders! It’s shocking to me that Smith has not only written a public account of this story, but he actually uses it to teach leadership principles to Calvary pastors.

(It’s unfortunate that this kind of authoritarianism has led to abuses of power in many of these churches. In fact, there are people who meet online as a kind of support group who tell how they’ve experienced abuses of authority by Calvary pastors.)

In The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel, Smith gives us a little more insight into how he sees the role of the elders in church ministry. Apparently, they are there to shield the pastor from flak due to unpopular decisions. Even though the pastor concurs with the direction taken (actually being the one who approves every decision), he need not face the criticism of those in the church who may disagree. When people complain, the pastor can point to the elders and say, “The board made their decision.” The elders then become the lightning rod for any criticism, and the pastor preserves the favorable impression the people have of him personally. It’s difficult to find the pastoral ministry of New Testament elders in any of this.

Another concern with this model of church leadership is that it leaves the pastor without any real accountability. He answers to no one but God. This is a dangerous place to be. It’s nice to be put on a pedestal, but it’s painful to slip off! Tragically, there have been many instances of moral failure that have devastated families, whole churches, and the pastors themselves. It’s not a loving thing to put a pastor in such a vulnerable position without having a secure system of accountability to fellow pastors who love him and who will tell him the truth, even if it hurts.

There are many wonderful, admirable qualities of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements, and we can learn a lot from them. Unfortunately, their leadership structure has too often been their Achilles’ heal. Seeking to avoid being a ‘hireling’ (John 10:12-13), these men make themselves the Shepherd of the church. We see this honor as reserved for Christ alone. He is our Chief Shepherd, or Senior Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). He graciously calls the elders of the church to assist him in shepherding our brother and sister believers, and we want to faithfully fulfill this pastoral ministry. But we see no place in Scripture where anyone other than Jesus follows the model of Moses and serves as the pastor of the church.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”? [see above]

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

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.

In the New Testament, we find what are often referred to as “the pastoral epistles.” These letters do, in fact, cover a number of issues that are particularly pastoral in nature. Two of these letters were written from Paul to Timothy, and the third was written from Paul to Titus. Does that mean these two leaders were pastors? It’s not hard to find books or articles that refer to Timothy as “the pastor” of the church in Ephesus. And since all would agree that Paul instructed him to exercise leadership of the elders of the Ephesian church, wouldn’t that make him a kind of senior pastor? We need to look more closely at the ministry roles of these two men.

Timothy
Timothy’s name comes up frequently in accounts of Paul’s ministry or in his letters to the churches. Timothy was obviously an integral part of the ministry work of Paul (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22). In Romans 16:21, Paul refers to him as “my fellow worker.” While most would agree that Timothy wasn’t an Apostle of Jesus Christ in the same sense that Paul was, many references show that he shared in Paul’s apostolic ministry. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, he and Paul are both referred to as “Christ’s ambassadors.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:6, Paul refers to himself, Silas and Timothy as apostles of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 16:10, Paul says that Timothy was “doing the Lord’s work, just as I am.”

What is even more significant is that Paul shared his writing credit with Timothy no less than six times and wrote two epistles directly to him. This is an amazing public recognition of the fact that Timothy shared in Paul’s ministry. Only two other men were acknowledged in this manner: Silas (twice) and Sosthenes (once).

1 Corinthians 16:5-12 is an interesting portion of Scripture that shows the way Paul and those who worked with him were frequently on the move. Timothy was often left for a time in one place or sent ahead to another (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19-24; 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 6). The places where Timothy ministered were consistently places where Paul had just been or to which he was on the way. This going ahead or staying behind was a distinctive characteristic of Timothy’s ministry.

So, when Paul sent Timothy ahead, or left him behind, what exactly was Timothy to do?
I Corinthians 4:17 says that he was sent to Corinth to remind the people there of Paul’s ways and teachings. 1 Thessalonians 3:2 tells us that Timothy was sent to Thessalonica to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. So why was Timothy left in Ephesus? According to 1 Timothy 1:3 it was to “stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth.” He wasn’t left to pastor the church; he was left to correct problems with the church’s pastors. And according to 1 Timothy 3:14, Paul was intending to be there soon himself.

There is no solid reason to assume that Timothy was still in Ephesus when Paul wrote
2 Timothy. The wording in 2 Timothy 1:18 and 4:12 seem to indicate that he was in some location other than Ephesus. Wherever he was, he was preparing to leave (2 Timothy 4:21). Of course, we almost expect this kind of temporary stay when we see the itinerant nature of his ministry throughout much of the New Testament. Although he was probably in a different location, the purpose of his ministry as expressed in 2 Timothy compares well with what we saw in 1 Timothy. The things that Paul had taught Timothy, Timothy was to “teach . . . to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” Timothy faithfully shared in this apostolic ministry of training church leaders who would be able to carry on the local work. There’s nothing in the New Testament indicating that Timothy had a regular pastoral role in a local church.

Titus
We actually have less reason to assume a pastoral role for Titus. In Titus 1:5, Paul gives Titus very clear instructions: “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.” Since Titus was sent to towns all over Crete, this is obviously not describing the role of a senior pastor. Just as we saw with Timothy, Titus was sent to further and complete the apostolic work of Paul.

The only reason people assume a senior pastor role for these men is that they appointed and/or worked with the elders of various churches. But we’ve seen that this was actually a primary aspect of their work as Paul’s apostolic delegates.

The only other defense for the idea that Timothy—or Paul for that matter—was a church pastor is the length of time that he stayed in place. For either one, this was usually a matter of months or even weeks, occasionally longer for Paul (his three-year stay in Ephesus being the exception rather than the rule). This fits an itinerant, apostolic ministry of planting and strengthening churches much better than it does that of a senior pastor.

Timothy was highly valued by Paul, a great blessing to those to whom he ministered, and a wonderful example to us. However there is no scriptural support for the claim that Timothy was the pastor of the church of Ephesus, or that he or Titus were pastors of any other congregation.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus? [see above]

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

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.

Peter
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
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:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James? [see above]

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

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.

It’s not hard to find this claim in discussions on the early church. The idea is that the church in most cities would have grown to the point where they couldn’t all meet in the same place. So, they would have met as smaller house churches, scattered around the city. If this is the case, it’s argued, then it would make sense that they would need one elder or pastor for each house church. That sounds practical. But how well does this idea hold up to closer examination?

We first need to realize this isn’t taught anywhere in Scripture. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but when something isn’t clearly described in the Bible, we need to proceed cautiously before just assuming its validity. This conjecture may be correct, but it is conjecture nonetheless. Is this speculation convincing enough to cause us to alter our view of pastoral leadership in the New Testament churches?

We also need to be careful of assuming too quickly the need for additional meeting places for the churches in the New Testament. We’ve learned a lot about the early church through historical and archaeological studies. For instance, we know that churches would sometimes meet outdoors to provide adequate space for the church gathering. Interestingly, in some cities the church would meet in the local cemetery! We’ve also learned that wealthy members of the churches would sometimes knock down walls in their homes to make room for the churches to meet. [For a recent post on the size of early house churches, see here.]

Despite these historical insights, it’s certainly possible that some churches would have eventually failed to find sufficient room to meet together and would have been forced to meet in separate locations. But here the distinctive wording of Scripture becomes important. The New Testament speaks many times of the churches (plural) of a larger region, such as Galatia, Judea or Macedonia (see Acts 15:41; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 19; 2 Corinthians 8:1; Galatians 1:2, 22; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Revelation 1:4, 11). But when it’s speaking of God’s people in a specific city, it always refers to the church (singular) of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, etc. It never refers to plural churches in any one city.

Why is this important? Because if a church—say the church in Corinth—had to meet in three separate homes each week, these three meetings still would have constituted one church in Scripture, the church in Corinth, not three individual house churches. So even if we were to accept the idea that the elders were divided up, one per house gathering (and this unsupported assumption is itself quite a leap), they still would collectively make up the pastoral leadership of a single church. And the natural way of reading the passages describing the ministry of elders is that they led in concert as a kind of elder council.

For instance, James 5:14 makes little sense in the context of individual house churches. If a believer regularly attended the same house church, which was pastored by their one elder, and this believer became sick, why would they not just call for their elder/pastor to pray for them? Why would they also call for all the other elders of all the other house churches? James seems to assume one church in each town, with a group of elders who collectively pastor the whole church and who are known by the members of the church. Other passages, such as Romans 16:23 and 1 Corinthians 14:23, speak of the ‘whole church’ coming together. This seems to discredit the idea of the churches meeting in multiple house churches, at least in Rome and Corinth.

So, we find the claim that the early church met in multiple house churches in each city to be lacking any biblical support, based entirely on conjecture, and not supported by the historical evidence. And even if we make the leap of assuming such separate meetings, scripturally we still have a team of pastoral leaders in each town leading a single church.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder? [see above]

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

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.

Titus 1:5-7

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.

Acts 14:23

. . . Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.

Acts 20:17

. . . To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

Philippians 1:1

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.

Titus 1:5

Is any one of you sick? Call the elders of the church to pray over you . . .

James 5:14

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]

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Just call me Curt

We live in an area with an extremely transient population (at least the expat population). I know it’s common for many churches today to watch members of their church family move away, but what we’ve seen here in Puerto Rico far exceeds anything we’ve experienced in other places. Many of our people―even those on our leadership team―will stay here for only 2 or 3 years and then move back to the States. That’s a part of ministering here; we’re used to it.

But with a church our size, that means the make-up of the congregation can change dramatically. And it does. It’s amazing how fast our church gatherings can begin to look very different, and even feel different. Something I’ve been noticing over the past few months is the number of people here now who seem to feel the need to call me “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” We’ve had people in our church family before now who have referred to me this way. This is traditional for many believers. I understand this, and I’ve tried to be gracious and not make it an issue. For the past few years, we’ve been able to not address this and still maintain our informal, family dynamic.

But with the latest class of WithoutWall’ers to join us (brothers and sisters for whom I am deeply thankful, btw), we run the risk of seriously altering the DNA of our church family. The terminology we use affects how we and others understand the church. And misperceptions that aren’t corrected, but instead become a common (mis)understanding of the church, can eventually change the nature of a church, or at least cause conflict if we seek to clarify the issue too late.

Now, I understand this isn’t some heretical teaching that will draw us away from the truths of the gospel. But I think it’s still a significant issue for us, and one that affects the tone of our church life and ministry. So let me suggest five reasons why I prefer not to be called “Pastor.”

1. It’s not biblical
Jesus once told his disciples, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.” But in Matthew 23:8-10, he instructed us regarding what we should, and should not, call each other:

Don’t let anyone call you “Rabbi,” for you have only one teacher,
and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.
And don’t address anyone here on earth as “Father,”
for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father.
And don’t let anyone call you “Teacher,”
for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.

We could plug “Pastor” into this, and the same principle would still apply because it is the Lord who is our Shepherd/Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). This passage doesn’t mean we don’t have people in the church who teach or lead. Other Scriptures make it clear that this is so. But we are not to refer to these people by honorific titles such as Rabbi or Teacher. In the same way, we have people in our congregation who pastor, or shepherd, others. But we should not refer to them by a title. It’s interesting that Peter and Paul are frequently identified as apostles of Jesus Christ, but they are never once in Scripture referred to by that title. No one seems to have called them “Apostle” or “Apostle Paul” in the way we sometimes use “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” They just called them Paul and Peter. This seems like a good example.

2. It perpetuates a different class of Christians
One of the principles that was boldly proclaimed during the Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers.” The idea (a very biblical one) is that as the New Testament church we no longer have a separate priestly caste. We don’t have to go through any other person to come to Christ; we can go to him directly. All believers are called saints. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Unfortunately, many of the reformed churches retained the exalted status of the pastor and essentially made him into a protestant priest. Only the pastor was to baptize, serve communion, officiate weddings, etc.

We still often make the same distinction today. Only pastors are referred to by their title. We have Sunday school teachers, but we don’t call them “Teacher Sue.” We have small group leaders, but we don’t call them “Leader John.” It’s rare to hear someone called “Deacon” or “Elder” in place of their name. We reserve this honor only for pastors. Why? We speak of pastors being “in the ministry,” when all of God’s people are to serve in ministry. We speak of the call to ministry as if it’s something specially reserved for pastors, but each member of the body is called by God to serve. By giving a title of honor to only one part of the body, we falsely distinguish that part from the rest. In our church, we don’t believe in distinguishing Christians as “clergy” or “laymen.” The only one who should be distinguished from the body, and honored above the body, is the head of the body―Jesus Christ.

3. It isn’t really accurate
As I mentioned before, Jesus is the Pastor of the church. He does call others to share in this ministry of shepherding the church, but this involves more people than just me. We have others in the church who minister pastorally. Cecy Barbosa shepherds the children. Monty Smith has a group of people he shepherds. We usually don’t call everyone who shepherds others in the church “Pastor,” even when they officially serve in a pastoral role. (How many call the youth pastor in their church “Pastor”?) In our church, we have a team of elders who pastor the whole church, with no designated senior or lead pastor. At different times, this team has included not only me, but Steve Lantz, Darren Draper, Ken Sanner and Sam Murphy. Currently, Nino Caceres and Kurt Ziegler serve as elders,  co-pastoring the church with me. In the future we hope to add to our elder team. So it’s simply not accurate to refer to only me as “Pastor” or even “our pastor” (as in “I’d like you to meet our pastor”).

Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, Curt, but you serve full-time. I call you ‘Pastor’ because that’s what you do.” But do we do this for anyone else in the body? When was the last time you said, “Hello, Professor” on Sunday morning? (We have a number of professors in our congregation.) If someone in law enforcement was part of our church, would you call them “Officer” or “Agent?” Years ago, a friend of mine was a pastor in California. A man he knew well fell into the habit of greeting him “Hello, Pastor Keith.” So he started reciprocating, “Good morning, Banker Bob.” It didn’t take long for the man to understand that it’s really kind of silly to call someone by their vocational title, especially in the church. (At least one of our ministry leaders, when greeting me as “Pastor,” has had me respond “Hello, Ministry Leader.”)

4. It makes it harder for me to interact naturally with people in the community
You can ask any pastor and they’ll tell you that identifying yourself as a pastor often causes people to start acting artificially around you. The man sitting next to you on the plane starts explaining that he ordinarily never drinks three scotches. People begin internally editing everything they say so they won’t shock the ‘man of God.’ Of course, pastors shouldn’t hide what they do, but we do try very hard to develop a natural rapport with people in the community. I work to get to the point where they’ll interact with me as a real person instead of some religious icon. Not long ago, I was in a public place talking with someone, developing this kind of rapport, when someone from our church came in and greeted me enthusiastically: “Hello, Pastor!” I could feel the tone of our interaction change immediately as this person slipped back into be-careful-this-guy’s-a-pastor mode. Religious titles unnecessarily build walls between pastors and other people. It’s hard enough for us to rub shoulders with non-Christians. So, help us out a little!

5. It doesn’t fit with the church as a family
The family of believers has only one Father―and it’s not the pastor! The elders/pastors of a church are not to be fathers to the church; they’re more like spiritually older brothers. What do you call your older siblings? Do you have some exalted title that you bestow on them? Or do you simply call them by their names? Maybe a ‘bro’ or ‘sis’ now and then. So, if it’s too awkward to call me simply by my name, I guess an acceptable, familial substitute would be “Hey bro!”

After reading this, if you still insist on having some official title to call me, then I actually prefer “Your Magnificentness.” Oh, and don’t forget to kiss the ring.