Friday, December 30, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: The Role of a Senior Pastor

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

A website with plenty of other, more helpful posts also contains this gem:

“Question: What does the Bible say about the role of a senior pastor?”

Tom: Oh, you’re going to make ME pull the pin on this one? Fine, fine.

The question is phrased this way: “What does the Bible say?”, which might lead one to naively conclude that the answer will have something to do with the teaching of the Bible. Which it sort of does ... until you read the first sentence.

The Role of Executive / Senior Pastor

And here it is:

“Answer: Concerning the role of the pastor, the Bible says a great deal. The primary terms that describe the role of the pastor are ‘elder,’ ‘bishop,’ and ‘teacher’ ... The title of senior pastor refers to the person who primarily leads the church, generally doing the majority of the preaching and teaching in the pulpit at the services and overseeing the administration of the church. Some larger churches may even have an executive pastor who oversees the day-to-day operation of the church, while the senior pastor then would be responsible for working with the church board, along with the preaching, teaching, and counseling ministries that go with the role of pastor.

Every church, whether large or small, needs a pastor who will shepherd, lead feed, and guide the people to spiritual growth and service for the Lord Jesus ...”

After that, in my estimation, it’s completely made-up rubbish. Find “pulpit”, “board”, “executive” (or even “administration” or “ministries” in the sense that I suspect they are likely using them) in the Bible anywhere. You can’t.

Volatile enough for you?

Immanuel Can: I guess I’m just kind of stunned to silence by how completely untrue the first line is.

Tom: IC, folks, stunned into silence. This IS an event ...

The Bible and Pastors

IC: We’d better make a distinction right away. What we today call a “pastor” is nothing like the way the Bible uses the word.

In point of fact, the scriptures say absolutely nothing about the role of our kind of “pastor” — “senior” or otherwise. The lone passage that can even mistakenly be thought to speak of our kind of pastor is Ephesians 4:11, but the word there is actually “shepherds”, not what we today know as a “pastor”, i.e. a singular office given to a (usually male) leader, administrator or executive assigned and salaried to oversee the spiritual life of the congregation.

Tom: You mention Ephesians 4, where Paul quotes the Old Testament to say that one consequence of Christ’s death was the giving of gifts:

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

and then goes on to say tell us what these gifts were and what they are for:

“... he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ ...”

So this is not a title, not a career ... it’s one method of service among a number of others available in the church.

Does God Care One Way or Another?

IC: Well, then, let me put a question to you about that. We can observe that what we today know as a “pastor” is not a biblical concept. So should we think it falls into the category of being, for that reason, something actually anti-biblical, or should we think it falls into the range of things that are merely extra-biblical (i.e. not mentioned, but not per se wrong) and which might be viewed as optional and acceptable innovations, given the realities of modern life, etc.?

In other words, do you think God cares whether or not we have “pastors”?

Tom: Well, you’re right: there are some things not actually spelled out in scripture that are extra-biblical without being explicitly anti-biblical. I just can’t see how this can be one of those.

Why? Because we may set up a leadership structure that in our minds will serve the purpose of complementing that of the New Testament, but what it invariably does is replace it, diminishing both our current ability to function in an NT way and our future ability to do so. I guarantee you once you bring on board a salaried ‘pastor’ you will cease to develop teaching gift, leadership gift and administrative gift. When there is no meaningful opportunity to use them, gifts simply don’t get recognized or developed.

So, yeah, I think God cares a lot whether we have “pastors”. It’s his church after all, not ours, so the instructions he provides us in the epistles always trump our own notions about how best to do things. Or they ought to.

Reasonable Compromises

IC: Well, what about the suggestion that the scenario you’re implying doesn’t have to happen. What if there were a salaried professional at the top, providing the “front man” stuff like regular preaching, vision, figureheading, practical organization, and so forth, and he were also to do the support work to create a body of elders to perform executive functions under him — you know, to handle committees and so forth.

Would you find that a reasonable compromise, or would you still think there were reasons for concern?

Tom: You’re right; results are not the determining factor one way or another. Everybody can point to both horror stories and best-case scenarios. But the problem that remains, even if an organizational structure or principle conceived by men works — and it may even work well for a time — is that it is not the order laid out by the Holy Spirit in the epistles, which is the only authoritative source we have.

And it’s not our church to mess with. Jesus said, “I will build MY church”, not “your church”. We are his body and he is the Head.

So even if the results of our schemes are initially encouraging and might lead us to think we know what we’re doing, we don’t know the end from the beginning the way the Head does and it is unwise to usurp his role.

Usurping a Role

IC: Well, I think that’s a good point. Another hesitation would be this: that there are absolutely no scriptural instructions for the handling of such provisional, man-made roles. Not only that, but we’re now talking about what is allegedly the most important, controlling role in the church. Imagine if we had a President or Prime Minister, but no checks and balances on his powers: how would we know when he was doing his job, falling short in it, or succeeding in it? How would we know what respect we owed him, or what we ought to hold him accountable to achieve? We would have to make up that whole job description — and yet, even after we did, we would have zero authority for enforcing it. Once we’re outside scripture, we’re not necessarily doing wrong, but we’re outside our authority, in no-man’s-land.

Tom: And you only have authority when you place yourself under authority first. The centurion the Lord commended certainly made that case, didn’t he? He should have said (if he thought like many modern churchgoers do), “I too am a man who exercises authority, with soldiers under me,” and on that basis a centurion can send those underlings here or there to do what seems reasonable to him. That would be the natural way things work.

But he doesn’t. He says, “I too am a man under authority.” By placing ourselves in the chain of command where we belong, when someone refuses to respect our authority, then the Head to whom we are accountable steps in and takes care of business. He stands behind decisions that are made under and in respect of his authority.

The ‘senior pastor’ or anyone who takes on a similar extra-biblical role has stepped outside that chain of command established by the Lord. If he has confidence that his authority will be similarly upheld, it is a misplaced confidence, I believe.

He Is ... EEEEVIL!

IC: Well said. So we don’t have to accuse pastors and those who hire them of being evil. There’s no reason to suppose that’s true. But we do need to point out that once you step into that role, you’ve stepped into that grey area in which no explicit scriptural direction exists anymore. Far from it being true that the Bible “says a great deal” about pastors, it gives us absolutely no guidance specific to that role at all — for the very good reason that that role was never conceived by God in the first place.

We’re safer to stay under the authority that we have. Once we go beyond that, especially in something as important as the leadership of the church, we are alone.

But now, it’s probably clearer that there’s something wrong with the pastor-as-priest idea — that is, the idea of one-man exclusive control of the spiritual life of the congregation. But is there anything wrong with the pastor-as-elder or the elder-as-pastor alternatives?

To be specific, how would you regard the situation where one man has risen from being an elder to taking over primary responsibility for teaching and leading, and then calls himself “pastor-teacher” or something similar? See any problems?

Tom: Well, calling himself anything at all is taking a title, something I attempted to deal with in an earlier post. That’s the first problem. I’d even object to the title ‘Elder Joe’, though ‘elder’ is a scriptural concept. It was never intended to be an honorative. It’s a work, a job, a task, a specific means of servitude; that’s all.

Beyond that, taking the title “pastor-teacher” or the like is the exaltation of one man over others, which leads to the sort of autocratic nonsense so prevalent in Christendom and so foreign to the teaching of the word of God.

The Lone Target

IC: I wonder too if there isn’t a good practical rationale for the sake of the one “pastoring” not to allow the role. What I mean is that it makes him singularly responsible, overburdened, a lone target for the Enemy and a lightning rod for congregational dissent. It’s a cruel responsibility, one that too often breaks down into driving the “pastor” out and replacing him, or else forces the pastor to exert autocratic rule in order to survive. And in the case that the pastor falls into bad doctrine, there’s no one of equal authority to help him correct himself. In the case of his falling into sin the whole congregation is wounded and disillusioned — and sometimes destroyed completely. I’ve seen firsthand the devastation that can come when a one-man ministry fails in that way.

Tom: I’ve seen it the other way round: one of a number of elders falls into sin. He may either leave or repent and be restored, but the ensuing havoc is nowhere near as damaging to either the testimony of the local church or to the Christian lives of those who meet there, because the very fact of the other elders taking action to deal with the fallen elder’s sin demonstrates that they do not stand with it or for it. They’re not being holier-than-thou, just being holy, and the believers take their cue from that and tend to respond more calmly.

IC: So, then, can we make any sense of the claim in the quotation above that “every church, whether large or small, needs a pastor”? Is it just rhetoric, is the author just parroting conventional ‘wisdom’, or do you suppose he actually thinks he’s explaining scripture?

Tom: Well certainly every church needs leadership, and scripturally that would be ‘elders’, plural. He’s right that the Body of Christ needs to be built up, and that’s the teaching of Ephesians 4. But the biblical mechanism for accomplishing this is not the work of a pastor, singular, but ‘gifts’, plural. This writer is very clearly depending on this one guy to be shepherd, leader, feeder, and guide, whereas Paul makes the case to the Corinthians that feeding, at least, is the job of gifted members of the gathered church, not just the elders and especially not just one man:

“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”

That’s where the “building up” comes from. And you can make the case for multi-person, gifted ministry from scripture all day long, but you can’t find support for single-man domination of ministry anywhere, and this is where I think the writer is compelled to resort to rhetoric instead of evidence. He hasn’t got any.

IC: One thing it implies to me is some anxiety on his part that in even asking the question the questioner has cast reasonable doubt on the whole idea. The answer-man here seems to betray his awareness that he’s actually not on very solid ground, because he seems to feel the need to close very ardently and categorically.

That Old Financial Investment

Tom: And the thing is, these “pastors” are often people who have made a significant financial investment in education expecting, realistically, to make a living out of what they are doing, which they see as a “good” thing; an expression of devotion to God that also happens to come with a salary and a little bit of job security. It’s awfully hard to reassess your whole life’s trajectory in the light of scripture when you’re that invested. It’s easier to explain away passages that teach that the responsibility of building up the Body of Christ lies with all of us than to confront the fact that I, in my thirties or forties, really ought to go out and get a secular job (and maybe not a very good-paying secular job at that, if my education is all in religious studies) and just become one of a number of equals in a church. That’s a pretty serious challenge, but I think scripture requires it of those who see the truth. Denial is not an option.

IC: I sympathize with those who long to do the Lord’s work — to teach, to shepherd, to lead, to exemplify, and so on — many of whom train themselves diligently or go to seminary in order to become ready to do it. But before they respond to “the call of ministry”, hadn’t they better be sure whose call it is?

In particular, don’t they need to ask themselves if the Lord would “call” someone to a role he had never specified in scripture — in fact a role contrary to what his word specified? If I were aiming at a pastorate, that’s what I would want to ask myself, because it would be terrible to find yourself having major spiritual responsibilities without any spiritual authority.


  1. A few years back I purchased "The Unnecessary Pastor" (Kindle edition) by Dawn & Peterson. I found this commentary on Ephesians by 2 authors to be very thoughtful.

    1. I'll have to pick that up. Thanks for the tip, Patrick.

  2. It has always surprised me that so many godly and clearly gifted teachers of God's word would carry on in such an unbiblical manner. Leads me to the old why question. Why are so many going in this direction and I think there are a few possible answers. The one that stands out most is the lack of personal responsibility, especially for men today, to find and develop their spiritual gifts. As a result it's just easier to pay someone to handle it all.

    Let me pose a question. From the "brethren assemblies" perspective, what is your opinion on the "full time worker"?

    1. Good question, David, one that might need its own post.

      Very briefly, it seems to me it depends on what the "work" is understood to entail. It's one thing for a local church to "commend" a brother "to the grace of God" (Acts 14:26) and send him off to do a work to which you and he believe he has been called (Acts 13:2). It's quite another to install him as a "stealth pastor" exclusive to your own group with a near-monopoly on the platform of a single congregation.

      It seems to me the "full time workers" of yesteryear were of the first sort. Today, maybe not quite so much.

      Do you have a particular scenario in mind?

    2. Dave:

      There is a whole doctrine in Scripture for what constitutes a genuine warrant for releasing someone into the Lord's work, and making that their exclusive focus. There are terms and conditions under which it can happen, and situations that depart from the Scriptural pattern and teaching altogether. Most people, I'm afraid, are unaware of what the Word actually says about this.

      I made quite a study of it years ago. And I've written out what I've found in a previous post. I wrote that post in the wake of a young man who expressed to me his intense desire to make his whole career serving God in a local church.

      I think it may be relevant here: