Monday, May 30, 2022

Anonymous Asks (199)

“Am I supposed to obey my pastor?”

Hebrews 13:17 reads like this: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

That would seem fairly straightforward, no? Well, let me throw you a curve.

Like almost everything else about the church, modern Christians have made their relationship to their pastors much more complicated than it was in the first century when the New Testament was written, and when instructions for gathering together as followers of Christ were first given to his disciples by the apostles.

The First Century Pastor

First of all, a “pastor” by today’s definition may not remotely resemble the pastor of the first century. The pastor of the first century was a layman with proven experience successfully living the Christian life, who also happened to be able to teach scripture. He would never have thought to use the word “pastor” (which simply means shepherd) as a religious title. “Pastor” describes the particular service such a man performs for God’s people: he is engaged in feeding the sheep of the Lord’s pasture and caring for his flock. It was never intended as an honorific.

The first century pastor was not imported into a church from outside it, but recognized from within because he was already informally doing the work to which Christ had called him and for which the Holy Spirit had equipped him. His interests were primarily spiritual rather than material. When practical, day-to-day matters involving the running of the church needed handling, they were referred to deacons. The pastor likely never worked alone except perhaps in new or unusual church situations. The New Testament always speaks of such men in the plural rather than singular.

The first century pastor’s calling was not a career, though at times he may have had enough financial support and assistance from his congregation to devote most of his time to serving believers. At other times, he likely continued to work to support himself. He was an older man, likely in his mid-forties or early fifties; old enough at least to have raised teenagers successfully and demonstrated that he knew how to manage a household at every stage of family life. In the NT, the words translated “elder”, “leader”, “pastor” and “overseer” all refer to different aspects of the same job.

A New Testament pastor reported directly to the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, though he worked alongside other pastors in the same congregation. No human authority stood between him and his God. It would have been exceptional for a first century pastor to do all the teaching in a local church. Most often he was one of several gifted expositors of God’s word.

It is in this historical context that the writer to the Hebrews says, “Obey your leaders.” Unless you were a complete idiot, of course you would obey such men. They did their work out of personal interest in you and loving devotion to God, committed to helping you become more like Jesus Christ. They had the authority of God behind them and checks and balances in the form of other godly men’s advice to help direct them.

The “Pastor” of Today

Contrast this with today’s “pastor”. He wears a title. He is probably in his late twenties or early thirties, fresh out of seminary with a couple of small kids and an overworked wife. He has little or no secular life experience and no proven track record of serving the Lord’s people over a period of years or decades. His intellectual knowledge of scripture, especially the New Testament, is probably more comprehensive than any elder of the first century. However, his experience in applying this knowledge to people’s lives is about an inch deep. He does most or all of the Bible teaching in his church while his congregation watches him perform.

Instead of being developed and recognized as a shepherd among sheep, the modern “pastor” is brought in from outside by the leadership of the church to give direction and manage most or all aspects of church life. He is stretched in nine different directions at all times. His focus must be on managing congregational expectations and meeting them so as to keep his job. He reports to a board, and if he fails to satisfy them, he will quickly find himself looking for somewhere else to do his pastoring.

The modern “pastor” is in your church not because the Holy Spirit made him an overseer, but because being a pastor seemed like a good thing to do, and somebody was willing to pay him to do it. He may or may not care for the sheep as people, but so long as he is able to stage regular, orderly services with reasonably clear teaching, he will be allowed to continue performing.

A Qualification for My Mother

Now, let me be fair here. Your pastor may not fit my profile, though many do. Perhaps your pastor is older, more seasoned, of proven character, wiser, more people-oriented, more spiritually alert, and less inclined to try to run a slate of church programs by himself. Perhaps he and the elders have worked out a deal where he uses his experience and gift to help develop other gift in your church, and though he is only one man, he recognizes his limitations and serves to the best of his ability without monopolizing leadership.

In that case, I would say you have a much better arrangement than many, but we should also note that what makes your pastor effective (and exceptional at his job) is that he is much closer in spirit to the pastor / teacher / elder / overseer of the first century than his average counterpart today. It is only to the degree that we follow the New Testament model for church leadership that we are likely to have leaders we can respect and who lead effectively and for the blessing of God’s people.

But let’s go back to the first guy, whose description may be exaggerated in one or two respects, but fits many young pastors I have met or watched on YouTube. Should you be obliged to obey a guy like that, whose work, character and experience are so wildly different from what the Head of the Church intended, who faces temptations to pride and independence that first century church leaders almost never encountered, and who has almost none of the New Testament checks and balances in place to guide him in his decision-making?

After all, technically he works for you, doesn’t he? If you feed the offering box every week, you are paying his salary.

Do you really have to obey that guy?


Well, yes, believe it or not. I think that’s what the Lord would want. Remember the Pharisees? Worst spiritual examples ever, but they knew their Old Testament and could tell you what it said. After that, you were kind of on your own as a first century Jew. The Lord referred to the “sheep” of his day as “harassed and helpless”. Their “pastors” were just plain awful.

And what did Jesus say to do about it? “Do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.” Followers of Christ are not to be boat-rockers and troublemakers. Also, if you are paying a man to lead, you need to let him do his job. Moreover, despite the rather extra-biblical way he found his way into the leadership of your congregation, your pastor has still taken on the responsibility of keeping watch over your soul, and he will certainly give an account to the Head of the Church with respect to how he has done his job. You would want to make that job easier, and not harder.

That’s assuming, of course, that you still think you want to be one of the “sheep” in your pastor’s flock. It may be that a careful study of God’s design for church leadership will inspire some folks to look a little harder for a church in their area that is actually trying to practice it.

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