Rethinking Religion, Part 1: What is a Pastor?

To say people are becoming disillusioned with institutional religion is an understatement. People are becoming disillusioned and are leaving it in droves. From all the statistics I’ve read the reasons vary, but a large number who’ve left are leaving, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel organized religion has. As a result, many are walking away from that system and finding more authentic community outside of its walls, myself included. They are done. Josh Packard is correct in saying,

“The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they’ve decided they are better off without organized religion.” Source: Meet the Dones

One thing almost every religious institution has in common with other religious institutions is a person in charge called a pastor. The pastor is typically the power person in charge, directing people, events, and things related to the ongoing success of the institution. In this first post of an ongoing series I’m calling Rethinking Religion, we’re simply going to sort out what a pastor is. This will be the foundation for the posts that follow in this series. I’ll be writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. We’ll start by looking more closely at what scripture says about pastors because I feel one way modern religious institutions have complicated things is by making the pastor the authoritative focal point in the church, not unlike the CEO of a corporation. This top-down authority approach to doing church is man-made and has been handed to us by 2,000 years of church tradition, not by any anything mandated in scripture.

From my own experience and my conversations with others, I see several areas where I believe institutional religion, in the interest of self-preservation, has veered from the New Testament to varying degrees, opening the door to a structure within the body of Christ that is crippling to, and causing disillusionment in, those who have left its confines. Here’s what I’ve written in this series thus far, with more on the way:

I strongly urge you to read these in the order written, as each one builds on the previous. Let’s get started.

Not surprisingly, the New Testament talks about pastors. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds them of the gifts God has given to his church for the specific purpose of building itself up in love. He says,

[11] And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, [12] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, [13] 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, [14] so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. [15] Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, [16] from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)

Your version may read “Pastors” in verse 11 (NIV, NASB, KJV). I’m good with either translation. Both convey what I think is the meaning of the word. There are spiritually gifted shepherds (pastors) within the congregation whose purpose it is, to equip and build up the assembly in love. But did you know that this is the only time in the entire New Testament that this noun translated pastor or shepherd occurs in relation to the body of Christ, outside of clear references to Jesus himself?

But we haven’t let that stop us. We’ve turned one word in this one verse into a thing. We haven’t done it with the other people mentioned in this verse, we’ve only done it with the pastors. The apostles, evangelists, and teachers mentioned here get a free pass. But not the pastors. We’ve institutionalized the pastor and made them into something bigger than real life – something bigger than any of us can handle, including the pastors themselves. Remember, I’m speaking from experience as one of those pastors.

The pastor has become the central figure in most of our western churches. It’s been that way for a long time. We’ve provided them with special chairs to sit in, separate from the rest of us, or placed them on elevated platforms apart from the rest of us, or both. We’ve arranged the furniture in the room such that everyone faces the pastor while he or she is the only one allowed to speak. Sometimes, we even require them to live on the church property (enter, the parsonage) separated from the rest of us in the community. But thankfully, the parsonage is less common than it used to be. Communication on Sunday is one-way, from them to us. In addition, we address them using honorific titles that mark them out from the rest of us and places even greater distance between us and them. Worship, communion, baptisms, etc. all flow through the pastor or the clerical staff under the direction of the pastor. The pastor’s under an incredible amount of pressure from both without and within. It’s unfair to both the pastor and to the rest of the assembly and in my opinion, it’s killing genuine community and it’s one reason people are leaving the institutional setting in droves. I’m speaking from both personal experience and personal observation.

But we didn’t get here by accident. It may surprise you to know that our journey here was intentional and it began a long time ago with one of the church’s apostolic fathers. Apostolic father is the title usually given to the church leaders of the early second century – those whose lives either overlapped the lives of the last Apostles (the twelve) and were directly influenced by them, or were close associates with someone who knew one of the twelve Apostles personally. One such apostolic father was Ignatius of Antioch.

Ignatius of Antioch (died AD 110) was a pastor (bishop) in the church at Antioch in the very early 2nd century. He had a passion for Christ and for unity in the assembly. However, in his zeal to preserve unity, he began making what I believe is a harmful, and at times an abusive and unsubstantiated distinction between pastors, elders, and bishops and the rest of the assembly. That distinction is still with us today in many forms. Ignatius of Antioch was among the first, if not THE first, to make a sharp distinction between bishops, pastors, and elders and was among the first to elevate the role of bishop (pastor) to an unprecedented top-down authoritative one. Ignatius was condemned to death by the Roman authorities for simply being a Christian and as he was being escorted to Rome to be executed, he wrote seven letters to seven different churches. In his Letter to Smyrna (ca. AD 110), he wrote:

“Shun divisions as the beginning of evil. Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters as the apostles; and respect your deacons as you would respect God’s commandmentLet no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church. “(Emphasis mine.)

Kudos to Ignatius for his noble drive to identify divisions in the assembly for what they often can be: the beginning of evil. That being said, there are a couple of things we need to talk about in this quote. The first is what I’ve already alluded to, namely that Ignatius drew a sharp distinction between a bishop (overseer) and a presbyter (elder). What I find intriguing about this is that while the New Testament makes no such distinction, Ignatius was already formulating that distinction early in the second century, some 10-15 years after the death of the last apostle, John. In the New Testament, “elder” and “bishop” refer to the same person and are used interchangeably to describe different functions of the same giftedness (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). But by as early as AD 180, the sharp distinction that Ignatius made in his writings was universally accepted as the norm.

It became the accepted norm in the local assemblies by the end of the second century to have one bishop ruling and several elders under him in a hierarchal structure. By the middle of the third century, this pattern was solidly in place. The bishop served as the sole authority and leader in the assembly in almost every way and the elders took on a secondary leadership role under the top-down direction of the bishop. Sound familiar? Justin Martyr (mid 2nd century) preferred to call the single bishop the “president of the brothers.” In almost every way, the bishop came to possess sole authority in the assembly and slowly became the focal point. He led corporate worship, oversaw what we call church discipline, had sole authority and responsibility in the appointment of new bishops and elders, did all the baptizing, or designated who could, and presided over the Lord’s supper, which had moved from a meal to a religious sacrament. This system flourished even more under Constantine (early 4th century) as the pastor became a state-sanctioned, state-sponsored professional paid position that continues in many forms to the present day. But there’s too much info there to talk about right now. Grab a good book on church history and check it out.

Within this system, the sole bishop could delegate some of these responsibilities to “his” elders, but ultimately, he had sole authority in these matters. I could say a lot about this, but let me summarize by saying that the beautiful gift given to the body of Christ of pastor, shepherd, bishop, or overseer got messy right away as it moved away from the clear and simple explanation found in the New Testament of shepherds building the assembly up in love and promoting the priesthood of all believers, to shutting down any chance the priesthood of all believers ever had of functioning, as communication became one-way and unilateral top-down authority was imposed to ensure conformity to the system.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that dealing with divisions in Christ’s assembly can get ugly (been there, done that), but Ignatius’ remedy for disunity in the body of Christ was to implement,  reorganize, and restructure the church’s “leadership” by infusing it with a dominating, authoritative power foreign to the New Testament and then insisting that everyone in the assembly submit to it. “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters [elders] as the apostles” creates an environment within the assembly that is both overwhelmingly burdensome and ripe for abuse of power in the wrong hands. Add to it statements like, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop” and “Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” and we find ourselves being immersed into a destructive top-down authoritative Clergy-Laity distinction where the entire assembly is built around one professional person (not Jesus) and if that one person fails to show up, the poor laity is at a loss because the rest of us can’t do anything without the professional pastor in the room. I don’t believe this is what Jesus intended for his people. This is foreign to the New Covenant scriptures. Church tradition has given us this model, not the New Testament.

Pastors, Elders, Bishops, and Overseers

One question we have to ask as we begin is how do we sort out these terms. How does the New Testament use the terms pastor, elder, bishop, and overseer? The answer is quite simple: all of these terms are used interchangeably to refer to the same person. Consider the following:

“Now from Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him…. ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.'” (Acts 20:17, 28, emphasis mine)

In this beautiful scene of Paul’s final farewell to the Ephesians, he calls for and meets with, the elders of the assembly. It’s important to note that this word is always in the plural when referring to elders in the assembly (cf. Acts 14:23, 15:6, 1 Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1). The idea of a sole elder or a senior, executive elder is foreign to the New Covenant scriptures. Note also, that the elders Paul is talking to have been gifted by the Holy Spirit as the assembly’s overseers. The elders are recognized as overseers within the church (your version may translate “overseer” as “bishop”). To oversee or bishop the assembly in this context means to watch over and protect it. Bishoping or overseeing is one function of the elders and in this context that speaks to protecting the assembly from destructive people. The elders are the bishops/overseers. This is reinforced in Paul’s letter to Titus:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,” (Titus 1:5, 7 emphasis mine)

Paul left Titus in Crete to tie up some loose ends in the newly planted assemblies there. Namely, to appoint elders (plural) in every town. Note once again how Paul uses the terms elder and overseer (again, your translation may use bishop in place of overseer) interchangeably to refer to the same person. Elders=Overseers. Elders=Bishops.

These same elders are also the church’s shepherds or pastors:

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3 emphasis mine)

Not surprisingly, Peter follows the same pattern of plurality in addressing the elders as Paul did. But he does something a little different here. He uses overseer (bishop) as an action of exercising oversight. The elders as overseers are to exercise oversight within the assembly. As I noted above, overseeing has to do with protecting the assembly from those who would seek to disrupt or destroy it. That makes sense. It has nothing to do with position, rank, power, or authority, as we will see later in this series.

But then Peter introduces a third concept: elders (overseers or bishops) are instructed to shepherd the flock. Your translation may read “feed the flock.” In much the same way as he chose an action to show that elders exercise oversight of the flock, he chose an action to show that elders also shepherd the flock. The word translated shepherd or feed in this passage is a verb form of the word shepherd or pastor in Ephesians 4. The elders are also shepherds who shepherd the assembly. In other words, the elders are also pastors who pastor or shepherd the church. The idea of elders also being the church’s shepherds or pastors takes us right back to Ephesian 4:11 where I started this blog.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (Ephesians 4:11)

Let me remind you of what I said earlier: your translation may read “pastors and teachers.” What can we conclude? The church’s elders are also its overseers or bishops, as evidenced by their exercising oversight, and they are its shepherds or pastors, evidenced by their feeding, pastoring, or shepherding the flock. In the New Testament, elders=overseers=bishops=pastors=shepherds. These are different aspects of the same gift to the church, given to it for equipping, protecting, serving, facilitating, and the building up of itself in love. But beginning with Ignatius, we didn’t waste much time in turning it into something else. Something harmful to the functioning of the church and crippling to the priesthood of all believers.

In the New Testament, “elders” is the most common term used in referring to the church’s shepherds and far from being a professional position of power and authority, it is a simple reference to older people within the assembly who are seasoned in the faith with gentle gifts and insight to love and protect the assembly. It’s not a top-down corporate position of authority to be added to a resume for the purpose of career advancement or prestige. As we’ve seen, Scripture uses other terms like “overseer,” “bishop,” “pastors,” and “shepherds” to emphasize and describe different functions or aspects of these same people. As we will see in part two of this series, these descriptions were never intended as titles of honor, authority, power, or distinction to set apart one group of people in the assembly from another.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis mine)


Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash