Rethinking Religion, Part 2: Pastors, Titles, Authority, Calling

This is part 2 of a multi-part series I’ve called Rethinking Religion. To see all the posts so far, click the Rethinking Religion category in the sidebar.

We talked last time about how in his zeal to detour divisions in the church, Ignatius set in place a false structure of authoritative leadership designed to dole out punishments for non-compliance and rewards for compliance. This hierarchy of authority that Ignatius implemented, centered around pastors and in particular, the one pastor model, was firmly in place by the mid-third century and is still with us in most institutional churches today, where there is a top-down authority structure in place and one person at the top, steering the ship. There are certain functions within the assembly that Ignatius arbitrarily decided can only be performed by the church’s sole lead pastor which is why he could say,

“Let 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.” Letter to Smyrna (ca. AD 110)

But this idea is foreign to the New Testament, man-made, and comes to us via tradition alone. There is no biblical reason for such thinking. Note Jesus’ words that we alluded to at the end of Part One in this series:

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)

Jesus’ words, “It shall not be so among you” are a clear and concise warning against establishing any kind of authoritative hierarchy within the assembly that divides sheep from other sheep and sets up one sinner in charge of another. We either don’t believe Jesus’ words, choose to ignore them, or have spiritualized their intended meaning to the point that our top-down authority structures somehow fit into it without compromise.

We’ve been told through the years that because a pastor has a special calling unlike the rest of us, he or she has been given blanket authority over us. We’ve heard that so many times and for so long that we accept it without question. We believe it without blinking. But here’s the rub: religious tradition has given us this, not the New Testament, and we’ve been teaching this tradition as the commands of God for so long, that we’ve blurred the lines between the two and we can’t tell the difference. Let’s look closer.

What Does Scripture Say About a Pastor’s Calling and Authority?

One of the things I participated in on occasion as a pastor in institutional church settings, was ordination councils. Ordination councils vary from denomination to denomination and from group to group, but a few things are consistent in most of them. An ordination council is where a group of previously ordained pastors and other invited attendees examine a newbie (usually someone right out of school) who feels called to pastor – called into ministry. These ordination councils can take anywhere from a few hours to several weeks, depending on the denomination or group. One denomination defines the job of an ordination council this way:

Ordination is the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies.

There are several assertions in this description that cripple life in the assembly. First, the very idea of ordination, as we think of it in the modern sense (a set-apart professional “clergy” within the church, clearly separated from the supposed non-professional “laity”) doesn’t appear in the New Testament. More on that in a moment. Second, the “various religious rites and ceremonies” normally refers to communion (which we’ve so institutionalized and reduced to a stale wafer and thimble of juice that we’ve lost the whole concept of enjoying the richness of a slow meal together), baptism, and probably church discipline (I hate that term!). Guess where that idea came from. Hint: Ignatius (see above and in Part One). The idea of a special class of church clergy being the only ones qualified to perform certain functions in the assembly has been handed to us by tradition and tradition alone. It’s man-made by the men in charge. There is no New Testament precedence for such an idea. None. Any believer can and should be doing these things naturally as part of living life together within the assembly. This is how the body of Christ is to function, with every person in it actively participating as a kingdom of priests living life together. You are qualified to do so in Christ. God himself has qualified you.

Modern ordination intentionally results in a clergy/laity caste system that cripples the church by creating a top-down authority structure that is foreign to the New Testament, thereby separating the professional Christians from the non-professional ones in direct opposition to Jesus’ words, “It shall not be so among you.” Preserving the clergy/laity separation that exists within the church is what most modern ordination councils promote, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Those in charge and those in power are seldom interested in giving up their misplaced authority and power and the perpetuity of official, group-sanctioned ordination is one way of ensuring power and control are maintained.

In addition to the full barrage of theological and doctrinal questions thrown at a pastoral candidate in a typical ordination council, there are the inevitable questions regarding the person’s special “call” into professional pastoral “ministry.” “Describe your call to ministry” or “Tell us how God has called you into pastoral ministry” are expected questions in almost any ordination council. It is imperative that a pastoral candidate has received a “call into ministry” and this special calling is  usually tied to their testimony in some way. It’s expected of them to address the idea that at some point in their Christian life, they received some sort of call to this special role of professional pastor. One problem (of which there are several) I see with this is that Scripture doesn’t use the words call, called, or calling that way. I think that’s important to this discussion because Scripture is our guide in these matters, not tradition, creeds, or denominational practices, and if pastors within the assembly possess some type of authoritative calling, we need to know about it and see it plainly in Scripture. Something this important, if it exists, should be readily evident in Scripture. While far from exhaustive (because this is a blog, not a research paper), Scripture uses calling or called in the following ways:

  • In referring to one’s station in life (1 Corinthians 1:26, 7:17, 20)
  • The call to salvation (Acts 15:17, Romans 1:6-7, 8:30, 9:24, 11:29, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 9, Galatians 1:6, 15, Ephesians 4:1, 2 Peter 1:10)
  • The free offer of the gospel (Matthew 22:14)
  • The audible, verbal voice of God (1 Samuel 3:10, Acts 13:2, 1 Corinthians 1:1, Hebrews 11:8)
  • Paul’s call to preach the gospel in Macedonia as a direct result of a vision (Acts 16:10)
  • Paul’s credibility as an Apostle (1 Corinthians 1:1)
  • A Christian’s call to suffer (1 Peter 2:21)
  • A Christian’s call to be a blessing (1 Peter 3:9)

While the Bible is silent with regards to pastors having a special authoritative call on their life in the way we most often think of it, as the sole professional holy guy or holy gal, set apart from the rest of us with career-building spiritual gifts, it is not silent in recognizing the nobility of one’s desire to shepherd and protect the assembly and elevating that desire to a noble thing. Scripture uses terms like “aspiration” or “desire” with reference to guarding the assembly, not calling or authority.

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. (1 Timothy 3:1, NIV)

Your version might have the word office in that verse and read something like “the office of overseer.” Such a translation can be misleading and give the impression that overseers in the church do indeed have a special office and calling. Isn’t it interesting that those insisting on the inclusion of terms like “office” in this verse are most often those within such an office, exercising power and control to varying degrees, and who have the most to lose by dropping that verbiage?

Contrary to what we’ve been told, there is no mention of a special calling in the sense that we most often think of calling as it relates to pastors. We’ve been told so many times that a pastor is a professional minster who has a special, almost mystical calling that others in the local assembly don’t have, that we believe it without question and we assume it’s true. This insistence on a supposed calling has given us the infamously crippling clergy/laity distinction and we don’t question it. We assume its authenticity. On one hand, I get it. If someone has a passionate desire or aspiration to be an elder (I did), it’s easy to jump from desire to calling in a church culture that requires you to have a special calling and is committed to an institutionalized understanding of professional clergy running the church. And in an ordination council, you’ll be expected to tell us all about your calling. So we brush up on our calling.

Because of this supposed calling, we’ve elevated the concept of pastor (did I mention that word only appears once in the New Testament?) to one that is harmful and unfair to both the person gifted in such a way and to the rest of the assembly. What I’ve seen, and from stories I’ve heard others tell, is that “I have a special calling as your pastor” has become a trump card to be pulled out when needed to guilt, coerce, manipulate, win an argument, or threaten someone into submission or behavior modification to further some institutional agenda. It promotes and reinforces a plethora of abusive ecclesiastical models where money flows up and power flows down. Is it any wonder so many are leaving the institutional church?

Earlier I mentioned that our modern concept of ordination doesn’t appear in the New Testament. Here’s what I meant by that. In modern ordination councils, there is a setting apart of the clergy from the laity, the academically trained professionals from the rest of the assembly (more on that in Part Three of this series). The clergy are set apart for special work that they are told only they are equipped to do, or that only they are authorized to instruct others to do under their direct supervision because they alone have been called with a special calling, have read the necessary books and creeds, and are now ordained. Modern ordination is often thought of as the transference or instilling of some sort of supernatural authority to the one being ordained. Again, we’re back to Ignatius and religious tradition. The Bible doesn’t take us there. Tradition does. You are free to embrace these complicated systems of top-down authority if you want to, but you don’t have to, and I suggest you don’t because it flies in the face of all that Jesus said about not doing it.

However, the Bible does speak of recognizing those gifted and qualified to serve the local assembly as its shepherds and protectors by the laying on of hands (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). This laying on of hands is a public recognition of the Holy Spirit’s work in already having gifted and qualified an individual with shepherding gifts. There is no hint of anything mystical going on in the process, separating clergy from laity or imparting special authority to one group of people in the church over another, or the placing of someone into a special authoritative “office.” Such an idea is contrary to Jesus’ words. Could the overseers the New Testament points to be as simple as those older, more seasoned men and women within the assembly who are skilled at doling out life wisdom, giving good counsel, and recognizing danger in the assembly, who also met certain character traits, were the ones to be recognized and thus trusted to serve as the assembly’s protectors and shepherds? Could it have been that simple?

If you’ve made this far, thank you!! Hang in there. We’re almost done.

What about authority? Don’t elders (pastors) possess authority in the church? For the sake of an abbreviated discussion, consider these ways the New Testament uses the word authority:

  • Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat. 28:18, Jn. 5:27, Eph. 1:21).
  • The 72 were given authority to cast out demons and preach the gospel (Lk. 10:17-20).
  • The 12 were given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick (Mat. 10:1).
  • Governments have been given authority to govern (Rom. 13:1-7).
  • The Apostles have authority for the building up of the church in love (2 Cor. 10:8, 2 Cor. 13:10, 3 Jn. 1:9).
  • Wives have authority over their husband’s bodies and husbands have authority over their wive’s bodies (1 Cor. 7:4).

The New Testament is silent concerning any top-down authority structure within the assembly that leads to a fabricated clergy/laity division; the professional Christian vs the non-professional Christian. The authority the Apostles possessed was primarily for serving and building up of the body of Christ to promote unity in the gospel, while confronting and exposing false teaching. Any authority structure within the assembly that leads to a division of one group of people from another, or gives power to one group of people over another, violates Jesus’ clear instructions, is ripe for abuse and needs to be jettisoned from our thinking. It’s a problem that’s contributing heavily to the Dones leaving the church. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, Jesus is very clear about this:

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)

“It shall not be so among you.” Do we really believe that? Many do and many are leaving the institutional church and organized religion because they do and are finding more authentic community outside of its four walls.

Rethinking Our Use of Honorific Titles

One of the ways we perpetuate and promote the ongoing division of pastors over the rest of the church is in our perpetual use of honorific titles in day to day conversation. When we speak of Pastor So-And-So or Reverend So-And-So, we immediately reinforce the wall of division that separates us from them: the professional clergy from the lowly laity. We do it all the time. Please stop! Jesus spoke these words with regards to honorific titles being used in the church:

 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12, emphasis mine)

While the title pastor isn’t specifically mentioned in Matthew 23, Jesus’ opinion of the use of honorific titles in the church is inescapable. Our continued justification of the use of honorific titles is evidence that we don’t really believe this verse, or we’ve explained it away in favor of tradition.

Why do we use honorific titles in the church? Because we’ve been told to. It’s another thing that’s been handed to us by tradition (thank you Ignatius) and we don’t question it. But honorific titles separate us and exalt one group of people (the pastors) over another (the rest of the church). The very thing Jesus cautioned against. We either don’t believe this verse, or again, we’ve spiritualized its meaning to the point where we’re able to ignore it because we have too much to lose by taking it at face value.

Why do we take one spiritual gift and make it into an honorific title? Why do we call Phil, who has been given a gift of shepherding, Pastor Phil? Why do we only do that with the pastors? What about Gary who doesn’t like attention, but who has the gift of giving? Why not call him Giver Gary? Perhaps we should address Hank, who has the gift of hospitality, as Hospitality Hank. Or address Mary, who has gifts of mercy, as Mercy Mary. If we’re going to misuse one spiritual gift by making it into an honorific title, lets at least be consistent and do it with all of them!

We’ve successfully institutionalized the concept of pastor and turned it into a career choice with CEO perks. When asked what we do for a living, we reply, “I’m a pastor.” In daily conversation we say things like, “John’s my pastor” without giving it a second thought. But you’ll never hear us say “Gary’s my giver”, “Dave’s my discerner”, or “Harry’s my healer.” It sounds weird to say those things. But it’s been so drilled into us for so long that a pastor is a professional clergy in a top-down authority role, that saying “John’s my pastor” sounds perfectly normal. It’s not

Jesus said he who humbles himself will be exalted, but we’ve turned that into he who exalts himself will look humble. All because that’s what we’ve been told to do. The use of honorific titles creates an “us and them” mentality in an assembly where everyone is supposed to be equal. It’s time to rethink this. It’s one more reason people are leaving the institutional church and finding more authentic community outside its four walls.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair


This is part two of a multi-part series I’m calling Rethinking Religion. Here’s a list of the posts I’ve written thus far, in the order posted.

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash