Pastors As Shepherds
Today there are some in the body of Christ who would deny the need for leadership in a local assembly of Christians. They are disturbed that many leaders act, not like servants, but like kings. They also point out that the earliest followers of Jesus were strangely silent about leadership and authority. In all of Paul’s letters, for example, only once are leaders mentioned in the opening salutations, and then only in passing (Phil. 1:1).
But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The New Testament presents a clear picture of how the early Christians viewed themselves. They understood each church to be an extended family (an institutionalized church was unimaginable) that practiced plural male leadership. This eldership was non-hierarchical (each elder was equal in authority to all the other elders) and arose from within those churches the elders would lead. Because the Lord Jesus is the head of the church (Col. 1:18), the elders led by example, not by “lording it over” the church (1 Pet. 5:2). An elder’s authority lay solely in his ability to “persuade” with the truth of the Word of God (see the use of peitho, “persuade,” in Heb. 13:17).
Jesus told the apostles, “You are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8). By this He meant that His followers comprised a brotherhood, a family in which there are no classes of people. The church has only one class of members: blood-bought, born-again believers. Jesus thus explicitly forbade honorific titles among His people, emphasizing instead the truth that “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). Likewise, Paul taught that overseers are part of the whole body, not separate from or over it (see the use of sun, “with,” in Phil. 1:1).
Nothing hinders the growth of the body more than a false clergy/laity division. Making unbiblical distinctions such as separating the “pastor” from the eldership can only result in a structure that undermines the headship of Christ and usurps the individual believer’s right to minister in a spiritual way. If we are honest, we must confess that the tradition of a solitary “pastor” is a gigantic obstacle to the participatory dimension of body life found in the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 14). There are at least 58 commands in the New Testament detailing our “one-another” responsibilities but not one command about the pastor taking upon his shoulders the whole weight of the order and edification of the church.
Let us realize, then, that the New Testament knows nothing of a “pastoral office” as traditionally conceived, nor is there any evidence to support the idea of one professional minister leading a congregation. In Eph. 4:11, for example, Paul mentions apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but one would be hard-pressed to identify a New Testament “pastor” by name. The New Testament calls Paul an “apostle,” Agabus a “prophet,” Philip an “evangelist,” Manean a “teacher,” but it never identifies anyone as a “pastor.” Indeed, the word translated “pastors” in Eph. 4:11 is a metaphor rather than a literal term denoting an ecclesiastical office. Note the following occurrences of poimen in the New Testament:
In light of the consistent usage of poimen in the New Testament, it is ironic that the term most frequently used today to describe church leaders – “pastor” – is found only once in the entire New Testament to refer to followers of Christ, and then only in the plural! The word itself simply denotes a “shepherd.” It is a most appropriate image. One of our Lord’s favorite metaphors for spiritual leadership was that of a shepherd – a person who tends God’s flock. In Jesus’ day, shepherds were without status. Theirs was a lowly, humble occupation. Thus the metaphor is fitting, for our Lord said, “Let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (Luke 22:26).
In a similar vein, the apostle Peter wrote:
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away (1 Pet. 5:1-4).
When Peter wrote these words, most people were thoroughly familiar with sheep and shepherding (as they are today in places like Africa). Elders, he says, are undershepherds who guard the flock under the tender supervision of the Chief Shepherd. They feed the sheep with God’s Word and lead them by example. They keep the sheep from wandering off into pastures that might harm them. Theirs is an enormous task, but faithful elders will reap the reward of an unfading crown of glory, awarded by the Chief Shepherd Himself.
Let us now sum up. The present-day concept of “the” pastor as a figure of authority is far removed from the mind of God. There is not a scrap of evidence from the early period that Christian leaders were ever organized into an official “pastorate” or that they were ever referred to as “pastors.” It was only later that the church adopted an Old Testament-based religious system, replete with an altar, a Christian sanctuary (church building), and a special priesthood. Contrariwise, the New Testament doctrine of leadership is based not on a clergy-laity dichotomy but on the complementary truths of the priesthood of all believers and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In my opinion, there is as much evidence in the New Testament for an “office of elder” as there is for an “office of younger”!
Genuine Christian leadership is always based on truth and trust, not on power. In the New Testament we find functional distinctions between the leaders and the led but no hierarchical divisions. The New Testament church was “shepherded” by elders, local men of wisdom and maturity who had earned the respect of others.
Christian shepherds, may the Chief Shepherd help you to tend the sheep in humility and love!
February 28, 2005
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. If you would like to know more about becoming a follower of King Jesus, please feel free to write Dave.