There’s Only One “Senior Pastor” and It’s Not Us!
If anyone could have assumed the title “Senior Pastor,” it was the apostle Peter. From the Gospels we learn that he occupied a privileged position among Jesus’ disciples. Along with the sons of Zebedee and his brother Andrew he belonged to the intimate circle of those who gathered about our Lord. According to Mark 1:16, he was one of the very first disciples Jesus called. Mark 5:37 explicitly notes that Jesus permitted no one else to enter the house of the ruler of the synagogue except Peter and the sons of Zebedee.
Even within the innermost circle of disciples, it is Peter who always stands in the foreground. He alone attempts to imitate his Master in walking on the water. He alone is the spokesman for the Twelve. When Jesus directs a question to all the disciples, it is Peter who answers (Mark 8:29ff.). At the transfiguration it was Peter who proposed that they erect tents (Mark 9:5). It is he who asks the questions all the disciples want answered (Matt 18:21). In Luke 22:8 Peter and John are directed to prepare the Passover. The lists of the disciples all give Peter the first place. The list in Matthew 10:2 actually calls him the “first” (Greek protos). After the resurrection the angel says, “Go and tell [Jesus’] disciples and Peter that He goes before you into Galilee” (Mark 16:7). It is Peter who defends the cause of the gospel when the Jerusalem authorities take action against the apostles (Acts 4:8; 5:29). Especially in Mark’s Gospel is the preeminent position of Peter emphasized, in keeping with the solid tradition that Mark is a viva voce transcription of Peter’s teaching in Rome (see my book, Why Four Gospels?).
No one can deny the special role Peter played among Jesus’ apostles. Isn’t it striking, then, that Peter refers to himself in 1 Peter 5:1, not as a “senior” or “superior” elder, but simply as a “fellow elder” (Greek sumpresbuteros)? Or that he tells his fellow elders not to lord it over those entrusted to them (5:3)? Or that he calls Jesus the “Chief Shepherd” (lit., Senior Pastor!) of the sheep (5:4)? This should not surprise us at all. There is an utter and complete absence of any notion of a priestly caste in the New Testament. The early Christian assemblies had no holy man, no head honcho, no top gun, no “clergy” to lead the pack. Clergy dominance came much later and postdates the New Testament by at least a generation. James Dunn, one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, has noted, “Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism—when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second the picture was beginning to change” (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 351).
How far have we departed from the simplicity that is in Christ! The apostles were very specific in conveying the precise meaning of leadership. It was not, in Peter’s words, to involve “lording it over” the flock, as if we were superior to others. It was to be a leadership of lowly service (1 Pet 5:3). Someday, I hope, the plain truth of the matter will no longer be a subject of debate and confusion among God’s people. The whole traditional concept of one “pastor” of a local congregation is a practice that is absolutely foreign to Scripture. Overseeing elders are appointed by the Owner of the Sheep to exercise humble, non-authoritarian leadership among—not over—them. Thus no church ministered to by a “top gun” can be said to be a truly New Testament church. The only “top gun” in the New Testament was Diotrephes, who “loved to be first” and wanted to be boss. Such a leader was condemned by the apostle John (see 3 John 9-10)!
The time has come to bring our local church practices under the scrutiny of God’s Word. If there are practices in our tradition that are in conflict with the New Testament revelation, then we have only one option, and that is to correct our practices. The Bible clearly rejects our clergy-laity divide. All members of the local church are to function in the body according to the grace given unto them (Rom 12:1-8). The church is a temple in which every Christian is a “priest” who offers spiritual “sacrifices” to God (1 Pet 2:5, 9). According to the New Testament, all Christians do the work of ministry through the exercise of spiritual gifts. Whatever legitimate distinction can be made between leaders and led (e.g., 1 Thess 5:12-13) does not negate the fundamental truth of the priesthood of all believers.
Phil Lancaster is right: It is an affront to Jesus Christ and an insult to every other man in the church for a pastor to assume a place of prominence and uniqueness when Jesus Himself condemned any attempt at superiority of position (Matt 23:8). Jesus is the only Senior Pastor of the church. The rest of us are brothers. R. T. France, in his Tyndale Commentary on Matthew, reminds us that “[Jesus] has the only true claim to ‘Moses’ seat.’ Over against that unique authority His disciples must avoid the use of honorific titles for one another, an exhortation which today’s church could profitably take more seriously, not only in relation to formal ecclesiastical titles (‘Most Rev.’, ‘my Lord Bishop,’ etc.) but more significantly in its excessive deference to academic qualifications or to authoritative status in the churches.”
Do you comprehend this? If you do, you are now seeing into the very heart of the Christian gospel. No version of that message goes deeper than that which declares man’s root problem before God to be his pride. Many of our man-made approaches to doing church, indeed, are open to blame precisely because they never get down to this level. True Christian discipleship is always countercultural. One of the clearest indications of this is Jesus’ insistence that the one who wants to be first must be the slave of all (Mark 10:44), that greatness comes in service, that giving your life away is the only way to find it.
Let me flesh this out, in closing, in four ways. If you are a church leader, might I suggest in the first place that you take down those silly diplomas hanging on your office wall? No one in your congregation is even faintly impressed by them (I dare say, not even you should be!). Second, recognize that biblical eldership has no room for religious titles or exalted positions like “Senior Pastor,” “Associate Pastor,” “Reverend,” and the like. If you need a title, “Elder” or “Brother” will do just fine. Third, if you do hold to the “one man pastor” concept, get rid of it. Only the shared leadership model is taught in the New Testament, for only shared leadership promotes the New Covenant priesthood through manifesting Christ as the only true Head of the church (Col 1:18). Finally, commit yourself to going back to the Bible in all that you do. Everything in the Christian life needs to be built upon the Word of God.
Do you see the exalted supremacy of the Chief Shepherd, incomparably disclosed at the Ascension and Exaltation, as the basis for all service to Him? The Bible does; and I venture to add, if you felt the burden of your own weakness and sin, so would you. In heaven, where these things are better understood, angels and men unite to praise the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19:16). Here on earth those who by grace have accepted the role of unworthy undershepherd do the same.
December 16, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.