My Brethren background built into me a strong aversion to any form of ‘one-man ministry’. It taught me, even as a child, to look with disdain on the Baptists and Methodists, for instance, where ‘the minister’ not only led every service, organised all the activities and preached every Sunday, but also unlocked and locked the premises, set the heating clock and changed the light-bulbs.

We Brethren had elders—plural. And ‘plural’ meant there was always a plurality of them in any one ‘assembly’ (local church). They shared the burden of leadership and hardly any were full-time church staff. The system wasn’t perfect, but it worked pretty well, we reckoned, and it certainly had a sound New Testament basis.

With time, I came to question some of my Brethren preconceptions, but never this one. More pressing issues than church government eventually drew me away from Brethrenism into the ‘new church’ scene, but when I arrived I was surprised to find it operating as much on the basis of ‘the pastor in charge’ as were the Methodists and Baptists and, before them, the Anglicans and Catholics.

Maybe here I should clarify what I mean by ‘the pastor’ in this context. I don’t mean a leader with a gift for looking after people—every church needs that. I mean ‘the pastor’ in its common usage as ‘the one person in charge’. In older denominational circles it is ‘the minister’, or ‘the vicar’, or ‘the priest’, but it boils down to the same thing, and it’s a problem. Since my transition from Brethrenism I’ve had time and chance to look into the issue. I’ve examined the Scriptures. I’ve observed different systems of church government in action. Time and again ‘the pastor’ has proved to be the problem and I’ve come to the firm conclusion that the Brethren were right on this one.

The pastor is the problem on three counts: scriptural evidence, practical experience and the myth of ordination. Take the last one first. Usually, what makes a leader ‘the pastor’ is ordination, which the dictionary defines as ‘to confer holy orders on’[1] or ‘to invest officially (as by the laying on of hands) with ministerial or priestly authority’.[2] Many have asked me, ‘Are you ordained?’ Behind their question is a desire to know which category to file me in: clergy or laity, because in traditional thinking ordination lifts you from the ranks of ordinary pew-fillers into the higher echelon of ‘the ministry’ or ‘the clergy’. If you are a Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran or Orthodox that qualifies you to carry out certain holy functions denied to the rest, like dispensing the eucharist. If you are a Nonconformist it usually means you become a general dogsbody—though a spiritual and professional one, of course.

I have not been ordained, and have no desire to be. The pernicious clergy/laity distinction is completely absent from the New Testament and I wish it were absent from church life everywhere. On several occasions I have been prayed for by good responsible brothers, sometimes with the laying-on of hands, to prepare me for certain tasks or responsibilities or to equip me for some challenge,[3] but ordained in the traditional sense, no. And that hasn’t in the slightest way prevented me from exercising my God-given gifts in the service of his people who are the church. Nor has it created any legal problems. I am what I am by the grace of God and count myself privileged to be his servant without the ordination label.

That brings us to scriptural evidence. What does the Bible say about ‘the pastor’—ordained or not—as the one guy who runs a local church? Well, nothing, actually.

Look at the New Testament’s terminology. Spiritual leaders in the church are designated sometimes by the term presbyteros, ‘elder’, sometimes by episkopos, ‘overseer’, and sometimes by poimen, ‘shepherd’ or ‘pastor’.[4] Check on the usage of these terms and there’s no escaping the conclusion that they all refer to the same people.[5] What is more, there is always a plurality of them in any local church. Not once do we find one man running the show. Of course, any team leadership will see the emergence of a ‘first among equals’ whose stature or leadership capacity causes him to be acknowledged as the leader among them. But the New Testament data, if we take it seriously, insists that the ‘equals’ element will always be far more important than the ‘first’.

How, then, did the ‘one man in charge’ situation arise? The New Testament church was governed by elders, assisted at a practical level by deacons. That’s it. No bishops, cardinals, district superintendents, curates, monsignors or any of the other clerical ranks that history has thrown up to complicate the picture. Just elders and deacons—and always in plurality in each local church. Eventually, in the post-New Testament era, the ‘first among equals’ in the eldership began to pull away from his fellows to the point where he carried a disproportionate clout and bore a different label to reflect it: the title ‘bishop’ (episkopos)[6] now became his alone, while the others were just ‘elders’ (presbyteroi). Thus emerged the three-tier system of bishops, elders and deacons, with the bishop later becoming a diocesan bishop in a parish system that mirrored the Roman Empire’s pattern of civil government.

In a further downward step the principal local leader became a priest—in the sense of an intermediary between the ordinary people and God, modelled on Jewish and pagan priesthood, complete with an altar at which to officiate.[7] In due course things settled down into a regular pattern that endured for centuries: the bishop governed the diocese, a priest governed each parish church in the diocese, and one or more deacons served the parish church in practical ways. That system prevailed through the Middle Ages right up to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

The Reformation recognised that much had gone wrong over the centuries and sought to correct the most blatant errors, which were doctrinal ones concerning the nature of salvation (by grace alone, received by faith), the priesthood of all believers and the authority of Scripture. In spite of the last two and their implications for the topic we are looking at, the leadership pattern inherited by the Reformers from Roman Catholicism remained substantially unchanged in Lutheranism and in the Church of England. The Calvinist wing, however, did grapple with the leadership issue and sought to implement a form of presbyterianism (multiple elders) that was closer to New Testament norms. It won ground in, for example, Scotland and Hungary.

More recent centuries have seen further denominations come into being, each one with its special emphases. But for the most part the ‘one-man ministry’ pattern of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England has carried through, being perpetuated in Methodism, for instance, in the Pentecostal churches and most recently in many of the ‘new churches’. ‘The pastor’ (priest, vicar, minister) is still the key figure—and frequently still the problem.

In what ways is he the problem—or at least a potential problem? For a start, being the big chief panders to personal ambition and the desire to be in control. That is not to say, of course, that every pastor yields to such negative instincts, but the danger is always present, heightened by the lack of checks and balances in the person of fellow-elders. Sometimes, in practice, such elders exist but as little more than rubber stamps to the pastor’s policies and plans—the fact that he is called ‘the pastor’ and they are mere ‘elders’ is a constant reminder that theirs is a lower status.

A second common problem arises from the inevitable dominance of the pastor’s gifts and preferences, especially if he does the bulk of the preaching. If, for example, he is primarily an evangelist his evangelistic fervour will colour all he does. When he is supposed to be teaching or preaching on other topics he will end up bending them to his evangelistic purpose. That’s no bad thing in itself, but it does mean that the church will attract people who themselves have a strong evangelistic streak, while the more prophetic or teacher-types will become frustrated and eventually move to a church where they feel better-fed. And vice versa. The result is a homogeneous church without the diversity that the New Testament presents as one of the church’s fundamental traits and main attractions.

The third and final danger is that the church will collapse if the one man who, like the tip of an inverted pyramid, supports the whole structure, himself collapses. He may collapse through, say, burnout, moral failure, ill health or financial mismanagement, or sink under his workload or the weight of expectation. Whatever the reason, he often proves to be the supporting pillar that Samson snaps, bringing the whole spiritual and social edifice down around him. A strong team of elders, by contrast, will find themselves well able to support it if one of their number collapses or moves on.

Some will argue that the role of Moses and Joshua, and later the kings of Israel, validates the principle of one big man at the top. But that’s Old Testament. It’s vital to be clear, in moving from the Old Testament to the New, where the pathways of continuity and discontinuity diverge, and which path each aspect of Old Testament practice takes. Because the evidence for a plurality of elders is so abundant in the New Testament we can safely conclude that the ‘one big man at the top’ aspect of Israel’s life takes the path of discontinuity. If you disagree, you’ll need to welcome the Pope.

As a local church leader, ask yourself, 'What would happen to my church if I disappeared tomorrow?' If an honest prediction could include collapse, a scrabble for position by your present underlings or serious wobbles in the whole structure, think what steps you might take to move things onto a sounder basis. Jesus said, 'I will build my church', and he has more sense than to build your bit of it on just you.

Copyright © David Matthew 2006

1. Concise Oxford Dictionary

2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

5. For example, in Titus 1:5-7 the context makes it clear that ‘elder’ (presbyteros) and ‘overseer’ (episkopos) refer to the same people. Again, in Acts 20:17-28 Paul is addressing the ‘elders’ (v17, presbyteros) and refers to them as both ‘overseers’ (episkopos) and ‘shepherds’ (verb form of poimen, v28).

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

The Pastor The Problem

One man at the top

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3. As were, for example, Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:1-3 or Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-7.

4. ‘Pastor’ is the Latin for ‘shepherd’.

6. ‘Bishop’ is the anglicised version of the Greek word episkopos, which literally means ‘overseer’.

7. The first Christians used to boast to their astonished pagan and Jewish neighbours, ‘We have no priest and no altar’—on the grounds that, in Christ, all believers are priests with free access to the throne of grace, and that the death of Christ as the ‘one sacrifice for sins for ever’ makes further sacrifices, and thus altars, redundant.

Pyramid of authority
The Pastor The Problem

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