A Biblical Theology of the Pastoral Role

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A Biblical Theology of the Pastoral Role

As a college student, I find that the one question asked of me most frequently is, “What is your major?”  At first I thought it was quite normal to respond that I was pursuing a pastoral major at Moody Bible Institute.  But after going through this routine a hundred times, I have come to the conclusion that no one has any idea what I am talking about when I use the word “pastor”.  The responses are extremely varied.  “You mean you’re going to be a priest?” or, “There’s a school for that sort of thing?” or, “You’re already a pastor, we’re all pastors in the Lord” and even, “Your father must have been a minister, right?”  Clearly, this world has become very confused about the role and nature of the pastor.

The previous conversations were mostly with unbelievers, and I think we can cut them some slack on their ignorance of the church.  It would be my hope that when we turn our attention to the church, we would find a better understanding of who the pastor is to be.  But as many know, this is far from the truth.  It seems that every church I walk into has a radically different definition of the word pastor.  At first I was tempted to shrug this off as a matter of personality differences.  But I find that many church leaders are following the examples of other prominent Bible teachers, going out of their way to “overcome” their own personalities in order to emulate what they view as a “good pastor”.

Any book about pastoral ministry today will report the current trend toward pragmatism in ministry: If it seems to work, then it must be the right way to do things.  Every Christian today has opportunities to view and experience ministry from the most thriving churches in the country through radio, television, videos, and magazines.  Great pressure comes upon our church leaders through this.  People from their congregations learn about the “successful” ministries happening in such-and-such a church, and they want their own pastor to imitate these.  Joseph M. Stowell in his book Shepherding the Church writes, “We as shepherds are inundated by pressures to construct our ministries according to forms that offer stunning opportunity for growth, keep us at the leading edge of our profession, prevent us from feeling and appearing old and stodgy, and reflect well on our own glory.”  Stowell points out that forms will continually be changing in order to effectively reach particular people at particular times, this is a necessity.  But the danger is that in creating and adapting to new forms we can easily loose our substance.  This is the dilemma which the church is in today.  The successful ministry is seen as the one which builds the greatest sanctuary, has the most age specific programs, and distributes their teachings through the most forms of media.  The successful pastor is the one who has the largest church, he has gone to the best seminary in his denomination, developed the most eloquent preaching style, written the most books, and spoken at the greatest number of conferences.  Where is the standard for pastoral ministry?

Does the word “pastor” mean anything?  In some churches there is a “pastor” for every ministry.  There is the senior pastor, the assistant senior pastor, the family pastor, the children’s pastor, the women’s pastor, the worship pastor, the visitation pastor, the operations pastor, the business pastor, the mission’s pastor, the parking pastor, the counseling pastor.  A friend of mine joked that we could call the church landscaper a “pasture pastor”.  The word has been stripped of meaning, and now is basically a connotation for: anyone whose work pertains to the church.  This is the understanding shared by many Christians I know.  They claim that because we are all supposed to be doing the work of the ministry, and because we all share in the priesthood, therefore everyone is a pastor.  While that may seem very noble and righteous at first, we find that this belief undermines the authority of the leaders of the church.  If I am just as much a pastor as the leader of my church, then why should I submit to their correction?  Maybe the “fellowship” I have with my other Christian friends satisfies me such that I don’t need to attend church.  In fact, I might know what I need more than my pastor does, so I’ll find a church that fits my “needs” better.  Why should I go along with the changes the senior pastor is making when I know that other people in the church disagree with his leadership?  While I do strongly support full participation of all believers in the work of the ministry, I think the office of “pastor” needs to be reclaimed, and guarded carefully.

I suspect that the reason the church has disregarded the Biblical      s for pastoral ministry is that they have been deceived in believing that these      s will be ineffective today and that better odds have been discovered.  I speak not in judgment over such individuals, for how many times have I doubted the word of God and considered my own plans to be superior?  Sadly, I confess that I am lured by the persuasion of popular wisdom and odds at times as well.  But let us all seek repentance and confess that, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (I Cor. 1:27).  Let us carry out pastoral ministry in such a way that the faith of the people would be not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (I Cor. 2:5).

The word “pastor” comes from the Greek poimena which means shepherd.  I find this to be the most prominent and comprehensive metaphor for pastoral ministry found in Scripture.  “The shepherd image is one of the few applied exclusively to leaders, and not to members of the community as a whole.  Therefore it becomes a very important image for understanding what is distinctive about the role of leadership.”  In the Old Testament, God’s people are often referred to as sheep.  “Israel is a scattered sheep” (Jer. 50:7) and, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isa. 53:6).  Therefore when Jesus comes into the world He announces, “I am the good shepherd (poimena)” (Jn. 10:11).  In this passage, Jesus clearly shows Himself to be the perfect Shepherd.  In our     ure, the current trend is to find your own path and to discover truth for yourself, to be independent.  The idea of having someone watching over you and leading you is not very popular, and least of all directing your inner life.  Because of this, many Christians have taken Jn. 10:11 to mean that Jesus is our only Shepherd, and that we need only look to him for care and direction.  But this is a blatant contradiction to Scripture.  We find that the New Testament is very clear about the need for human shepherds, and that this is one of the main functions of the church.  The conversation that our risen Lord has with Peter in Jn. 21 is very important in this matter.  Earlier in John’s gospel we see Jesus clearly presented as the Shepherd of His people.  But we find in Jn. 21 that Jesus is handing this responsibility to Peter.  In verses 15 and 17 Jesus uses a word that plainly means to feed sheep.  This alone would lead us to view the pastoral role as authoritative and unique.  “A term like shepherd reminds us that even on the human level, some are responsible to lead while others follow, some have authority while others are called to respond to that authority.”  If there is a feeder, there are people being fed, and these roles are clearly distinct.  Jesus the Great Shepherd of the sheep says to Peter in verse 16, “Tend (poimaine) my sheep”.  This is the verb form of the word shepherd, and the passage could easily be rendered, “Shepherd My sheep”.  So here we have a very clear passage in which Jesus places the work of shepherding His people upon the shoulders of men.  This is the cornerstone of New Testament pastoral ministry and should not be taken lightly.  See here that Jesus is not merely commanding Peter to work, He is giving him the authority with which to do the work as well.  Peter would forever be able to defend his ministry and say that the Lord Jesus had Himself charged Peter to shepherd the people of God.  With so many forces working to undermine the authority of pastors today, we must take heed to these words.  The pastoral role is God ordained.

We find a very fitting statement from Peter in I Pet. 5:2-4, “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 a crown of glory that does not fade away.”  Peter is delivering the same commission that he received personally from Jesus, to the next generation of shepherds.  It is important to learn from the words of Jesus and Peter that they are God’s sheep, and they have been entrusted to us.  Pastoral ministry is a stewardship.  Also, Peter reminds us that Christ is the Chief Shepherd and is therefore to be our example as shepherds.  Paul had this relationship in mind when he said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (I Cor. 11:1).

What is a shepherd then, and what is the example that Christ has given us to follow?  It should be stated first, that if we are shepherds, then indeed the people of God are sheep, and this metaphor is just as comprehensive for the sheep as it is for the shepherd.  Shepherds exist because the sheep have needs. These are needs which do not get properly met meet if the sheep are left to themselves.  Looking at Psalm 23 from the perspective of the sheep gives us great insight into the needs of God’s flock.  The sheep need rest and they need to be given food and drink which is safe for them, because they easily harm themselves in search of nourishment (v.2).  They wander away and get lost, needing a shepherd to seek them out and restore them (v.3).  They need to be shown the correct way, not merely by explanation, but being led by the shepherd.  The shepherd walks before the sheep (v.3).  The sheep need a comforter in troubled times, they need someone who will not leave them to suffer alone (v.4).  They are apt to being stolen away by thieves or eaten by lions.  The shepherd is to be a watchful protector of the sheep (v.4).  The main functions of the shepherd which we see from Psalm 23 are: feeding, seeking, restoration, teaching, leading, comforting, and protecting.  I believe that this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Shepherd My sheep” (Jn. 21:16).  We find the pastoral epistles are filled with commands and instruction to carry out these specific tasks and that every role of the New Testament pastor has its roots in the shepherd metaphor.

There is confusion with some about the various titles of authority in the church.  One that is clear, is deacon.  This office is introduced in Acts 6.  Although the word for deacon is not used there, it is clear that the office was established at that time.  It is helpful to our discussion to see that deacons were chosen because, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables” (Ac. 6:2).  The deacons were appointed in order that the apostles could give themselves completely to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (Ac. 6:4).  I find this to be evidence against commissioning “pastors” to every work of the church ministry.  Biblically I think they should be considered deacons, and that the distinction is important in placing greater honor on the pastoral role.  But even in the case of deacons, their identification is valuable, because they are not merely volunteers, they are given an office with authority to carry out their part of the ministry.

The other titles of church leadership are bishop, elder, and pastors.  As we have seen, the word pastor is synonymous with the word shepherd.  One of the components of the shepherding role is oversight, and this is literally what the word bishop means in the Bible.  It is very safe to say that a words pastor and overseer (bishop) are not separate offices.  Peter writes, “Shepherd the flock of God … serving as overseers” (I Pet. 5:2).  But might there be a difference between elders and pastors?  The apostle Paul writes in Eph. 4:11, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.”  The list of top church offices here appears to be quite exhaustive and matches up with I Cor. 12:28.  The term for elder is absent from this passage completely.  I think it can be safely said from Ac. 15:23, Tit. 1:5-7, Phi. 1:1, and I Tim. 5:17 that the term elder, pastor, and bishop are used of the same office and if any distinction exists, it is in the functions and not the office, because one person can be an elder, pastor, and bishop at the same time.  Two things are sure: there are to be overseers, and there are to be deacons (Phi. 1:1).

It’s not what you do — It’s what you’ve got

As we are looking for a clear view of the Biblical role of the pastor, I wish to clarify now that the pastor is defined not by what he does but what he possesses.  It is unusual today to hear anyone describing themselves by anything other than their work and accomplishments.  This is particularly common in men.  Ask any person, who are you?  Describe yourself.  And they will respond by telling you where they work, how they keep themselves busy, how they are different from other people by the things they do.  I believe the Bible teaches clearly that we are to root our identity in what we have and not what we do.  What is it that the pastor has specifically?

  1. He possesses godly character and abilities that meet the high qualifications of Scripture

“For an overseer must be blameless…” (Tit. 1:7).

  1. He has a desire to be a pastor from within.

“Shepherd the flock of God […] not by compulsion, but willingly…” (I Pet. 5:2).

  1. He has received the authority by which to carry out his ministry.
  1. He has received confirmation from other Godly men of his pastoral calling.

“For the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord” (I Cor. 9:2).

  1. He has an appointment from another elder or elders to lay hold of this responsibility.

“So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they                                   commended then to the Lord in whom they had believed (Ac. 14:23).

  1. God has given him a flock to shepherd.

“Shepherd the flock of God […] entrusted to you” (I Pet. 5:2-3).

If the pastoral role is so significant then, what people should be pastors, and what qualifications do they need?  The qualifications are explicitly stated in I Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:7-9.  These two lists were originally given to Timothy and Titus respectively in order that they might appoint men to be pastors.  There are many other verses which apply to pastors, but these two are most instructive because we are using them for the exact purpose for which they were written.  I Tim. 3 is the most frequently used passage in discussing qualifying, (or disqualifying), for pastoral ministry.  Some have debated about this list, saying that these same qualifications must apply to all believers, not just the pastors.  While it is true that all Christians should pursue the righteous character described here, in order to be a pastor, one must possess this character.  Because they are so plainly stated in I Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:7-9 I will not list them individually, but only point out some overarching themes and a couple debated issues.

  1. Blameless – This word appears in both lists.  It should be seen as the ultimate qualification for pastors and that from which all the others flow.  This includes a good testimony both within and without the church.
  1. Temperate – This one word encompasses most of the pastoral qualifications.  Temperateness is freedom from passions, keeping your head by avoiding violence, anger, arguments, and alcohol.  This comes through self-control and creates the watchfulness which is necessary in a pastor.  If a man is tangled in his own sinful passions, how will he rescue others from theirs?
  1. Lover of the Good – The pastor must love that which is holy and just.  He needs to have his love set on that which is good instead of money, renown, and worldly things that may tempt him by covetousness.  The love of the good will lead to a hatred of evil as well.  “The Lord loves those who hate evil” (Ps. 97:10).
  1. Exemplary Home and Family – The way he manages his home and treats his family will show if he is fit to take on the greater responsibility of the flock of God.  This is where he should learn gentleness and hospitality as well.  “If anyone does not provide…especially for his own family he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (I Tim. 5:8).
  1. Teaching Ability – A pastor must be able to teach.  He must also be faithful to the word of God, and be a teacher by example of his own obedience to the word.
  1. Tested and Experienced – A novice is not qualified as a pastor.  A novice is more likely to fall into pride and self-will.  But the tested man will understand that his ministry is a stewardship and carry it out in humbleness.

One of the areas of debate is the gender of pastors.  It is strongly assumed by the Biblical authors in all of the passages about pastors that they be men.  The passage in I Tim. 3 is directly preceded by a lengthy argument against women teaching men, “I permit no women to teach or to have authority over a man” (2:12).  But this is one of the few instances where a natural, literal, historical interpretation of the Bible is sometimes discarded.  Two basic arguments exist against taking this prohibition literally.  The first teaches that Paul’s statement is grounded so fully upon the     oral context of the times, that now as theure has changed, the verse does not apply.  This argument is based on the educational and social status women, which has radically changed in recent times.  The other argument says that Paul’s prohibition was rooted in an attempt to counteract some Gnostic heresies of the day.  The Gnostics of Paul’s day tended to elevate women as supreme instruments of revelation through a reinterpretation of Adam and Eve’s story, fashioning Eve into a       e for giving Adam the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. This belief teaches that Paul certainly meant what he said, but that the reason he stated his words so strongly was because he was fighting heresy.  I have not had enough time to develop a detailed defense of my own views yet.  I believe the most important statement Paul makes on the matter is, “I do not permit a woman to…have authority over a man” (I Tim. 2:12).  Paul makes a lengthy development upon this in I Cor. 11:2-15.  Women should not be permitted to do anything which places them in authority over grown men, and as I have been stating, the pastoral role is a role of great authority.  I understand well the unpopularity of these words, and I dare not say such things but by the word of God.  I believe that women should not be pastors.  I believe the surge of support for women pastors today stems from the corruption of the definition of the pastoral role which we are addressing.

Another key issue from I Tim. 3 is the issue of marriage and divorce.  Paul writes that a bishop must be a “one woman man” (3:2).  This passage has been taken so literally as to prohibit unmarried pastors, and so ignored as to require celibacy for pastors.  What a confused state the church is in!  The context does not offer much assistance in interpreting these words, but there are basically four ways to view this verse.  Paul’s concern may have been: 1) Concerned with monogamy and against          in particular; 2) Concerned with divorce and the reputation of the pastor, indicating that he must have no history of divorce; 3) Concerned with marital status, indicating that the pastor must be married; 4) Concerned about the character of faithfulness in the pastor.  I find it very clear that a pastor may have been divorced before becoming a Christian, just as he could have been a thief, a drunkard, a brawler, an inhospitable, and despicable man.  If in becoming a Christian, we are still left wounded from our life in the flesh, what did Christ suffer for?  “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (I.............


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