In our day, the notion of “church leadership” appears as something of an overlay on New Testament principles and scenarios. For some, the disconnect (between the status quo and the original info) is tantamount to heresy; for others, it’s just the way things are, a non-issue. As for myself, it’s complicated (I know, like many other things). I have some definitive ideas, but there are gray areas, and I don’t care about all the same subtopics anymore.
For starters: I find the contemporary use of “pastor” to represent a human misdirection, sometimes running counter to God’s purposes, although almost always well-intended, at least at the outset of a “pastoral ministry.” In the NC scriptures, I don’t see the word “pastor” referring to a role that’s much like today’s pastoral roles, and I think that’s worthy of note. Primarily, I’m interested not in a strict-minded, narrow approach but in an awareness of the kinds of leader roles that emerged in the early church. In other words, it’s not about the title or label, really; it’s about what people are and what they do. One problem arises when a Bible word is used to refer to a current role, thereby linking the two and imbuing the modern practice, title, or role with supposedly biblical authority. Such labeling doesn’t mean a practice, title, or role is necessarily bad; it just means we have jumped to a conclusion.
I’d say we ought to differentiate roles and titles in each unique situation, and we ought to explore nuances, and we ought to engage in word studies and historical studies, too. Is it possible that (the Greek antecedents of) “bishop,” “overseer,” “shepherd,” “pastor,” and “elder” might describe similar (but not necessarily the same) roles in the first-century church? And aren’t these labels commonly distinguished differently today? John A.T. Robinson has commented that the letters to Timothy and Titus “do not presuppose monarchical episcopacy” (ruling bishops) that appeared at least by the 2nd century.” Pauline writings, on the other hand, appear to assume the “equivalence of bishop and presbyter”—or overseer and elder, in alternate translation. °
At this juncture I could be found betraying a mentality that’s now part and parcel of Church of Christ operational doctrine. I am not particularly interested in whether two centuries of sectarian history in this respect have been on target, nor do I care much anymore about a patternistic re-appropriation of first-century titles and labels. After all, we are separated by millennia and language, and this whole scene ought to benefit from more thorough, careful examination. I am after an honest assessment of church leadership roles that I see as having run amok. I think Christians should all be deeply interested in meaningful leadership roles, quite apart from the titles and routines of tradition—no matter whose tradition, and how deeply or widely it is entrenched. With all that said. . . .
Once upon a dream
As a child, I never envisioned myself becoming a preacher, despite being a “good kid” and a good Bible student who was always at church. (I developed a moderate stutter that stayed with me into high school and beyong, so perhaps no one else wanted to see me turn out to be a preacher, either! I could always have done better than the devoted but poorly spoken Mennonite man who muttered, sometimes unintelligibly, for 50 minutes two Sundays ago, but that’s beside the point.) I do recall wistfully that my youthful vision for later adult life involved being a church elder. That role seemed important to me, and the men I knew as elders were worthy of respect. I knew of a couple of elders who were also preaching ministers, and that was generally viewed askance in my tradition because one could be viewed as one of those “pastors” who had too much power. Although I retain some of the same philosophy of suspicion, most of this was in a very different time and place for me. Worlds apart, really. Elders were elders, and preachers were preachers, and I didn’t know anyone personally who went by the title “pastor.” I did know fairly well a man who became a church elder when he was 35.¹ By the time I passed that John F. Kennedy age, I was already past thinking I would ever be an elder. Soon after that, I decided I never wanted to be one. It was moot, really: I was soon to be a divorcé and had no children—that those facts would disqualify me in most churches I cared about.
But what is, or was, an elder? A pastor? A minister? A “clergyman”? A childhood anecdote should help to illuminate some of my predilections. There was a period in which my dad was visiting people hospitals fairly regularly, and he apparently noticed there were “clergy” parking spaces . . . so he had the wood shop teacher in his school make him a “C L E R G Y” block. It stayed in the glove compartment, but Dad put it in his window when he was at the hospital. A schoolteacher by vocation, and also a servant of God and of the church, my dad was somewhat more narrowly read than I in Christian matters. Nonetheless, he stood on solid ground in conscientiously believing he was a minister or “clergyman” just as much as someone with a salary and a title on the letterhead, and I believe he was right.
It was later that I learned from my parents to be suspicious of the notion of “church staff.” I was not completely on their side at the time: once, I sided with a “junior minister” (with whom I was working closely) in the reality that there was a de facto church staff, and it probably needed to have a meeting periodically. For as long as I can remember, though, I have given absolutely no credence to the clergy-laity distinction, seeking to overturn that supposition in the minds and hearts of anyone over whom I have any influence. However, specified roles will naturally exist. What if one person works primarily in administrative/secretarial capacities, another is the primary teaching minister, and another serves and engages with families of young people? In a large church, their roles will interact and overlap, and it certainly doesn’t hurt for the three to talk together every now and then. They should be on the same page about procedures, philosophies, etc. Now, if one of them came from the “staff meeting” and declared to the whole church, “In our staff meeting this week, it was decided that X,” I would smell something going awry.² Neither a staff nor a staff meeting ought to become invested with power and influence—an institution itself, we might say—but just talking isn’t a bad thing.
Surely Paul, who couldn’t have envisioned seminarians or sound systems or elevated pulpits or “senior pastors” or parking lot ministries, would be supportive of dialogue among those who lead and teach. However, that which is acceptable in a modern scenario might never have been imagined by New Testament writers. It’s hard to imagine Jesus’s or Paul’s approving of an in-charge “pastor” who makes business decisions. Don’t fool yourself thinking that your senior pastor is different from the rest—a real spiritual leader and carer-of-the-flock, you say? He is on a pedestal and a platform, “elevated” to clergy status. You likely don’t even call him by his first name, or if you do, you prepend “pastor” or “brother.” He is surely a good man, but he is in a different class in your mind.
I remember that Dad once “pranked” our church’s preacher by asking for “the reverend” on the phone, so I learned that there were jokes to be made, but I don’t recall much else specific along these lines from my early years. I do tend to “blame” my parents (particularly, my dad) for maybe half of my negative inclination toward pedestalizing church staff. I don’t think it’s off-base, mind you, but it is quite a strong bias that has probably kept me from getting a hearing in some situations.
For a couple decades, Dad had a deacon role that primarily involved making arrangements for assemblies and brief devotionals on Wednesday night. Mom taught ladies’ the Bible class. Neither of them would have been considered among the official leadership per se then. Later, Dad did become an elder/shepherd, and he could have been called the “head elder” in a couple of respects, although he would not have liked that at all.
Conclusion (next post): my continued, apparently irreversible “morphing” with respect to “church leadership,” and my relief that I will never be an “elder,” so to speak
° John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 68.
¹ Being an “elder” at 35 sounds as silly as being a “senior pastor” at 30 or even 40. Hey, at least it beats the Mormon Church practice of college-aged “elders.” In the case of the man I knew, he was one of the two oldest men in a very young church, he had four children, and he was relatively experienced in the faith (or in church matters, at least), so his having been named an “elder” made some sense, speaking relatively.
² And something did go awry, with the “junior minister” mentioned above, in multiple ways. I think he became jealous of my influence, and my personal life took a decidedly negative turn, and I began to annoy him, and he rejected me, and he popped open a can of ego. I perceived that he was the primary purveyor of the “official clergy” mindset among the three “church staff” members, and he began to rub a few of us the wrong way, although he had an intensely loyal following. I wish he hadn’t later made a point of the logo he created, claiming it was his intellectual property and denying the church the use of it after he left. I’ve actually experienced similar feelings in my vocational world, so in a sense, I get it. And some of that would never have come to mind if (1) the other guy had not been a staff minister and (2) I had not learned what I had learned.