Is the One Pastor System Scriptural?

Michael Penfold, Bicester, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Precious Seed

A young man feels called to the ministry. His pastor recommends him to go to a Bible College for three years to become fully equipped for this vocation. At college he is rigorously trained, his trial sermons are assessed and rated, and his final examination papers are passed. At last he is ordained, and he swears to uphold the college’s Confession of Faith. He is now a qualified pastor with recognised ordination papers, and his name sometimes carries the prefix ‘Reverend’, 'Pastor', or 'Father'.

Contact is made with a church that has a vacancy, and he is invited along to take the Sunday services. The deacons and elders interview him and ask all the relevant questions. A salary is negotiated. They are happy with him, so they put his name forward for the congregation’s vote. He is accepted (by a majority) and becomes the church’s pastor and they become what he calls ‘my people’. His name goes on the notice board and the advertising literature, and he begins his term of office, which may be reviewed after five years or so.

Such are the workings of the onepastor ‘system’ (with variations, obviously, between different denominations). Now comes the crucial question – is it scriptural? Where in scripture is there warrant for one man to be the spiritual leader and authority over the local church?

WHERE SHOULD WE LOOK FOR THE ANSWER?

Obviously we can find examples in the Bible of one man leading God’s people, such as Moses, Joshua and Gideon. But we need to remember there were no churches in the Old Testament. We can learn great lessons from the Old Testament, but the doctrine of church leadership is not to be found there. When we come to the New Testament we are immediately struck by the fact that none of the ‘letters to the churches’ is addressed to the ‘minister’, ‘pastor’ or ‘vicar’. In fact, in all such letters written by Paul, he never once even mentions ‘the pastor’, which would have been a very rude omission on his part had there been a pastor over each of those early New Testament churches. Further, we realize that there are no Bible Colleges in the New Testament and no mention of any of the activities already outlined above that flow from them.

HOW THEN DID NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES WORK?

The Bible clearly teaches that the primary role in the shepherding of New Testament churches was exercised by a plurality of men, known as elders or bishops/overseers. Many verses conclusively prove this. Note the following examples from the New Testament:

‘And when they (the apostles) had ordained them elders (plural) in every church (singular)’, Acts 14. 23.

‘And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called for the elders (plural) of the church (singular)’, Acts 20. 17.

‘Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders (plural) of the church (singular)’, Jas. 5. 14.

A group of elders or overseers in each church is then the scriptural pattern for leadership. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit’s use of the words ‘elder’, presbuteros, and ‘bishop/overseer’, episkopos, demonstrates that they are simply different names for the same person, the former denoting their maturity, the latter their work and function.

The following passages clearly demonstrate this:

Acts 20 – here Paul asks the Ephesian elders, (presbuteros, v. 17), to come and see him, and when they arrive he addresses them using the word overseers (episkopos, v. 28).

Titus 1 – when outlining leadership qualifications, Paul calls an elder, (presbuteros, v. 5), a bishop (episkopos, v. 7).

1 Peter 5 – here Peter exhorts the elders (presbuteros, v. 1) to do the work of overseeing (episkopos, v. 2).

So, in the Bible, an elder is the same person as a bishop/overseer. The Bible demands on principle that there must be many bishops in one church, and not one bishop over many churches!

SO WHO DOES ALL THE PREACHING?

Well, what does the Bible say? The Bible makes it clear that it is these elders/overseers to whom God has given the main responsibility to care for the local group of believers. This pattern is taught repeatedly throughout the New Testament.

Please carefully note the following passages and the combination of words they contain:

‘Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church’, Acts 20. 28.

‘The elders . . . I exhort . . . Feed the flock of God’, 1 Pet. 5. 1-2.

‘A bishop then must be . . . apt to teach’, 1 Tim. 3. 2.

Now, since the word pastor means ‘shepherd’, and it is a shepherd’s job to look after and feed the flock, we must conclude that in the true New Testament sense it is the elders (overseers) who are the pastors (shepherds) in each church. This conclusion leads to the undeniable fact that there is no place in the New Testament for an extra office or position additional to, or above the elders, such as a main pastor, a minister, a vicar, a leading elder, a presiding elder, or a chief elder, etc. All such offices have no foundation in scripture as none of these positions exists in the New Testament!

So, to summarize, while others besides elders may exercise their gifts to serve the church, Eph. 4. 11, there is no hint of anyone being ‘the pastor’ of a particular local church and assuming a position of oversight apart from, and superior to elders. In fact, it is Christ who is declared to be the ‘chief Shepherd’, 1 Pet. 5. 4.

WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?

The hierarchical system of church government, where a pastor, with perhaps an assistant, is perched on the apex of a pyramid of elders and deacons, developed slowly from the 2nd century AD onwards. By the 6th century a well organized, three-tier system had developed (Encyclopedia Britannica 1953, Vol. 18, pages 439- 440).

The root problem behind the whole one-pastor system is the false notion that there is a special class of ‘qualified’ men called ‘the clergy’ who are above and have authority over ‘the laity’. The word clergy comes from the Greek word kleroo, which is used in 1 Pet. 5. 3, in reference to all believers.

Clerisy is the evil doctrine of the ‘Nicolaitanes’, Rev. 2. 6. This name comes from two Greek words, nikos (conquest) and laos (people). The Nicolaitanes were already ‘lording over’ the laos (the laity) by the end of the 1st century; so the Lord expressly recorded His hatred of their doctrine, Rev. 2. 15.

Again, the clerical system is merely a ‘christianized’ form of Judaism, with its select priesthood and accompanying robes, altars and temples. Titles used for such appointed leaders are condemned in scripture, Matt. 23. 2- 12. The words ‘reverend’ and ‘holy’ apply to Jehovah’s name alone, Ps. 111. 9.

The pastor-system is the root cause of many of the problems that afflict churches today.

  1. It denies the truth that the church is a body, 1 Cor. 12. 12-27. All believers should be functioning, as God directs; but the pastor system encourages laziness to the point where the congregation becomes passive not active. Their attitude is often that the pastor will do it!
  2. It hinders the recognition of spiritual gifts, Rom. 12. 4-8. A single pastor cannot possibly have all the gifts, and yet he is the single professional into whose hand the ministry is often placed. The mere existence of clergy inevitably therefore becomes the great barrier to motivation and function amongst the rest of the church.
  3. It dampens freedom of exercise, 1 Cor. 14. 29-30. Liberty has been replaced by clerical control. There is little or no room in meetings of the church for a ‘lay’ member to bring a message from the Lord as led by the Holy Spirit.
  4. It encourages spiritual poverty. Involvement always contributes to development, which fosters the taking of responsibility and Bible study. Many who should have become teachers themselves, are sadly still immature because of these things, Heb. 5. 12.
  5. It leads more easily to heresy. If one man monopolizes the church, and he falls into false teaching, he can then lead the whole church astray with relative ease. Also, if a training institution becomes heretical, it can result in a whole generation being led astray.

HOW THEN SHOULD ELDERS BE RAISED UP?

In the New Testament elders were raised up by God from within the local church, they were not hired from outside. An assembly cannot ‘make’ new elders by some sort of ceremony. An elder is qualified by his moral character, work and aptitude for teaching: and when the church can see a man whom the Holy Spirit is raising up among them, they will be happy to submit to his leadership, 1 Cor. 16. 15- 16. We do not present candidates to God for His recognition: He raises up men for us to recognize and follow, Acts 20. 28. Such elders will not be ‘above’, but rather ‘among’ the flock, 1 Pet. 5. 1. The best ‘Bible Institute’ for future elders is the teaching ministry of the current elders in the local church, where they can demonstrate their teaching by example. In a pioneer work situation, those who see new assemblies formed need to point out those who can care for the new believers in the ongoing years, Acts 14. 23; Titus 1. 5.

SHOULD ELDERS BE PAID?

Elders who as a result of devoting so much time to the assembly do not perhaps have a full time secular job may be supported with gifts according to 1 Timothy 5. 17-18. The Lord hires them, not men! Evangelists and pastoral Bible teachers as in Ephesians 4. 11, may be supported with gifts, 1 Cor. 9. 7; Gal. 6. 6. This pattern of leadership is still followed by thousands of assemblies all over the world. It can be done, even in the 21st century.

We close with the challenging words of ex-pastor Mark Frees, who resigned his pastorate in rural Mississippi, USA, in 1990, after discovering from scripture that his position was untenable. He writes, ‘So when confronted with the plain teaching of scripture, I could not escape the conclusion that the oversight of the local church is to be exercised by mature brethren raised up by the Holy Spirit from within the local church, and that public ministry of the word is open to any brother who has been divinely gifted for it. In contrast, most churches today entrust the spiritual leadership of the congregation and the vast majority of the public ministry to a solitary pastor, who is chosen from among the professional ‘clergy’, imported from outside the church, and promised a fixed salary for his services. Can the reader, with his New Testament open before him, deny that this is a drastic departure from the scriptural pattern’.

AUTHOR PROFILE: Michael Penfold was saved at 14 and is in fellowship in the assembly at Hebron Gospel Hall, Bicester, Oxfordshire. He is married with two young children, and is a director of Penfold Book & Bible House Ltd.