Where are all the Pastors in the New Testament? Why are they absent if they are so crucial to the life of the Body? Why is the word only used once in the entire New Testament? Why are no letters addressed to them from the Apostles? Why are the Elders (plural) the main form of leadership we see in the New Testament? What were the qualifications necessary to be an Elder or an Overseer? What do these words even mean?
First of all, there is no direct correlation in the New Testament to our modern pastors. None. The word only appears once in the New Testament and it is never unpacked adequately for us to understand exactly what a pastor did. However we can extrapolate based on the root of the word which means "To shepherd". Therefore, pastors were to shepherd the flock and care for them, spiritually. Beyond that we have no other instructions regarding a pastor.
Make no mistake, the leaders of the early church were not the pastors. The most common of all of the New Testament references to leaders are either "Elders" or "Overseers" and the two are used almost interchangeably throughout the epistles. The term "Elders" applies to those who were "Old" or "Mature". Essentially they were to be followed because they were wise and they deserved respect. The "Overseers" were simply those who helped to "oversee" or "facilitate" the gatherings of believers.
From what we see in the New Testament, every church had more than one Elder and numerous Overseers who helped to guide the church and lead them to follow Christ.
It's fascinating to me that the letters to the Churches in the New Testament are never addressed to the leaders directly, but instead to the Church as a whole. (Exceptions are letters written directly to people like Timothy or Titus or Philemon. It should also be noted that, although many pastors assume that Timothy is an example of a Biblical pastor, in actuality Timothy was engaged in work similar to that of Paul who was busy travelling and preaching the Gospel and planting churches. Timothy is told to "do the work of an evangelist" – not a pastor. He certainly didn't stay in one place and teach the same people week after week. Therefore, Timothy is an example of an evangelist or apostle, not a pastor as we would know one today).
The church in Corinth is a fascinating example of a church with numerous moral and ethical failures, yet when Paul writes to correct them he doesn't address their Pastor and command him to fix things. In fact, he doesn't even address their Elders or Overseers to respond to this by exercising their authority over the people. Why were the pastors, or for that matter the Elders of the Church, not commanded to exercise their authority and deal with the very serious moral failures within the Church in Corinth? Perhaps because Paul understood that the Body itself was capable of coming together to correct the problem themselves. Something he hints at when he says, "Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?" – 1 Corinthians 6:3
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SUBMISSION
I would like to humbly suggest that "Authority", and "Submission" do not necessarily imply organizational structures are at work in the New Testament Church. Submission is something that all believers are urged to do, and authority is only to be submitted to if it is in line with God’s Word and not on the basis of an office or appointment.
"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." – Ephesians 5:21
Everyone is urged to submit to everyone else. It's a shared submission among brothers and sisters in Christ who are equals and who humbly care for one another. Only Christ is the head, or the leader, of the Church.
Many are of the opinion that Jesus actually taught and promoted hierarchy in the Church, something I find alarming and dangerous. But, just for a moment, let me ask, "What would we expect to see in the New Testament if Jesus DIDN'T want His Church to be run like a hierarchy? Wouldn't we expect to see Jesus condemning this practice? Perhaps he would have pointed to a hierarchical system and commanded His disciples not to follow that example?
"Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." – Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, verses 42-45.
Does Jesus command his disciples not to exercise authority over people? Yes, he clearly and plainly does. What, then, are today's pastors doing if they are not exercising their authority over their church members? Isn't this a fair question to ask? Am I allowed to point out the disconnect between what Jesus says and what His Church actually does, or does not, do?
Here, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus points to the Roman Government (a secular hierarchy) and commands his disciples not to imitate this system of lording it over people or exercising authority over those who follow.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus points to a religious system of hierarchy and instructs them (again) not to imitate this system of hierarchy where the "Teacher" is exalted over the student. Instead, he says, remember that you are all brothers:
"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." – Matthew 23:8-12
Next, let's look at the Apostles themselves. If they heard Jesus commanding them to avoid the hierarchical system of leadership, wouldn't we see evidence that they obeyed this command? Did they take his words to heart? Let's see:
"Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm." - 2 Cor.1:24
Paul the Apostle obeys Jesus and refuses to "lord it over" those who follow Christ alongside him. Instead he works with them, as a brother, not as an authority figure.
"To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away." – 1 Peter 5:1-4
Here, Peter identifies himself, not as an Apostle, but as a fellow elder among the brethren. He then urges these elders (plural) to serve as overseers because they are willing, not because they have been handed a title or an appointment, and especially urges them to be careful not to "lord it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" – as Jesus commanded him several years earlier.
Having said all of this, doesn't the New Testament ask that we submit to our leaders and their authority? Yes, it does. For example:
Hebrews 13: 17- "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."
Let me be clear, I am not arguing against leadership here. Not at all. Every church needs leadership, and this is also clearly taught in the New Testament, however I would like to ask us to consider the possibility that leadership doesn't automatically mean top-down, authoritarianism. Jesus modeled something different than this, and then he commanded his disciples to emulate his example.
So, going back to our verse above, you might read this and ask, "What is the basis for our submission to our leaders?" Does their authority rest in the office they hold, or is it found in something else? Are we to submit to these leaders only because they hold an office? Or are we to submit to them as they point us to follow Christ? Hopefully we do not blindly follow people because they are "the Pastor" or because they have a title of authority. Hopefully.
No, the only authority we are to submit to is Christ Himself. To me, this truth is self-evident when we look at the NT as a whole.
Earlier in this same chapter, the writer of Hebrews, in chapter 13 and verse 7 says, "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith."
Here we are told to submit to our leaders as they speak the Word of God to us. Not to them as authorities in and of themselves, but as humble servants who lovingly teach us to follow Christ, and who then demonstrate this by their actual lives of faith.
Submission then is to Christ and to the Word of God. If our leaders handle and teach the Word of God wisely, and if they faithfully live lives that reflect Christ, THEN we are to submit to their authority. But only if. Their authority is not automatic and it is not based on the office they hold. Otherwise, we would be accountable to obey leaders simply because they held that office, regardless of whether or not their lives reflected Christ or their teaching of God's Word was true.
If we follow the policy of hierarchy for the sake of itself we can end up with someone holding an office within the Church and exercising authority even if they are not followers of Christ. Such a person should have no actual authority in any spiritual sense over the life of believers. What counts is character, not the office or the position. However, someone with no organizational office may, because of gifting by the Holy Spirit and sincere love for others, have actual authority to speak and teach and lead his brothers and sisters in Christ (who are his equals).
Institutional Churches that employ such a man-made organizational method can only hope to mimic the kind of leadership such as the "rulers of the gentiles" possess, something that Jesus expressly commanded us not to do - "It shall not be so among you!" - Matthew 20:25-26.
The Holy Spirit is the only source of spiritual authority and accountability in the Church through real-life relationships, not titles handed down by men.
Did the Apostles depend upon the authority of men or did they give any weight to the opinions of men? Apparently they did not. For example, Paul says, "Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody." - 2 Corinthians.3:1-2
If hierarchy was so important in the early church, why don't we see them exercising it? Why do we see them operating as a Body and not as a business? Perhaps the answers are right in front of us? Are we courageous enough to answer truthfully?
As Biblical Scholar Richard Halverson has said, "When the Greeks got the Gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business."
I pray we can help God's people to see that they were never intended to be run like a business, and instead to help them see that, according to the Word of God, they are simply a Family, a Body, an Organism, and a Bride.