Elder, deacon, pastor. When and how did this third level of leadership, the “pastor,” come to be?
In my last post, “We Are All Clergy,” I began to explore the issue of a third level of leadership that developed in the church in the early 2nd century called “Bishop,” which we would today refer to as “Pastor.” How do we account for the preponderance of its use in churches that would die on a hill called, “Sola Scriptura?”
In seeking to answer how this departure from the New Testament structure of elders and deacons came about and stuck, historian Bruce Shelley gives three possible options:
- Some Christians argue that the men who guided the destiny of the early church willfully and sinfully departed from the divinely authorized pattern, so that the changes they made should be repudiated and reversed.
- Other Christians contend that the church and its leaders were exercising the liberty they had in the absence of any divinely authorized pattern. The government they developed may have served a good purpose in their time, but it is open to change to meet the needs of later generations, including our own.
- Still other Christians argue that the Holy Spirit so dwelt in the church and guided its decisions that the developments of the early centuries in doctrine and church structure were the work not of man but of God. They are, therefore permanently binding for the church.[i]
Shelley then asks the most obvious question that must come from these three possibilities.
This third answer, advanced by most catholic Christians, makes much of what its spokesmen call the witness of history. But if the changes made in the second, third, and fourth centuries are attributed to the Holy Spirit, why not the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth? Why must we stop with the so-called catholic centuries?[ii]
An obvious question that must be asked of those who would take the position that this was the work of the Holy Spirit through church history, even if it looks different than the patterns for church leadership presented in the New Testament, is how do you know which patterns of church leadership are of the Spirit and which are not? I am confident that there are some who would say, “The pattern we use, single pastor with elders and deacons was of the Spirit through church history,” would never have Cardinals and a Pope even though those positions have also come about through church history.
If the Holy Spirit was behind the development of this third level of leadership, residing in one person, whatever he was called, Pastor or Bishop, why didn’t the Holy Spirit think of that before the canon of Scripture was closed? Why was that not instituted during the formative years of the church while they were still under the direct authority of the apostles? For those who would say it was based on Ephesians 4:11, I must ask why Paul was so rude not to mention the “Pastor” of the church at Philippi when he wrote to it. Instead he only mentions the overseers (plural) or depending on the translation you are using, elders (plural) and deacons (plural).
So what about Ephesians 4:11? This verse is the sole New Testament basis I have ever heard anyone appeal to in seeking to justify an office in the church called “Pastor.” I will speak more of this text in future blogs, but let me ask a few questions. Anyone who teaches how to interpret the Bible will emphasize one thing over and over: “context.” Is there anything in the context of this verse that has anything to do with leadership structure, offices in the church, or authority in the church? Yes, verse 15 says, “Christ is the head.” That’s it.
What if, in fact, we saw “pastors” in Ephesians 4:11 as what Paul calls them, gifts to the church rather than offices in the church? That would allow for the possibility that several people could provide pastoral care for the church based on their gifting, not on whether they hold a staff position. That would also mean several gifted people with the gift of teaching would teach and teach others to teach; those with the gift of evangelism would evangelize and teach others to evangelize so the whole body is built up. If we limit the use of these gifts only to people sometimes called “clergy,” who are paid staff, we can rob the body of the benefit of many gifted people Christ has given to the church.
So, is there a New Testament pattern for church leadership, Shelley’s second possibility? If so, what is it? We will explore that in my next post.
[i] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, rev. ed. (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 72.
[ii] Ibid., 72.
About Jim Hislop
Jim Hislop is the Director of Western Seminary's Center for Leadership Development.