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Pastoring the flock

Pastoring the flock

Clarifying our confusion about 'pastors', 'elders', 'overseers' and 'ministers'


Hello again everyone

In this week’s edition, we talk about the confusing words of Christian leadership: ‘pastor’, ‘minister’, ‘elder’, ‘overseer’ and ‘deacon’. Christians often mean different things by them (in different denominations) and the world often attaches different meanings again. 

How can we make sense of what the Bible says about these roles? 

As always, we will no doubt provoke as many questions as we answer. Please get in touch with your questions and comments. 

Your brother


Pastoring the flock

Tony Payne: Phillip, you particularly wanted to talk about this subject today. Why has it been on your mind? 

Phillip Jensen: Well, I’ve been thinking about pastoring recently, and in particular, interacting with some pastors about some of the issues that they've been facing. But it's becoming, I think, more acute as the word ‘pastor’ is changing meaning in English. We have it as a deep word within our Christian community. It is like the words ‘faith’ or ‘repentance’, which have changed meaning in the community but are very Christian words and very important words for Christians. It's hard to think the way the Bible thinks on these words when nearly every other usage that we have is different to the Bible's thinking.

TP: So it is becoming harder for us to think about what pastoring and pastoral ministry really is. And on the one hand it is because the word has changed and we tend to read that word back into the Bible, both the way Christians and non-Christians use the word. But there's also our ecclesiastical traditions, or what we've come to think of as the ‘pastoral office’. 

PJ: Yes, and there are also differences denominationally. And even those are changing. Anglicans in my youth didn't call their ministers ‘pastors’; it was the Baptists who called them pastors. But in recent times, the emphasis on pastoral ministry has meant that Anglicans are also calling their ministers ‘pastors’. Even the word ‘deacon’ means a different thing to an Anglican than it does to a Baptist or a Presbyterian. Some are ordained, some are not ordained. So we're using the same words, but meaning quite different things.

TP: Well, before we dig into some biblical passages to try to untangle what the Bible is talking about in terms of pastoring or eldership or oversight, let's talk about some of those presenting questions. One particular pastoral question that you’ve heard pastors are grappling with is the place of counseling in the role of the pastor—because for many people, in their expectations of what pastoring is, counseling plays a very important part. 

PJ: Yes, counseling is an activity and an industry that has arisen through the 20th and into the 21st century, both in terms of psychology, social work, psychiatry, and the like. And so there is a concept of the counselor who has certain expertise and skills, and promises certain outcomes. And people have expectations of the pastor as to what he'll be able to do in terms of counseling, but I think that is a big mistake. Frankly, I don't think we are counselors in the modern sense of counseling. 

TP: Because the modern sense of counseling is someone whose task is to be your coach, help you solve your personal problems, improve your life, get out of the difficulties you're in and get to a better point personally. 

PJ: Yes, and especially the subconscious background to your problems: things you have inherited and developed, the traumas you've gone through, whatever it might be that will help you unravel how and why you think and act the way you do now. It's a very technical and important activity that they are engaged in, but it doesn't seem to me that that's what ordained ministry is about.

TP: What is the ordained ministry about, then? What is being a pastor about if it's not about that?

PJ: Well, fundamental to counseling is one-to-one. I mean, you can have marriage counseling one-to-two, but it's about individualism. Whereas fundamental to being a pastor in the Bible is being a shepherd. And a shepherd who only has one sheep has a very limited future. Generally, what you do is you shepherd a flock. Now, if you shepherd a flock properly, you'll care for each individual within the flock. But your aim and goal is the flock that you are shepherding. Yes, you might leave the 99 behind and go find the one. But you don't spend all your time with the one you found; rather you find the one so as to bring the one back into the flock. The activity is not fundamentally a personal activity, but rather a community activity. And so at that point, it's very different to counseling.

TP: It reminds me a little bit of Jesus' exhortation to Peter at the end of John’s Gospel, which is to “feed my lambs and tend my sheep”. It's the role of the shepherd to care for, to protect, to guard, to feed, to lead out into pasture.

PJ: That's right, and to judge the flock. Back in Ezekiel 34, which lies in the background of Jesus’ teaching about being the good shepherd, we see that the good shepherd actually doesn't allow the fat sheep to trample over the lean sheep; he will judge between the sheep to make the flock work together. And in Revelation 2:27, it says (quoting the psalm) that Jesus will ‘shepherd’ with an iron rod, which is hardly non-directive Rogerian counseling. And fundamentally, he's the protector. He's the one who leads people to the green pasture. Now, that's what we do with the word of God. It is by the word of God that we govern and care for the church. It is by the word of God that we feed the sheep. And so the pastor in the Bible is a Bible teacher. 

TP: He’s a Bible teacher who works among a group of people and has some responsibility for that group; his task is coordinated or calibrated to this group of people. And that's very important to maintain, as the word ‘pastor’ (at least in English) is becoming a general word for ‘leader’, or a general word for someone who is in charge, or has a role as a church worker. It's become common in many churches, in Australia, the UK, and in the US, to see ‘pastor’ as just a generic church office title. You can have executive pastors, youth pastors, worship pastors, you can have maturity pastors, mission pastors–basically it's just a person who has responsibility for a function or a particular role in the church structure. I think somehow that loses some of the sense of what the Bible is talking about when it speaks of pastoring.

PJ: Yes, I think that's a silly usage of the word and a confusing usage of the word, but added to that is the individualism. That is, people will say, “He's not a very good preacher, but he's a very good pastor.” And what do they mean by that? They mean he's personable, he's good at individual work. Now I've got nothing against doing one-to-one Christian ministry. But when you say he's not a good preacher—that is he's not a good teacher of God's word—but he's a good pastor, the word ‘pastor’ is being used quite differently to the way the Bible does, because by the teaching and preaching to the congregation as a whole, that is where pastoral work is done, rather than in the counseling room. 

So what is a ‘music pastor’ supposed to be doing? Is it to shepherd a flock of musicians? Or is it to administrate the musicians? When we use biblical words unbiblically, it’s always dangerous. It misleads people, perhaps, to think you have more authority than you have, or to have expectations that are quite different from the Bible’s expectations. 

TP: It's really interesting to me how often ‘pastor’ language in Scripture is verbal; it's a verb, a task, not a status or a title. In fact, I think Ephesians 4 is the only place in the New Testament where it talks about ‘the pastors and teachers’ as a noun for anyone related to church roles. Everywhere else, it is what the overseers do

PJ: Yes, that's right, as in 1 Peter 5, “Shepherd the flock of God.” It’s an activity, not a status or a title. And so I don't actually like the title ‘pastor’, even in the old Baptist sense. I'm sorry, my Baptists listeners, but I don’t think it is a helpful thing to be calling me Pastor Jensen. It's an activity that I may do, but it's not my title in life.

TP: If we broaden it out, I think there are other words that are used like this, such as ‘elders’ and the task of oversight and ‘overseers’. You’ve got words that are translated as ‘leader’ or ‘those who lead or have supervision’. Is there a better title? Is there a definitive title? How do we think about these things more generally?

PJ: Well, in terms of titles, I think ‘servant’ or 'slave’ are the titles we should go with. They're both also verbal in their character in that you serve and you enslave yourself. And so in English, that's the word ‘minister’. But even then, someone asked me the other day what I did, and I said I was a minister. And he asked me, “Which portfolio?”

TP: Which side of politics are you on? 

PJ: Yes. The only place he ever heard the word ‘minister’ was in the political context. In fact, you have to say ‘Minister of Religion’ these days to indicate it. So even that word, which I think is a better word that captures what we do, is lost as well. 

You mentioned overseers, which is ‘episkopos’, from which we then get Episcopalian, and which leads somehow to Bishop. I don't know how the jump happened there. But that's the meaning of that word. Once again, that's an activity. It's an activity of oversight that any father has in his own home. It's an activity of caring for your household, administering your household. And so I've noticed in 1 Timothy 3, it says. “This saying is trustworthy. If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” But when you look at the Greek, the word ‘office’ is not there. Rather, if anyone aspires to ‘oversight’, he desires a noble task or work, not an office. We shouldn't be ambitious for ourselves and our position and our authority. But we should be ambitious to serve, to do the task. You’ll find in many translations, the same thing happens—that instead of a dynamic ministry and an activity, it's turned into an institutional ecclesiastical office.

TP: So the emphasis is on the task of overseeing this group of people or overseeing the household of God, as you oversee a family. So when you oversee, you have that function within God's people, within the household of God which is the congregation.

PJ: One of the qualifications for choosing him to manage the household of God is he must manage his own household first. Household is the key concept, and so is caring for the household (1 Timothy 3:5), for if someone doesn't know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church, God's household? And so you manage your household by caring for your family. That's what oversight is. 

See, the bishops (in the Anglican system) belong to the association of churches, and they're in different congregations every week as they preach in different places. It's the local minister who actually has the oversight—care of the congregation. I've been in churches where no bishop has appeared for two or three or five years. He's hardly managing or caring for our church in that regard. Nothing wrong with the job he's doing. But it would be wrong to think of the job he is doing as being the same as this job of oversight and caring. 

TP: So how does the task of oversight that someone is given or made responsible for relate to the idea of eldership? Because we often think of ‘elder’ as another one of these offices or titles. 

PJ: Yes. It's interesting that 1 Timothy 3 doesn't use the word ‘elder’. And yet, when people think of eldership, this is one of the chief verses for the qualifications for an elder.  That is because in Titus 1, the elders are appointed to oversight. And so the words ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ go together. But the elder is what the person is, the oversight is what they do. An ‘elder’ is an older man. And so when you come to appoint people for oversight, one of the chief qualifications is he's an older man. 

I got appointed as an Anglican to be an ‘elder’ when I was 25. I'd only been married 12 months, so I had a very small household consisting of me and my wife. And my experience of managing it well was not great at that point in time. And that was not the basis upon which people were appointing me; it was a nonsense to use that word. It's like the Mormon missionaries are all called ‘elder’, but they're 18 or 19. They've just left school and are on the way to university. And so whenever I meet Mormon elders in the streets, I think, “You don't seem older than me. So how can you be my elder?” According to the New Testament, those who should be appointed to oversight are those who are old enough to have a household where you can see they are good at doing it. That's who you have as elders. I don't mind appointing a minister at 25. He's a servant. But to appoint an elder at 25 seems to me to be a misuse of the word.

TP: So ‘elder’ is something you are—you're an older person and older Christian. And those older Christians who have experience, who have demonstrated their godliness, their blamelessness, their caring management of their families, their qualifications and character and ability—you select some of them and call them to the task of oversight. It's not as if every older man just by default and by virtue of being an older Christian is, therefore, a ruler of the congregation.

PJ: No, definitely not. There are some older men who are quite inappropriate to a point—they might be given to too much wine, or they might be on their third marriage. There are reasons why you wouldn't appoint this man—this elder—to this task. But you don't appoint him to be an elder. He either is or he isn't an elder, and you appoint the appropriate elder to the task of oversight.

TP: And so I guess this is why, in the culture of the New Testament and in the linguistic conventions of that time, the group of older men who are appointed to rule a certain synagogue, for example, or to rule the Jews, are called the ‘elders’ or ‘the elders of Jerusalem’. That is, they are those older men who've been given responsibility.

PJ: Yes. It doesn't go with our egalitarianism, but it does go with the Bible. And it does go with creation and normality—that the older leads the younger. And so when that doesn't happen, it's extraordinary. John the Baptist, though he came first, he recognizes that his cousin who is coming after him is actually before him. But that is such an unusual thing that it's made mention of. Likewise Jacob and Esau, the younger God chose, rather than the elder; that is an extraordinary thing. Now, we may not do our inheritance systems today like the ancient world's inheritance systems, but it's still striking how different firstborn children are to subsequent children. Birth order is still a factor.

TP: Is this why Timothy's relative youth is an issue for him to think about? And given that he's got quite a significant or authoritative role within and among the eldership, somehow, he's almost like the Pauline protege or delegate in the congregation there. He needs to be careful of his youth, to not have people look down on him for his youth. He needs to be careful how he relates to the older men and women and so on.

PJ: It is normal to be looked down upon because of your youth. And while we may, in our egalitarianism, not believe such things, it's still true in our own society.

TP: Let me bounce off what you just said… For many young people who are going off into ministry, how does what we're saying about the nature of oversight and eldership and service and ministry relate to them? They’re hardly ‘elders’. 

PJ: Well, I think there are firstly years of serving. There's always the extraordinary—like Spurgeon, who led large churches when he was a very young man. But Spurgeon was not normal. He was a special gift of God to us. Normally, you would expect people who are coming out of theological training to do the work of ministry before they are placed in charge of family congregations with people twice their age. Sometimes they need to be and therefore that verse that you mentioned is needed, “Don't let them look down upon you because you are young.” And how you avoid that is by having a maturity beyond your years, and a posture towards those who are older than you that's very considerate and gentle. In 1 Timothy it says be careful how you relate to the older men. “Do not rebuke an older man harshly.” The older I get, the more I like that verse. Just because you are in the Christian ministry does not then cancel the differences between men and women, older and younger. In fact, the created order is now being reinforced by ministry.

TP: I guess what we've been saying about the nature of the task is that most of the language in the New Testament around congregational leadership and oversight is very dynamic and functional. It's about the job you have to do in the congregation and household that God has given you, and not so much your office, your title, the structure of hierarchy, and so on. What lessons do we want to draw from that in terms of how we think about pastoral oversight ministry today?

PJ: It’s love. It's not office and it's not authority. Rather, it is loving the people that is required of us. And so we teach the Bible, we speak the truth in love. And that means we will honour our elders as elders. And it means that we will treat younger men and younger women differently because of our love for them. So in backing away from institutional positions, it doesn't mean that we ignore the created order that sees elders and youngsters as different people. In 1 Timothy 5, having told the elders what to do, he then tells younger men what to do, which shows the age factor is a real factor in interpersonal relationships and that should be reflected in the way we treat people. 

And then it's to understand the dynamism of the activity is preaching and teaching God's Word, because you love people. But when you've got this word ‘pastor’ which now means ‘counselor’, it’s easy to be seen as a cheap counselor, so that your care for people means that you meet them in their problems, and somehow solve their problems. What you should actually be doing is referring them to people who are trained in those problems, not trying to do that yourself. You cease to do the work of pastoring the flock when you are consumed by the individual psychological problems of people.

TP: By seeing how functionally the New Testament talks about congregational leadership, it also helps us to stop driving a wedge between the pastor-elder-bishop—whose office places him on some kind of pedestal—and the rest of the congregation who are just like recipients of his ministry. 

PJ: Yes, and so the only people who ‘minister’ are the ‘ministers’—which is nonsense. But we think that because they’ve got the title, that's their job, they should be doing that—and in a materialistic world, we're paying them to do it. Whereas in the Bible, ‘one another’ language is so strong, as is the importance of the ministry of every Christian to every Christian, which is reflected in the ways in which we care for our flock. 

TP:  I think the best way of understanding theologically what congregational leadership actually is, is to remember that our congregation members have a responsibility for each other—to speak the truth in love to each other, to bear one another's burdens, to go after the person who was straying and restore them, to rebuke one another, to admonish each other, to exhort each other—it's all each other. As a congregation, as a member of the flock, you have a responsibility of love to the other sheep. And the function of a leader comes out of that function of the congregation. He oversees, leads, exemplifies, trains and equips the congregation for that task which they are doing with each other. 

PJ: Yes, and so to misunderstand the nature of ‘pastoring’ and ‘ministry’ as we often do, is also to misunderstand the nature of the Christian life. 

As always, if you have any questions about all of this (and I'm sure you probably do) please feel free to get in touch. Just hit reply to this email. 

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Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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