This study is not just a cynical, pastor-bashing or church-bashing rant. I want to make it clear that I have no disrespect for people who bear the title of “Pastor” or even “Priest”. They are dedicated servants of God who make sacrifices for the sake of their congregations. I believe they have been given a task far too demanding and consuming for people who are not supernaturally empowered as the apostles of old, and feel for those who are burning out under the incredible burden they believe they have been given by God.
I believe that it is every Christian’s responsibility to take on pastoral roles as they mature in faith and knowledge, supporting and correcting one another as equal citizens of the New Jerusalem.
When I was starting to take my faith seriously, I was pretty active in our Roman Catholic church, playing guitar for the service (sorry – Mass), hanging out with the youth, and so on. My Baptist friend from school pointed out that a “priest” was the intermediary between God and His people, offering up sacrifices to put people right with God. The sacrifice, of course, was the Mass, and only Jesus could be our priest, and His was the only sacrifice.
On the other hand, the Baptist “pastor” was a New Testament, God-ordained role that was an essential and legitimate element of the Christian Church.
This was all well and fine in the New Testament times, but what about the New Covenant times? As a “preterist” (that is, someone who has a preterist view of the Bible), I recognise that there is a difference between the New Testament and the New Covenant, and that modelling a church on the New Testament is to miss the point of the New Covenant. The New Testament was written before the New Covenant had fully come down from Heaven (Galatians 4:21-31).
Pastors were vital for the transitional phase, between the Old and New Covenants, but once we had the New Covenant, there could only be one pastor.
1. Jesus is the One Shepherd
Ezekiel prophesied against the unfaithful appointed shepherds of God’s flock. Further, he promises that God would Himself come to be their Shepherd.
Ezekiel 34: 11-13 – For thus says the Lord God: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country.”
This would coincide with the judgment of the unfaithful false shepherds:
Ezekiel 34: 16 – “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment.”
Jesus, of course, is the Shepherd (John 10). First to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles as promised in Ezekiel 34:13:
John 10: 16 – “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one Flock and one shepherd.”
2. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to help the disciples carry on His work
Jesus had to leave the Earth to receive the Kingdom from His Father. But He would not desert His disciples:
John 14:12-26 – “Most assuredly, I say to you he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. (13) And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (14) If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”
Question: Can we really, honestly say that this is true today, that we do greater works than Jesus did? Or, is it a specific promise to the disciples so that they could carry on His work while he was going away?
(15) “If you love Me, keep My commandments. (16) And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – (17) the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. (18) I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. (21) He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (22) Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?” (23) Jesus answered and said to him. “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. (24) He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me. (25) These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. (26) But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”
Jesus repeats this promise, in chapter 15 and again in chapter 16.
Note in verse 12: “the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” Was it that His going to the Father would enable their doing the works? Or was it that they would be required to do the works because He was going away?
The fact is, His disciples already had authority over sickness, even the demons, in Jesus’ name (Luke 9:1, 10:17). He did not have to go to the Father to enable this delegation of power. I believe Jesus was saying that the disciples were to take over Jesus’ work so long as He was away with His Father.
The parable of the nobleman in Luke demonstrates that Jesus would entrust His disciples with His business until He returned from His errand of receiving His kingdom:
Luke 19:12,13 – Therefore He said: “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Do business till I come.’”
When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, He empowered them to do something that He clearly stated only God could do: forgive sins.
John 20:22,23 – And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Are we Christians so empowered today? Or is forgiveness of sins reserved for God? Was this a gift or responsibility given to all Christians for all time, or was it a temporary delegation, doing business till He returned?
3. Although Jesus is the One Shepherd, He delegates this task to the apostles
John 21 – Jesus appoints Peter as pastor over His flock.
John 21:15-17 – So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes. Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” (16) He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord! You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” (17) He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him. “Feed My sheep.”
He never calls Peter a pastor or a shepherd, just commissions him to do the job.
Jesus then commissions the other disciples to do pastoral work – i.e. leading them into baptism and teaching them to follow Him (Matthew 28: 18-20)
This is where the relevance of the prophesy of Jeremiah is made consistent.
Jeremiah 23:1-4 – “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the Lord. (2) Therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,” declares the Lord. (3) “Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. (4) “I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.
Notice that God does not say in verse 4, “After that I will…”, but “I will also…”
Jeremiah 3:15 – “Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding.” (NASB)
In the Interlinear Bible, it reads, “And I will give” The word form for ‘then I will give’ suggests concurrence rather than sequence.
That is, He would appoint shepherds during the time of the gathering of His flock. From the context of the chapter(s), this would coincide with the judgement on the false shepherds and false prophets. This would mean that the appointment of the shepherds is a temporary one, and is consistent with the idea that the appointed shepherds would simply replace Jesus until His return.
Otherwise, Jesus’ own statement that there would be one flock and one shepherd would be a contradiction.
4. Pastors, elders and bishops
The terms pastor, bishop (overseer) and elder are synonymous, and are brought together in Acts 20:17-28
Acts 20:17 – From Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.
Acts 20:28 “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
Elders were those mature in the faith, possibly witnesses to Jesus’ teachings first hand, or at least appointed by the apostles as having the ability to head the local gathering of Christians.
Acts 14:23 – So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
As the church grew, more elders were needed to help the apostles teach the Gospel – remember, there was no Bible yet: just a collection of letters which were read out. The elders (bishops, overseers) were required to teach (1 Timothy 3:2), take care of the church (1 Timothy 3:5), heal the sick and forgive sins (James 5: 14,15). These are tasks undertaken first by Jesus, then delegated to the apostles in His absence. In fact, Jesus is called by the same title as Bishop or Overseer (1 Peter 2:25).
Elders are mentioned along with the apostles, as though they were an extension of the role. With the apostles, they would settle disputes concerning practices and doctrine (Acts 15:2,6, 22. 16:4). Peter, arguably the first apostle of Jesus, calls himself an elder (1 Peter 5:1)
Elders, aka pastors, aka bishops, aka overseers, were delegated by the apostles, in turn delegated by Christ to teach, govern and pastor the church. They had been empowered with divine powers (at least healing the sick and forgiving sins) which are not in evidence today.
5. The role of Pastor is a spiritual gift sent by God
The role of ‘Pastor’ is never defined, in fact, but only alluded to, and only in Ephesians 4:11. The Greek word poimen (=shepherd) is used by Jesus 15 times to mean a literal shepherd tending literal sheep. In Hebrews 13:20 and 1 Peter 2:25, the term refers to Jesus as a Shepherd tending His sheep. Only in Ephesians is it used to describe a delegated role, in a list of spiritual gifts.
Ephesians 4:11 – And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.
This role is a ministry given by the Spirit, along with:
These are given for “the edifying of the body of Christ” (v12)
1 Corinthians 12 – Another list of gifts given by the Spirit is found in 1 Cor 12:8-10 –
- words of wisdom
- words of knowledge
- discerning of spirits
- different kinds of tongues
- interpretation of tongues
Later, Paul refers to God’s appointment of the roles in the church, including these gifts with other roles (1 Cor 12:28)
- then miracles, healings, helps, administrations, tongues…
These lists of gifts are clearly related because –
- there is significant overlap of roles listed,
- they are distributed by the Spirit at His will (Eph 4:8.11; 1 Cor 12:11),
- they equip the various parts of the body of Christ (Eph 4:12; 1 Cor 12:11ff)
These gifts are temporary: (1 Cor 13:8-10), and will be replaced by the perfect.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10 – … but if there are gifts of prophesy, the will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
Being a pastor, then, appears to be a spiritual gift – God’s Spirit allowing people to shepherd His sheep, just like being a prophet allowed people to speak His words or perform miracles. It is a last-days empowering by God’s Spirit:
Acts 2:16-21 – But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: (cf Joel 2) “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughter shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
6. The role of Pastor is a last-days appointment
Question: Are we now in the last days?
If we are, then all of these signs of the Holy Spirit should now be in evidence. We are still called to carry on Christ’s work, as the perfect has not yet arrived.
If we are not in the last days, but if Jesus was speaking of the last days of the old Covenant, then none of the signs of the Holy Spirit should now be in evidence. We today are not called to carry on Christ’s work “until he comes”. The perfect has come, as prophesied.
7. Conclusion – So where does that leave us?
Does this mean we are not to sow the seed, reap the harvest, or in other ways follow the footsteps of Christ or His apostles?
Of course it doesn’t mean that! We are citizens of the New Jerusalem. We have the tabernacle of God with us, and the leaves of the tree of life in our city are for the healing of the nations. God has made His home within us individually, and we cannot help but do the works of God.
Just because we are not under a human pastor, that doesn’t mean we are not being pastored, and the Pastor’s role is to shepherd His sheep into a unified church that will bring hope to the world.
Just because the spiritual gift of “teacher” is no longer the transitional spiritual gift given by the Holy Spirit to continue the works of Jesus, that doesn’t mean that those with learning and wisdom cannot teach others – it just means that we should be aware that such a teacher is not necessarily acting under the Spirit’s influence, and could be wrong. Any other Christian, indwelt by the Spirit and in whose heart the Law has been written, has equal empowerment to provide correction and debate.
Those who aspire to the title of “Pastor” would do well to yield that title to the One Pastor. Perhaps better terms may be “Teacher”, “Pastoral Assistant”, “Pastoral Consultant”, or some other label that does not imply a substitution for the role Pastor.
There is the one pastor, and one forgiver of sins.
This is Jesus Christ, and Him alone.