Does God have “his man” to pastor a church?

A friend writes in to ask whether a church should have a pastor or multiple leaders. I respond:

As I read it, the NT teaches that the apostolic churches were led by a group of elder/overseers. From the very first we always here of churches have elders (presbuteros) or overseers (episkopos), but not one single pastor. Those who are called “elders” of Acts 20:17 are called “overseers” in 20:28 and are said to “shepherd” or “pastor” (a verb, not a noun) in the same verse. Again, “elders” (1 Pet 5:1) are said to “pastor” (again, the verb, 5:2) and “oversee” (verb, 5:2). So, I take pastor, elder and overseer as the same person or office.

Nowhere do we read of a church with a single pastor, but rather with a plurality of leaders. Plural leadership is found in Acts 20, again in 1 Thess 5:12, Phil 1:1.

Since many of the house churches were very small (a dozen persons perhaps), then they might have had a single elder. However, this single elder was not the unique holder of the office for theological reasons, but for pragmatic ones: a church that tiny might not need a whole committee of elders.

The church seems to have rapidly evolved from having a board of elders to a board with a “first among equals” (Clement of Rome, for example) to a so-called “monarchical bishop” (Ignatius in his epistles, around AD 117). This trend apparently swept from Antioch westward, hitting Rome and the West in the mid-second century.

The church today tends to have a professional “pastor” and then a board of others – deacons or elders. This isn’t a model with clear New Testament backing, although there seems to have some measure of flexibility. Nevertheless, when I served as a “pastor,” my role was as the full-time elder who served with equal authority and responsibility with three other lay elders (for theological reasons I dislike the term “lay” or “laity”, but that’s a topic for another day).

We leave unexplored for now whether church leaders must be male.

What is objectionable is the idea that “God has a man,” that there is one single human authority in God’s church. Part of that doctrine is that rank and file believers should never question God’s man, since the Bible says “touch not mine anointed” (Ps 105:15). This notion, popular in some denominations, is based on the Old Covenant rather than on the New Covenant. It finds its basis in such Old Testament heroes as Moses, David and Isaiah and has as its theological basis that only a very few are endowed with God’s Spirit. It is not the model one finds in the New Covenant, in which all believers are gifted with the promised Spirit.

In recent years the “God has an anointed man” has become a weapon in the hands of toxic church leaders, to mean that those whom the anointed has touched – sexually or verbally or financially – must never report what the pastor did.

“Does God have ‘his man’ to pastor a church?” by Gary Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

5 thoughts on “Does God have “his man” to pastor a church?

  1. great article. I sometimes find myself surprised to see how some churches have a few pastors and only the senior pastor poseses the anointing. The onther pastors are just there to support with prayer and blocking, rebucking the evil spirits in the atmosphere..

  2. Excellent Post Gary… I’ve believed this way for a long, long time and we practice it here at VFBC. You’ve put it very it very well… I never did really subscribe to the Baptist view of the “one leader” – though that is where I started. Frankly, and this is not a statement of low self-anything, but I’m not enough of anything to bear that burden and I don’t believe that God desires anyone to bear that burden alone. If we are talking a few folks, that is one thing, but very quickly that load, for prayer and the other necessities of spiritual leadership that that Word lays out become more than one person can accomplish. Prayer alone is a responsibility that takes a great deal od time.

    Well said and thanks, and not for the first time…

    1. Excellent to hear from you, Bill, and especially like your remarks about the primacy of prayer! The apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word, both, not just the latter (Acts 6:4).

      If memory serves correctly, you and I were taught the “one man” view, at least by one professor. I also remember hearing how to seize control if others in the church tried to act with authority. At the time I just took down notes and learned it for the exam, but came to reject it shortly thereafter.

      My mantra for many years was one I picked up in the early 80’s – I hand the Bible to the person and say “Show it to me in the New Testament.”

  3. In Argentina the Brethren churches proudly wore the mantel of multiple leadership, for the same reasons you give, but in the end the churches were known in the community of believers and non-believers as the “iglesia de fulano, o mengano…” The task of supporting shared leadership usually falls to, or is championed by the real leader, o sea, fulano, o mengano..

    1. I was in a discussion just yesterday about how various denominations – or non-denominational groups – handle leadership. I’ve worked in Brethren assemblies, and find their approach more biblical than many others. Nevertheless, human nature intrudes itself in whatever sort of structure you can imagine. One encounters (gulp, I will say it) humble monarchical bishops; one also runs into power-hungry elders in assemblies with multiple leaders. Structure does not save us.

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