The Invisible Pastor
Modern Christian authors who have an intriguing ability to take the EKG of the church and discern its health have been warning for some time now about the tendency pastors have to become the local attraction of their churches. Ministerial superstars. Pastors who are winsome speakers and world-class organizers can become the CEOs of their own kingdoms or the rock stars of their own venues. Some become recognized names in Christian households and spend much of their time traveling the world as celebrated pastoral celebrities.
This image of what it means to be a pastor is one of the reasons that John Piper (himself a household name) seeks to encourage his fellow pastors in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. In no fewer than 36 passionate mini-sermons, Piper urges pastors not to professionalize their calling but to be purposefully devoted to Jesus Christ. He warns that the temptation to be “professional” is not only for the CEO-type with his “three-piece suit and the stuffy upper floors,” but the pop culture-type also, “the understated professionalism of torn blue jeans and the savvy inner ring.” The former is learned by “pursuing an MBA” but the latter by “being in the know about the ever-changing entertainment and media world” and learning to have a certain “ambiance, and tone, and idiom, and timing, and banter.”
Howard Snyder addressed this very issue almost 50 years ago in his book, The Problem of Wine Skins. In his chapter, “Must the Pastor Be a Superstar?” he writes,
“I confess my admiration, perhaps slightly tinged with envy. Not because of the talent, really, the sheer ability. But for the success, the accomplishment. Here is a man who faithfully preaches the Word, sees lives transformed by Christ, sees his church growing. What sincere evangelical minister would not like to be in his shoes? Not to mention his parsonage.”
But then he continues,
“I think of all the struggling, mediocre pastors, looking on with holy envy (if there be such), measuring their own performance by [the superstar pastor’s] success and dropping another notch into discouragement or, perhaps, self-condemnation.
“For after all, the problem is plain, isn’t it? The church needs more qualified pastors, better training. More alertness to guiding those talented young men God may be calling into the ministry. Better talent scouting to find the superstars.”
Personally, I’ve never had to worry about becoming the CEO or a rockstar of the churches I’ve pastored in. No one has ever chased me down to sign a contract or asked to fly me around the world. But growing up in the church in a pastor’s family, I did notice at a young age that it was possible for pastors to climb the social ladder among their peers. And I was definitely influenced by that culture. The larger the churches, the bigger deal was made about the men who pastored them. Good men, too. Faithful men. But there would be preaching conferences where the more important pastors would come and preach to big crowds and parade around and sign people’s Bibles. My wife calls this parading the “pastor swagger.” She says it’s a kind of strut that we pastors get when people are making a big deal about us or we become over-confident. So, I learned early in my pastoral ministry that when it is a “good Sunday” where a lot of people show up and ministries are running smoothly and people seem excited to be a part of the church and they liked the sermon, I can start walking around with this particular vibe. But soon my wife will sidle up to me to mutter, “You’re doing the pastor swagger.” And that usually shuts it down.
Now, I’m not saying that people should never know the names of pastors or that we shouldn’t give glory to God for his sustaining grace in the life of a pastor who has faithfully shepherded, whose wisdom should be an example for younger pastors. There are certainly men whom the Lord has greatly used to impact many congregations toward the worship and glory of Christ. Apollos in the NT was a dynamic preacher whose ministry was widely known.
But has the church come so far in its tradition of church leadership that we have lost touch with how the New Testament presents the office of the pastor? Should pastors be promoted and known and celebrated? Should they be the center of attention in their churches? Should their names be on the church sign? Should people commonly identify the name of the church by the name of a single pastor?
Because it seems to me that, at least in the New Testament, the pastor is practically invisible. We know there were plenty of them. But it’s very difficult to find any in particular.
You don’t believe me? Try naming a pastor from the NT.
Maybe you’re thinking of Timothy and Titus, those men to whom Paul addressed what today we refer to as the “Pastoral Epistles.” But Timothy and Titus, though they may have had pastoral gifts of preaching and teaching and administration, were not tasked with the shepherding of a congregation. They were Paul’s co-workers, apostolic representatives who were placed at different times in different places so that they could establish those who would be serving as long-term pastors in the churches, mainly various house-congregations (1 Tim 1:3; Titus 1:5–9). When called upon, perhaps they even fulfilled pastoral duties in the fledgling stages of a new church, just like the apostle Paul seemed to do (e.g., 1 Thess 2:5–13). But none of these men are actually called pastors in the text. And even if some will argue that they were, in fact, pastors, the very fact that this is a debated point demonstrates our uncertainty about who actually fulfills the role of the pastor in the pages of the NT. The pastors are, for all practical purposes, invisible.
Can you think of anyone else?
Identifying the Terms that Designate the Pastoral Office
Part of the issue of identifying names of pastors in the NT is that there is a perennial debate about what pastors should be called. But this fact is itself an indication of the anonymity of their office. Not only are pastors seldomly given names in the NT, but even their nomenclature remains today a subject of some obscurity.
In fact, it’s very doubtful that pastors were ever really called “pastors” until sometime later in church history—because the term is virtually unused to describe them. “Pastor” is simply the Latin word for “shepherd.” In 1 Peter 5:1–4, Peter encourages pastors to “shepherd the flock of God (v. 2),” but this is an analogy he is making with the Lord Jesus who is the “Chief Shepherd” (v. 4), the true Shepherd of the flock. But Peter doesn’t call these men “pastors.” He calls them “elders” (presbyteroi, v. 1).
The only time that the word “pastor” is used as a title, in fact, is where Paul says that Jesus gave gifts to the church in the form of ministers, among whom he names “pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). But there is considerable discussion as to what Paul actually means here. Some say this phrase should be translated “shepherd-teachers,” hardly the title of an office. Likely, Paul uses the term “pastor” (shepherd) in Eph 4:11 when writing to Ephesus because of the “pastors conference” he had already shared with the Ephesian elders in the city of Melitus in Acts 20. On this occasion, Paul encourages the elders to “pay careful attention to the flock” (v. 28), warning, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock”(v. 29). So, Paul is clearly using an analogy, styling the elders as shepherds who are charged with protecting the flock from false teachers. Nevertheless, in this very passage, Luke refers to these men not as “shepherds” but as “elders” (v. 17), and Paul actually refers to them as “overseers” (episkopoi, v. 28).
So, we can say at the least that there were two main terms that were used to designate the office of the “pastor,” namely, “elder” and “overseer.” Of these two, the term “overseer” is used only a handful of times, most significantly where Paul uses the term to name the office in 1 Timothy 3:1. But the term that is used most often in many contexts to designate the office of the person we now refer to as “pastor” is the term “elder.” This was an obvious choice for the church, whose members for the first several years were all Jewish, and who already spoke of their religious leaders as “elders.” In fact, the earliest example of “elder” used for the office of pastor is where James encourages Jewish believers who are sick to “call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14). And moving forward into church history, we find in the Apostolic Fathers that the term “overseer” came to designate those who oversaw many churches at once, while “elder” came to designate the office of the pastor.
So, Who Are the Pastors in the New Testament?
Give up? Well, here are a few names to consider.
First, there is James, the brother of Jesus. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas go up to Jerusalem to discuss the matter of Gentile inclusion in the church with two groups of people, “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22). In the deliberations that followed, it seems that James, one of the elders, has the final word (Acts 15:13–22). You would think that makes sense, of course, seeing how James was actually the half-brother of the Lord Jesus. Talk about bragging rights for a church! “So, did I mention that our pastor actually grew up with Jesus?” (I would definitely ask him to sign my Bible.) But it is remarkable that the only reason we know that James was an elder in the church in Jerusalem is by process of elimination. We know that the elders and apostles are present, and we know James is not one of the apostles. In fact, when James writes his letter to the scattered, Jewish believers, he does not call himself the “brother of Christ.” He calls himself the “slave” of Christ (James 1:1). That’s the kind of humility that makes the NT pastor invisible.
Second, there are two apostles, Peter and John. In 1 Peter 5:1, Peter says, “So I exhort the elders among you as a fellow-elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ … .” And John, though we are relying on the identity of his authorship externally, refers to himself simply as “the elder” (2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1). However, can we say that these apostles are actually “elders” in the same sense as the office we think of when we hear the word “pastor”? After all, apostles had specific callings to advance the gospel in many places all over the world.
In the case of Peter, the apostle may have known the duties of a pastor (like Paul) and was writing in a way to encourage other “elders” in their churches by way of identifying himself with them. Peter could honestly say to these elders experiencing persecution, “I know what you’re facing, for I know what it is to serve in that way.” How reassuring would it have been to hear those words from an actual apostle of Christ!
But scholarship is more divided on the question of John’s self-designation. While it is true that John may have pastored the church at Ephesus toward the end of his life, some say that John would not have referred to himself as “the” elder if he were thinking of pastoral ministry. Besides, the word “elder” can mean, simply, “old person” after all, and John had outlived all the other apostles. Only a couple of decades later, Papias would write, referring to many of the Lord’s apostles as “elders” (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.3–5), since they were technically the first members of the church. So we cannot be entirely certain what John means.
Can we identify any more elders in the NT?
Unless I’m overlooking something, I cannot find any other places where pastors are so named elders or overseers. We find examples of men who may have been pastors. Perhaps Epaphras was a pastor (Col 1:7–8). He was burdened to seek Paul’s help regarding the situation in the church at Colossae and seems to fulfill a kind of pastoral role in this process. Perhaps Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25–30, whom Paul calls the Philippians’ “messenger and minister to my need” (v. 25), was also a pastor.
I wonder if Stephanas is a pastor. Paul remembers Stephanas and his household alone when he thinks back to those whom he baptized in Corinth (1 Cor 1:16). He calls them “the first converts in Achaia” who have “devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Cor 16:15). Paul then instructs the Corinthian believers to “be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.” This reminds us of similar statements Paul makes about pastoral authority (1 Thess 5:12–13; Heb 13:17).
There are also several times when Paul greets various people, both men and women, and refers to the church meeting in their house (Priscilla and Aquila, Rom 16:3–5 and 1 Cor 16:19; Nympha, Col 4:15; Onesiphorus, 2 Tim 1:16 and 4:19; Apphia and Archippus, Phile 1:2; “Chloe’s people,” 1 Cor 1:11; and Lydia by implication in Acts 16:13–15, 40). But none of these people are designated as elders, and churches mostly met in homes until after the third century anyway.
Also keep in mind that this inability to confidently identify pastors by name in the NT is also in the context of the fact that we know many pastors were serving. Timothy and Titus were told to establish them (2 Tim 2:2; Titus 1:5) and gives detailed instructions for their qualifications (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). Paul calls them together at Miletus (Acts 20:17–38). Peter writes to them far and wide (1 Pet 5:1–4). And the office continues till this day.
It is also striking that, when Paul writes to churches, he never addresses the “pastor” or the “elder,” but only addresses the “church” or the “saints” or the “brothers.” The closest he comes to acknowledging pastors personally in the address of his letters is in Phil 1:1, where he addresses “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” In fact, the earliest example I’ve been able to find of a letter commending a pastor by name is Ignatius’s letter to the Magnesians, circa 110 (Mag. 3.1).
All this to say, our list of people whom we may with full confidence identify as “pastors” in the NT is arguably short. Pastors are virtually invisible in the New Testament.
What’s the Take-Away for Pastors?
I think there is a lot that we can learn from the invisible pastor in the NT. Here are just a few ideas, but I would also love to hear your thoughts.
First, we need to reflect seriously upon the criticism of Piper and others that the pastoral office has become “professionalized.” The office itself is certainly honored in the NT. But pastors are called by the Lord to humbly fill that office. They can be rebuked and removed (1 Tim 5:17–20). They are not called to be the center of attention in the church but are called to serve the Lord and their congregations sacrificially, as Jesus did (1 Pet 5:1–4).
Second, the invisibility of pastors should encourage the congregation to identify their own giftedness to serve one another in the body of Christ. It is common to hear the criticism that the church is not the pastor, that the body has to get involved, that the pastor should not be doing everything himself. But I wonder at times whether pastors actually invite upon themselves this kind of culture where they do everything, by becoming that person who is always at the center, rather than making himself dependent on the congregation as all are dependent on Christ. The teaching of the apostle Paul in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12–14 about the use of the believers’ gifts is addressed to the entire congregation, the pastor included. Church members will shy away from offering their gifts in service to Christ if pastors are always pushing ahead to perform ministry works in the sight of their congregations.
Third, the invisible pastor creates a shared-leadership approach to pastoral ministry that ought to be intuitive for a church that does not revolve around a single leader. There seems to be ample evidence in the NT that there was more than one elder serving in any given congregation (e.g., James 5:14). This is not an argument for equality of leadership across the board, for it seems to me that one of the elders would naturally be prominent (i.e., a “lead pastor”). But it does push us toward the unenvious and gracious sharing of the burdens of pastoral ministry among several men whom the Lord has called.
Fourth, I also think that the concept of the invisible pastor encourages pastors to focus primarily on the work that God has called them to do. They should be satisfied with ministering to their own congregations, performing the thankless tasks of a servant, even if no one will ever see, or know, or care. In today’s world of social media, it is too tempting and too easy for pastors to seek recognition for their accomplishments by putting their lives on display, spending all their time blogging (a-hem), or becoming embroiled in meaningless online debates.
Finally, and most obviously, pastors need to be invisible so that they do not upstage the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, the church should never love and follow its pastor more than they love and follow the Lord. Christ must increase, and the pastor must decrease. This does not mean that the pastor is practically “invisible” in the congregation. But it means that, when people look at the church from the outside, they should not particularly notice him first. Instead, they should first see a body of people devoted to the Lord, each of them exercising his or her gifts, worshiping and serving together for the glory of the Chief Shepherd.
There were times when those qualified to speak were referred to as “Rabbis.” They were not up front as would be a pastor today, but in the audience. One who then felt led by the Spirit of God to speak would rise and read the Scriptures and exegete. I have often thought that this is what Jesus did in Luke 4 in Nazareth. It would appear that some of the local church may have continued this practice.
Also: I am wondering about your view of those who for years have called themselves, “Plymouth Brethren.’ The seemed to have continued this same practice.
I wonder how long it will be until John Piper speaks at a BJU event.
Thought provoking. Thanks Greg!