Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Senior Pastor??? Part 2

Continuing the 'Dear Abby' spirit from yesterday, here are the final two questions from 'Who Needs a Senior Pastor, Anyway?':

3. Is the concept of "senior pastor" biblical? If so, where do we find it? I agree that there are leaders singled out among the elders, but is this one leader?

In your first question, it depends on what you mean by 'biblical.' Do we find the title itself in scripture? No, not that I'm aware. Do we find some patterns in Scripture or is the function a necessary entailment of some teaching in Scripture? I would say "yes."

First, as you point out, the Scripture itself makes the distinction between all elders and those elders whose job is preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:18). "Double honor" is "especially" owed to those whose job is preaching and teaching. So, it would seem that there is to be at least one elder who plays that role in a local church. There could be more, but there must be at least one. That person would be the "primary preaching elder" or what we popularly call the "senior pastor." But if there is more than one who serves well in the word as this text presumes, then is there any grounds for establishing one "senior pastor"?

Second, there are the historical patterns in the NT itself. The most frequently cited (and abused) example of this is Jesus' closer relationship with Peter, James and John, with Peter serving as the most frequent leader and spokesperson of the twelve). Alexander Strauch sees at least two other examples in the situation with the deacons in Acts 6 and in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas (whom Strauch regards as an apostle equal to Paul). So, there does seem to be some historical patter of "first among equals" in the NT itself.

Third, there are cases where a local church only has one qualified teaching elder for a given period of time. That's the case with both Timothy and Titus as the ministries are being developed in Ephesus and Crete. Until the eldership is really established and trained, and in God's kindness other teaching elders are raised up, Titus stands as the sole elder who must "straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town" (Titus 1:5). That could take years; in which case, you would have one senior pastor or teaching elder doing all of the teaching. And even after elders are appointed, there would be grounds for that man to continue as the main teaching elder since he'll be training the others.

Fourth, with the churches in Revelation, the Lord addressed the "angel" or "messenger" of those churches (Rev. 2-3). We know that Ephesus had a plurality of elders in place since the time of the apostle Paul. But the address goes to a single messenger rather than to the elders as a group. Apparently one main shepherd is to communicate the message of God to the people of God.

Fifth, Paul addresses his strongest charge to "preach the word" to a single elder, Timothy (2 Tim. 4:1-2). Anticipating a context where false teachers will abound and the people will want teachers to tell them what they want to hear, Paul calls on this one man to be faithful in the midst of all of that. This is a pragmatic inference, but I think there is much to commend a primary preaching elder when it comes to warding off error and focusing the people on sound teaching.

It's interesting--and I don't know what to finally make of it--but it seems to me that most often when the NT addresses elders as a whole (Acts 20:25-31; 1 Pet. 5:1-4, for example) the main instruction is not a call for all of them to teach (again, 1 Pet. 5:17 assumes that won't be the case) but for them all to shepherd or oversee or care for the flock. This is an inference, but when I compare the direct addresses to a single elder to teach (Rev. 2-3; 2 Tim. 4) with the addresses to the elders as a group to shepherd or oversee (Acts 20; 1 Pet. 5), there does seem to be a working assumption that there is one elder with primary teaching responsibility in the congregation.

4. What do you think of Alexander Strauch's (Biblical Eldership) position on this?

Well, I'm no Alexander Strauch. He's a better scholar and writer than I would ever be. While I'm mentioning him, let me plug his book Leading with Love. An excellent meditation on 1 Cor. 13 and Christian leadership.

In brief, as I understand it, Strauch considers Jesus' relationship with the three (and Peter's leadership among them), Acts 6 and the prominence of Phillip and Stephen among the seven, and Paul's relationship to Barnabas as arguments for primus inter pares (for a free on-line booklet see here). He calls for a primus inter pares based not on official office but based upon a kind of prominence that comes from superior giftedness and dynamism when compared to the others. There are two weaknesses to this view in my opinion.

First, none of the texts in view actually say that "first among equals" status is established according to superior giftedness. It's an inference that Strauch draws in consideration of the unusual giftedness and events involving these individuals. The text is silent on this matter.

Second, if we take this functional basis for primus inter pares we're inevitably left with a debatable subjective criteria for establishing this role. We have no consistent way of determining leadership of the leaders, or "first among equals." For example, in the case of Peter, Peter arguably is not the best leader given his quick tongue and nature. John, perhaps, would be more loving and therefore a "better" subjective choice.

What I do like about Strauch's approach is that it reminds us to not pigeon-hole any one elder as "the" leader on every issue. We should pay attention to gifting and unique suitedness for particular leadership roles and tasks as the elders jointly carry out the leadership of the church. Put your best man forward for the particular issue at hand. That's wise. And it keeps the church from relying too much on one man or imposing unreasonable demands on one man. We should keep this in mind, even if we would suggest a different basis for "first among equals."


Hayden said...

Good words Thabiti and some strong biblical argumentation.

Of course, I disagree with you just a tiny bit on your assessment of Strauch's 'first among equals'. Strauch is just trying to put some criteria on something that happens naturally. The elder 'board/team' is made up of men of different gifting and he is trying to challenge the idea of the 'senior pastor' always being deferred to.

Strauch is pointing out the truth that the one in the pulpit often sets the direction for the whole church and the elder board. He wants to guard against the hierarchy system of the pastor on the top of the pyramid with the elders below (which is only a problem for us that have an elder led system, not for those with a congregational model ;-))

For all those wanting to understand an elder led system read Strauch and definitely read teh book Thabiti recommended called 'Leading with Love'

FellowElder said...

A couple other books to recommend among many useful titles on this topic:

Phil A Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (a look at elders from a congregational perspective)

Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (in many ways a very readable, q&a version of Strauch)

Michael Brown, ed., Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons (a look at the topic from a Reformed, paedobaptist, and presbyterian perspective)

KG said...

Thank you for your clarification of your thoughts on these issues. Your insight is helpful as we go forward in continuing to lead in our church.

I would like to ask a few questions for clarification.

I couldn't tell for sure, did you believe that all the elders are equal in authority or that the primary preaching elder has a higher say or deciding vote in matters of leading the church?

I guess it seems to me that you are supporting more of a senior pastor with elders who are under him type of structure. Am I correct in that or would you suggest a team of elders who equally lead together much like Strauch proposes?

FellowElder said...


Thanks for your comments and recommendation of Strauch. That's a very, very good book on the subject and should be read widely.

I think what I inadvertantly left unsaid in question four is that I do think the address to "the messenger" in Rev. 2-3 is effectively ex officio. This man is called to play that role "because of his office," which, assuming a plurality of elders in every local church as the biblical model, must mean there is a "first among equals" according to office, not just gifting. The text doesn't say, "to the best speaker" or "to the best leader," but to "the messenger."

I would disagree with Merkle, following Strauch, that having the title "senior pastor" or having an elder play that role is ipso facto a different office to elders in general or necessarily sets up a two-tier eldership. Of course, there are many ways a two-tiered system can develop (it's just as likely to develop if people consistently defer to the "more gifted" brothers) and that ought to be avoided, but having a senior pastor does not lead necessarily to that situation, nor does it necessarily undermine equality and mutual deference among the elders.

And, of course, you're correct... healthy congregationalism helps with this a great deal :-)

Your brother,

FellowElder said...


Thanks for the question, brother. In summary:

1. I would see multiple elders leading as a team together in the local church.

2. I would see mutual deference and forebearance as necessary to healthy leadership and healthy Christian living in general (Phil. 2:3-4).

3. I don't think either 1 or 2 above militate against "first among equals." At its best, first among equals simply recognizes a few practical things:

a. The church has likely called one man to play the main teaching role in the church;

b. That man is likely gifted and/or trained for that role;

c. There comes with that role certain responsibilities and expecations (including stricter judgment and accountability before God);

d. With those responsibilities should also come certain kinds of lattitude or authority necessary to accomplish the responsibility; and

e. Within the bounds of shared leadership, then, it is entirely appropriate for the elders as a whole to at points defer to "the first among equals" in certain matters.

Now 'e' is not a unilateral deference; then you would have a two-tiered system that fails to recognize equal authority. That's not what I'm saying.

Everyone is concerned about a single pastor wielding unbiblical amounts of authority. That's understandable.

But in these comments I'm making room for two things--one biblical, the other practical. First, I'm trying to take seriously the role scripture seems to assign to chief spokespersons. That's why most folks end up with some form of "primus inter pares." Second, I'm trying to avoid the opposite error--flattening the leadership in a way that effectively assigns significant responsibility without also giving any lattitude, authority or support to complete the task. All the responsibility and none of the authority is simply a disastrous position for a pastor to be in. It will grind a pastor's and church's ministry to a painful and unnecessary halt.

In a healthy eldership, "a" and "e" co-exist. It's more art than science, but it's really quite necessary. I think the line of thinking that says "because there is clear plurality there must be unbending equality" misses too much biblical data and doesn't account for real-life practical issues in the ministry.