Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Senior Pastor - Introduction

Many people have written numerous books supporting differing perspectives on the organization of the local church and the biblical offices[1] found therein. In modern Baptist churches, and in many non-denominational churches, the predominant organizational model is congregational church governance[2] coupled with a single pastor, or a pastoral staff which is usually composed of a senior pastor and a variety of associate pastors or ministers who have different roles and levels of authority. The focus of this series of blogs is to study the office of the pastor, and more specifically the office of the senior pastor. In the literature and in practice, there are multiple views of the role of a senior pastor. These range from a strong leader figure to the absence of a human senior pastor altogether. While proponents of each view seek not to contradict Biblical mandates, one has to wonder if any single view best represents the New Testament model. It is therefore the intent of this series to analyze all views and evaluate them to determine which view constitutes the better New Testament model.

So as to simplify our discussion, when the office of the pastor is referred to in this series, several things will be assumed. The office of the pastor is assumed to be one of only two offices[3] found in the New Testament. Therefore throughout this series, even though the term pastor will be almost exclusively used, Scriptures referencing any of the three terms mentioned above will be used to gain a better understanding of the role of this office, and when at times the other terms will be used, it is understood that they all refer to one and the same office. Another assumption that will be made in this series is that, in the New Testament, and some would say in earlier Baptist life, the plurality of pastors is found to be more the norm than the exception to the rule. This assumption has recently been much debated,[4] especially since many Baptist churches are setting up elders in a Presbyterian ecclesiological fashion,[5] but while there are issues with the Presbyterian model, plurality of elders can exist and has existed in non Presbyterian ecclesiology. Nevertheless, since the issue of the necessity of a senior pastor is nonexistent if there is only one pastor, for the sake of this series, a plurality of pastors will be assumed.[6] Finally, when talking of pastors, it is also assumed that they possess the characteristics found in the New Testament passages: 1 Tim 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9. Having stated these assumptions, a discussion of the differing views of the senior pastor can now ensue.

A brief literature research of the topic leads to four views of the role of a senior pastor. The first view is the most common one: the senior pastor is the leader (some may even say 'head' or 'under-shepherd') of the congregation. The other pastors, usually called associate pastors or ministers with specific designations, help him in the work of his ministry. He is the main shepherd of the flock and the main preacher for the congregation. While talking of congregational rule, when there is room for pastoral decision making and vision casting, his decision is the final decision. He might seek advice from the other pastors and be very open to their thoughts and suggestions, but ultimately 'the buck stops with him'. Throughout this series, this view of the role of a senior pastor will be referred to as the 'traditional' view.

The second view is similar to the first one: the senior pastor is still the leader of the congregation with associate pastors helping him in the work of his ministry. He is still the main shepherd of the flock and the main preacher for the congregation. However, in view number two, unlike in the traditional view, when there is room for pastoral decision making and vision casting, his vote counts as only one among equally weighted votes with the other pastors. He could be seen as a moderator or 'president' of the 'pastor board'. He is officially designated as the senior pastor, and possibly the people see him as their main pastor. This view will be referred to as the 'leader of leaders' view and seems to be the view advocated by Dever who states "that we can discern a distinct role among the elders for the one who is the primary public teacher of the church."[7] This view seems to separate the pastor-teacher as a special elder in title and role, but not in authority. One could see it as a variation of the first view, where the senior pastor sees the benefit of having a 'board' of pastors to work with and therefore relinquishes his sole authority to this group. In both of these views, the senior pastor is specifically identified as such, distinguishing these two views from the next two views.

The third view is called by Strauch the 'first among equals' view.[8] Strauch pictures the difference between the senior pastor and the other pastors as being one of function, not title. The senior pastor is "the natural leader, the chief speaker, the man of action;" he challenges, energizes, strengthens, and ignites the group.[9] In this view there is the sense that this leader is the leader because of his personality and outgoing attitude. He is probably the most outspoken of the pastors and possibly the main teacher also, but he is not officially designated the senior pastor. Note that the difference between views two and three can be very subtle. While it seems that the outworking of both views is similar, the fundamental difference is in the need to officially name this separate office and the implications which develop because of it.

The fourth view is one void of a human senior pastor altogether.[10] In this view, all the pastors are equal in the eyes of the people and equal in practice. Some advocates of this view will purport that Jesus Christ is the rightful senior pastor of any congregation.

In future posts, we will look at scriptural evidence, Jewish tradition, the writings of the church fathers, and common justification presented in favor of a senior pastor to try to analyze all views and evaluate them to determine which view constitutes the better New Testament model.

[1] The author notes that he is not comfortable with the use of the term office. For a discussion on the problems with the term “office” see Edward Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, trans. Frank Clarke (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1961), 171-180. In it, Schweizer points out that the Greek term for office (archv) is only used for “Jewish and Gentile authorities” (Schweizer, 171) and that the more appropriate New Testament term is the Greek term for service: diavkono". He then adds that “official priesthood, which exists to conciliate and mediate between God and the community, is found in Judaism and paganism; but since Jesus Christ there has been only one such office – that of Jesus himself. It is shared by the whole Church, and never by one church member as distinct from others” (Ibid., 176). Thus to identify some specific gift as an office runs the risk of setting up a clergy-laity division which is only seen in the New Testament when referring to the Jewish and Gentile priests. As he states: “it is nowhere forgotten that such renunciation of titles, honors, and offices testifies to the Church’s newness in contrast to the old religious or secular order” (Ibid., 178). Unfortunately, even though the author is not comfortable with the term "office" and has adopted the term "role" instead, due to the common usage of the term "office" in the literature, the author will use the term "office" throughout the series.

[2] For this reason, while the content of this series could be applied to other models, congregationalism will be assumed. For an explanation of congregationalism and an explanation of the various other models see: Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 923-36; and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker 2004), 1079-97.

[3] The other office found in the New Testament is the one of the deacon, which is clearly not within the scope of this series.

[4] See Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman, eds., Perspectives on Church Governance: Five Views of Church Polity (Nashville: B&H, 2004) and Steve B. Cowan, gen. ed., Who Runs the Church? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) for two examples of recent works where the issue of church governance and specifically the issue of multiplicity of pastors is debated.

[5] Obviously this is not the view of elders presented in this series.

[6] When referring to this plurality, it is important to understand that the author does not envision a Presbyterian model, which differentiates teaching pastors from ruling pastors.

[7] Dever, 23.

[8] It is important not to attach too much significance to the title of these views. They are sometimes used interchangeably in the literature. For example Akin, while defending the first view, refers to the pastor-teacher as 'first among equals' (Akin, 65).

[9] Strauch, 46.

[10] This view is alluded to by Grudem (Grudem, 933) and can also be found in the writings of the New Testament Restoration Foundation (Steve Atkerson, Ekklesia, (Atlanta: New Testament Restoration Foundation, 2003), 119). Among other places, it is being practiced currently at Messiah Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC.


Aussie John said...


Looking forward to your thoughts.

Maël said...

Thank you Aussie John ... I am hoping to get the rest out in a timely manner.

Alan Knox said...


I think you've done a good job distinguishing the different views. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the expanded version. :)


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