Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Senior Pastor - arguments from pragmatism

After a little pause in this series, do to some changes in our lives, I will continue our pursuit to find arguments for the necessity of a senior pastor. Having exhausted the possible Biblical justifications for the necessity of a senior pastor, and having not seen much convincing evidence in some examples of Jewish tradition or in some of the church fathers, we will now analyze some common justifications for such an office in the local church. Often the following line of reasoning is used to justify such an office: with a plurality of pastors, there is a need for a head, someone who will set a vision, [1] and someone who can decide in case of division. Akin notes that Adrian Rogers

states with his characteristic wit, "Anything without a head is dead. Anything with several heads is a freak." That is simply a colorful way of recognizing the fact that someone has to lead. Though many may give counsel, provide input, and share wisdom, there nevertheless must be a leader out front leading the way. [2]

Also some argue, as Patterson stated, that a single leader is what one would expect from human social order. [3] F. F. Bruce argues it in the following way:

Committee rule in general is weak unless there is a strong chairman. Quite often the strongest personality will become chairman in any case, and spiritual strength need not be excluded from his qualities. In practice such a man will become primus inter pares, and once his position is accepted and perpetuated, before long he will be regarded, in theory as well as in practice, as primus pure and simple. [4]

While these arguments make good logical sense, are they necessary? Historically, this has not always been the case, even in Baptist life. It is very telling that Dargan, in the late nineteenth century, considered churches having 'one pastor' to be a modern (late 19th century) custom.[5] As a matter of fact, elders (plural) could "be found in Baptist churches in America throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century,"[6] and even in the 17th century.[7] While there is some disagreement about the historical normality of this plurality in Baptist life,[8] it did exist, and as Akin adds, some "also believed that all elders were equal in office but different in duties; they were equal in rank but different in service."[9] Waldron states that "the majority of the Particular Baptists were committed to a plurality and parity of elders in their churches."[10] One could conjecture that these movements, which were known for their desire to follow sola scriptura, put away the traditions inherited from the writings of people like Ignatius, and while seeking Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, developed these nontraditional patterns. So what happened to make things change in the subsequent years? Hammett points to a transition possibly due to the outstripping of qualified men due to the rapid growth of Baptist churches in the early nineteenth century.[11] It is possible to envision that this temporary situation probably would not have lasted. Had it not been for modernity, with time, local congregations might have reverted to the plurality of elders that was common in the early nineteenth century. Unfortunately, as Hammett purports, in the twentieth century "the business model entered Baptist life and perhaps conditioned people toward adoption of the single pastor, patterned after the chief executive officer of the business world."[12] Anyhow, whether new or old, this pragmatic 'need for a head' seems to miss the point that Scripture states that Christ, not a human senior pastor, is the head of the church.[13] Even someone like Jalland, who would argue for a monepiscopacy, is quick to admit that "… [Jesus] alone is the true 'plenipotentiary' of God."[14] If, in addition, one also realizes that God is one and has one will, it only makes sense to envision that if all the pastors are filled with the Holy Spirit, they will be of one accord, for the Holy Spirit within them is not divided, and there will be no pragmatic need for a human senior pastor to make the final decision. To use the same metaphor used by Adrian Rogers, can we say that since Jesus Christ is the head of the church, anything with another head (viz. a senior pastor) is a freak? Ultimately we have to ask ourselves if human pragmatism is the best option in the Church of Jesus Christ; after all we are told to "lean not on our own understanding."[15]

Before summing up this series, we will look at a few final considerations about the first among equal view and the forth view presented in the introduction to this series. In the meantime, are there any other pragmatic reasons you can think of to justify a human senior pastor? Do you think that they are valid?

[1] This line of thinking has been strengthened recently by the publishing of church growth literature which points to the need for a strong single pastor. Grudem does a good job of refuting the literature on three separate issues and notes that Wagner himself admits that a model more like the first among equals view presented in this paper would have the same results (Grudem, 929-31).

[2] Akin, 72. One could argue, that since Scripture states that Christ is the head of the church, any other head, as a senior pastor is sometimes called, would make the church a freak, to use Rogers' terminology.

[3] Patterson, “Single-Elder,” 152.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 206; quoted in Samuel E. Waldron, “Plural-Elder Congregationalism,” in Who Runs the Church?, gen. ed. Steve B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 197.

[5] Dargan, 186.

[6] Dever, 20.

[7] Waldron, 200-1.

[8] Paige Patterson, "A Single-Elder," 240-1.

[9] Akin, 57.

[10] Waldron, 201.

[11] Hammett, 179.

[12] Ibid., 180. Hammett’s comment does not necessarily mean that the proponents of the first two views are also proponents of a CEO model. Akin clearly states that this is not the case (Akin, 69). What could be gleaned by the facts is that the drive for a senior pastor at that time in history might have been culturally motivated and therefore might not be a tradition that Baptists should hold on to.

[13] Eph 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col 1:18; 2:19.

[14] Jalland, 93.

[15] Prov. 3:5.


John S Wilson III said...

Hey brother, just a thought. Jesus is the Head of the church! Given the church as an organization in many churches today, the need for a senior pastor is vital, but the church was never meant to be an organization but an organism. As an organism there is only one head, for the church as an organism it has only one Head, Jesus Christ. I believe that would be in the Bible! In an organism all the parts function according to the head. When the body fails to function according to the head then life support is needed, thus the church as organization. Leaders in the church were servants who served as mentors, acting as spiritual fathers and mothers in homes. They tended to help initiate interaction among the believers so that everyone would participate and function according to the Head. I have realized over the past few years that there has been something missing in the church and that was a focus on every member functioning, versus the spectator mentality we have now in the church. I can look over the huge crowds and I can see people wanting to participate, wanting to belong, but never have the opportunity because they are spectators. Even in the programs the church offers, the focus is on gaining knowledge without putting it into practice, helping one another to function. Thus the need for spiritual mothers and fathers who nurture (pastor/teacher) God's people to function so that they truly connect with the Head, Jesus Christ, and with one another. I believe the organic church is bringing to light this idea to the church. Just some thoughts. God bless!

Maël said...


Welcome to my blog.

While I agree that we are now faced with the not so Biblical alternative of the church as an organization, I am not sure that a man made "life support" is the solution. God is the giver and sustainer of life, not us.

As for pastor/elders being parents, I see what you are saying. I think, though, that according to 1 Pet 5 we do see elders as examples to the body (I plan to write more about this in a future series on 1 Pet 5 and Titus 1), but as equals: as brothers, not fathers, for there is only one Father.

Thanks for your thoughts. Glad to see that God is continuing to work in your life. Looking forward to future conversations.

Will said...

Hi there, thank you for the great blog series. The fact that I'm commenting years later shows that the series is continually relevant and helpful.

I'd like to add what I see as an explanation of the prevalence of the senior pastor model, based on the pragmatic benefit of seminary graduates:

1. By numbers, most churches can only afford to hire one full-time leader

2. Seminary education generally provides a deeper understanding of theology, teaching, and church leadership

3. Therefore, that paid leader will most likely be a seminary graduate, and will be likely to function as a senior pastor.

Maël said...

Will, welcome. You are correct, this is still a very relevant topic in our local congregations.

You comment is interesting and brings to mind David Benedict's book Fifty Years among the Bapstists (Danvers: General Books LLC, 2009, but you can find a free PDF online, just do a search). In it, Benedict looks at the transitions in baptist life from 1800 to 1850. One of those transition was the advent of the necessity of a seminary trained pastor. So the question is: is seminary training a necessity? Don't get me wrong, I am not against seminaries or seminary education (I attended two and I am now Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at a local Baptist College). Yet, it seems to be that much of what we teach at a seminary could and should be taught in the local church. Seminaries are in some ways a band-aid to patch the problem that our churches are not disciplining people as they should and that often pastors are so busy doing things that Scripture does not demand of them that they cannot live out their gifting to equip the saints (Eph 4:11).

Beyond that, though, these questions still stand:
Is pragmatism justification enough to do what we do?
Does Scripture provide a different pattern which we choose to ignore?
What about the churches who have several seminary trained pastors, and yet still have a single senior pastor?

What are your thoughts?

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