Is the "One Man Pastor System" Simply Not Found in the Bible, as Some Are Claiming?

Many are starting to claim that no church should exist except where two or more pastors or ministers can be appointed; they claim that it is dangerous to place too much authority in the hands of a single pastor, but as long as there is equal leadership by a few, that congregation will never go into heresy. But is that really true? Others go further, stating that since the word 'pastor' only occurs once in the New Testament, where did we get the 'centrality of the pastor'' from, except from pagan forms of worship? (actually, this is a very highly dubious argument: much pagan worship had no concept of a single figure of authority and adherents often had a great deal of liberty).

The irony of this new controversy is that those who are becoming involved are among our most sincere and original thinkers; they are looking at a model of 'Christian congregational worship' which - in all too many cases - is simply not working in this early 21st century and they are rightly questioning this model. I largely join them in this, but I am a little dismayed that a few seem to be seeing the problems in the wrong places and are in real danger of 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater'!

I believe that I can help in this debate because I have personally sampled several 'church worship models': I have been part of a group in which nobody spoke until 'moved by the Spirit', but I found that most had no wish to speak and much of what was said was hardly inspirational and people left these meetings feeling completely 'unfed'. The group seemed to feel rudderless. But in time the group necessarily seemed to develop 2 or 3 main speakers so it seemed as though the group still ended up with 2 or 3 ministers (whatever it might have wished to call them).

I have certainly been involved in the one man autocratic church leader scenario. Right now I am involved in a two pastor system (I am sort of associate pastor and there is a senior pastor). This is marvellous to the degree that we are theologically very close (although our approach is often quite different as are our sermon patterns). It is also excellent because the resposibilities of pastor are shared, hence less work, although we are far from being a large church. And yet we are both aware of congregations which went completely off the track despite being led by a council rather than by one minister!

But I honestly believe that some very sincere people might be completely missing the point when they complain that since the word 'pastor' only occurs once in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11), why are they (pastors, that is) given so much authority in our day? But, the truth is that the role and office of Christian minister is really based much more on the Greek words 'presbuteros' and 'episkopos'. Let us look at these:

1. Presbuteros: This word literally means 'elder', the whole sense behind the word conveys seniority. In Jewish (and most other) homes of the First Century AD, the senior male figure was the unchallenged leader; the first Christians met in homes and it seems quite obvious that the natural leaders of the household (by virtue of sex and seniority) who had committed themselves to the Faith, came to be seen as the group leaders (if the senior male figure of the household had not commited to the Faith it hardly seems likely that he would have allowed Christian assemblies to even take place in his home!)

2. Episkopos: This word literally means 'overseer' or, as we might say today, 'supervisor'. There is no doubt whatsoever that 'presbuteros' and 'episkopos' are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Of course, people derive 'bishop' from 'episkopos' but as even the great Anglican Bible expositor Bishop Lightfoot freely admitted, in the New Testament the word speaks of the same group of people who were presbuters (elders).

So the model which we appear to have here is of the senior male figure of a house 'cell' of Christians having the responsibility of taking spiritual authority; in short, being the presiding minister. Deacons, of course, would have had responsibility for the physical needs of the group. A large city might have had many of these house groups; we have to understand that the concept of a large Christian meeting assembly came much much later - it was essential that the first Christians just blended into society rather than attract undue attention to themselves which would simply be an invitation for persecution!

Of course, the question could be asked: if it was obvious who the elders/minsters were to be because of their seniority, why was Titus told to ‘appoint’ elders in every city? Well, it certainly seems that by the time Paul wrote to Titus and to Timothy around the mid-60s AD ( the Church of God had been in existence over 30 years by this time), the need had arrived to more carefully set apart both Elders and Deacons. More people capable of taking spiritual responsibility would have become available by then and maybe a few of the earliest leaders had even led people astray; yet there is no reason to suppose that there was any really radical change. We must understand that God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33) – the Church needed to have definite leaders not only to evangelise but to feed the flock. I am a little concerned that some think that the principle of the priesthood of all believers now means that we don’t need any leaders at all, although from Genesis to Revelation we see the principle of God working through definite human leaders and a principle of organized leadership wherever God communicates His will to mankind! Others seem to feel that Christian congregations should now operate as democracies! A few appear to challenge the whole concept of preaching and feel that preachers of the Word should be held in no special regard, but are they not forgetting the following words?

‘Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine’ (1 Timothy 5:17, my emphasis).

Unfortunately too many today tend to look at words like ‘elder’ or ‘minister’ and immediately start imposing their own ideas, or modern-day concepts. We must not do so. If we are going to understand this matter we need to look very carefully at how some of these words and the whole model of ministry were understood by people like the Apostle Paul right back in the First Century AD.

Since the epistles to Titus and to Timothy are very late epistles of the Apostle Paul and quite a lot is said about appointing church leaders let us continue our consideration of this matter by carefully looking at what Paul said.

In doing so, we are going to be looking for evidence for these things:

1. Is God opposed to central leadership within church congregations?

2. Do we find rules and/or advice which would bar one pastor from leading a congregation?

3. Can just about anybody become an elder/minister??

We will start by considering Paul’s epistle to Titus, and I am going to pick out some verses which are applicable to our consideration:

Immediately in the first chapter we encounter some verses of interest, verses 5-9. Please read them. These verses describe the high behavioural standards expected of Elders. But, for our purposes, we only need to consider verse 5:

‘For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you,’ (Titus 1:5).

A few things are immediately clear here:

1. Problems had arisen, possibly of order during services: ‘…set in order the things that are lacking.’

2. This was apparently not the first time that Paul had told Titus of the need for elders: ‘…As I commanded you.‘ (Of course, in Acts14:23, Luke tells us that about 15 years before this, Paul and Barnabas ‘..appointed elders in every church').

So in ‘every city’ there should be house groups presided over by elders; perhaps things had become a bit too casual, perhaps some meetings were going ahead without a suitable elder being present. Again, within a city there could be several such groups. There is absolutely no doubt that these elders were to be senior married men. Just look at some of these requirements within an elder:

‘If a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children…’ (Verse 6).

There is also no doubt that they were to assume spiritual teaching and leadership duties:

‘Holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.’ (Verse 9).

We also know from 1 Timothy, that these elders were not be novices, but were to be well-grounded in the Faith (1 Timothy 3:6).

Now is it seriously suggested that at a time when the Church was still young and growing, a meeting could not even take place unless there were several elders present? Without doubt that would often have been simply impossible! But why does Paul say ‘elders’ (plural) should be appointed? Is this a hint that a Christian assembly whether small or large must always have several ministers/elders presiding? Absolutely Not! Paul uses the plural simply because he is talking about ‘every city’ – therefore more than one.

Don’t forget: the whole pattern of the Elder is based on the Elders of Israel who were to be older, mature, married men; It followed the natural pattern of family life. In Israel, the elders were the administrators of justice who sat ‘within the gate’; disputes, trials and controversies were settled by the elders. It should be no surprise, then, that what had worked for national Israel would now become something of a pattern for spiritual Israel, and now it would be spiritual matters which the elders would judge. Under all normal circumstances, the Christian housegroups of Paul’s day would have been led by the elder of the home – one man. Now occasionally other elders might, perhaps, have been present, but up to this point we are still looking for a Scripture in which Paul delivers a warning about the danger of single elder meetings (yet we must surely be aware that most of the foregoing assumes single elder assemblies).

We must now consider Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3. Paul again outlines what is required in elders of the Church, and there are strong similarities between Paul’s comments to Timothy and those to Titus on the behavioural/family standards required in an elder. Almost certainly this is because Paul was quoting from some ordination document which the churches had access to at the time.

‘This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop (spiritual overseer or supervisor, which the elders were to be), he desires a good work…’ (1 Timothy 3:1).

Paul then continues with the qualifications of being an elder, and then discusses what should be looked for in deacons. But Paul makes it plain that it is good and fine for a man to aspire to be a minister of God, although a few have felt – very strangely – that if a man wants to be a minister, then perhaps he should not be made one! But Paul’s comments on the office of Church elder substantiate our argument that the role is a spiritual mirror of such a man’s role as head of his family! Just look at this:

‘One who rules his own house well, having his children in subjection with all reverence. (For if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)’ (Verses 4-5).

Please note that Paul sees an elder of the church as a spiritual mirror of the elder of a home; therefore, just as a Christian home is led by ONE MAN, even so (it seems safe to assume) the Christian group meeting should be led by one man. The inference is so strong and obvious that – if this should not be so – surely Paul would have seized this opportunity for clarification!

Now despite all the foregoing, there are a few indications in the New Testament that some early Christians met in homes where no resident elder was available; perhaps the woman of the house was a widow; if she was strong in the Faith and a long-standing Christian such a woman was obviously deemed worthy of the highest honour and respect, yet taking into account all of Paul’s comments it is obvious that such a woman could not have become an elder, just as she could not become a husband or a father! Yet such women could become deaconesses and, if sufficiently stalwart in the Faith, perhaps a few of these women were looked upon as the leaders of their particular house groups. We may assume that such groups were visited by elders whenever possible.

Before we leave 1 Timothy 3:1-7, please just read through those verses once more and carefully note that not the slightest doubt can exist that elders were to be married men of good character and reputation! The concept that a minister should be an unmarried celibate man arrived later from non-Christian influences. Let us be in no doubt that here is the origin of the office of Christian minister.

The matter of elders is very important to Paul and he returns to the subject yet again in 1 Timothy 5. Note verses 17-22. Verse 17 stresses that the elders who preach the Word should be thought of especially highly. Undoubtedly, over a period of time, God had granted the gift of preaching to certain elders very powerfully, but perhaps others were more spiritual stewards and custodians than powerful preachers. Verse 18 makes it plain that these ‘preaching elders’ should receive financial support for their labours in the gospel, for by now perhaps some of these men travelled quite a lot, maybe visiting and preaching in Christian households which were led by widows. Accusations against an elder could only be brought by ‘…two or three witnesses.’ (Verse19). If any elder fell short in some very serious area of sin, evangelists such as Timothy were granted authority to, ‘…rebuke them in the presence of all.’ (Verse20). In verse 22 Timothy is reminded that elders should not be set apart before they have proven themselves, repeating the warning of 1 Timothy 3:6.

Again, Elders were the ministers having spiritual teaching authority under the apostles. In Acts 11:30, we find Christians sending famine relief ‘to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul’; Paul and Barnabas appointed elders on their first missionary journey in Acts 14:23 (as already noted), later Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem (‘to the apostles and elders’) over the question of circumcision and gentile Christians (Acts 15:2) and they are ‘welcomed by the church, and the apostles, and the elders’ (Acts 15:4).

Today we occasionally see very young men straight out of Bible college being made Christian ministers; This turns the whole concept of ‘Elder’ on its head! Sure, Timothy himself was a very young man, but he was exceptional and set apart as an evangelist on the authority of Paul himself. In general terms, it is extremely unwise to expect a very young man to have developed the necessary pastoral skills in order to equip him to shepherd Christians of all ages and backgrounds. The tragedy of this system we have fallen into is that frequently such congregations will have very fine senior men – well-grounded in the Faith – who would make marvellous elders but they are not even considered because they may lack a college degree.

But to return to our subject, there exists no doubt at all that Paul placed vital importance on the gift of prophecy (as is well known, the Greek word ‘propheteia’ is very broad and certainly includes powerful preaching). In his list of the gifts in terms of importance, after the gift of apostleship (not applying in our day), prophets are mentioned second and teachers third – see 1 Corinthians 12:28. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says a great deal about the vital importance of powerful preaching. Please carefully read through this whole chapter and note Paul’s impassioned plea of the importance of clear, edifying preaching over against other gifts! And yet a few are now saying that preachers have had their day - just put a few Christians together to encourage each other and take a few readings from Scripture, and – hey presto! – you will have an ideal congregation. This is very na茯�ve reasoning. I think the problem is that a few of these people are looking at the modern church, seeing problems – such as ‘Word-faith’ – and blaming preachers where they should be blaming false doctrine and the fact that much of it has been accepted too easily and readily! The problem is spiritual, nothing to do with preaching per se. I once heard a very wise minister say, ‘Where the correct doctrines are taught, everything else will tend to be right, especially the preaching, but where incorrect doctrines are taught, everything else will tend to be wrong, especially the preaching.’ The problem is: people not being led by the Spirit of God coming to have influence over Christian congregations. Arrogant men, self-willed men, worldly men; men who care too much about money, wealth and power! But good, Bible-based preaching is a godly activity as the apostle Paul makes clear.

So we have seen that the New Testament is silent on the specific matter of whether a congregation should have one or more ministers, yet we have surely also seen that the whole role of Elder of the Church is closely based on the pattern of the family and of the Elders of Israel and the unavoidable conclusion is that the early Christian house groups would have been presided over by an elder, that is, an older married man, well-grounded in the Faith. In the process of time, many elders undoubtedly travelled around and preached in those groups which did not have a resident elder. There seems little doubt, however, that oftentimes a meeting would not have even been possible if there had been any insistence on several elders being present, and while we may find many statements on the office and requirements of being an elder, we never find a single statement which insists that an assembly of Christians should be led by a council, or group of elders.

We have also noted that preaching and edifying of the congregation is a highly commended activity according to the apostle Paul. Moreover, the office of Christian elder (minister), is held in the highest esteem in the New Testament, which is quite specific about which qualities should ideally be present within an elder.

It is lamentable that a few of those who are now questioning the whole need of ministers, the need of preachers and the role of single pastor leadership are some quite close colleagues of mine but I must point out, hopefully with love, patience and tact, that I believe that they are tending to see the problems in the wrong place. What we need in this age of rampant heresy entering formerly good Christian congregations is not fewer preachers but more preachers, Bible-based men of God who are prepared to speak the truth of the gospel without fear or favour, men who are not interested in personal power, wealth and fame, men who are prepared to lay down their lives for Christ! Just consider the wonderful Godly ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones for an example of what single minister leadership can accomplish.

Yes, it’s true: there are heretics out there who use autocratic one-man leadership and their abuse of that system makes it easier for them to get away with their spiritual crimes - but God is not mocked and there will be a day of accounting! Yet it remains the case that the problem is heresy not a particular form of pastoral leadership. I also know of many Godly pastors who tried to preach the gospel and feed the flock within the constraints of a council-led church democracy and were finally forced to resign because of the continual obstacles which were placed in their way because liberals had gained control of that ‘democratic council’.

The real source of the problem lies here:

‘Therefore take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.

Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.

Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.’ (Acts 20:28-31).

Robin A. Brace.