The ways we Christians commonly use that word often block the path to shared church. As one who has spent decades as “layperson” and 21 years as pastor, I can speak from experience. This seventh episode of “Watch Your Language” takes us into a delicate zone. So I want to speak the truth in love.
Let’s begin with today’s common understanding of the word pastor itself. A pastor, says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a clergyman serving a local church or parish.” We use the term constantly. Countless church road signs display such identifiers as Pastor So-and-So. While I was serving in the pastor role, our local bookstore provided a discount card called “Pastor’s Perks.” A Google search on “pastor,” in quotation marks, turned up 357 million hits.
And yet . . . not once does pastor (singular) appear in the New Testament. In the plural, the word pastors turns up just once—in Ephesians 4:11—as one of five church-equipping roles. So, yes, in Scripture the term is there but rare. We have turned this biblically scarce word into a surplus. The problem? Our traditions have locked us into some hurtful ways of using the word.
Pastor as Title
It’s one thing to say, “Pastor Bob Smith” and another thing to say, “Bob Smith, a pastor.” The first turns the word pastor into a religious title. The second describes Bob’s role in the church. We don’t change other church roles into titles. For example, the person who hands out bulletins might squirm if introduced as “Usher Mary Grayson.” How would the woman who signs church payroll checks react if we greeted her with, “Hello, Treasurer Sheila Thompson!”? We don’t stiffly refer to the one who leads an adult Bible study as “Teacher Patrick Mason,” but comfortably say, “Patrick Mason, our Bible study teacher.”
No, only pastors are entitled. We even omit names and simply use titles in speaking to or about pastors: “Pastor, our daughter would like to be baptized.” And, “I spoke with Pastor about baptizing our daughter.” Through our speech, in the way we use the word pastor, we help to raise one member of the Body of Christ above all others. Titles support pedestals. Titles undergird the British aristocracy, from its Lords and Ladies all the way to its Barons and Baronnesses. Titles help keep order in armies and navies. But titles work against shared church.
That’s why Jesus warns his followers not to use religious titles. "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matt. 23:8-10). In every case, Jesus speaks of “calling” certain people by religious titles, whether Rabbi, father, or teacher. The title pastor can be used in exactly the same way.
Jesus Explains. Immediately, Jesus tells us why he rules out the use of titles among his people: “If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored” (v. 12, CEV). The Message paraphrase puts its memorably: “If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.” Titles puff up. They magnify and elevate. “All of you, said Jesus to his followers, “are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matt. 23:8, NLT). In families, titles by which some siblings outrank others will play havoc with relationships.
Naturally, Jesus was not asking us to shun words like father and teacher to describe roles. Luke speaks of teachers in the Antioch church (Acts 13:1). James says not many should become teachers—implying that some should fill that role (James 3:1). Children, Paul urges, are to honor their fathers and mothers. And he instructs fathers not to frustrate or alienate their children (Ephesians 6:3; Colossians 3:21). It is only as these and similar words—like pastor—turn into religious titles that they become hazardous to church health.
We Christians often speak of “the Apostle Paul.” Yet Paul never entitles himself that way in the New Testament. His consistent way of identifying himself and his role is: “Paul, an apostle.” He does so in the first chapters and first verses of II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and I and II Timothy. If Scripture is our “only rule for faith and practice,” why not let its patterns in this area guide our practice?
Pastor as Solo
If we Christians watch our language carefully, we’ll see that we typically use the title pastor in the singular: “The Pastor.” Not, “the pastors,” plural. After all, on Sundays one personality so often eclipses all others. The pastor calls for greetings. Prays. Preaches. Gives announcements. Baptizes. Officiates at the Lord’s Table. And speaks the benediction. Many have used the phrase, “one-man show,” to describe the all-too-typical church meeting.
Nothing like this comes from the New Testament. Paul says that when believers come together, “everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (I Cor. 14:26). A few verses later, he adds, “All of you can take your turns speaking what God has revealed” (v. 31, GWT). When the family of God got together, everyone could contribute something. No wonder, then, that John saw that the situation in the assembly of his good friend, Gaius, threatened shared church: “Diotrephes,” John wrote, “loves being in charge” (III Jn. 9, MSG).
Plural Church Leadership. New Testament churches had leaders, but they worked as teams of elders/shepherds/overseers—not as solo pastors. A few (of many) examples: while in Miletus, Paul “sent to Ephesus for the elders [plural] of the church” (Acts 20:17). Timothy was to “appoint elders [plural] in every town” (Titus 1:5). Those who were sick were to “call the elders [plural] of the church to pray” (James 5:14).
No, the “one-man show” comes not from Scripture but from church tradition. In his book, Your Church Can Grow, C. Peter Wagner helped confirm that tradition by writing, “The local church is like a company with one company commander, the pastor, who gets his orders from the Commander-in-Chief [Jesus]. The company commander has lieutenants and sergeants under him for consultation and implementation, but the final responsibility of his decisions is that of the company commander, and he must answer to the Commander-in-Chief....the pastor has the power in a growing church.”
Notice that Wagner speaks of “the pastor [singular].” And he uses military terms—company commander, lieutenants, sergeants—to describe church leadership. Nowhere does the New Testament use such language. The church is a body and family, not an army. Because the Holy Spirit lives in each member of Christ’s Body, all receive orders from Jesus—not merely from one pastor serving as “company commander.”
Pastors, according to Ephesians 4:11, are part of a team of gifted ones Jesus gives to outfit those in the church to minister to others. In a church of 200, Jesus has likely gifted it with several people to serve as pastors. Most will not be on the payroll. Many have yet to be discovered.
“Beware the papacy of the pastor,” said the late John Stott. Too many, he added, “believe not in the priesthood of all believers, but in the papacy of all pastors.” The way we use the word pastor can either help support the traditional system or move us in the direction of shared church.