Watch Your Language: Part Seven

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Pastor

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.

Unintended Messages vs. Shared Church

Unintended messages. Are we sending them by the way we “do church”? And can such messages block shared church?

An Eight-Year-Old’s Ambition

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When I was in my mid-forties, our pastor asked me to lead a church plant. So the mother church sent us out—a group of about 40 that included young people and children. Week after week, “Brad,” the eight-year-old in one family, saw and heard me preach. One day, we invited his family into our home. During our visit, I asked, “Brad what do you want to be when you grow up?” His reply came instantly: “I want to be the talker-man, like you.”

Clearly, watching me had appealed to something in Brad. But to what had it appealed? To the desires sin overstimulates in every one of us. To be noticed. To be seen as special or important. To be looked up to. He could realize those desires, Brad reasoned, if he were to become the solo “talker man,” the only one up front with the microphone Sunday after Sunday.

Had I meant for Brad to get this idea? Of course not. Until I asked the question, I had no idea what message he was receiving. He was not experiencing “shared” church, but church that made one person seem hyper-important. 

This over-focus on one member of the body comes from the system we have all inherited from our church traditions. Like other pastors, I was arranging the church meetings Brad sat through, doing so in line with what years of church gatherings had ingrained in me.

Church-Induced Expectations

From my earliest days, gathering with other believers on Sunday took top priority. During my growing-up years, I probably sat in on 900 or more church meetings. Each time, the sermon formed the centerpiece—mostly spoken by the same pastor week after week. When I was about 12, our pastor’s wife pulled me aside and said, “Larry, we are expecting to hear great things from your life.” Those were her words. But I heard this unintended message: “Larry, we are expecting you to become a pastor or missionary.”  No wonder, then, that by the time I left home for college, I believed that I ought to serve in one of those ways, if I wanted my life’s work to count for anything.

Just the other day I spoke with a man far younger than I who also received this unintended message. He recalled that his church experience had taught him that “the greatest thing you could possibly do was to go into 'full-time service.' You were expected to go to a Christian school so you could become a pastor. The highest calling, full-time vocational service, was somehow better than going into sales or some other line of work.” He recalled two peers, a young man and young woman, who had been led to think only "full-time Christian service would please God." Having received the same “call” to serve as cross-cultural missionaries, they concluded they should marry. Sadly, they were ill-matched and soon divorced.

He told me that, as he matured, he began to understand “church politics” as “people wanting power.” He realized that if he were to enter vocational church ministry, “I would relish people looking to me. I would have secretly enjoyed the self-aggrandizement.” Knowing himself well enough to foresee this would be a perpetual struggle for him, he chose not to enter so-called “full-time Christian service.”

The Urge to Be Seen as Significant

The New Testament provides many examples of our sinful leanings toward self-inflation. The Pharisees placed themselves in positions “to be seen” by others (Mt. 6:5). Jesus’s original disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18:1). When they argued over which of them outranked the others, Jesus traced their dispute back to a desire to be “first” (Mk. 9:33-35). They tangled over the same issue during the last supper (Lk. 22:24). James and John, with Mom's help, lobbied for top spots in Jesus’s kingdom (Mt. 20:20-27). Some 50 years later, in a church setting, Diotrephes wanted to be “first” (III Jn. 9).

The culture outside our churches feeds this drive to be in the catbird seat. We once took some four-to-seven-year-olds to a children’s museum. One exhibit featured an elevated platform and some play microphones. The kids pushed and shoved to be on stage and at the center of attention. Rock concerts, political rallies, and TV shows all send the message that to be seen and heard by a crowd is the mark of success. "Take a microphone out of my hands," says Willard Scott, "and I'm just plain folks."

Blogger Mike Cosper writes: “Celebrity culture turns pastors and worship leaders into icons.”  This not to say that every pastor or musician is motivated by the need to be noticed. But when we make superstars of church leaders, we may be stirring something in the flesh of others that needs not to be cultivated but to be put to death.

A Biblical Antidote

The remedy? It seems almost too simple. New Testament churches avoided focusing on just one leader by having several. Notice these plural leadership terms: The church in Antioch had “elders.” Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders in every church.” Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” The church in Jerusalem had “elders.” Philippi had “overseers and deacons.” James refers to “the elders of the church.” And Peter writes of “the elders among you.” The New Testament uses overseers and elders interchangeably. According to Paul, they should be “able to teach.” This suggests not only ability but also opportunity.

This was shared church! Not only did the gathered believers share in encouraging each other, but in the New Testament churches, even leadership and teaching responsibilities were shared among those with such gifts.

Young people learn not just from sermons on Sunday mornings but also from the way we practice meeting. If they invariably see the same person on stage week after week, what unintended message may we be sending them?