Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Office of Pastor: Avoiding Extremes

[This entry follows a sermon entitled "The Longing to Lead."]

In Sunday's sermon, we looked at a man's aspiration and desire for the office of overseer/elder/pastor from 1 Timothy 3:1.  Considering that text and its context, we thought about the nature of the desire, the object of the desire, and the limit of the desire.  As we work through this series on church leadership, we are, by definition, thinking on the role of pastors/elders in the church.  However, in thinking about this biblical office, two extremes must be avoided.

The first extreme is to diminish the role of pastors so that there is almost no distinction between them and the rest of the congregation.  There is some truth to this.  It is true that pastors are sheep in God's flock...purchased with the blood of are all the other members of the church.  It is also true that pastors are like the rest of the congregation in that they are still sinful men, continuing in their need to live lives of repentance and faith.  They still battle temptation...they still sin and need to repent...they are still growing spiritually.  So, there is some truth in the statement that "there is no distinction between pastor and people."

However, the Bible is clear that there is a distinction among this group of men who shepherd God's people.  First, they are charged with distinct duties among God's people.  They must feed the flock of God through the preaching and teaching of God's Word.  They must protect the flock from erring in doctrine and in life.  Also, pastors must lead the flock to function in ways that honor the Lord and advance His gospel and kingdom.  Second, as they do this distinct work, they must live distinct lives.  Pastors must set an example "in speech, in conduct, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12).  The nature of being an example is that one's life is more publicly known and examined, which is why it is critical that a pastor be "above reproach" (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6-7).  Of course, all Christians are to live lives distinct from the world, and all Christians should strive to live above reproach.  But pastors should lead the way in doing so.

On to the second, and opposite, extreme.  If one extreme is to diminish the role, then the other is to exalt the role.  For sure, the role of the pastor is a noble one (1 Tim. 3:1), and God has ordained that pastors play a critical role in the life of the congregation (as described above).  They are men invested with spiritual authority among the congregation, and the Bible says that the congregation should obey and submit to their godly leadership (Heb. 13:17).  However, there is a danger when we exalt this office...thinking of it as a status to attain rather than an important work to do.  Those who serve as pastors can be guilty of this, and the people they lead can be as well.

One of the ways that the role of pastor becomes a status is that it gets labelled a profession.  Every month, I go get a haircut, and if the woman cutting my hair has never met me before, she will ask, "So, what do you do for a living?"  Though I know what she means, I have not yet taken the time to explain that I don't do what I do "for a living."  Rather, a congregation of God's people generously supports me and my family with finances and insurance so that I can pour out my life preaching, teaching, and leading them in serving the Lord.  While this is my view of what has happened, I simply tell the stylist, "I'm a pastor."

The office of pastor/elder has certainly been affected by being labelled a "profession".  I think it's part of the reason some balk at the idea of unpaid pastors serving alongside paid men in a plurality of pastors.  Another implication of the professionalization of the pastorate is that it gives the false impression that the pastors are the only ones doing ministry.  It makes such an exalted status of "THE ministry" that people feel it unnecessary to pour out their own lives in ministry.

I was reminded of this just this week as I attended a "Trellis and the Vine Workshop."  Tony Payne, one of the authors of the book The Trellis and the Vine, emphasized the Bible's teaching that every Christian should be involved in a Word ministry of some kind.  Yes, the pastor-elders of the church lead the way through guarding the good deposit of sound doctrine...through preaching and teaching...through equipping the saints for the work of ministry.  And yes...every Christian cannot teach a class or preach a sermon.  However, every Christian should be speaking the Word to others...seeking to lead non-Christians to faith in Christ, and seeking to build up fellow Christians in the faith.

In Acts 2, at Pentecost, Peter's sermon obviously stands out as the primary communication of the gospel in that chapter.  In fact, the apostolic preaching takes precedent throughout the book of Acts.  But the apostles aren't the only ones speaking the Word.  For example, in Acts 2, we are told that they were all together...and that they were all filled with the Spirit such that they were given utterance (v. 1-4).  And what were they uttering?  They were uttering intelligible words in various languages, declaring "the mighty works of God" (v. 11).  They all had the Spirit, and they all spoke the mighty works of God.  Tony put it this way: "The democratization of the Spirit leads to the democratization of speech."

Look at these other texts that point to the fact that all Christians can and should be engaged in some form of Word ministry (added emphasis is mine):
  • Colossians 3:16 - "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom..."
  • Colossians 4:5-6 - "Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
  • Romans 15:14 - "I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another."
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:14 - "And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all." (see the context...v. 12-13...the same brothers who should esteem their leaders should obey this verse)
  • 1 Peter 2:9 - "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
  • Hebrews 3:13 - "But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."
Have you ever considered this reality for yourself?  Are you currently engaged in one-to-one Word ministry with unbelievers...with fellow Christians...with those who are struggling?  One way to answer this question is to think about your interaction with other Christians at church last Sunday.  What did you talk about?  The weather?  Football?  The upcoming election? 

What percentage of our conversations involved spiritual matters?  Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with small talk, but if all our talk is "small talk," then it really doesn't amount to much at all, does it?  It's just small.  Engaging in Word ministry means (1) knowing the Word and (2) knowing those to whom you will speak the Word.  Just wandering around citing the latest verse you memorized is not necessarily Word ministry.  It is taking the biblical truths God has taught you and appropriately speaking them into the lives of others.

If you are not engaged in this kind of personal Word ministry, I pray that you will hear these texts and begin to live out their teaching in your own life.  And do you know where it will likely begin?  With you...seriously learning and applying God's truth to your own life.  Then, as God helps, comforts, encourages, and teaches you, you will be better equipped to help, comfort, encourage, and teach others (2 Cor. 1:3-6).

So, we must not diminish the role of the pastor, failing to see pastors as a distinct group of men in the congregation who serve a particular purpose.  Also, we must not exalt the pastor, making "pastor" a title or status to be attained...or professionalizing the role.  When we do, we dismiss our shared responsibility to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness and into his marvelous light."  May it not be so among us!