Is the One-Man Pastor Mode of Leadership Scriptural?
We Christians, like all people, are creatures of habit that often conduct ourselves according to traditions that have been passed down to us through the years. Most traditions are harmless but when one replaces God’s word it can be a serious problem. Jesus was once confronted by the Pharisees and scribes who were offended that His disciples were breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating. They came to Jesus with this concern:
“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matt. 15:2).
Jesus answered their question with one of His own. He replied “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
The problem revealed by Jesus was one that many of us have today. We have, probably without knowing, often set aside the word of God for the sake of a tradition that affects the body of Christ. “The tradition of the elders” referred to by the religious leaders was a set of oral traditions that many times went beyond the law of God as recorded in His word. The word used for “traditions” in this passage refers to something that started at some point and was then passed down through the generations. Traditions often become so imbedded into our lives that they seem like God’s word but really have been added by men and then passed down through the years. Eventually they become so much a part of our lives that we actually think they are found in scripture when in fact they usually are not.
In this message I am going to refer to a serious tradition that I believe is one of Satan’s primary ways of keeping the body of Christ from reaching its full potential. Fair warning! This is going to offend many of you so I ask you to be patient and test what I write in the light of God’s word which I am committed to follow. Don’t judge this message with your tradition or your reasoning skills but go to the word of God breathed out by the Holy Spirit and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Be like the Bereans who searched the scriptures to verify the validity of what Paul was preaching (Acts 17:11).
I am speaking about our tradition concerning leadership in the body of Christ. The tradition can be summarized like this: one man is called to be the pastor of the local church and the people are to recognize his authority as the leader of the church. Now, I’m going to say one of those things that you need to test for yourselves by appealing to the Bible for the truth. Here it is — there is not a single verse in the New Testament that explicitly supports this tradition. I wrote a book years ago which you can have for the asking or you can find it on Amazon. It is titled The Heresy of Diotrephes.
There is only one verse that even uses the noun form of “pastor” (Greek: poimen) except for verses that refer to actual shepherds of sheep on the farm. That verse is Ephesians 4:11 which confirms that God has given pastors (shepherds) to the church but this word is never used as the title of a lone person leading a local church. All other occurrences of the word refer to shepherds of the field or to Jesus the Good Shepherd (John 10:2, 11, 14, 16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25). The verb form of the word is used of the responsibilities of the elders of the church (Acts 20:28; John 21:16; 1 Peter 5:2). The elders are to “shepherd” the flock of God since they are the true pastors (shepherds) of the church. This word for shepherding is never used of one leader in the local church.
There was only one mode of leadership in the early church as expressed in the Bible. A group of mature men were appointed to shepherd or lead the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 22, 23 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1–4;5:17; Titus 1:5–7; 1 Peter 5:1–3; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:17; et al). They were not appointed to their position based on gifting but on the basis of their maturity and growth in Christ (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Peter 5:1–3). Gifting, speaking ability, or management skills etc. are never mentioned in connection with elders. Those are modern inventions of the organized church. The elders were simply mature men of God who worked together in leading the flock of God.
Some people appeal to the verse mentioned earlier where the noun “pastor” is used in Ephesians 4:11 which summarizes the five-fold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Yes, this verse does mention that there are pastors in the body of Christ but never is the word used as a title of a lone leading brother of a local ekklesia. Clearly, the elders or the overseers are the pastors (shepherds) of the local church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1, 2). Often the verb “shepherd” is translated feed, tend or care for (Acts 20:28; RV, KJV, ASV, ESV; 1Peter 5:2; KJV, ASV) but it is the same Greek word for “shepherd.”
3 John 9, 10 mentions the man “Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them.” This man was dominating the church and kicking people out who didn’t agree with him. This is the only case in the New Testament where one person attempted to rule a local church by himself. John said “. . . if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does” (v. 10). Certainly the apostle John disagreed with this authoritarian form of leadership that robbed the saints of their place as a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6; 1 Peter 2:9).
When Paul visited with the Ephesian elders he said to them “Be on guard for yourselves and for 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” (Acts 20:28). Here the word shepherd is used as a verb to describe the duty of the elders or overseers of the local ekklesia. The elders and overseers are the same people, the shepherds of the church in Ephesians. Notice that it is the Holy Spirit who appointed these leaders and that the church was purchased with the blood of Jesus. That places a high premium on the importance of leadership in His church.
Pastor or shepherd are not titles but words that describe the function of the older leaders who oversee and shepherd the flock of God. Jesus and the early disciples discouraged using titles such as pastor, teacher, rabbi or father (Matt. 23:7, 8, 9). The only person who is the pastor of the church is Jesus the Good Shepherd (pastor) of the flock (John 10:11). While on earth Jesus would not even receive such honor for Himself but deferred to His Father (John 8:50; Phil. 2:5–8). You never see a person referred to as pastor James or pastor Timothy. Titles were discouraged because they elevate certain people to an elite position which is not appropriate in the body of Christ where all are priests to God. Even Paul was not titled Apostle Paul but simple referred to as “an apostle” (1 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1).
Some claim that James was the pastor of the church in Jerusalem because he appears to make the decision in Acts 15 concerning how to treat the converted Gentiles. Luke tells us that “The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter” (15:6). No one there was given any titles nor called “the pastor” including James. We know that James agreed with the elder form of leadership because in his epistle he wrote, “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church. . .” revealing his understanding of plural leadership by elders (James 5:14).
At this Jerusalem conference, James was simply summarizing the conclusion of the apostles and elders and the whole church on this matter (Acts 15:7f; 22). James referred to himself as a “bond servant” of God (James 1:1). Nowhere in the New Testament or anywhere in early church history would someone assume the position of sole pastor of a local church.
Some have even gone so far as to claim that the angels mentioned in the letters to the churches were the pastors of these churches (Rev. 2:1, 8 et al). They mention that the word angelos, Greek for angel, can be translated messenger so this must be referring to the pastors of the churches. This can’t be so because the churches of those days were led by a team of elders as evidenced by the many passages already referred to. On the other hand, the word “angel” is used over 70 times in the book of Revelation to refer to mighty heavenly beings who minister in behalf of God. Angels are symbolized by seven stars in Christ’s right hand (Rev. 2:1). Stars depict angels throughout the Bible (Job. 38:7) including Revelation (9:1; 12:4, 9). Angels are angels, not pastors of churches.
Others try to make Timothy and Titus out to be pastors since those letters are often referred to as “pastoral epistles” and they were to appoint elders to serve under them (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 3:1). On the contrary, Timothy was encouraged by Paul to “do the work of an evangelist,” to fulfill his ministry (2 Tim. 4:2) and traveled with Paul as an apostolic helper or perhaps as another apostle. Titus was instructed to appoint elders in every town. If he were a local pastor he would not be traveling to various cities appointing elders in the churches of Crete (Titus 1:5). Can you see people grasping at straws trying to make their argument?
These arguments use deductive reasoning. They begin with a premise that churches should have a lone pastor because that is the accepted norm and then search for evidence of that premise. The evidence is very weak whereas the evidence of a plurality of shepherds (elders, overseers or pastors) in the church is overwhelming (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 22, 23; 1 Tim. 3:1–4; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1, 2, 3; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:17; et al).
It is so clear in scripture that the early churches were led by teams of elders that not many people will try to argue to the contrary. Most church leaders will accede the point and simply say that it is not important how the church is led and say that God has left that up to us to determine.
The late George Eldon Ladd, for example, once wrote this in his book A Theology of the New Testament: “It appears likely that there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and that the organizational structure of the church is no essential element in the theology of the church.” This, of course, is provably wrong.
After reading all of these passages on leadership in the church, are you willing to simply dismiss what the Bible says about leadership? Jesus said He would send the Holy Spirit who would lead us into all truth: “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit appointed a team of elders/ overseers to the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:28). Why would He institute that mode of leadership if, according to Ladd and others, we are left to do it any way we please?
Are we so foolish as to say that this truth does not include the leadership of His church and that we can do whatever we want in regard to leadership? Jesus said to His disciples in reference to His church, “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). It is His church and He will build it as He wills according to His revealed, transparent word.
Also, what did Paul mean when he warned “According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it” (1 Cor. 3:10)? Anyone who contributes to the building of the church is to be careful how he builds on it because it is God’s spiritual temple on earth. We can contribute wood, hay and stubble (human materials) or gold, silver and precious stones (divine materials) (1 Cor. 3:12). We don’t get to do as we please out of our faulty reasoning but must submit to the Holy Spirit who was sent to lead us into all truth (John 16:13).
So why is this important? This is a crucial point for many reasons. First, to make one person the sole leader of the local church creates an elite position that is not sanctioned in God’s word. The word emphasizes the importance of each believer functioning as a priest in the house of God (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6; 1 Peter 2:9). A lone pastor of a local church would tend to elevate him and turn believers into passive spectators. We see that throughout the body of Christ today where one person speaks week after week to a large multitude of passive believers.
Second, this gives one person too much power in the body of Christ. It sets up pastors to become selfishly motivated. Lord Acton rightly said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A team of elders, with each having equal authority, would discourage this centralizing of power. Even in our government the framers of the Constitution realized this issue and made provision for a balance of power so one branch of government or person would not become too powerful.
Third, the word makes it clear that the purpose of the five-fold ministries is not to do all of the ministry but to equip the saints to do the ministry (Eph. 4:11, 12). This requires smaller groups under the leadership of elders who can properly restore and equip the saints for their place in the body of Christ.
Fourth, the one-man-pastor concept, because it is abnormal, burns out pastors who are doing the work of many people. No one person is meant to have the many responsibilities of a local pastor. Pastors feel overwhelmed and become discouraged in their ministries. In 2017 Barna Research found that “30% of pastors were facing the risk of burnout, but by November 2021, that number had increased to 38%. Certain groups were even more susceptible to burnout, including those under 45 years old and those pastoring in mainline denominations.” The Holy Spirit never intended this kind of pressure to be placed on pastors but wanted leadership to be shared among several men.
Fifth, this centralizing of ministry in one person creates division and competition in the body of Christ. The Corinthian church was choosing which popular leader they wanted to follow. Paul reprimanded them for gathering around favorites like Paul, Apollos or Cephas (Peter) (1 Cor. 1:12). This was causing division in the church. Many, if not most, of the divisions in today’s church are caused by issues involving people in authoritative positions not sanctioned by God’s word. People are gathering around their heroes instead of their Lord, King Jesus.
Sixth, the focus on primarily one person ministering through preaching will stunt the growth of the saints. The church in Corinth with all of their heroes had remained spiritual infants too long. Paul wrote of them “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able” (1 Cor. 3:1, 2).
Though the Spirit has provided the equipping ministries to equip the saints for their ministries, believers are expected to feed themselves the word of God and grow to maturity. God never intended a clergy-laity system where a priest, or pastor would act as the primary source of spiritual nourishment. Paul put it this way to Timothy: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). No human being should stand between believers and God as their sole means of spiritual growth.
I know this message is hard because it challenges a primary tradition in much of today’s organized church. Our challenge to the body of Christ is to imagine the exciting rejuvenation that will come to the church when we stop elevating our heroes and begin to realize that we can all come boldly to the throne of God where mercy and grace are freely available (Heb. 4:16).
As we respect our leaders let us not forfeit our direct standing before our God to the false notion of a clergy-laity system that allows for a special elite group who stand between us and our God. Let there be loving oversight and accountability that allows for the growth and maturing of the saints into believers who can stand on their own spiritual feet and walk in God’s life, power and anointing.