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Biblical Ecclesiology at the Christian Witness Ministries Web Site
Christian Witness Ministries

Biblical Ecclesiology
By Siam Bhayro

I have had the privilege of mixing in a broad variety of Christian circles. I say, and mean ‘privilege’ because I think Christians often become ghettoised in the sense that they only circulate in one particular type of church. This can be good, particularly if the church is good. But it also has the downside of leaving the Christian with little idea of how other churches do things, especially in terms of church government.

I have in the past fellowshipped in Pentecostal, Baptist, Evangelical, Brethren and Charismatic churches, and from all of these, and I mean all, I have learnt valuable lessons regarding church government. I have said before that I think the Brethren churches have the pattern of church government that is closest to the Bible, but in my opinion, that exhibited by certain Charismatic churches, such as New Frontiers International (NFI) [a British Charismatic movement under Terry Virgo ], comes a close second.

Now this will surprise some of you – but please do not throw this article away. The point is that, despite some big problems that I have with NFI (they have not shown much discernment in accepting pretty well every fad that has manifested in the Charismatic movement), I do believe that they have made a true attempt to recover the biblical model of church government, even if they have failed in being too authoritarian.

In my experience, NFI is one of those Charismatic movements that have succeeded in one crucial area from which the rest of us should learn: they have differentiated properly between ministry and authority. This is a scriptural distinction, as I hope to demonstrate in this article.

Finally, I would like to mention another influence in my cogitations concerning biblical Ecclesiology. A few years ago, I heard a teaching tape by Philip Powell that discussed the doctrine of the Nicolaitans – and how this was characterised by a clergy dominating a laity. I know that many have listened to this teaching, but I wonder how many have really grasped its con-sequences to the full?
“I don’t care – I am the Pastor, so what I say goes! If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

I don’t know whether you have ever heard someone use that phrase, or some-thing like it. I have, and I never quite know how to react. Usually, such a phrase comes out in the middle of some other dispute, which places me in a really tough situation. Do I continue with the original argument and ignore that statement, or do I address the new problem?

The point is that the above statement is so wrong, for so many reasons, that it usually supersedes whatever point of contention provoked it. So one moment we may be discussing something quite trivial (such as “I think we should only use Redemption Hymnal and not use Mission Praise” or “Do you really think that using maroon flannel napkins to cover the emblems is fitting?”), and then WHAM! – you’re hit by that statement!

So where do we begin? First let’s consider the term “the Pastor”. The word pas-tor is a synonym for shepherd. In the Bible, the use of the title “the Shepherd/ Pastor”, in reference to one person, is re-served almost exclusively for Christ. Consider the following references: Psalm 23:1; John 10:12, 14, & 16; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25 & 5:4. It is particularly significant that in every reference in the New Testament, which is our principal source regarding ecclesiology, “the Pastor/Shepherd” refers to Christ. Furthermore, many of the Old Testament references to “the Pastor/Shepherd” serve either as types or antitypes of the Great Shepherd to Come, namely Jesus! Consider in this regard: Isaiah 44:28 (with Cyrus as type) and Ezekiel 34:5 and Zechariah 10:2 (with the [lack of] shepherd as antitype). So for one man or woman to assume this title in a church setting is extremely problematic. The Bible reserves this title for the Lord Jesus Christ, and no man or woman should seek to usurp it. We can thus sum up this “I am the Pastor” attitude as blasphemy *1

Let’s consider the second part of that sentence – so what I say goes. This makes one of the most fatal mistakes that can be made in terms of church government, viz. it assumes that authority rests with this one man on account of him holding the job of “the Pastor”. From a biblical perspective, however, nothing could be further from the truth because shepherding is a ministry and not an office – something I hope to demonstrate in the course of this article. We can thus sum up this attitude as contra-biblical and authoritarian.

Finally, let’s consider the second sentence of the opening statement – if you don’t like it, you can leave. The biblical pattern of behaviour for a shepherd is to make concerted strenuous efforts to keep the flock together (e.g. leaving the ninety-nine in order to find the one that has wandered). Thus if one sheep wanders off, the shepherd will risk life and limb to find it and bring it back to the flock. I can guarantee with one hundred per cent certainty that you will never hear a true shepherd shout at a wandering sheep “Fine – go that way!” So a person who goes by the title ‘pastor’ and yet says “if you don’t like it, you can leave” is a walking oxymoron (and perhaps also a moron).

The thing that really puzzles me is that the “Pastor’s” statement quoted above appears to be based upon the commonly accepted understanding of what a “pastor” is. The last church that made me persona non gratais a case in point. I had a doctrinal disagreement with “the Pastor” regarding a particular manifestation (the so-called “slaying in the Spirit”). He accepted this manifestation, and I considered it strange and outside the work of the Holy Spirit. His attitude towards me was “I am the Pas-tor”. When I pointed out to him that this attitude was completely at odds with the Bible and that he had no authority to impose any view on the congregation, he was extremely offended at what he perceived to be a challenge to his “authority”. Once again, when I pointed out that as the “Pas-tor” he actually had no authority, he was very angry indeed. To labour the point, I insisted on meeting with the elders, as I considered them the first point of reference regarding authority in the local assembly. Funnily enough, the elders declined to meet me as they all agreed with “the Pastor”, but the point is that at that moment I was much happier because I had received word from those who truly had authority – the elders. In reality, I am sure that the elders had in effect handed over authority to their “Pastor” and thus chosen to abdicate their responsibility. In other words, that church is now no longer governed by elders, but by a “Pastor” – one man – who has a nominal eldership to assist him.

This is not a strange or rare scenario by any means – it is now the accepted mode of church government in most Pentecostal and Charismatic fellowships. So the question is this: from where does this blasphemous, contra-biblical, authoritarian and oxy-moronic definition of a ‘pas-tor’ come? And, if we can answer this, then what is the true biblical nature of the pastoral ministry?
The Roman Catholic Church has a system of doctrine defined as “Holy Order”, part of which is commonly known as “Apostolic Succession”. Quoting from Addis & Arnold’s Catholic Dictionary(15th edition, 1955, p. 600), “A priest receives supernatural power in his ordination, an indelible character and, if rightly disposed, grace to support him in the exercise of his ministry”. The various orders, such as Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Readers and Exorcists (?!), all share in the same power, except that only the Bishop can “convey this power to others by ordination”.

This creates a clergy/laity divide, in which the priestsare somehow more special or anointed than the rest. This is in complete contradiction to the Scripture, of course, which speaks of the whole body of Christ as being priests (e.g. 1 Peter 2:5&9) and reserves the title of “Priest”, like that of “Pastor” for the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Hebrews 7:3).

Okay – most of us are aware that Rome has an errant ecclesiology, but are we aware of the extent to which our ecclesiology is based upon Rome’s? The Reformation did not address such ecclesiastical matters to the same extent that it addressed doctrinal points such as justification by grace through faith or the unique authority of Scripture. Indeed, those who sought to reform the Roman system of church government were persecuted bythe Reformers – a clear indication of how the Reformers didn’t quite understand that they should not behave as a “Protestant Pope”. For example, while Luther and Calvin preserved the clergy and laity divide, the so-called “radical reformers” recovered the true biblical model. In my opinion, the prime example of this is Menno Simons, who laboured intensively in sixteenth century Europe to establish fellowships throughout Northern Europe. Simons and these new fellow-ships were persecuted by both Protestant and Catholic alike (see Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers, Broadman Press, 1988, particularly chapter 6).

The “radical reformers” were con-signed to the margins of church history, and pre-eminence amongst Protestants was given to men such as Calvin who, while recovering many glorious biblical truths, had refused to reform the structure of the church. Thus the clergy/laity divide and ordination continued in use amongst the so-called “Reformed” churches. It is in this context that we should understand Wesley’s desire to have a Bishop lay hands on his ministers in the infant Methodist movement. The traditional attitude to clergy/laity was too much to surmount – even for him.

Pentecostals, on the whole, have not been immune to this either. They tend to employ one man or woman as “the Pas-tor” and some Pentecostal denominations (e.g. Elim) continue to refer to ordination albeit in a primitive and less-structured way. Furthermore, it is not unusual for such a “Pastor” to be appointed to this office by having some special person (e.g. regional superintendent) lay hands and endow them for the office. Although couched in different terminology, this is the same as the Roman Catholic system, with a pyramid structure and endowment proffered by one already in possession of the office. None of this can be established from Scripture.

It is pointless to try to deny it – go and look at the notice boards outside your town’s Pentecostal churches. It is not unusual to see something along the lines of “Springfield Assemblies of God Church – Pastor: I.C. Clearly”. And even if “the Pastor” is a really nice person, as many of them are, it still does not detract from the fact that this is simply not biblical! You may call him “Pastor”, but in effect you have preserved the office of “Priest” – you have not broken away from Rome *2

This is why I have a lot of respect for the Brethren and Charismatic churches that have had the courage to abandon this model, and search through Scripture in order to find the biblical model. They have not allowed themselves to be bound by centuries of Rome-inspired error, but have broken free and, in a lot of cases, known God’s blessings as a result.
As I said above, there is one Pastor or Shepherd – the Lord Jesus Christ. And this must be the starting point for any biblical analysis of the pastoral ministry. The church is one Body and, like most bodies I have seen, it only has one Head. It is with this Head that authority rests.

In the first two parts of this series, we have already looked at the issue of authority in the local church and concluded that it rests in an inspired inter-relation-ship between three elements: the Word, the Body and the Elders. Under the head-ship of Christ, authority rests with the Bible, which, as His revealed will, is the ultimate tangible source of authority. Then authority rests with all the believers who comprise the local assembly and it is these believers who select elders to over-see the running of the assembly according to the guidelines given in the Bible. These elders are accountable to the fellowship that has appointed them, again under the authority of the Bible.

We have also seen that there are only two biblically prescribed church offices – Elder and Deacon. All the others, such as Priest, Reader, Exorcist etc., are not Scriptural offices in the church. So where does “pastor” fit into this model?

We begin by noting that shepherding is a ministry – a role that is carried out by a suitably gifted person. Indeed, a healthy fellowship will have many people who are gifted shepherds and who help nurture and care for other believers. Why do I speak as though the pastor is a gift, and not an office? Consider carefully the words of Paul to the Ephesians Ephesians 4:1-13:

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that you walk worthy of the vocation wherewith you are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But to every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Therefore he said, when he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry,for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ:

Note here that Paul is not speaking to one person, but to the whole community of believers. He is urging them that, as a community, they should endeavour to maintain a oneness – a true fellowship. Thus he twice refers to unity in this short pas-sage – verse 2: the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; and verse 13: the unity of the faith. The reason why Paul is so insistent that the community of believers maintain this unity is simple – verse 4: there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father. In other words, the schism of the true body of Christ into many parts is as unnatural as a human being cutting himself into pieces and trying to carry on living a normal life – it is not possible.

In order to maintain this true fellowship, however, the community of believers needs to function properly. In order to help this community function properly, Christ has furnished every believer with a special gift – v7: “But to every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”

There are two important points to note here. Firstly, these special gifts have been given to “every one of us!” They have not been given to a special class of people who are set apart from the rest of the community. They are the possession of the entire community of believers and some-thing in which every believer is intended to partake. Secondly, note how these gifts are described: grace(verse 7); gift(verses 7 & 8). In other words, these things are not earned, but given freely by the Lord Jesus Christ to us all. So there is nothing special about the person who possesses one of these gifts – the One who gave the gift is special.

So what are these gifts given to every believer in order to maintain the fellowship of true believers? Paul lists them in verse 11: apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor–teachers. Note the syntax here – among the entire community of believers, every individual believer has been given at least one of the following gifts for the edification of the whole community. Some will be apostles. Others will be prophets. Others will be evangelists. Others will be teacher/shepherds. But the point is that every believer will be gifted by Christ in one of these ministries for the edification of the body.

Note that this is nothing to do with holding an office in the community.
Note that this is nothing to do with authority
It is to do with service – it is for ministry. In other words, you can be an apostle, and yet have no authority in the community. An example of this is Paul who never claimed authority over a church he established (consider in this regard 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:6, again in the context of unity). Similarly, you can be a prophet, and yet have no authority in the community. An example of this is Agabus in Acts 21:10-14, who was recognised as a prophet, but assumed no authority over those to whom he prophesied. Again, you can be an evangelist, and have no authority in the community. All of these things are ministries carried out under the authority of the community of believers as expressed by the elders that the community has appointed.

If this is the case for apostles, prophets and evangelists, then it is certainly the case for pastor/teachers – the fourth in Paul’s list of gifts. You can be an individual, in whom the community has identified the gift of pastor/teaching, and you can exercise this gift under the authority of the elders, without ever holding a church office or any type of authority. You can be man, woman (see Titus 2:4-5), old or young, and practise this ministry and, as I said before, a healthy fellowship will have many pastor/teachers.

As every member of the church is in-tended to possess one of these ministries, it is clear that elders, as part of the church, will also have such a ministerial role. For example, Paul states that elders should be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). Now this of course raises an interesting point – if the position of “full-time Pastor” is entirely unbiblical, on what biblical basis can a per-son be supported financially for his or her ministerial labours?

I believe that there is such a biblical basis, but not as is often assumed. Consider the words of Paul in Romans 12:13 – distributing to the necessity of saints. The local assembly has a duty to ensure that the needs of all of its members are met (to the extent that the assembly is able). This is not just for elders – it is for all in the assembly. Note, however, that only necessities are to be met. Lack of space precludes an in-depth discussion of what this means, but it should suffice to note that what is a necessity for me is also a necessity for you. A minister’s necessity isnot more than anyone else’s, so if a church is providing a large house, generous salary, pension, car and other expenses to a “Pastor”, because these are considered “necessities”, then that same church should provide all its members with such “necessities”. Obviously this will never happen, which demonstrates the problematic nature of the status quo. So ask your-self this: Why is a “Pastor” prepared to receive such things from a church, while others in that church are in greater need? The proper application of Romans 12:13, therefore, is this: if a man invests all of his time in a ministry on behalf of the local church, then let that church cater for his necessities – and no more. If a man, having served the church all of his life is no longer able to minister due to age, let the church honour him and care for him in his old age.

There are of course other passages where Paul discusses provision for those in ministry (1 Cor 9 and 1 Tim 5:17-18). Again, in these passages, we should not underestimate the centrality of necessity in Paul’s line of argument — a subject to which I intend to return in a subsequent article.
In this context, it is easy to see how far removed from Scripture the church has be-come. The “norm” is a local fellowship employing one man as “Pastor”, who is then entrusted to perform every function. This is an unrealistic expectation for this one man, and also deprives the so-called “laity” of their heritage – the rich gifts given to them by Christ. There is not one example of a fellowship in the Bible that has one man set apart in either ministry or authority, and yet most fellowships today function according to this Rome-inspired erroneous model. On every level, this model is a disaster and against the biblical pattern, and it is no wonder that Paul’s earnest desires for the church remain largely unfulfilled.

I believe that it is time for us to reform the structure of the church. This will be difficult for many, and I envisage that those who hold a position as “Pastor” will find it most distressing, particularly if this position is accompanied by a generous financial pack-age. But without this reform, the body will not experience the fullness of Christ’s work. It is ironic that those who profess to be working to edify the body are in fact those who are restricting its growth. Such “Pastors” should step down from their positions, reorganise the structure of government and ministry in “their” assembly, and allow Christ to gift His church as He intended.
*1 By rights, the term “Pastor” should only refer to Christ, in His function as Shepherd. When wanting to describe the ministry through which a particular individual serves the local church, the term “pastor” may be used in the same sense as “evangelist”, “prophet” etc. (see the discussion of Ephesians 4 below). In this article, my discussion of the erroneous use of the term makes use of the capitalised form (“Pastor”), but only to serve to emphasise the nature of the error and in no way to legitimise it.
*2 It has been suggested that such a statement is a legal requirement, necessary for the security of the church’s premises. But the point is that the law does not require that this particular title should be used in this particular way. Nor does the law require the church program to state that the sermon is being brought by “Pastor I.C. Clearly”; or that those wanting counselling should ask to speak to “the Pastor”. The word “pastor” is not a title to be conferred upon a mere mortal. As a title, it belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. As a ministry, it belongs to the Body of Christ (this is discussed later in this article)

NEXT: Other Ministries of Ephesians 4:11

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