Monday, November 14, 2011

Are all elders “pastors”?

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…” (Ephesians 4:11).

The current Kabwata Baptist Church elders (with two pastors)
This is an age-old question that will never die. In fact, like fish out of water, it is best left alone to beat itself on the ground until it dies a natural death. Picking it up and trying to aid it in the dying process often results in it slipping out of your hands and falling back into the water, and thus gives it a new lease of life.

Then why on earth am I bringing up this subject? It is because in the second of the two conferences I preached at in Brazil (I am typing this on the plane flying back home) one of the speakers brought it up. He argued that all elders are pastors and all pastors are elders. In fact, he stated that he does not want to be called a pastor but simply an elder. He challenged us to show him in the Bible where anyone, except the Lord Jesus Christ, was called a pastor.

He went so far as to say that he did not believe in “this thing called a call to the ministry”. It is very misleading, he said. If a person claims that he is called by God to be a pastor it shuts out the church from assessing him. “How can you question a person who says that God has called him? Everything is taking place inside him and you are not in there!” Instead, he argued, it is the church that must call a person. He asserted, “God calls a person through the church. That way the church can assess whether a person should be an elder or not. We Presbyterians are wrong on this point. We need to correct this.”

An appreciated note of warning
Of course, where I was seated I thought, “Oh, please, not again.” I think that people mean well who question the distinction in the eldership between those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers in already established churches. There can be a very unhealthy separation between the two that makes the latter feel like second-rate citizens in the eldership. In fact, sometimes Christians speak as if there are three distinct offices in the church—the pastor, the elders, and the deacons.

So, let us at least agree that there are only two offices in the church—elders and deacons. That is not the issue. The bone of contention is whether it is right to speak about two kinds of elders, and thus designate one kind as “pastor” and the other simply as “elder”? I think that a case can be made for both sides of the argument, and the Brazilian brother brought out some of the chief arsenals of those who contend that there should be no difference. Elder is the office and “pastor” is simply the work that elders do—period.

Let me say that I have a lot of respect for those who hold on to this position. I see sincerity in their arguments. I also see a concern to remove the clerical Christianity that puts a reinforced concrete wall between clergy and laity, and so alienates ordinary Christians from a sense of ownership in the church. It turns pastors into priests who alone seem to be hearing the voice of God. Such a division invariably leads us back to the pre-Pentecost, Old Testament religion. It also opens us up to the extremities that have dogged extreme-Charismatic circles, with their untouchable anointed servants of God, who have become demagogues.

There are two kinds of elders
Having said that, however, it is equally clear to me that those who often argue for this position fail to also give credence to the fact that there are equally sustainable and tenable arguments for the other position. In other words, this is a matter where we must agree to disagree and wait until heaven to see who was actually right. Let me state a few arguments for the position that there are certainly two kinds of elders within the eldership—those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers in already established churches.

Let us at least admit that 1 Timothy 5:17 suggests that those elders who govern well and labour in the Word and doctrine must be treated differently from the rest. They are to receive double honour, which in the context suggests both distinct recognition and pay (see the use of the Greek word “time” in 1 Timothy 5:3, 6:1). At least, let us admit this much.

But, should those elders who distinguish themselves this way be the only ones to use the title of “pastor”? It should first be stated that the Bible does not make much of titles. It especially discourages titles when they go beyond acknowledging the distinct service someone renders in the church and becomes a way of grading people in the church into classes. So, strictly speaking, we should not be fighting about titles. We are all just brothers and sisters in Christ.

I only address this because the argument is not simply about common titles but about obliterating the distinction in the eldership between those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers in already established churches. Those who say that all pastors are elders and all elders are pastors are essentially saying that there is no difference between these two because “all the elders pastor”. So, why deny them the title and only give it to those in the eldership who claim to have a call to the preaching ministry?

I think that those who argue like this use an argument that is very weak. If we sustained that argument with the title of deacon, then all Christians should be called deacons because all Christians “serve” (the word “deacon” simply means “servant”). But that is not true. The Bible clearly teaches that some people in the church can be officially called deacons. We can push it even further and say that since every Christian evangelises—or at least ought to—then every Christian should be called “evangelist”. But again that is not true. There appears to have been only some Christians that the Bible used this term for. It is clear that titles in the New Testament were not simply given to people because of what they do. Again, let us at least admit this much.

Who is supposed to be called pastor?
So, who in the New Testament enjoyed the title of “pastor”? Thankfully, we have a list that includes this title in Ephesians 4:11. Referring to the Lord Jesus Christ when he ascended to heaven, Paul says, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…” Would I be wrong to suggest that what is common about the men in this list is their call to the preaching ministry? Look at each one of them. Christ calls men to this work and then gives them as gifts to the church. Through their preaching ministries, souls are won to Christ, churches are planted, and Christians are built up in their most holy faith. They do this not primarily because they are part of an eldership but because of a sense of calling upon their lives. They are compelled to preach (1 Cor. 9:16)!

I think that the Achilles Heel of those who see no difference between “pastors” and “elders” is that they commence from the position of an already fully functioning eldership in the local church. In that context, you have the leisurely comfort of even questioning the issue of calling to the preaching ministry and limiting everything to simply levels of giftedness with words. After all, you already have an inherited crowd to oversee!

We need to start from the position where there is no church. Who will go and plant new churches in virgin lands? Elders? Surely it must be men in whose hearts the gospel is a burning passion—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. It is these men who will willingly sacrifice their professional careers because of a sense of call. It will take years of painstaking and lonely labours of evangelising and then discipling new converts before men with the rudiments of eldership qualities can be nurtured, trained, and ordained.

When such an eldership is finally in place, these men with a sense of call to the preaching ministry will work with them as a team to oversee the church. They will work with them as “first among equals”. For the other elders to now turn around and start claiming that there is no such thing as a call to the preaching ministry and there is no distinction between “you and us” is preposterous. In fact, when you look at Acts 15, when referring to Jerusalem’s fully functioning eldership, Luke kept referring to “the apostles and elders”, although the apostles were elders (as can be proved by 1 Peter 5:1). Therefore, would it be patently wrong to also distinguish the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastor-teachers within the eldership? Well, evidently, Luke did not think so (see also Acts 13:1).

In conclusion
Well, as I draw this blog post to an end, let me make it clear that my goal was not to convince anyone who already holds to the position that all elders are pastors and all pastors are elders, and that, therefore, the terms should be used interchangeably. Because that was not my aim, I have not answered the usual questions that arise from the position I hold on to. Rather, my purpose was to simply show that those of us who see things differently do have some biblical premise on which we do so. We are not simply upholding unbiblical practice and tradition.

We believe that a healthy eldership in an already established church ought to comprise those who claim to have the call of God upon their lives to the preaching ministry and those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers. Whereas the Bible uses the terms “overseer” and “elder” interchangeably, it seems to leave the term “pastor” to those with a very distinct call to the preaching ministry—like apostle, prophet, and evangelist. I hope I have also shown that to argue that the Bible uses titles merely on the basis of what people do in a general way in the church would render other titles meaningless. And finally, please remember that the issue of titles is not a hill that I am willing to die on.

Now, what have I done? I think that I have picked up the fish that was beating itself to death on the ground. I fear that it may have slipped out of my hands and fallen back into the water!


  1. Not all elders are pastors, but all pastors are elders. This neither makes them better or worse than any other person in the church. All Christians have different gifting. Some may be teachers but not elders, some elders may only be teachers but that isn't a bad thing. While not everyone is an evangelist we can all do the work of an evangelist. (2 Tim 4:5) Not all elders are called to preach but they all can help. The title shouldn't much matter to us because we are only doing the will of the one that sent us.
    Romans 12:3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. 4 For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.

  2. Thank you for posting this and for sharing your views in such a compelling, gracious way. I am probably best described as one of "those who simply express willingness and a desire to serve as overseers in already established churches", although I did initiate the planting of the church where I serve. I am not presently drawn to leave my secular vocation for the sake of the ministry of the Word. I have wrestled for years with the tension you describe in this post. Presently, I am probably more on the other side of this question, but I do not want to see the ministry pulled down to the level of a hobby for the sake of a flat eldership. Also, I have seen men who are perfectly suited to the eldership refuse the recognition and call of the church because they did not see themselves called to the ministry in the way you describe that a pastor ought to be.

    I hesitate to adopt your position for a few reasons. First, I am hesitant to establish a formal distinction on the basis of a single use of one word as a noun rather than a verb. No other place in Scripture specifically distinguishes a title of pastor for those who labor vocationally in the Word. Second, 1 Peter 5 addresses all elders as those who are to shepherd. While they are not called pastors by title, they are implied to be little shepherds under the authority of the chief Shepherd. If all elders are to shepherd under the chief Shepherd, it seems to imply that all elders are to be regarded as vice-shepherds serving under the chief. Third, most vocational pastors probably don't have the sense of pioneering call that you describe to distinguish pastors from other elders. Not many pastors are inclined to start their own church or serve as a missionary. Making the call seem this high may cause some gifted and called men to question their calling. If we can use 1 Tim. 5:17 to distinguish those with higher gifts and motivation and opportunity as being worthy of double honor, I don't think we need to reserve to them a separate title that's hard to establish definitively from Scripture.

    I would be interested in hearing some further discussion on this, as I am far from being totally satisfied with my current understanding on the matter.

  3. I had one more thought to share on this. It seems that you're saying that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers are species of elders. I suppose it's either that or those in one of these offices may actually hold two offices. But that would go against your view that pastors are a distinguished class of elders. However, it seems that this argument from Luke's reference to "apostles and elders" can actually be turned around. If apostles are a species of elder but it was common practice to use the more exalted and specific title to distinguish them from ordinary elders, then wouldn't we see that practice elsewhere? Wouldn't we expect to see those with a more honorable title be addressed that way? After all, we have Luke's example plus the command to show double honor to those who labor in preaching and teaching. But we uniformly see references and greetings to the elders collectively or the elders and deacons and not once to the pastors and elders. So it seems to me that the reference to apostles and elders actually suggests that no distinguishing title of pastor existed for a subclass of elders.

  4. Stan, thanks for the most conscientious way in which you have raised gracious objections to the position I have argued for in my blog post. Thanks for the important questions you have raised.

    To begin with, I really need to emphasise that this issue must not be primarily about titles. Rather it must be about the question, "Aren't there two kinds (or "species") of elders?" I address the issue of titles only because those who insist on calling all elders pastors are often--not always--those who want to obliterate this fact.

    There are those who contend that it is just an issue of levels of giftedness in teaching. The one(s) more gifted become "the first among equals". Hence, the use of the word pastor on all elders because the work of elders is that of pastoring. I have said that there is something to be said for that position, though I beg to differ.

    There are those of us who contend that within a healthy eldership there must be those who have a sense of call to the preaching ministry (which makes them even quit their careers to hold the plough with both hands) and those who do not sense such a call but have a God-given desire to oversee the flock. What I have sought to briefly establish in the blog post above is that there is a biblical premise for this position.

    As I stated in the blog post, I am hesitant to use this forum (the blog) to answer "the usual questions that arise from the position that I hold". I do have answers to them--and they are historic answers which you will find in books that deal especially with the call to preaching--but to deal with them here will really give extra life to the fish that I want to see die.

    So, if you write me (, so that I have your email address, I will try to find the time to engage in further discussion with you. Remember, my aim is not to convince you or anyone else to move to the other position. I have friends in the USA who hold on to "the other view" and we remain good friends respecting the fact that this is a matter we will only finally have to settle when we get to heaven.

    I will leave your questions on the blog as they are so that those who, like me, take it for granted that there are two kinds of elders may see some of the questions that make others hesitate to take our position.

    Again, thank you for your gracious and conscientious comments and questions above. I really appreciate your input.

  5. Here's a twist for consideration. All elders are pastors but not all pastors are elders.

    The noun form of poimḗn - not used to describe a literal "shepherd" - is only found in Ephesians 4 and it is plural. Thus we find the definite article "the" never accompanies any individual in the NT. In fact, the only reason we use the word "pastor" in the English vernacular is because we have pulled it over from the Latin.

    As we know pastor simply means shepherd however, I'm not sure we realize that pastor doesn't mean anything other than shepherd.

    This is helpful in informing us that the word pastor used in the noun form as a title for any individual is simply the result of tradition only. To call a man "the pastor" is never found in the Bible except again, to refer to Jesus (see John 10). It would be accurate then to describe a shepherd as any man who exhibits the characteristics of a shepherd - caring for souls, teaches-equips, feeds the sheep, demonstrates a sacrificial heart - (see Is 40).

    One would be hard pressed to make a biblical case that only one who holds the office of overseer can be described as a shepherd. On the other hand, 1 Peter 5 and Luke in Acts as well as 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 seem to make it clear that all elders are in fact shepherds - able to teach (see Eph 4).

    It is difficult to see how the supposed pastoral "call" is relevant to the discussion. If there is a desire to oversee and a man meets the qualifications for the office of overseer then he is called and recognition of his qualifications is a duty of the saints. This of course leaves room for individual giftedness as well as levels of desire which explains 1 Tim 5:17. In other words, not all have equal levels of compulsion, time or gifts. Thus we see different roles organically find appropriate placement within the body.