Home > doctrines, John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, S. Lewis Johnson, Shepherd's Conference > Is the Position of Senior Pastor Biblical?

Is the Position of Senior Pastor Biblical?


While listening to the live stream from the 2011 Shepherd’s Conference — General Session 5, Phil Johnson’s interview with John MacArthur — I was struck by the great variety of different gifts and emphases among different churches and preachers.  For John MacArthur’s overall thrust is church leadership and church structure.  The interview focused a lot on his great accomplishments in over 40 years as the senior pastor at Grace Community Church, including his leadership work in the early years, along with discussion about his future plans and what’s ahead for that church and its leader, now that MacArthur is in his seventies.

Amongst all the talk about leadership and senior pastor stuff, though, I kept thinking about Believer’s Chapel (Dallas) and the biblical teaching concerning church offices.  Believer’s Chapel is one of a very few churches that uphold the model of the early church: a plurality of elders, but no pastors or senior pastors, etc. Based on teaching in the book of Acts, and the New Testament epistles, they maintain that there is no such “office” of pastor.  Instead the church has elders, some of whom teach.  So Believer’s Chapel has “gifted men” who minister the word of God (including current teachers Dan Duncan, Matt Heidelbaugh, Mike Black, Geoff Brown and others).  Generally it’s Dan Duncan that does the main Sunday morning service (with some exceptions), but no hierarchy of “senior pastor,” “pastor,” “associate pastor” or similar titles exists.

From what I’ve considered, the Believer’s Chapel idea is more biblical.  The early church never had “pastors” and were not led by a single man at the top of a hierarchy.  Yet most evangelical churches, including Grace Community Church, hold to this tradition of having a church pastor as leader.  From brief googling on the Internet I could only find a handful of other churches, such as this one that do not have pastors as church leaders.  See also this article and related articles at that site, for further information.

Looking into the matter a little further, I’ve learned that the only scriptural justification given for the idea of a pastor leader is the reference to angels (messengers) in Revelation 2 and 3.  Sure enough, one’s particular view on church leadership will often determine the “interpretation” given to the word “angel” there, as evidenced by these two excerpts:  the standard answer from John MacArthur, versus a more detailed explanation from S. Lewis Johnson at Believer’s Chapel.

MacArthur:

This letter is sent to the angel of the church in Ephesus. Just to note, the angel refers to the leader of the church. We have no reason to assume that it refers to an actual angel, although that it is a possibility. The weight of evidence for that viewpoint is that every other mention of angels in the book of Revelation refers to actual angels. The word angelos can also mean messenger. So there are some who would say that this is a letter given to a certain angel who is associated with each of these churches. The problem with that is we have no such teaching about angels being associated with churches and we have no word of Scripture ever given to angels…they are always given to men and the word can mean leader. And since we don’t get to the futuristic part of the book until the third chapter, there is every reason to assume that the word angelos here means simply messenger which would be a representative from the Ephesian church, one of its leaders who had come to be with John perhaps on the Isle of Patmos and was bearing this very letter back on behalf of John and the Lord Himself to the church in Ephesus.

S. Lewis Johnson:

It would seem that the most obvious meaning is that since the term ungalas, translated “angel”, is found numerous times in the Book of Revelation, that we would take it that way.  But then most of us have certain agendas that we like to impose upon Scripture.  We have to avoid that, of course, at all times.

And so if you have in your mind the organization of the local church as being an organization of elders, or deacons, or trustees, or deacons, various ways in which churches are organized. And if you have in your mind that these churches would be ruled by a pastor, a minister who has authority by virtue of his office, then it would be very tempting for you to read this, “Unto the pastor of the church,” and think of the angel as a pastor of the church.    …

Now, the term occurs in the book numerous times. It always means an angel, that is a heavenly being created by God.   Why we should not rather take this to be an angel rather than the pastor, well that’s never been explained to me satisfactorily. If this is a reference to an individual, a human individual, it would be much more likely that he should be a man with a gift of prophecy or at least a prophet. And prophets did exist at this time in the Christian church. A prophet is an individual who receives messages from the Lord and who conveyed them to the church.  So it’s conceivable that one might have the gift of prophecy and be called a messenger, for that’s the essential meaning of the term ungalas in that sense.

But modern scholarship has generally taken the idea, taken this expression to mean, either the prevailing spirit of the church (for after all remember we are talking about a book that has many many symbols in it),  the angel being the prevailing spirit of the church — or an angelic guardian of a church of which we know very little, but of which our Lord knows everything; and perhaps even the apostle knew things that we don’t know.  So we are going to take it as an angel and we are going to take it as being an angel who acted in such a way as to be related to particular churches.

Here are a few more pages that specifically address this matter:  “Plurality of Elders” and “Is The One Pastor System Scriptural?” in more depth, coming down on the side of Believer’s Chapel:  One objection to the plurality of elders comes from an odd interpretation of the first chapters of the book of Revelation.  … This can only be seen by reading something into the text that is not there.  Nowhere in the entire New Testament is there any mention of a senior pastor having authority over a local congregation.

I also find it an interesting observation (again from an admittedly small sample of just two churches, both larger and non-denominational) that among these large churches, the church without a pastor-leader also happens to place more emphasis on Bible teaching itself, along with less discussion about church government, leadership and personality-leaders.  The senior-pastor-led church gets involved in semi-ecumenical organizations such as T4G and the Gospel Coalition, deemphasizing the “secondary” doctrines, and tends toward the briefer “standard” evangelical explanations (in contrast to more theological depth and explanation) for several specific texts.

In the long run, though, it is obviously part of God’s decretive will that most churches choose the pastor-leader model, a shortfall of human nature.  The elder-system churches may do a better job of taking all of God’s word seriously, even to the form of church government — and given the option I would attend such a church. Yet, in spite of ourselves, God has allowed many pastor-led churches to have effective and fruitful ministry.

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  1. September 25, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    The article by Mark Frees is excellant. There is no scriptural ground whatever for a one pastor leadership. In Acts 20:17 Paul gathers the elders (plural as always) and in verse 28 instructs the elders to “feed” KJV translation, or better still “shepherd” the church of God. The translation “feed” is not incorrect but the word shepherd brings out a fuller meaning of the elders responsibilities to shepherd or provide “pastoral care” for all the flock.
    In Acts 15 there was a dispute over a matter of doctrine and you find the elders – leading men and the church fellowship working together to solve the problem. There is not one mention of a pastor as they were never appointed in the early church, nor should they be today.
    I have seen so much failure amongst “pastors, TV preachers etc where respect becomes adulation which in turn becomes idolatry, resulting in very immoral failure in those who allow such.
    John the Baptist had it correct:- I must decrease that He (Christ) may increase.
    You will not be liked for preaching the truth on this matter, as I know only too well, but keep on speaking “the truth in love” and God will honour you.
    May God bless,
    Neil Schoch.

    • September 27, 2012 at 11:22 am

      Thanks, Neil. Yes, I’ve noticed that personality-leader effect too often, and find that I prefer the teaching and Biblical view of churches such as Believer’s Chapel and a few others I’ve found online.

  2. Marleen Pomaiba
    April 8, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    You are not alone at all in your belief about the senior pastor…there is only one and that is Jesus. We have known for years that the whole position is a man made tradition and it can get lonely when one tries to tell the status quo that it isn’t in the scriptures….but more and more people are learning that for various reasons and some cases, had some pretty bad experiences with the ” man on the top situation. It’s nice to see others who share the same idea. Very refreshing actually!!

    • April 9, 2014 at 7:06 am

      Thanks for the comment, Marleen. Yes, we’re definitely in the minority in today’s society regarding the biblical view of a church and its leadership.

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