Posts Tagged ‘Bible teaching’

Is the Position of Senior Pastor Biblical?

March 28, 2011 6 comments

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.


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.

The Problem With “Spiritual Disciplines”

March 21, 2011 1 comment

Several months ago I briefly looked at the terms “means of grace” and “spiritual disciplines,” mainly to understand the definition of the expression “means of grace.”  Now for a follow-up and more detailed look at the trendy idea of “spiritual disciplines” and what it’s really about.
A friend recently sent a link to a “Bible meditation” plan, asking what I thought of it.  The plan referenced “spiritual disciplines” and suggested specific ways to meditate on God’s word, including “relax your body” and “use your imagination to picture the truth when appropriate.”  (I explained what I thought of this, and the friend noted that I had confirmed the doubts she had about it.)
Bob DeWaay’s “Critical Issues Commentary” has been helpful for further research, as with these two articles:

The proponents of “spiritual disciplines,” such as Don Whitney, go beyond what the Bible itself defines.  Bob DeWaay said it well, that the “Means of grace are defined by the Bible and attached to God’s promises.  If we come to God in faith according to the means He has defined, He has promised to graciously meet us.”

However, the “spiritual disciplines” add many specific things to “do” in a subtle type of works-religion:

To summarize the directives in the chapters of Whitney’s book: spend more time reading the Bible, memorize more scripture, have a Bible reading plan, obey the Bible more, apply the Bible more, pray more, do more evangelism, make more plans for evangelism, serve more, use your gifts more, work harder at serving, use more time for spiritual things and less for wasteful things like entertainment, give more, fast often and regularly, spend time daily in silence and solitude, learn to hear the inward voice of God and then obey that inward voice, keep a journal, discipline yourself to write in a journal daily, study more, persevere more, and so forth. In fact, one could summarize, “think of whatever appears to be spiritual and godly and then do more and try harder.”

Many of these things are harmless in themselves, but with the teaching of “spiritual disciplines” they have become associated with the idea of becoming holy through disciplining oneself, as though by doing these things we could become more spiritual, more like Jesus.  For instance, “keeping a journal” is based on an idea only loosely connected to scripture, that since David penned the Psalms (inspired writings), our journal-keeping of thoughts and feelings is on the same level.  But back to the definition of “means of grace,” such a “blessing” for keeping a journal is not something that God promises — and inevitably sets us up for disappointment when such measures fail to give that extra blessing.

Bob DeWaay’s remarks about keeping a journal reminded me of something I remember reading years ago from C.S. Lewis, that keeping a journal was something he quit doing after becoming a Christian:  journal keeping was too self-focused, a very selfish activity that detracts from making us useful for God.  If by journal keeping we mean, keep notes about new things we discover in God’s word, fine — and I do that in fair measure, notes from certain Bible verses I read, or notes from various sermon series with commentary opinions.  But the “spiritual discipline” of journal keeping is the very thing C.S. Lewis also rejected, as too much self-centeredness.

But back to the idea of the grace that God gives to us as we partake of His means:  can I actually observe the blessings/benefits I receive from the “means of grace?”  Being honest with myself, I must admit, frequently I’m unaware of such — the process is gradual, and too often even when I engage in regular activity such as Bible reading, my mind is easily distracted or otherwise dulled and not as attentive as it should be.  Yet God has even told us that the reading of His word is a “blessing”  (Revelation 1:3), and that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”  (2 Timothy 3:16).  Often enough, I find at least daily encouragement to continue living the Christian life — as in recent readings in Hebrews, Psalm 119, and other parts of God’s word.