Posts Tagged ‘New Testament church’

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.

Lessons from Acts: The Life of Stephen

December 17, 2009 2 comments

In my study through the book of Acts, S. Lewis Johnson points out a lot of interesting things. The last few messages have dealt with the short life of Stephen: Acts 6 and Acts 7.

Johnson discusses and speculates concerning the relationship between Stephen and Saul of Tarsus; one of the sermons for this part is even titled “The Paul Before Paul.” The text tells us that Saul was there giving approval to Stephen’s death, and that those who stoned Stephen laid their coats at Saul’s feet. Yet Acts 6 also tells us that the Jews tried arguing against Stephen, though unsuccessfully. It is very likely that the apostle Paul was one of those leading Jewish debaters trying to defeat Stephen in such arguments. Paul was also a Hellenistic Jew, hanging out in the Hellenistic syngagogues as Stephen was, and by Paul’s own later admission he had been a leader, unequalled and advancing far beyond the understanding of other Jews of his age. So, SLJ points out, it was very likely that Saul of Tarsus was the point man for the events of Acts 6; none of the other Jews could defeat Stephen, so they called on Saul to do so. The apostle Paul had been schooled by the Pharisee Gamaliel, yet it’s very likely that he learned more from Stephen.

In reference to Acts 7, Stephen’s speech to the Jews, Johnson notes something I’ve heard a few times before: that the New Testament does not give us the example of expository preaching, verse-by-verse through a Bible book. That fact is interesting, very different from the common advice today to preach sequentially through a text–and I certainly do enjoy the expository preaching “book series” sermons. Yet as SLJ points out, the sermons given in Acts are more of an overview of God’s redemptive work and God’s purposes throughout Israel’s history. From browsing the MP3 titles on the websites (Believers Chapel and the SLJ Institute), I have noticed that S. Lewis Johnson also preached several non-expository, non-sequential, doctrinal overview series — for instance, “Basic Bible Doctrines,” “God’s Plan for the Ages,” “The Divine Purpose”, and “The Divine Purpose in History and Prophecy.” I am considering one of these series for my next lesson plans (after this Acts series), and this encourages me toward that idea.

SLJ notes some of the distinctives of Stephen’s speech, and briefly notes one I had heard previously: that Stephen especially points out the incidents that occurred in locations outside of Israel, to show that God is present in many places outside of Israel. He does not make more of it than is warranted (such as one preacher who tried to justify Church Replacement theology from this text), but notes it as it relates to Stephen’s purposes in the speech: God’s sovereignty over the people in all locations and times, and that throughout all of these experiences outside the land, the Israelites had persistently rebelled against their leaders including Joseph and Moses. Stephen’s speech also emphasizes that for God the tabernacle was the only thing commanded; the temple was thought of by men, not something commanded by God.

Now to the end of Acts 7: Stephen sees Jesus “standing” at the right hand of God. Elsewhere we are told in the Bible that Jesus is “sitting” at the right hand of God; of course He isn’t chained there, as though He cannot get up. SLJ pictures the “standing” as Jesus’ special gift to Stephen, that Stephen sees before his death that Jesus is especially greeting him, Stephen, as the first martyr of the Christian Church.

Stephen was apparently a young man, one of many since that time who burned brightly for a time–and to us their early death seems a great loss. Surely such a gifted man as Stephen would have been of great benefit to the early church. Yet God has His purposes when He takes such men at a young age. We really don’t know the time of our death, and we cannot take for granted a long life from God. S. Lewis Johnson relates that many times in his seminary classes, he would tell his young students that he would go to heaven before they would, and admit his enjoyment about it (that he would be in heaven before they). Yet, he now observed that it turned out that he was still here (he was 69 when he did the Acts series in late 1984), and some of those seminary students had already died and gone to heaven before he did; he mentioned that one of his students had died 25 years ago. So indeed basic things, such as normal life span, do not always work out as we suppose they will.

Interestingly enough, I must confess that I have recently had similar joyous thoughts. Now that I’m in my mid-40s, I am thankful that, if the Lord tarries in His return, I will go to be with Jesus that much sooner than the younger believers I know, and consider this as one advantage of being older–that many fewer years left dealing with this evil world. So here too I can better appreciate SLJ’s later words of wisdom. I really cannot say with certainty that I will go to heaven before the twenty-something believer. SLJ must have had similar thoughts as I, when he was in his forties (twenty five years before the Acts series), and I can take heart that such thoughts are at least somewhat common for my age.

The Stephen-series within the book of Acts is a nice look at this part of Acts, at the great life of Stephen, who died a harsh death but with great reward. He lived well, died well, and he has been remembered throughout the centuries even to our time.