Pastors, The New Testament, and Our House Church Network
It happened so many times in the early days of our first house church that it got old. People would call me Pastor Travis. And I would say, “It’s just Travis.”
“But you’re the pastor, right?” was the next question I would get asked. Usually, for those who weren’t part of my house church my response would be something like “Long story, but let’s just keep it at Travis.”
Why was that so awkward for me? Lot’s of reasons. Admittedly, being called a pastor at 26 was a strange thing, especially since I didn’t go the traditional route of pastoring “underneath” an older pastor. But in reality, my unease came from a much deeper place.
What The New Testament Says
My studies of the New Testament had already challenged much of what I saw being done in church culture. Church had gone from being a formal religious ceremony in a holy building to a spiritual family who met wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. As I studied the New Testament, my understanding of the pastoral role had begun to change as well.
As I studied the New Testament, a shocking pattern began to emerge. First, the word pastor was only used once in the English New Testament (Ephesians 4:11). In fact, in some translations it’s not used at all (ESV for example does not use the word pastor). The reason why is the word used in Ephesians 4:11 that is often translated as “pastor” literally means “shepherd.” It’s used 17 times throughout the entire New Testament. Eleven of those times, it’s used to describe Jesus’ relationship with the church. The other times (minus the Ephesians 4 reference) are used to describe actual shepherds who cared for and guarded sheep.
What I also found when I dug deeper into the New Testament was that this role was related very, very closely with the role of elder. In fact, when Paul and his apostolic team started churches, instead of appointing a single pastor to watch over the church, he appointed a group of elders. They were a team of people. Their job was to shepherd (note the use of a similar Greek word) the flock of God through their example, not lording over them (in other words not telling them what to do), but they were to be an example of a mature follower of Christ. They also were supposed do it willingly, not for what they could get out of it.
What Christian Culture Does With Pastors
The problem for me wasn’t what I saw in the New Testament. Obviously the role of pastor existed in there somewhere. The problem for me (especially early on) was Christianity’s outright obsession with the role. Everyone I knew in ministry was called a pastor. Every spiritual leader in a church that was paid was called a pastor. This may be true in your context right now.
I had a dear friend, hired by the church for the sole purpose of reaching lost people. He was called a pastor. He was a good man, called by God to equip the body and reach lost people, but he was not a pastor, he was an evangelist that was given the title pastor. Other people I knew in different churches I was part of were given the title of pastor, but they couldn’t live close enough to everyone in their congregation in order to know them. There was no way they could, their congregations were way too large for them to know half of them. And when you talked to them, they were sincere, godly, good men. But their primary role wasn’t the care of the body. It was leadership, strategy, preaching or something else.
And for the body, this can be problematic. I regularly saw people from church backgrounds come to men who were called pastor expecting to get spiritual care and council from them. And I watched as these “pastors” passed the pastoral tasks on to others in their body. I don’t use “pastors” to indicate any kind of animosity towards these men. They were good guys. They just weren’t pastors. In all likelihood the people the “pastors” referred them to were the real pastors.
I’ve also watched the over-emphasis of this role hinder the multi-membered ministry the church is supposed to demonstrate. Churches seem to focus so much time and attention and energy on a pastor. It’s a natural, human thing. The pastor gives the sermon, he leads the service, he does much of the ministry, especially in smaller congregations. But often this focus causes everyone else to not step forward and serve. In the most dramatic ways, people feel they shouldn’t have to do something “they pay someone else to do.” In lesser ways, people feel less qualified than the person who is the pastor.
Lastly, lets not forget that shepherds are only one of the roles that mature Christians are called in the New Testament. Apostles are frequently mentioned in the New Testament (there are as many as 25 people identified as apostles in the New Testament). But modern Christianity is largely silent about this role. Prophets and Evangelists face a similar situation. But people with these gifts can and often are unintentionally not given space to minister because they aren’t pastors.
Our House Church Network
So as we planted our first and subsequent house churches, there were no titled pastors. We all met as equals, trying to walk out the priesthood of all believers that we believed the New Testament described. We almost developed an allergic reaction to the mention of the word pastor, mostly because of the bad example I set by how quickly I downplayed my name being used next to it. We talked a lot about how Jesus was our pastor. That was (and still is) true.
But our aversion to the pastoral gifting ended up hurting us. We ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There is a real pastoral gift that we were minimizing because of our attitude toward the misuse of the word. And so there were times when we didn’t get people the pastoral help that they needed from people uniquely gifted to help and care for others.
Eventually we needed to change. But we wanted to change in a way that reflected the New Testament and the multi-faceted, multi-membered ministry of the first century church.
We’ll talk about how that played out tomorrow.