FIVE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
(That You Have Never Ever In Your Entire Life Heard Preached From A Pulpit)
by Gerald R. Thompson
Of Priesthoods, Clergy & Spiritual Authority
Next: Church as an Institution, Association & Corporation
No one in the Church is a priest over anyone else. All believers in Christ have equal access to God compared to each other. Further, there is no clergy-laity distinction in the Church since there is no division in the body of Christ.
At this point, I have established a baseline principle that all believers have an equal authority derived from the Great Commission to carry out the mission of the Church. Now the question is whether there is a special class of spiritual persons (specifically, a priesthood) in the Church that would give them an unequal authority.
Abolition of the Old Priesthood
If you start with the assumption that there is only one true God, which is the God revealed in the Bible, then certain things follow of logical necessity. Of necessity, all other gods are false. Of necessity, the only valid priesthood is the one established by the one true God, and all other priests and priesthoods are false. And if the one true God should abolish the only priesthood He has authorized among men, then by definition there are no, and there cannot be any, other priesthoods which can later arise legitimately.
What I have just described is exactly the situation which the scripture indicates the world is now in. If you set aside consideration of the priesthood of Melchizedek for a moment (which I will come back to), God only ever authorized one priesthood among men, namely, the Levitical priesthood under the Mosaic covenant. However, God specifically abolished the Levitical priesthood and has not established any other priesthood among men since. Therefore, of logical necessity, all claims by men to be priests of God since then are false and invalid, without exception.
If you are skeptical of this claim, I ask you to look at the biblical evidence. How did God establish the Levitical priesthood, and to whom did it apply? For that we have to go back to the establishment of the Mosaic covenant.
“Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests.” Ex 28:1.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” Num 3:5-10.
“And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” Num 18:7.
So first, the Levitical priests (or Aaronic priests, who were part of the tribe of Levi), were made priests according to the Mosaic covenant, which was in reality a covenant between God and the nation of Israel. Second, all the priests were Levites, and all the Levites were Jews, so no one could be a priest apart from them. This status was not a matter of individual choice, but a matter of birth. Third, the priests ministered before God in the tabernacle on behalf of the Jewish people, and no one else. Bottom line: the priests were exclusively Jewish, they served exclusively Jewish people, and they derived all their authority exclusively from the Jewish law.
In contrast, the Church of the New Testament extends to the people of all nations (there is neither Jew nor Greek, etc. Gal.3:28), and in fact the Church has been predominantly composed of Gentiles ever since the apostle Paul began his ministry. Second, no church authority is derived from the Mosaic covenant or from Jewish law. Third, all participants in the Church covenant have an equal authority to carry out the mission of the Church, i.e., the Great Commission. Fourth, no Church authority is transmitted or acquired based on physical birth.
Thus, none of the chief characteristics of the Levitical priesthood (Jewish priests, Jewish laws, tribal lineage, etc.) could possibly have carried over into the Church.
Besides, when you look at the language used in the Old Testament to institute the Levitical priesthood – naming an identifiable class of people who were treated differently than the rest of God’s people, using words like “to serve me as priests,” assigning certain functions to those people and punishing others who attempted to perform those functions – there is no similar language used anywhere in the New Testament.
And it isn’t merely that the Levitical priesthood was not carried over into the Church, but that the Levitical priesthood was itself abolished even for the nation of Israel. This conclusion is supported not only by logic, but by the express statement of scripture. The key verse here is Heb. 7:12, which you should burn into your memory as with a branding iron: “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
The context in Heb. 7 is that the Church covenant is based on the priesthood of Christ (after the order of Melchizedek), a priesthood which is superior to the Levitical priesthood and is also completely independent from it. This independence is established by the fact that Jesus was not a member of the tribe of Levi, and the priesthood of Melchizedek arose prior to and independently of the Mosaic (Jewish) law. The result is that the former commandment (i.e., the law establishing the Levitical priesthood) was set aside (or, nullified) because it was weak and useless – as determined by God who gave the former commandment in the first place. Heb. 7:18.
Ok, so Jesus was a different kind of priest than an O.T. priest – how does that mean God abolished all human priesthoods from that point on? As it happens, the priesthood of Christ is by its nature exclusive and repugnant to any other form of human priesthood. And to explain this fully, we have to know what a priest is.
According to www.merriam-webster.com, a priest is defined as “one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.” Don’t be fooled by other definitions which are limited to the administration of religious rites or the performance of certain sacraments or similar language. The mediatory function is the key to understanding the term. Because implicit in the concept of performing sacred rites is the idea that not everyone can do this, that is, there are certain things you can’t do unless you are a priest, with the assumption that not everyone is one.
The nature of any priest – not just the Levitical priests, but all priests of whatever type – is to be a mediator between regular people (i.e., non-priests) and whatever god the priest serves. In short, every priest is a gatekeeper: regular people can’t have access to God except through the services of the priest. In modern usage the term priest is even applied colloquially to anyone who is a gatekeeper in a certain type of business.
But the priesthood of Christ is exclusive. For “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Tim 2:5. Meaning, no one is a priest on behalf of others besides Jesus, and no one needs a priest for himself apart from Christ. Besides which, no one but Jesus is capable of being a priest after the order of Melchizedek, that is, a priest who lives eternally and is a priest forever. Heb. 5:6, 6:20, 7:17.
Thus, no one else can add anything of value to the priesthood of Christ which is perfect, or improve on it in any way. To the contrary, any human priesthood arising after Christ would be a step backwards, ushering in impermanence and imperfection. Which, from God’s point of view, is pointless. So, no – it is not possible that the Levitical priests were replaced by a new and improved type of human priesthood – because any human priesthood would not be an improvement. The perfect priesthood of Christ abolished all human priesthoods from that point on.
Establishment of the New Priesthood
The end result of the perfect priesthood of Christ is what many call the universal priesthood of believers. By which phrase is meant that all Christians have direct personal access to God through Jesus. And since access to God is the key function and purpose of a priest, every Christian is in that sense a priest, i.e., one who has direct access to God. But no, no one as a Christian can take that access to God and extend it to someone else – only Christ alone can perform that function.
Alright – you have the basic argument, now let’s put it to the test. Do the scriptures confirm that every true believer – every Christian – has direct personal access to God without needing to go through anyone as a gatekeeper apart from Christ?
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand. Rom 5:1-2.
And [Christ] came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. Eph 2:17-19. See also, Eph 3:12.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus … and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Heb 10:19-22.
So, the scriptures affirm that all those who have faith in Christ have access to God. All those who have faith in Christ are members of the household of God and stand in equal position with all the saints. And all those who have faith in Christ have confidence to enter the holy places of God. I’d say that’s a pretty strong confirmation there are no gatekeepers in Christianity.
As among Christians, God gave each person co-equal authority and no person has any claim to an inherent right to rule over others within or on behalf of the Church. In keeping with our prior analysis, all Christians are created equal, and not only with respect to our contemporaries, but also equal to all those who came before or may come after us. “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Pet 1:1.
This equality of standing among believers gives rise to a corollary of scripture: there are no holy men – because if some are more holy than others, then all are not equal. Though to be more accurate: all men are equally unholy. “None is righteous, no, not one.” Rom. 3:10. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested … through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 3:21-24.
Notice here that it is not just that all men are equally non-holy, but also that all men can appropriate redemption (and therefore all of the rights, privileges and authority appurtenant thereto) solely on an individual basis through the exercise of individual faith. So believers are not only equal in their inherent unrighteousness, but also equal in the extent to which grace is imputed by Christ.
As far as God is concerned, the people who originally heard the Great Commission were no more worthy to receive that authority than anyone who came after them. Nor did the apostles receive Church authority on behalf of themselves and their descendants, nor on behalf of themselves and their specific delegees, nor on behalf of any particular group or class of men (i.e., clergy). Rather, they received Church authority on behalf of all those who would later individually believe.
The net effect of which is this: all believers are equally priests before God.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father. Rev. 1:5-6.
For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God. Rev. 5:9-10.
Clergy? What Clergy?
All that I have said so far should lead you to one inescapable conclusion: in the Church there is no such thing as clergy, and no distinction between clergy and laity. Why? Because, simply put: clergy = priesthood. Let’s review briefly:
1) There is no human head of the Church. All church authority on earth is decentralized.
2) The authority of the Church is given to every individual believer – not to any group or subset of believers, nor to any leadership or hierarchy among believers.
3) No one but God can institute or create a priestly class, He forever abolished the only human priesthood he ever established, and he has not established any other since.
4) There is a universal priesthood among all believers which vests no one with any greater or lesser authority than that obtained by every individual believer.
5) There are no holy men, or spiritual persons, except what all believers have in common.
Yet, there is one more good reason why there is no, and there never can be, a clergy-laity distinction in the Church, namely, there are no divisions within the body of Christ.
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Rom 12:4-5.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Cor 12:12-13.
God has so composed the body … that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Cor 12:24-25.
There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Eph 4:4-6.
So the Church is one body; every member of the invisible Church is part of the same body, that body has no divisions in it, and this is by God’s design. Fundamentally, any distinction between clergy and laity is a form of division in the body of Christ which scripture precludes. How can there be a difference between clergy and laity without making such a division?
Plus, what is clergy, if not a claim by certain persons that they possess some authority, some leadership role, some spiritual position, and/or some holy purpose not shared by all believers? By definition, the clergy-laity distinction is one that regards believers as not all being equal. It is a throwback to the Levitical priesthood, where all Israelites were not equal with respect to spiritual authority, and where one tribe was divided from the rest.
The clergy-laity distinction sets up a de facto priesthood, at the very least. But as we will see later, very few clergy try to hide the fact they are claiming a priestly status for themselves. The comparison – no, the equivalence – of clergy and a priestly class is unavoidable.
No sacramental authority, spiritual gift, or spiritual office – whether expressly stated or reasonably inferred – justifies anyone in the Church having authority to lead the Church or to rule over other believers.
So far, we have established that all Christians have equal spiritual authority flowing from the Great Commission and by virtue of their membership in the Church. Plus, no one can rightfully claim to be an exception to this rule of equality by reason of their status as a member of a priestly class or the clergy. Now, the question is whether anything else in the N.T. might confer spiritual authority to lead or rule over others by reason of any sacramental authority, any spiritual gift, or any spiritual office.
All sacramental authority in ancient Israel was exercised by the Levitical priests, who conducted all religious services at the tent of meeting, the tabernacle and the temple – that is, a designated place of worship that was literally the house of God. The authority of the priests in such matters was exclusive. Anyone else who attempted to interfere with priestly functions or to undertake to perform those functions on their own were under a death penalty. See, Num 3:10; 18:7.
However, in the Church age, the priests were the very people God went to some lengths to eliminate from any further spiritual service. Not only did He abolish the Levitical priests from Israel, He instituted a universal priesthood of all believers in the Church under the priesthood of Jesus Christ according to the order of Melchizedek which precludes any one else from serving as a priest.
It only makes sense that if the priests themselves were kept out of the Church, of necessity all the special priestly things they did would also have to be kept out of the Church. Thus, in the Church there are no animal sacrifices or physical offerings. There are no special feast days or holy days. See, Rom. 14:5 and Col. 2:16. There is no physical temple, no segregated class of temple workers (whether Levites or clergy), and no financial system in place to support those workers (i.e., tithing) because in the Church, everyone is allowed to own property and produce income (whereas the Levites could not).
Similarly, of necessity, there can be no carryover of any if the spiritual authority exercised by the Levitical priests into the Church. Whatever spiritual authority the priests had, they had as mediators between God and men. The mediators and the priesthood (one and the same thing) have been eliminated. Thus, there is no one who can today stand in the shoes of the former priests and claim to have or exercise the authority of a mediator in the Church.
Specifically, since every Christian has direct access to God, it means every Christian has equal authority to perform and/or administer whatever religious rites or sacred rituals are a part of the life of the Church. In this regard a common religious tradition produces a curious result. I do not make the claim, but it is often claimed by those who call themselves clergy, that the sacraments of the Church are a means of dispensing the grace (or favor, or blessing) of God. This grace is dispensed to, or through, those in the Church who have access to God (supposedly).
So if we assume that all believers have equal access to God (actually, we have proved this point), then the more the sacraments of the Church are related to God’s grace, the more they are related to having access to God (from which the grace flows). And the more they relate to having access to God, the more they must be equally available to all believers, because all believers have equal access. Thus, the more you insist the sacraments of the Church are a means of dispensing God’s grace, the more you argue for the fact that all believers can tap into that grace on an equal basis without going through a mediator. Ironic, no?
Because of this equality of access, there is no hierarchy of spiritual authority with respect to Church sacraments. And here is the applicable rule: every Christian has equal authority to enter God’s holy places. Heb 10:19.
Under the Mosaic system, what did the Levitical priests do when they entered the holy places in the temple? They administered and performed the religious sacraments of Judaism. So, access to holy places is equivalent to the authority to perform holy ceremonies. Without the right to access to the holy places, the sacraments could not be performed. If that was true for priests in the Old Testament, it must also be true for priests (meaning every believer) in the New Testament.
Let’s examine two of the so-called Christian sacraments more closely. Protestants and Catholics disagree on how many of those sacred rituals are part of Christianity, and what they are specifically, but as far as I know nearly all Christians accept that water baptism and communion (a/k/a the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) are valid religious observance of the Christian faith. Let’s set aside the questions of whether such rituals are truly sacramental (agencies by which the grace of God is dispensed), or whether these observances are prescribed as ordinances, because these questions have no bearing on our analysis.
Take water baptism – is it something every Christian can do, or is it something only certain people within the Church can do? What do the scriptures say?
The logical place to start, of course, is with the Great Commission itself: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Mat 28:19. There is no need to rehash what has already been shown. All believers derive equal authority from the Great Commission. Therefore, all believers have equal authority to perform each of its component parts, including baptism. Res ipsa loquitor.
There are no words of limitation in the Great Commission as to who may or may not carry out its tasks. In fact, there are no words of limitation anywhere in scripture as to who may or may not perform water baptisms. What we have is an express authorization for every Christian to perform baptisms. To argue against that, we need a limitation on such authority expressly stated elsewhere in scripture – but there is none. You can’t prove the existence of a limitation from silence, from extra-biblical writings or edicts, or from the customs and practices of Christians through the centuries. Or from mere inference derived from a peculiar interpretation of other scriptures.
Only God can limit what God has authorized. An express limitation is required to override an express grant of authority. Men do not have the authority to contradict God or limit what He has said. Yes, I know Protestants and Catholics take different positions on this issue. That’s what the principle of sola scriptura is all about. But you’re not going to convince me that men can limit what God has said unless and until you can show me in the Bible where God has expressly delegated that type of authority to men. And that can’t be done.
Or consider communion. On the night of the Lord’s Supper (the Last Supper) Jesus said, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Mat 26:28. Notice Jesus did not say his blood was poured out just for the apostles, nor that only certain people could administer this ritual. He simply said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Like the Great Commission, this statement was made to a limited number of people, but its intended effect was to apply to all future believers as well.
Thus Paul, when he addresses the Corinthians regarding the unworthy manner in which they observed the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34), tells them (in essence) to shape up and stop observing the Lord’s Supper in the way they had been doing. What was his solution – for everyone to stop serving themselves and to delegate the task of administering the elements to the elders, or to deacons, or to pastors? Or that they needed to wait in line and receive the elements from a central dispensing agent? God forbid.
No, what he said was, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” 1 Cor 11:28. Also, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another – if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home.” 1 Cor 11:33-34. In other words, the solution was for the exercise of better individual self-government. Not to turn the matter over to someone in the Church with more authority, but to exercise the authority God had given each person in a decent manner. This is the biblical model of observing communion.
Thus, there is no indication anywhere in the N.T. that only certain persons can perform water baptisms or officiate at a communion observance. Thus, again (repeat, repeat, repeat) God treats everyone one in His Church equally. What a surprise. Are we supposed to infer that some people are called or placed into positions of leadership in the Church by reason of any sacramental authority? I don’t see how, if everyone is equal.
Granted, we must acknowledge that the universal priesthood of believers, although putting each believer in equal standing before God, does not make every person the same. God distributes gifts to believers – not equally, but severally – so that each one may build up the Church, the body of Christ. Paul tells us to “think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For [we] … do not all have the same function.” Rather, we each have “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Rom 12:3-6. Further,
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 1 Cor 12:4-7.
So clearly, spiritual gifts are not distributed uniformly, that is, not everyone gets the same gift. But does the Bible indicate that any of the spiritual gifts have any different level of authority compared to the other gifts, whether as a mediator, a person in charge, as a supervisor or an agent on behalf of others? Or to rephrase, do the spiritual gifts have an inherent authority structure? To answer that question, we have to know what the possible spiritual gifts are.
Rom. 12:6-8 lists prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, and mercy. 1 Cor. 12:8-10 lists words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Finally, 1 Cor 12:28 says, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.”
I would ask you at this time to put apostles, prophets and teachers on the back burner in your mind, as we will come back to these when we discuss offices in the Church. Spiritual gifts are talents or abilities, whereas offices are positions within the Church, making these two separate things.
So, are any of the things denominated as spiritual gifts things that can reasonably be interpreted as having a special authority compared to the others? Most of the gifts, I suggest, such as healing, generosity, mercy, discernment of spirits and speaking in tongues (among others) have no possible ruling authority or leadership role attached to them as a self-evident truth.
What about service, which the KJV renders as ministry? I like the definitions given by Noah Webster (1828), because unlike modern definitions he gets right to the heart of the authority question. Thus, service is defined as “labor performed at the command of a superior, or in pursuance of duty, or for the benefit of another.” Ministry is defined as “the office, duties or functions of a subordinate of any kind.”
With either of these definitions, the gift of service is hardly something that would put a person in charge of sacraments, persons or other gifts. You don’t call someone a subordinate and then treat them as being in charge. Although, a fair number of ministers see themselves as being in charge.
However, if it is true that ministers serve their congregations, it means the congregations are the principals (i.e., the “superior” according to Webster) and the ministers are their agents – and few clergymen look at themselves that way. It also means the members of the congregation, as principals, can withdraw their authorization and perform the service themselves, bypassing the clergy. See what I mean? The gift of service does not lead to leadership. Same analysis for the gift of helps, I suggest.
What about the gifts of leadership, or administration? Any different result? It’s true, what people say – some are born leaders. Plus, no organization can long survive without effective administration. But being a born leader or administrator doesn’t actually put anyone in the position or office of leading or administering. A person may have the talent to lead or administer, but that’s not how the authority to lead or administer is acquired. No one is born with the authority to rule others, remember? (All men are created equal; all men are born free.) A gifted person may in fact be put in a position of leadership, but the position does not directly follow from merely having certain talents.
Where does authority come from? There are only two options. If from God, then it must come via a divine covenant – and then the burden is on the person claiming authority to show how it is expressly or reasonably derived from the terms of the covenant itself. But everything about the Church covenant screams equality. The other option is the authority which comes from men, which we call by another name, i.e., consent of the governed. But that’s not the authority people claim by way of a spiritual gift, is it?
So, no – none of the spiritual gifts reasonably denote a special authority compared to the others. Conclusion? That there is no structure or hierarchy of authority inherent within or among the spiritual gifts of the Church. Yes, the various spiritual gifts are different from each other. But none of them are in charge of, or in authority over, the other gifts. If there were an authority structure to be found among them, God would have told us and not left it to mere inference.
While Paul does admonish us to desire the higher or best gifts (1 Cor. 12:30), he never indicates which ones those are, except to hint that prophecy is one of the gifts to be most desired. 1 Cor 14:1. Still, scripture nowhere indicates which gifts we receive depend on or are influenced in any way by what we desire. To the contrary, the distribution of spiritual gifts is determined in the sole discretion of the Holy Spirit. 1 Cor. 12:11.
Notice also, none of the spiritual gifts relate to performing baptisms, administering communion, hearing confessions, dispensing forgiveness, or performing weddings or funerals. For that matter, none of the spiritual gifts even relate in any way that I can find to preaching. So, is preaching a spiritual gift? Apparently not. Whether preaching relates to any of the spiritual offices, we will consider next.
Notice further, there are no gifts (by any express language in the scriptures) for ruling over others, running or leading the Church, having command authority over other believers, or spiritual authority to supervise the activities of other members of the Church. Therefore, be extremely skeptical if anyone claims to have spiritual authority over you either by reason of sacramental authority or spiritual gifts. In fact, don’t believe it.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers. Eph. 4:11. (ESV) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers. Eph. 4:11. (KJV).
The Nature of Spiritual Offices
According to Eph. 4:11, God gave the Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and/or teachers. The KJV expressly states what other Bible versions imply, that “he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” Whether the word some appears in the text or not, it is clear from the context that not everyone in the Church is an apostle, or a prophet, or an evangelist, or a pastor and/or a teacher. These are the spiritual offices in the Church.
The number of people in the Church whom God has appointed to one of these offices will always be a minority – the vast majority of Christians will have other tasks. And the mere fact God appoints these people – they do not volunteer for the position, they are not elected to these offices, nor do they receive an office because of education, training or experience – means that these are specialized tasks to be carried out by those whom God alone has selected.
Now what is the proper task of each spiritual office? Apostles are those who plant churches.
Unfortunately, I have to pause right here. A lot of you are thinking the Church doesn’t have apostles anymore, that those people were only for the early church (the so-called apostolic age), and the thought of anyone claiming to be an apostle now scares you. First, nothing in the scripture ever places a time limitation on this spiritual office. Second, if the only apostles the Church ever needed are those who saw Christ personally (including Paul), then why does God say He is still appointing apostles 30 years after Christ’s death? Third, if modern apostles scare you, it’s only because you think (or the person claiming to be an apostle thinks) the office means something other than planting churches – usually, along the lines of “I’m in charge.” Yeah, that scares me, too.
Prophets are those who proclaim the word of God. Oops – pause again. Supposedly, an office of a bygone age. Combine that with a common misunderstanding of the nature of the office. No, a prophet is not one who necessarily predicts the future. A prophet merely says things based on the word of God that people often do not want to hear. They are – to those in power, wanting to keep the status quo – a threat. Which is exactly why I think God thinks we still need prophets today – there’s a lot of stuff done in the name of Christ that needs to be called out and shamed. And it’s also exactly why most churches don’t regard the office of prophet as valid.
But let me address one other concern, namely, Heb. 1:1-2a. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” First, this text does not say that when Jesus came, prophecy stopped. If that were the case, again, why would God say He’s still appointing prophets after Christ’s death? Read this verse together with Eph. 4:11, and read them in a way that doesn’t result in a conflict. Second, the term last days doesn’t mean prophecy has stopped, nor is it a reference to the end times. It just means, in this context, in recent days Jesus came (in other words, back in 60 AD.
OK – moving along. Evangelists spread the Gospel of personal salvation. No, not every Christian is an evangelist. Some are appointed … Gosh, do I have to explain everything? Pastors ostensibly shepherd believers. Okay, okay. Not a simple matter. However, I will consider this office in detail later on. Teachers instruct the faithful, primarily as to the commands of Christ, a/k/a the laws of God. Wait – your teachers don’t tell you about God’s laws? Wow, things are messed up. But we want to know what God thinks about these offices, not what men’s tradition holds. Summing up: all these are as necessary and essential for the Church today as they were in New Testament times.
So why is it, that: 1) many churches do not even recognize the contemporary office of apostle; 2) prophets are generally recognized only in charismatic churches, and are always unpaid unless they are the founder of their own cult; 3) evangelists only get paid if they raise their own support or survive on love offerings; and 4) lay teachers are almost universally unpaid volunteers; but 5) pastors are paid employees who get regular salaries? Who made pastors special compared to everyone else?
All these spiritual offices have some things in common. Mainly, that these are things you cannot aspire to, and which men do not elect or appoint. Rather, they are distributed by God according to His grace and in his sole and exclusive discretion. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” 1 Cor. 12:4. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” 1 Cor. 12:18. Members of the body of Christ have “gifts that differ according to the grace given” to them. Rom 12:6.
You cannot decide to be an apostle, teacher, prophet, pastor or evangelist – any more than you can decide to have the spiritual gift of miracles, healing, helping, administrating, or speaking in tongues. You can, apparently, ask God for the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:31; 14:39), but you cannot determine that you will get it, and no man or group of men can determine to give it to you. So either God bestows the gift or the office in His discretion (i.e., sovereignty), or you do not have it. What you want is irrelevant.
The Authority to Rule
Let’s revisit our key text with an expanded context.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Eph 4:11-16.
I have given you more of the context so we can (hopefully) see more clearly what this scripture does – and does not – say. Does this text contain a delegation of authority – specifically, granting any of the spiritual offices the right to govern or to rule over others? No, it does not. Is there any mention of the leadership of the Church in connection with the spiritual offices? No. Do other scriptures link the spiritual offices with leadership or governing authority? No again.
Of course, each office may be taken to include the authority to exercise its primary function. Thus, the apostle has the authority to plant churches, the prophet has the authority to speak the word of God, the evangelist has the authority to proselytize, the teacher has the authority to instruct, and the pastor has the authority to shepherd (whatever that means). We’ll come back to this point and look at pastors in some detail in a bit.
There is no implied suggestion, much less an overt statement or express grant, that any of the offices in Eph. 4:11 has authority over the others, that there is any hierarchy among them, or that any of them answer to the others for the manner in which their offices are carried out. When it comes to the divine delegation of church authority, the gifts and offices God appoints have no authority structure. Which, as I look at it, simply means (consistent with the Diffusion Principle and the priesthood of all believers) that all spiritual offices are equal in authority compared to each other.
There are offices in the Church, but none of these are of a higher calling than any other office in the Church, none are given as full-time ministry more than the others, none carry a greater authority to rule or to lead than the others, and none are inherently worthy of greater honor than other Church offices. The Bible absolutely nowhere indicates there is any hierarchy among these offices, that any of them are full-time while others are part-time or mere volunteers, that any are compensated while others are uncompensated, or that any have authority or leadership over the others.
All of which leads to a simple conclusion: the spiritual office of pastor or pastor-teacher (whatever it may be) puts no one in charge, either of Christ’s body or God’s house. Pastors have no elevated status, no higher calling, no leadership authority, no special sacerdotal authority, and no greater ministry than the other spiritual offices. But I’ll bet my bottom dollar that’s not the way things are handled in your church, is it?
What Is A Shepherd?
To be thorough, let’s determine what it means to be a shepherd so we can better understand what it means to be a pastor. Specifically, we want to find out if shepherding carries with it any special spiritual authority, such as the authority to care for men’s souls. Generally speaking, a shepherd is a person who tends sheep, meaning a person who: a) feeds and cares for sheep; b) protects and guards sheep; and c) guides sheep from pasture to pasture.
In John 10:1-18, we see Jesus modeled as the good shepherd. In that text, Jesus says [now I’m taking excerpts of the key phrases and concepts from this text and condensing them],
“I am the door of the sheep. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
It is a fair question to ask whether any member of the body of Christ claiming to be a pastor can also claim any of these attributes of a shepherd modeled by Christ as descriptive of the office of pastor.
So first, can any pastor claim to be the door of the sheep (i.e., believers)? Well, no – because that role is exclusive to Christ and no one else. Jn. 14:6. No pastor is the way, the truth and the life. No one finds salvation by entering the kingdom of God via a pastor. Jesus is the sole mediator between God and men. 1 Tim. 2:5.
Second, can any pastor say that he lays down his life for the sheep? Certainly not in the same sense as Jesus, who literally died for our sins. No pastor can die for our sins. And it is quite clear from the text that when Jesus talks about laying down His life of his own accord, He is referring to the crucifixion. Again, something that does not apply to any pastor.
Third, Jesus says he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. Can any pastor say that? No, because no one knows the heart of man except for God, and no pastor is God. Jer. 17:10; 1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Chr. 28:9. Jesus is God, so it makes sense for Him to say that, but not for anyone else to say it. No pastor can truly discern, much less decide, who is saved and who is not.
We also know that Jesus (as the good shepherd) alone has authority over our souls.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Pet. 2:24-25.
Do pastors have authority to act as the shepherd and overseer of men’s souls? Your local clergy would like you to think so. But Jesus never delegated authority over men’s souls to other men. The authority men have in the Church is much more limited. Go back and re-read Acts 20:28 and 1 Pet. 5:1-3. To whom does God commit the “care” of the Church? To the elders. And pastors aren’t elders. (More on this later.)
So what is left? Are we to infer that being a pastor/shepherd means such a person is in a position of authority with respect to the sheep (other believers), just because Jesus is the head of the body the Church? But look at the text in John 10 – in no place does Jesus refer to being a shepherd as one who has the authority to rule over the sheep. In other words, nowhere does Jesus equate being a shepherd with being the Head of the body. Those are two separate metaphors that are unrelated to each other. Thus, there is no basis for importing any kind of headship into the office of pastor.