A group of us pastors sat around a conference table, eating, talking, and praying. It was an interesting conversation covering a range of everything from Star Wars vs. Star Trek to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Transformers to our attitudes about church and the joys and problems we face and to baptism (we are an interesting bunch).
In a church that has a historical tradition of only the pastor performing a baptism, I have recently introduced my thoughts about others doing them. In particular, I have been approached concerning two people who are ready to be baptized as a declaration of their faith. In both cases, I have not done the work of sharing the gospel with them and helping them see their need for Jesus. Instead, that has been the privilege of a young man who teaches and mentors the middle school kids in Awana and of a father.
I want these men to perform the baptisms of the ones they are leading to Christ. And frankly, I think that is most biblical.
As we discussed the topic around our conference table, another pastor and a dear friend asked what we thought about performing baptisms. He knows my view, but I shared it again. After a little back and forth, he said, “Sometimes I worry that we’re starting to make too little of the role of the pastor.”
I nodded, and thought about it for a moment. Then I replied, “Actually, I think it’s the opposite—I think we make too little of the role of the congregation.”
In some sense, my friend is right. Often it seems that a church expects its pastor to only preach, teach, pray, and visit. If they try to offer direction or provide leadership in an area, it is only accepted if it agrees with what the people already want. Thus, little changes with time except the face and the name of the pastor and his family.
That is as unbiblical as having a pastor who is a dictator and rules over all things.
But, indeed, pastors are to be leaders. Let’s make no mistake about it—regardless of what we think about the use of titles or what title in particular we want to use, there is a reason why the Holy Spirit led those who wrote scripture to single out certain men under the headings of elder, overseer, and shepherd.
When we look at the different metaphors for the church, one that Paul uses contextually most closely to a discussion on leadership is that of household. “I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” ~ 1 Timothy 3:14-15.
Overseers/elders/shepherds are to be men of proven godly character, examples to others, and a good manager of his own household, thus proving to be capable of caring for the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Given this, in the idea of the church as a household, pastors are to be leaders in a church in a similar way that fathers are to be leaders in their families. What ultimately is the role of a father? To help his children grow up and become mature, well-functioning adults. Sound familiar? (Ephesians 4, and the purpose of equipping the saints, anyone? How about the end of Hebrews 5 and start of 6?)
A father’s task is to work to shape his boys to become men and his girls to become women. In doing so, the Bible gives different admonitions to fathers (and mothers) in Deuteronomy 6, Proverbs 1-9, Ephesians 6, Hebrews 12, etc. Fathers should (1) teach their children about God, (2) model a life of godliness and devotion to Christ, (3) give wise counsel, and (4) rebuke and correct (discipline) when needed.
Again, these things sound a lot like the biblical role of the pastors…
It tends to be, as children grow and mature, they come to value and appreciate the advice and influence of their parents more and more; but they need less direct training and instruction. They are free to live their lives as mature adults.
When it comes to the church as a whole, every member of the congregation has various titles to wear. Saints is one, showing the holiness we have through the gift-righteousness of Christ. Disciple is another, showing the devotion we have to follow Jesus wherever he leads and to grow to become more like Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.
And then there is priest.
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. ~ 1 Peter 2:4-9
In my short life, I have heard different abuses of the idea of the priesthood of believers. I have heard it used as a justification for business meetings. Peter’s exhortation has nothing to do with business meetings and a person’s voting rights to decide whether or not the carpet in the new auditorium should be blue-gray or gray-blue. I have also heard it used as a justification for all sorts of wacky interpretations of scripture. As if somehow being a priest enables us to have no theological accountability with the body of Christ surrounding us. Just because a voice in your head told you that people can be saved worshiping a cat goddess in the wilderness of Saskatchewan, it doesn’t mean you’re right. You are accountable to your church for both your behavior and your doctrine, and that church is accountable to Jesus for the same.
What Peter does say is that priests offer spiritual sacrifices and declare God’s greatness in salvation. This is all about serving others in their needs, telling others about Jesus, and guiding others to grow in a life of grace.
In Romans 12, Paul calls our “spiritual worship” (or: rational service, or: spiritual service) the presentation of our bodies to God as a living sacrifice and being transformed by God as opposed to conformed to this world. From this flows the reality that we, as one body, have many gifts and many ways to serve each other and build each other up in humility and love.
As priests, then, in serving others and telling them about Jesus, there is nothing the Bible makes unique to the “office” of pastor that the members of a church cannot do. And in my estimation, we hinder the church from being the priesthood God has designed it to be when we perpetuate the myth that there are special duties to the pastoral position that no one else can perform…like baptism.
But didn’t you argue above that pastors are leaders and we shouldn’t downplay that? Yes.
But again, they are leaders like fathers. A father works on his son to help him to grow to be a man like him in character (often, in the hope of being a man better than him). This does not mean that the boy when grown will do everything his father does. A father might work construction, while a son may grow to be a writer. A father might earn a doctorate from a prestigious college, while a son may solidify his interests in a trade school. A father might have married a lady from Georgia, while a son might marry a lady from Minnesota.
The father and son are unique persons with unique personalities and different gifts, talents, and abilities, and varied passions and desires. Yet, a son learns a lot about life by watching and listening to his father.
This is the church as well. “We have many members, and the members do not all have the same function” ~ Romans 12:4. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s grace” ~ 1 Peter 4:10. Each church member is a unique person with unique personalities and different gifts, talents, and abilities, and varied passions and desires. Yet, they learn a lot about honoring Christ, serving others, and being a priest by watching and listening to their shepherd leaders.
This is what is to distinguish the pastors from others: that in the roles they serve, the things they teach, and the character of the life they live, they are mature and proven guides who can help the members grow to embrace all they’re to be and do as a priesthood. In other words, these are men whose lives have been tested, and they are above reproach; their devotion to Jesus has been displayed, and they are faithful; and their character has been seen, and they are trustworthy.
They are leaders set apart by the congregation because they have served well in their own gifts, are able to teach well so others will grow to serve, and are living a life worthy of emulation. Then, they raise up the church around them and set them free to live as the men and women God has gifted and designed them to be.
In most cases of most churches I’ve seen, we think wrongly about pastors and about the congregation. Let’s not hold the pastors too high or diminish them too low. And let’s hold up and build up the church body to be what God has ordained them to be: the priesthood of saints.