Some churches have pastors and some do not. Which are right?
There are several named churches or assemblies in the NT. Not once, however, do we read of pastors as connected with these individual assemblies. This is in startling contrast to much of Christendom, where it would be deemed disorderly not to have a named ‘pastor’ responsible for a particular assembly. Of course the NT makes reference to pastors––their existence is not the issue. The issue rather is their relationship to the Assembly––both as a whole, and in its local setting.
The Greek word translated ‘pastor’ in our English Bibles is poimen. It simply means shepherd. Thus the shepherds who came to see the infant Jesus in Luke 2 were poimen. They were pastors––men who looked after the flock. Of course the word is also used in connection with men and women as well as sheep. Thus in John 10: 11 “The good shepherd (poimen) lays down his life for the sheep”. Again, in Acts 20: 28 we find that the overseers (episkopos) are said to “shepherd (poimaino) the assembly of God”. Similarly in 1 Pet. 5: 2 the elders (prebuteros) are to “shepherd the flock of God”. (Elders and overseers being the same individuals––compare Tit. 1: 5 and 1: 7.) However, the overseers are never called poimen, and are not to be confused with those called by that name in the early Assembly. Elders are chosen by men, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 1: 5), and are appointed to serve in a particular locality (Acts 14: 23). That this sets them apart from what Scripture calls the ‘pastors’ of the Assembly will become apparent as we proceed.
From the great emphasis placed on the role of the pastor in the professing church, one would have expected many references to such persons in the Scriptures. In fact, only on one occasion are they definitely referred to, and that is in Eph. 4: “Having ascended up on high, he has led captivity captive, and has given gifts to men … and he has given some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers … with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ (vs8, 11, 12). A pastor then is a gift from the ascended Christ to the Assembly. Unlike elders, they are never said to be appointed by men. (2 Tim. 1: 6, apart from clearly being an apostolic prerogative, does not make any reference whatsoever to the gift of pastorship). Those who insist on their ability to appoint are in effect usurping a place that belongs to Christ Himself. He, and He alone, gives pastors to the Assembly. Hence it is not possible, as many think, to study to become a pastor. You are either a pastor or you are not. It is a gift.
The reason why the NT never speaks of a local assembly and its pastor is that pastors are gifts from Christ, not to individual assemblies as such, but to the Assembly as a world–wide whole. The gifts are given with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ (Eph. 4: 12), not just individual local assemblies. Thus a true pastor is a pastor of the Assembly in its entirety, not of a local assembly. The local assembly is not his flock, nor is he its shepherd. While the scope of eldership is restricted to a particular local assembly, pastorship is not. Wherever there are saints of God, the divinely appointed pastor will find work to do. He may indeed operate mostly in one particular assembly, but he is no more the pastor of that assembly than a visiting pastor from the other side of the world. Paul spent two years at Ephesus (Acts 19: 10)––but he was never the apostle of Ephesus. In the same way, the widespread view that each ‘church’ should have its own ‘pastor’ is utterly baseless.
Furthermore, there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that there could not be several pastors operating on an equal basis in a local assembly. It would certainly be abnormal not to have any at all. Along with teaching (with which it is allied) the gift of pastorship is a divine provision by which the saints can be built up in their faith. The work of the teachers is to feed souls by the Word. The work of the pastor involves much more. In John 21, Peter was twice instructed to feed (bosko) the flock (vs15, 17). However, in verse 16 the Lord directs him to shepherd (poimaino) His sheep––a word which suggests total care. There is surely a parallel between the ordinary shepherd in the field and the spiritual shepherd in the Assembly. Thus both are occupied with leading the sheep to pasture, watching for signs of ill–health, tending the young and weak, and warning of danger. Timothy is never called a pastor in Scripture, but his attitude was certainly pastoral: “who will care with genuine feeling how ye get on” (Phil. 2: 20). The local assembly that lacks such persons is the poorer for the deficiency.