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Counsel for the Church: Following the Biblical Model for Invisible Pastors

Today’s post is sponsored by BJU Seminary and written by Greg Stiekes, professor of New Testament and Theology. BJU Seminary equips Christian leaders through an educational and ministry experience that is biblically shaped, theologically rich, historically significant, and evangelistically robust.

Christian authors who have an intriguing ability to take the pulse of the church and discern its health have been warning for some time now about the tendency pastors have to become the local attraction of their churches—ministerial superstars, the CEOs of their own kingdoms, or the rock stars of their own venues.

To be sure, pastors should be respected both inside and outside their congregations (1 Tim 3:2–7), and we should celebrate God’s sustaining grace in the life of a faithful, diligent shepherd, whose wisdom and ministry in the Word should be an example for younger pastors. But should those pastors be promoted and known as local celebrities? Should they be the center of attention in their churches? Should people commonly identify the name of the church by the name of a single pastor?

Intriguing Biblical Data

It seems to me that the pastor is practically invisible in the NT. I mean, try naming one man in the NT who had a pastoral title.

You may say, Timothy and Titus, the addressees of the “Pastoral Epistles.” But while these men likely fulfilled some of the duties associated with pastoral ministry, they are not referred to as pastors but were merely appointed by Paul to ordain them.

We may discern that James, the half-brother of Jesus, was an elder in the church in Jerusalem. (Talk about bragging rights for a church!) But when James writes to his scattered congregation, he does not call himself the “brother of Christ” or even an elder, but the “slave” of Christ (James 1:1). That’s the kind of humility that makes the NT pastor invisible.

There are two men who actually refer to themselves as elders. But these are the apostles Peter and John (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1), so it is unclear whether they are actually “elders” in the sense of holding the pastoral office we think of today.

So, while a large number of elders were certainly ordained in the NT (Acts 14:23; 2 Tim 2:2; Titus 1:5), and the apostles addressed them in the aggregate (Acts 20:17–38; 1 Pet 5:1–4), and their qualifications were established (2 Tim 2:2; Titus 1:5), we struggle to name them! They are ubiquitous, yet virtually invisible.

Five Takeaways

First, we need to reflect seriously upon the critique of authors like John Piper that the pastoral office has become “professionalized.” While the office itself is honored in the NT, pastors are called to humbly fill that office sacrificially, as Jesus did. They are not called to be the center of attention in their churches.

Second, the practical invisibility of the pastor should encourage the congregation to serve. We can criticize a congregation for letting its pastor do all of the work himself. But I wonder whether pastors actually invite this kind of culture by putting themselves at the center of their ministries, rather than serving with their people as they equally depend on Christ, the Head and Chief Shepherd.

Third, the concept of the invisible pastor easily coincides with a shared-leadership approach to pastoral ministry. The church that does not exalt a single leader is able to appreciate the ample NT evidence for the plurality of pastoral leadership in the local church, even if one of these pastors naturally serves as a “lead” pastor.

Fourth, the invisible pastor is better able to focus on the work that God has called him to do. In today’s world of social media, it is too tempting and too easy for pastors to seek recognition for their accomplishments by putting their lives and ideas on display. But the invisible pastor is satisfied with ministering to his own congregation, performing the thankless tasks of a servant, even if no one will ever see, or know, or care.

Finally, pastors must be invisible so that the congregation sees clearly the Lord, honored and magnified. The church should never love and follow its pastor more than they love and follow Jesus himself. Jesus must increase; all others, including the pastor, must decrease. When people look at any church, they should not particularly notice the pastor first. But they should see a body of people devoted to the Lord and seeking to make him visible to the world.

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