The Bible knows nothing of lone Christians, of believers who are willfully independent from a local church. Rather, Christians gather in communities to worship together and serve one another. And as God commands his people to gather in community, he also commands them to be led—led by men called and qualified as pastors or elders (terms the Bible uses interchangeably). As we progress through a series of questions about things we as Christians often take for granted, we now come to the question of church leadership and ask, “What’s the purpose of pastors?”
Common Views of Pastors
In the church today we find a number of common views of the role and purpose of pastors. Unfortunately, some of these, though perhaps well-intentioned, are unbiblical. Here are two prominent views that both fall short of what the Bible teaches.
The first is the pastor as CEO. According to this view, the pastor’s primary purpose is to keep his organization (i.e., his church) running smoothly and growing steadily. Like the Chief Executive Officer within a corporation, he must apply sound business principles to his operation and will find success when he satisfies the desires of church attendees and experiences numerical growth. Those who hold this view claim that the “pastor as shepherd” view threatens to stunt the growth of a church and is impractical for the challenges of our day. Though shepherding care is good and necessary, it should be carried out by church members or ministry leaders so the pastors can focus on the challenges of leadership. Carey Nieuwhof explains, “Saying the model of pastor-as-CEO is bad for the church is like saying leadership really doesn’t matter. It’s also saying business should get all the best leaders. … If all we do is recruit pastors who love to care for people until they die, the church will die.” The task of the pastor, he says, is to lead, “to take people where they wouldn’t otherwise go.”
The second view is the pastor as priest. According to this view, the pastor is a kind of spiritual guru whose purpose is to take sole or primary responsibility for all of the church’s ministry. In that way, he serves as a kind of mediator between God and his people. While few evangelicals would actually vocalize their adherence to this view, many tacitly hold it when they only go to their pastor for prayer and spiritual care. They may feel that the prayer and ministry of church members are somehow less effective than the prayer and ministry of their pastor. This view may also affect evangelism, as believers downplay their own ability to share the gospel and instead only focus on bringing unbelieving friends to church to hear the pastor, as if this is the only means through which God works.
Addressing the Error
While it is true that the wise pastor will learn practical strategies for leadership, and while it is true that all truth is God’s truth, the pastor as CEO view has dangerous implications for pastoral ministry. In Jeramie Rinne’s powerful critique, he insists that this view eventually and inevitably reinterprets the church through a business or organizational lens. It is true, of course, that churches “have business aspects. Churches often use financial officers and budgets, employees and personnel policies, facilities and insurance, workflow diagrams and goals, bylaws and committees.” All of these are within the scope of a healthy church. But “the problem arises when these businesslike elements become part of a comprehensive business model for the congregation that ignores biblical teaching. It might look something like this: pastor = president/CEO; staff = vice presidents; members = shareholders/loyal customers; visitors = potential customers.”
John Piper has also warned of the danger of this view, saying, “The professionalization of the ministry is a constant threat to the offense of the gospel. It is a threat to the profoundly spiritual nature of our work. I have seen it often: the love of professionalism kills a man’s belief that he is sent by God to save people from hell and to make them Christ-exalting, spiritual aliens in the world.” This view teaches Christians to interpret and evaluate churches like businesses. It teaches them to evaluate pastors like they evaluate CEOs, so their performance becomes more important than their character. They fail to consider that of all the biblical qualifications for pastors, there is just one related to skill. All the others are related to his godly character.
Meanwhile, the pastor as priest model neglects a key doctrine recovered by the Protestant Reformers: the priesthood of all believers. While Luther and the other Reformers affirmed the office of the elder or pastor, they also emphasized that, through Christ, we are all ministers of the gospel and all have access to God. God continues to call men to pastoral ministry, but he also calls every Christian to minister to one another. This view minimizes the New Testament’s emphasis on the role of the pastor as the one who equips believers so they can carry out the work of the ministry. Ephesians 4:11-12 expresses this: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The truth is, we are all ministers. Some are set apart to lead as pastors, but we are all called to minister.
What the Bible Says about Pastors
The Bible assures us that pastors exist to shepherd God’s people in local churches until Christ returns (1 Peter 5:1-5). The calling of the pastor is inextricably tied to the biblical metaphor of a shepherd tending to his flock of sheep. Alexander Strauch says, “If we want to understand Christian elders and their work, we must understand the biblical imagery of shepherding. As keepers of sheep, New Testament elders are to protect, feed, lead, and care for the flock’s many practical needs.”
Pastors shepherd God’s people by protecting them. One of a pastor’s foremost responsibilities is to protect his sheep, for just like sheep need the protection of a shepherd, God’s people need the protection of pastors. Paul’s farewell address makes it clear that this includes protection from false teachers: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). It also includes protection from their own sinfulness, which is why a pastor is called to a ministry of exhortation—of calling people away from behavior that is dishonoring to God and toward behavior that is pleasing to him (Titus 2:15). It is why pastors eventually confront ongoing, unrepentant sin and enforce church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
Pastors shepherd God’s people by feeding them. A shepherd not only protects his sheep from danger, but he also cares for them by feeding them. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” says David. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). The shepherd provides for the sustenance of his sheep. Similarly, pastors must feed God’s people with the spiritual food and drink they need—the Word of God. The pastor’s ministry is a Word-based ministry in which he uses the Word for preaching, teaching, and counseling. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Pastors shepherd God’s people by leading them. Sheep are wandering creatures who are prone to meander out of safety and into all kinds of danger. They need a shepherd who will lead and guide them. In much the same way, Christians need pastors who will provide leadership. This is a specific form of leadership, though, that better equips them to fulfill the ministry to which God has called them. They carry out this leadership by setting an example in godly character, knowing that the pastor’s standard for character is really the standard for every Christian. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you … being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Pastors shepherd God’s people by caring for them. Sheep that are ill or in distress rely upon their shepherd to tend to them. And when God’s people are distressed or uncertain, they rely on their pastors to bring comfort, instil wisdom, and offer prayer. “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). The pastor has a special function in caring for the people in his charge.
God’s church needs pastors. It needs pastors who will function not first as priests or CEOs, but as shepherds—shepherds who will protect God’s people; feed them spiritual food; lead them by modeling godly character; and care for them in life’s temptations, trials, and triumphs. Ultimately, pastors exist to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).