Pastors (that is to say, bishops or elders) are supposed to rule. That proposition is hardly controversial, for the New Testament repeatedly depicts the office of pastor-bishop-elder as one of spiritual leadership (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). The question is not whether pastors are supposed to rule. The question is how. That question cannot be answered by doing word studies for the different terms that are used of elder “rule.” Those terms need denote nothing stronger than leadership. Instead, it must be answered by examining the New Testament to see how pastors actually do lead.
One observation stands out: never in the New Testament does one find pastors making decisions in behalf of congregations or enforcing decisions upon congregations without their consent. Indeed, Peter explicitly forbids elders from leading by fiat (1 Pet. 5:3). Whatever pastoral leadership means, it does not involve pastoral authority to force churches to act against their will.
Pastors lead in several ways. They lead by their example. They lead through their prayers for their people. They also lead in one other way. The factor that the New Testament most often associates with the pastor’s leadership is his teaching ministry.
Sometimes the pastor’s teaching is imaged as his feeding of the flock (1 Pet. 5:2). The image of food is one that is regularly applied to biblical truth in the New Testament. Peter mentions the pure milk of the word (probably a genitive of apposition—1 Pet. 2:2). Paul employs the contrast between milk and solid food to contrast the easier teachings of Scripture, which are understood during Christian infancy, with the more difficult teachings, understood only during maturity (1 Cor. 3:2). The writer to the Hebrews uses this same contrast (Heb. 5:12-14).
Elders’ leadership is explicitly connected with their preaching and teaching (word and doctrine) in 1 Timothy 5:17. Indeed, laboring in preaching and teaching is the mark of an elder who rules well rather than simply ruling adequately. All elders handle the Word of God. All elders teach. But some are able to give themselves to the labor of preaching and teaching—these are the elders who rule well, and they deserve double honor.
The writer to the Hebrews commands his readers to remember those who lead them (Heb. 13:17). He immediately clarifies what kind of leadership these leaders exercise. They are the ones who “spoke the Word of God to you.” The obedience of Hebrews 13:17 is rendered, not to the persons of these teachers, but to the genuinely biblical content that they teach.
In Ephesians 4:11, the apostle Paul lists individuals whom Christ gave as gifts to humanity, and especially to His church. Among these are some whom He gave as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers. The fact that Paul does not repeat the word some (actually an article in the Greek text) between pastors and teachers indicates that he intends to subsume pastors under the category of teachers. In other words, everyone who is given as a pastor is by definition given as a teacher.
Throughout Acts and the epistles, pastor-bishop-elders are depicted primarily as teachers. More than that, passages that discuss pastoral leadership tie it directly to preaching and teaching. Didactic ministry is not the only way that a pastor leads, but it is the principal way.
Unfortunately, the notion of teaching has often become associated with an educational model that consists primarily in the impartation of information, as in the old quip that education is the process by means of which whatever is in the professor’s notebook finds its way into the student’s notebook without having passed through the head of either. Alternatively, it is thought of as a process in which a professor lays out a kind of buffet of intellectual options from which students may make their choices. Or it is envisioned as a Socratic method in which the professor asks questions that stimulate students in their own intellectual voyages of discovery. None of these is what the Bible means by teaching.
To be sure, biblical teaching does impart information. It does make learners aware of alternatives. It does encourage people to ask hard questions and to think carefully about the answers. But New Testament teaching is an aspect of discipleship (Matt. 28:19-20), and discipleship is not so much about education as it is about instruction. Granted, it includes furnishing the mind both with tools of thought and with something to think about. Yet it also shapes and directs the affections, leading to a proper inclination of the will. Furthermore, it includes the development of skills so that each Christian becomes able to perform those tasks that are essential to healthy discipleship and, in some cases, leadership.
In other words, the pastor as teacher has to be more than a lecturer. The pastor’s teaching authority involves more—indeed, much more—than simply pronouncing exegetical opinions from the pulpit. Therefore, a correct understanding of pastoral authority rests upon a correct understanding of pastoral teaching. The question might be framed thus: “What does a pastor’s teaching give him the authority to say, and what does it give him the authority to do?”
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
The Spirit Breathes Upon the Word
William Cowper (1731–1800)
The Spirit breathes upon the Word,
And brings the truth to sight;
Precepts and promises afford
A sanctifying light.
A glory gilds the sacred page,
Majestic, like the sun:
It gives a light to every age;
It gives, but borrows none.
The Hand that gave it still supplies
The gracious light and heat:
His truths upon the nations rise;
They rise, but never set.
Let everlasting thanks be thine
For such a bright display
As makes a world of darkness shine
With beams of heav’nly day.
My soul rejoices to pursue
The steps of him I love.
Till glory break upon my view
In brighter worlds above.