Did the New Testament Church Have Pastors?

Yes, but …

The word “pastor” meant something different than it does now after centuries of tradition. The question might better be phrased, Did the New Testament churches have paid, full-time professionals as leaders?

Biblical Support For Vocational Ministry

Discussions of biblical support for professional, vocational ministers usually draw from a few short passages: 1 Timothy 5:17-18, Galatians 6:6, and 1 Corinthians 9:3-14.

Galatians 6:6 is the least clear: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” There is no other teaching about elders, pastors, teachers, preachers, or any other spiritual gift in the immediate context. If anything, verse 5, “For each will have to bear his own load,” would, without the aid of other scriptures anyway, seem to refute the idea of paying some brothers to be full time preachers and teachers. The preceding verses talk about sharing one another’s burdens. Is the church at large supposed to bear the burden of a pastor’s wage in exchange for his bearing a larger portion of spiritual burdens? Perhaps, but there is no explicit teaching like that in Galatians.

1 Timothy 5:17-18 seems to be a stronger case for paid ministry: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.'” It is clearly speaking of elders, and many Protestant churches classify vocational pastors and ministers as elders. The word honor is used in verse 3, and seems to refer to providing for widows with no family to provide for them. The Greek word translated honor can also mean “value” or “price.”

Translating this passage as describing our modern professional ministry is not supported by other passages that describe first century elders (presbuteros) or that prescribe the qualifications for such. But those passages do not explicitly forbid paying elders and deacons, either. In addition, the passage that precedes it specifically commands not to support widows under the age of 60 (that is, who are marriageable) or who have family (other means of support). Presbuteros is often used in the New Testament to refer to the office of elder (as in James 5:14), but in verse 1 of this chapter, the word is translated “an older man.” These verses may be referring to elderly men – men who have exemplified a godly life and provide leadership to the body – with priority given to those who continue to teach and preach, even when they are not capable of the physical labor they did as younger men. When considered in light of the New Testament view of the church as a family, this interpretation seems even more likely. Families support their elderly members who can no longer work to support themselves, and the sharp-minded elderly provide practical and spiritual guidance to the younger family members.

Timothy may also have been dealing with a general problem of disregard for the elderly. The chapter opens “Do not [sharply] rebuke an older man [elder] but encourage [or exhort, the same word used of Jairus pleading with Jesus to heal his daughter] him as you would a father.” And in verses 19-20, Paul instructs Timothy not to listen to accusations against older men unless (at least) two or three witnesses corroborated. Younger members of the body may have viewed the elderly as burdens rather than valuable gifts from the Lord to provide leadership for the church.

Lastly, 1 Corinthians 9:3-14 is another passage from which a good argument can be made for vocational ministry. Paul again quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 (v. 9) and refers implicitly to Matthew 10:10, Luke 10:7, and Mark 6:8 (v. 14). But, Paul and the disciples Jesus sent out were evangelists to those who had not heard the gospel. The Lord’s command was as much to the one giving the word as to the one receiving: the evangelist is to expect and accept hospitality from the people of peace who receive him. Verse 7 also seems to support this interpretation. At most, Paul was rebuking the Corinthians for not being hospitable to him as they were to other evangelists (some of whom, per other portions of 1 and 2 Corinthians, were false teachers). We must also keep in mind that in his letters to the Corinthians in particular, Paul would employ sarcasm to turn the words of false teachers against them.

An even stronger refutation of the claim that this passage sets up vocational ministers within the body comes from the remainder of the same chapter. Paul says in the very next verse (15), “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision.” And again in verse 18: “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” If Paul meant to institute a professional clergy among the Corinthians, why would he let them off the hook? Why didn’t he urge them to tithe more faithfully, so God would “open for [them] the windows of heaven and pour out for [them] a blessing until it overflows”?

Paul is also quoted in Acts 20 as saying to the Ephesian overseers:

I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (vv. 34-35)

I hope that I’ve fairly presented the Biblical arguments of proponents of vocational ministry, and shown why those arguments are not persuasive to me. Next I look at the entirety of New Testament writing to explain why vocational ministry is not within the spirit of the Word.

Biblical Teaching Against Vocational Ministry

To my understanding, there is one simple reason that vocational ministry as the church has practiced it for centuries is not Biblical: under the New Covenant/Testament, there is no priestly class. That teaching, I think, is very clear in 1 Peter 2:4-10. It’s also a logical proposition. Since Christ has become the all-sufficient sacrifice, there is no need for a special group of sanctified men or a sanctified place to perform sacrifices. His atoning work has made our bodies holy and acceptable offerings, as well as temples.

In short, every disciple of Christ is a priest, a temple, and a sacrifice all at the same time. Under the law, God demanded a dedicated priesthood that practiced strict outward cleansing as a reminder of the reality of sin in all men. He instituted a sacred place of worship that was separated from the people. And He required sacrifices of animals and crops as anticipations of Christ. But “on this side of the cross,” as they say, the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us who believe, the veil has been torn so we have access to the throne of God, and the sacrifice for sin has been paid once and for all by the Lamb of God. Trying to institute outward religious trappings runs the risk of denying the finality of Christ’s work!

Many churches today also have a distorted view of authority. Christ is the head of the church, and the sole authority over her – through the Spirit and the Word. The apostles were conduits of this authority when they received the written word, and they did not appoint or command others to have authority over the church. Each church body should recognize mature men as overseers, but the only command given to overseers (a.k.a. “bishops”) is to “care for the church of God.” Overseers are also referred to as “stewards” in Titus 1. An overseer might be compared to an older child given charge over younger siblings while the parents are away – he is to prevent harm and wrongdoing and do what they cannot do for themselves, but not change the parents’ rules. A big brother who demands subservience and gifts from his young brothers and sisters is not mature and responsible. (See also 1 Peter 5:1-4)

Practical Issues

There are practical arguments against our system of professional ministry, too, as Eric Carpenter spelled out wonderfully in his series linked above. Perhaps the most serious is that the “laity” are tempted to outsource the entire work of the Kingdom to the able-bodied men and women they pay good money to teach, preach, visit, evangelize, organize, and entertain. Another practical concern is the amount of money spent on buildings and salaries – an amount that could put a sizable dent in world poverty, especially if even half of the people currently employed by Western churches worked in the market and gave to those in need.

Another serious problem with the traditional institution of professional ministry is that it paves the way for some of the most devout disciples to be tempted to violate Matthew 20:25-28. This is the passage where Jesus commands his disciples, “whoever would be first among you must be your servant.” Giving a small number of men or women such a large amount of influence over minds and power over money as our traditions have is not healthy for those individuals or for the church as a whole. The pressure does not excuse those who abuse their positions, but we should be worried that such abuses no longer surprise us.

Leading, teaching, organizing, and encouraging are hard tasks, but that’s why Christ redeemed a body, not a handful of professionals and masses of passive churchgoers. The New Testament is replete with commands to all believers to use their gifts to build up the whole church. I think modern evangelical Christianity is still carrying a pathology from pre-Reformation days that puts destructive pressure on the most devout people while tempting them to feel superior to “regular” disciples. Those are hallmarks of man-made religion, not the Spirit-empowered body of Christ.

Now if a group of believers wants to form an organization, pool their resources, and pay people to provide management and teaching, there is no prohibition against that. A possibility of abuse is not a reason to forbid something. But those things do not a church make, nor does the lack of them mean a family of believers is anything less than a church. I believe that each church body should carefully consider whether paying someone to be especially devoted to study and to carrying out the works of the body is the best use of the Lord’s resources he entrusted to them.

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