But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:7)
The capacity to minister effectively in the name of Christ comes only from Christ himself. In Ephesians 4:7 (above) and Romans 12:6 God said that the gifts to serve are given by his grace – “having then gifts different according to the grace that is given to us” (Rom. 12:6). Grace is undeserved favor, so no one can earn grace at any level. No one, by his devotion, sincerity, faith, prayer, study, or sacrifices, may earn the grace of Christ. This applies whether it is grace for salvation or grace for service.
Calls to service are all given at the discretion of God. The church as a whole is commanded to desire the greater gifts (1 Cor. 12:31), but the individual believer is not. The Spirit gives as he deems right and appropriate. His giving the greater gifts to some individuals is not because he loves them more than others, but because it is simply his plan for those lives. The gift to pastor, given in grace, is not an expression of love for the pastor but an expression of love for the people.
A pastor must make sure that Christ is first in his life, that all of his life is about the Lord himself and that he reflects the Lord in all that he does. He is not to call attention to himself, rather he is to point people constantly to Christ. He is the vicarious representative of Christ in this world and in churches, families, and friendships. The best he can do is to simply be a channel of God’s love to others, or just be a tool in the Lord’s hands.
Let me share some insights into the pastoral ministry that I have gained over the years.
God desires every Christian and every church to have a pastor: There is no Christian who has ever been saved whom God, in his best will, chose not to have a pastor. Likewise, there is no church that God has brought into existence which God selected not to have a pastor. In each and every situation God has chosen for pastors to be called, equipped, and sent out to serve for the benefit of the Christian and the church.
Ephesians 4:7-16 is the clearest description of the God-ordained role of the pastor. There the word “pastor” is linked to the word “teacher” and it is best understood as a hyphenated word – “pastor-teacher” – describing two aspects of one position. The purpose is two-fold: (a) the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, or the enabling of the followers of Christ to fulfill God’s purpose for the church, and (b) the edifying of the body of Christ, or the strengthening and building up of the Christian and the church fellowship.
This identifies very specific things that a pastor is to do. He is to teach and train others. He is to enable them to serve God more effectively. The nature of his teaching is for the strengthening of the soul of the believer, so he is not merely a dispenser of information but a vicarious representative of Christ himself, ministering to the heart, mind, soul, and life of the believer. His concern, also, is not merely for the individual believer, but for the Christian family and the Christian church.
This is why we associate “pastor” with “overseer” and “elder,” just as the scriptures do.* In Acts 20:17-38, we are given the apostle Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesians elders and there he commanded them to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28 NKJV). So an important part of being a pastor is to be concerned about the other pastors and church leaders around us. I have an obligation given by God as a pastor to also look out for my fellow pastors.
Pastors bring God and his Word into intimate situations in life: One of the most amazing things to be about being a pastor is the way we deal with so many intimate and personal situations. A pastor must be sensitive to the reality that his role is not about prying into people’s private lives, it is not done just to satisfy his curiosity, but rather it is to bring God into people’s lives. To be called by God as a pastor means intimacy with God and intimacy with His people.
Consider the many private and deeply personal matters that pastors deal with. Just a brief list would include these events:
- The moment of salvation, of baptism, of taking the first steps of faith
- Moment of rededication, confession of sins, and deep surrender to Christ
- Marriage: husband and wife starting a life together
- Marriage and family counseling
- The moments of Christian life – Lord’s Supper, worship, affirmation of God’s grace and forgiveness, counseling through crises.
- The moments of grace – learning to lead, training others to teach, to win souls, to counsel
- The moments of worry and anxiety – dealing with personal problems, fears, hurts, intimate and private habits
- The special moments of family: Christmastime, special blessings, child dedication, reconciliations
- Moments of celebration: birth, graduations, achievements, anniversaries
- Moments of fruitfulness: sharing the faith, discipleship, equipping, taking leadership
- Moments of suffering: sickness, loss, failure, disappointment
- The moment of death: the end of a life, helping a family experience the comfort of God
Some have separated the role of pastor from teacher and overseer, and reinterpreted it more in the role of soul-counselor only. But I believe this is not what the Bible presents, and I am afraid that we lose something in the process of trying to make it so. The roles of pastor and teacher are inseparably linked to one another, so as to make it impossible to do one very well without also needing to do the other. To teach the Bible or to lead the church without having a heart of compassion for people and the common problems and challenges they face is a distortion of what God intended pastoral leadership to be.
And to counsel and comfort privately without having any capacity for teaching and proclaiming the Word of God, also, distorts the role of pastoral counselor. A pastor is not a psychological therapist. His calling and work goes much higher and deeper than psychology is capable of going. It would not necessarily harm the pastor to have some knowledge of this field, but his basic orientation and the scope of his work is greater than the psychologist. He is concerned first, last, and foremost, with the spiritual relationship of the individual with God. He brings not just an understanding heart into situations in life, but he brings the knowledge of the Word of God and the presence and life of Christ into human circumstances.
In fact, it should be understood that from a pastor’s perspective, there is no such thing as a mere “human circumstance” – one in which God is irrelevant, superfluous, or unhelpful. The central issue of all of life and all of life’s challenges – each of life’s “moments” – is our relationship with God.
A pastor should personify godly hope: The scripture says that the one who prophesies “speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men” (1 Cor. 14:3). There are some in the world who feel it their calling to merely criticize all that is wrong with the world. Well, there is plenty wrong with this world.
But the heart of a pastor’s message and life direction is to instill the hope of God in all those around him. To be a pastor means to look at the people of God and despite their weaknesses and failures, despite the very things that perhaps even the pastor himself finds annoying, be able to speak a word of hope and love. And not just to the people of God but to the world itself. Paul wrote, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
It is an amazing fact, but the apostle Paul in writing to churches always described them in the highest possible terms. For example to the troubled and conflicted church at Corinth, Paul began:
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:2-3)
Even in his letter of rebuke to the church at Galatia, he began positively, wishing them “Grace to you and peace from God,” reminding them that Christ came “to deliver us from this present evil age” (Galatians 1:3-4). Even when rebuking was needed – and it was often needed – the apostolic example was to proclaim the positive love and grace of God.
And this was also the example of the prophets in the Old Testament. No matter how negatively their overall message, no matter how greatly they rebuked the people of God, there was always a bright ray of the light of the hope of God. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). The heart of the Christian message consists of grace, love, life, forgiveness, and hope. If we preach against evil, we have not done our duty until we have also preached the hope and grace of God. If we call people to repent, we also invite them to receive cleansing and a new life in Christ.
My pastoral advice: In light of this short little study, let me recommend that you look for a pastor who loves the Lord, who loves God’s Word, who knows it and can teach it, and who loves God’s people, and not just God’s people but the whole world. You will not progress spiritually the way that God had intended without the help of a godly pastor. Let me encourage you to support your pastor, to pray for him and his family, to encourage him, and to trust him. If a pastor shows that he is unworthy of your trust, go and find one whom you can trust.
None of us pastors are perfect, and everyone of us has “feet of clay.” If you dig around in our lives and our habits, I am sure you can find something in our lives that is less than perfect. But as we let Christ grow us into his image, as we learn more of him, as we allow him to have more and more of our lives and our personalities, we will become more effective for him. As Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20a).
*The key passages in the New Testament on the role of the pastor are: Acts 20:28; Ephesians. 4:7-11; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:5-16; 1 Peter 5:1-11. The words “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer,” or “bishop,” all refer generally to the same position. The word “pastor” is used the least among these in the New Testament, “elder,” and “overseer” are used much more. “Pastor” literally means “shepherd” is more often used in the New Testament to refer to Christ (John 10 and 1 Peter 2:25). Peter called Jesus the “Chief Shepherd” or “Chief Pastor” (1 Peter 5:4), and thereby the human pastor is the undershepherd.
There are several common themes among these passages: the importance of a personal faith relationship with Christ, the knowledge and use of the Word of God, sacrificial service for Christ, teaching with all patience, keeping watch over others, leading with wisdom, walking with the Spirit, having a deep prayer life, warning and rebuking when necessary, and the respect due to the leaders.
The Southern Baptist Convention in its doctrinal statements of 1963 and 2000 – The Baptist Faith and Message – chose to use a cultural understanding of the word “pastor” and substitute it for the more accurate word “overseer.” For example, in 1963 they said that the officers of the church were “pastors and deacons” and used both Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3 as scriptural references for this statement. However, both of those passages use the word “overseer” or “bishop” and not “pastor.” There was little disagreement among Southern Baptists in the South because there was enough cultural common understanding that everyone fairly well knew what they meant. But outside the South this led to some misunderstanding.
A clear biblical case can be made to say that God intended the overseers of a church to be men – this is based simply on an understanding of 1 Timothy 2:8-3:7. Acts 20:28 passage also teaches that the overseers should be doing the work of pastoring or shepherd the church – so all overseers should be pastors. But does this mean that all pastors are thereby overseers?
A biblical case can be made for a woman holding the title “pastor” (but not “overseer”) since “pastor” is only listed in church leadership in Ephesians 4:11 alongside of “prophets.” And since we know there were many women who were called “prophetesses” – Anna was called a prophetess (Luke 2:36), as was: Miriam (Exod. 15:20-21); Deborah (Judges 4:4); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14); Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3); the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:8-9) – some can argue that there is nothing necessarily unbiblical with calling a woman a pastor. It only becomes problematic if “pastor” is understood to also mean “the overseer,” and therein lies the problem. Some places on earth it does, and some places on earth it does not.
Some have tried to make this case by connecting the words “pastor-teacher” in Ephesians 4:11 to the statement in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” Yet in the context, especially in light of the many women in scriptural history who did teach and instruct on some level, the heart of Paul’s concern appeared not to be teaching alone but teaching with authority to lead the church. Dr Thomas Lea in his commentary on 1 Timothy understood 1 Timothy 2:12 as only forbidding a woman from taking the title of the main pastor or the overseer of a church.
However, if the title “pastor” is culturally understood to include concepts of “pastoral authority,” which it does in many cultures around the world, then to allow a woman to have the title might lead to division in the fellowship. Whenever people speak and teach they should do so not only to be understood, but also so as to not be misunderstood. Yet we should not automatically misjudge the national Christian movements around the world which give the title “pastor” to women. I would strongly urge caution and patient understanding here for the sake of Christian unity.
For me and the international church I am privileged to pastor today, I would not recommend we call any woman in the church “pastor,” simply because it will surely be misunderstood by many to also mean “overseer,” whether we intend it to or not. The Bible says, “Therefore let us pursue the things which made for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19). We should not use our Christian liberty to cause division.