I recently resigned from my vocational pastoral position. It’s a wonder Jesus entrusts his most cherished possession to the care of foolish men like myself. That the church will survive into eternity can only be explained by the power of God.
Naturally, I am sorting through exactly who and what I am these days. Is the pastoral office like being a doctor or lawyer? A doctor is an M.D. whether or not he has patients to treat. A lawyer is a J.D. whether or not he has clients to represent. Is one a pastor whether or not he has congregants to oversee? Can one be a shepherd if he has no formal responsibility for any sheep?
While the AMA certifies doctors and the state Bar Association certifies lawyers, who certifies a pastor? Can anyone declare themselves a pastor? Once you are a pastor are you always a pastor even if you have no church to lead? Does a pastor retain his “credentials” for a lifetime?
Church life is messy because Christians are messy. “Ideally” is the exception rather than the rule. Acknowledging that our experience invites some gray into the picture, we can arrive at some biblical principles that should inform our understanding of the pastoral office. I offer the following ruminations in no particular order while reserving the right to be absolutely wrong on any or all of them.
1. The sense of the NT seems to be that the pastor’s service is inextricably related to a local church. There are no pastor/elders without local churches they oversee. Wherever elders/pastors are addressed, encouraged or exhorted, it is always in relation to their ministry to/in a local congregation (for example, see Acts 11.29-30; 14.23; 15.2; 20.17, 28; Titus 1.5). One is not “called” to be a pastor and then “called” to find a church. Rather, one is recognized as a pastor by a local church for that local church. The title “pastor” or “elder” is bestowed by the local church (by whatever means they appoint such men). There are tricky situations not always fitting the mold and challenge this conviction. But the governing principle should be that the pastor is such in relation to, by the authority of and for the service in a particular, local congregation. While a churchless pastor might still retain his desires and gifts for the office, he remains to be affirmed by a local congregation. His title is not his to wield but the church’s to grant.
2. Paul instructs Timothy that the process of recognizing a pastor involves two cooperating elements. One, a man must want to do it (1 Tim 3.1). Two, the church must recognize his God-wrought desires and a demonstrable pattern of gospel progress and example (1 Tim 3.2-7; cf. Titus 1.5-9). Where either one of these elements are missing or not readily apparent then one does not assume himself a pastor.
A gentleman may well demonstrate all the characteristics expected of a pastor/elder. In reality, those qualifications are nothing that we shouldn’t expect from any Christian. But the potential pastor/elder should certainly demonstrate a consistent, tested pattern of gospel progress and behavior. But, that very man may simply not aspire to the pastoral office. He might not want to to do it. And that’s okay because he’s already doing the most important thing.
Perhaps a man has been a pastor and still demonstrates gospel progress and behavior. His church would love nothing more than for him to continue serving them in Word and prayer. But, he might well lose his aspirations to do it. There is no shame or dishonor in that. Assuming there is no moral or doctrinal failure, he is not shaking his fist at God. His highest “calling” is from and to Christ. How that is worked out in the life of the church can be manifold. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as pastor/elder.
Or, a gentleman may have all the aspirations in the world to be a pastor but doesn’t demonstrate consistent gospel progress. No matter how much he may desire to be a pastor, if a church cannot readily affirm the outward expressions of a vibrant faith in Christ then he cannot be pastor/elder. He is not the arbiter of his fitness; the local church is. If a man has stronger desires to pastor than he does to live out the gospel then his desires are sorely and selfishly misguided.
I suggest these two elements must agree for one to be considered a pastor/elder in title. A man may well desire to be a pastor and, given the opportunity, a local church would affirm his faith and pastoral gifts. But until then he is not Pastor-with-a-capital-P. He may have left a church where he was pastor/elder and/or may be heading to a church where he’ll be the same. But, we must protect the NT principle that a man’s desires and his character must be affirmed by a local congregation for the title Pastor/Elder should be bestowed.
3. As I’ve sought counsel (which has been more like baptized whining), Romans 11.29 has been offered as encouragement: “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” In other words, a pastor is “called” by God and he will never be “uncalled” by God. While I sincerely appreciate the counsel and encouragement intended, I am not convinced Paul meant that at all.
Clearly, the most immediate context of Rom 11.29 is v28, which v29 continues with “for” (Gk. gar). Verse 29 is grounding Paul’s argument in v30, itself obviously part of the larger context of chapters 9-11. In v28, Paul is explaining the dual nature of ethnic Israel. At this point in time, Jews are enemies as related to the gospel. They reject Jesus and therefore stand against the Gentile mission. But, in the big picture of redemptive-history and God’s election, Jews are not categorically cut off from God’s grace in the gospel. It may look bleak now, but there is still hope for them. In that light, Paul offered v29 as the foundation for a Jew’s hope for salvation. What God started God will finish.
Now, whatever we make of ethnic versus “true” Israel in Romans 9-11, in no way is v29 speaking to any individual pastoral “calling.” Paul was not speaking of the pastoral office at all, but the larger stream of redemptive-history and Israel’s role in it.
While there may be occasion to affirm a churchless pastor’s gifts and desires, Romans 11.29 simply isn’t the verse to do it. But I’ll take encouragement wherever I can get it!
4. What is the nature of “calling”? The kaleo word group in its various forms is common in the NT. There is a “calling” to apostle (cf. Rom 1.1; 1 Cor 1.1; 15.9). Beyond that, “calling” is always in reference to salvation (cf. Rom 1.6; 8.28; 1 Cor 1.9; Eph 4.1; Col 3.15; 1 Tim 6.12). Christians are saved in that they are “called” (summoned) by God to Christ. Every Christian, therefore, is “called” by God.
And as often as it is used it never refers to any service performed in the local church. No one is ever “called” (at least in the sense that Scripture uses it) to any ministry in the local church. Ironically, there are many who feel “called” to certain ministries in the local church who may well not have been called by God to Christ! There may well be aspirations, gifts and abilities suited for certain ministries, but “calling” is by God to Christ in salvation. We work out that “calling” by serving one another in whatever capacity we can in the local church.
This is not to say God doesn’t impress on us avenues of service. He certainly does. But to load up the pastoral office (or any local church service) with the weight of an irrevocable “calling” stretches the biblical evidence too far.
So, what am I? I’m not sure. I’m a guy who still loves pastoral ministry (1 Tim 3.1). Perhaps a church might affirm those desires and strain itself to testify to some gospel maturity (1 Tim 3.2-7). But until then I still have the highest “calling” life. It’s one I share with every other Christ follower. And whether or not a title is ever graciously bestowed, I join every other Christian in working out God’s calling in the regular ministry to the saints in the church.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3.20-21).