J.P. Moreland in one of his lectures on why our cultures has become secular said that he believed the notion of the senior pastor is an unbiblical notion. Moreland said:
“I do not be such thing called senior pastor… [The] single thing that has damaged the church is the idea that we ought to have a person called the minister.”
But how does this concept of hierarchical leadership in the church come about?
After all, there is only one scriptural reference where the word “pastors” is mentioned and it is in Ephesians 4:11 and even then it is stated in its plural form. The Bible makes no mention of hierarchical pastoral structure. Ephesians 4:11 merely mention pastors as a function in the church, just as some are to function as apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers. It does not describe who these pastors are.
In chapter 5 of their book Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, Frank Viola and George Barna documented from various sources a number of factors of how the plurality of pastoral leadership evolve into a hierarchical one with the senior pastor. These include:
1. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107 A.D.)
Although Ignatius of Antioch may have the good intention of combating false doctrines and preserving church unity through a rigid power structure patterned after the centralized political structure of Rome, but this has inadvertently he was the first one to have set the ball rolling down a slippery slope towards hierarchical pastoral leadership.
Ignatius of Antioch in his series of letter elevated one of the elders above the others. The elevated elder was called the bishop. Ignatius of Antioch said:
“Plainly therefore, we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself…All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father….He that honors the bishop is honored of God.
2. Clement of Rome and Tertullian
Clement and Tertullian were among the first writers to have distinguished the clergy from the laity. The word laity is derived from the Greek word laos, which means “the people” and the term clergy is derived from the Greek word klēroō which means “a lot, a share, an inheritance”. But the New Testament never uses the word klēroō for any particular leader or groups of leaders. Rather, it uses the word for the whole people of God (see Eph 1:11, Gal 3:29, Col 1:12, 1 Pet 5:3).
The writings of Hippolytus further gave power to the bishops to even forgive sins!
4. Cyprian of Carthage
Cyprian of Carthage reintroduced a number of OT concepts such as the need for priests, temples, altars. The bishops began to be called priests. Cyprian also introduced the doctrine of spiritual covering because he believed that the bishops have no other superior other than God. Cyprian also taught the notion that when the priest offered the Eucharist, he was actually offering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By the fifth century, the concept of the priesthood of all believers had completely disappeared from the Christian practice.
5. Constantine and the influence of Greco-Roman culture
Under Constantine, Christianity was both recognized and honored by the state. But this has blurred the demarcation between the church and the state. Bishops were given tremendous privileges by Constantine and they began to became involved in politics. Secular-spiritual, laity-clergy and profane-sacred gaps widened.
6. The reformation.
Although the reformation brought about many good things, it failed to address the issue of hierarchical leadership structure. Although the office of the bishop was rejected, but the underlying concept of hierarchical leadership in the church was maintained albeit a different name, i.e. pastors.
In my analysis, I agree and disagree with J.P. Moreland. I would agree with him that hierarchical pastoral structure with the senior pastor at the top is not found in the Bible. The only verse regarding pastors is in Eph 4:11 and that is expressed in its plural form to describe the shepherding function for some in the church. Nowhere did it mention the senior pastor as compared to lower ranked pastors.
I agree that the notion of senior pastors can sometimes create codependency between the senior pastor and his members as long as both of them continue to depend on each other to meet each other's psychological and spiritual fulfillment. For the members in need of counseling, they will look up to their senior pastor for answers. For the senior pastor, the danger occurs when he feeds on the admiration and praise of his members for affirmations and identity. Furthermore, this sort of hierarchical pastoral structure can create a lot of loneliness for the people on top.
However, for J.P Moreland to say that this is the single thing that has damaged the church, I think this is an overgeneralization. A lot of good things can come out from the senior pastor leadership when the senior pastor is one who is humble and sensitive to the leading of God. Paul, although is not officially declared a senior pastor, is often looked up to and probably has played the role of the senior pastor.
Viola, Frank, and Barna, George. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream, IL: Barna, 2008.