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Pagan Priests Called Pastors
18 August 2013
 
 
It was almost exactly three years ago that I reviewed the book Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna.

In that article, I gave a general overview of the book, without going into too much detail. But yesterday I decided to dig a little deeper by sharing quotes from the chapter of that book which deals with pagan temples called churches.

Today I'm going to share selections from the chapter which examines the ubiquitous system of professional clergy. Please note that I have changed the authors' use of pastor to pastor/priest in many places. The authors were writing specifically about Protestant Christianity in America, while I would like to focus on the global church, to which their insights are equally applicable.

Because the chapter on pastors/priests is too long to share here in its entirety — 39 pages — I will share only the highlights, which I originally made with my very own colored pencil. In order to understand the complete picture, I STRONGLY urge you to get a copy of this book as soon as possible and read the whole thing for yourself.
The pastor/priest. He is the fundamental figure of the Christian faith. So prevailing is the pastor/priest in the minds of most Christians that he is often better known, more highly praised, and more heavily relied upon than Jesus Christ Himself! Remove the pastor/priest and most churches would be thrown into a panic. Remove the pastor/priest, and Christianity as we know it would die. The pastor/priest is the dominating focal point, mainstay, and centerpiece of the contemporary church. He is the embodiment of Christianity.

But here is the profound irony. There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor/priest! He simply did not exist in the early church. Note that we are using the term pastor/priest throughout this chapter to depict the contemporary pastoral/priestly office and role, not the specific individual who fills this role. By and large, those who serve in the office of pastor/priest are wonderful people. They are honorable, decent, and very often gifted Christians who love God and have a zeal to serve His people. But it is the role they fill that both Scripture and church history are opposed to.

Today those who feel called to the ministry of the local church generally believe their options are limited to serving as a pastor or worship leader. While being called to the Lord's work is definitely a real experience, these positions did not exist in the first century. Nevertheless, though their office is without scriptural basis, pastors often do help people. But they help people despite their office, not because of it.

The word pastors does appear in the New Testament: "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers." (Ephesians 4:11) The following observations are to be made about this text:
  • This is the only verse in the entire New Testament where the word pastor is used. One solitary verse is a mighty scanty piece of evidence on which to hang the Protestant faith! In this regard, there seems to be more biblical authority for snake handling (see Mark 16:18 and Acts 28:3-6) than there is for the present-day pastor. Roman Catholics have made the same error with the word priest. You can find the word priest used in the New Testament three times. In every case, it refers to all Christians.
  • The Greek word translated pastors is poimenas. It means shepherds. (Pastor is the Latin word for shepherd.) Pastor, then, is a metaphor to describe a particular function in the church. It is not an office or title. A first-century shepherd had nothing to do with the specialized and professional sense it has come to have in contemporary Christianity. Shepherds are those who naturally provide nurture and care for God's sheep. It is a profound error, therefore, to confuse shepherds with an office or title as is commonly conceived today.
  • At best, Ephesians 4:11 is oblique. It offers absolutely no definition or description of who pastors are. It simply mentions them. Regrettably, we have filled this word with out own Western concept of what a pastor is. We have read our idea of the contemporary pastor back into the New Testament. Never would any first-century Christian have conceived of the contemporary pastoral/priestly office!
The New Testament never uses the secular Greek words for civil and religious authorities to depict ministers in the church. Further, even though most New Testament authors were steeped in the Jewish priestly system of the Old Testament, they never use hiereus (priest) to refer to Christian ministry. Ordination to office presupposes a static and definable church leadership role that did not exist in the apostolic churches.

For us the words bishops, presbyters, and deacons are stored with the associations of nearly two thousand years. For the people who first used them, the titles of these offices can have meant little more than inspectors [or overseers or supervisors], older men and helpers. It was when unsuitable theological significance began to be attached to them that the distortion of the concept of Christian ministry began. First-century shepherds were the local elders (presbyters) and overseers of the church. Their function was at odds with the contemporary pastoral/priestly role.

If contemporary pastors/priests were absent from the early church, where did they come from? And how did they rise to such a prominent position in the Christian faith? The roots of this tale are tangled and complex, and they reach as far back as the fall of man. With the Fall came an implicit desire in people to have a physical leader to bring them to God. This person is always marked by special training, special garb, a special vocabulary, and a special was of life.

The medicine man, the shaman, the rhapsodist, the miracle worker, the witch doctor, the soothsayer, the wise man, and the priest have all been with us since Adam's blunder. Christianity learnt from the example of pagan religions that most men find it difficult to understand or approach God without the aid of a man who in some sense stands for God, represents Him, and feels called to devote himself to this representative ministry. Alongside humanity's fallen quest for a human spiritual mediator is the obsession with the hierarchical form of leadership.

Up until the second century, the church had no official leadership. That it had leaders is without dispute. But leadership was unofficial in the sense that there were no religious "offices" or sociological slots to fill. The word office has no analog in the Greek New Testament when referring to Christian leaders. We read these conventions of human sociological organization back into our New Testament.

The Christians themselves led the church under Christ's direct headship. Leaders were organic, untitled, and were recognized by their service and spiritual maturity rather than by a title or an office. The vocabulary of New Testament leadership allows no pyramidal structures. In the writings of the early church fathers, the words shepherd, overseer, and elder are always used interchangeably, as is the case in the New Testament. Bishops, elders, and shepherds (always in the plural) continued to be regarded as identical up until the beginning of the second century.

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-107) was instrumental in this shift. He was the first figure in church history to take a step down the slippery slope toward a single leader in the church. We can trace the origin of the contemporary pastor/priest and church hierarchy to him. Ignatius elevated one of the elders in each church above all the others. The elevated elder was now called the bishop. All the responsibilities that belonged to the college [team] of elders were exercised by the bishop.

For Ignatius, the bishop stood in the place of God while the presbyters, or elders, stood in the place of the twelve apostles. It fell to the bishop alone to celebrate the Lord's Supper, conduct baptisms, give counsel, discipline church members, approve marriages, and preach sermons. In Ignatius's mind, the bishop was the remedy for dispelling false doctrine and establishing church unity. Ignatius believed that if the church would survive the onslaught of heresy, it had to develop a rigid power structure patterned after the centralized political structure of Rome.

At the time of Ignatius, the one-bishop rule had not caught on in other regions. But by the mid-second century, this model was firmly established in most churches. By the end of the third century, it prevailed everywhere. The bishop became a fixed office as the solo pastor/priest of the church — the professional in common worship.

Clement of Rome was the first Christian writer to make a distinction in status between Christian leaders and nonleaders, using the word laity to distinguish them from the ministers. Clement argued that the Old Testament order of priests should find fulfillment in the Christian church. Later, Tertullian was the first writer to use the word clergy to refer to a separate class of Christians.

Bishops began to be called priests, a custom that became common by the third century. They were also called pastors on occasion. In the third century, every church had its own bishop, who together with the presbyters started to be called "the clergy." By the fourth century, this graded hierarchy dominated the Christian faith. The clergy caste was now cemented.

The New Testament, on the other hand, never uses the terms clergy and laity and does not support the concept that there are those who do ministry (clergy) and those to whom ministry is done (laity). Thus what we have in Tertullian and Clement is a clear break from the New Testament Christian mind-set where all believers shared the same status.

The Emperor Constantine was the first to give bishops tremendous privileges. They became involved in politics, which separated them further from the presbyters. In AD 333, the bishops were placed on an equal footing with Roman magistrates.

The Greco-Roman culture that surrounded the early Christians reinforced the graded hierarchy that was slowly infiltrating the church. Human hierarchy and "official" ministry institutionalized the church of Jesus Christ. Soon after Constantine took the throne in the early fourth century, the church became a full-fledged, top-down, hierarchically organized society. He organized the church into dioceses along the pattern of the Roman regional districts.

Bishops ruled over the churches just as Roman governors ruled over their provinces. In fact, Constantine gave the bishops of Rome more power than he gave Roman governors. To be among the clergy was to receive the greatest of advantages. He also ordered that the clergy receive fixed annual allowances (ministerial pay)! It should come as no surprise that so many people in Constantine's day experienced a sudden "call to the ministry." To their minds, being a church officer had become more of a career than a calling. The concept of the priesthood of all believers had completely disappeared from Christian practice.

All of this was a gross odds with God's way for His church. The early church was the first "lay-led" movement in history. Elders naturally emerged in a church through the process of time. They were not appointed to an external office. Instead, they were recognized by virtue of their seniority and spiritual service to the church. But with the death of the apostles and the men they trained, things began to change. Since that time, the church of Jesus Christ has derived its pattern for church organization from the societies in which it has been places — despite our Lord's warning that He was initiating a new society with a unique character (Matthew 23:8-11 and Mark 10:42-45). In striking contrast to the Old Testament provisions made at Mt. Sinai, neither Jesus nor Paul imposed any fixed organizational patterns for the New Israel.

From where did Christians get their pattern of ordination? They patterned their ordination ceremony after the Roman custom of appointing men to civil office. The entire process, down to the very words, came straight from the Roman civic world. By the fourth century, the terms used for the appointment to Roman office and for Christian ordination became synonymous. When Constantine made Christianity the religion of choice, church leadership structures were buttressed by political sanction. The forms of the Old Testament priesthood were combined with Greek hierarchy. Sadly, the church was secure in this new form — just as it is today.

Gregory of Nyssa argued that ordination makes the priest "invisibly but actually a different, better man," raising him high above the laity. If you are wondering why and how the present-day pastor/priest got to be so exalted as the "holy man of God," these are the roots.

First-century shepherd (elders, overseers) did not receive anything that resembles modern-day ordination. They were not set above the rest of the flock. The New Testament nowhere limits preaching, baptizing, or distributing the Lord's Supper to the "ordained." The clerty-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies.

The power to ordain became the crucial issue in holding religious authority. As a result, ordinary believers, generally uneducated and ignorant, were at the mercy of a professional clergy. Ordination produced an ecclesiastical caste that usurped the believing priesthood.

During the Reformation, the Reformers only recovered the priesthood of the believer (singular). They reminded us that every Christian has individual and immediate access to God. As wonderful as that is, they did not recover the priesthood of all believers (collective plural). This is the blessed truth that every Christian is part of a clan that shares God's Word one with another. (It was the Anabaptists who recovered this practice. Regrettably, this recovery was one of the reasons why Protestant and Catholic swords were red with Anabaptist blood.) The Reformers still affirmed the clergy-laity split. Only in their rhetoric did they state that all believers were priests and ministers. In their practice they denied it.

Tragically, Luther and the other Reformers violently denounced the Anabaptists for practicing every-member functioning in the church. The Anabaptists believed it was every Christian's right to stand up and speak in a meeting. It was not solely the domain of the clergy. Luther was so opposed to this practice that he said it came from "the pit of hell" and those who were guilty of it should be put to death. In short, the Reformers retained the idea that ordination was the key to having power in the church, and that it was a paid role. Luther wrote, "The mouth of every pastor is the mouth of Christ, therefore you ought to listen to the pastor not as a man, but as God." Such ideas reveal a flawed view of the church.

The Protestant Reformation struck a blow to Roman Catholic sacerdotalism. It was not a fatal blow, however, but merely a semantic change in terminology. The Reformers retained the one-bishop rule. The pastor now played the role of the bishop. The bishop-driven church evolved into the pastor-driven church. Differences between Catholic and Protestant clergy were blurred in practice and theology. In both kinds of churches, the clergy were a class apart; in both, their special status was based on Divine initiatives; and in both, certain duties were reserved to them.

The long-standing, post-Biblical tradition of the one-bishop rule (now embodied in the pastor) prevails in the Protestant church today. Tremendous psychological factors make lay-people feel that ministry is the responsibility of the pastor/priest. It's his job. He's the expert is often their thinking. The unscriptural clergy/laity distinction had done untold harm to the body of Christ. It has divided the believing community into first- and second-class Christians. The clergy/laity dichotomy perpetuates an awful falsehood — namely, that some Christians are more privileged than others to serve the Lord.

The one-man ministry is entirely foreign to the New Testament, yet we embrace it while it suffocates our functioning. We are living stones, not dead ones. However, the pastoral/priestly office has transformed us into stones that do not breathe. We believe the pastoral/priestly office has stolen your right to function as a full member of Christ's body. It has distorted the reality of the body, making the pastor/priest a giant mouth and transforming you into a tiny ear. It has rendered you a mute spectator who is proficient at taking sermon notes and passing a offering plate.

The contemporary pastorate/priesthood rivals the functional headship of Christ in His church. It illegitimately holds the unique place of centrality and headship among God's people, a place that is reserved for only one Person — the Lord Jesus. Jesus Christ is the only head over a church and the final word to it. By his office, the pastor displaces and supplants Christ's headship by setting himself up as the church's human head.

For this reason, we believe the present-day pastoral/priestly role hinders the fulfillment of God's eternal purpose. Why? Because that purpose is centered on making Christ's headship visibly manifested in the church through the free, open, mutually participatory, every-member functioning of the Body. As long as the pastoral office is present in a particular church, that church will have a slim chance of witnessing such a glorious thing.

The contemporary pastor not only does damage to God's people, he does damage to himself. The pastoral office has a way of chewing up many who come within its parameters. Depression, burnout, stress, and emotional breakdown occur at abnormally high rates among pastors. At the time of this writing, there are reportedly more than 500,000 paid pastors serving churches in the United States. Among this massive number of religious professionals, consider the following statistics that testify to the lethal danger of the pastoral office:
  • 94 percent feel pressured to have an ideal family.
  • 90 percent work more than forty-six hours a week.
  • 81 percent say they have insufficient time with their spouses.
  • 80 percent believe that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively.
  • 70 percent do not have someone they consider a close friend.
  • 70 percent have lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.
  • 50 percent feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 80 percent are discouraged or deal with depression.
  • More than 40 percent report that they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations.
  • 33 percent consider pastoral ministry an outright hazard to the family.
  • 33 percent have seriously considered leaving their position in the past year.
  • 40 percent of pastoral resignations are due to burnout.
Most pastors are expected to juggle sixteen major tasks at once. And many crumble under the pressure. For this reason, 1,400 ministers in all denominations across the United States are fired or forced to resign each month. Over the past twenty years, the average length of a pastorate has declined from seven years to just over for years. Jesus Christ never intended any person to sport all the hats a present-day pastor is expected to wear. He never intended any one person to bear such a load. The demands of the pastorate are crushing; they will drain any mortal dry.

The real question is, should we support an office and a role that has no basis in the New Testament? If the modern pastoral office and role is a God-inspired development, then we should support it. But if it is not, we should not be surprised to learn it has harmful effects on those who fill the role.
In closing, I again want to STRONGLY urge you to get a copy of this book as soon as possible and read the whole thing for yourself. It could be one of the most important books you have ever read, especially if you want to be a true follower of Yeshua (Jesus), and not merely a follower of the man-made religion commonly called Christianity.
This article is 24th a series of articles on this Web site related to Modern Christianity and the Church which also includes (scroll to see the entire list):
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9  Nov  2008
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27  Nov  2008
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12  Jun  2010
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9  Sep  2010
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10  Jul  2013
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17  Aug  2013
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Pagan Priests Called Pastors
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Reader Comments
On May 18, 2015, Benjamin wrote:
Very intriguing article! Within the last year I've gone from a pastors led church to one where everyone chips in. It's amazing how my old church had elders and deacons who acted like bumps on a log. They turned everything over to the pastor, and the "youth minister" was starting to take over right before we left. If you can, can you do an article over youth ministers? I believe they're a big threat to the church. Every time I've seen a youth group there becomes a split between the young and old and Christianity becomes all about having fun and satisfying the self. My old church was basically letting the youth run the church into bankruptcy. At my new church though theres five of us men that rotate the preaching. None of us have any training, but I've learned more in less than a year from common people preaching than I have in years of college educated preachers. There's 30 of us total. We don't have any "official" elders, but the men meet together and discuss what to do. Another thing is that different families are in charge of each Sunday on a rotating schedule. The service follows the same format, but is individualized in wholeads songs and what we sing, and who they want passing around the communion and offering plates and doing a communion devotion. We also are involved in a nursing home ministry one Sunday a month. Your article is dead on! I'm sorry for rambling, but escaping the pastor led church was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Every Christian needs to pitch in and care for each other. Dumping everything onto one person is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately a lot of people seem to want to be turned off of being anything other than a pew warmer.
On May 18, 2015, Brian wrote:
In reply to Benjamin's post above: I really appreciate your comments and insights ... thanks for sharing! I'm glad you found this article useful. Of course, the ideas were not mine, I was merely quoting from the book Pagan Christianity. As I said in the above article, I STRONGLY urge you to get a copy of this book and read the whole thing. It will shake you to your core ... and that's a GOOD thing! Blessing to you in your journey!
 
You can also send comments to me privately at: 2bits@briansbits.com
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