By Roy E. Knuteson. From Baptist Bulletin (September/October 2008); used by permission. © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.
Years ago a minister was called “the parson,” meaning “the person.” He was a VIP. He was honored as the preacher of the gospel, a molder of public opinion, and the conscience of the community. Not so today. A recently published survey revealed the most respected people in the average American community. Ministers ranked far down on the list, behind doctors, judges, psychologists, civic leaders, and police officers. Why?
No doubt the widespread sexual and financial scandals among members of the clergy have seriously affected the public opinion of them. Unfortunately, many pastors are mere puppets, moved by the whims of their parishioners. Some are controlled by a few strong laypeople, and others are “religious politicians” instead of prophets of God. Fortunate is the congregation whose pastor speaks “the very words of God” (NIV, 1 Peter 4:11) and diligently leads the church.
We believe that the Bible words “elder” and “bishop” refer to and include the pastor (or pastors) of a local church. Each of these titles reveals a facet of his divine calling. As an elder, he is to provide mature, responsible leadership. As the bishop, he is to be the general manager, providing careful oversight of the Lord’s work. And as the pastor, he is charged with caring for and feeding the flock of God (Acts 20:28).
Such divinely commissioned leaders are important individuals in God’s sight—and should be in the eyes of every Christian as well. Our Lord places great importance upon the pastor-parishioner relationship. In fact, He expects every believer to voluntarily be under the leadership and teaching of a godly pastor. The Bible allows no exceptions.
Recently a pastor introduced some new members at the close of a morning service by saying, “We welcome you to all the privileges and responsibilities of church membership.” Responsibilities? What did he mean? While the pastor did not explain, the Bible does. According to the Word of God, every Christian is under divine obligation in at least three areas: intercession, remuneration, and submission.
Paul wrote, “Brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). He also commended the believers in Corinth for helping him through their prayers (2 Corinthians 1:11). And the writer of Hebrews exhorted Christians everywhere to “remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (13:7). Every pastor therefore needs, covets, and deserves the prayers of his people. Unfortunately, it is much easier to criticize a minister than it is to intercede for him. In fact, many preachers experience more trouble from within the body than from without.
During a pastor’s first year, he and the church experience a period of unusual harmony, a honeymoon of sorts. The congregation laughs at his jokes and comments happily about his personal mannerisms. They appreciate their pastor’s different kind of sermons, and they usually pray for him.
By the second year, some of his personality traits start to bug at least some members of the congregation. By then they have discovered that this man is not the wonder worker they thought him to be. Members no longer invite their friends to “hear our preacher.” The critical period of any pastorate is apt to occur during this year, especially if the new pastor has followed a minister of long-standing. In just this short time, it has become easier to criticize the pastor than to pray for him.
During the third year, some members actually despise their pastor. Whisper campaigns might begin, and sometimes petitions are circulated requesting his resignation. The only intercession for the pastor is the secret “prayer meetings” called to “pray over the problem.” This is one of the primary reasons the average ministerial tenure in America is three years or less.
We need to ask ourselves, “Have I really supported my pastor in prayer?” Jonathan Edwards once said, “If some Christians that have been complaining of their ministers had said and acted less before man and had applied themselves with all their might to cry to God for their ministers—had, as it were, risen and stormed heaven with their humble, fervent, and incessant prayers for them—they would have been much more in the way of success.” If you really want to fire your pastor, then intercede for him. You owe it to him.
Old Testament Israelites supported their priests in grand style through their tithes. So it should not surprise us that New Testament believers are reminded that the “Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Paul commanded, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain, and, The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Timothy 5:17, 18). Believer’s Bible Commentary (MacDonald and Farstad) states that the word “double honor” means “worthy of respect because of his work, but also, if his time is devoted to this work fully, he is also worthy of financial help.”
Why shouldn’t ministers have an adequate salary? Yet consistently today, pastors are often in the lower income bracket, and some are scarcely getting by.
One of the problems, particularly in smaller churches, is that many individuals in leadership have little or no experience in management. They are usually on the receiving end themselves; therefore, they cannot understand why pastors need automobile and housing allowances, a retirement program, and medical and dental insurance. Yet most employees today receive all of these benefits, plus automatic raises and cost of living increases (often under union pressure), but not the pastor.
In addition, there is no monetary incentive program for ministers, as there is for others in managerial positions or for salespeople. One pastor remarked, “The less I do, the more I make!” meaning that the fewer miles he drives on visitation calls and the fewer times he takes a salvation or membership prospect out to lunch, the more money he has for himself and his family. This is unfortunate, but so often true. I assure you, your pastor will be free to do a better job if he is cared for financially. Your church will prosper, and your pastor will be thankful. You owe it to him.
In these days when liberty and freedom are distorted concepts, it is imperative that we get back to the Bible, which flatly states, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive” (Hebrews 13:17). It is abundantly clear that in the formative days of the church, there were two primary divisions among God’s people: namely, those who led and those who were led. These same classifications are binding upon Christians throughout this age.
We recognize that all believers are “priests unto God” (Revelation 1:6, KJV) and that all share the same standing and privileges before the Lord. Yet a chain of command has been divinely established for the local church. It is absolutely essential for the proper functioning and well-being of the body. Therefore, believers must be loyal and must show respect for the men who have received their pastoral calling from Christ Himself (see Ephesians 4:11-12). To ignore or rebel against the concept of pastoral leadership is to despise the One Who appointed them.
The obedience demanded in Hebrews 13:17 refers first to the pastor’s teaching ministry. Kenneth Wuest translated this command as “yield yourself trustingly to their teaching.” To submit to a pastor’s faithful exposition and application of the Word is to obey God. However, the words “obey” and “submit” are not restricted in application to his preaching alone. God expects believers to respond to the pastor’s shepherding of the flock as well. Christians are to respect and respond to the wise leadership of their ministers as they would to the Lord Himself. Jesus said, “He who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (John 13:20). The apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthian believers to “imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
However, a word of caution is necessary. A believer is under no obligation to obey the pastor’s teaching if it is obviously at variance with the Bible. Nor is a believer required to submit to any decision or counsel that clearly dishonors the Lord or disobedient to His Word. Every pastor should therefore encourage his people to “test all things” and to “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Paul commended the Berean believers for doing those very things with his teaching (Acts 17:11).
But for a person to withhold this Biblical allegiance to God’s man and to speak contemptuously against the pastor’s position of leadership is to despise a divine institution, because the appointment of a pastor is as much God’s doing as the appointment of the church itself. Instead, prompted by love, believers are to submit with the goal of honoring those to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7).
Pastors have a sobering, serious position under God. According to Hebrews 13:17, they are to “watch out for [believers’] souls.” This should be motive enough for any spiritually minded Christian to gladly respond to the Lord’s appointed leaders. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 13, believers are to “recognize those who labor among [them], and are over [them] in the Lord and who admonish [them], and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.”
A second motive for believers’ correct response to leadership is that they will give an account to the Lord. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, pastors, or “God’s stewards” (Titus 1:7), will give a personal accounting of their ministry of teaching and leading (2 Corinthians 5:10). Diligent Christians can immensely help their ministers by cheerfully cooperating with them as they endeavor to follow “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4).
Finally, Christians ought to gladly respond to godly leadership, because pastors will want to report “with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). God is highly displeased with insubordinate Christians; and they, too, will appear at the Judgment Seat of Christ, to “receive the things done in the body, according to what [they have] done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). A godly, submissive spirit now will bring great reward in the future.
If your pastor is a God-called leader and is diligent in his work for the Lord, you owe him your constant prayers, your continued support, and your Christlike submission. To do less is to disobey God.
Roy E. Knuteson (PhD, California Graduate School of Theology) is a retired pastor who attends Calvary Baptist Church, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.