As a church planter I find myself answering a certain set of questions quite often: Where are you guys meeting? What’s your service look like? How many people are in your group? What’s your church’s name? and What’s your role? Because of the frequency of these questions I’ve got most of my answers memorized and concise (some are easier to answer than others), but my answer to the “What’s your role?” question is a tricky one. There are certainly some practical day-to-day aspects of my role that I could share quite easily, and that’s probably what most people want to hear, but that’s not how my brain works. I want to answer theologically (1). So to help with getting my answer concise and memorized, here we go…
What is my role? What is a pastor?
Counselor? Teacher? Prophet? Gate-keeper? Deliverer of religious goods and services (e.g., we marry, bury, and once signed passports)? Leader? Consensus-builder? Mediator? Shepherd? Encourager? Evangelist? Administrator? Vision-caster?
First, I believe in the functional priesthood of all believers. Meaning, I do not believe that there are certain things that an ordained clergy can do that a lay person cannot do. Having said that, I think that training is important. When I need electrical work done, I want a trained electrician. Concerning pastors, I think ordination and schooling (or some equivalent processes) are incredibly beneficial and help to prepare, educate, and train pastors for their work. However, I’m still quite willing to acknowledge that the Spirit can work in and through someone without these things in place.
I’m also very uncomfortable with the sacred-secular divide created by the word “calling” or its oft-used counterparts, “set apart.” That we suggest that some people are “called” to, or “set apart” for, “ministry” and that others are not is, I think, un-Scriptural and therefore problematic (2). When this sort of teaching is peddled, it’s no wonder, then, that we have churches struggling to be incarnational and missional. Why would they be? After all, it’s the pastor who is “called” to ministry. Rather, being “set apart” is about being bound to the mission of Jesus Christ and not to a specific vocation (See 2 Cor 5:17). All those who align themselves with Jesus are equally transformed into a new creation for the purpose of loving God, loving others, and living the mission of the Church. Some of us are pastors; some of us are stay-at-home moms; some of us are accountants; some of us are students; some of us are out of work. All Christians are called to the ministry of Jesus.
So if I think that all believers are priests and that all Christians are set apart for ministry, how then is a pastor different from anyone else in the church? What is my specific role? And what is it that theologically forms the foundation from which my contextual and specific duties are fulfilled and demonstrated?
I submit to you that a pastor functions as a public test-case. That yes, a pastor’s role may include all or some of those things I previously listed, but ultimately — and theologically, speaking — a pastor is a test-case. Pastor and laity are equal, but the pastor is distinct in that he/she functions as the most public demonstration of the redeeming work of Christ.
Here’s Paul in 1 Corinthians 4…
9 I suppose that God has shown that we apostles are at the end of the line. We are like prisoners sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle in the world, both to angels and to humans. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are wise through Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, but we are dishonored! 11 Up to this very moment we are hungry, thirsty, wearing rags, abused, and homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are insulted, we respond with a blessing; when we are harassed, we put up with it; 13 when our reputation is attacked, we are encouraging. We have become the scum of the earth, the waste that runs off everything, up to the present time. (1 Cor 4:9-13, CEB)
When’s the last time you heard this text read at an ordination or induction service?
As Paul describes himself he suggests that in his role as pastor, he has been made a spectacle (or theatre) to demonstrate the backwards way of the kingdom. With his famous sarcasm he lambastes the Corinthians for misunderstanding the way to life. The way is not through the means you’d think: glory, honour, strength, etc. Rather, the way to life is through death and utter dependency on Jesus. Paul has accepted the role of being the most public demonstration of weakness and death-to-self so that those around him may not see him, but the glory of the Saviour. In essence, Paul was living the reality of Jesus’ life: that through weakness and death, life is found and demonstrated.
The Corinthians didn’t like it much that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Saviours don’t die that kind of dishonourable death. And the Corinthians didn’t think much of Paul as a guy who worked “with his hands.” High-profile honourable leaders don’t work with their hands. But this is just it, the Corinthians didn’t get it. Pastors ought to be a demonstration of the failure of the human project. Pastors ought to demonstrate that we don’t trade our life for Jesus’ life when we are saved. No, we exchange our life for Jesus’ death, and it is through that process that we find life. We become the scum of the earth, the waste that runs off everything, so that we might decrease and Jesus might increase. And no one does this more publicly in the church than the pastor. Our congregations ought to see us constantly processing our death. We are a test-case for the impossibility of the human project; we prove that we cannot fix ourselves; we prove that Christ in me is the only hope of glory. This is my role. I am the most public demonstration in my church of someone who cannot live apart from Jesus, and everything I do in life works from that foundation. Now, everything that every Christian does ought to work from that foundation, but not every Christian gets to have the whole church watch while it’s happening.
It’s worth noting that throughout Paul’s ministry, whenever he talks about his pastoral vocation, he doesn’t usually talk about himself as a transmitter of God’s mercy and hope, but instead a recipient of God’s mercy and hope. There’s something profound there.
So there it is, the pastor is a public test-case. Agree? Disagree? Would you slant this a different direction? Would you add something?
Oh, and yes, I know. This isn’t nearly concise enough to make a good on-the-spot answer. But I do think it’s memorized.
For more on this line of thinking I recommend checking out Thomas Oden’s book, Pastoral Theology, Andrew Purves’ books, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ and Resurrection of Ministry: Serving In The Hope of Risen Lord, and Michael Knowles’ book, We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation.
(1) I must credit my good friend, Dr. Michael Knowles, for helping me land here.
(2) For example, I would argue that the “setting apart” that Paul refers to in Rom 1:1 does not refer to his office. The “‘setting apart’ probably refers to the time when God called him on the Damascus Road to come into relationship with Christ and to proclaim him to both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:1–19, esp. vv. 15–16; note the use of this same verb in 13:2). The ‘gospel’ is the central, unifying motif in Romans (Moo, Romans, NIVAC, 36).”