Of Pastors and Presbyteries: ‘To all the saints … with the bishops and deacons’

Paul tells us at the beginning of Philippians that he and Timothy are writing ‘to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons’ (Phil. 1:1). It’s the first verse of an epistle, so we might easily be tempted to think of it as nothing more than a fancy way of saying ‘dear Philippians’ and skip ahead to (what we might think is) the meatier stuff of the main contents; however, if we pause here a moment there is much here for us to learn, not only about who Christians really are (which is not my subject today), but also about the governance of the church and about its ministers (which is what I want to write about).

How, you might ask, can we learn anything about the governance of the church and about the ministry from a simple address? After all, Paul barely names the orders of ministry in Philippi, tacking them onto the end of his greeting. But those few words are significant. And those few words are part of ‘all Scripture’ which is ‘profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’ (2 Tim. 3:16). So, what do they teach us about the governance of the church and about the ministry?

1. There’s no such thing in the Bible as a senior pastor over and above the other elders.

Notice what Paul doesn’t write: he doesn’t address this letter ‘to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with Pastor So-and-So, and the bishops and deacons’! Biblical church ministry is always plural. There are bishops in Philippi, not a bishop. The words ‘bishops’, ‘elders’ and ‘pastors’ are used interchangeably in the New Testament (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), so that means if there are bishops, not a bishop, then there are elders, not an elder; pastors, not a pastor. Biblically, the local assembly is governed, pastored, and led, not by a single man, but by a presbytery (Acts 11:30; 13:1; 14:23; 15:2; 20:17; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; Jas 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1, 5).

And the same is true of wider church government as well. The wider church is governed not by an apostle, but by apostles and elders together (Acts 15:4-6, 22-23; 16:4): not by a single apostle, but by the apostleship (as a whole) and (representatives of) the eldership. Biblical church government is always plural and collegial. In fact, the only New Testament example we have of solo church government is when something has gone wrong (3 John 9-11).

So, while there’s nothing wrong with a senior or lead pastor as a first among equals, chairing and giving some lead to the presbytery (after all, it seems like that might possibly have been James’ role in Jerusalem: Acts 15:13-21; 21:18; Gal. 2:9, 12), there’s no Biblical precedent, model, or teaching whatsoever giving support to a top-down senior pastorship, where one man has authority over and above the presbytery. Even the leading member of the presbytery is an elder among the elders (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1 – in each of these cases, even if he’s an apostle!), and should submit to the collective wisdom of the collegial eldership.

2. Pastors/Elders don’t hear from God in a special way differently from the rest of the church.

Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is writing Scripture here, and he’s writing it ‘to all the saints … with the bishops and deacons.’ There isn’t a special extended version of Philippians for the (non-existent) senior pastor. God’s Word is clear and public – open to all His children. There isn’t some special secret revelation for the senior leader, inaccessible to anyone else – for that would be Gnosticism, not Christianity.

So let’s not fall into some silly Gnostic trap, thinking of ‘the pastor’ as ‘the man of God’ with some direct line to heaven given to no one else. The Biblical model is not one man over and above the church who secretly hears from God and then passes it on to the people. The only ‘one man’ over and above the rest of the church that the Scriptures know anything about is the Man Christ Jesus, the Head of the Church. And He isn’t off in the corner secretly whispering to the pastor when no one’s looking! No! He’s united Himself to all those who believe in Him. Every member of the Church, whether the ‘senior pastor’ or the youngest believing child is equally united to Christ the Head, and so we all have equal access. Christ the Head has given His Word – the Bible – to the whole of His Church, and the Bible is sufficient for the church’s life and godliness.

Now, this is in no way to discount the fact that Christ the Head continues to speak to His church through the gifts of the Spirit. But, how does He do that according to the Scriptures? Not through one man, but through the entire Body.

But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12:18-21)

And, if someone in the church (no matter what his role, title, or position) should speak by revelation, whether in tongues and interpretation or prophecy, then ‘the others’ (notice, again, the plural!) are to judge it and test it to make sure that this really is of God (1 Cor. 14:29). So, there is no room whatsoever for a senior pastor to come along and tell the church or presbytery that he believes God wants them to do something and just expect them to unquestioningly get on board: instead he should be expecting them to be testing what he says against the Scriptures, the glory of Christ, and the gospel, as well as seeking the discerning input of any prophets in the assembly or those with the gifts of prophecy or the discerning of spirits (1 Cor. 14:37-38).

Biblical church leadership does not look like one man climbing up the mountain to hear from God and then coming back down to try and get everyone else to follow him. Biblical church leadership looks like Jesus – the only true church leader – uniting His people to Himself and then ministering to and governing His people, by His Word in Scripture, through all the elders He has brought together in that assembly.

Jesus is the true Chief Pastor (1 Pet. 5:4), and the elders together are His under-shepherds in that particular assembly. None of them alone can fulfil the ministry of the Chief Shepherd, but together, through their differences and unity, the Chief Shepherd, to whom they are united, exercises His shepherding ministry through them as a team – as a presbytery.