There’s Only One Pastor! (Right?)

At my fundamentalist college, I was constantly told that in a true, biblical, God-honoring, right, orthodox, fundamental, correct, good, better-than-all-the-rest church there is only one pastor. How many? One. This was such a vital issue that it was viewed as wrong to use terms like “Assistant Pastor”, “Associate Pastor”, “Youth Pastor”, or the like. Why are those terms wrong? Because there’s only one pastor! It was also seen as wrong to hear about a church without knowing who the pastor is! I remember The Pastor (and President) of the church/school saying something like, “You go to these churches, ya know…and you don’t even know who the pastor is. Well, who’s the pastor? Who’s ministry is this?” Why is it wrong for a church not to elevate the the person holding the pastoral office? Because there’s only one pastor!


A fundamentalist church is supposed to be a church rooted and grounded on the Word of God. It must get its doctrine and practice from the scriptures and nothing else. So obviously, in an institution of higher learning, I should be able to biblically defend a statement like, “there’s only one pastor!” But…I can’t. And they can’t. And they didn’t even try.

Not even in the classroom?

No, not even in the classroom.

Sad to say, many things that fundamentalists harp on today were never explained in the classroom simply because they are not biblically justifiable positions. When I was at Bible college, I wondered, “why does he keep saying there’s only one pastor?” I knew that one thing they did teach was that words like “elder”, “presbyter”, “overseer”, “bishop”, and “pastor” were all terms describing the same office. So, I reasoned (that was my first mistake) that if “elder” means “pastor”, and there were certainly a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 15:2; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; I Peter 5:1-2 ) in the New Testament, then doesn’t that teach against the position they were so adamant about?

Yes, it does. So why all the red-faced fussing? Well, I could say it might be because many of the more prominent fundamentalists are egocentric. At conferences and such, it is constantly heard, “Oh that’s so-and-so’s school, so-and so’s ministry, or so-and-so’s church.” Big fundamentalists churches are always identified with their pastor. The same goes for schools. Many evangelists name their ministries after….themselves. And boy, they hate it when they’re called dictators. But don’t worry, there’s only one pastor!

Ok, maybe that’s not the reason they feel so strongly about the issue. There must be some explanation.

That’s a bit hard to find, though. My school did publish a book that you would think explains the issue. It’s one of the biggest they have printed so far. It is about being a first century church. (You know, the century in which churches like Galatia were moved to another gospel and churches like Corinth suffered moral decay. Yes, that century!) Well, in this 252 page book in which Charles Spurgeon wrote the Introduction (don’t ask), I tried to find a well thought out, thorough, biblical explanation of the phrase, “there’s only one pastor.” Then I got smart and tried to find just something.

Chapter IV: The Authority of the First Century Church
Maybe that will have it. No, that chapter is about the Bible. Ok, makes sense.

Chapter VI: The Structure of the First Century Church
Ok, this has got to be it! No…sad to report nothing here either. He writes about Christ being the only Head of the church (amen!). He talks about church membership. But nothing about, “there’s only one pastor!”

Chapter IX: The Preacher in the First Century Church
This is the only chapter left that has a title indicative of a worthy search. Guess what I found concerning the topic a hand? Nothing.

I really didn’t feel like searching through the rest of the book, although it may be a task taking all of about 15 minutes of my time. You may if you please. Truth is, there’s nothing in there about the issue. There’s nothing in the classroom about the issue. There is very little biblical explanation about a much emphasized issue! Now that is tragic.

See, here’s why I’m a bit upset. It’s one thing to say, “here’s a tradition we hold to.” It’s another to pound it into people’s brains that “there’s only one pastor” and not back it up – ever! Do we believe the Bible or not? Then let’s stop talking about how biblical we are and how New Testament we are and how Fundamental we are and actually preach and teach and follow the Bible!

The one explanation that I have ever heard goes like this. I Timothy 3 gives the requirements for pastors and deacons. The word for pastor in that passage is “bishop.” It is used singularly whereas deacon is used in a plural sense. Therefore, the “two officers” of a true NT church are pastor (singular) and deacons (plural). I believe this is flawed reasoning because the phrase “if a man desire” could be applied to any man and hence could be plural as well. But whatever position you take on that, this is not enough scriptural backing for someone to think it is wrong to use a term like Youth Pastor.

In searching for answers from the fundamentalist perspective, I looked no further than to David Cloud.  He is a fundamentalist, but he actually thinks for himself and writes things. Under the article “The Pastor’s Authority“, I was surprised what I found:

How many pastors should there be? How do the pastors share their authority? Like many things pertaining to church polity and work, these are matters that each church must determine under the direction of the Holy Spirit, because they are not spelled out in Scripture. Only general guidelines are given. There are many advantages to a plurality of pastors. No one man has all of the spiritual gifts and wisdom and experience that is necessary to lead God’s people. When men work together, as we see in the church at Antioch and as we see in Paul’s missionary ministry, the work progresses quickly and wisely because there is a pooling of talents and experience (Ecc. 4:9-12). In a practical sense, when a church has a plurality of pastors it is normal for one to be the “senior pastor” and to have the final word in decisions. That is what we see in the church at Jerusalem. When they had a conference to discuss the issue of law and grace in Acts 15, many contributed their ideas and finally it was James who summarized the meeting and verbalized the final decision, though it was agreed upon by the other leaders and by the entire church (Acts 15:13-22). Some argue that it is not practical for a church to have more than one pastor because there cannot be more than one head, but they forget that the one Head is Christ and that a plurality of pastors must be practical because this is exactly what we see in the first churches!

Amen and Amen. Couldn’t say it better. So, then, what’s the deal with the other fundamentalists?

One reason I believe fundamental Baptists in particular are so concerned about this is that they confuse elder-led or elder-ruled churches with churches run by a deacon board. It is true that many Baptist churches that have fallen into the hands of a deacon board have had problems. This is because of a wrong understanding of what a deacon is. Deacons are to serve. They are usually laymen, not called to the ministry and ordained. That notwithstanding, a church with a plurality of elders or pastors is not the same as a church run by many deacons.

Another thing to understand is that most churches with a plurality of pastors/elders usually have a senior pastor, one who does act as the administrator and leader of the pack. So the caricature usually drawn by fundamentalist preachers that churches with a plurality of pastors sit around and argue because there’s no order just doesn’t hold up.

See now? If we just think about it for a bit we can all rest a bit easier. No need to get mad.

As for those who are promoting an elder-ruled or led church, I’d like to make a plurality of comments. Pulpit Magazine recently did a two-part series on Why Elder Rule. It was short and sweet and pretty helpful. It points out many advantages of having a plurality of pastors. That being said:

1. You can have those advantages (accountability, assistance, availability, wisdom, etc.) with laymen, too.
2. Small churches do not necessarily need a plurality of pastors. It is my opinion that these elders/pastors should be called to the ministry. Where can we find men called to the ministry in a small congregation? It doesn’t always work out. Therefore, oftentimes there is only one pastor, but he is being assisted by laymen who are, in a sense, fulfilling the role of associate pastors until the church grows to have them in place.
3. Although it is apparently New Testament practice, it is not necessarily commanded, and therefore those advocating the plurality position should not preach against single-man ministries anymore than only-one-pastor advocates should cast stones at them. Each should be taken on a case by case basis. For instance, if a pastor absolutely refuses to have another pastor in a church that desperately needs it; or if a church takes on more pastors, and in doing so practices bad stewardship or forces men into the ministry just to fulfill the biblical pattern.

Ok, so…the final word. As a biblicist, I want to follow the Bible on this one, not the traditions of men or movements. The biblical pattern for pastors/elders is that there were more than one. It is, however, not commanded. So, a church could do fine with one pastor so long as he is assisted and held accountable by deacons and other laymen. A church should also welcome more pastors into its fold as it grows and as men are called into the ministry. Therefore, a plurality of pastors is a good thing, and there is nothing wrong with referring to a God-called and ordained minister as a Youth Pastor, Associate Pastor, or Assistant Pastor. The truth is…there’s Only One Head of the Church, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ!


8 comments so far

  1. Robert Dore on

    Great article which needs to be read by the independent baptist movement! The New Testament pattern for church leadership is always plurality of elders. God’s plan is so much superior than the one man system.

    The only disagreement I would have is the differing titles for differing ministries. There are no “youth pastors” or “music pastors” or other pastors in the N.T. An elder is an elder. One elder might minister to the youth more than another, but he is still an elder and shares the same authority in a local assembly as other elders.

    The whole “system” that independent baptists have set up is totally flawed. The system has men in their early twenties graduating from “Bible college” and starting churches before they have any maturity whatsoever. Just because they graduate from a college, it does not mean they are qualified Biblically to be an elder. The Biblical qualifications are spelled out in the N.T. clearly and it doesn’t say anything about having a degree at a Bible college. How can a 24 year old boy give counsel when they have no experience?

    The whole system is flawed, but there is no chance they will change. They are right even when they are wrong.

  2. damienthomas on

    Your comment is appreciated.
    However, let me make sure you realize that, while I certainly agree that 24 year old pastors are not the optimum situation, I myself am a young Bible college grad seeking to start a church in a few years. Why? Because it is needed! Although I’m not an ‘elder’ in the mature or experienced sense of the word, I am in the sense that in starting a new church, I am older and more knowledgeable in the Christian faith than new converts. I’m surprised how many older people open up to me just because I’m a minister. They don’t care about my youth. Didn’t Paul tell Timothy, “let no man despise they youth, but be thou an example”? I just have to be an example. I wish there was a movement of older, expereicned Christian men willing to lead in churches. Sad fact – there aren’t. Another fact – young men are. Do we need churches started? Yes!. Therefore, young men have to do it, despite the obvious complications.

    Secondly, I agree the NT pattern is best, but we must differentiate between pattern and command. As I said in the article, some churches are too small to have more than one God-called man. The one man usually leads and there’s nothing wrong with that. He is still hed accountable in some way. If we followed every pattern in the NT, we’d be meeting daily, house to house, preaching as we go.

  3. Brian on

    I agree that the New Testament allows for the plurality of pastoral leadership, but I think we have to be very careful about how we go about it. Instead of making five different men pastors of equal rank and power, maybe we should have one of them be the ranking member of the pastoral staff. Thus we have senior pastors and associate pastors. You know as well as I do that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Church splits are bad enough; imagine a staff split. Just a thought.

    There needs to be someone at the helm guiding the ship and her crew. And don’t say that that’s the Lord Jesus, because that’s just a cop-out to win an argument. The Lord Jesus can lead a church through one man just as well as he can fifteen, and vice versa. It’s ultimately up to that church to decide how the Lord is leading them, whether to have one or more pastors. Anything other than THAT is not New Testament.

  4. damienthomas on

    If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that I agree with you:

    “Another thing to understand is that most churches with a plurality of pastors/elders usually have a senior pastor, one who does act as the administrator and leader of the pack”

    And if saying the Lord Jesus is the only Head is a cop-out, how much of a cop-out is saying, “anything with no head is dead, and anything with two heads is a freak?” It’s another one of those “I can end an argument with a cute cliche” … thing.

    Anyhow, in some cases the One Man Ministry does get too big for the Headship of Christ, and that’s something we all want to avoid.

  5. Brian Allison on

    Hey, thanks for the add to your blogroll, by the by.

  6. mark on

    Here’s one that’s been bugging me lately. It kind of relates to the pastoral lordship issue.Why do some people in church(usually “members”) refer to the pastor as “pastor”,as opposed to “the pastor”? For example, one will say “I talked to pastor”, or “Maybe you can ask pastor”.I think he really likes those kind of people, as opposed to people like me.Recently the guy even signed an E-mail addressed to me ,Mark, and signed it “Pastor”.Of course, I dare not bring this kind of thing up, I’m liable to get “churched”.I hope he doesn’t run into my thoughts,(that’ll never happen in “his” church).Doesn’t it have a kind of uppity sound to it?How about if everyone started talking like that…”Excuse me, have you met electrician?”or “Let me go ask plumber.” I like how some handle it, they just prefer “brother”as title. Then again, one time I called him brother,and I think I offended him. Keep quiet, trouble-maker.

  7. damienthomas on

    well, ok!

  8. Robert Dore on

    If there is one head pastor and other associate pastors, then basically you have one pastor. This example is not found in the New Testament church. The example that is found is equal plural elders in one church. Discard what you have been taught from the textbook or tradition and learn from Scripture.

    When Paul went to Ephesus, he called for the elders of the church. When Paul spoke to Timothy, he told him to ordain elders in every city. Every local church had many elders in it. Do a study on the words elder, pastor and bishop and take off your independent baptist glasses and you will see these things more clearly. Most times when people have argued for one man pastors, they use obsure, unclear Scripture to justify their postition and ignore clear teaching. Most of the time it is one man pastors who can’t seem to grasp this concept. Isn’t that funny?

    The error that also ties in with one man pastors is “salaried” pastors. I don’t see any example of pastors having a salary in the New Testament. That does not mean that they can’t receive financial compensation for what they do. It just means that it should be voluntarily given from people to the elders that labour in the Word. Most independent baptist pastors tell their congregations to live by faith, yet in their own lives they must have a predetermined guaranteed salary. This is rubbish! If God has called them to a work, they should just do the work and live by faith not depending on salaries. On the other hand, if there were Biblical elders, the burden of preaching every single sermon would be gone. The teaching ministry could be divided up and “pastors” could get employment for themselves.

    I know this all sounds radical to the independent baptist movement. It sounded radical to me too, but when I studied the Scripture, I could not get around the clear teaching in the Word.

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