Shepherds are central in Ezekiel’s message. These people, whoever they were, had the responsibility and the means to lead, gather, strengthen, and heal vulnerable people. They were in deep trouble with God because their abandonment of duty left those entrusted to them vulnerable and exposed to predators. When I think of the pastors that I know, I do not think of people who have abandoned their flock. I don’t see them in deep trouble with God. However, I do believe I see the western church in trouble, vulnerable, and exposed to predators.
A friend recently threw me for a bit of a loop when he said, “Rob, I believe I see a pastor in you.” This was a person I respect who was trying to be an encouragement to me. I don’t know if I showed it or not, but my initial thought was “NO WAY!” But, as I have given his statement some thought, I believe that he is right—kind of.
One thing I have discovered is that the word “pastor” does not mean the same thing to everybody. And, I am not sure that word means the same thing today as it did at the time the New Testament was written. I’ll try to explain where I’m coming from. Before you proceed, be warned: the content is lengthy today and to some it will be controversial.
My formative years as a Christian took place in the context of a collegiate discipleship ministry that was spread out over the Midwest and Europe. After two decades those people returned to home base and dared to try and live out a New Testament model of Christianity. Note: I am not talking about a western best practice version of the New Testament church. I am talking about the New Testament’s version of the New Testament church.
In the community that our relationships formed one of our distinguishing features was how we viewed leadership. As we studied the New Testament scriptures, we concluded that leadership came primarily from “overseers” (episkopos) and “elders” (presbuteros). So, we did not form a committee and interview people to fill a position called “pastor” (poimen). The reason was that in the NT, the Greek word pastor was used very sparingly. (Note: As a convenient reference, I have copied a Greek word study of the three words used for New Testament leadership into today’s writing.)
It was in this context of our community of believers that I also learned the meaning of the word “cult.” (Institutional Christianity’s definition: cult—a group of people who are doing church different than us.) This definition was provided to us by those who were faithfully adhering to their particular traditions (what they perceived to be the more biblically-accurate). This can be especially painful when those faithful ones are your own flesh and blood.
Regardless of our community’s low approval rating, I have never regretted this experience, except that I have had to recently acknowledge that it has ruined me for the traditional 21st century western church experience. The past 20 years have confirmed that I cannot be true to my spiritual DNA and quietly subscribe to the stated and unstated conventions that drive the traditional ways of doing institutional church.
As I try to reconcile the New Testament Church with church as we have learned it, I cannot help but believe that the ancient use of the word pastor is much different than ours. I have further wondered if how we gather in Jesus’ name, with that built-in misunderstanding of this important word, has not unintentionally hamstrung our efforts at making disciples and consequently expanding the kingdom of God. Having lived in two radically different paradigms of church, my observation is that a single pastor (even with a good staff) cannot provide sufficient pastoral care to those entrusted to them. My theory is that many flocks remain vulnerable to predators, not because our pastors are not trying, but because the job they are doing was never intended to be the job of a single shepherd or professional team of shepherds.
I believe that one of the reasons the church grew so rapidly and had so much influence on their culture in first few centuries was due, in part, to the tremendous amount of “pastoring” that was actually taking place. But, as I read the NT, I don’t see a “pastor” or a staff of “pastors” as the delivery agents of that care. I believe it came from each of the members of the Body who had been equipped with the fullness of the Spirit, and two ultra radical ideas: 1) The notion that they belonged entirely to Jesus and existed exclusively for His purposes and pleasure—this was the basis of discipleship; and 2) the notion that they belonged entirely to each other as members of Christ’s body. As members of His Body, they had become each other’s keeper. Here are two great discussion questions. Is the DNA of these two notions (which I perceive as “kingdom of God values”) compatible with the DNA of the American dream? Which value system, those of the American dream or those of the “Kingdom of God,” is the basis of motivation within western Christianity?
The early church had some advantages—I have to admit. Their energies were not diverted to the church building or many of the other activities that consume our energies. As near as we can tell by reading the NT, they were spending most of their time just living life and spending their limited resources in caring for each other and those around them. Beyond that, they gathered in small safe clusters where they could be seen and heard and cared for. It is my belief that the body of Christ will not regain the influence she once had or attain the influence her destiny calls for without a healthy Body where all the members are engaged with each other and the world in ways yet to be discovered (or rediscovered).
My theory is, that without a staff or an organization, the members of the New Testament Church must have individually and collectively taken ownership of the relationships inside their organic (sovereignly ordained) relational networks. Doing this removed an unrealistic burden on any individual or a few individuals to provide pastoral care to them. It is my guess that the love of God and the “shepherding” life of Christ, who had become their life, was drawn out of them and birthed naturally as needs arose and they were able to respond because of: 1) the Good Shepherd within them and 2) their relational proximity to each other. Note: The idea of interviewing and hiring an individual or a team to deliver pastoral care to themselves would have probably seemed nonsensical.
There are a few pastors and leaders of the Body of Christ who read these daily digital pamphlets I post. This makes me glad because I love them and I want them to understand that if they see me doing something outside the grid of traditional church, it is not because I am trying to incite rebellion or fuel the ongoing exodus from institutional church that George Barna and others are documenting. It is simply that I am trying to be true to my DNA and stay in relationship with them even in the presence of traditions and beliefs that could divide us.
I am trying to be honest without being a thorn. I want to be an agent of peace and of healing, not a source of division. I believe I am a representative voice of many who are crying out for the life of Christ that is not being reproduced well in a context where the fundamental assumption is that church is something you can attend and discipleship is an optional track for those sovereignly equipped with spiritual afterburners.
I have been crying out now for 20 years in a traditional church context. As I have been fumbling for the right words (and attitude) to express my cries, I have offended and confused people. To keep from inflicting further pain and creating more confusion, I have withdrawn. The question is now, “What’s next?” Do we just walk away (as is the common practice), heap guilt on each other for our failure and perceived rebellion (as is the common practice), and then talk about each other in derogatory ways behind each other’s backs (as is the common practice)—or—shall we talk?
In recent days God has given me more ability and desire to express the longings within me (which this Blue Book dialogue has confirmed are in others as well). My prayer is that we find each other somehow in the Body of Christ and become to each other and to God what He intended, more of a united family—less of a religious organization.
My dear friends, who have the word “pastor” (or some other title) preceding your first name, please do not interpret this as a shot across the bow of your church organization. Rather, this is an invitation to enter into a dialogue with one, who represents many who have walked away from church (or are about to) because they hungered for family and got a program. They wanted to be invited into our homes and they were given a sign up sheet. They wanted a dialogue and got a monologue. Their God given DNA is crying out to be interconnected to a network of persons with caring shepherding hearts, not to attend a meeting presided over by an individual with a title.
I am at a crossroads personally (along with others) in my pilgrimage. I know that the traditional church is providing many with all they desire in their Christian experience. I do not stand in judgment against these contented ones. That is excellent! I just have to be honest with where I am. Traditional western Christianity is not working for me. As your friend, I am looking for your feedback. Should I quietly just walk away so that I do not stir things up and offend people any more than I already have? Or, do you want to sit down and open up a very real and open discussion with me (and others like me) before we give up, give out, or walk away? Please advise.
And to my friend with his somewhat backhanded prophetic word that I kind of agree with, I respond to you, “Yes, I do believe there is a pastor in me. I also believe their is a pastor in you.” He is the Good Pastor (or Shepherd). I believe with all my heart that He will be birthed in and expressed through us as we abandon our lives to Him and to each other.
Father, we see that our destiny as Your Bride is to be united, powerful, and radiant in Your love. May you reform our hearts that we may reform our wineskins (organizational structures and paradigms) so that they are large and flexible enough to hold Your Life and Your love. May we become a body who is equipped to lead, gather, strengthen, and heal the vulnerable and wounded ones nearest us. May we take ownership of and fill the relational voids around us, creating safe spaces where no one is left vulnerable to predators—where the kingdom of God within us, with its righteousness peace and joy, might flourish. Amen.
Poimen—This word appears 18 times in the NT, but is used only one time with regard to spiritual leaders in the church (Ephesians 4:11). The meaning of this word is “shepherd,” although in Ephesians 4:11 it is generally translated “pastor” (which is the Latin word for “shepherd”). The verb form of this word is poimaino, which appears 11 times in the NT. It means “to shepherd; to perform the duties of a shepherd.” It is used twice to depict the work of the leadership in the church (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2).
Presbuteros—This word appears a total of 67 times in the pages of the New Covenant documents. It is the primary word used for these men. By transliterating this Greek word into English we get “presbyter.” The meaning is: “One who is old; one who is older than another; elder.” It comes from the word presbutes, which means “an old man” (see Luke 1:18; Titus 2:2; Philemon 9). This word is used a number of different ways in the NT.
Episkopos—This word appears only five times within the pages of the NT writings: once with reference to Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:25), and four times with reference to the spiritual leaders of the church (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7). By transliterating this word from Greek into English we get “episcopal.” This word is generally translated “overseer,” “bishop,” or “guardian.” The word literally means “to look over; to watch over.”