Thursday, July 03, 2008


It might seem axiomatic to most persons that having 'pastors' is a Biblical thing. I mean after all, we even have three letters in the NT called the Pastoral Epistles in which Paul gives instructions not only about Timothy or Titus doing pastoral ministry, but appointing others to do so as well.

But the authors of Pagan Christianity, while admitting that pastors are mentioned once in Ephes. 4.11, think that the institutional church has blown this whole 'pastor' thing way out of proportion. Their particular concern is that they are unhappy with the 'pastor superstar' model of a single figure being the head honcho in a local church.

Now I have to say, I also have a lot of problems with the cult of personality approach to leadership in the church. This has more to do with our own modern cultural preferences than anything Biblical. However, Barna and Viola are dead wrong in various of the things they say about 'pastors' in the Chapter found on pp. 105ff. in the 4th printing of this book, and so we need a little deconstruction of their deconstruction. First however I must share with you that I had forgotten that it was not Frank Viola who asked me to do this critique, it was several other 'pastors' (Frank, are you smiling-- I just called you a pastor). Frank kindly offered to send me copies of the relevant titles including Pagan Christianity. When you get 100 emails a day some days, its easy to forget who asked me to do what. But on to the issue at hand.

Let's deal with a preliminary issue first, and a good deal of the underpinnings for what is said is based on the work of folks like Richard Hanson who want to make a hard and fast distinction between 'function' and 'office' when it comes to things like the role of a pastor, or an elder, or a deacon. This however is a false dichotomy. If someone is appointed to do a task regularly and repeatedly, they have both a function and an office. And here is the important point. Certain persons certainly were appointed to regularly do certain functions in earliest Christianity. That is what the Pastoral Epistles not merely imply but say, and Timothy and Titus are clear examples of this. Of course this goes strongly against the 'everyone gets to do anything they feel led to do since they are part of the priesthood of all believers' approach, but then, as I have said, the priesthood of all believers language has nothing whatsoever to do with deciding who gets to be teachers, prophets, elders etc. Those issues are determined by whom the Spirit gifts and graces for such tasks, and whom are recognized by the church to have such gifts and graces.

If we are to starting talking about shepherding meaningfully then of course we need to start with the Good Shepherd Jesus, and his under-Shepherds, the 12, and particularly Peter. But Jesus when he talks about shepherding he is drawing on some of the material in the OT, for example, the critique of the bad shepherds in texts like Ezek. 34. There is good shepherding and bad shepherding, but in no case are all Christians called and gifted to do shepherding. This is why, for example, in two of Paul's gift lists he refers to the gift of kubernesis or steering, often translated administration. Not everyone has such a gift. This term comes from the nautical realm and refers to the job of the captain or helmsman who steers the boat. Where would a ship be if it had 12 helmsmen and none to tend the sails, pull up the anchor, cook the food etc. Similiarly when Paul talks about the various parts of the body as an anology with the body of Christ he makes perfectly clear that different parts of the body should and do have different functions. The hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you.

Jesus, according to Mt. 16 founded his church on a leader named Peter. He was given the keys to the kingdom and the power of binding and losing. And lest we think that was only for during the ministry of Jesus we have the powerful scene in John 21, which somehow fails to come in for any real treatment in this book's discussion of pastors, which I find amazing. Jesus reccomissions Peter in particular to feed and tend his sheep. They are Jesus' sheep, but
Peter is assigned the task of being the under-shepherd who oversees, watches out for, and feeds (presumably by the Word), but the younger and older Christians, both the lambs and the adult sheep. This task is not given to everyone, indeed in John 21, it is not even given to all the 12. AND THIS SCENE TRANSPIRES AFTER EASTER AS PART OF THE COMMISSION FOR JESUS' LEADERS AFTER HE IS GONE. So let's go back and look at Ephes. 4.11 again, according to Barna and Viola.

On p. 107 we are told that the term shepherd/pastor is a metaphor to describe a particular function in the church. It is not an office or title, they say. In fact it is a term referring to particular persons, not just functions-- hear again the verse "God gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, and some as pastors and teachers". The Greek allows the conclusion that pastor-teacher might be a hyphenated term here, but it could also refer to do different persons. But the crucial point is that the term 'some' means 'some persons'. Secondly, to deflect the normal interpretation of this verse Barna and Viola say--- "The word is used in the plural. It is pastors. This is significant. For whoever these 'pastors' are, they are plural in the church, not singular. Consequently there is no biblical support for the practice of sola pastora (single pastor)." (p. 107). This deserves a bit longer response as it is wrong in several ways.

Firstly, Ephesians is a circular document written to multiple churches. It is not a situation specific letter like, say 1 Corinthians, written to a particular congregation. Paul is not referring here to what is the case in a particular local church, he is saying that God has appointed apostles, prophets, and pastors and teachers to the church in general. Here the discussion is about the church of God as a whole and what is true of the church as a whole (notice the other universal aspects of the discussion in Ephes. 4-- one Lord, one faith one baptism etc.). So it is absolutely not warranted either by the Greek of this verse or its large literary context to say "there is no biblical support for a single pastor in a church". This is false. And thank goodness it is false or else various small congregations would have no pastors at all. If we go on and study not only the Pauline gift lists, which again remind us that different gifts are given to different people, and then go on to the Pastoral Epistles where there is indeed a discussion, as there is in the Petrine epistles, about shepherding, church managing and adminsters, it should be noted that it is particular persons who are said to do this. Not just anyone. So while of course it is true that a congregation may well have more than one pastor, nothing in the NT suggests they need to do so, or that a church would be defective if it only had one. This is simply false. It is true enough that the terms shepherd, overseer/bishop elder could sometimes be used interchangeably, but it is interesting that only some elders are also singled out to be overseers in the Pastorals (see my Letters and Homilies of Hellenized Christians Vol 1, on the Pastorals). The terms apparently were not simply synonyms, and what is especially clear is that they were not simply describing roles or functions just anyone could assume.

But lets talk for a moment about the issue of paid ministers. Should ministers be paid, or let's be more specific, do they have a right to be paid, while of course also having the right to refuse a salary or support? Well actually the NT is clear on this-- the answer is YES. Let's deal the principle first, and then we will deal with passages thought to dispute this notion. The basic principle, first enunciated by Jesus himself, and then reiterated by Paul and others is that "a workman is worthy of his hire". Let us start with Mt. 10.10 and par. Here Jesus is commissioning the 12, the leaders in training amongst his followers, to go out 2 by 2, and he quite specifically tells them not to take this or that money with them. Why? Because he expects them to rely on the system of standing hospitality and let others provide for them. This is why he says "a workman is worthy of his hire/keep" and also why he tells them NOT to take any copper or gold or silver in a money bag with them. They should not expect to pay their own way. They are those commissioned to spread the kingdom, and they deserve to be paid for their work. Where then does the idea of 'no-pay' ministers, or faith based missions where you pay your own way come from? It comes from a rather bad misinterpretation of 1 Cor. 9 and 2 Cor. 11, which texts we need now to consider.

As usual, social context is crucial to understand these texts. But even if we knew nothing about the patronage and clientage system in operation in Corinth and its connection for why Paul particularly chose in Corinth to offer the Gospel free of charge without receiving patronage or fees for speaking, 1 Cor. 9.14 is Paul's reiteration of the principle of Jesus first enunciated in Mt. 10.10. Here is Paul's way of putting it "the Lord has commanded that those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel, but I have not used any of these rights.."
In fact throughout this passage Paul insists he has a right to such support, a right to be paid, a right to be supported and taken care of. But voluntarily he has chosen not to take advantage of that right. Why? You have to understand the whole social situation, and its difference from our own.

In first century Corinth, there would have been orators, rhetoricians, sophists, teachers for hire. Some were itinerant and would come to an agora, set out their money bag, speak or sing for a while, and then ask for money. Others, more sophisticated would engage in a longer term relationship with a patron. Paul did not do the former for the very good reason that he wanted to do church planting and stay a while. He wanted to establish relationships with those he was evangelizing. He did not want to appear to be a snake oil salesman huckstering some message he was not prepared to defend and explain over the long haul. On the other end of the spectrum he wanted to avoid the entangling alliances that were set up when you accepted patronage. So in Corinth he chose to support himself by tent-making, though he makes perfectly clear in 1 Cor. 9 that if he had wanted to, he had a right to be paid for his ministerial work. This chapter should be compared to what is said in 2 Cor. 11.7ff. Notice that he calls it 'lowering himself' making a sacrifice, when he chose to preach in Corinth fee-free. But the next verse is crucial--- "I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. And when I was with you and needed something...the brothers and sisters from Macedonia supplied what I needed."

Now what was the difference between Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church, and the Philippian one-- much in every way. Paul had a relationship of 'giving and receiving' as he says clearly in Philippians, with that church in Macedonia. He did not have such a relationship with the Corinthian church. Why not? Because the Corinthian Christians were immature, and those who could have supported Paul wanted him to become their client on an ongoing basis. But this would have obligated him in ways that would limit his travel. It is interesting that in Rom. 16 Paul tells us about Phoebe from the nearby church in Cenchreae. She did become his prostatis at least for a time, but she must have understood that Paul was being remunerated in this way, not obligated to an ongoing future service to the patron. In short, if you don't understand the lingo and the cultural practices, you are not going to understand what Paul says about paid ministers. There was also a further technical phrase we find in several places in the NT, including Romans and the Johannine Epistles "sending me on my way" or "sending him on his way". This refers to providing traveling money and supplies to get to the next destination. Paul says he was hoping the Roman church would provide this so he could go on to Spain. Let's look at one more important Pauline text--- Gal. 6.6--- "those who receive instructions in the Word should share all good things with their instructor." Here is a reference of course to a teacher, and the obligation of the congregation to provide for the instructor. The English phrase 'all good things' is really too general. What is meant here is monetary support PLUS providing room, board, etc (see my Galatians commentary Grace in Galatia on this important verse). Indeed, Paul believed a workman is worthy of his hire, just as Jesus said. So let us draw some conclusions:

1) is the role of pastor supported by the NT and important--- Survey says yes.
2) are specific persons supposed to exercise this function, those whom God has called and equipped to do it-- yes. And while we are at it, if you read Ephes. 4.11 in the Greek it says that it is the role of the pastor-teacher to equip the other saints who are not pastors and teachers for doing various forms of ministry. Teaching is a specific function and role in the church played by specific persons who are gifted called, and (gasp) even trained to do it. Paul is talking about that sort of training for other kinds of ministries in Ephes. 4.11-12.
3) Is it o.k. for a church to have one pastor--- of course it is, and some could hardly do other wise.

4) should a church expect to pay their ministers? YES THEY SHOULD. Paul calls it a right, not merely option. Of course the pastor or pastors may choose to forgo their salary. That's fine, but that is their choice, not one that should be made for them by the church on the basis of some pseudo-Biblical notions.

5) Is the exegesis of texts like Ephes, 4.11 by Barna and Viola in this chapter a viable option--
no I am afraid not. It is not what the text says or means, when taken in its various proper contexts social, literary, historical etc. So remember--- here is my principle for today---

A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. There is no substitute for good contextual in depth exegesis. And to do that well without errors and anachronism requires: 1) a knowledge of Greek; 2) a knowledge of the first century social world and its culture (e.g. partronage), 3) a knowledge of how leadership worked in the ministry of Jesus, in the synagogue, amongst the apostles, in the local church, and elsewhere. In conclusion it is simply historically false to suggest that when we hear about elders, deacons, overseers, apostles prophets teachers, pastors we are only talking about functions most anyone could take on. No, we are talking about roles played by specific persons with specific gifts and graces. And dats all I got to say 'bout dat.


matt gallion said...

Dr. Witherington -

I have really appreciated your in-depth analysis of this book, and I have a couple of questions pertaining more to NT ideas of leadership than to Viola's work, specifically.

How do these ideas tie into the role of women? Is their scriptural reason to believe that the role of pastor that is ordained by God and approved by the church is limited to a certain gender? How practically does the church experience and recognize the ordination from God? And what is the general task of a pastor in terms of a weekly, forty-hour-a-week kind of position? What does the pastor do?

I know these aren't specifically related to these texts, but they are questions that have come up recently in my "circles," and you seem to have a very thorough understanding of the paradigms of NT leadership.

Bill Heroman said...

I really don't want to be first, but I see this post has been up for several hours now, so...

Ben, once again you've made many good points, but I fail to see the connections between (1) your arguments against the book and (2) how [you seem to feel] those arguments are supposed to support the traditional views.

For example, I will grant you that the text alone of Eph.4:11 could conceivably refer to many solo pastors in many towns. (A clever idea I'd never thought of, by the way.) But I missed the part where you proved that it DOES mean that. And so if your argument was to refute the statement that there was no explicit support for "sola pastora", I'm afraid you seem to have missed the target.

Now, honestly, if I missed a detail of your words on that point, please correct me. I read it three times, but I really do feel like I must have missed the connection there, if you made one.

But I have more questions:

How do you justify using Paul's life as the context for the word "pastors" in Eph.4:11? Do you feel Paul was speaking of men like himself in that word of that verse? Or do you think Apostles are the same as pastors?

Likewise for Jesus, Peter and the 12 - aren't you using the example of apostles as the context for your arguments about "pastors"?

If you really feel that's the proper context of your text, I must be unaware of what reasoning supports that. Is it elsewhere? I know I'm being strong here, but I'm also sincere about asking. How do _you_ justify that? Because I can't shake it out of your post.

Is it because Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus are called "pastorals"? But that's just a scholarly convention. Yes, Timothy was told to "shepherd" among his many other tasks. But Titus is called an "apostle" (in the greek) in 2nd Corinthians. And Timothy _left_ Ephesus (2 Tim.4:9). So overall, by far, the careers of Tim & Titus make them look a lot more like traveling apostles to me, than the typical present-day 'pastor' or 'priest'. But if you think Tim & Titus were "pastors" I'd sure like to hear your reasons for that view.

Let me add, I don't have a single problem in this whole world with christians who want to be 'pastors' or have 'pastors' of the modern type. If you feel called to do that, do it. Or do it just because it's tradition and it works to some-such degree. Or heck, argue that it fulfils principles of the needs of the body, based on scriptural elements. Whatever you argue, stand to your own Master! I do not have a problem with those who continue this practice.

And get paid, too. Praise the Lord. I ain't got no problem with de-muzzling anyone who serves in the body of christ. Of course getting paid for the gospel is absolutely scriptural. And optional in at least one way, as you rightly said.

But continuing to say the whole practice is actually scriptural? I just don't see it. To me, the present-day practice doesn't matches what we see in the NT at all. Not at all. Not the text OR the context. Imho. ;)

But my actual point is simply that I thought your post was supposed to show that the present day practice of having 'pastors' or 'a pastor' is based solidly in scripture, and for all of the reasons I just stated (and implied) - I'm afraid I just don't see quite how your arguments succeed in supporting that point.

Now I don't know if you take requests, but I'd love to see a whole other post on this topic. Honestly, I'm sure you can do better. I've never been to seminary, but surely the standard, accepted justifications for equating present-day 'pastors' with the "pastors" Paul spoke of in Eph.4:11 does NOT rest entirely on views of Jesus and the Apostles.

Does it?

Is it really all based on this generalized concept of "shepherding"? If so, then why does Eph.4:11 distinguish between apostles and pastors?

But if you believe that is indeed enough, please explain how. Because I believe this is the central connection I missed in your post.

And sincerely, brother Ben. Thank you so much, once again, for continuing to be gracious and interacting about these things so far. I look forward to more.

Ben Witherington said...

You need to understand the character of the book of Ephesians. It is a document meant to circulate through various Pauline churches, and to serve and characterize them all. Paul no more expects there to be 'some pastors' in every little house meeting, than he expects there to be 'some apostles' in such a single meeting. He is speaking in general about the church of God, not about individual churches. And herein lies a major problem with the ecclesiology of some house church folk---there are indeed a variety of texts where the phrase ekklesia tou Theou does not refer to a particular individual congregation but rather to all of them collectively as a single living entity.

For example, in Gal. 1 when Paul says he persecuted the church/assembly of God, he is not talking about attacking a particular house group. He is talking about the church as a collective entity (for other Pauline examples of this phenomenon, see my Galatians commentary).

Thus Ephes. 4.11 certainly provides no warrant at all for the notion that we must have multiple pastors in a single congregation, though that's o.k., as is having only one. Furthermore, the role of pastor is here distinguished from that of apostle and prophet, but it may well be linked with that of teacher.



Ben Witherington said...


As for the role of women, the point is simple. What determines roles in the church are who is given what gifts and graces-- not gender, not race, not social standing etc. Women and men equally could be apostles, prophets, teachers, and were in the early church. But again the matter is not clarified by amalgamating all these roles, or suggesting that there are no roles at all, but each one can do all these things. That in fact is a violation of what Paul says about only those gifted and graced to be and do x,y, or z should do so.



zefiriel said...

I thought the early Christians share their resources with everyone who is in the church, regardless of whether they're elders, "pastors," or apostles?

Bill Barnwell said...

Ben, I'm glad that you're doing this review series. You will now be probably added to the Enemy List of the "Pagan Christianity" enthusiasts.

I've come to personally find out that when one takes issue with the "scholarship" of the book, you are accused of one or a combination of the following: (1) Not reading the book, even though you have, (2) Not paying close enough attention to Frank's footnotes, (3) Relying on the "wrong" scholars. In your case, Ben, I guess just not being as credible as those cited in the Frank's footnotes. (4) Being an apologist for the real problems in the "established" church and being no better than those who tried to impede the efforts of the Protestant Reformers, (5) If you're a pastor or church leader, just being too afraid to have your world called into question since you unBiblically profit off the backs of those you serve.

And of course, when you catch PC getting its facts wrong, or overstating its case, or turning preferences into Biblical mandates, simply just respond that that's not what the authors really meant or said, even though they pretty much did, and instruct your opponent to go back and consult the footnotes.

The official Pagan Christianity blog has already posted a response to the first part of Witherington's critque. And give the PC folks credit for their zeal. On just about every mom and pop blog site that has linked to Witherington's review, some loyal PC disciple has been linking to the rebuttal saying stuff like "Another scholar pokes holes in Witherington's review!" and then posts the weblink back to the PC site.

In sum, don't disagree with the PC following. Your intelligence, motives, or both will certainly be called into question.

And that pomposity is the biggest problem I have with this book and those who take its every word as gospel truth.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Bill.

One of the things that I find most peculiar about this is that it is so overwhelmingly a white middle class and blue collar reaction to the institutional church, primarily in North America, though you find the same spirit in much smaller numbers in Australia. This a cultural thing reacting mainly to mainline Protestantism in any form.

You won't find many African American folk backing this theology and praxis. It seems nothing like church to them, not least because they would like to get out of the humdrum of their homes and go somewhere special, dress up special, and give their best to God.


zefiriel said...

"I've come to personally find out that when one takes issue with the "scholarship" of the book, you are accused of one or a combination of the following: (1) Not reading the book, even though you have, (2) Not paying close enough attention to Frank's footnotes,"

And that doesn't make the accusation untrue.

"And that pomposity is the biggest problem I have with this book and those who take its every word as gospel truth."

I can't help but notice the similarity the other way around. Isn't that the same as how people are treating this blog posts?

I don't really want to comment too much on these posts, partly because I know my knowledge is very limited, and because I am wary that I might be biased because I'm against church institutionalization. (though I do not set out to destroy them. am also currently in one, trying my best not to be a troublemaker.)

Plus, my points may be attacked with statements like "ah, typical of anti-institutional proponent." I don't like to participate in such discussions.

Name-calling and ridicules do not only happen on "the other side."

Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington Sir,
I have read all four reviews and believe you offered needed criticisms to Viola's and Barna's over-enthusiasm in qualifying their views as biblical and all that contrasts as un-biblical. All that one needs to do is take corrective insight to an extreme place and it too becomes error. I think this is the greatest weakness in the book.

You are right to highlight some of these errors and deficiencies. Yet I note an overly aggressive tone in your critique that I do not see in many of your other reviews and critiques. I am not suggesting that you are being mean-spirited, rather unusually vigorous. I find this odd and perplexing because despite the book's shortcomings they are right to highlight that something is largely amiss in the Church today.

Your spirited pursuit to show where they lapse gives me the impression that you think all is well and biblical within the average church experience today. That somehow Jesus intended that His Church would be largely identified with being a four-walled structure adorned with stained glass where you attend a pre-programmed service once a week for an hour where the extent of your fellowship is five minutes in a church lobby. A place where your worship and the extent of God's interaction with you is all printed out in a neat and tidy bulletin (Protestant stuff).

That somehow Jesus intended that His Church be a temple structure where people can observe a “levite” priestly clergy clothed in felt vestments and silly hats perform rituals, burn incense and conduct sacraments with sacred implements on behalf of a passive audience who is dependent on their mediation (Catholics stuff).

That somehow Jesus desired His Church to be identified with a high ecclesiastical atmosphere, shrouded in mystery where His sheep are “fed” through the singing of chants and liturgies in a language that they can’t even understand (Greek Orthodox stuff).

The underlying stress of Viola and Barna is that people think the Church is something they go to and not something they are as the people of God, set apart to be His possession, His Church, His dwelling place, His temple, His house. They are correct to highlight this and they are correct to point out that the way the term “church” is thrown around today tells you how far removed we are from God’s understanding.

Linguistically and grammatically it doesn’t even make sense to say, “Where do you go to church?” Or “I’ll meet you in the church lobby.” It’s like saying, “Where do you go to assembly of people?” and “I’ll meet you in the assembly of people lobby.” It may seem like a slight linguistic error, but the bending of the straw will tell you where the wind is blowing. There are consequences to such thinking. Namely church becomes a spectator sport in which membership and attendance become the key features rather than deep, abiding relationships that expose sin, encourage faith, strengthen the fainthearted and empower the release and exercise of gifts.

In a day and age in which western Christianity is subject to the same statistical numbers as secular society in terms of divorce, teen pregnancy and porn addiction, one has to wonder what Christ thinks of our church framework.

Your reviews do not seem to take into account Viola’s and Barna’s passion to see the Church breakout of the stagnation of Sunday-morning dress-up Christianity in which an ekklesia tries to survive predominantly on the gifts and talents of one individual- the pastor.

So my questions to you are simple: As a N.T. scholar do you think the western church has largely developed and gone the direction God intended? If not, where do you see her not reflecting God’s expressed intention? Do you think the distinction between clergy and laity has gone too far?

I have no problem with purpose-function buildings to physically attend to the needs of the church to come together in worship. Some house church proponents are flat out stupid to insist on living rooms and declare buildings off limits. But I must ask, do you think multi-million dollar cathedral buildings replete with adorned sanctuaries and alters is a move backwards in light of Jesus’ proclamation that God would no longer seek to dwell in temples made by human hands? (A huge paradigm shift in the minds of his disciples wouldn’t you say?)

Do you think the Lord’s Supper of “do this in remembrance of me” is done in any main line denomination that reflects the N.T. practice as instituted by Christ and upheld by His apostles.

I ask all this in an honest desire to know your thoughts. Your engaging rebuke of the book makes it seem as if the institutional framework and evolved hierarchy of many church traditions gets a passing grade in your book as being truly expressive of God's heart for leadership ("it shall not be so among you") and God's heart for dwelling places ("you are living stones being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices").

Blessings on you. -Matt Bohlman

Ben Witherington said...

Two small points, and thanks for all the good posts. First, I certainly do not assume that all is well with the mainline churches or traditional churches. Like any group involving human beings there are issues and problems. My view is simply this--- not only have Viola and Barna failed to make their case, in fact their views are less Biblical when it comes to ecclesiology than the array of views found in the mainline churches, and yet, they try and present their views as the 'most Biblical viewpoint'. It simply isn't so, hence the vigor in the rebuttal. I'm not particularly fond of grandiose claims that have no real Biblical substance behind them. I do think that some of the critique of mainline churches is valid. I do not think that the alternative they offer is more Biblical.

As for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, it is indeed a sacrament and should be treated as such--- with both understanding, respect, and as a means of grace. See my book Making a Meal of It.



Unknown said...

Bill Barnwell,
I have experienced this first hand. Even after I did an interview with Frank and George, people still find reason to judge me as "two-faced" for having criticisms of the book. You can't win for trying with some people.

Dr. Witherington,
I would like to draw your attention back to Bill's comment (the second one on this thread). Can you explain how the right of financial support for the Apostle is the same for the pastor?

Also, when did the use of "Pastoral Epistles" come into use?

Unknown said...

Oh, one other question. Are any of your commentaries available in the Logos/Libronix format? I don't buy paper anymore for commentaries :-)

Ben Witherington said...

I am happy to report that all my Eerdmans socio-rhetorical commentaries will soon be available on the Logos package I believe. As for pay for ministers, the principle of Jesus was a general one given to all-- "a workman is worthy of his hire". This was as true of a prophet or an apostle, or some other sort of workman. Paul is not saying that the teaching of Jesus is only relevant for apostles. Indeed Gal. 6.6 rules this out as he tells the Galatians to take care of their own teachers, providing them with all good things.


Unknown said...

Yes, thank you for that clarification about the pay.

I will keep an eye out for your stuff on Logos.

Maybe the price will even work out so that a lowly church planter can buy it :-)

Ben Witherington said...

For those of you who have requested a source on the close relationship between the synagogue and its worship services and teaching sessions, and what went on in house church meetings, you need only peruse James Burtchaell's important book From Synagogue to Church. Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (Cambridge U. Press, 1992).

Toby Stevens said...

Whether Barna and Viola's thoughts are biblically supported or not pales in comparison with this one thing ... they only offer formats that appear to be similar to the early church … but they do not offer direction to the lifechanging God-experiences that made the early church what it was.

Basically, spiritual renewal is not as vital as renewal of format. For example:

They spend 9 pages on clothing of the clergy, 38 pages on the church building, 18 pages on the evils of sermons, 36 pages on the "order of worship" being established, and 14 pages about pastor's salaries.

But ... what about the "weightier matters"? Baptism: 4 pages. The very entrance into the covenant of God, and they only spend 4 pages?

Look at Barna's research. It's obvious that most "christians" do not know much about the Bible or what God requires of them. "Pagan Christianity?" simply reinforces that ignorance by suggesting leaderless groups follow a Spirit they know little of and a Bible they have great difficulty interpreting accurately.

I like their idea of unveiling how things were added into the church ... or taken away throughout the centuries. But ... what about the new birth? If anything has shifted since the book of Acts (the beginning of the church) it is this. America is filled with churches that are losing people because they do not truly encounter God in conversion. But is the problem the format? Or is it the substance?

Viola and Barna's quest is to meet in a format like the early church did. But if they do not encourage people to have the same experiences as the early church, then whatever format is created is empty.

Bottom line: The American church today is anemic, and recognizes it. And for a remedy, we keep turning to quick fix solutions. However, It is out of the new birth that we become new people, regenerate ... with an ability (at that point) to obey God and follow his Spirit as he leads.

With the early church, their doing (following God in their meetings) came out of their being (they were filled with God’s Spirit.. see Acts 2, 8, 10, 11, 19). If we just change our church formats, and do not allow ourselves to be filled and changed by God's Spirit, then we may in deed be pagans calling ourselves Christians.

Romans 8:9
"You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ."

Unknown said...

you make some good points toby... a lot worth deeper consideration.

Falantedios said...

It would be nice, though, if ministers would at least PRETEND to take Paul's warnings about the dangers of accepting support seriously.

If you are suggesting that the image of a "snake-oil-selling huckster" is limited to the patronage system of the ancient world, I hope you will reconsider.

I'm not against paying ministers. But Paul seemed to believe that his example had some merit.

I mean, have you really ever counseled a student who said, "Dr Witherington, I want to minister in [insert location here]. There have been a lot of disreputable preachers in this area who have taken money from the church and given ministers a bad name. So I'm thinking of foregoing my right to support."

Does anyone even consider the fact that many unbelievers DO think that gospel ministry is just an easy way to make a buck?

Again, I'm NOT against supporting ministers. I'm against people not taking Paul seriously when he warns about the real dangers associated with accepting such support.

in HIS love,
nick gill
Frankfort, KY

PS - And it might be even MORE true today from a mainline denominational standpoint - many unbelievers think that its just another corporate job.

Unknown said...

falantedios, I have known several guys who have done just that.

Personally, I do get support as an Elder, but I also gave up a job opportunity to make a 6 figure salary to do so. Most guys I know, sacrifice a lot to minister full time. I know two pastors who have jobs as Janiotors so their time is free to minister, and I worked cleaning toilets for some time to self-support (and am looking for a job right now as well so I don't place an undue burden on our small congregation).

These guys don't get written about in the popular magazines that only talk about mega-church success, so that is why you don't read about them.

If you don't personally know pastors/elders like this (which from your comment it seems you don't), might I respectfully suggest you are hanging around the wrong group and need to travel in different circles?

Jon Zens said...


In part four of your review, you spend the bulk of your time showing from the New Testament that there are specific people who do pastoral work and other functions. It seems to me that you are missing the main point of PC in this regard. The authors are saying that the tradition of “clergy” in Roman Catholicism and “the pastor” in Protestantism has no organic connection to what is portrayed in the NT, and it comes into conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

While Reimagining Church explores the function of first-century shepherds, overseers, and elders in detail, I’ll just make a few observations in response to your review.

1) You seem to assume that contemporary “pastors” and the elders, shepherds, and overseers mentioned in the NT are on the same plane. But PC is rightly saying that this is not the case. A whole doctrine of “the pastor” has been repeatedly articulated in hundreds of books – with minor variations, of course. Here are nine books from various perspectives which, if taken together, would pretty well give the contours of what people have in mind when they hear the word “pastor.”

Edward Schillebeeckx, Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ; Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor; Hezekiah Harvey, The Pastor: His Qualifications & Duties; David S. Schuller, et al., Ministry in America: A Report & Analysis, based on an in-depth survey of 47 denominations in the U.S. & Canada, with interpretation by 18 experts; Norman Shawchuck & R. Heuser, Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People; Robert L. Randall, Pastor & Parish: The Psychological Core of Ecclesiastical Conflicts; Melvin J. Steinborn, Can the Pastor Do It Alone?; Stefan Ulstein, Pastors [Off the Record]: Straight Talk About Life in the Ministry; and John A. Sanford, Ministry Burnout.

The host of assumptions about the role of “the pastor” in such books cannot be substantiated in the NT. The “office” of pastor set forth in Protestant tomes is unknown in the NT. That is the essence of what PC is setting before its readers.

For example, Puritan John Owen believed that “on this office [‘pastor’] and the discharge of it He hath laid the whole weight of the order, rule, and edification of His church” (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, edited & abridged by John Huxtable, London, 1947, p.55). Southern Baptist Frank Owen crystallized the essence of what church people assume is to be the operational standard:

The OT had the prophet and the priest . . . . In Evangelical Christianity the church has merged the two OT figures into one office called ‘pastor’ . . . . This fellowship, like a flock, needed a leader like a shepherd . . . . An orderly church needs one overseer, one shepherd, one pastor . . . . the pastor needs to have general oversight of the education, music, youth, activities and any other ministries in the flock . . . . Allow this old veteran to observe that chaos easily develops where no one is in charge. If the church is to be one flock, it needs one shepherd. Let him be first among equals” (Western Recorder, January 14, 1981, p.11).

2) In your reactions to PC’s chapter on “The Sermon,” you seem oblivious to the deeply entrenched and thoroughly misguided traditions that cluster around the post-Reformation defenses of “the minister.” As the quotations from J. Owen and F. Owen reveal, the scale has been inordinately tipped to a position that you can’t even discover on the pages of the NT.

PC is simply uncovering and exposing the glaring disconnect between the body life described in the NT, and the clergy-centeredness that was concretized in post-apostolic times.

3) You seem to miss the point that the nexus of responsibility to “bind and loose” is committed to the believing community, not to “office bearers.” You say, “Jesus, according to Mt.16, founded his church on a leader named Peter. He was given the keys to the kingdom and the power of binding and loosing.” But whatever Matt.16 teaches, that is not the whole story, is it?

In Matt.18 we see very clearly that the “keys” to bind and loose are in the possession of the ekklesia. The epistles are addressed to bodies of believers, not to leaders. Even at Corinth where problems and immaturity abounded, Paul addressed the believers as possessing the spiritual resources to face and resolve their issues. He never addressed “leaders” separately as if problem-solving fell specifically upon their shoulders.

4) You aver that the shepherding “task is not given to everyone . . . . in no case are all Christians called and gifted to do shepherding.” In saying things like this, I think you are missing a vital NT perspective. Without denying that some individuals function as “shepherds,” it is nevertheless the case that the task of general oversight and pastoral care is given to everyone in the body. If you think about it, all the characteristics of elders are to be marks of the whole community – including instruction (Heb. 5:12; Rom. 15:14). The many facets of caring – including warning the unruly, comforting the feebleminded, supporting the weak – are to be fleshed out by the community as the whole body functions (1 Thess. 5:14; see also the 58 “one another” exhortations given to the believing community). In Gal.6:1-2, those in the body who are walking in the Spirit are to be involved in the restoration process when others become ensnared in sin. In 1 John all the brethren are to “test the spirits.” As John H. Yoder observes,

The whole concern of Reformation theology was to justify restructuring the organized church without shaking its foundations … But if we were to ask whether any of the N.T. literature makes the assumptions listed -- Is there one particular office in which there should be only one or a few individuals for whom it provides a livelihood, unique in character due to ordination, central to the definition of the church and the key to her functioning? Then the answer from the biblical material is a resounding negation …. The conclusion is inescapable that the multiplicity of ministries is not a mere adiaphoron, a happenstance of only superficial significance, but a specific work of grace and a standard for the church …. Let us then ask first not whether there is a clear, solid concept of preaching, but whether there was in the N.T. one particular preaching office, identifiable as distinctly as the other ministries. Neither in the most varied picture (Corinthians) nor in the least varied (Pastoral Epistles) is there one particular ministry thus defined. (“The Fullness of Christ: Perspectives on Ministries in Renewal,” Concern, No. 17, Feb. 1969).

5) An especially revealing passage is Heb.12:15 where the verb episkopeo appears. The noun form of this verb, of course, refers to “overseers,” or “elders.” We get our word “Episcopal” from it. So here we have the action of “overseeing” applied to the whole body of brethren. R.C.H. Lenski makes these observations: “Episcopos is a bishop; the participle bids all the readers to act the part of episcopoi, overseers, by exercising continuous oversight of each other” (The Interpretation of Hebrews, p.443). Lenski translates this as, “continuing to exercise oversight lest anyone be dropping away from the grace of God.” Elders (overseers/shepherds) simply model this oversight and pastoral care for the rest of the church.

6) When any of Paul’s churches were in crisis, Paul didn’t write his corrective letters to “the pastor.” He instead writes to the whole church, and he exhorts the entire church to deal with the crisis. Contrast that with today’s practice. If there was a crisis brewing in the typical traditional church today, letters would be addressed to the pastor, not the congregation. In fact, a close look at the Pauline letters, as well as those of Peter, James, and John, reveals that the apostles never mention a single pastor. That there were elders/overseers/shepherds in some of them is without question, but they clearly didn’t have the kind of prominence that the modern pastor is given today. (For an insightful discussion on the role of first-century elders, see R. A. Campbell, The Elders: Seniority in Earliest Christianity. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994.)

7) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus weren’t called the “Pastoral Epistles” until around the eighteenth century. Timothy and Titus were not pastors as we conceive of them today. They were in Paul’s circle of apostolic workers, usually on the move. On occasion they tarried in a single location. Significantly, Paul never calls them pastors or elders. He does call Timothy an “evangelist.”

8) Our church practice has been so focused on “the pastor” that we have lost the broad pasturing responsibility entrusted to all the brethren. By paying people to “do ministry,” the people in the pew often end up participating very little, if any, in vital caring for one another. The reality is that “ministry” has traditionally shifted from the many to a few – often, only one.

9) In the discussion of one pastor versus a plurality of elders, you again seem to miss the point. The truth is that there is a well-defined doctrine defending the need for “one pastor,” summed up in Frank Owen’s sentiment – “An orderly church needs one overseer, one shepherd, one pastor.” In the NT, references to elders and overseers are always plural. There is no example of an ekklesia having one shepherd. “If any of you is sick, let them call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14).

As Wayne Grudem notes, “no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent NT pattern is a plurality of elders ‘in every church’ (Acts 14:23) and ‘in every town’ (Titus 1:5)” (Systematic Theology, p.913). Once again, there is just no connection between the leadership described in the NT and the long-standing tradition of “the pastor.”

My observation would be that the great bulk of people who have been sitting in pews hearing sermons for 30-50 years are rarely equipped for ministry, are often biblically illiterate, and are essentially trained to be ears for the mouth of the body – spoon-fed and dependent on the charisma of one gift behind the pulpit (cf. Clyde Reid, The God-Evaders, Harper, 1966; The Empty Pulpit, Harper, 1967). David Thomas in 1898 summarized the situation well in his comments on 1 Cor.14:

The Christian church in assembly, on the same occasion, might have several speakers to address them . . . . If this be so: 1. Should Christian teaching be viewed as a profession? It is now: men are brought up in it, trained for it, and live by it, as architects, lawyers, doctors . . . . 2. Is the Christian church justified in confining its attention to the ministry of one man? In most modern congregations there are some Christian men who, by natural ability, by experimental knowledge and inspiration, are far more qualified to instruct and comfort the people than their professional and stated minister. Surely official preaching has no authority, either in Scripture, reason, or experience, and it must come to an end sooner or later. Every Christian man should be a preacher. Were the half-hour allotted in church services for the sermon to be occupied by three or four Christly men . . . . with the capability of expression withal, it would not only be far more interesting, but more profitably spent than now (“1 Corinthians,” The Pulpit Commentary, p.459).

In a sense, PC zeros in on and parses issues that are broadly discussed thematically in Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity, in Nigel Goring Wright’s Disavowing Constantine, and in Colin J. Bulley’s The Priesthood of Some Believers.

If I may, I’d like to quote Frank in a recent interview he did with George Barna. The whole interview is worth hearing as they discuss the book and their views on the modern pastorate ( In it, he issues this challenge to his listeners:

Pick up your NT and look for this man. Show me a man in the NT who preaches to the same congregation week after week, month after month, year after year. Show me a man in the NT who is called the head of the church. Show me a man in the NT that makes the decisions for a local church. Show me a man in the NT that represents the church in the world, that blesses civic events, that marries the living and buries the dead. And if you can find that man in the NT who fits all of those descriptions, then George Barna will give you $500,000.

This is a challenge to consider for all who assume that the modern pastoral office and role is firmly based in the NT. The fact is, such a job description cannot be found.

The fact of the matter is that while some pastors cannot accept the challenges in PC, there are many pastors who have testified that they have known deep down in their hearts that their role as pastors wasn’t in line with God’s will. Reading PC has helped them to get in touch with their consciences. You can read some of these testimonials on Frank’s blog at

In closing, I would encourage you to consider two essays that, I believe, capture the pulse of Pagan Christianity. You come across pretty dogmatically with your views, but it needs to be kept in mind that other adept scholars have come to different conclusions after examining the NT revelation.

*Gordon D. Fee, “Laos & Leadership in the New Testament,” Listening to the Spirit of the Text, Eerdmans, 2000, pp.121-146.

*John H. Yoder, “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood: A Protestant Perspective,” The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, Univ. of Notre Dame, 1984, pp.15-45.

I think the following summary by Ernest F. Scott once again confirms that the pivotal points made in PC have been seen by others.

[The ekklesia] was not the Jewish community over again, with a few minor differences, but was a new creation . . . . [W]hen much of his spiritual teaching was forgotten . . . the church took on more and more of the character of an ordinary society. It sought its models deliberately in the guilds and corporations of the day, and before a century had passed a Christian church was almost a replica in miniature of a Roman municipality. It had a body of officers graded like those of the city, clothed in similar vestments and bearing similar titles. The conception of a unique society, representing on earth the new order which would prevail in the Kingdom, seemed almost to have disappeared (The Nature of the Early Church, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, pp.31, 110).

Thanks again for considering my thoughts. – Jon Zens

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jon:

You have put a lot of effort into these responses, so thank you. I am a NT scholar who is also aware of the various ways the church has wandered away from Biblical models of various things. While I appreciate your pointing out materials from John Owens etc. and I realize of course that the term pastor has a fuller and richer sense than it may have had in the early church, the main function of these posts is to deal with the Biblical and theological errors in what is being said in and undergirding Pagan Christianity and by you, and as a second order issue, your misreading of the earliest period of Christian history.

The charge of anachronism is a serious one, all the more serious when you make it of a historian who has devoted his adult life to immersing himself in the primary sources in the primary languages and in early Christian history.

And my responses to you are that I am most concerned with your misuse of Scripture, and the leaps in logic that are so clear in what you say about the early church structure and function. I have time here to point out three things---

1) in regard to theology, it is simply false to say that the life of the church is modeled on the life of God if we are talking about anything ontological. The ontological equality of the three members of the Trinity involves their divinity, whereas human beings are only equal in being human. They have neither the capacity nor the power to function in various ways that God functions. And interestingly the ontological equality in the Trinity does NOT imply a functional equality or sameness of role for them, particularly if we are talking about the function of the Son or the Spirit on earth.

The Son is clearly subordinated to the Father, and the Spirit subordinate to both the Son and the Father. This is why, for instance, we hear that the head of Christ is God in 1 Cor. 11.

Both Johannine theology and Pauline theology recognize the functional subordination of the Son and the Spirit to the Father. The Son can say nothing but what the Father gives the Son to say and so on. All the use of agency language of the Son being the agent of the Father and the Spirit being the agent of the Son make this very clear.

If one wants to draw an analogy between that and body life, then what we would EXPECT in the body is an equality in regard to value and personhood of all members of the body of Christ, but clearly enough a division of labor, and a different in function amongst those body members. This is what a Biblical model that draws analogies between the life of God and the life of the church would need to conclude, and as you well know it is possible to push this too far--- see Wayne Grudem, for example. It is also possible to go too far in the other direction and miss the functional subordination of the Son and the Spirit. The latter seems to be your problem.

2)You seem also to have a taxonomy that assumes that what Paul does in an evangelistic setting has little or nothing to do with the roles he would play in a house church setting, but frankly this is false. Preaching, mentoring, shepherding go on in various places and forms in both settings. Paul is an apostle in all these settings, and when he commands his Corinthians to obey his teaching as a Word from God, he is most certainly operating as not merely one member of the congregation but as an authority figure over it.

The question then becomes was the apostolic office in some form passed down through church history. As you are surely aware, the second century church believed it was--- in the office of the bishop, in particular the itinerant monarchial bishop like Ignatius. Of course there were overseers in local congregations but there were overseers above them of the churches as a whole. Not only were their itinerant bishops, there were also itinerant prophets and teachers-- see the Didache.

The problem for you is that you have picked Paul's most problematic church--- Corinth, which he spends the most time correcting to be the basis of your model for what church life, body life, and leadership ought to look like. I dare say that if you didn't have 1 Corinthians, much of what you say would not follow at all even on the basis of the rest of the Pauline corpus.

3) It is of course true that Paul tells all Christians that they have a responsiblity to each other to exhort one another etc. Of course this is true. Why would you assume that he was referring to doing this in some church meeting or public meeting? Or why would you then assume that when Paul says that 'some are called to be apostles, prophets teachers' he means everyone, when clearly he doesn't. What we can say is that both things are true-- there were those who had the gifts, the regular function and therefore role of teaching etc. in the church, and there was also as well the responsibility of all to be their brother's and sister's keeper, exhorting, calling to account etc. Both things are true. If by 'organic' church you mean the elimination of the former category in favor of everyone being free to do whatever they feel led to do, spontaneously, then you have badly misread Paul, and other parts of the NT, and it will not do. It is a very serious denial of what Paul says about leadership. So back to the Pastoral Epistles once more with feeling-- it is irrelevant that the term applied to them is later. They were called this for a good reason-- Timothy and Titus are called upon and trained by Paul to train up and appoint other leaders than themselves to various churches in various places-- both elders and deacons, and even overseers. This did not mean that Timothy and Titus ceased to have an ongoing authority over such local church officials, or simply planted churches and then left the locals in charge. This is false-- they continued to have oversight OVER the overseers etc. This is why Paul keeps have to jump start Timothy to fulfill the pastoral roles he is called to do in such instances. He is not to back down from leadership because of his age, or natural temerity etc. Not all authority was local in the early church, nor did all authority grow out of the indigenous life of the local house churches. There was a larger concept of the church of God as a whole, and the apostles and their co-workers had roles across and above such local congregations. And yes, they had every right to be paid, though they could if they chose refuse to be paid.

As is the case with any lively renewal movement spurred on by enthusiasm, and what is seen as a prophetic witness, and by the Holy Spirit, there are always excesses and mistakes-- errors of enthusiasm often. But my concern in these posts is not with that. My concern is with the errors in Biblical interpretation, errors in critical judgment about the character of the early church, errors in reading early Christian, not the later and even Reformational history of the church.

I hope you will carefully rethink what you are saying as I always do my best to do-- and that way iron can sharpen iron. The function of iron on iron is not just to produces sparks, but to sharpen.

Blessings on your ministry as I have no wish to try and pour cold water on what the Spirit is doing through you. The church always needs reformation. Always-- and so does yours. You need to understand that God can write straight with a crooked stick, and we are all crooked sticks. Just because God uses us, doesn't mean we have our theology and praxis straight.

Ben W.

Jon Zens said...

Thanks, Ben, for your kind and gracious comments. I'm pressed for time right now, but will reply to your comments on Monday. I just responded to your Postlude.
Jon Zens

Jon Zens said...

Hi, Ben
I am responding to both your comments to my replies to Part Four and the Postlude under the Postlude thread.
-- Jon Zens

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Ben, excellent critque! Frank teaches the scriptural support of Apostles. he seems to hold to a belief that this support is 'limited' to Apotles. Of course I disagree.

Unknown said...

Hi Dr. Worthington, I used a rather lengthy quote for a series I am doing on Elders. You can see the portion I quoted on my blog "More Than Cake". I hope you approve. Thanks.

nadia said...

Todays Christianity has Pagan DNA it cannot be reformed The manifestations we can see in Christian churches and Messianic Judeism is Baals,Baalzebubs spirit..The work of Gods Spirit is not apparent today Eliah will come to prepare the way for Jesus and TRUE GOD OF ABRAHAM AND ISRAEL WILL POUR OUT HIS TRUE SPIRIT It will be new community Pagan DNA cannot be encluded in it