A Pastors Plea for Biblical Fidelity

By Steve Atkerson

[The following is an excerpt from a resignation letter of a pastor to his church]

It's been a real privilege to serve God at our church these past seven years. I thank the Lord for all the good that comes through the saints here; many, many needs are met by the congregation. Between 1983 and 1990 my beliefs concerning the church (ecclesiology) have changed radically. Those who hold to the traditional view of the church do so sincerely and based on their study of Scripture. My current belief is an alternative to the traditional way of doing things and is also based on Scripture. This is not to suggest that traditional churches are antibiblical; it is simply to offer what may be a more biblical approach. The reader will have to decide for himself which system best fulfills the warrants of Scripture. While I realize that my convictions are subject to error, still I must alter my present ministry or be guilty of hypocrisy. My intent is not to condemn those who differ; it is simply to explain why I am pursuing my present course. Following are five areas of concern, the most critical being the fifth.

First, from such verses as 1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:1-2,16; 14:33b; Phil 3:17; 4:9 and 2 Thess 2:15, it is obvious that apostolic tradition was consistent in all churches everywhere and was followed. Based on the above references, I believe that the apostolic tradition of the New Testament ought also to be normative in today's churches. Whereas it is always wrong to break an apostolic command, it is not necessarily wrong to break apostolic tradition. However, to break apostolic tradition is to settle for second best. The question is not, do we have to do things the way they did? Rather, the question is, why would we want to do things any other way? We meet for church on the first day of the week, the Lord's day, not because it is commanded but because it was the New Testament pattern. We lay hands on pastors and deacons when ordaining them not because it is commanded, but because it was the New Testament pattern. I believe we should be consistent in our practice of following apostolic tradition.

The above point leads to this second point. From Acts 14:23; 15:5, 4, 6, 22-23; 20:17; Phil 1:1; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 4:14; Tit 1:5; Heb 13:7, 17, 24; Jas 5:14 and 1 Pet 5:1-2 it is evident that the New Testament pattern is for each church to be governed by a plurality of pastors (i.e. elders). Where is the New Testament evidence for congregational rule, rule by a board of deacons, or rule by only one man (whether he be designated bishop, pope, or the pastor)?

Third, 1 Cor 9 makes it clear that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living from the gospel. The text calls such people apostles (or as we would say today, missionaries). However, in 9:15-18 Paul waived his right to such support (see also 1Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:6-9). When speaking to the pastors at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), Paul offered his voluntary secular employment as an example for the pastors to follow. Pastors are to be self-supporting and in a financial position of giving rather than receiving (20:33-35). 1 Tim 5:17-18 indicates that a pastor can receive honor given in appreciation for his ministry, but balancing 1 Tim 5 with Acts 20 would at least suggest that pastors be BI-vocational. In any event, I see little Scriptural justification for the current practice wherein a church calls a pastor from afar to come in and (for a set salary) serve as spiritual leader. Thus (unless the Lord directs me into missions) I plan to return to secular employment and develop a ministry of starting churches that are consistent with the New Testament pattern.

Fourth, though there are clearly recognized leaders in the New Testament Church (Heb 13:7, 17) there is no artificial clergy/laity distinction. What makes a pastor more reverend than the least part of Christ's body? All believers are to function as priests (1 Pet 2:5, 9) and the pastor-teacher's job is to equip the saints so that the saints can do the work of the ministry (Eph 4:11-16). NT church leaders were player-coaches, not star-players. The word minister has been professionalized and made to refer to pastors, but Eph 4:12 indicates that it is the saints who are the real ministers.  The Holy Spirit sovereignly gives to each one a special gift(s) for the common good (1 Cor 12:7), all members are important in the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:4-31; Rom 12:3-8). Every joint (Eph 4:16) plays a part. Notice the mutuality (one another) of 1 Thess 4:18; 5:11-14; Rom 15:14 and Heb 3:12-13; all believers are to be involved in comforting, encouraging, building up, and admonishing.  In short, strengthening the body of Christ should be done by one another (all believers), not just by the leadership. Over-dependence on the clergy leads to a weak and enfeebled church with the talents of the multitude left undeveloped. The size of a church is no indication of strength (blubber is not muscle); all saints are to function as priests and ministers!

Fifth, 1 Cor 11:14 presents a detailed description of a NT church meeting. From this it is obvious that everyone had the opportunity to verbally participate in the meeting. For instance, 14:26 reveals that each one could contribute a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation; 14:27 states that any one could speak in a tongue, but limited it to two or at the most three; 14:29 allows for two or three prophets to speak; 14:31 says that you can all prophesy one by one. To be sure, their meetings were done properly and in an orderly manner (14:40), but this clearly included the opportunity for mutual participation. This is also seen in Heb. 10:24-25, where stimulating one another was to go on when they assembled together. This is a far cry from church meetings today where one man does almost all the talking. There is no instance in the NT of only one man doing all the talking in a church meeting. Even in Acts 20:7, talking is from dialegomai, which is the basis for the English word dialogue. Do a NT word search on preach or preaching and you will discover that even this is almost exclusively linked with evangelism (proclaiming the gospel to the lost), not church meetings!  Church today has become a place to go to watch professionals perform. Why is it that only one man is allowed to exercise his spiritual gift while all other saints atrophy? Where in our church meeting is there a place for the sharing of concerns, the development of deep interpersonal relationships, questioning a teaching, the expression of love for one another, stimulating one another to good deeds, mutual encouragement or church discipline? Teaching is an important part of a church meeting, but that must not be all there is!

Such verses as Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:17-21 and Jude 12 indicate that the focal point of NT church meetings was the Lord's Supper, celebrated every week, not in a token ritual but during (as a part of) the love feast. There was one loaf and one cup to symbolize their unity and community (1 Cor 10:16-17).  Also, whereas today we term our church meeting a worship service, the stated NT purpose of a church meeting is to edify (strengthen) the saints; it is to be man-centered more than God-centered (see 1 Cor 14:26b; Heb 10:24-25; Eph 4:11-16; 5:19; Col 3:16). Nowhere does Scripture ever give worship as the objective of a church meeting (Rom 12:1-2 defines a service of worship as a life of obedience). Church meetings are to equip God's people so that they can go out and worship God during the week by obeying His commands.

Finally, based on Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15 and Phlm 2, NT churches met for church in people's homes. This was not due primarily to persecution; Paul knew just where to go when he went from house to house arresting Christians (Acts 8:3) and unbelievers knew just where to go to hear about Jesus (1 Cor 14:23-25). When persecuted, the church ceased meeting in homes and met in such places as the catacombs. When not persecuted, homes served the church nicely because the church is to be like a family, not a business. It is to be informal, interactive and simple. The stated objectives of a church meeting occur better in a small setting than in a large one. There was only one church in every city but that one church met in a multitude of house churches; theirs was a strategy of growth through division. One must wonder at the wisdom of spending large sums of money on a building that is used only a few hours per week and that by its very size and design defeats the purpose of even having a church meeting (Heb 10:24-25; 1 Cor 14:26). The church is to be more of a guerrilla force in the world than a fortress.

In Summary, I believe that:

1) Apostolic tradition should be normative today.

2) Church rule should be by a plurality of elders.

3) Elders should usually be bi-vocational.

4) All believers are to function as priests and ministers.

5) Church meetings are to be informal, interactive and designed to strengthen the body of Christ via mutual ministries.

I can't help but think that today's church meetings fall far short of God's design. Over the years various minor adjustments have been implemented to correct the problem: Sunday School, Training Union, Fellowship Groups, etc. These are all most helpful but do not solve the real problem of an inadequate ecclesiology. If our Lord's day church meeting were as it ought to be there would be little need for Sunday School, Training Union, huge church auditoriums or Fellowship Groups. My challenge to today's church is that it be the pillar and ground of the truth, not the defender of ritual and man-made tradition. The sixteenth century Protestant Reformation was good in so far as it went; lets complete it!