Why are there No Senior Pastors in the Bible?

In my experience of church, across 3 denominations, the senior pastor has been the leader of every church I have ever attended.  And yet in the bible there are no senior pastors.  The term does not exist.  Not because the church is left to its own devices – there is substantial leadership structure in the New Testament church and that  structure involves apostles, prophets, elders, and deacons.

It seems that the pattern of church leadership was that elders would be appointed to govern a church once the church expanded beyond Jerusalem, such as is described in Titus 1.  It seems that this involved a plurality of elders overseeing the life of a single congregation.  All the time there was apostles based in Jerusalem and perhaps in Antioch as well, who had authority over the various elderships within a certain locality.  In that scenario there is no senior pastor.

So then time passes.  Pause for a moment here and have a think about what happens in groups.  If a group of people have a task that they stick at year after year, what happens?  The person with the strongest leadership trait rises to the top.  All groups have dominant people, people who hold the most sway, and people on the fringe, or who don’t care about the struggle to hold the most influence.  A church eldership is a bunch of people no different in this regard.  Just because they are meant to have a degree of Christian character (see Titus 1 and 1 Tim 3) does not mean that they are somehow immune from these factors.

As the early decades of the Christian church rolled on the office of the bishop became more and more prominent.  Now when I use the word bishop here don’t think of Catholic bishop or Anglican bishop.  The bishop today is usually in charge of a diocese that usually has hundreds of churches within it.  But when the position of bishop first emerged it was essentially a senior pastor role.

And so what we find is that some of the very first Christian writings after the New Testament are letters urging Christians to submit to the authority of their bishops, that is their senior pastors.  Ignatius of Antioch (pictured) writes about 100AD saying, “Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles…”

So what we have is that the early church started with a group of elders in charge of a congregation, but within a generation or two something akin to the modern senior pastor had emerged.

For Protestants who take the bible as authoritative this begs the question, should we simply have a group of elders and get rid of the position of senior pastor?  After all it seems that the position emerged after the New Testament had finished being written.  It is not included in the pattern of church leadership the bible gives us.

My answer is no.  Having served on a church eldership I think that asking that group to not have a senior pastor is simply unrealistic.  That just not how people work.  Brian Houston uses the slogan, “anything with more than one head is a monster.”  He has a point.  I think that for long-term vision and direction you do need a senior pastor.  You can have an eldership which is over the senior pastor, and therefore has the power to remove the senior pastor from their position.  That would be in contrast to what Ignatius was describing in the quote above.  But to have no senior pastor at all…my hunch is that would simply not work.  Even if that was how it was on paper over time someone would emerge as a de facto senior pastor anyway.

If the Lord wanted to give us firmer direction as to how the church should be structured he would have.  Yes, there are no senior pastors in the bible.  But I have no problem with having them now.  The bible has given us a structure.  It has evolved from group leadership to senior pastor leadership.  I think that any attempt to go backwards is doomed to fail.  The strongest individual in that eldership group would natuarlly act as a senior pastor anyway. Senior pastors are here to stay, and that’s OK.


10 Comments to “Why are there No Senior Pastors in the Bible?”

  1. The Church structure in the NT was written by and on the behalf of supporting the Roman Church structure.
    The Protestant Church is the daughter of that church, has perpetuated that same structure, and I contend is flawed.

    There are 3 examples of what the church should look like.

    OT Church Pre-Cross
    Exd 33:10 And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand [at] the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man [in] his tent door.

    NT Church Post-Cross (First 50-100 years)
    They went from house to house breaking bread.

    China Church
    The church meet in their homes and are on fire for Christ.

    In all three examples, they are/were turning their world upside down for Christ.

  2. Hi John, Always enjoy reading both yours and Kathryns Blogs… when I get the chance. I want to wish you and Kathryn and the Georgeous one all the very best as you journey on in the future. I’m sad to see you guys go but understand you need to move on to where you are led.
    I trust it will bring you and your family many blessings.
    Wishing you all the very best. It was great serving with you for a little while.
    Peter M.

  3. Interesting. I wonder, though, the titles refer to a giftedness, not an administrative function. These are gifts (as pointed out above being in Eph. 4) and “Their purpose is to prepare God’s people, to serve, and to build up the body of Christ
    Eph 4:12 (GW), not judge (in the Old Testament sense). In 1 Cor. 12 the gift of running the show is listed. It appears apostles had authority to lead, but that does not seem to extend to any other function than the administrator. Jesus made it clear disciples are not to “lord it over” others. What would happen, spiritually, if pastors taught and trained and an administrator ran the operation? I imagine conflict, because pastors want to run things. But is that Biblical? Hmm

    • Good question at the end. If you just read Romans 12 on it’s own you would think that leaders and administrators would run churches, and they would be different people from those who taught and pastored. However the New Testament as a whole gives a different picture – in Acts 6, for example, it was the apostles who organised the team of deacons to look after the food distribution. That is, the same people who were in charge of doctrine were in charge of the administrative functions of the church.

      • Yes, I did observe that apostles carry an unusual range of responsibilities; it was pastors administering the organization I wonder about. And since you raised it, the deacons (finance committee?) were evangelists and profoundly spiritual people/servants. This flies in the face of the separation of spiritual and temporal that many denominations make (you can be a steward if divorced but not an Elder, or only full members can vote on spiritual things (like calling a pastor) but adherents can vote on budgets). Weird to me. Anyway, your words evoke what could be some deeply transformational conversation.

  4. Hi John, Thanks for you blog. The term “senior” pastor may not exist in the Bible, however we see the word ‘pastor’ mentioned as one of the five ascention gifts given to the church for the equiping of the Saints Eph 4:11, and we also know that Peter was considered to be the head of the church in Jerusalem, so there was already a structure, or hierachy in place back then. Even though Peter was technically an apostle, he was in effect the senior pastor of the Jerusalem Church. I think this is just a term that we use for the senior leader of a church. Also Elders were appointed by the Apostles (not the other way around) to assist with the day to day running of the church Acts 6:2-4. So the elders were under the apostles not over them. The Elders appointed to look after other churches in Acts14:23 were in effect under the leadership of the Apostle Paul who was sent out from the “Mother Ship” church in Antioch. I actually think that churches such as Hillsong, Planet Shakers, Edge etc with many different campuses, do have a biblical model. People like Brian Houston are actually apostles (church planters) but we call them Senior Pastors. As far as how accountability works, well that’s another discussion again.


  5. Good stuff John, one or two statements that may raise the ire of a few people. Which in it’s self isn’t always a bad thing. Keep people thinking, expanding and growing. For mine there is one one head-heart-blood supply. But they are all in the one body, none can or will live for long without the others, plus other parts within the body. And I believe it is the same with the body of Christ. He should be the only ” Senior Pastor ” and everybody else follows His direction. Any way keep up the great work, love to you and Cath.

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