What exactly does it mean to be a pastor or an elder in a church?
First of all, you will notice that I am in effect using the words “pastor” and “elder” interchangeably because we are essentially talking about the same thing. An elder is someone who carries leadership authority within a family/clan/tribe linked to the experience that they have. The word pastor is to do with shepherding or overseeing. In 1 Timothy 3, it’s “overseers” that Paul is describing. The Word there is the one from which we get the word “episcopalian” you see we all have bishops in our churches!
From the New Testament, I think it is clear that the normal practice is to have a plurality of elders or pastors within a church. Whilst it seems normal practice in many independent churches to use the label “pastor” to distinguish those who serve full time and are financially supported, I would suggest that in fact all the elders are pastors. I’m also not convinced that there should be a hierarchy between the voluntary elders and paid pastors.
So, I don’t think that pastors and elders should see themselves as over others in a hierarchy where they are afforded elite status. They are certainly not to use their position to domineer or to control. Nor do I think you can carry the title as an honorific wherever you go. At the present time, I am not serving as a church leader, therefore when people ask me if I’m a pastor or “in ministry” I say “no.” I have previously served as a pastor and there is the possibility that I may be called by another church but until them I’m a member of a local church serving under the leadership of the elders there -and that’s a great joy.
At the same time, we must not lose sight of the significance of the role. Paul describes it as a noble or honourable task. In conversations I have picked up that some pastors do not feel that they have any authority. They are seen by their churches as there to conduct services, visit people, lead services, give talks and generally be nice folk.
Yet, that’s not how Scripture presents the role.
“17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Elders/pastors do have authority in the church. This is reinforced by a double command. We are to “obey” and to “submit to” them. If there is a distinction between those words, I would suggest that it is as follows. Obedience means carrying out specific instructions, submission means that I place myself under the leadership of an other.
Elders therefore do have authority. They are to lead. Why is this so crucial? Well, it comes back to what they are responsible for. In Acts 20:18ff and 1 Peter 5 we see that they have responsibility for the care of the flock. Shepherd imagery is deployed frequently. The shepherd’s job is to ensure the sheep are well fed. This means leading them to green pastures and fresh water. They are also to ensure that the flock are safe, protected from wolves and from thieves.
Now just as a teacher in a classroom or a field trip needs to know that the kids can hear her and will respond quickly to her, just as a doctor needs to know you trust them and will follow their advice, just as sheep need to know, hear and heed the shepherd’s voice if they are to find pasture and avoid wild animals, so too, church members need to know, hear, heed and act on what elders/pastors say. That’s why authority is important. It’s not to control, suppress or take advantage of, it’s because it enables those under such authority to be protected and provided for.
Notice then that if the authority is linked to the responsibility then it is also co strained. It is a specific type of authority. Whenever I’ve presented to or chaired church members meetings and we’ve been talking about things like building projects or special initiatives I’ve always been clear that the church are not to simply comply with my proposals because I’m the pastor. I don’t turn up with a command, a thus says the Lord. I don’t have the special benefit of a vision or prophecy on such things. Therefore, decisions about matters where there isn’t direct special revelation are free decisions for the church to make wisely together. The elder’s authority is a teaching authority -to teach God’s Word and make disciples, teaching authoritatively by exposition of Scripture and by living out the application as an example.
So, we should not aspire to the role of elder or pastor out of desire for power but we should respect and submit to those who have that authority and if in leadership should take seriously the responsibility God has entrusted to us.
 Hebrews 13:17.