A gracEmail reader writes, “Why do Churches of Christ not call their preachers ‘pastor’? We’re about the only Christian group which doesn’t use that term. I occasionally hear it applied to elders, but I’ve not seen them do much real pastoring.”
* * *
Churches of Christ have traditionally taught that the positions of “pastors” and “elders” are the same in the New Testament. Because their preachers have not usually been elders, these churches have refrained from calling the preacher “pastor.” Interestingly, in the early days of the Stone-Campbell “restoration movement,” churches usually did not have full-time preachers. “Evangelists” traveled from church to church, and many were called “Elder (So-and-so).” Some old biographies have such a title: “The Life of Elder Jacob Creath,” etc. I can’t prove the connection, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mormon practice of calling door-to-door evangelists “elder” came from the Churches of Christ pioneers since Sidney Rigdon, one of Joseph Smith’s cohorts, was a renegade Campbellite.
Even until the 1940’s, most Churches of Christ (at least in the American South) resisted hiring someone to give sermons every Sunday in a local congregation, a practice regularly denounced as “the pastor system.” This objection was not without scriptural basis since the New Testament authors do not seem to have been aware of a salaried preacher who was neither an itinerant evangelist nor an elder. As Churches of Christ became more wealthy and stylish following World War II, they also abandoned their old ways in this regard and numerous others. For many years now almost all Churches of Christ who could afford a fulltime local preacher have hired one — and quite a number of those preachers have privately searched in vain for their professional counterpart under any biblical description.
Because the New Testament does provide for mature believers who are knowledgeable and experienced to pastor (shepherd) each local church (flock), one might conclude that in an ideal world the church’s regular teaching would come from one or more of them (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 2:2-5; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). The Presbyterians, whose name reflects their rule by elders (“presbyters”) divide elders into two groups — ruling elders and teaching elders — with “the pastor” as the primary teaching elder. The Anglican “priest” also stands for the biblical “presbyter” or “elder” — and the English word “priest” itself evolved from the Greek word “PR(i)ESbyTer.” That is somewhat ironic for those of us in Churches of Christ, since we have claimed to be more biblical than others although we appointed elders who frequently did not pastor, then hired a shepherd who was not an elder. (Some elders do “pastor,” of course, and this is no criticism of them. And preachers in some Churches of Christ are designated among the elders, which is altogether appropriate.)