Mar 18, 2012

The Pastor’s Identity and Authority

13 Min Read

We have ceased to think theologically about the ministry. Instead, we characterize it almost exclusively in functional or institutional terms. There are at least two reasons for this shift in emphasis. On the one hand there are the new developments in clinical psychology and counseling procedures, and on the other the requests of parishioners, the denominational programs, and the culture of the local community. Much has been written about various aspects of pastoral theology, but there is a remarkable scarcity of literature that explores the theological issues that lie behind it. The doyen of modern pastoral methods, Seward Hiltner, has said:

Most American ministers—scholars though they may be—are functionalists at heart. . . . We think and feel or work our way into even the most recondite of theoretical matters only by first exploring them in relation to our functions of ministry.1

Much of modern pastoral psychology is an abandonment to this American pragmatism. It is an aping of American scholarship as it demonstrates its pragmatic motivation. There seems to be a disdain for a careful study of the biblical view of the ministry.

Such is the minister’s dilemma. He is faced on the one hand with the traditional biblical definitions (though often poorly developed and frequently caricatured) and on the other with the set of functional expectations by which his service is judged. In addition he is strongly influenced by the attractiveness of new developments in clinical psychology and counseling procedures. Therefore he faces basic ambiguities in performing his task.2

The minister serving in today’s secular culture is also confronted with an eroded image of the pastor. He is no longer the most educated man in the community or the one who elicits the mental image of a paragon of virtue. One is more likely to think about Elmer Gantry or to recognize that a recent Gallup poll showed that only eight percent of the population recommended the role of the clergyman as the preferred profession, far behind the doctor, engineer-builder.3

How will the pastor establish or regain his identity? Is he the evangelist who goes house to house, attempting to gain conversion, the friendly church visitor, or the counselor who deals with the people’s problems in his office?

It is not my purpose in this brief article to give a total definition of the biblical nature of the office of the pastor-teacher or a critique of modern pastoral psychology. I do intend to center my attention on that source of authority for and central character of the pastoral office that will give any man gripped under the Holy Spirit by its biblical imperative a sense of motivation, dignity, and joy in the office of pastor. It is also my judgment that this is in a very significant sense the genius of a Reformed view of the pastor.

Before we turn to an explicit delineation of the authority of the pastor-teacher it should be pointed out that every Christian has a ministry (Eph. 4: 10-13). Every Christian has an office, a mission to the world. It is, however, misleading to say that every Christian is a minister. Rather, he has a unique gift (I Cor. 12-14) and is called to testify in his own “calling” by word and deed. In a Reformed view of life and the world there are no secular callings, but all vocations are to be performed for the glory of God and under the direction of God’s word. An extreme position is represented by Arnold Come when he suggests that “the church is now ready for, and its God-given mission demands, the complete abandonment of the clergy-laity distinction.”4 This position cannot be accepted, for Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles make plain that the church has a specialized ministry. Some men were set apart and given by the ascended Christ to the church for its edification. The pastor-teacher is to serve the people of God in such a way that they are able to perform their ministry. It is Anabaptistic to carry the concept of the priesthood of believers to the conclusion that there is no distinction between the clergy and the laity. It is Reformed to recognize that all believers have a ministry but that there is a special office which is God-ordained and serves to the “equipping of the saints for the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ.”5 It was Calvin himself who saw the importance of the pastor-teacher for the reformation of the church:

We must allow ourselves to be ruled and taught by men. This is the universal rule which extends equally to the highest and the lowest. The Church is the common mother to all the godly, which bears, nourishes and brings up the Children of God, kings and peasants alike; and this is done by the ministry.

Those who neglect or despise this order choose to be wiser than Christ.6 So the people of God must see the minister as a gift of God’s grace in both his origin and service. And the pastor himself must cultivate a sense of both dignity and deep humility because of the office he bears.

The biblically mandated function that will give the pastor his sense of identity is preaching. It becomes the foundation for all other functions. The pastor is the verbal agent, the instrumental spokesman for God. For all the Reformers the evangelical ministry had as its chief function the responsibility of herald and proclaimer. Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Knox were united in saying that the New Testament knew nothing of a notion of the ministry as a priesthood. The Reformed pastor could be described as the ministerium verbi divini, the service of the divine word.7

In a real sense the glory of the Reformed faith, indeed its genius, is its preaching. In the medieval church the mass had been the central aspect of its worship. In the Reformation the mass was replaced by the reading and exposition of the Scriptures. In Geneva there were fifteen services with sermon every week. The Reformers saw that it was vital to the reformation of the church that the Word of God be preached because it was only in terms of the Word of God that repentance and faith could occur.

But in the modern church the preaching of the Word of God is on the defensive. Seward Hiltner, after having documented the centrality of the pulpit in the Reformation, says:

In the Reformation image there is a book instead of an altar. An altar at least implies sacrifice once for all or otherwise. But a book—paperback, hard cover, first edition, or translation—may mean almost anything, or nothing. How can a book, even The Book, substitute for clear and concrete symbolism of sacrifice. . . .8

When theology is established a posteriori to experience which in turn is defined by the discipline of the behavioral sciences, then preaching is demeaned. A pastor now looks at the “living human document.” He is well versed in the vocabulary of Freud and Buber and the style of the group dynamics movement but not in the vocabulary and style of the prophets and Apostles.9 Because of the influence of Marshal McLuhan and the impact of linguistic analysis, it is not unexpected to read that “Our understanding of the nature of communication now helps us realize how futile this effort when preaching is relied upon as the major communication too1.”10

The past president of the American Academy of Homiletics in the periodical Preaching Today exhorts his readers to recognize that preaching is indispensable for it is the transmission of the Word of God. He then stresses, however, that all the questions concerning the effectiveness of preaching signal its end as we know it. Still, he continues, there must be “proclamation.” And as an example he quotes from Archibald McLeish’s play, J.B.:

A child says to a mother
“Mother, mother what was that?
The wind child only the wind, only the wind.
I hear a word
You heard the thunder in the wind
Under the wind there was a word.”

The author concludes: “Whether in the pulpit or not there is a word that is our ministry.”11 Preaching in the sense in which the Reformers understood it has been dismissed as a significant part of the pastor’s task.

Blizzard noted in his study of ministerial attitudes and priorities that even when preaching is ranked high on a priority scale by pastors themselves only one-fifth (34-50 minutes) of a pastor’s work day is given to preparation for preaching.12 Preaching has fallen on bad times.

In sharp contrast to this modern attitude we will have clarity in our view and image of the ministry when we see that its authority is inexorably linked to the Word of God and that this authority is tied to the preaching of that Word. A definitive situation in the history of redemption is found in the gospels when Simon Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and Jesus blessed him and said you have been made Peter the Rock. Edmund Clowney has correctly pointed out that the blessing placed upon Peter will be misunderstood if we separate Peter from his profession:

It was Peter the confessor who is called the Rock. Peter confessing Christ is a Rock, Peter urging Christ not to go to the cross is a stumblingstone, a confessor of Satan.13

Immediately following the blessing upon Peter the Christ confessor, Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to the Church (i.e., the authority to bind and loose on earth with heavenly sanction). The figure of the keys was used in nonbiblical Judaism. As steward the priest used the keys to admit or exclude people from the house of God and His presence. We cannot separate Peter from the other Apostles. The authority to bind and loose (Matt. 18: 18) is applied to all the Apostles. It is true that Christ Himself bears the keys of the kingdom (Isa. 22:22; Rev. 3:7), but He has chosen to rule through His stewards. They announce by His authority both the forgiveness that results from the response of faith and repentance and judgment which follows impenitence.

When preaching is done in faithfulness to the Scripture and under the blessing of the Holy Spirit it is not only the minister’s voice but the voice of Christ.

Herein is the minister’s identity and source of confidence. The authority of the minister rests in Jesus own word (2 Peter 1:17-21),

How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe on Him in whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings! (Rom. 10: 14, 15).

So they are not scribes, not sycophants representing a mere human boss. They are heralds of the kingdom making a solemn declaration of forgiveness or judgment. There will be a real sense of mission on the part of the minister and a respect for the office by others if the authority is Christ’s.14

We have already rejected the notion that everyone is a minister, but we must be careful not to put the minister in Christ’s place. The message comes not in the preacher’s name, but in Christ’s. The minister’s authority is purely ministerial (cf. Luke 22:24-30; 1 Peter 5:3). The Old Scottish Catechism put it well:

Q Why do we seek needful things at the hands of men? A Because they are appointed stewards to us.
Q How then are we to go to them? A As to God’s instruments only.
Q To whom shall we give the praise? A Only to God, to whom all praise be1ongs.15

So all pride must go because the glory and the power belong to Christ.

With the challenge of the secular humanistic world view that dominates our culture and the tremendous growth in education, the preached word is the most important component of the church’s ministry.16 The Reformed pastor must steadfastly resist the temptation to give in to the influence of a psychologism, group dynamics, etc., as a substitute for a God-honoring pulpit ministry.

If it is the inscripturated word of God and the preaching of that word that are the source of the minister’s authority, it is fitting that we make some brief observations about that preaching. Reformed preaching was and must continue to be preeminently scriptura1 preaching. It is expository. When one studies the preaching of the Reformers—Zwingli, Bucer, the Westminster Divines—he will discover that a characteristic of their preaching was consecutive exposition of the Scripture. John T. McNeil reminds us that when Zwingli began his preaching in Zurich in 1591:

He startled his colleagues by declaring his intention to preach on the life of Christ beginning with a course of sermons interpreting the Gospel of Matthew. Moreover he would preach ex fontibus scriptura sacrae (from the fount of the Sacred Scripture) without employing man made commentaries.17

If this expository preaching is to be truly Reformed, it must be led by a truly biblical theological insight. Biblical exposition must involve the study of the character and content of scriptural revelation in its progressive development throughout the history of redemption. It stands in contrast to both a dispensational, moralistic allegorizing and the social approach to the Scriptures. The Reformed approach sees both as the organic union and epochal structure of biblical revelation. We must see the progressive relationship among Jacob’s ladder, Moses’ tabernacle, and that One who tabernacles among us. All of the Scriptures find their focus in Jesus Christ. Thus, all Bible exposition must bring the hearers to see its moral and social implications in the light of the redemption wrought out through the person and work of Jesus Christ.18

Reformed preaching also involves application. The truth must not only be set forth but brought to bear on the lives, hearts, and experiences of the hearers. One might well note the difference between Calvin’s sermons and his commentaries. His sermons always pressed home the truth of God’s word upon the everyday lives and cultural situation of his hearers. McNeil says of Zwingli:

He examined the motives and exposed the behavior of the citizens and the political and moral faults of their leaders, while he continually summoned them to repentance and a scriptural faith in the Redeemer.19

It was an application to both the personal and corporate lives of the people. There is no true Reformed preaching without application.

Reformed preaching is also dynamic. In Romans 10:14 the Apostle Paul emphasizes this point: “How shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” It is important to consult a reliable text in examining this verse. It is not “of whom they have not heard” (AV), but simply whom they have not heard. It is the voice of the Lord Jesus heard in the preaching of the gospel. Calvin has said God “deigns to consecrate to Himself the mouth and tongues of men in order that His voice may resound in them.”20 This statement of the Apostle Paul is based on Jesus’ own word when He said to His disciples, “He who hears you hears me and he who rejects you rejects me.” When preaching is done in faithfulness to the Scripture and under the blessing of the Holy Spirit it is not only the minister’s voice but the voice of Christ.21

So the message of the gospel must be spoken with boldness (papponoia).22 Boldness is given the pastor by the risen Lord through the operation of the Holy Spirit. In terms of this boldness the Lord endows His pastors with a poise, a certainty of expression which is a peculiarly Christian boldness and which stands in sharp distinction from the ordinary dogmatism of the world. When people are offended by this boldness they are actually taking offense to the gospel itself and to the authority of Christ.23

Whenever the pastor sees himself as a herald of the infallible word he will have an identity which will give him confidence, joy, and fruitfulness in the ministry.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Soli Deo Gloria: Essays in Reformed Theology: Festschrift for John H Gerstner, ed. R.C. Sproul (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1976).

  1. Seward Hiltner, Ferment in the Ministry (Atlanta: Abingdon Press, 1969), 31-32.
  2. Samuel W. Blizzard, “The Minister’s Dilemma,” Christian Century 73, no. 16 (April 25, 1956), 509.
  3. Urban T. Holmes, The Future Shape of the Ministry (New York: Seabury Press, 1971), 140-141.
  4. Arnold Come, Agents of Reconciliation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 99-100.
  5. Ephesians 4: 11, New American Standard Bible.
  6. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to Galatians and Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 282.
  7. R. C. Johnson, The Church and Its Changing Ministry (Philadelphia: U.P.U.S.A. Office of the General Assembly, 1961), 17.
  8. Hiltner, op. cit., 56.
  9. For a refreshing critique see Holmes, op. cit., 167ff.
  10. Clyde Reid, The Empty Pulpit (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 102.
  11. “In My Opinion,” Preaching Today 7, no. 1 (January and February, 1973), 3.
  12. Blizzard, op. cit., 508.
  13. Edmund P. Clowney, Called to the Ministry (Chicago: Inter Varsity Press, 1964), 146ff.
  14. Clowney, op. cit., 147.
  15. Quoted in R. C. Johnson, op. cit., 101.
  16. Joel H. Nederhood, The Church’s Ministry to the Educated American (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 143.
  17. John T. McNeil, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford Press, 1954), 30-31).
  18. For a further development of this point see Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).
  19. McNeil, op. cit., 31.
  20. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 140.
  21. For this and other information the author is indebted to John Richard de Witt and a speech given in March, 1974, to the National Presbyterian and Reformed Fellowship.
  22. J. Schlier, ”IIapponoia” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 5, 871-886.
  23. See Nederhood, op. cit., pp. 139ff., for a further discussion of this term boldness and its resultant message.