A portion of a conversation I had with a couple of seminarians a few years ago has lingered with me since that time. One of them, who had pastored a church for a while before entering the seminary, said that an older member of the congregation in which he had served had the reputation of being an expert on the Bible. Even after this young minister had assumed the pastor ate of that church, the other members brought their biblical and doctrinal questions to the layperson. Finally, the seminarian said, he told the church that he was the one with the professional theological expertise and that if the members had questions of that nature, they were to come to him for the answers.
As I remember the conversation now, the rest of us reacted with a rather uneasy silence and then turned to other topics.
When I've recalled this incident, I think I've tended to dismiss my friend's position with the idea that portraying the minister as the expert in the congregation is passe. In the not far distant past, especially in small-town and rural churches, the minister was considered the local expert on the Bible and just about everything else. But as the educational level of the general population has risen, this has changed. Now people tend to view the minister as merely a facilitator, an administrator—the person whose function it is to see that all the gifts of the members of the congregation are used (something that is, admittedly, an important part of the minister's job).
But is this an adequate description of the role the minister should play? Reflection on this question led me to look again at what the Bible says about this subject.
The New Testament uses various terms that relate to the office of minister as we know it. The relevant terms include diakonos, "servant," "minister," "deacon"; leitourgos, "servant"; poimen, "shepherd" (pastor); episkopos, "over seer," "bishop";and presbuteros, "elder." During the first century the terminology it uses lapped over into other areas, including not only various lay offices but also purely secular positions.
In general, the New Testament por trays the minister as a servant (Matt. 20:26, 27), but one whose commission conveyed authority (see Rom. 13:4). Commenting on poimen, Joachim Jeremias wrote that the role involved caring for the congregation, seeking the lost, and combating error ("poimen," Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament—Abridged in One Volume [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985]).
The Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Tim othy and Titus), written to individuals who filled a role similar to what we know today, may be the most helpful. As described in these Epistles, that role includes overseeing local church leaders and members (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1-15; 5:lff.), leading in worship (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:lff.), maintaining pure doctrine (e.g., 1 Tim. 4: Iff.), setting an example of Christian living (e.g., verses 11-16), and preaching to unbelievers (e.g., 2 Tim. 4:5)—a prominent theme in Paul's description of himself as a servant or minister (see also Rom. 15:15, 16; Eph. 3:7ff.).
As I surveyed these Epistles, I was struck by their stress on the minister's responsibility to maintain pure doctrine. In addition to the passage I've already mentioned, such texts as 2 Timothy 2:1, 2, 14, 15; 3:14-4:5; and Titus 1:5, 9, 13; 2:lff, 15 make this clear. And note the emphasis Paul gives to Scripture in these texts. It is also revealing that in the one place where Paul names pastors among the gifts of the Spirit (Eph. 4:11), he groups them with teachers, again showing the centrality to that office of proper instruction in the teachings of the Bible. (See also 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:15-17.) The content of the other Pauline Epistles indicates that the apostle was concerned to fill this part of his role.
I still believe that my seminarian friend was going off the track, but perhaps not as far off as I originally thought. College and seminary are no guarantee that the minister will be more of an expert on the Bible and doctrines than anyone else in the congregation. But there's nothing that says that the minister must be.
On the other hand, a person who is commissioned as a minister should be one of the experts. Pastors should have the skills necessary to guide their congregations in understanding God's will as revealed in His Word, to stabilize them amid the winds of doctrines that sweep through their world.
So I would argue both with my friend's view that his congregation must rank him first in biblical expertise and with his method of getting that recognition—it should come by being earned rather than by degree or decree. But I agree with his belief that to be a minister in the fullest sense of the term, a person must be an expert on the Bible.
—David C. James.