Putting the Pastor’s Clothes Back On: A Response Neil Cole
I recently came across this post on Neil Cole’s blog. It is an introduction he wrote to a soon-to-be-released book called The Pastor Has No Clothes by Jon Zens. I have always respected and been inspired by Cole’s work. Yet there were some parts of this particular post that were troubling to me.
The first is his dismissal of the idea of a pastor’s call. He equates this phrase with ordination and the idea that a church cannot exist without a member of the clergy (an idea he says is pervasive inside and outside the church). He says the New Testament makes no distinction between clergy and laity, and I agree! We are all called to be followers of Jesus, working out our faith and the use of the gifts that have been given to us in the context of the body of Christ. However, to make a direct link between the call of a pastor and a forced distinction between clergy and laity is a leap. It is true that in our culture the way the pastor/congregation relationship has been formed can easily lead to people creating a clergy/laity distinction, but the problem doesn’t lie in someone having the call to be a pastor–even a vocational one. We do face a problem with passive congregations and overbearing pastors at times is hardly a reason to dismiss the calling of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives to be pastors. The call to specific ministry was certainly present in the New Testament.
He devotes a good deal of time to the problem of pastors feeling “special”. Again, when this is a problem it is not because we have pastors but because we have pastors who don’t reflect the call to servant-leadership. The things he points to that make pastors feel “special”, specifically seminary and ordination, are not necessarily means of instilling pride. They can be, but to say they are necessarily is a stretch. In the best case, seminary can prepare pastors to faithfully lead a community in the study and implementation of the Bible–including the priesthood of all believers. If biblical education leads to some feeling superior to others then we should quit teaching the Bible. Some will pursue deeper levels of understanding, whether through seminary or house church Bible studies and others will not. If this results in someone seeing themselves as better than others it is a spiritual issue, not a problem with the education. And ordination, while it certainly can lead to pastors feeling superior to other Christians, can also be a wonderful time of affirming a person’s call to that type of ministry and consecrating their lives to God. Even in the early church there were those who were set aside for certain types of ministry.
Cole also states, “we misplace our faith by believing we need a person in charge more than we need the Spirit of God.” We often do that, I often do that, but this is a false dichotomy. A pastor can push people to follow the leading, guidance, conviction, and direction of the Holy Spirit. A pastor should be seeking the direction of the Holy Spirit in the context of community for whatever setting they’re in. This makes it sound like pastors have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. We always need to seek the leading of God through the Holy Spirit more than the wisdom or direction of any human, pastor or otherwise! Pastors can be a help in this happening rather than a hindrance. It’s not as though having a Christian community without a pastor naturally leads to a deep connection with the Holy Spirit. A house church without a vocational pastor is just as capable of relying solely on human wisdom and direction as a church with a vocational pastor.
Cole ends with this, “It is time to stop the parade of vain and self-congratulatory cheers stirred on by some lying scam artist that has come to steal the wealth of the King, and go back to normal life…fully clothed.” I don’t doubt that there are some pastors deserving of that scathing critique. Anyone in a position of leadership must guard constantly against pride and self-promotion. Yet there are many many pastors who are humble, guided by the Spirit, encouraging the use of the gifts of the others in the church, leading in mission, and otherwise being faithful stewards of where God has placed them. Ignoring that does the kingdom of God no good.