Looking back at the last two weeks, it should be inescapably clear to us God desires so much in the relationship that He has with us as we live on this earth. The most basic pursuit of the Christian is the pursuit of holiness. Yet, we look for every excuse not to make this our most basic pursuit in this life. We seek to be entertained, to remain comfortable and to build our numbers, but we fail, most often, to strive to be more like Christ, the one in whom we live and breathe and find our being. We are not just to love God in this way, but we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to let go of our expectations and content ourselves to service to one another without slander and without favoritism. We strive, more often, to get people to serve us, to get everything that we can, to try to make others more like us, and to try to show our superiority. On these two counts, the Law has continued to serve as a witness against the church. What I realize is that we are unable to pursue holiness without Christ first drawing us to pursue holiness. We are unable to be selfless laborers unless Christ first saves us and, in sanctification, brings us into selfless labor for His kingdom.
It is within this context that we get to discover God’s structure for the positional priesthood. As we think about the positional priesthood together, we remember the New Testament parallels and recognize that God has structured His people similarly. The priests were to represent God’s redemptive work to the people through the sacrificial system. Pastors (elders, bishops, overseers) are to represent God’s redemptive work to the people through the administering of ordinances (or sacraments). Priests were to serve as judges over the people (Deut. 17:8-13). Pastors are to serve as overseer (1 Peter 5:2). Priests were to teach the whole counsel of the Law (Deut. 33:10). Pastors are to teach the whole counsel of Scripture (Eph. 4:11-12, Acts 6:2).
If every believer is a priest and every person of God is to relate personally with God and participate actively in God’s ministry, why would God God need call out the positional priest? Why are pastors (elders, bishops, or overseers) profitable for the kingdom of priests (the people of God)? Why does it matter for the people?
Leviticus 21:1-8 HCSB
The Lord said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron’s sons, the priests, and tell them: A priest is not to make himself ceremonially unclean for a dead person among his relatives, except for his immediate family: his mother, father, son, daughter, or brother. He may make himself unclean for his young unmarried sister in his immediate family. He is not to make himself unclean for those related to him by marriage and so defile himself.
“Priests may not make bald spots on their heads, shave the edge of their beards, or make gashes on their bodies. They are to be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God. For they present the fire offerings to Yahweh, the food of their God, and they must be holy. They are not to marry a woman defiled by prostitution. They are not to marry one divorced by her husband, for the priest is holy to his God. You are to consider him holy since he presents the food of your God. He will be holy to you because I, Yahweh who sets you apart, am holy.
Thinking about moral purity, it’s funny how we always think about it last. I get to talk with quite a few people about what they think a pastor’s responsibilities are. The top answers I get are, “provide leadership,” “to grow a church,” and to “provide all the needs of people in the church.” Never do people begin with moral purity. Never do people state that a pastor needs to have good character or even a decent relationship with God. Scripture begins by calling the positional priest to moral purity. In fact, concerning Christian living in the slightest, Scripture calls every believer to purity. Being the good Americans we are, we always think about what we need to do to get a church to grow or to bring success instead of pursuing holiness in our lives. As a result, we have a shallow Christianity where we think we are accomplishing something but where our relationship with our Lord remains in its infant stage. We end up with large churches where people have a good time but are not growing in their relationship with God.
In this passage of Scripture, the positional priest is implored to remain clean. In the context of Ancient Israel, it meant not handling dead bodies except those of relatives. It meant not shaving their beards or trimming their hair like the Egyptian priests did. It meant keeping their marriages pure. If we are to look at the heart of these specific commands and consider them for the pastor in our day. It means absolute moral cleanliness, even to the degree that he not be accusable. We don’t have to try very hard to take this idea from the Old Testament and place it in a New Testament ministry context. God has restated this idea clearly for us in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:
“This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not addicted to wine, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy — one who manages his own household competently, having his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and fall into the condemnation of the Devil. Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the Devil’s trap” (HCSB).
This is not to say that the pastor will be perfect. Remember, he is a sinner saved by grace like everyone else. God makes it very clear, though, through His Scripture, that the pastor is to be for the people a good moral example. If pastors are found to be morally corrupt, they are either to straighten up or shut up. If a pastor is asked to step down because of moral failure, he may be reinstated once he, through sanctification, overcomes the corruption. The most important pursuit of the pastor, it remains, is the pursuit of personal holiness in relationship with Christ Jesus.
When we think about leadership, we think about people who are everything to everybody or people who know the secrets of life and give the perfect advice on how to live life to the fullest (whatever that means). I remember that there was a point when Twitter became the hub of self-help advice (in 140 characters or less). Everyone on Twitter was trying to gain followers and give the perfect life advice without following the advice of anyone else. It was worthless and most of the advice was absolutely terrible.
We’ve already discovered that the positional priest is on equal ground with the rest of God’s people. God’s grace is applied equally and He loves the positional priest just as He loves the kingdom priest. This means that the positional priest differs in a way that does not create favoritism and in a way that does not set him above other believers or present him as more important than other believers. The role of the positional priest, then, differs by type of labor alone and not by worth. We, somehow, have developed the idea that the positional priest is supposed to be the minister. According to Scripture, all of God’s people are ministers, all serving a role, and some serving the role of the positional priest, which is in some way different than the ministry of the whole of God’s people. How is this ministry different and why might God set this position apart as He has?
In our current passage, there are several restrictions placed on the positional priest in order to keep him clean or holy among the rest of God’s people. There is, however, one description regarding the priestly role. It was the positional priest who gave the offerings on behalf of the people. It was the positional priest who represented God’s redemptive work to the kingdom of priests. This was done through the giving of offerings, through the judging of the people (Deut. 17:8-13), and through the teaching of the whole Law (Deut. 33:10). The single and simple role of the positional priest is that he represents God’s redemptive work to the people. We see this role reflected in the New Testament as the role of the Pastor is described:
“The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and, the worker is worthy of his wages” (1 Timothy 5:17-18 HCSB).
It is not a coincidence that in Paul’s instruction, before highlighting the importance of the pastor’s work of preaching and teaching, he highlights the importance of the body (everyone else in the church) working to meet the genuine needs of the people (v. 16). The work of meeting genuine needs belongs to the body while the work of preaching and teaching belongs to the pastors or elders. We continue:
“And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
“Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, ‘It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry’” (Acts 6:2-4)
“Therefore, as a fellow elder and witness to the sufferings of the Messiah and also a participant in the glory about to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you: Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will; not for the money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The role of the pastor, as given by God in Scripture according to His structure, becomes abundantly clear for us. It also becomes abundantly clear that if pastors deviate from God’s structure, they sin against God and actually become a destructive force within the church body. The pastor, then, being set apart for the purpose of preaching, teaching and overseeing, is to push the body on to greater holiness beginning with his own life. The role of pastor becomes a necessary role in a sinful world.
Measuring the priests
As I observe churches today, there are three different types of pastors that I see:
- The pastor-friend
- This is the type of pastor that we find in many small churches, or churches that have plateaued or declined. This is the type of pastor who wants to be everyone’s friend and, in trying to be everyone’s friend, becomes a people pleaser. He usually neglects the ministry of the word in favor of visitation or filling ministry needs and, in doing so, does not live according to a structure that God has given. It is not wrong for the pastor to have friends in the congregation, but when he is so focused on being friendly, he cannot push people to become more holy.
- The pastor-personality
- This pastor-type makes me think of people like Joel Osteen or Craig Groeschel. They usually serve in bigger churches that grow quickly. The pastor-personality becomes the central focus of the church and people are more interested in following him than following Christ. He is so worried about entertainment or growing numbers that he cannot set a good example morally or push the people into greater holiness or closer relationship with God.
- The pastor-teacher
- The pastor-teacher is the model given in Scripture. We see pastors who take on the responsibility to teach the whole counsel of Scripture whether convenient or not and we see pastors who strive to live according to the structure that God has given no matter what human expectations are placed on them. Over and over again in the New Testament we see that pastors are reminded of their role and implored to give their attention to teaching sound doctrine.
- The pastor-friend
Knowing this, we ought to strive to maintain a pastor-teacher model. It is unlikely that God would bless a church structure that He has not given. Furthermore, when it comes to the work of ministry (meeting the real needs of people), the church body is encouraged to step up (and we are stepping up). When we think about our pastors, how are we to evaluate them considering the clear role that God has given? To answer this, we look to 2 Corinthians 2:17-3:3:
“For we are not like the many who market God’s message for profit. On the contrary, we speak with sincerity in Christ, as from God and before God.
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, recognized and read by everyone. It is clear that you are Christ’s letter, produced by us, not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God — not on stone tablets but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.”
Paul writes that letters of recommendation written by people are of no benefit to the messengers of God. The pastor’s evaluation is an evaluation written on the hearts of his congregation. If there is a maturing in the faith, a growth in holiness, then the pastor has been successful. If there is no maturing in the faith, a growth in holiness, then the pastor has not been successful even if there is growth in number. This signifies something very important for the congregation. This entire conversation is important because without understanding the proper role of a pastor, the congregation may be tempted to forsake the pursuit of holiness in favor of the pursuit of comfort or of entertainment. Without a pastor reminding us that this church thing isn’t about us, we will turn to ourselves quickly and forget the Gospel and the work of ministry altogether. In this, we do not forget God’s grace, but we realize that God has a very clear purpose for calling the positional priest. It is for our good and for God’s glory. Let us not be tossed by the waves.
Regarding the responsibility of the congregation, God makes it clear through Moses in verse 8 of Leviticus 21: “You are to consider him holy since he presents the food of your God. He will be holy to you because I, Yahweh who sets you apart, am holy.” The congregation is responsible for setting the pastor apart for the purpose of accomplishing this work. When it doesn’t or when it requires its pastors to neglect the work that God has given, it actually sins before God. Again, let us strive to honor God even in the structure of our churches; not because we can earn salvation (we cannot), but because this is the structure that God has given to enable us to strive for a better relationship with Him on this earth.