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Written by Kevin L. Howard   


Click here for explanation of larger project, "In Honor of Pastors: How to Love and Respect Them"


Grace and Respect for Your Pastor

Shortly after I started serving at one church, a lady came into my office because she wanted me to give the youth more time in a special upcoming service.  She obviously cared deeply about the topic, but didn't make it about me.  She kept our discussion focused on the issue.  She felt one way and I felt another, yet her body language and tone conveyed respect.  I listened to her views and echoed back what I thought she was saying.  After discussing it, she allowed me to say no and end the conversation.  Even though she didn't get the extra time she wanted for the youth, she treated me with dignity during and after our conversation.


Not all members, however, approach their pastors correctly.  While serving at this same church, another woman entered my office and blasted me about something I had failed to do.  I had made an honest mistake, so I apologized and tried to explain how that sometimes a pastor's schedule is so busy that some things, even important tasks, get pushed down on the list for more pressing things.  If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have mentioned my busy schedule.  I was busy, but it probably just sounded like an excuse.  What upset me about this meeting was the way she talked to me.  She used a demeaning tone the whole time, and, asked why I had not done the things she had asked me to do, as though I was her child.  I didn't say it then, but if I had spoken my mind, I would have said, "Because you aren't my boss!"  She thought she could tell me what to do, and I didn't receive it well.  Few pastors will ever receive this sort of talk easily.  Would you?


Unfortunately, this woman has not been the only member to talk down to a leader or tell a pastor what to do.  Often it happens at a subtler level, like someone giving "well meant" advice in a committee meeting.  "Pastor, don't you think it would be better if Karen did that task [instead of the person you recommended]?"  Every pastor has some members like this, either the subtle kind or the bully kind.  They work for their own agenda in meetings while disregarding the pastor's direction, or else march into the pastor's office and pull out their list of complaints.  Or worse yet, some do their maligning behind the pastor's back.  Giving a genuine suggestion is one thing, if done with the right attitude, but sometimes members disguise un-submissiveness with the language of suggestion. 


I've pondered where the mentality of trying to boss a pastor around comes from.  In short, it's from the devil.  The longer answer has to do with the American mindset--a brash spirit of independence.  Unfortunately, when we don't understand Scripture we grow confused about our role in the church.  So let's take a few moments to review some biblical teaching.


Soul Competency and Priesthood

We need to deal with at least two concepts here: soul competency and the priesthood of all believers. 


Soul competency

Soul competency could be defined as "...all persons created in the image of God stand in a unique and inviolable relation to their Creator and, when quickened by divine grace, are fully 'competent' or capable of responding to God directly" (George, 284).  A verse often associated with this teaching is 2 Corinthians 3:5, which says, "Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God."  In other words, soul competency means all people can relate directly to God without a mere human representative, like a priest.  Soul competency relates to all people not just Christians.  But priesthood pertains only to believers.


Priesthood of all believers

The priesthood of all believers could be defined as the God-given ability and responsibility each Christian has to serve the church and to keep it following Christ wholeheartedly.  Some people in the church think priesthood of all believers means doing or believing whatever they want, but this sort of reasoning is mistaken.  One scholar states the truth well when he says, "Thus, priesthood of believers does not mean, 'I am a priest.  I can believe anything I want to.'  It means rather, 'As a priest in a covenanted community of believers, I must be alert to keep my congregation from departing from "the faith once and for all delivered unto the saints"' (Jude 3)" (George, 287).


The main passages regarding the priesthood of all believers are as follows:


  • Exodus 19:5-6, "'Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'  These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites."
  • 1 Peter 2:5, "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."
  • 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."
  • Revelation 1:6, "To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father--to him be glory and power for ever and ever!  Amen."
  • Revelation 5:10, "You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth."
  • For other related passages regarding priesthood, see Leviticus 1-9 to learn more about the Levitical priesthood.  Christ Jesus is the mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5) and, therefore, the ultimate priest.  For more on Jesus' priesthood, see Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:11-16, and 7:23-8:13.  Another passage that may shed light on the topic of the priesthood of all believers is Luke 7:28, which says the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist.


The doctrines of soul competency and the priesthood of all believers mean that those of us who are followers of Christ no longer need a priest to make sacrifices to God on our behalf.  We can worship him directly and are responsible to serve other members of Christ's body.  We show our devotion to God by gladly serving others and making sure all in the local church stay true to the Bible.  In other words, all believers can worship God directly without the help of a human mediator and we are responsible to point non-believers to Christ, and to encourage believers to keep following him.  But such freedom doesn't discount leadership and authority. 


Minister Not Same as Pastor

Every believer has spiritual gifts and ought to minister, that is, to serve others.  A spiritual gift is the ability God gives Christians to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10-11).  Christ wants believers serving other people, and pastors can help members discover their gifts so church members can get busy actively loving one another through service.


First Corinthians 12:11-13 says, "All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.  The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink."


From these verses we learn that God's Spirit enables Christians to function as one body.  These verses emphasize the unity of the church.


When I lived in Boston in the late 1990s, I was part of an interracial church.  Our church had Asians, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, people from Barbados, Peru, Korea, and people with Harvard PhDs and those with no formal education.  It was a wonderful picture of God's handy work, bringing people together who would otherwise not mingle.  That's what Christ is doing in his bride--glorifying himself through unlikely people he brings together.  Through spiritual gifts, God enables the church to function.  And since every Christian has at least one gift, no believer can say he's useless.  While all believers have spiritual gifts, this doesn't take away the need for pastors.  They are still an important part of the body of Christ.  But before we talk more about the importance of pastors, let's look closer at each member's role.


Notice what 1 Corinthians 12:14-18 says, "Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.  If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.  And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be."


From these verses we learn that spiritual gifts equip Christians to minister.  These verses emphasize service within the church.  Every Christian is a minister.  A minister doesn't only mean pastor but someone who serves another person for Christ.  Any Christian can find a way to serve.  Perhaps it will be through repairing a single mom's car, or through sending someone a note, calling to ask how a person's doing, babysitting for a young couple, visiting a sick person in the hospital, or inviting people into your home.  Only God could pull off this act--arranging people with different backgrounds and gifts to accomplish his purposes.  As Christians study Scripture and try out their spiritual gifts by trial and error, they learn what their gifts are.


While the pastor is a servant and should empower members to minister too, make no mistake about it, he has authority to lead and make decisions.  If everyone has the same vote in a church, including the pastor, what would it mean for him to be a leader in any real sense of the word?  The church won't function if members aren't ministering too, but spiritual gifts and priesthood don't put a believer in a position to tell his pastor how to lead.


Democratization of the Church

Too many people throughout America view the church as a democracy.  As citizens of the U.S., we live in a democratic republic where everyone has a voice.  Unfortunately, people assume this means that they should be allowed a voice in the church.  In the church, only the mature deserve a voice, and then in moderation.  While the congregation can have input into church issues, it need not have a say in everything that goes on.  We could avoid a great deal of red tape and conflict if people understood this.  New believers and young people don't have equal input that mature believers and older people enjoy (1 Timothy 3:6; Titus 2:2-4; 1 Peter 5:5), and women should not be allowed the kind of input a man has (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12).  Furthermore, one person's opinion should not stop progress if the leadership still wants to move forward.  Simply put, the pastor can't please everybody, nor should he try.


Several verses promote or allow congregational input--Matthew 18:17, "...tell it to the church..."; Acts 6:3-5, "...the whole group..."; Acts 15:22, "...the whole church..."; 1 Corinthians 5:4, "When you are assembled..."; and possibly 1 Corinthians 16:3, "...men [whom] you approve...."  But none of these passages, including Galatians 3:28, suggests a democracy in the church nor do they negate pastoral authority.


Nathan O. Hatch's book, The Democratization of American Christianity, shows how the American spirit began to shape Christianity and how we ended up with a democratized version of the church.  I find the democratization of Christianity in America a sad reality, one that cripples the church.  Even many churches that claim not to be a democracy but to function with a democratic process often times function as a democracy.  Instead of the church functioning as a democracy, perhaps there's something better: Every believer who is a member can, to some extent, have a say in the issues brought before the church body, but not everyone's opinion carries equal weight.  Why should a new believer's opinion hold as much influence as someone who's walked with the Lord for 40 years?  And why shouldn't a senior pastor's opinion mean more than other staff personnel and church members?


While many churches seek to clarify authority and policy issues in their bylaws, some church guidelines may state that the pastor is, in fact, just another voting member of the church, or perhaps just another voting member of another group, like the deacons or elders.  Such policy is typically a disaster waiting to happen.  Nowhere does Scripture suggest a balance of power--that is, keeping the lead pastor from becoming too powerful--as we have in our American government.  A plurality of elders, as seen in Acts 14:23, 20:28, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:5, and James 5:14, may offer some balance but I doubt balance of power is the primary reason God gives elders to the church.  (Although some churches use different titles for their leaders, "elder" is a common biblical term.  Even though a pastor is a type of elder, not every elder is necessarily a senior pastor or one who often preaches to the whole congregation (Romans 12:8; Ephesians 4:11).  Pastors rule, teach, and preach (1 Timothy 3:4-5; 5:17; 2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Peter 5:3; and 1 Thessalonians 5:12).) 


No matter what the organization, church or otherwise, someone always holds more power than other people, whether he's an elected official or not.  So, the elders and especially the head elder, the senior pastor, might as well be granted that powerful status of leader--one who has unique authority--not only because the Bible gives authority to him but also because the church will almost always suffer if he isn't the one with the power.  The head pastor is a servant, no doubt, but he's also a leader, and leadership requires authority whether or not we like the words "authority" or "power."


Every church needs elders because they're part of God's design for the church but churches could do without the other groups--personnel committees, etc.--that typically function as a balance of pastor/elder power.  Here's why we don't need a balance of power in the church.  A church with a corrupt but all-powerful senior pastor or elder board will do damage, yes.  But a church with a corrupt group (e.g., personnel committee) in power while the lead pastor and elders remain powerless will likely do more damage because it is nearly impossible to dethrone such a strong group, like a personnel committee, since they are the powerbrokers.  Thus, to lead well the senior pastor (and elders under him) should be granted significant authority, and even though much of this influence will come over time as he serves the people, he should receive it from the congregation in the beginning.  As the head leader, he can do far more good with the power than another controlling group can.  If he's wise, he'll empower others, and if the church is wise, they'll make sure he's the man in charge so he can empower them to get things done.


A Heart Issue

I've witnessed a lady defiantly tear up a covenant for Sunday school teachers right in the faces of the pastoral staff who wrote it.  A bad attitude toward your pastor, or any God-given authority, almost always says more about you than it does them.  It ultimately reflects your attitude toward God.  The Bible says rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:22-23).  When this woman tore up that covenant it was no worse than if she'd pulled out an Ouija board or participated in a séance to predict her future.  She was essentially shaking her fist at God saying, "I won't do it your way!" 


Pastors are God's gifts to the church (Ephesians 4:11).  Therefore, respect and obey them as Hebrews 13:17 says, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.  They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.  Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."  So, pray for your pastors, because they will give an account to God for what they do in their leadership positions (1 Corinthians 16:16; 1 Timothy 5:1; Hebrews 13:7).


Remember, trust is earned but respect is given.  Don't fall into the trap of saying, "I don't respect my pastor because he doesn't deserve it" or "He hasn't earned it yet."  He's your spiritual boss.  If you won't submit to him, then check your heart. 


While reflecting upon the biblical idea of submission to leadership, I'm ashamed to say I haven't always submitted to some of my pastors in previous years as I should have.  If you find yourself in a similar situation, it's not too late to change.  God's grace and sovereignty can help all of us possess the right attitude.


Good Examples

At one church where I served, a lady named Cindy was well liked by many in the congregation.  By her sheer influence she could have gotten away with whatever she desired.  But whenever she wanted to do something major with a group of children or youth, like start an eight-week class, she asked me if she could do it.  On a couple of occasions when she was not able to teach her class on Wednesday night, she let me know and called all her students, rather than leaving me out of the loop or hoping someone would call her students to let them know class was canceled.  Her submissive attitude made her a joy to work with. 


Gene was another example of submission.  Although he was 35 years older than me, he respected me.  He served me early on by putting in bookshelves for my office.  He also had another way of showing respect.  I have never cared much for titles and never asked anyone to call me pastor, but Gene called me that nearly every time he talked with me.  It was his way of honoring me.  Also, when we talked about various matters, his tone conveyed respect and he kept me informed regarding building and grounds issues.  (Keeping the pastor in the loop is a great way to respect him.)  Gene had probably walked with the Lord far longer than I had, and he certainly had more overall life experience than me, yet he respected me as his leader.


Finally, consider a lady named Mary who always approached me with respect and the attitude of, "If you want or need something, just let me know."  She once verbalized her attitude to several people by playing on the words of President Kennedy, "Ask not what your pastor can do for you, but what you can do for your pastor." 


If members exhibit the above respectful attitudes toward their pastors, leaders and members are going to get along well and accomplish kingdom work rather than get sidetracked on minor issues.



George, Timothy. "The Priesthood of All Believers and the Quest for Theological Integrity." Criswell Theological Review 3/2 (Spring 1989): 283-294.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Click here for the chapter, "How to Approach Your Pastor on a Difficult Subject"

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