Eldering, Economics, and Calling to Ministry

Article
08.27.2014

In my first post in this series, I suggested that saying you’re “called” to ministry carries a double presumption. You’re saying you think you are, or soon will be, (1) qualified to be an elder and (2) sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it. “Calling” language might imply more, but it cannot mean less.

You could call these two ingredients “eldering” and “economics”: you want to be an elder, and you want being an elder to be your job. In this article I’m going to drill into those two ideas in the hope of helping us think more wisely and biblically about “calling” to ministry.

ELDERING

Some of you might be wondering, what’s an elder? And what does that have to do with calling to ministry?

“Elder” is simply a more common biblical title for the office we typically call “pastor” (e.g., Acts 20:17, 1 Tim. 5:17, Tit. 1:5, James 5:14). In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the elders of the church in Ephesus to care for the church in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. The basic meaning of that verb “care for” (poimaino) is “to shepherd.” And our English word pastor comes from the Greek word for “shepherd.” So, Paul is telling the elders to shepherd the flock; that is, to pastor the church. What do elders do? They pastor.

Peter makes the same connection with the same word when he exhorts elders: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). The office is elder, the work is pastoring. Every elder is a pastor.

This pastoral office is also referred to as an overseer (Acts 20:28, Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1, Tit. 1:7) and, in one case, a pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). The terms elder, overseer, and pastor are interchangeable. They all refer to a church’s spiritual leaders: the men who teach the word and direct the affairs of the church.

I’ll say it again: to be an elder is to be a pastor, and every pastor is an elder. What might surprise some is that Scripture never uses the term “call” or “calling” in relation to pastoral ministry. What Paul does say is this: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). Paul speaks here of desire. He speaks of aspiring to a certain office because you desire to do the work.

If you say you’re called to ministry, I don’t immediately know what you mean, or if what you mean is biblical. But if you say, “I aspire to be an elder,” I know just what you’re talking about. You desire to teach the word and shepherd God’s flock, so you desire to fulfill the office God has established for that purpose. And the apostle Paul says you desire a good thing.

ECONOMICS

But “calling” typically implies more than an office; it also implies a job. When people talk about being called to ministry, they typically don’t mean they want to be a pastor in addition to having another full-time job. Instead they mean they want pastoring to be their full-time job.

Scripture teaches that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14); and, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6). And with explicit reference to elders, Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). So, when possible, churches should pay their pastors.

Notice that in all these cases, financial support is tied to preaching and teaching. All elders must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), and their job description includes exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting those who oppose it (Tit. 1:9). But 1 Timothy 5:17-18 seems to indicate that some elders will be especially devoted to, and gifted in, the work of preaching and teaching. These are singled out for special honor—including pay.

It’s easy to understand why. Preaching the Word is both time-consuming and essential to the life of the church. Paul told Timothy to study to show himself approved, a workman who rightly handled the word (2 Tim. 2:15). Faithful preaching takes painstaking preparation. And without faithful preaching, a congregation withers.

So, if you think of yourself as called to ministry, here’s another biblical way to specify what you mean: “I aspire to serve as an elder. Specifically, I desire to devote myself as completely as possible to the work of preaching and teaching.”

I’m not saying that preaching is the only valid full-time ministry. What I am saying is that aiming first at the office of elder, and secondly at being especially devoted to teaching the word, is a biblical goal. Since the Bible doesn’t use “calling” in this context, “calling” isn’t tethered to Scripture. Aspiration to eldership is.

A WRINKLE

But there’s a wrinkle in this fabric: not all elders are paid, so not all elders serve full-time. In fact, Paul commended his own example of bi-vocational ministry to the Ephesian elders:

You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:34-35)

Paul encouraged these elders to follow his own example of serving others not just by pastoring, but working to provide for their own and others’ material needs. There’s no intrinsic conflict between the two, nor do you need to choose between them. Being a pastor is not more spiritual or more acceptable to God than being a plumber. And a plumber who’s also a pastor is walking in Paul’s own footsteps.

So not all elders are paid to elder, which means that you might never be. Anyone who aspires to pastor should not only be reconciled to this, but embrace it. If you desire the work of an overseer, you should be willing to do it whether anyone pays you or not.

This also means you should be willing to do the work whether or not anyone ever gives you the title. Of course some of elders’ work is restricted to elders. But if you aspire to elder, you should be developing an increasingly elder-like ministry. Encourage others with the word. Help them grow in Christ-likeness. Live wisely and give wise counsel. Pray fervently for your fellow church members. If you want to lead, go lead something. Start with a family (1 Tim. 3:4-5). The best way to tell if a man should be an elder is if he already ministers like one.

Again, you aren’t a pastor until a church calls you to be their pastor. Whether you ever serve as an elder, and whether you are ever paid to serve as an elder, is up to a church to decide. Ultimately, it’s out of your hands. This should be both humbling and freeing: humbling because you shouldn’t presume on it, freeing because you can simply serve the church and trust God to open whatever doors he wants to.

GENTLE COURSE CORRECTIONS

How does this eldering-and-economics view of “calling” inform our thinking and speaking on the subject? Here I’ll suggest some gentle course corrections. (In the next post I’ll offer a few more pointed exhortations and encouragements.)

Basically, I’m recommending a way to translate “calling” into a more biblical idiom. If you say you’re called to pastoral ministry, what I hope you mean is that you aspire to be an elder, and that you aspire to devote yourself to preaching and teaching.

There are other valid ways to serve a church full-time: counseling, administration, and so on. And there are plenty of other ministry roles in and out of the church that require full-time effort but don’t pay for themselves. But for those who feel “called to the ministry,” I’d encourage you to think in terms of this twofold aspiration.

And I might encourage you not just to think this way, but also to speak this way. At least add it to your lexicon. To say “I’m called” implies you’re passive in the matter: God has done it. It therefore implies a kind of certainty that becomes almost a sin to doubt. “I’ve been questioning my calling lately,” says the seminary student. Well, maybe you should be!

On the other hand, saying you aspire to be an elder, and to serve as one full-time, acknowledges you’re not there yet. And you’re confessing that it’s in God’s and the church’s hands to determine if you ever will be. Speaking this way won’t guarantee that you hold this aspiration humbly and you’re willing to be redirected, but it does set you on the right track.

I’m not saying these two ways of speaking are utterly contradictory or that no one should ever claim a sense of God leading them to do something. But I am saying that aspiring to the office of elder is a thoroughly biblical aim. Not only that, a noble one.

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Editor’s note: 

For more on this topic, consider the following resources: