What Job Titles Should Churches Use? Two Simple Rules
In case you missed it, the Southern Baptist Convention got into a bit of a tussle at this year’s annual meeting over the definition of the word “pastor.”
What provoked the tussle was the fact that in recent years Saddleback Community Church, a SBC church, installed several women as pastors. This seems to contradict the SBC’s statement of faith, The Baptist Faith & Message 2000. It reads:
- a church’s “scriptural officers are pastors and deacons”;
- and “While both men and women are gifted for service, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Contrary to bullet point 2, Saddleback has female pastors. Contrary to bullet point 1, they justify female pastors by dividing the pastoral office from the elder office. The question is then, should the SBC remove them from membership in the convention?
It’s easy to fall into a debate over the second bullet limiting the office of elder to men. Yet often it’s our treatment of the first line that creates the confusion about the second line.
Are there really only two offices in a church? If so, what do we make of a “minister of music” or a “children’s director” or a “receptionist”? And what if a church distinguishes pastor from elder? Or what’s the difference between a senior pastor and an associate pastor, or a mission’s pastor and a youth pastor?
The larger question is, what job titles should churches use? Does the Bible care?
TWO OFFICES OR MORE?
For centuries Christians have disagreed on how many biblical offices there are and what they should be called. Since Calvin’s day, Presbyterians have debated whether there are two offices or three (is the “teacher” different from the “elder”?). Most today say two.
Meanwhile, the first English Baptist confession, John Smyth’s (1609), lists “bishops and deacons.” The First London Confession of 1644 lists “pastors, teachers, elders, deacons,” while the Second London Confession of 1688 returns to two: “bishops or elders and deacons.” In fact, nearly all Baptist confessions mention only two, including the SBC’s 1925, 1963, and 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, as we saw above.
The idea of two offices fits with Paul’s greeting to the church in Philippi: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons” (1:1). It also fits with the fact that he only lists qualifications for two offices—elders and deacons—in 1 Timothy 3.
To return to Saddleback, then, you can see how the two lines from the BF&M cited above implicate one another. For instance, when defenders of Saddleback’s inclusion in the SBC argue that the line about men as pastors refers only to senior pastors (bullet point 2), they have placed themselves inside the centuries-old conversation about the number of offices (bullet point 1). Unwittingly or not, they’re asserting that Scripture establishes three offices—senior pastor, pastor, and deacon—with different sets of qualifications and responsibilities.
The same trouble attends those who distinguish between elders and pastors, as Saddleback does. They’ve created a third office—elder, pastor, deacon.
The same is true for those who argue, in one breath, that the word “pastor” in the Bible does not refer to an authoritative office but to a gift, and in the next breath argue that this gift justifies the creation of what any innocent bystander would call…an office, complete with a name plate on the door. So, again, does the Bible call for two offices or three?
SO MANY TITLES
What complicates our present moment even further is how administratively complex and pragmatic some churches have become. To run a church of any size these days, you may well need what we call “a business administrator” and “a receptionist” and maybe a “director of children’s ministry” and “youth pastor” and “minister of music” and “pastoral intern” as well as a “pastor of this,” “that,” and “the other.” None of those titles are in the Bible. Doesn’t that mean we should give up the game and go ahead and list as many offices as we need?
I don’t think so. In spite of whatever titles we end up using (I’ll say more about that in a moment), we should start by keeping the idea of two offices clearly separated in our minds for two reasons. First, God is wiser than man, and so we want to build our churches in accordance with the Scriptures.
Second, we should aspire to keep our church offices or jobs tied to biblical qualifications. Think about where Paul spills all his ink: a tiny bit on titles; a whole lot on qualifications. What does that tell us? We never want to go outside the qualifications he lists for those two offices. They’re essential to a rightly “ordered” church (Titus 1:5).
As such, we should want basically everyone working in a titled capacity for a church, whether paid or unpaid, to meet the qualifications
- of a pastor or elder (“above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome” etc.)
- or of a deacon (“dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain…not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” etc).
I’m pretty sure, for instance, you don’t want someone answering the phone in your church office who is double-tongued and a slanderer. Right?
When we build church staffing structures that lose sight of these two basic offices, we risk untethering ourselves from their respective qualifications. It also leads us into the confusion we presently have over what men and women can or cannot do in a church. Folks have been quick to defend Saddleback’s inclusion by saying, “Southern Baptists have meant a host of different things by the title ‘pastor.’” That’s true. We have. Which is why we’re in this mess.
TWO SIMPLE RULES FOR DOCTRINAL CLARITY . . .
Let me offer two simple rules that should help our churches remain tied to Scripture while also offering some flexibility for different circumstances:
1) Affirm that the Bible establishes two offices and make sure that every titled job in a church, no matter what you call it, complies with the duties and qualifications of one or the other.
2) Choose titles that reinforce the biblical division of labor and don’t blur or confuse it, especially by paying attention to the nouns in those titles.
So think back to my comment above about every position needing to meet the qualifications of a pastor or a deacon. Now let’s take another step. I’m suggesting that everyone with a title in a church (paid or unpaid) should essentially be slotted into one of two job descriptions broadly conceived:
- Job description 1: this person (i) possesses or shares oversight over the whole church (e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1–5; Hebrews 13:7,17); (ii) is responsible for the ministry of the Word and prayer (e.g. Acts 6:1–7; 2 Tim. 2:1–2; 4:1–5; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 15; Heb. 13:7); and meets the qualifications set down by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9.
- Job description 2: this person (i) is a model servant (which is what the word “deacon” means); (ii) will attend to tangible needs, organize and mobilize acts of service, preserve the unity of the flock, and support the ministry of the elders (Acts 6:1–7); (iii) and meets the qualifications set down by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.
For people in the first office, whether paid or unpaid, whether one person or several, whether affixed to an adjective like “senior” or “executive” or “young adult” or not, we should use the biblical nouns “pastor” or “elder” or “overseer” in the job title.
Locking down those three nouns to this first office will help our churches conform to the pattern of Scripture. And it will serve the purposes of clarity. Maybe this guy’s day-to-day work is preparing sermons, that guy’s is sitting in a counselor’s chair, that other guy is leading mission trips, while those guys work all week in secular vocations but devote their evenings and weekends to shepherding sheep. Still, everyone in the church knows, “These are our spiritual overseers and shepherds. These are our pastors and elders. And they’re all bound by the same qualifications.”
Then, we can open our Bibles and read, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7); and we can know how to apply it. We can read a few verses later, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (v. 17); and we can know how to obey it. We’re to follow the example of, we’re to submit to, these men—our pastors or elders or overseers.
. . . AND CONTEXTUAL SENSITIVITY
Once that first office and the biblical nouns “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” are locked down, there’s some flexibility with that second office and the job titles we might use for them. We might formally call such people deacons to recognize and affirm their model service. Yet we also might hire them as the church receptionist, children’s ministry director, song leader, pastoral assistant, administrator, or building manager.
Different circumstances call for different jobs, just like the challenge highlighted in Acts 6 concerning food distribution among widows was highly specific to that moment. The point is, all these jobs effectively place people into a diaconal role, as defined in job description 2 above. And with all these jobs I have difficulty imagining not asking them to meet the qualifications listed by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.
To be sure, some jobs in a church might feel like they fall somewhere in between descriptions 1 and 2. Maybe you have a “Christian Education Director” who is making decisions about what’s taught in the Sunday School program and who is teaching the classes. My advice would be to push this individual more fully toward job description 1 or 2. Either recognize that he’s already doing the work of a pastor by attending to what the church is taught, and so help the congregation recognize him as a pastor or elder as soon as possible. Or, if you’re not convinced he’s ready to be a pastor, make sure some pastor is overseeing his work. Your unwillingness to recommend him as a pastor means, to some extent, he’s still working in a diaconal (assist the elders) capacity. And even if you trust his work entirely, the congregation has not yet entrusted their discipleship to his oversight.
PLEASE STOP CREATING LOOPHOLES OR BLURRING THE LINES
All that strikes me as pretty biblical and straightforward. Work hard at slotting every job into the pastoral or diaconal categories, and then make sure your job titles—especially the nouns—don’t blur the assignments. Instead, restrict the nouns “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” to that first category. This creates flexibility in the second, which is useful since the focus of the second—tangible needs—will change from context to context.
Frankly, I think that counsel will serve both complementarian and egalitarian churches. It will help both clarify who they are and what they think biblical obedience requires. The churches this counsel will frustrate are those who are trying to land somewhere in between.
Which brings me to a final, more critical note. I’m struck by how often churches and writers end up creating loopholes by blurring the lines between these two offices.
Going back to the Saddleback conversation: To argue a woman can be a pastor but not the senior pastor is to create a loophole. You’re blurring lines and fomenting confusion. Are you saying that “pastor” and “senior pastor” are different offices with different qualifications? Which biblical passages bind the one and which the other? And, if you think she can be affirmed as a pastor, why would you restrict her from preaching? That begins to feel arbitrary.
Or to argue that all the elders are pastors but not all the pastors are elders. How does that bring any clarity to the biblical job descriptions? As a member, am I to “obey and submit” in a Hebrews 13 way to both pastors and elders? If so, how do I relate to them differently? What passages should I consider? And, frankly, why the power differential between them? Is that just old-man elders trying to keep too much power from the young pastors they might hire?
Or to say, women cannot be pastors but they can be on the “leadership team.” Wait a second: what are the qualifications for the leadership team? Am I to submit to them? Do they possess oversight over the church, because the name certainly suggests they do?
All such fidgeting and blurring is confusing at best, misleading at worst. It would be clearer and better to simply say, “Women can be pastors or elders,” if that’s the road you want to take. The in-between stuff, increasingly common right now courtesy of these various loopholes, at least appears culturally motivated; more likely is the consequence of several decades of pastors learning to think pragmatically, not biblically.
The biblical patterns for church structures and leadership are meant to be a blessing. We shouldn’t want to look for loopholes, like we do with our taxes. We should aspire to conform ourselves to the Bible and be clear about it.
APPENDIX: A FEW COMMENTS ON THE SBC-SADDLEBACK TUSSLE ITSELF
Since the article above raises the topic, I’d like to offer a few comments for my Southern Baptist friends on how we might navigate the SBC/Saddleback tussle itself.
If you google the story, you’ll notice that reports often use the word “disfellowship” instead of “remove,” as I did earlier. Should the SBC disfellowship Saddleback, people ask.
That’s the wrong word to use, even if it’s become the common way for SBCers to talk about removing a church from the convention. First, the SBC bylaws (correctly) don’t use the word (see 8.C.2-5). More significantly, the Bible uses “fellowship” exclusively to refer to our gospel unity or fellowship, as when Paul refers to “the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9; see also, Acts 2:42, 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 John 1:3, etc.). To “disfellowship” a church, by that standard, would be to effectively excommunicate it, which Baptists don’t believe conventions or denominations or presbyteries or general assemblies can do.
I trust that no one using the word “disfellowship” for or against Saddleback’s membership means to suggest that excommunication is at stake. The trouble is folks then heap on other emotionally-ladened language which raises the stakes almost that high. Disfellowshipping Saddleback would be a “tragedy,” they say, and “grievous.”
To which I can’t help but respond, well, it’s tragic only if we have an outsized view of God working exclusively among Southern Baptists. Doesn’t he work outside the SBC, too? Can’t Paul and Barnabas go separate ways and still both do great gospel work, and even bless each other as they go?
The question at play with Saddleback is not about fellowship but about cooperating or convening to train seminarians and send missionaries. This is why the Southern Baptist Convention exists. In a world of limited resources, my church can decide it does not want to pool resources with, say, the Presbyterians and Anglicans for missions, while still happily affirming our partnership in the gospel. In two weeks, I happen to be guest-preaching in a gospel-affirming Presbyterian church. Yet that doesn’t mean I’d plant a church with them.
In that regard, denominational separations can, ironically, protect a deeper gospel unity. The alternative is to ignore or tut-tut secondary doctrinal matters (ordinances, church governance, women’s ordination, etc.). Yet this leads to the potential for disobedience on both sides of a disagreement as well as to relativizing biblical authority, as in, “We need to obey these passages, but don’t worry about those.”
A better path may involve doing two things at once:
- separating denominationally, which heads off constant fighting and allows everyone to act according to their understanding of Scripture;
- looking for other ways (conferences, book projects, sharing pulpits, evangelizing together) to affirm our ongoing gospel partnership in primary matters.
Sometimes these amicable separations are the humbler path, particularly when nothing biblically sacrosanct is at stake, like a marriage vow. They acknowledge our fallenness and finitude and don’t burden our consciences with the false weight of theological and ethical perfectionism.
As Christians more mature than me have said, we should work for peace amidst our disagreements on secondary matters by keeping the fences in between us clear but low; and shake hands over them often.
Imagine, then, the Saddleback conversation going like this. The SBC says to Saddleback, “We love you. Yet to allow both of us to hold our convictions regarding female pastors, we think it’s best to separate. But we look forward to hearing reports of your ongoing gospel ministry and let us know how we can help.”
To which Saddleback responds, “Makes sense, and we don’t want to stir up controversy nor ask you to go against your conscience and understanding of Scripture. Pray for us, and we’ll pray for you!”
That, to me, sounds like a mature conversation between two spiritually healthy adults.
 To be clear, the word “office” refers to a position
- given to certain named individuals, not the whole congregation,
- who meet certain qualifications,
- that gives them some type of authority either over the whole church or a specific area
- in order to fulfill certain responsibilities or functions.
 Even if you don’t think 1 Tim 3:10 refers to deaconess, the characteristics of these deacon wives could still be applied to female staff.
 The wording in this second clause is taken from Matt Smethhurst’s book Deacons (Crossway, 2021).
 The title “minister” is tricky because different traditions use it for the pastor and other for something more diaconal. If you do use the term “minister” as a noun, aspire for clarity about what you’re saying and what you’re not saying.