I have a heartache for the church


(free graphics)

By Spencer D Gear

My heartache is ….

imagethat the pastor will get back to his biblical role;

image that all of God’s people in the church will be regarded as ministers;

image that the days of the mute Christian will be abandoned;

image that when Christians meet as the church, all will have opportunity to participate;

image that “one another” ministry will replace “one person” ministry;

image that all Christians will care for one another and that true pastoral care will happen;

image that we will be the church rather than go to church;

image that we will quit calling a building the church.


Four situations have tapped into my heartache:

The first was a telephone conversation with an Australian pastor whom I had never met previously. He transparently shared the stresses of the pastorate and that in his 25 years of ministry he had had two “nervous breakdowns.” One indicator from the USA confirms this pressure: “The incidents of mental breakdown are so high that insurance companies charge about 4% extra to cover church staff members when compared to employees in other businesses.”[1]

The second incident came on the heels of that conversation. I was reading the article, “Pastoral Pressures,” in which it stated that “pastors are the single most occupationally frustrated group in America” and that “roughly 30% to 40% of religious leaders eventually drop out of the ministry…. About 75% go through a period of stress so great that they consider quitting.”[2] Even though this represents the USA situation, my mixing with the clergy shows similar frustration in Australia.

Publicity for a clergy conference said that “Pastors are worn out, discouraged, and in need of affirmation. In fact, poll after poll reveals that most pastors are battling isolation, depression, and loneliness. They are so beaten up by the ministry”.[3]

The third came in Dr David Wilson’s observation of “a real lack of pastoral care in the Church today” and the exhortation that “God’s people need to be cared for.”[4]

The fourth is that as I, as a former co-ordinator of a Christian-based youth counselling service, faced a huge dilemma. I worked in a white hot world of teenage rebellion, horrible sexual abuse (generally within the family or extended family), abused parents, attempted & completed suicides, drug abuse, and parents who are disillusioned by child rights without responsibility. I see a church that seems to be handicapped in addressing these issues and ministering to people caught up in Australia’s cultural crisis. I meet staff in similar Christian agencies who grapple with a church that is slim on pastoral care. This has been my experience over the last 17 years also. [I speak as an Australian who has been pastor of two churches, one in the USA and the other in Australia, taught in theological colleges, is participating in an itinerant ministry as preacher and seminar presenter, and have recently retired after 17 years straight of counselling and managing counsellors.] I am an Aussie who also have lived for seven years in the USA and Canada.

It seems that two fundamental areas need to be addressed. But are we brave enough? To even raise these topics runs the risk of being branded a fringe dweller. I consider that these issues are too critical to the Kingdom of God and the church in Australia to worry about name calling and labelling.

Maybe I am thinking too basically, but the biblical solutions seem rather obvious: Get back to what the Bible says about (1) the spiritual gift and role of a pastor, and (2) the church functioning as God intended. This applies to when the church meets together, ministry to one another in the body of Christ, and how the church reaches out to the wider community.

In spite of the risks, I believe the challenge is to


Image result for photo church pastor public domain

This is radical thinking and I don’t expect too many present-day pastors will readily buy into this view. There’s too much at stake. I seek your correction if this is an unbiblical emphasis. But it seems to me that we have cast the pastoral role into an almost-one-person ministry.

It’s an expectation that is too great for the pastor, without speaking of its lack of biblical consistency. It also shoves the parishioners into the margins of the church. Most do not see that they need to function in any substantial way in today’s Australian church.

It should not be surprising that pastors have breakdowns, leave the ministry, and that there are about 10,000 ex-pastors in Australia.[5] I believe that we ask of the pastor what the Bible does not require. Is the expected role closer to a one-man band or CEO than a shepherd?

For a word that appears only once in the New Testament (Eph. 4:11) and even then as the dual role of pastor-teacher, we have built up an amazing job description in the 21st century. This, I believe, is contributing to the pastoral dilemmas we are facing. However, as we shall discuss, a good case can be made for pastor = elder = bishop, thus cancelling the impact of a once-only use of “pastor” in the NT.

This is not the place to debate the elder, pastor, and bishop distinction. However, 1 Peter 5:1-4 seems to combine these roles:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (ESV).

This led leading Bible commentator, F.F. Bruce, to write that pastors “are the same people as are elsewhere called elders and bishops.”[6]

Jon Zens’ provocative article on “the pastor” challenged me. This is where I have been thinking and dreaming for years:

“There is no evidence anywhere in the New Testament for the primacy of one man’s gifts. There is evidence 58 times in the New Testament for the importance of mutual care and multiple gifts: ‘love one another… admonish one another… edify one another… comfort one another… forgive one another… give to one another… pray for one another.’ Why are our churches marked by obvious emphasis on ‘the pastor,’ but very little – if any – concern for the cultivation of mutual relationships? We have exalted that for which there is no evidence, and neglected that for which there is abundant evidence. We are used to pawning off our responsibilities on someone else. We want the church to minister to us, but we think very little as to how we can minister to the needs of others.”[7]

Gene Edwards, a radical cell church advocate, is just as pointed, “In our age, we come to a [church] meeting to get our empty bucket refueled. In their day [first century Christians], they came to a meeting to report out of the overflow of their lives. There’s a world of difference.”[8]

I believe a strong biblical case can be made for elders/pastors/bishops who care for believers and feed/teach the flock, but it is a plurality of elders – not the one-man/one-woman band. [See Acts 20:28; 1Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 James 5:14; Peter 5:1-4.] According to I Peter 5:4, the only singular shepherd is the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Himself.

No wonder we have pastors at burnout, dropout stage! Could we be distorting the pastoral role in the church today? It seems that the evidence points in this direction. Do we have the discernment and will to return to a biblical pastoral role? Or would it hurt too much to consider this direction? Are we too far gone to change it?

The New Testament evidence seems to point to a church (singular) having elders/pastors (plural). This applied even to new churches that may have had small numbers! I do not see significant biblical evidence for one person (pastor) as leader (overseer) of a local church. Is the pastoral trouble of today linked to a wrong doctrine of pastoral theology?

One of the primary functions of the pastor-teacher is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12 ESV). In about 50 years as a believer, I do not believe that I have seen this as a function that rates high on the agenda of the local church. Lip service and classes, but this is hardly actively equipping people for their ministry. I see it in Christian Brethren assemblies, but there are other issues with that function that include a lack of interest in the continuing gifts of the Spirit and the closing down of women in ministry. The open worship that I’ve attended at Brethren assemblies indicates that men generally give a verse from Scripture or some brief statements, but there is no understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:26 functioning for men and women in the church:

Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you (NLT).

Are we in strife today because we have built a pastoral role out of our own thinking, following the precedent of the Roman Catholic Church or John Calvin, and failing to be truly biblical in our role definition?

The Bible is very clear but we are confused.



In the context of Ephesians 4 and the pastor-teacher role, it is stressed that the pastor equips believers to bring them to maturity. The aim is that “each part does its own special work ” (v. 16 NLT). The equipping task is to help all members of the church to be equipped in their gifts and released for ministry. This has hardly been my experience in the evangelical church.

The stress in I Corinthians 14:26 is that “everyone” has the opportunity to participate with his/her gift when the believers “come together.” No matter what one’s view of tongues, interpretation of tongues and other charismata, the first century church practised open ministry where everyone was given the opportunity of ministry.

What’s the purpose of this? “But everything that is done must strengthen all of you” (I Cor. 14:26 NLT).

So, a mute congregation when the church gathers, is contrary to biblical Christianity. I believe that this is one of the blights on much of today’s church. We have closed down believers when the church gathers. About 10-15% of the people doing all of the work is a natural outcome. I am convinced that the present pattern of ministry in our churches fosters this low participation rate.

Getting back to biblical functioning for all of God’s people will help the pastoral crisis and get God’s people involved again. But can we do it in light of at least 1900 years of contrary practice? Is this a possible expectation for denominations that perpetuate the current pastoral role? The elevation of the clergy and the virtual silence of other believers seem to have happened around the third century.

The situation is so serious that one pastor

“likened the total church to an army. The army has only one Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ. The local church is like a company with one company commander, the pastor, who gets his orders from the Commander-in-Chief…. The Pastor has the power in a growing church…. The pastor of a growing church may appear to outsiders as a dictator. But to the people of the church, his decisions are their decisions.”[9]

This may be an extreme example, but it illustrates the hierarchical pattern of leadership that seems to have come into the church from the secular culture around us, without conforming to New Testament teaching.

Jon Zens nails it: “Our practice focuses on ‘the pastor,’ and the ministry of the saints one to another is virtually non-existent. Are not our priorities mixed up?”[10]

There does not seem to be NT support for the clergy-laity distinction in God’s kingdom values. Wouldn’t it be best if Christians quit handing over many duties to the pastor and moving him/her to a stress breakdown? The biblical alternative is that all should become involved in ministry. This would ease the burden on the pastor, address the pastoral care need, and involve believers in active ministry. The church gathering would move from being a b-o-r-i-n-g experience for too many of God’s people and become an interactive, mutually edifying gathering that builds up the body as it glorifies the Lord

The cell church movement is seeing such action, but Ralph Neighbour warns that it requires a paradigm shift.[11] This paradigm shift involves:[12]

1. The cell is the church. A CGC [cell group church] is never a church with cells. A “Heaven and earth” difference between the two modes is claimed and strenuously emphasised. “The Church is formed from them (cells) and is the sum of them”.

2. The cell is “the Basic Christian Community”. “The cell group is not just a portion of church life, to be clustered with dozen other organisations. It is church life”. “Cell churches are the only way that true community can be experienced by all Christians”.

3. Nothing competes with the cells. “Everything in the church is an extension of them and flows from their combined strength”. “Every department of the church is designed to serve the cell ministry. Indeed, departments do not have any constituency of their own”.

4. Cell multiplication is essential. Neighbour expects cells to grow to 15 members in 6 months, and thereafter “multiply” into two. This process of multiplication is continuous. Khong allows 12 to 18 months for each cell to multiply. However, “if a cell functions for a long time without multiplying … the cell is deemed unhealthy”, and is liable to be dismantled, and its members re-assigned to the vibrant cells.

5. Every cell begins with evangelism as its ultimate goal. “In the first meeting of every cell, the members by faith set a date by which time the group will birth another cell”. They must always reach out to evangelise the people around them.

6. Cell membership is mandatory. “There is no buffet menu of options open to members except that they be in a cell group”. No one may join any training program or Bible class if he or she is not a cell member.

7. Cell leaders shoulder the bulk of pastoral care through their shepherding responsibilities within the cells.



I am disturbed by the way some believers and pastors urge Christians not to drop out of church, with the exhortation, “Do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Heb. 10:25 KJV). What ruffles me is that the kind of gathering is stated clearly in the context, but seems to be missed by those doing the exhorting. When we come together, it is to be a gathering in which we “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” and “encourage one another” (vv. 24, 26 NIV). Imagine such happening in the traditional church service in Australia today! If it were, perhaps believers would not be as tempted to drop out. I know from personal contact that the lack of such “one-anotherness” is contributing to some leaving the church.

The pastor-teacher’s role is linked with equipping the saints, but we must not miss what I think is minimised: Believers mature as “every supporting ligament” is involved and “as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). This is far removed from one dominant part doing most of the work.

When I became a believer, I was baptised into the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13). I believe we are losing what it means to be a functioning member of the body of believers, connected to one another, ministering to one another, and living in Christian community that is more than a theoretical option. Sadly, too many of us get more community in the Lions, Rotary and Quota clubs than in the local church. Gangs and the drug culture attract youth to a radical view of community! My counselling of rebel youth revealed the equivalent on some of our school campuses. They are called the “cool” or “wicked” (meaning “cool”) group to hang around with.

Our experience of Christian community is especially needed in a culture on the skids. I have led and participated in many groups for secular parents with rebel teenagers, only to find that many of these people do not have the character and commitment to be available for another parent as a support. Those of us who read our Bibles and minister to troubled individuals, know that selfishness is rife. Christ’s body has supernatural resources to be a selfless, caring community. We dare not abandon our responsibility.

Over 35 years ago, Howard Snyder called the church back to a comprehensive understanding of the gifts and the elimination of the clergy-laity distinction:

“If we wish to be biblical, we will have to say that all Christians are laymen (God’s people) and all are ministers. The clergy-laity dichotomy is unbiblical and therefore invalid. It grew up as an accident of church history and actually marked a drift away from biblical faithfulness…. It is one of the principal obstacles to the Church effectively being God’s agent of the Kingdom today because it creates the false idea that only ‘holy men,’ namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry.”[13]

In Hebrews 10:24-25, the “one another” ministry is God’s way of dealing with apostasy and helping believers to persevere. We should be committed to nothing less.

Christian psychologist, Archibald Hart, speaking of pastors, said that “their strong religious beliefs mean they won’t kill themselves. They just spend their time wishing they were dead.”[14] That’s not my experience as a Christian counsellor. Christian leaders, including pastors, do threaten and some commit suicide. Jon Zens claims that “burnout, moral lapse, divorce, and suicide are very high among the ‘clergy’. Is it any wonder such repeated tragedies occur in light of what is expected of one person?”[15]

For such a situation, the Los Angeles Times recommended: “Pastors need to set limits for themselves if they are to avoid burnout.” They “need to have hobbies and interests outside the church” and “a regular support group of other religious leaders.”[16]

I have severe doubts that this would be adequate, especially in light of the contemporary pastoral role when compared with what Scripture requires. If we are out of line with God’s will for the pastor, why should we expect God’s blessing? In opposing the very idea of a clergy conference, Jon Zens writes that

“By not challenging the ‘clergy’ system, which has brought untold hurt to those within its pale, you end up giving pep-talks and encouragement to people who are functioning in an office Christ has nowhere revealed in His Word…. The most Christ-honoring and caring thing you could do is to tell the 70,000 men that come to Atlanta to stop being ‘clergy’, because God’s Word teaches nothing about ‘clergy’… Do you leaders care at all that the New Testament is, in fact, against the ‘clergy’ system? Are you concerned that the ‘clergy’ system, as James D. G. Dunn points out, does more to undermine the canonical authority of the New Testament than other heresies?”[17]

There are serious questions that need to be answered if we are to address the crisis in the pastorate and the pew:

image What biblical grounds do we give for the pulpit-centred, one-person pastor focus on Sunday?

image  For what reason have we eliminated the “everyone” who is gifted contributing when we meet together?

image How can we give everyone the opportunity to participate in edification times when we meet together on Sunday and at other times?

image If admonishing, exhorting and encouragement can only be performed by elders/pastors, it should be expected that God’s people feel inadequately equipped to do this. How can this change?

image What will it take to move the church away from going to church on Sunday to being the church?

image How can mute believers be given their proper place in the assembly and in the functioning body? After all, Heb. 3:13 says we are to “encourage one another daily” (NIV).

image How can we justify exhorting Christians that they must not stay away from church, but must come to hear the one-person minister?

image Can the church’s present order of service encourage “one another” ministry?

image Even more radical is the question: Can’t the present one-way communication, called preaching, become an interactive sermon? Surely such a view would not violate the scriptural mandate to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2 NIV).

In short, I believe we need to:

  • return to a biblical view of the pastor; quit the exaltation of one-person ministry in the local church;
  • equip and mobilise ALL believers to be active, participating members of the local church;
  • abandon the distinction between clergy and laity, and
  • demonstrate and promote the “one another” ministry.

If there is anything in the local church that conflicts with the Bible, we should eliminate it? It just might be one of the diseases that is contributing to a “sick” church and some disillusioned clergy.

Jon Zens gets to the core: “It seems to me that we have made normative that for which there is no Scriptural warrant (emphasis on one man’s ministry), and we have omitted that for which there is ample Scriptural support (emphasis on one another).”[18]

Can these become realities, or will my heartache continue?


Please note: After I prepared this article, I was alerted to some considerable difficulties in the Gene Edwards/Frank Viola camp by this article, “Gene Edwards: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.”  Since I do not live in the USA, I am not able to examine this situation firsthand.  Therefore, while I appreciate much of Gene Edwards’ ministry and his challenge to the traditional church, I am experiencing some disquiet over the contents of this article and some other information that has reached me.  Proceed with caution, would be my recommendation with regards to the ministries of Gene Edwards and Frank Viola.  You might also like to visit these sites for critiques of Gene Edwards and others in the house church movement, and those advocating a return to New Testament biblical practices::


[1] Rowland Croucher and others, “Pastoral Pressures”, John Mark Ministries, January 5 2003, available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20090930033126/http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8322.htm (Accessed 17 January 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Men of Action, November 1995, p. 4, relating to the February 1996 Clergy Conference, Atlanta, in Jon Zens, “The ‘Clergy/Laity’ Distinction: A Help or a Hindrance to the Body of Christ?,” Searching Together 1998. Available at: http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/clergylaity.htm (Accessed 17 January 2012).

[4] “The Other Side,” New Life [Australian Christian newspaper], 8 July 1999, p. 11.

[5] See Rowland Crowcher and others 2003. “How many ex-pastors?’ January 5. John Mark Ministries, available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20120310093122/http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8061.htmm (Accessed 17 January 2012).

[6] Epistle to the Ephesians. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1961, p. 85.

[7] Jon Zens, “The Pastor”, Searching Together 1998, available at: http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/pastor.htm (Accessed 17 January 2012).

[8] Gene Edwards, How To Meet. Sargent, GA: Message Ministry, 1993, pp. 63-64.

[9] C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow, Regal, pp. 66-67, in Zens, “The Clergy/Laity Distinction,” p. 3.

[10] Zens, “The Pastor,” p. 6.

[11] See Ralph W. Neighbour Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? A Guidebook for the Cell Group Church. Houston: TOUCH Publications, 1990.

[12] The following points are listed in Peter Koh n d. “Cell group church structure: An evaluation”, Church & Society Vol 6 No. 1, pp. 41-43, available at: http://www.disciplewalk.com/files/Peter_Koh_The_Cell_Group_Church_Structure_an_Evaluation.pdf (Accessed 30 May 2015).

[13] The Community of the King. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1977, pp. 94-95.

[14] Walter Albritton 1999. “Why some pastors are so frustrated they wish they were dead”, Feb 21. Available at: http://www.walteralbritton.org/walterscolumns/99feb/2_21_99.html (Accessed 17 January 2012).

[15] Zens, “The Clergy/Laity Distinction”.

[16] Clergy/Leaders’ Mail-list No. 850, p. 2. Also cited at: http://web.archive.org/web/20120427070843/http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8059.htm (Accessed 17 January 2012).

[17] Zens, “The Clergy/Laity Distinction”.

[18] Jon Zens, “Building Up the Body – One Man or One Another?”, Searching Together 1998. Available at: http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/bodybldg.htm (Accessed 17 January 2012).


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 28 January 2017.