The Local Pastor and the Itinerant Apostle in Scripture

This is part of a series addressing the problems with ministry structures in the American Church, and particularly with Methodist itineracy, and proposing change.

We need to re-evaluate our current ministry structures. Changes in the American landscape and problems in the church should be making us aware of that need.

Rather than proposing something entirely new, I’m going to start by looking back to ministry structures in the New Testament.

No One Model in Scripture

Let’s get this out of the way from the start: the New Testament does not prescribe one model for church order.

Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger said this well in a brilliant book, Exploring Ecclesiology:

We contend that the scriptures simply do not present a clear argument for any particular church polity. Thus, the most important issue for each church is not to reconsider the fidelity of its polity to scripture and church tradition, but to consider the strengths and weaknesses of its system as a means for ordering the people of God.

This isn’t just a position from some progressive Protestants. Avery Dulles, a prominent Roman Catholic theologian, makes a similar statement: “The New Testament usage [of terms for ministry roles] cannot be decisive of our terminology today, if only because the structure of ministry seems to have been different in different communities.” (emphasis added)

So I’m not exploring the New Testament texts to suggest that they prescribe one particular model. I want to demonstrate some possibilities they present, especially using texts that have been important for those denominations with a hierarchical structure and/or itineracy (i.e. pastors that travel from place to place).

Apostles and Elders

One important note that has been frequently overlooked: apostles (apostoloi) and elders (presbyteroi) are treated as two separate groups in the New Testament. Go do some searches on the two terms to see.

Paul is always identified as an apostle, never as an elder. Same for Barnabas. In fact, only Peter is identified as both apostle and elder.

Many today claim that apostleship was only for Jesus’ small group of disciples, plus Paul. When that group died, there were no apostles. What do you make of Barnabas being called an apostle, then? I think we can and should expect to have apostles today.

The New Testament apostles, such as Paul and Barnabas, are clearly itinerant. They do not provide day-to-day pastoral support for a congregation over the long-term. Rather, they travel from place to place, starting new Christian communities and providing encouragement and support for existing communities.

Meanwhile, elders are appointed to specific, local contexts. Scripture never suggests these elders are itinerant. Instead, I think we would have to reason that the elders appointed in the New Testament (see Acts 14 and Titus 1) are existing members of those local communities. When they are appointed, they are put in charge of regular leadership within their communities.

Elders are appointed (katastēsēs in Titus 1:5, cheirotonēsantes in Acts 14:23) to their positions by other leaders. The root for appointment, (kathistēmi) is used in other New Testament contexts in connection with appointment of high priests (see, e.g., Heb 5:1, 7:28, 8:3). It’s also used in secular situations when those in authority place other people in positions of authority (see, e.g., Matt 25:21; Luke 12:14; Acts 6:3).

From these examples, it seems clear that the New Testament usage of appointment has to do with giving a person authority and an assigned function within a community, not sending that person to a particular place.

We never see elders in the New Testament called or sent. Why are those our biggest talking points for people going into ministry today?

Though I want to be careful not to argue that the Scriptures prescribe a certain model, it is clear that they allow, or even typically suggest, a separation between the itinerant and the pastor. The itinerant apostle does not provide day-to-day oversight to a local community. That person travels for the purposes of evangelism and encouragement. Meanwhile, the elders are most likely permanent members of local communities, placed in charge of those communities’ day-to-day pastoral oversight.

There’s some New Testament support for what I’ll ultimately be suggesting. My next post will focus on my own tradition: how the early Methodists understood the need for local pastors and itinerant evangelists.

What thoughts does this provoke for you? Anything important that I’m leaving out here? Do you see anything different from me?

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19 thoughts on “The Local Pastor and the Itinerant Apostle in Scripture

  1. Teddy, I’ll be interested to see your argument in the end. My reading of our history is that itineracy began for purely practical, rather than scriptural, reasons. Wesley insisted it was the most fruitful way of organizing the work.

    1. Thanks John. For a preview of some of what I’d like to lay out, see Wesley’s sermon “The Ministerial Office.” Online: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/Global-Worship-and-Spiritual-Growth/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-115-The-Ministerial-Office

      Though this sermon doesn’t mention itineracy, I think it shows some of the scriptural motivation behind it. Wesley believed he was raising up extraordinary prophets/priests/evangelists, not ordinary priests/pastors/bishops. He argues pretty strongly for a distinction between the two. If you get a chance to read over it, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts or observations.

  2. Teddy, out of my ignorance, what do we know about the marital status of the early church leaders you mention? It seems there is an interesting discussion behind the mobility of a leader whose immediate family is his parish verses one who has a spouse and children. Not to get off topic but this also sends my thoughts back to some of your notes in last post about roots….hmmmm….

    1. Interesting question, Lauren. There are early Church writings that suggest nearly all of those who are called apostles in the New Testament were married. From the NT, we know that Paul wasn’t, and we know that Peter was (he had a mother-in-law), but don’t know anything more.

      As for bishops (often called elders) and deacons, 1 Timothy 3 makes specific reference to their families, so there’s at least the expectation that they may have families.

  3. This resonates with me. For example. I wouldn’t like the idea of an episcopacy where there wasn’t itinerancy, though their role might change somewhat if we came to understand them with less of a administrative focus anymore of an apostolic one. (I think that would be healthy and helpful.)

    1. Hey John. I’m interested to hear more. You want to keep itinerating elders, or bishops, or both? What are the things you think are necessary to keep? Okay to leave behind?

  4. What if we act and see ourselves as apostles sent for a time to encourage and equip a congregation to reach another level. Honestly, laity, Sunday Schools, and small groups provide the same if not higher quality pastoral care than I do. I think their is great strength in churches that are not dependent upon their senior pastor to structure, direct and provide 100% pastoral care. What if we as “itinerant apostles” empowered the churches we are in and helped to create systems that will last. The main hope is that these systems are spearheaded by laity with the empowerment/encouragement of itinerant apostles.

    I would also argue that many times it takes new leadership coming in to see the systemic problems that have been occuring for years and years. Many times our familiarity can blind us.

    Good thoughts Teddy! Thanks for raising these questions.

    1. That all sounds good, Derek. I like the idea of seeing the local congregations as containing the local pastors, and the itinerants serving as “itinerant apostles.” And you’re right that a perspective and voice from the outside can be helpful to recognize blind spots. That’s what we see Paul providing to existing communities in the NT.

      So my question: if we really view things this way, why do we always need an “itinerant apostle” on sight at each church? Paul left these places and let them continue on their own. I think there was a real value to that.

      What if the UMC looked at St. Matthews in Louisville and said, “Great! The local pastors have been equipped and appointed here. Let’s send our traveling preachers (i.e. you) somewhere else where they’re needed”? What if a church comes to depend so little on its senior pastor to structure, direct and provide pastoral care that they can continue on their own without someone sent to fill that position? But let’s all acknowledge that won’t happen. Which means that we’re not really viewing things the way you suggest. We’re not willing to ever do as Paul did and leave the people to lead themselves.

      I think that’s a problem. It keeps the “itinerants” primarily in a chaplaincy role, not an evangelist’s role. And it prevents the local leaders from ever being able to rise up and fully lead the community.

  5. Derek, what you’re saying is essentially what we must have been, say 150 years ago. Pastors were there for 2 years at most, and yet we grew wildly. The lay people simply did the ministry.

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