Pastor as Servant

By Aaron Visser, one of our MDiv students at Northern:

What is the role the pastor plays in this day and age?

For hundreds of years, the role of the clergy focused on interpretation and study.  The Bible was available in Latin and for some in Greek or another language, and a mostly illiterate public could not read the Bible for themselves.  Therefore, it was up to the trained clergy to present and teach scripture.

For a long time, the masses remained uneducated and illiterate, so the need for an interpreter of scripture was needed. Gradually, however, that began to change so that today most in the pews on Sunday morning are also readers of the Bible.  Pastors no longer have a monopoly on Biblical knowledge, and they are no longer regarded as possessors of all knowledge.

This has become even more evident in the last two decades with the development of the information age. Suddenly, information that was only found in old, dusty books in seminary libraries is now accessible to everyone via the internet and other electronic resources.

Thanks to the growing amount of information available to everyone, what role is left for the pastor as preacher and teacher? When people can just do an internet search to find answers to all of their deep, spiritual questions, why do they need someone who is trained at a seminary? Just ask Rev. Google.

My response to these questions starts with the original role of clergy.  I stated earlier that originally, the primary role of clergy was interpretation and study of scripture. They were supposed to present and teach scripture.  I think this still to be true, but it may look a little different. Instead of returning to the Biblical monopoly and being regarded as the possessor of all knowledge, I submit that pastors are servants of Scripture.

The Bible was written thousands of years ago in a far-off land by many different people. For a long time, a large part of it was never actually written; it was passed down orally from generation to generation.  It is a collection of writings and stories amassed over thousands of years. And it still has a lot to say to us today. However, trying to decipher how a passage written by a first-century Jewish male is relevant for a twenty-first century Christian female can be a very wobbly tight rope to walk. Pastors walk this tight rope.  And when they walk it, they have to be very careful.  They ponder questions that most people do not have the time or energy to tackle.

We need doctors, judges, and cab drivers.  We need teachers, plumbers, and bricklayers.  We need electricians, city planners, and nurses.  This society needs people to do all of those jobs  – and many other jobs!  Oftentimes, though, these very jobs keep people from having the time to study deeply and struggle with passages in the Bible.

We need pastors. As my friend Erik Kamp puts it, we need educated men and women to help us sift and sort through Scripture.

I know this may seem self-serving, and to a degree, it is.  However, it because I have seriously questioned my own calling and role of a pastor at times throughout my life that I have come to this conclusion. In this day and age, a pastor needs to remind him or herself from time to time that what they do matters. However, pastors should not be here only to tell us how to think or what to believe.  (This is where they have gotten it wrong in the past.)  Instead, their job is to be servants of Scripture, striving to ensure that everyone is informed so we all can live fully in God’s plan for His people.

By no means is this a complete job description of a pastor. It is not meant to be. The role of pastor is constantly changing depending on context and need. However, I do believe being a servant of scripture is one thing that binds all of them together. No matter where they serve or who they are, the responsibility of informing and educating through the tightrope walk that is biblical scholarship is one that ever pastor must partake.

-Aaron Visser

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  • Mark Stevens

    Aarron, if you had time I’d love to hear a little more about how we might be servants of the Word as opposed to teachers and interpreters. I do wonder if our role now is more related to interpreting how we live faithfully as Gods people in our particular contexts in light of the scriptures. As opposed to the teacher as professor model you mentioned. In this model the pastor is one who guides people spiritually. Just a thought

    Thank you for a wonderful post! I loved the Rev. google comment. 🙂

  • Dan Arnold

    What worries me is that it seems that the concept of soul-care has been lost in pastoral ministry within evangelicalism. Teaching/Preaching has become the one ring to rule them all. The older I get, the more I see teaching within the broader but oft forgotten context of the physician of souls.

  • Gene

    “When people can just do an internet search to find answers to all of their deep, spiritual questions, why do they need someone who is trained at a seminary?”

    And what they often end up with is a devotional thought that merely confirms some previously dreamed up idea that is not rooted in scripture as much as inspirational platitudes. How does the product of such a search really answer “all of their deep questions”?

  • Aaron Visser

    A great point, Dan. Often times we get caught up in the idea that all a pastor needs to be is a great speaker. While this post is focused on just one of the many roles of the pastor, it is helpful to realize the danger of focusing too much on one role. Also, I always love a LOTR reference!

  • Aaron Visser

    My pleasure. I would recommend to respect the word for when it was written. Every word in the bible was penned at at time and place by a person. Do plenty of research about those times, places, and people. It helps us read scripture more accurately, and then we teach it more effectively. Also, try reading it regularly without chapter or verse separations. It can be quite eye opening!

  • Aaron Visser

    It doesn’t. (Unless, of course, you end up on Scot McKnight’s blog). I have never encountered anyone who told me all of their deep questions about faith were truly answered on the internet.

  • Dianne P

    “…Stated earlier that originally, the primary role of clergy was interpretation and study of scripture.”

    Really? Where? When? Not where I was raised.

    I echo Dan Arnold.

  • Thanks Aaron for taking this on. To describe and especially embody this role is no small thing.

    One thing you hardly mention, but I assume is implicit in your description is the church. Churches are hopefully places where all of your teaching and preaching begin to take on flesh within a community. If the Word becomes Flesh in the incarnation and becomes light in a dark world, the church functions similarly.

    Pastoring now for a while, and watching father and grandfather and many others do it I am often stupefied by the challenge that the breadth of the calling requires. I pray for blessings and wisdom as you leave the academy and take in this task in a place where these lofty ideas meet the inanities of life. pvk