If you’ve been in the PCA for some time, you may have asked or been asked the question, “So what’s the difference between an associate and an assistant pastor, anyway?” Like the associate, the assistant is a “minister of word and sacrament.” He has been to seminary. He has been examined and ordained. His title is “Reverend.” He preaches, prays, and teaches. He leads God’s people in corporate worship. He baptizes, marries, and buries. He is a voting member of presbytery and the general assembly. He can park in the “clergy” spot at the hospital. He can even opt out of Social Security! Happy day! With all of these similarities, how significant could the differences really be? Though subtle, the differences are actually quite substantial.
Unlike any other ordained officer in the PCA, the assistant is not called by the congregation but rather by the session (Book of Church Order 22-3). Consequently, the terms of the assistant’s call (salary, housing, retirement, etc...) do not require the approval of the congregation and can be changed as the Session pleases. From speaking with dear brothers laboring as assistants at particular churches, they often times feel like an “ordained intern,” the “assistant to the pastor,” striving to faithfully serve the church while staying in the good graces of the senior minister and session, knowing that they could be quietly and quickly dismissed by a simple majority vote from their session, of which they are not even a member. The vulnerability of the position makes it difficult and potentially dangerous for assistants to voice their consciences and convictions.
Are there legitimate reasons for sessions to issue a call without a congregational vote? Absolutely! There are men in the PCA called to serve communities outside of the context of particular churches and congregations. The ministries of these church planters, campus ministers, chaplains, evangelists, and missionaries are invaluable to the Kingdom of God. It is often necessary for these men to be called by a session or a presbytery since no particular congregation exists to extend such a call.
But unfortunately, most assistant pastors are called to particular churches because, let’s face it, it’s easier, quicker, and cleaner for the session rather than a congregation to call a minister. In an attempt to legitimize the practice, the BCO strips assistant pastors of pastoral authority since the congregation has not invested him with it by their vote (BCO 21-5, 21-6, 21-9). The unintended byproduct of such maneuvering is a denatured pastoral office, an ill-equipped and vulnerable minister, a confused congregation, and troublingly pragmatic ecclesiology.
Is it biblical for a pastor to be called to a congregation over which he has no authority?
In his brief but beautiful letter to Titus, the Apostle Paul demonstrated his keen interest in the pastorate, dedicating seventeen of thirty-one verses to the subject. He charged Titus to “declare... exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15). The pastor’s preaching, shepherding, and involvement in church discipline are the inherently authoritative means through which Christ rules his people. How can a man rightly be called “pastor” whose preaching is not objectively authoritative? How can a man be called “pastor” who does not participate in the shepherding and discipling of God’s sheep as a member of the session?
Likewise, Peter taught that the office of elder is one dependent upon and endowed with authority. He exhorted the elders of the churches throughout the dispersion, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2). The pastoral description of a shepherd tending his flock is the very portrait of the gentle rule that a minister exercises over those entrusted to his care. For that reason, Peter instructed younger Christians, “submit yourselves to the elders” (1 Peter 5:5). How could Peter levy such a charge if an entire class of ministers existed that has no actual ruling authority and to whom no such submission is formally owed? It seems that the answer to our first question, “Is the calling of an assistant pastor to a particular congregation biblical?” must be, “No.”
Is the calling of assistant pastors to particular congregations consistent within our own system of church government? I can think of two reasons why this question must also be answered, "No."
First, the manner in which an assistant pastor is called to a particular church robs the congregation of its inalienable right to elect its own officers. The BCO states, “The government of the church is by officers gifted to represent Christ, and the right of God’s people to recognize by election to office those so gifted is inalienable. Therefore no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least consent of that church” (BCO 16-2). Unfortunately, many PCA members are unaware that the hiring of an assistant pastor to serve a particular congregation disenfranchises them of their right to elect their own officers.
Second, the BCO defines the office of elder as an inherently authoritative office but then denies that authority to the assistant pastor. “The officers of the Church, by whom all its powers are administered are, according to the Scriptures, teaching and ruling elders and deacons” (BCO 1-4), and “The elders jointly have the government and spiritual oversight of the Church, including teaching” (BCO 7-2). If the BCO attaches authority to the office of elder, how can the assistant minister be rightly called a “teaching elder” when he is incapable of exercising such authority?
I believe that the practice of calling assistant pastors to serve particular congregations is neither biblical nor consistent with the ecclesiology of the PCA. What can individual church members, pastors, and sessions do to avoid falling into this hole in our church government?
Church Members- Know your rights! A session does not have the right to choose your pastors for you. No ordination without representation.
Pastors- Don’t settle. Seek churches and sessions that are committed to calling men as associate pastors.
Sessions- Refuse the easier, more traveled road. Your people have the right to choose their pastors. Your pastors have the right to execute their office with all due authority. The Spirit of God has the right to call men to ordained office through “the inward testimony of the manifest approbation of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a lawful court of the Church” (BCO 16-1).
God grant that principle will prevail over pragmatism in the PCA.