What is an Assistant Pastor?
Towards the end of his life the great 18th-century Baptist preacher John Gill became rather weak and unwell. It was suggested to him by his deacons that he might benefit from the help of an assistant pastor. He did not take kindly to the suggestion. ‘I’ve read plenty in the Bible’, he is reported to have said, ‘about pastors, but I don’t recall reading anything about assistant pastors’. It is true that you will not find the phrase ‘assistant pastor’ in the Bible.
There is plenty about pastors (shepherds). The elders or overseers of the churches were to look after their flocks like shepherds look after sheep. See Acts 20:28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:1-3 for example. Although there is no direct mention of assistant pastors we ought not to be too quick to assume that the Bible says nothing on the subject. Just because a word is absent from the Bible does not prove it says nothing about the subject. In his day Gill was a great defender of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine very much under attack at the time. The word Trinity appears nowhere in Holy Writ; indeed it was not invented until some time later. But it was a word that Gill used because it sums up the Bible’s teaching that God is one and yet three; a tri-une being; Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three equal persons but one God. ‘God in three persons, blessèd Trinity’. In a similar way, though the phrase assistant pastor is not in the Bible we have good reason to believe that nevertheless the idea certainly is. In this, as in everything, the Bible must nevertheless be our guide.
Is the idea biblical?
1. General models.
Certainly the idea of assistants or helpers is there. We have the idea both in general and in both the Old and New Testaments in the cases of certain individuals.
First we consider three general models. We take these from the spheres of family, state and church.
1.A model from family government – wives. At the very beginning the idea of a helper is introduced with the description of how Adam was alone and needed a helper suitable for him. That is why God created Eve and this is the model for marriage. One of the strengths of families is that we are able to help one another.
2. An example from civil government – officials. Then in Exodus 18 we learn how Moses’s father-in-law came to meet him and the Israelites in the desert. Seeing Moses’ heavy workload he warned him that he was likely to wear himself and the people out and suggested that if it was God’s will Moses should select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. There would then be a structure in which easier cases could be dealt with by them so that Moses would need only to deal with difficult ones. And that is what was done. This principle goes on to this day in every well run state.
3. An example from church government – Levites. Similarly, when the priestly system was introduced though the sons of Aaron were to do the main work the other Levites were to help (Numbers 3:6,7; 8:26; 18:3). In 2 Chronicles 29:34 we read how when there were too few priests to skin all the burnt offerings; so their kinsmen the Levites helped them until the task was finished and until other priests had been consecrated, for the Levites had been more conscientious in consecrating themselves than the priests had been. Temple servants (Ezra 8:20) are a further extension of this idea.
2. Specific Old Testament models.
As for more specific examples of men in a role like that of assistant pastor two or three again come to mind. There were no pastors as such in those days but they had leaders. The key ones were Moses and Elijah. Both had assistants who later lead God’s people themselves.
1. Joshua. In Exodus we learn that Moses’ successor started off as his assistant (24:13, 33:11 young assistant). Numbers 11:28 refers to Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ assistant since youth.
2. Elisha. In 1 Kings 19:19-21 we read how the prophet Elijah found Elisha son of Shaphat … ploughing with 12 yoke of oxen …. He went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha said goodbye to his parents and took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them then burned the ploughing equipment to cook the meat. He gave it to the people to eat then set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant. Elisha also had a servant, Gehazi. His relationship to his master may have been similar to Elisha’s to Elijah. Sadly, his greed led him astray for which he was punished.
3. Baruch. Another possible model is Baruch who served the prophet Jeremiah as a scribe, writing out some of his prophecies and on occasions reading them out. At the fall of Jerusalem Jeremiah said to him (45:5) Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the LORD, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.
3. Specific New Testament models.
In the New Testament we have no examples of assistant pastors as such but we do have three examples of assistant apostles.
1. John Mark. In Acts 13 we read how, led by the Spirit, the church at Antioch set apart two leaders, Paul and Barnabas, for missionary work. In verse 5 we read John was with them as their helper or servant. John Mark was Barnabas’s cousin. He grew up in Jerusalem and it was in his mother’s house that the early church there met. This childhood home was probably where the upper room was, scene of the last supper. When Paul and Barnabas came with a gift to Jerusalem he was invited to join them, accompanying them to Antioch. Sadly, on the first missionary journey, after the period in Cyprus and at the beginning of their journey into the interior of Asia Minor Mark left the apostles. This eventually caused a division between Paul and Barnabas as when they began planning the second missionary journey two years later (15:37-39) Paul did not think it wise … to take Mark because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. Happily, we know that Paul later had a better opinion of him. Colossians 4:10 he sends greetings from My fellow-prisoner Aristarchus and from Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. He adds (11) referring to Mark and others These are the only Jews among my fellow-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. In 2 Timothy 4:11 he writes Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.
2. Timothy. It appears that Timothy was from the backwater of Lystra in Lycaonia, part of the Province of Galatia (today central Turkey), a wild and mountainous district. Shortly after Mark had left them Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra and Timothy appears to have been converted through Paul’s preaching then, when still pretty young (early twenties?). We also know that he was brought up in the faith. In 1 Timothy 1:5 Paul refers to his sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice. They were probably also converted through Paul. We know Timothy’s father, however, was a Greek and not a believer, though not necessarily hostile to the faith. It was on Paul’s return journey to Lystra that he decided on Timothy as a replacement for young John Mark. Because he would be preaching chiefly in synagogues on the journey Paul decided to have Timothy circumcised. They all knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek and so could accuse Paul of consorting with a heretic. It was better, therefore, to have that objection removed. Circumcision is something indifferent – it can’t affect salvation but like anything ‘indifferent’ it can interfere with the gospel so Timothy was circumcised. It cannot have been pleasant for him but he willingly bore it. He was willing too to leave family and friends and the scenes of his upbringing to go who knew where. He knew his journey probably meant persecution and trouble (he had seen Paul nearly stoned to death by his fellow Lystrans) but he was willing to go for the sake of Christ.
3. Erastus. In Acts 19:22 we read that Paul sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia (at Ephesus) a little longer. We know almost nothing about Erastus. He is mentioned in 1 Timothy 4:20. It is possibly the same Erastus as the one in Romans 16:23 referred to as the city’s director of public works (ie of Corinth). No doubt there were many faithful workers in New Testament days about whom we know nothing or very little. They were faithful nevertheless.
How is one appointed?
1. With a measure of informality. It is clear this is so from the way Mark and Timothy were appointed. Even the appointment of Elisha is a very private thing. It is interesting that although the appointment of Paul and Barnabas was done with fasting and praying and the laying on of hands the decision to take Mark was quite different. The laying on of hands should not normally accompany the appointment of an assistant. He may attend church officers meetings but he would not be made an elder.
2. But with great care. Informality should not suggest lack of care. Do not appoint just anyone. John Mark was well known to Barnabas and had grown up at the heart of the church. He undoubtedly showed qualities that drew Barnabas and Paul to him. We read of Timothy (Acts 16:2) that The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. No doubt their recommendation was important in commending Timothy to Paul.
What does it take?
Obviously, as in any spiritual work, one looks for someone who is godly. He also has to have certain skills of leadership and initiative. There is also the need for a measure of courage and self-sacrifice. John Mark showed a certain amount of character in being willing first to leave his family and friends in Jerusalem for Antioch and then to leave for Cyprus with Paul and Barnabas at the start of the first missionary journey. Sea travel in those days was perilous and Mark cannot have known what he was going to meet with. Sadly, when they reached Pamphylia, however, he was just not up to it and returned home, much to Paul’s sadness. Timothy showed a similar courage in being willing to leave his home and loved ones in Lystra. This included undergoing the painful operation of circumcision for the sake of the gospel. He showed even more courage when later Paul began to send him on trips on his behalf such as that into Macedonia (Acts 19:22). We sometimes think of Timothy as Timid Timothy but I think we will find that was not his temperament after all. Being a 21st-century assistant pastor in the west probably does not demand the same level of self-sacrifice and courage as being a 1st-century assistant apostle but it does call for such things. Pray for such people.
What does he do?
Bearing in mind the above data I think that we can list some three possible roles that we can expect an assistant pastor to fulfil.
1. Apprentice. In Philippians 2:22 Paul refers to Timothy and says as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. In days gone by it was the pattern far more than now for sons to follow the same trade as their fathers. Conveniently this meant they learned their trade directly from their own fathers. No doubt Jesus learned from his earthly father Joseph in just this way, serving an apprenticeship in the little workshop next to the house in Nazareth. Paul refers to him elsewhere as his true son in the faith and here he seems to have in mind the apprenticeship idea. It was an apprenticeship in the work of the gospel. We do not know how long Timothy’s apprenticeship lasted but in that time he had opportunity to observe Paul and learn from him what preaching and ministering the gospel was all about. Apprenticeships can be of varying lengths. A year is rather short, five years rather long. Perhaps three years is best. Whether the minister is old enough to be his assistant’s father that is the sort of relationship that should be cultivated in the Lord. They are to be master and apprentice, teacher and student, father and son. The role is very much a learning one.
2. Helper. Elisha is referred to as Elijah’s attendant and John Mark, Timothy and Erastus are spoken of in similar but different terms. Clearly these men were involved in a certain amount of labour on behalf of those who they were under, though we have no details of what they did. We make jokes about apprentices brewing cups of tea and assistants carrying the minister’s bag and so on and certainly we do not want to suggest that an assistant is to act as skivvy to the minister. However, there is bound to be a certain amount of menial work – work for the minister. Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
The idea of help also emphasises that the assistant’s role is not to do anything hugely different to what the pastor does. Rather, his role is to supplement and strengthen, to assist and augment what is already being done – preaching and teaching, counselling and evangelising. This is to be done not in competition with the minister but in order to develop and extend what he has already begun. The assistant is to be a loyal supporter of what the minister is trying to do, making up for him, perhaps, in areas where he is less strong.
3. Deputy. There were clearly times when at least some of the men we mention acted as deputies for those they served. We mentioned how at one time a lack of consecrated priests meant a need for more Levites than would otherwise have been necessary. There are times when assistant pastors act in a stopgap role. If the minister falls ill it is to the assistant that the deacons will turn first to carry on the work. Again, it is clear that when Paul sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia it was because he himself could not leave Ephesus. For the same reason, along with others, Paul also later sent Timothy to Corinth. He wanted the Corinthians, he says, to imitate him. Unable to go himself he did the next best thing and sent Timothy. Clearly this takes time but Paul could say of Timothy (Philippians 2:23) I have no-one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. He was glad to have such a person as deputy.
One hears of instances where a minister sends his assistant to deputise and there are complaints – not because of any incompetence on the assistant’s part but because ‘it’s not the minister’. Paul seeks to nip this attitude in the bud in 1 Corinthians 16:10, 11 If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No-one, then, should refuse to accept him. Send him on his way in peace …. Congregations and others need to know that if an assistant deputises for the minister they should make him feel quite at home with them for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as the minister. No-one, then, should refuse to accept him.
To sum up, an assistant does very much the things that the minister does, though hopefully with fresh insight and initiative. Sometimes he will do things with the minister, sometimes instead of him. All the while he is learning the ropes, training for his future work in pastoral ministry.
What can be expected?
Assistants must expect temptations. Three obvious examples come to mind.
1. Pride. We quoted Jeremiah 45:5 Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. It is unclear exactly why Jeremiah spoke to Baruch as he did and what the great things are. No doubt having been so closely associated with the great prophet and reading his words to kings and princes it was tempting for Baruch to be proud. There is a temptation for an assistant to imagine that anything his teacher achieves is his achievement. I remember once hearing that a certain man had been Dr Lloyd-Jones assistant – suddenly he shot up in my estimation. However, it does not automatically follow that because a man has served as a great preacher’s assistant he is a great preacher himself. Nothing will be gained by osmosis. Being appointed assistant pastor does not mean a man has ‘arrived’. None of us has arrived – pastors, assistant pastors, people. We all need to humble ourselves daily.
2. Discouragement and fear. No doubt the reason Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas was because he was discouraged and fearful. Such emotions can come in very easily. We must all pray against them.
3. Coveting. Think of Gehazi for a moment who out of greed tried to get something by deceiving others. It is worth saying that although few assistants are paid much it may be more than they have had before. Such things must not steal their hearts. Again, we all need to take warning.
Assistants either prove themselves or fail. What happened with Mark was a tragedy and it stands as a warning that there’s no guarantee that everything’s bound to work out fine. It may not. A work can suffer a real set back. On the other hand, think of those wonderful words in Philippians 2:22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself …. The best end is for a man to prove himself to be a preacher and pastor who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)
People may disagree on their success. Of course, at the end of an assistantship there may be disagreement over how successful the exercise has been. If godly men like Paul and Barnabas could disagree so sharply on their opinion of a man it should not surprise when such things happen to us. We pray against division but to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
Failure here though undesirable is not the story’s end. Perhaps we should make the point finally that failure in an assistantship is not necessarily an unmitigated disaster. John Mark’s story convinces us that failure to live up to early promise does not mean an end to all future usefulness. John Mark went on, do not forget, not only to write his Gospel but also to be Paul’s fellow-worker and comfort and one who was helpful to him.
What follows an assistantship cannot be determined for certain. Lastly, note that though men like John Mark and Timothy certainly did go on to great things, as did Joshua and Elijah, with Erastus and Baruch we know almost nothing about what happened subsequently. In everything, we are in God’s hands. He does as he pleases. We must not forget that.
Gary Brady has been Pastor for over fifteen years at Child’s Hill Baptist Church, London.
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