There are two issues that make this a pertinent question to ask: 1) the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer, and 2) the egalitarianism of our culture. The priesthood of the believer states that all believers share a priestly status so that no mediator outside of Christ is necessary. The protestant Reformation broke from the medieval church with its practice of class distinctions to eradicate the chasm between laity and clergy. The result was an emphasis on ministering among the people as opposed to above the people. I hold to this doctrine as true and biblical.
The issue of egalitarianism is more cultural, more complicated, and much more dangerous. Egalitarianism is based on the concept of equality and has manifested in various ways throughout church history. Modern egalitarians, for example, do away with any requirements for church leaders to be men, promoting the view that men and women are equal. At times, egalitarianism also reigned in some sects of Christianity where there was no “leader”, but all were considered equal. This was the theology of the Quakers. Egalitarianism is complicated (but really not that complicated) because it is true that in Christ, there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, bond or free. But this describes our fundamental relationship to God, not our function within the world God made nor within the Church God is building. There is little doubt in my mind that the modern church’s confusion over this issue is largely a result of cultural pressure, not a result of biblical clarity.
Scripture teaches that, although all believers have direct access to God and all believers share in the inheritance of Christ, the Church is a place of structure and hierarchy. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” (Hebrews 13:17) is an explicit declaration of this, but the concept is found throughout the New Testament. The roles/positions that God has established within the church are Pastor/Elder/Bishop (all the same thing) and Deacon. In light of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer, why are elders held to a higher standard? Below are several reasons why, in light of the responsibility borne by elders, they must be held to a higher standard.
Those Who Represent must Reflect
Within the church all are to be growing in Christ-likeness, but not all have the same starting point, the same circumstances, or the same attributes. Saul of Tarsus came to faith with a great amount of education, zeal, and sincerity. His conversion led to a quick promotion within the church. But some come to Christ through other paths that do not lend themselves as quickly to attaining a position of leadership. Everyone is to grow, but everyone has a different starting point and pace. I think even those outside the church understand this and can appreciate the efforts a church makes to welcome those being redeemed from the effects of life altering sins – whether their own or the sins of others. But that same grace that an outsider might show to an individual within the church will not be shown to the pastor of the church. The pastor ought to know better.
1Ti 3:7 "Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. "
To those who are outside the church, the pastor is the one who should most embody the character of Christ. In other words, the pastor is the one held responsible for reflecting Christ to the community, therefore the pastor/elder must be held to a higher standard.
Those Who Protect must be Strong
One of the functions of the elders is to
Act 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. Act 20:29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Act 20:30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Act 20:31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
The responsibility to guard the flock against false teachers is a serious business that requires strength. The elder has to know the Word well enough to spot false teaching, and judging by the content of many Christian best-sellers this is a rare quality. The elder must also not be afraid to confront, ask difficult questions, and make difficult decisions. The distinction between a worthy pastor and an unworthy pastor is described in Scripture as the difference between a shepherd and a hireling. The shepherd risks all for the sake of the sheep, while the hireling runs when there is trouble.
Those Who Restore Must be Spiritual
In the course of ministry, the elder will have to restore a fellow believer who has been overwhelmed by sin. Scripture specifically calls those who are “spiritual” to this task, in contrast to the one who is carnal. The reason for this necessity is that when pulling someone out of a ditch, it is not helpful to get pulled into the ditch. But gravity tends to work that way.
Gal 6:1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
It takes a grounded individual to enter into the sinful circumstances of another and not be drawn himself into sin. It takes wisdom to address the various aspects of life that have been affected by personal sin. It takes persistent love to lead someone away from their sin and into the light. It takes patience to teach a saint that is overwhelmed how to bear their own burden.
Those Who Lead Must Be Ahead
In the New Testament, Paul the apostle presents an audacious challenge for the saints
“to be followers of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16, Philippians 3:17). As one who began pastoring at a young age, I have had the uncomfortable experience of knowing that certain of my flock (not all, mind you) were farther ahead in their sanctification than I. Of course, being farther ahead than I, they were often the most patient and kind.
It’s not a necessity that the pastor be the most spiritual person in the church, but it’s definitely a problem if he is not numbered among those who are. How can one teach what one does not know? How can one model behavior to which one has not attained? There is no such thing as leading from behind. The very qualifications of the elder require that he exhibit spiritual maturity.
The One Who Labors Must Give an Account
A surprising feature of God’s dealing with men is how frequently God leaves it up to them to take what He has bestowed and do something with it. He appears in brief and startling ways throughout redemptive history, and then seems to retreat to allow His followers to carry on the work. If a pastor does not teach well (apt to teach), then his congregation will not learn. Perhaps that’s a little too simplistic and stark, but it has all the advantage of being generally true. God expects His servants to do their jobs well so that the work of the Lord can be established. One day God will demand an account of your ministry, and those who built with wood, hay, and stubble will see their reward vanish while those who build with gold, silver, and precious jewels will see their work shine.
There persists the problem of a “super Christian” vs “normal Christian” dichotomy in the Church today, which is wrong and needs corrected. The normal Christian life is a life of growth into Christ-likeness, and those with the mentality of “sure, but he’s the pastor” are ignorant of their calling in Christ. We are all meant to grow up in Him. Nevertheless, the requirements for those called to exercise spiritual authority in the church limit such positions to the ones who exhibit spiritual maturity and the character necessary to perform the functions of eldership.