by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Over the years, I have heard various individuals argue against preachers being located in a particular area and working with one congregation. Typically, they will point out that Paul, and those with him, worked with many congregations, moving from city to city. In their view, elders should do the bulk of the teaching with traveling preachers supplementing the instruction as they pass through an area.
Perhaps the idea comes from our modern usage of the term "evangelist." In the denominations, an evangelist is one who spreads the good news of Jesus Christ as a missionary. You hear of popular evangelists, such as Billy Graham, who hold large revival meetings around the country and around the world. Yet the scriptural definition of an evangelist is a preacher of the gospel. Traveling is not implied in the term. In fact, the evangelist Philip did travel in his early days but stopped when he reached Caesarea (Acts 8:40). Some twenty years later he was still in this town preforming the duties of an evangelist (Acts 21:8).
Even the apostle Paul did not continually travel. He spent 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11). Later in Ephesus, he spent 3 years teaching the gospel (Acts 20:31). He did not leave Ephesus because he felt he had to travel. His teaching had stirred up a mob and the brethren thought it would be safer for him to leave the city. Paul left Ephesus reluctantly.
A bit harder to notice is the fact that Luke spent about six years teaching in Philippi. Luke came with Paul to Philippi ("we" Acts 16:16), but remained behind when Paul left ("they" Acts 16:40). Luke did not rejoin Paul until Paul returns in Acts 20:6 when he left with Paul for Troas.
It appears that preachers did not move simply for the sake of seeing new vistas. As you read through the book of Acts, it is apparent that Paul worked in an area for as long as he felt effective. Many times he was forced to move on before he was ready to leave a work. Even then he would return to past works to check on their progress and to offer encouragement.
In some areas, preachers work with several congregations. In the past they were called circuit riders, riding their horse from meetinghouse to meetinghouse until they returned to their home. While such situations might arise due to an inadequate number of preachers in an area, it is far from ideal, nor is circuit riding biblically-based. Preachers did move from congregation to congregation, but I know of no example where a preacher worked with multiple congregations at the same time. Like all other Christians, a preacher needs to be the member of a local congregation. When Paul was in Jerusalem, he sought to join with the brethren there (Acts 9:26). So often preachers complain about Christians who bounce from congregation to congregation, never settling down to become a part of a church. Yet, when a preacher does the same thing, he is commended for his efforts.
When a preacher works with multiple congregations, there is a tendency to become involved in the matters of the local churches. Preachers are respected for their knowledge and are often consulted to learn what the Bible teaches on particular problems. The danger is for congregations to view the preacher as the authority in the operation of the church. Instead of being autonomous, the multiple congregations begin operating under the oversight of a single preacher, creating a joining of congregations that God has not authorized.
Preachers are a part of the function of a local congregation. Not only do they work to bring the lost to the Lord, but they also labor to strengthen the saved (Ephesians 4:11-13). At times, members of a church will not enjoy the things that a preacher must say ( II Timothy 4:2-5). I suspect this is the primary reason some members desire that a preacher move frequently. When a preacher is unfamiliar with a group and their particular problems, the lessons tend to be generic. But once he becomes familiar with the difficulties in a congregation, the lessons become more specifically pointed. Some people just don't like to have their toes stepped on.
Others see the support of a local preacher as the largest item in the budget. They conclude that if they did not have a preacher within the congregation, they could free up a good portion of the funding so that it could be used for other needs. Paul argues eloquently that a preacher has the right to receive wages from those for whom he is laboring (I Corinthians 9:7-14). It is true that Paul received most of his funds from congregations other than the one where he was currently laboring, but his argument is that he had the right draw wages from those with whom he was currently working. A congregation does not have the right to dismiss a preacher simply to save itself money.
Preachers are under the oversight of the elders of a local congregation, just like every other member of the church (I Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17, I Peter 5:1-5). Preachers are involved in the appointment of elders (Titus 1:5, Acts 14:23) and in the removal of unfaithful elders (I Timothy 5:19-21), but this does not imply that a preacher is over the eldership. The elders watch over his soul as well as the souls of every other member in the congregation. At times a man may serve a congregation as both an elder and a preacher (I Timothy 5:17; I Peter 5:1). Such services would be impossible if a preacher did not labor with a congregation for several years.
I suspect that the reason some preachers argue against located preachers is the simple fact that they do not want anyone over them. They view themselves as the authority in biblical matters and chafe at the thought that someone with authority might tell them they are out of line. If there were no located preachers, then by declaring themselves to be a preacher they place themselves out from under the authority of any congregation.
Each preacher has different talents. Some men work best in planting new works. Once a group becomes well-established, they move on to new areas where their talent is best utilized. Others operate well in small congregations where they strengthen the brethren and bring more lost souls to Christ. When work becomes large, they move on to another small group which needs building up. Some preachers do their best work in large congregations where the opportunity to work under the oversight of elders and need to deal with many people keeps them on their toes. What should determine the length of a preacher's stay is his ability to be effective in the Lord's work.