Authority in the Church

by Mark M. Mattison

As Steve Jones has written in The Multiple Pastor Model, the office of the one-man pastor h as no Scriptural support. Nowhere does the New Testament ever imply that one man is to have authority over a local congregation. On the contrary, the earliest churches enjoyed the ministries of multiple elders whose job it was to pastor the flock (cf. Acts 20:17,28; 1 Pet. 5:1,2).

We have noticed, however, a most unhealthy trend among some churches which have tried to implement this more Scriptural model. Many churches rightly eschew the one-man pastor and ordain multiple pastors of the body. However, the nature of the pastoral office and its authority remains unchanged. In fact some churches with multiple leaders are, paradoxically, even more authoritarian than ones with single leaders. The purpose of this article, then, is not to argue for the multiplicity of pastors within the local church. The multiplicity of pastors-elders will be assumed. The point of this article rather will be to argue against the traditional (worldly) view of authority in the church bound up in the concept of the church "office."

 

"Offices" Unscriptural

 That might sound strange at first. After all, didn't Paul write to the Romans: "inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office"? (11:13, KJV). And in his first letter to Timothy did not Paul write of "the office" of a bishop" and "the office of a deacon" (1 Tim. 3:1,10,13, KJV)?

Those words certainly do appear in the King James Version of the Bible. But what is truly astonishing is how foreign to the Greek text those terms are. In the Romans text it is his diakonian, his ministry or "deaconship" which Paul magnifies. In 1 Timothy 3:1 it is episkopes, "an oversight," which is sought, which may or may not bear the traditional connotation of "church office." Most interesting of all is how the King James Version translates a single Greek verb, diakoneo ("to serve") with the clumsy phrase "use the office of a deacon" in 1 Timothy 3:10,13.

Are these mere semantics? Does it matter whether or not we regard elders and deacons as holding "offices"? I believe it matters insofar as it presupposes a worldly authority structure in which person dominates person. This type of authority has no Scriptural sanction.

 

"Obey Your Leaders"

But is not this type of authority implied in the New Testament's exhortation of believers to "obey" our leaders? "Obey your leaders and submit to them," wrote the author to the Hebrews, "for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing - for that would be harmful to you" (Heb. 13:17). We might note also the basic meaning of the term "bishop" (episkopos), which literally means "overseer."

At first blush this concept seems to create an immediate tension with the concept of diakonia, "deaconship" or "service" or "ministry." In fact these two terms, "deacon" and "bishop," evoke contradictory images. Yet we know that all elders are deacons (i.e., servants).Reference1 How can these two concepts be reconciled? How can the same people both rule and obey?

 

Spiritual Authority

We believe the key to unraveling that tension is to be found in passages such as Matthew 20:25-28 and Mark 10:42-45. In these passages Jesus clearly points out that spiritual authority is exercised in an entirely different way from worldly authority. To rule or "oversee" the church means to serve the church. In the household of God, the concept of "oversight" is radically transformed and interpreted entirely in terms of "deaconship" or "ministry" or "service." Peter states this explicitly in 1 Peter 5:1-5. "I exhort the elders...to pastor the flock of God among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly" (vv. 1,2, my translation). Furthermore, they are not to exercise authority as "lords" but as "examples" (v. 3). " In the same way" younger Christians are to accept the authority of the elders (v. 5a); "and all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another" (v. 5b, NRSV).

Note that key phrase in verse 5a, "in the same way," as well as the sentiment in the remainder of the verse and the context of the passage. Yes, younger Christians are to submit to the older and wiser Christians in the church; but the elders in turn submit and defer to the interests of others. Pastoral authority must not be taken out of the context of the mutual business of submitting and serving in the church.

 

Ramifications

The ramifications of this fact are far-reaching. It means that the elders are not the primary decision-makers in the church, contrary to much church practice. In the early church it was the Holy Spirit operating through the context of the entire body which made decisions on behalf of the church (cp. Acts 13:2,3; 15:22; 1 Cor. 1:10-15).

To illustrate this point we need look no further than Jesus' great disciplinary outline of Matthew 18:15-20. Of course it is the duty of any member of the body, not just a (serving) leader, to approach the one who has sinned; and in any case a member who has been sinned against must also approach the offender to reconcile (cp. also Luke 17:3,4). If reconciliation and/or repentance is not achieved, does the case then go to the elders? Not necessarily. A third and possibly fourth party is brought in, but Jesus doesn't indicate that the third or fourth parties need to be elders. If that effort is unsuccessful, does it then go to the elders? No. On the contrary, it goes straight to the entire church body for prayerful resolution.

Just where are the elders in all of this? If they truly are the "rulers" and decision-makers of the church, surely they would figure prominently in this passage. But they don't.

This is what most strongly implies that the oversight of the church is not an office but a function. Leaders lead by example and by submission. Elders are just that: older, wiser people in the church who are known and trusted and admired and imitated, whose opinions and insights and advice are sought, whose character and spirituality are beyond reproach. This pastoring is a role or function, but it is not an office invested with certain powers or policitical authority.

This has implications also for the titles that we tragically associate with church leaders - an association which should be precluded by Jesus' teaching in Matthew 23: 8-12:

"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (NIV).

Difficult words! How are they to be taken? Obviously Jesus wasn't teaching that there are no human fathers or teachers. Paul writes about human fathers in Ephesians 6:4 and pastors-teachers as gifts from God in Ephesians 4:11. The context of Matthew 23 - which is about the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees - makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is talking about religious titles. Jesus' disciples are not to attach titles to their names, nor are they to use religious titles when addressing others. Why not? Because such titles set the leaders apart from and above the rest of the body, marking them out as greater.

Pastors who would prove that they aren't above their congregations would do well to heed Jesus' command and drop their titles altogether, eradicating them from the bulletins and letterhead and discouraging their use. "Hey Pastor Bob!" "Please don't use that title. I'm not to let anyone call me that, for we have one Pastor, the Christ."

Why isn't this commandment taken more seriously? Wasn't it spoken by the same Christ who said "Love one another"?

This is not to say that church leaders should not be respected and given honor in the body. On the contrary, they "are worthy of double honor" (1 Tim. 5:17,18, NIV). In fact it behooves all members of the body to speak respectfully to one another, and even more so to those who are older (1 Tim. 5:1,2). Mutual respect and honor is to be the rule of the day. With while showing deference and respect we must be careful not to reinforce a two-tiered caste system within the body, placing priestly power into the hands of a few.

 

Note

1This includes even the apostles: Cp. 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 11:23; Eph. 3:7. The distinctions between "deacons" and "bishops/elders" in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3 indicate not that elders aren't deacons, but rather that deacons aren't necessarily elders. This observation is strengthened by the fact that nearly all of the stated qualifications for "deacon" or "servant" in the church are also qualifications for elders, whereas the reverse is not true. To serve in the church does not make one an elder; but to be an elder is to serve in one of the servant roles of the church.


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