When Has Authority Gone Too Far?
by Jon Zens
Jesus Christ rules His churches by the Spirit through His Word. The churches have authority to act according to Christ's Word. The common notion that authority belongs to a segment of the church (the "pastor," the "session,"the "board," etc.), rather than to the whole church cannot be sustained by the NT.
It is from this misconception that wrong ideas of authority flow. Several propositions follow that will seek in brief compass to crystallize critical matters regarding authority in the church.
1. The church has authority to act on Christ's Word (Matt. 18:15-18; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 6:1-8). If reconciliation is not effected at lower levels, offenses must be brought "to the church." The elders are certainly a part of that process, but they are not the process itself. The idea that "take it to the church" really means "take it to the elders" is not based on the NT.(1)
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul does not chide the elders for not taking action, but rather confronts the whole church. We have no reason not to believe that Corinth had elders.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul assumes that the church has the ability and resources to work out its internal problems.
2. Elders recognized by the people are responsible to equip the flock for ministry, lead them into maturity, teach and apply the Word; are accountable to God for their oversight; and are to exercise their care of the flock after the servant-pattern of Christ(Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Pet. 5:1-3).
3. A mammoth problem exists because the "office of pastor" has been separated from NT eldership, and an authority has been attached to it that is unknown in the NT. "The Minister" concept has no denominational boundaries--it is everywhere assumed. "The pastor" doctrine presupposes and perpetuates the clergy/laity distinction, as a "Reader Survey" from Leadership magazine illustrates:
In 1904, I.M. Haldeman asserted that "Bishop and Elder do not exist today... The Pastor is a Gift to the Church."(2) Abraham Kuyper said that "the Reformed allege that the office of the Word is a separate office which demands its own preparation and its own unique gifts."(3) The Puritans believed that "a minister's authority derives from his office... None can preach with authority 'but who is in office'."(4)
This "office" is totally different from being an "elder."(5) It has a "call" that other elders apparently do not receive. It has training (seminary) not required of "elders." Men leave their families for it.(6) When they "enter the ministry," they become "the leading officer of a congregation."(7)
Brethren, as long as we assume that "the pastor" fits the following job description, problems of authority are inevitable.
[The pastor is] like the cerebellum, the center for communicating messages, coordinating functions, and conducting responses between the head and body... The pastor is not only the authoritative communicator of the truth from the Head to the Body, but he is also the accurate communicator of the needs from the Body to the Head... he edifies the Body.(8)
Christ nowhere assigns such tasks to one man. The fact that we think He does is the source for many of our problems.
4. Perverted authority is often subtle, but Christ's sheep are able to sense its tentacles. If a church atmosphere causes people to walk around with a dark cloud over their heads (no joy, Gal. 4:15), to feel like they are being "watched" and "kept track of," and to feel like they can't talk or do things without "checking in" with the leadership, etc., there is probably an authority problem.
5. Some marks of perverted authority:
- the claim of direct authority from God, rather than testing things by the Word;
- the command is to "submit to me," rather than "I will serve you";
- the method of leadership is to "order" people around, rather than to appeal for them to do the right things;
- there is a dominating, "pushy" drive instead of a dependence on God to direct;
- there is a sense of control, rather than a sense of support;
- a gift is exploited so that others are made to feel dependent on it;
- there is an inflexibility--"don't question me"--"don't touch the Lord's anointed";
- there is unapproachability and intimidation--the "aura" around the leader keeps the followers in "awe";
- there emerges an organization built around a man and his peculiar emphases instead of around Christ and His Word;
- there will be cyclical challenges to the authority figure (which are immediately and forcefully purged);
- there is more concern for maintaining the authoritarian structure than there is for caring about the people in it.(9)
As you think about your own experience, it is apparent that "cults" do not have a monopoly on these tragic attributes. They too often permeate the structures of "Christian" groups and churches.
- Jay Adams, Ready to Restore (Pres.
& Ref., 1981), 3-4, states that "laymen may
counsel at the second level... but not at the third...
At the third level, the officers, representing the
whole church, forgive or excommunicate using the keys
for binding and loosing." A. Kuyper says, "the
Reformed hold that the administrative authority over
the church rests not with the members, but properly
with the presbyters" ("Pamphlet on the Reformation of
the Church," The Standard Bearer, 10/1/79, 14).
(back to text)
- How to Study the Bible (Revell, 1904),
395-396. (back to text)
- "Pamphlet on the Reformation of the
Church," SB, 10/1/79, 15. (back to
- "The Puritan View of the Ministry...,"
Banner of Truth, August, 1957, 29-30. (back to text)
- "...a man is appointed to pastoral office,
be it outside the fellowship ('calling a pastor') or
inside ('appointing an elder')..." "Elders," Charles
Whitworth, Reformation Today, March-April,
1983, 13. (back to text)
- "When Rev. _______ left his home (in
Africa) to attend Seminary, his wife, _______, was
expecting their tenth child. The child was born four
months after he left. but died a few days later. The
loss brought great sorrow to _______, but did not
lessen his determination to make the sacrifices
necessary to gain a strong training in biblical
theology..." (from a seminary bulletin). (back to text)
- Covenanter Witness, August 30, 1972,
6. (back to text)
- David L. McKenna, "The Ministry's Gordian
Knot," Leadership, Winter, 1980, pp. 50-51.
(back to text)
- I am grateful to my friend in Ca., Mark Sequeira, for this excellent summary. (back to text)
Note: This article originally appeared in Searching Together, Volume 13:1, pp. 31-33. Used by permission.