What Authority Do Pastors Have?

Eight Principles for Local Churches

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Guest Contributor

To answer the question, “What authority do pastors have?” you have to pick a side in the polity debates. I choose elder-led congregationalism. My sense, however, is that many Christians and pastors avoid the topic of polity because it’s contested territory. Maybe it feels unimportant.

Besides, can’t we read through 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and passages like Acts 20:17–38 and 1 Peter 5:1–4, and easily answer the question? Elders have (1) a general authority of oversight over the whole church as well as (2) the authority to teach and conduct the ordinances. That much is straightforward. Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and elder-ruled independent churches all agree.

Furthermore, Protestants agree that pastors or elders (I use the terms interchangeably) don’t have the authority to dispense absolution for sin. We agree they are not a separate class of mediators. Martin Luther remarked, “There really is no difference between laymen and priests . . . except that of office and work, but not of ‘estate’; for they are all of the same estate” (Works of Martin Luther, 2:69). And we agree they can never sit in the so-called “chair of Peter,” speaking infallibly with an authority equal to Scripture. Pastors can make mistakes, and their words must be tested in good Berean fashion against the word of God (Acts 17:11). Think of how Peter himself messed up (e.g., Galatians 2:11–14).

These points of agreement are important. A wrong view of pastoral authority can undermine the gospel (by turning pastors into mediating priests who provide access to grace) and undermine Scripture (by giving their words equal authority to Scripture). So praise God for this consensus.

Inside of Protestantism, however, differences emerge that impact Christian discipleship and the good of the church. As an illustration, think of the difference between a monarchy and a democracy. Those larger structural differences impact the authority of the “leaders” as well as the culture and civic life of everyone. I don’t believe our Protestant differences are as dramatic as monarchies versus democracies. The point is merely that the larger structural context shapes what authority the pastor-elders have. Therefore, we have to account for it.

With all that in mind, consider one principle on context plus seven more on pastoral authority.

Congregational Authority

Principle 1: The gathered congregation possesses the final priestly authority to affirm the what and the who of the gospel — confessions and confessors.

Protestants from Martin Luther and John Calvin to the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) uniformly agree that every Christian is a priest. That expresses itself in the election of officers. It also means any believer can baptize in a pinch. Says Luther, “In cases of necessity any one can baptize . . . which would be impossible unless we were all priests” (67). Any believer can interpret Scripture: “An ordinary man may have true understanding; why then should we not follow him” against any errors of popes or bishops (74)? Any believer can reprove the pope or another erring Christian: “But if I am to accuse him before the Church, I must bring the Church together” (76–77).

The priesthood of all believers, for a Protestant, means that church authority ultimately roots in every believer’s union with Christ. The nineteenth-century Presbyterian James Bannerman writes, “The primary grant from Christ of Church power is virtually, if not expressly and formally, made to believers in that grant which makes all things, whether pertaining to the present or the future, to be theirs in Christ Jesus” (The Church of Christ, 272). After all, that church on the desert island whose pastors all die “must have within themselves all power competent to carry on the necessary functions and offices of a Church” (273).

Beyond this shared position, however, the congregationalists and the non-congregationalists diverge. Advocates of elder-ruled (non-congregationalist) churches — like Bannerman and Luther and every Anglican or independent Bible church you know — have to make some kind of argument that, even if the whole church in some formal sense possesses final authority, that authority has been given to the elders to exercise. That distinction between possession and exercise can be found, for instance, in both the PCA’s and Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s (OPC) books of church order.

An elder-led congregationalist like me, however, would argue that, if you cannot exercise authority, then, logically, you do not possess authority. But never mind logic. In Matthew 18, Jesus explicitly hands the keys of the kingdom to the gathered congregation to render judgment on the what and the who of the gospel — confessions and confessors (Matthew 18:17–18; see also 16:19). And nowhere in the New Testament are these keys handed exclusively to pastors. In fact, Paul calls the Corinthian congregation to use them with the “power” of the Lord Jesus when they are “assembled” (1 Corinthians 5:4). He doesn’t tell the elders to use them on Thursday night in their elders meeting. Likewise, he tells not the Galatian pastors but the Galatian churches to declare anyone teaching a false doctrine “cursed” or anathema (Galatians 1:9).

“If you cannot exercise authority, then, logically, you do not possess authority.”

That means, Christian, that if one of your pastors starts to teach false doctrine, it’s your job to fire him, together with your other church members. And Christ will call you to account on the day of judgment if you don’t.

This priesthood of all believers within an elder-led congregation is the context within which the following points fit.

Heart of Pastoral Authority

Principle 2: Pastors have authority to lead the congregation in knowing which confessions to make and which confessors to affirm.

If the congregation as a whole renders final judgment on right doctrine, whose interpretation and teaching of the Bible will count as a church’s interpretation? One member may have one interpretation; another person another. If the judgments of the church as a whole bind every member, whose interpretation binds the church as a whole?

Answer: the elders’ interpretation. They’re the ones who say, “Church, these are the doctrines we believe.” The congregation then formally affirms, “Yes, those are the doctrines we believe,” making those doctrines a point of official and binding agreement (Matthew 18:19). The congregation makes the final judgment in matters of doctrine and membership, but the elders lead or tell the congregation which judgments to make. This is why the elders ordinarily preach and teach. This is why they ordinarily lead in the ordinances and in membership interviews and so forth. They’re the shepherds standing at the gate of the sheep pen.

Think again of 1 Corinthians 5. Paul tells us he has “pronounced judgment” on the man sleeping with his mother-in-law: remove him (verse 3). Yet is the deed done? No. He calls the church to “judge” the man in the same way (verse 12). Paul, I believe, is acting here like a pastor. He shows us the relationship between elder authority and congregational authority. The congregation has the final say, but the pastors tell them what that final say ought to be.

Extension of Pastoral Authority

Principle 3: Pastors’ authority of oversight includes other matters impacting the whole church.

Pastors also have authority to oversee other decisions of the congregation. Think of the Greek-speaking widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food in Acts 6. That was a big deal. The church was dividing, and widows weren’t getting food. High stakes. Therefore, the apostles, who preferred to spend their time praying and preaching, stepped in and recommended a solution. The solution heavily involved the congregation, yet the apostles, acting like good pastors, exercised oversight.

Likewise, pastors and elders should generally stay out of administrative details, like what color the carpet in the Sunday school classroom should be, or whether the nursery volunteers should wear matching T-shirts (this decision was handed to my elders once). In general, they should involve themselves only in the decisions that impact the whole church and the course of its ministry. Should we start a Sunday school class? What translation of the Bible should we preach from? Should our church support Joe and Kathy on the mission field?

Nature of Pastoral Authority

Principle 4: Pastoral authority morally obligates but doesn’t structurally bind.

Insofar as the church as a whole possesses the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose on earth what’s bound and loosed in heaven, the congregation’s decisions are effectually binding — at the structural level. When they remove a member from the church as an act of excommunication, the person really is removed, with or without his consent. The congregation possesses what I have called an authority of command.

The elders, however, possess a different kind of authority, an authority of counsel. (It’s the same with husbands.) An authority of counsel is a real authority. It morally obligates members to obey, and Jesus does not countenance disobedience (see Hebrews 13:7, 17). Consequences exist. Yet the elders cannot dispense those consequences, which are eschatological. Jesus hands them out.

“There’s a sense in which elders possess authority to continually give it away.”

Sure, the elders should depose a foul-mouthed usher or approve a church picnic or plan the preaching schedule. Yet a pastor cannot invite you to his office and then excommunicate you all by himself, at least not if he wants to follow the Bible. Nor should he determine membership apart from the congregation. Membership depends upon the whole congregation’s agreement. That’s what I mean when I say pastoral authority morally obligates, but it doesn’t structurally bind.

The fact that elders (and husbands) possess an authority of counsel and not command dramatically shapes how that authority is used. While a parent can tell a three-year-old to go to bed “right now,” elders must teach “with complete patience” (2 Timothy 4:2). They’re working for growth over time, playing the long game. The goal is not to force decisions but to encourage regenerate church members to make good decisions for themselves. As Paul puts it to Philemon, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philemon 8–9).

Here lies the most crucial point of distinction regarding polity differences between Protestants. Elder-ruled churches, whether independent or presbyterian or episcopalian in their structures, grant elders an authority of command. The elders can unilaterally excommunicate members, for instance. On the other hand, small-c congregationalists like Baptists don’t believe they can. And this difference impacts the culture of the church and the nature of its discipleship.

(For more on the difference between authority of counsel and command, see chapter 11 of my book Authority.)

Purposes of Pastoral Authority

Principle 5: Pastors possess authority to equip the church and to divest themselves of authority.

Building on the last point, an authority of counsel is more conducive to discipleship.

Imagine two exercise classes. In class 1, the trainer demonstrates burpees and squats, and then he sends you home. In class 2, the trainer demonstrates burpees and squats, and then he asks you to do them while giving feedback. Which class will better train you?

Now picture two churches. In an elder-ruled church, the elders make a decision about church discipline behind closed doors. In the congregational church, the elders explain what happened, giving just enough details that the church can render judgment with integrity, but not so many details that people stumble; then the elders recommend a course of action, just as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 5. Which church will better train them in Christian discernment, courage, and obedience?

If Paul simply removed the man in 1 Corinthians 5, the Corinthian church would have been deprived of an opportunity to be trained in discernment, courage, and obedience. Yet he involved them. As one commentator put it, Paul did not want the church’s fitness report to read, “Works well under constant supervision” (1 Corinthians, 168–69). Rather, he wanted to instill within them a sense of their joint responsibility for the holiness of the church.

People grow when they’re given opportunities. Not every man in the church will become an elder. But there’s a sense in which elders possess authority to continually give it away. They give others a chance to teach a Sunday school class, to chair a meeting, to lead an evangelistic endeavor, to host a missions reading group, to serve as deacons, to host a small group, to organize a women’s retreat, and so forth. They should even involve the congregation in matters of membership and discipline, which can sometimes get complicated. But this forces them to train the church (see Ephesians 4:11–16). Wise elder training, wise church. Bad elder training, bad church.

Pastoral authority, in short, does not say, “We’re the experts. We’re ordained. You guys can sit down.” This approach often leads to complacent, weak, and eventually doctrinally liberal churches. Rather, pastoral authority says, “Here’s how you swing the club, play the scale, program the computer, love the church. Now you do it.”

Character of Pastoral Authority

Principle 6: Pastoral authority depends upon character, integrity, and example.

To put all this another way, an elder’s authority is tied to his example. Elders don’t “domineer” but set an “example,” says Peter (1 Peter 5:3). Members, meanwhile, “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). We imitate them as they imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

This is why more ink is spilled on the requisite character for pastoring than on the job description. Exemplifying and teaching Christian character is the job description. Pastors’ authority, in other words, is very much tied to their character and integrity.

Think of the qualification “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). An elder’s marriage may not be perfect, but he sets a good example for other husbands. You’re happy to say to other husbands, “Learn from his example as a husband.”

Integrity of Pastoral Authority

Principle 7: Pastoral authority is both unearned and earned, requiring trust.

Building on the last point, an elder grows in authority by gaining trust.

Now, in one sense, a pastor’s authority does not need to be earned. It’s an office given to him by Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). Members don’t so much submit to the man as they submit to the office, because that’s submitting to Jesus.

At the same time, an elder will clearly earn more authority for himself as he proves himself trustworthy. Suppose I’m watching two elders, one who treats his wife wonderfully and one who, by my lights, does not. Whom do you think I’m more likely to trust? Furthermore, whose Sunday school lectures on how to be a godly husband am I going to listen to more carefully? And assuming these two men separately correct me for how I’m living with my wife, whom will I more easily and joyfully submit to?

“Trust is the fuel that makes the vehicle of elder authority move forward. It’s the currency elders have to spend.”

Trust is the fuel that makes the vehicle of elder authority move forward. It’s the currency elders have to spend.

While it’s true that a policeman’s or parent’s authority of command will be improved by trust, this is especially true of an elder’s (or husband’s) authority of counsel. After all, policemen and parents can leverage the threat of immediate discipline even when they’re not trusted. An elder (or husband) cannot. And this structural difference that foregrounds the role of trust forces the elder to work harder at his character and integrity.

Location of Pastoral Authority

Principle 8: The difference between one elder’s authority and all the elders’ authority is quantitative, not qualitative.

Historically, Presbyterians have sometimes distinguished between the elders’ joint authority and their several authority. Their joint authority concerns those things they can only do together, like excommunicate someone from the church. Their several authority concerns those things they can do individually, like preach.

As a congregationalist, I would not affirm these two categories in formal or principled terms. Presbyterians need them because they’ve placed the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the elders, such that the elders will do weighty things like receiving or dismissing members, which I would leave in the hands of the whole congregation.

Still, it does seem reasonable to acknowledge that a pastor or elder should avoid some actions or decisions until he involves the other elders, and elders should always work to raise up more elders. Recommending an excommunication to the church is an obvious example of something a pastor should avoid doing on his own. Doing so may not be sin, but it would ordinarily be unwise.

Now consider the difference between one and several elders from the members’ perspective. Insofar as the Bible calls us to “submit” to our elders (Hebrews 13:17), should we think differently about submitting to the counsel of one elder in a conversation over coffee (“Jonathan, I would advise you to . . .”) versus submitting to the entire elder board of, say, six men (“Jonathan, we would advise you to . . .”)? I think the answer is yes. The difference, though, is not qualitative (joint vs. several), but quantitative. The instruction of the one and the instruction of six is made of the same kind of stuff. Yet the instruction of the six should weigh more heavily on my conscience. More men, more weight.

Pastors as Trainers

The topic of authority does not merely impact who gets to make which decisions; it impacts discipleship and the overall patterns of ministry in a church. Within an elder-led congregational model, the fact that elders must bring to the church any decisions that significantly impact the nature, integrity, membership, or mission of the church changes not just the church’s members meetings. It requires elders to do ministry a little differently all week. They approach their jobs less like judges and more like trainers.

After all, the shepherds are sheep too. So they work constantly to strengthen, build up, and equip the saints for their work of being priests and disciple-makers. Then the whole body grows as it builds itself up in love.