Over the past few weeks I have spent a good bit of time writing about congregational authority. I have tried to show how the New Testament grants authority to the congregation for decisions about selecting leaders and servants, seeking and giving counsel to other churches, defining doctrine, and disciplining members. At the same time, I have insisted that the New Testament also gives genuine authority to pastors (also known as elders or bishops). Their authority does not consist in making binding decisions for the congregation, but it is real authority that congregations are morally bound to recognize and to which churches are biblically required to submit.
Now I would like to offer some observations about pastoral authority. Before beginning that conversation, however, it is worth pausing to consider its status among Christ’s churches today. From what I can see, no matter where one looks today, Christianity is facing a crisis of pastoral authority.
While I do not have an exhaustive knowledge of the Christian past, my reading of ecclesiastical history leads me to believe that pastors are able to exert less biblical authority within their own churches than at any point since the Reformation. I am speaking in averages here—I do not mean that pastoral authority was always well recognized by every church during previous generations, nor do I mean to suggest that every congregation has rejected pastoral authority today. What I do mean is that, within most churches, pastors must work harder to earn and maintain the recognition of their rightful authority, their authority is more frequently challenged and more easily ignored, and the honor required by 1 Timothy 5:17 is more regularly withheld than at any point since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door.
To be sure, the rejection of pastoral authority is nothing new. Paul faced it when the Super-apostles swept into Corinth, carrying the affections of the church with them (granted, Paul’s authority was both apostolic and pastoral, and pastors today are not apostles). The Super-apostles were tall and comely, learned and eloquent, and they came with the very best recommendations. Paul was a runt of a Jew who spoke plainly, labored for his living, was in and out of jail, and had to wipe the pus from his eyes while he preached. The church fawned over the Super-apostles while they snickered at Paul. The letter that we call 2 Corinthians was written out of the anguish of this rejected leadership.
Paul was willing to put up a fight, not because he coveted authority, but because he recognized that someone needed to defend what God had ordained. It may well have seemed self-serving for Paul to insist upon his rightful authority, but he would have betrayed the truth if he had not. By the same token, it may seem self-serving when pastors today teach about their authority—but if they do not, who else will do it?
Make no mistake: pastors do have to fight for their rightful authority today. It is threatened on every side. We might well ask ourselves how we came to be in this situation. A comprehensive answer to that question could fill a book, but several quick observations are in order.
First, pastoral authority is sometimes challenged by people who want to arrogate power to themselves or their party. Sometimes they are trying to protect legitimate things, but like the Sons of Thunder, they yearn to sit in the seats of authority. Also like the Sons of Thunder, they need to learn how to lead as slaves rather than as masters.
Second, some pastors have cheapened pastoral authority by insisting upon authority that the Scripture nowhere grants them. In fact, some pastors have overtly abused their authority, using it to hurt people, to prey upon the defenseless, and to cover up heinous deeds. People naturally recoil against such abuses and against whatever authority is used to legitimate them.
Third, many churches try to get by with a single pastor when they actually need more than one. When the pastor cannot fulfill all of his responsibilities, the church delegates part of his authority to non-pastors, typically deacons. This adjustment moves deacons out of their proper sphere and leaves their biblical duties unaddressed. Consequently, the church has to invent non-biblical offices to fulfill diaconal responsibilities. In the worst cases, the church is run by boards and committees, the deacons effectively govern the congregation, and the pastor considers himself lucky if he can get through his sermon unscathed.
Fourth, plural eldership has sometimes compounded the problem, particularly when elders have not been held to the same biblical qualifications as real pastors. Pastoral ministry is a primary vocation. Elders are not supposed to be dilettantes, but sober preachers and teachers who devote themselves to ministry. The unpaid or bi-vocational elder is permissible, but an exception to the biblical rule and should be an exception within local congregations. When men are appointed as elders who do not meet the biblical qualifications, pastoral authority necessarily suffers.
Fifth, unprepared and unqualified pastors lower the threshold for rejecting pastoral authority. Pastoral preparation involves knowing, doing, and feeling. Most churches cannot prepare pastors to know what they need to know. Most seminaries cannot prepare pastors to do what they need to do. Often, neither prepares him to feel what he ought to feel. If a minister is deficient in knowing, doing, or feeling, his ministry will suffer and his authority will be more easily questioned.
Sixth, pastors have never before had to face such a cacophony of voices competing for the hearts and minds of their congregation. Church members will typically be exposed to their pastor’s preaching and teaching for one to two hours per week. Then they will go home and read books, hear radio broadcasts, watch television programs, visit blogs and web sites, listen to recorded preaching and teaching, and attend conferences and seminars, all designed to instruct them in the way of life. Unfortunately, many of these sources will be badly mistaken and some will be downright heretical, but every one of them will be attractively packaged and winsomely presented. At best, a pastor’s voice will be one among many; at worst, it will be the least attractive. Who wants to hear Pastor Joe Ordinary when he can listen to Piper, Swindoll, MacArthur, and Begg all week? Pastor Ordinary’s authority is almost unavoidably overwhelmed by the popularity of such religious celebrities. Wherever Ordinary disagrees, he is certain to be perceived as wrong.
Pastoral authority is at an all-time low. The time has come to begin reclaiming it. The New Testament assigns each pastor real authority, authority that is ordained by Christ Himself. Now I want to talk about what that authority looks like.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
David Oestreich (1970–)
Yes, I believe in Him who is
Almighty, Father, God,
Who made all things in heaven, earth,
Who made them very good.
Yes, I believe in Jesus Christ,
God’s only Son, our Lord,
Begotten by the Spirit and
Of Virgin Mary born;
Who under Pontius Pilate’s hand
Was scorned and suffered grief;
Who then was crucified and, dead,
Laid in a borrowed grave;
Who from descent to depths of earth
The third day rose again,
Ascended into heaven where
He sits at God’s right hand;
From there one day He will return
To judge the souls of men;
The small and great, living and dead,
Must all before Him stand.
Yes, I believe the Holy Ghost
Is very God who calls
The penitent to His True Church,
Where each communes with all.
Yes, I believe God does forgive
The sins of those who come
To Him confessing Jesus Lord
And trusting in His name.
Yes, I believe the righteous dead
Christ’s resurrection share,
That blessed life with Him for all
Eternity is theirs.