Under Christ, the local church of the New Testament operates with dual authority. The congregation selects its own servants and calls them into account. It defines its own doctrines in accordance with what it perceives to be apostolic teaching. It admits members, disciplines them when they err, and restores them to fellowship when they repent. On the other hand, the pastor (or pastors—the number is not the issue) instructs the congregation, teaches the church, and illustrates the life of faith through his example.
Either the congregation or the pastor can create an imbalance by seeking to usurp the authority that rightly belongs to the other. The pastor transgresses upon the rights of the congregation when he seeks to arrogate its decision-making authority to himself. On the other hand, the church transgresses upon the rights of the pastor when it limits his teaching authority or refuses to protect him in the exercise of his office.
The New Testament clearly teaches that the office of pastor-bishop-elder is the teaching office of the church. It exercises a unique spiritual authority. For example, the church is told to respect and love those whose duty is to warn them (1 Thess. 5:12). It must consider their way of life and imitate their faith (Heb. 3:7). To the extent that the pastor announces the teachings of Scripture, the church must obey and submit (Heb. 13:17). The church is responsible to give double honor to pastors (elders) who labor in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17). These duties establish boundaries of authority that churches must not transgress.
A church is competent to establish, under Christ, the broad outlines of its system of faith. Its members have the ability to read and understand the basic teachings of the apostles. The congregation as a whole is duty-bound to protect doctrinally both the being and the wellbeing of the church. As new issues arise, however, the church will need instruction. It will also need instruction in the more advanced teachings of God’s Word. It will need to be shown how these teachings come to bear upon the lives of the members. It will require ongoing nurture in doctrine, conduct, and piety. The pastor has the responsibility to determine these priorities.
The church must protect the pastor as he fulfills this duty. If he is a faithful man—if he reproves, rebukes, and exhorts—he will challenge sin in the lives of the members and perhaps of the congregation as a whole. People may become angry, and angry people often resort to fault-finding and accusation. Scripture is clear, however, that rebuking an elder is serious business (whether the term elder refers to an old man or to a church office—1 Tim. 5:1). Elders are to be encouraged as one would encourage one’s own father. Furthermore, no accusation against an elder can even be entertained unless it is backed up by a minimum of two witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). No church member should be willing to listen to mere carping and complaining about its pastor.
Neither should the church seek to limit the pastor’s teaching authority, so long as he remains within the boundaries that the congregation has established. The church has no right to tell the pastor what to preach—or what not to. Granted, pastors sometimes exercise poor judgment in their choice of topics or pulpit manners, but that is just when they should be encouraged as fathers. For a congregation to rule out the tough topics is to eviscerate pastoral ministry of its spiritual power.
Furthermore, the church must recognize the pastor’s oversight of the entire teaching ministry. This oversight does not mean that the pastor is the church’s only teacher, but it does mean that every teaching venue is subject to his review, his counsel, his shaping influence, and, ultimately, his veto. His authority extends not only to the pulpit and classrooms, but to age- and gender-specific ministries, to the music ministry (a powerful teaching medium), and even to Bible studies conducted in the homes of church members. Indeed, any area of ministry that communicates doctrinal content, encourages Christian conduct, or shapes ordinate affection comes under the pastor’s purview.
Some churches are afraid to see a pastor exercise so much authority, perhaps because they have encountered pastors who used their authority in abusive ways. The abuse of authority, however, is a character deficiency that disqualifies a man from ministry. If a church has a biblically qualified pastor (or more than one), the members should welcome his involvement in every area of the church’s teaching. A church will be far stronger with a pastor who proactively helps each member to disciple other members biblically.
How do churches infringe upon the rightful authority of the pastor? Sometimes by simply ignoring his teaching, and sometimes by overtly rejecting it. Sometimes by forgetting that a pastor is a bishop and that the word bishop means overseer—a pastor is, after all, supposed to oversee something. When a church (or some self-appointed group, often the deacons) removes any part of the pastor’s supervision of the teaching ministry of the church, it robs him of his rightful position and forfeits blessing that it might otherwise have had from God. Deacons cannot do what pastors are supposed to do. Boards and committees cannot perform pastoral functions.
Often the problem is that church members develop a too-strong sense of possessiveness for the ministries in which they function. Youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, men’s and women’s group coordinators, and even leaders of home Bible studies begin to view these programs as their unique property. In some cases, they are quite willing to pit their particular ministry against the authority of the pastor, perhaps by threatening to break away their program and take it to another church. This attitude dishonors Christ and creates division within His body. All ministries of the church’s members are under the purview of the church, and all teaching is under the oversight of the church’s pastor or pastors. The church will only be weakened by tampering with his rightful authority.
No pastor is infallible. Every bishop makes mistakes. When an elder’s teaching is not biblically warranted, the church is under no obligation to receive or follow it. What the congregation should do, however, is to extend the benefit of the doubt to its pastor. His knowledge of the Word and his walk with God should be so transparent that they create a presumption of competence when he speaks. A biblical church will maintain this presumption of competence with a spirit of deference, submission, and obedience toward its pastor’s teaching—unless and until a pastor disqualifies himself. To do less is to tilt the balance of authority the other way, away from the responsibility that God actually assigns to pastor-bishop-elders.
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.
Sinners! Come, the Savior See
Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760)
tr. by Charles Kinchin (1711–1742)
Sinners! come, the Savior see,
Hands, feet, side, and temples view;
See Him bleeding on the tree,
See His heart on fire for you!
View awhile, then haste away,
Find a thousand more, and say:
Come, ye sinners! Come with me,
View Him bleeding on the tree.
Who would still such mercy grieve?
Sinners! hear instruction mild,
Doubt no more, but now believe,
Each become a simple child;
Artful doubts and reasonings be
Nail’d with Jesus to the tree:
Mourning souls, who simple are,
Surely shall the blessing share.