Pastors have authority—real authority, given to them by the Lord Jesus Christ. They have a duty to exert their authority and to employ it as Scripture requires. Congregations are responsible before God to submit to the legitimate authority of pastors. Any rejection of rightful pastoral authority will be unprofitable for the believer when he stands before the Lord Jesus (Heb. 13:17).
The pastor who exercises his rightful authority rightly can expect commendation as a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. The pastor who asserts unbiblical authority or who uses his authority wrongly is a usurper who will be judged more severely than ordinary believers (Jas. 3:1). For these reasons, every pastor must know and respect the bounds and nature of his authority.
The New Testament makes it clear that pastoral authority is not the power to bind decisions upon the congregation. Instead, the congregation chooses its own servants, calls them into account, seeks counsel from other congregations, offers counsel to other congregations, defines its own doctrine, and disciplines its own membership. Pastors possess no power to do these things without direct congregational consent.
Of course, a pastor is also a member of the congregation. He has the same right to enter into deliberations over the church’s decisions as every other church member. Furthermore, the church’s decision-making process should not be viewed as a kind of ecclesiastical town meeting. While New Testament churches do ultimately count votes—and every vote counts the same—they also weigh counsel. The counsel of some members weighs more than the counsel of others. Their counsel ought to weigh more if they are learned in the Scriptures, if they have lived a long life of devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, if they have made obvious sacrifices for the Lord’s cause, and if they have ministered effectively to the saints.
Such was the household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 16:15-16). They were people who had addicted themselves to ministry to the saints. Paul told the church at Corinth to submit to them, and to everyone who was helping in the work and laboring. This submission did not cede to Stephanus any decision-making authority over the congregation. Rather, his ministry lent weight to his words. He was the sort of man whose counsel could not easily be set aside. His service to the body made him important.
Within a healthy church, a pastor’s counsel ought to weigh as much as, and usually more than, the counsel of any other member. His learning, his maturity, his sobriety and gravity, his life of devotion and sacrifice, his investment in the lives of his flock—all of these things should make his words weighty when he speaks to his people. His conduct earns him a kind of respect that is not easily set aside.
All these matters are aspects of a pastor’s example. Indeed, a pastor’s authority rests upon his example. Peter commands elders to set an example for the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). The author of Hebrews tells believers to follow the faith of their leaders (Heb. 13:7). Without an example of devotion, study, prayer, maturity, sobriety, and selfless ministry, a pastor’s authority is severely undermined.
This is one reason that pastors who maintain long and effective ministries may look like they are exercising near-dictatorial authority when they are really not. They have served one church for so long, invested so heavily in its ministry, ministered so effectively to its members, stood so faithfully through difficult hours, and remained so steady under fire that the congregation trusts them almost implicitly. They do not try to give orders, but because their church holds them in such love and esteem, even their preferences and wishes carry the weight of commands. This is not a bad thing, but it is not an automatic thing, either. This kind of respect must be bought, and it literally costs a pastor half his life.
The danger for the older pastor in this kind of long and effective ministry is that the people’s well-deserved and almost implicit trust in him can become a kind of license. He might begin to interpret the well-earned confidence in his leadership as a well-earned right to lordship. Apart from vigilant self-control and Spirit-bred humility, it could be possible to turn deference into dictatorship.
On the other hand, a younger pastor might assume that he, too, deserves such deference even though he has served only a short while. Indeed, every pastor ought to receive honor from his congregation. Some pastors, however, have a right to receive multiplied honor (1 Tim. 5:17), and the degree of honor that a pastor receives is tied to his labor in ministry. A pastor who has labored effectively in ministry for thirty years deserves more honor than the pastor who is only in his third year, let alone in his third month. There is something to be said for the virtue of perseverance.
At least part of a pastor’s authority grows out of his example. In the nature of the case, an example is established over time. The longer one perseveres in ministry and the more he labors for excellence, the greater his moral authority is likely to become. This is one reason that a bishop must not be a novice—he must have a record behind him before he becomes a pastor. It is also the reason that a pastor with a record of five-year ministries is likely to exercise less authority than someone who has persisted in ministry to the same congregation.
The bishop’s example, when godly and biblical, does give him the right to issue a kind of command—the command to imitate him. Pastoral authority by example is not merely a means of gaining a hearing for his words, but is itself something to be set in front of the church for emulation. The way that he lives, and the way that his family lives, are to be models to the church, patterns that they should follow. They become a legitimate means by which a pastor seeks to bring change to his church: by being what he thinks the church should be.
In the local church, every member has the same right to speak, but not every member has the same right to be heard. Churches ought to listen to some members more carefully than others. Counsel ought to be weighed before votes are counted, and a pastor’s counsel ought to be weighty indeed. That weight—that gravitas—grows partly out of his example, but it also grows out of something else. That is where the conversation will go next.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary), Roy Beacham (Professor of Old Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary), and Michael Riley (Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Wakefield, Michigan). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892)
Amidst us our Belovèd stands,
And bids us view His piercèd hands;
Points to the wounded feet and side,
Blest emblems of the Crucified.
What food luxurious loads the board,
When at His table sits the Lord!
The wine how rich, the bread how sweet,
When Jesus deigns the guests to meet!
If now, with eyes defiled and dim,
We see the signs, but see not Him;
O may His love the scales displace,
And bid us see Him face to face!
O glorious Bridegroom of our hearts,
Your present smile a heav’n imparts!
O lift the veil, if veil there be,
Let every saint Your glory see!