The clear prescription of the New Testament is that pastors are teachers of churches. To put it more precisely, pastors are the teachers of their churches. Granted, in some sense all believers are supposed to teach, edify, and admonish one another. Nevertheless, the actual burden for the instruction of the flock rests upon pastors. The biblical norm is for pastors to instruct congregations and not the other way around.
Elders are said to rule by their labor in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17). All pastors are also teachers (Eph. 4:11). One of the requirements for bishops is that they must be skilled teachers (1 Tim. 3:2)—even deacons do not have to meet this requirement, though they must still have a serious understanding of the Scriptures (1 Tim. 3:9). Elders are responsible to feed the flock of God, a function that implies teaching (1 Pet. 5:2). They are ordained by the Holy Spirit as overseers over the flock to feed the church of God (Acts 20:28). They are also given the responsibility to protect the flock (Acts 20:28-31).
Ultimately, the congregation must define the church’s doctrinal parameters. This is exactly what happened in the local church business meeting at Jerusalem in Acts 15. In the face of a doctrinal and practical challenge, the entire congregation participated in drawing a doctrinal line (Acts 15:22-23). Nevertheless, the solution to the problem did not come from an uninstructed congregation, nor did the church’s leaders permit a simple pooling of uninformed prejudices. A right decision began with the apostles and elders, then included the congregation after the church had received teaching both from the apostle Peter (Acts 15:7-11) and the elder James (Acts 15:13-21). James, who was one of the pastors of the church, did more than to reflect upon abstruse biblical principles. He also applied those principles to the doctrinal problem in very direct ways, going so far as to state a solution for the church. All that was left was for the congregation to accept his solution.
In other words, James spoke to the issue in a way that ordinary church members did not and could not. He spoke with authority. He was not merely another voice within the church, but a teacher of the church. The congregation had a decision to make, but James had the right and duty to lead the congregation in reaching the correct decision. That is what pastoral authority looks like.
When a man becomes the pastor of a church today, the church will already have defined certain doctrinal parameters. The pastor accepts those parameters when he accepts his office, and he cannot ethically transgress them (the same is true of all other members). His teaching must always fall within the agreed-upon doctrinal position of the congregation.
Within those boundaries, however, a pastor need not poll the congregation to determine the teaching direction of the church. He need not ask permission to preach a sermon or to teach a lesson. He need not wait for congregational approval to speak the truth, whether the truth is applied as encouragement, warning, reproof, correction, or nurturing. The church recognizes his right to do these things when it calls him as its pastor.
In fact, if the pastoral office is the (i.e., the only) teaching office of the church, then all of the church’s teaching ministry must fall under pastoral authority. All of the church’s teaching ministry ought to take place under pastoral oversight. Pastors have a duty, not only to establish their own teaching agendas, but to establish the teaching agenda for the entire congregation. Every teacher and every teaching venue is under the authority of the pastor.
When he was addressing the Ephesian elders, Paul made them responsible for defending the congregation against false teaching (Acts 20:28-31). He warned that false teachers like ravening wolves would attack the flock from outside. He also intimated that perverse teachers would arise from within the church itself. Whether from without or from within, such subversive teachers presented a special threat against which pastors would need to guard the flock. This guardianship implies authority over the church’s teaching ministry.
The teaching ministry of the church is larger than the pulpit. It includes more than the church’s classrooms. It comprises every venue within the church that communicates biblical and doctrinal content, encourages spiritual practice, and shapes Christian sensibilities. Whatever communicates meaning is part of the church’s teaching ministry. Consequently, whatever communicates meaning falls under the pastor’s authority. The pastor may not (and usually does not need to) manage every such venue directly, but the church must recognize and respect the pastor’s authority when he chooses to direct any of them.
What do these ministries include? Obviously, the church’s Sunday school is a major teaching venue. So are age and gender-specific clubs and fellowships like children’s clubs and women’s fellowships. Because the church is not the building, small group fellowships and Bible studies in the homes of church members are also part of its teaching ministry. Within the church’s worship and service, the arrangement of space and the application of the decorative arts are powerful tools for communicating meaning and shaping sensibilities: they, too, are part of the church’s teaching. One of the most effective teaching venues in the church is its music ministry, where believers explicitly teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
Because all of these areas are included in the church’s teaching ministry, all of them fall under a pastor’s direction. At minimum, the congregation must recognize pastoral veto power in every area. It must also recognize the pastoral prerogative to oversee any of these areas directly. Any church that refuses to permit its pastor or pastors to exercise this authority is directly attacking the pastoral office itself.
In other words, within the parameters established by the congregation, the pastor’s authority over the teaching ministry of the church is absolute. Obviously, other people besides the pastor may teach within the church, but all of them must be under his direction and all of them are accountable to him. Whether they are Sunday school teachers, workers in children’s clubs, leaders of home Bible studies, or participants in some other teaching program, the pastor has the right and duty to establish their agendas, lay down their boundaries, and even proscribe their activities.
Pastors rule or lead through their teaching. When their teaching is biblical, congregations have a duty to submit and obey. Pastoral teaching includes more than discursive instruction. It includes more than gentle suggestion. Pastors have a duty to demand that churches submit themselves to the Word of God. In order to do that, they must be able to ensure that their congregations are hearing the Word of God, accurately taught, in its right proportions, applied correctly for the occasions that the church is facing. They must also be able to protect their flocks from contradictions of the truth that arise through external or internal attacks by false teachers. In other words, pastors not only have the authority to teach, they have authority to direct the church’s teaching according to the needs of the hour.
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.
Almighty One! I Bend in Dust before Thee
John Bowring (1792–1872)
Almighty One! I bend in dust before thee;
Even so veiled cherubs bend;
In calm and still devotion I adore thee,
All-wise, all-present Friend!
Thou to the earth its emerald robes hast given,
Or curtained it in snow;
And the bright sun, and the soft moon in heaven,
Before they presence bow.
Thou Power sublime! whose throne is firmly seated
On stars and glowing suns;
O, could I praise thee,—could my soul, elated,
Waft thee seraphic tones,—
Had I the lyres of angels,—could I bring thee
An offering worthy thee,—
In what bright notes of glory would I sing thee,
Blest notes of ecstasy!
Eternity! Eternity! How solemn,
How terrible the sound!
Here, leaning on thy promises,— a column
Of strength,—may I be found,
O, let my heart be ever thine, while beating,
As when ‘t will cease to beat!
Be thou my portion, till that awful meting
When I my God shall greet!