According to the New Testament, Christian churches ought to operate with dual authority. Ultimate authority for making decisions rests with the congregation. The church itself has the final word in matters of selecting leaders, defining doctrine, and both admitting and excluding members. Authority for spiritual leadership rests with the office of pastor (however many pastors a church actually has—the New Testament never requires any particular number). The pastor provides the church with a spiritual example and he bears responsibility for the overall teaching ministry of the church. Everything that communicates doctrinal content, that furthers moral instruction, or that shapes Christian affection is under his oversight, and he has (at minimum) veto authority to direct it within the overall doctrinal parameters established by the congregation.
Over the past half century, I’ve seen plenty of churches of all polities go through conflicts. Among those that are congregationally governed, my experience is that about ninety percent of the trouble begins when either the pastor or the congregation misunderstands the dual nature of authority in the church. Rather than submitting to the authority that the New Testament assigns to the other, either the church or the pastor attempts to limit or restrict the exercise of that authority. Not infrequently, both sides attempt simultaneously to encroach upon the rightful authority of the other. The result is always disastrous.
About half the time, the fault lies with pastors who want to exercise forms of authority that the New Testament does not assign to them. Their motivations may vary. Pastors are still sinful human beings, and among the temptations to which they are liable is inordinate ambition. The pastor may wish to experience honor that he has not rightfully earned. He may forget that the qualities for which his congregation honors him are not his personal excellences, but either the dignities of the office that he holds or else the free gifts of God in the form of honorable virtues. He may assume that the honor he receives is given for his personal enjoyment rather than for the welfare of the congregation that honors him. In short, he desires to have the preeminence.
Diotrephes was such a pastor, and the behavior of Diotrephes is worth remarking (3 John 9-10). He was clearly obsessed with power. He had the preeminence, which is to say that he stood in first place within the congregation—and he loved it. He had enough power that he could intercept a letter from John and prevent its being read to the church. He exercised discipline unilaterally, either personally disfellowshipping members from the church, or else having the church disfellowship members on his own personal say-so. He manifested a controlling attitude, not only by manipulating the flow of information, but by forbidding contact with those who might expose his weaknesses. His jealously of perceived rivals was pronounced. He refused to receive both the apostle John and certain itinerant preachers who needed the church’s help. He engaged in a campaign of character assassination, bringing insubstantial but vicious accusations against those by whom he felt threatened. His use of authority was both abusive (in that he used it to set up roadblocks to doing good) and arrogant (in that he exercised authority that Scripture did not grant him).
More than one Diotrephes is still in pastoral ministry. Not every imbalance in pastoral leadership is due to ambition, however. In some instances pastors overreach their authority because of fear. They may fear for their own ministries, their own wellbeing, or their own families, and from fear they may seek to protect themselves by encroaching upon the rightful authority of the congregation. Such craven behavior is not unheard of.
Pastors may also fear the congregation’s misuse of its own authority. Perhaps they see their church as too immature to choose wisely. They adopt a paternalistic attitude and begin to make decisions that rightfully belong to the church. They believe that this choice seems justified because, by choosing in behalf of the church, they prevent it from making bad decisions. Nevertheless, their strategy almost always backfires. Learning from mistakes is one of the ways in which believers (including congregations of believers) grow toward maturity. In other words, paternalistic pastors are not only doing wrong, they are actually doing harm to their churches.
In some instances, pastors are so convinced that a particular decision is necessary that they become willing to manipulate the church’s decision-making process. They carefully withhold information that might tilt the church’s thinking in the wrong direction. They seek to limit the free exchange of ideas among members, perhaps labeling conversations about the decision as “gossip.” Those who disagree with the pastor’s position are labeled as divisive or factious, and the pastor may even threaten them with church discipline. Alternatively, the pastor may simply dig in his heels and insist that his decision is the way that things have to be, perhaps threatening to resign (sometimes with the implied threat of starting a new church) if the congregation’s action does not go his way. This pastor may not see himself as a Diotrephes because he is not after personal preeminence. Nevertheless, he is adopting the tactics of a Diotrephes. His behavior is controlling, demanding, conniving, and unscrupulous. This conduct is wrong in itself and it invariably results in harm to the church body.
Fearful pastors are not faithful pastors—quite literally. A pastor who believes that he has to control or manipulate the church’s decisions is one who lacks faith in Scripture and Scripture’s God. He is effectively charging Christ with incompetence for having ordained congregational church order. The church has a right and a responsibility to counsel, then to admonish, then to discipline such a pastor—for pastors are also church members, and they too are under the discipline of the congregation.
Church authority must find a biblical balance. The pastor who pulls decision-making authority into the presbyterial office is forcing the church to tilt to one side. But the congregation that encroaches upon the moral authority of pastoral teaching is forcing the church to tilt to the other. That problem also needs to be addressed.
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.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892)
O God, be thou no longer still,
Thy foes are leagued against Thy law;
Make bare Thine arm on Zion’s hill,
Great Captain of our Holy War.
As Amalek and Ishmael
Had war for ever with Thy seed,
So all the hosts of Rome and hell
Against Thy Son their armies lead.
Though they’re agreed in nought beside,
Against Thy truth they all unite;
They rave against the Crucified,
And hate the gospel’s growing might.
By Kishon’s brook all Jabin’s band
At Thy rebuke were swept away;
O Lord, display Thy mighty hand,
A single stroke shall win the day.
Come, rushing wind, the stubble chase!
Come, sacred fire, the forests burn!
Come, Lord, with all Thy conquering grace,
Rebellious hearts to Jesus turn!
That men may know at once that Thou,
Jehovah, lovest truth right well;
And that Thy church shall never bow
Before the boastful gates of hell.