The Biblical doctrine of elders and pastors’ authority

The Biblical doctrine of elders and pastors’ authority

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17 )

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. (1Thessalonians 5:12-13)

As church officers undertake our work today, we must beware of the forces arrayed against our faithful accomplishment of the duties God has delegated to us. One of those duties is the exercise of His authority.

We remember (and like to quote) the Great Commission our Lord gave His disciples who were the first officers He placed over His Church:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

What we tend to leave off is the foundation of Jesus’ Commission: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,”

We are eager to declare our Lord’s authority over the Church. We point out He is the Head of the Church as if that’s all that should be said about authority in the Church. And doing so, we connive at the rebellion rampant across the Western world.

Our Lord has delegated His authority to His church officers called to fulfill His Commission.

Recently during a conference question and answer session, a internationally lauded Protestant and Reformed pastor was asked, “How much authority does a pastor have in the lives of his congregants?”

His answer? 

Um none. No authority. I have no authority in this church, personally. My experience doesn’t give me any authority. My knowledge doesn’t give me any authority. My education doesn’t give me any authority. Um, I have no authority. My position doesn’t give me any authority.

…Only the Word of God has authority. Christ is the Head of the Church, and He mediates His rule in the Church through His Word. I have no authority.

Note how he keeps doubling down. Over and over he denies church officers have any authority. Only God has authority. Only Scripture has authority. His position as a church officer doesn’t give him any authority. Jesus doesn’t mediate His authority through church officers.

In the middle of his denials though, he declares “Christ is the Head of the Church.” Doing so, he implies Christ’s headship over the Church is denied by any church officer exercising rule or authority.

What then are we to make of Jesus prefacing the Great Commission by declaring all authority had been given to Him in Heaven and on earth? He prefaced His commands to His disciples to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach with a stunning declaration of His Own authority and He did so because His authority is the authority he delegates to His disciples, commanding them to take and exercise His authority in all the nations to the end of the age.

In other words God the Father has given all authority to Jesus and Jesus has delegated this authority to the Apostles and succeeding generations of church officers who, as they build His Church, will spread His authority everywhere and always.

“How so?” you ask?

Every military man understands the answer. The squad leader has authority over his men because it has been delegated to him by his superior to whom he submits. His superior has authority because it has been delegated to him by his superior to whom he submits, and so on, upwards the whole chain of command until you get to the supreme commander. The US ambassador to Germany has a lot of authority because he represents the president of the USA who has delegated his authority to him. A church officer has authority because, when he was ordained to his office, Jesus delegated His authority to him.

Attacks upon authority are rampant across the Western world and have been for generations, so none of us has any difficulty understanding why this pastor answered as he did. But was he truthful?

No, he lied. Good pastors are sinners, too, and beyond this pastor sinning against his questioner and those listening, he also sinned against all the pastors and elders who have the duty of caring for those souls listening to his answer. He discouraged other church officers’ faithfulness because he made our work more difficult.

Despite the prevalence of such false witness concerning church authority today, elders must recognize they represent Christ Jesus to the souls under their care—including His authority as Head of His Church. For His Own glory and for the preservation of His precious sheep, He has delegated His authority to us. Should we lie about this? Should we cavil at it and downplay the weight of our office?

Yes, today and always, there has been much abuse of this authority, but our Lord knew there would be abuse when He delegated His authority to church officers. The abuse of a thing does not invalidate its proper use.

So then, what else does the New Testament say concerning the authority of church officers?

First, notice our Lord’s formal delegation of authority the Church historically has referred to as “the power of the keys.” Following Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said:

[Y]ou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)

Throughout history, the Church has understood this declaration of our Lord to be the delegation of fundamental authority within the Church to Her officers. It’s inescapable.

Our Lord didn’t give the keys to a city to Peter and the disciples, but the keys to His Church, the Kingdom of God on earth. Whatever Peter and the other Apostles bind on earth shall have been bound in Heaven and whatever they loose on earth shall have been loosed in Heaven.

It’s little wonder, then, that the first thing we’re told about the first church in Jerusalem is they were “continually devoting themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.”1

Our Lord’s delegation of His authority to His disciples didn’t come to an end with the cessation of the Apostolic office or with the closing of the canon of Scripture. No human society has ever existed without authority. The Christian Church is a Heavenly society and it is no exception.

How do the officers of Christ’s Church exercise the authority of the keys?

Historic Protestant statements of faith open this up. For instance, the Heidelberg Catechism asks the question, “What is the office of the keys?” Here is the answer:

The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.

The authority of the keys is most frequently seen in the preaching of the Gospel. Men set apart by God to preach the Gospel proclaim God’s Law and call men to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. We must not suggest or request this repentance and faith, but follow our Lord in commanding it:

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. (John 14:1)

And:

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

What a tender command, but in our tender response to His tender command, we must not neglect the fact that it is a command. “Come to Me. …Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me.” Here God Incarnate speaks with Divine authority calling men and women to come to Him, submit to Him, and learn from Him.

When a pastor preaches the Gospel, he preaches from the authority the Lord Jesus has delegated to Him for the salvation of mankind, and if he models himself after our Lord and His Apostles, he will do so with command authority.

On the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter exercised command authority:

Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins… Be saved from this perverse generation! (Acts 2:38-40)

At death’s door, the Philippian jailer cried out to Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”, and they responded by commanding him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

The Gospel preacher commands men and women to repent and believe so that, through his preaching, God Himself commands men and women to repent and believe.

We have such an aversion to authority today that many of us hedge or deny that God has called certain men to preach the Gospel, and that this preaching is not a general command given indiscriminately to all believers.

As He did with the Twelve, our Lord sets apart men still today to serve as His church officers and to preach the Gospel. We like to think this is every man and every woman’s duty, and then we further diminish the authority of God in the Gospel by speaking in a way that hides God’s command. We teach men and women to “share the Gospel.” We initiate conversations about Jesus that allow others an opportunity to “make a decision” or “confess Christ.”

This is not to denigrate the responsibility each of us has always to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within him,2 yet such ways of speaking about the presentation of the Gospel emphasize man’s choice rather than his obedience. Thus the Gospel becomes an offer rather than a command.

The same avoidance of authority is evident today in our failure to exercise the second power of the keys, “Christian discipline.”

Church officers are delegated the authority of the keys not only to command men and women to come to Jesus, but also to stay with Jesus. We command men to come to Jesus through the initiation rite of the sacrament of baptism, but then we command men to obey everything Jesus commanded. If they submit to God by coming to Christ and entering His Church through baptism, we take their hand as fathers of the Church and command them to live a life of obedience. If they refuse?

With the authority of our Lord, the Head of the Church, we come alongside and admonish them.

And if they still refuse?

With the authority of our Lord, the Head of the Church, we bar them from the loving fellowship of God’s people around the Lord’s table. Once again, the Heidelberg Catechism says:

Q: How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?

A: In this way: that, according to the command of Christ, if any under the Christian name show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life, and after several brotherly admonitions do not turn from their errors or evil ways, they are complained of to the Church or to its proper officers; and, if they neglect to hear them also, are by them denied the holy sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian communion, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ; and if they promise and show real amendment, they are again received as members of Christ and His Church.

And finally, if they still refuse to repent, we expel them from the church, following the Lord’s command: “Let them be to you as the heathen and the tax collectors.” In His time, heathen and tax collectors were not regarded as members of the Lord’s people. Paul commanded the Corinthians to “put away that wicked person,” implying that he should be outside the church.3 If nothing else has worked to bring him to repentance, he must be expelled to preserve the purity and unity of the church.

But then, note again carefully what Jesus said: “heathen and tax collectors.” Can you count how many times Jesus spent time with tax collectors calling them to repentance? It is one thing to expel a man from the church. It is another thing to give him up. If there is a chance to do so, we should still care for his soul and call him to repentance, and if he repents, admit him into the fellowship of the church again.

We have argued that church officers command authority because Jesus has delegated His authority to them. For this reason also, church officers deserve special honor in the church. If anyone refuses to honor the elders, he refuses to honor Christ as the Head and Master of the church. Consider what the Apostle Paul wrote to his younger co-worker Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (1 Tim 5:17). Especially, but not only those who preach and teach. All elders who lead well deserve double honor. This is also clear from the Apostle’s command to the church in Thessaloniki: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Note that in both places the special honor the elders deserve is intimately and explicitly tied to their work as officers. If they do not lead well, they deserve no special honor. If they do not work, they deserve neither respect nor esteem. Remember what Jesus said about the Pharisees:

“They sit on Moses’ seat” – a place of honor they do not deserve – “They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4ff)

The Pharisees demanded special honor for themselves, but they neither labored to care for the souls of the people nor did they lead well. Therefore, Jesus called them “hypocrites” and warned his disciples against following their example. Elders must earn the respect and esteem of the church by doing their duties well.

What does it mean to honor them? Quite simply to listen when they talk, to do what they say, to treat them with distinction. Every church has its  own culture and its own ways to honor the elders. It is not a question of having the best seats in the sanctuary, nor a question of having someone open the door for the elders to enter (although that may be part of it.) It is a question of treating them, talking to them, looking at them in public and private.

Your elders will recognize the honor you give them if they know their flock well.

Do not allow the church to treat elders disrespectfully. It is a sign of disrespecting Christ.

Once again, let us remember how the Letter to the Hebrews explains the concept of honoring elders:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)

A congregation honors the elders by submitting to them in such a way that their hard work among us becomes a joy to them, their wives, and their children. In other words, by making their office “beautiful” as the Apostle Paul called it (1 Timothy 3:1). There is no standard recipe for how to do this. But it is possible. Both of us can testify to it.

***

This post written by Tim Bayly and Jürgen Von Hagen

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1. Acts 2:42.
2. 1Peter 3:15.
3. 1Corinthians 5:13.

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About The Author

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Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church since 1996, Tim and Mary Lee have five children and lots of grandchildren. Tim's books include "Daddy Tried," The Grace of Shame," "Church Reformed," and a new book for elders. Tim spent ten years in the PC(USA) and twenty in the PCA. He's now a member of Evangel Presbytery.

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