Who has authority in a Local Church?

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands.

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands. Just think about parental authority over children.

At the moment, to my knowledge, only exceptionally aloof social academics are arguing for children to be removed from all parental authority. Anyone who has ever tried to enjoy dinner at a restaurant with my family is glad to see me and/or my wife exercising authority over our unruly toddler, who would love nothing more than to wreak havoc in the world.

When parents express godly and righteous authority over their children, they demonstrate the character and nature of God (albeit imperfectly).  This is exactly what is to be done in the context of a local church as well.

If pastors/elders and fellow church members are passive and aloof towards sin in the congregation, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders and fellow church members are loving disciplinarians, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders waver or become vague in their description of the actual content and implications of the gospel, then the members will think precision is unachievable and/or unimportant.

There are three ways I would like to emphasize the mutual responsibility of pastors/elders and church members in the exercise of authority in the context of a local church. After these, I would like to articulate a distinct responsibility for those who lead as pastors/elders among a local church.

Delegated Pastoral Authority

First, pastoral authority is a delegated authority, derived from God’s word and the pastor/elder’s fidelity to preaching and teaching Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The authority any pastor or group of pastors wields does not emanate from the origin of the person or the office. Rather, the authority springs from and is inextricably tethered to God’s word.

It is as though the pastors or elders can give no authoritative command that is not accompanied by a biblical citation. Of course, many pastoral decisions will have to be based on biblical principle and wise prudence, but these should come as recommendations and not commands.

Vital Congregational Authority

Second, the local congregation is responsible to hold pastors/elders accountable in their teaching (2 Tim. 4:3-4). While congregations may be tempted to acquire preachers and leaders who will lead according to the desires of the congregation, the membership of the church is best served by those leaders who lead to please God and not men. Therefore, the congregation has an authoritative responsibility to acquire and encourage godly, faithful, biblically-courageous leadership.

This responsibility towards maintaining suitable leadership stems from the congregational authority to bring members in and put members out of the local church family. Baptism is the communal and public initiation of any person who becomes a disciple of Christ (Matt. 28:19), and this is the ceremony by which a local congregation affirms and covenants to mutual discipleship with an individual believer.

As time goes by, the congregation bears the responsibility of holding one another accountable to Christ’s commands, and even taking disciplinary action against those who refuse to submit to Christ (Matt. 18:15-20). This is not, however, an authority given to any individual member or any group among the membership. Rather, this authority of bringing members in and putting members out of the local church family is to be exercised “when [they] are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Authoritative Leadership

Third, pastors/elders are to shepherd a local church family by providing oversight and leading by example (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Pastoring among a church family is no dictatorship, and neither is it a pure democracy, where leaders simply implement popular opinion.

Pastors/elders are to oversee, which connotes management, administration, and leadership. Pastors/elders are also to exemplify spiritual maturity, which indicates accessibility, familiarity, and personal care. By affectionate oversight and patient modeling, pastors/elders are to authoritatively lead among a local church.

Enjoying Good Authority

Fourth and finally, church members are called to obey their pastors/elders, and these leaders are warned that they will give an account to Christ for how their shepherd those under their care (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28). This idea, especially as it is conveyed in Hebrews 13:17, is quite potent for pastors/elders and church members alike. It clearly distinguishes the authoritative responsibility of pastors/elders, and it powerfully encourages church members to enjoy the benefits of godly leadership. Indeed, godly leadership should be enjoyed and appreciated among the church family.

Summarizing Local Church Authority

In summary, I might say that pastors/elders and their respective congregations are mutually responsible to wield delegated authority.

The congregation’s authority seems to primarily focus on the inclusion and exclusion of members (encompassing the inclusion and exclusion of pastors/elders). Interwoven in this congregational authority is the authority to judge not only the “who” of the church family but also the “what” of the confession that binds the church family together. In this way, the local church guards the purity of the content of what is taught and what is believed among the members, fulfilling the New Testament characteristic of being the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Furthermore, this general “in and out” authority of the congregation is tightly linked to the authority of the pastors/elders, who are responsible to teach and train the congregation according to all of Christ’s commands. The pastoral teaching and training are to be done patiently and in an all-of-life fashion (1 Tim. 4:6-16), but always pointing the hearer back to God’s word as the fountainhead of truth and basis of all good authority.

May God grant that many local churches would experience and embrace this biblical concept of good and right authority.

Local Church Community & Individualism

Individualism seems to be an essential aspect or feature of being an American. Americans are independent if they are anything, or at least they want to feel that way. However, individualism is something that causes Christian Americans to be conflicted. One could certainly argue the merits of acting with personal responsibility, but I would like to take a closer look at the idea of Christian community as it opposes a purely individualistic posture.

The Bible commands Christians to have a perspective of community and not individualism. This command is directly focused on the relationships enjoyed among Christians connected with one another in a local church family.

*For a discussion about what a local church is, please see my article “Do Christians Need the Local Church?” 

The command towards a communal attitude is clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 11, when the Apostle Paul says, “when you come together as a church, wait for one another” (v18, cf. v33). There is much to be considered here, but let’s consider 3 things regarding “come together” and “wait for one another.

1. Christians are Communal

The “coming together” in this passage makes note of the universal example we have in the Old Testament and New Testament of the people of God. God’s people are never encouraged to be isolated from the larger community or family of God. Just think about the first example we have of someone separating himself from the community of faith… Lot left Abram/Abraham (Gen. 13). Immediately Lot ran into trouble (Gen. 14), and things never got better for him (Gen. 19).

The simple and far-reaching point is: there is no such thing as a ‘lone-ranger’ Christian who is not also in direct defiance of God’s clear design. While many in our culture today are rightly noticing problems with the structure and direction of American Evangelicalism, the solution is not isolation. Christians “come together,” and that union should be defined by Scripture and not personal preference.

2. Christians are Servants

Paul assumes that when Christians “come together” it should be for mutual good (v17). This way of thinking shines a light on what has become a consumeristic perspective of the local church. Often, when guests attend a church service, the overarching question they are asking is “What am I getting out of this?”

In my opinion, guests are not to blame for thinking this way. Why would anyone expect anything other than a consumeristic perspective from an unchurched non-Christian? The blame for perpetuating this way of thinking lies directly on the shoulders of many in the so-called “church growth” movement.

Many people inside of the Christian subculture in America have come to define success by numbers (attendance, financial budgets, square feet, etc.). This is a mistake. This is how for-profit businesses measure success, not the Church. But when Christians emphasize the same measurements of success as the local shopping center, it is no wonder that the local churches start to adopt the same consumeristic perspective as well.

The local church is not a shopping center. It is not for consumers. The local church is a body of believers who are meant to give themselves to one another. Rather than thinking like a consumer, each church member should have the mind of a servant. The question is not “What am I getting out of this?” it is “How has God gifted me to serve my Christian brothers and sisters?”

3. Christians Patiently Wait

Paul commands Christians (in the context of a local church) to “wait for one another.” The word translated “wait” connotes patient expectation, and there is no small amount of meaning here. Christians are to patiently expect to participate in a community of believers, to lay down an individual agenda, and to set aside personal preferences.

Additionally, the command to “wait for one another” is merely one of about fifty of these kinds of commands in the New Testament. Often called “one anothers,” these commands collectively detail the things Christians in a local church family ought to be doing and saying with regard for one another.

Church members are to “care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25), “comfort one another” (2 Cor. 13:11), “live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:16), “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), and “forgive one another” (Eph. 4:2). There is much more, but you get the idea.

What is your posture or perspective of the local church? Does it align with the biblical instruction?

May God grant us the wisdom to know His design and the courage to live accordingly.

5 Reasons You Need a Pastor

It has amazed me to recently discover how many Christians consider podcasting, television preachers, and radio sermons to be just as beneficial (sometimes more beneficial) than participating in a local church. As a local church pastor, this kind of foolish thinking is enough to deserve a poke in the eye. However, as a local church pastor, I cannot always allow my desired response to be my actual one.

So, for the benefit of anyone who will consider them, allow me to present five reasons why you need a real-life pastor.

1. You need a pastor to remind you that preaching is not just presenting a good message (1 Tim. 4:11-12). 

Your favorite podcast preacher will never speak to you with the same loving care for your soul that you pastor has. While your pastor may never speak as well as the other guy, your pastor will preach with a heart full of love for you – personally. Your pastor will pray for you by name, and he will have your spiritual health in mind as he shepherds you through preaching.

2. You need a pastor to remind you that Christians are real people (1 Tim. 4:12, 15).

That TV preacher isn’t real… at least you don’t see who he really is. Of course, I’m not saying that all TV preachers are lying fakers. What I am saying is that you will never get to see that TV preacher hurt, apologize, play with his kids, or decide between adding one more church responsibility or guarding his family time. You need to see a real man live an imperfect and godly life in front of you. Your pastor will both encourage and challenge you through his exemplary life.

3. You need a pastor to look you in the eyes (1 Tim. 4:15).

When have you ever run into that radio preacher at the grocery store, after having neglected to listen to his latest message? Ah, but you will have to look your pastor in the eye after you’ve neglected to participate in the last couple of Sunday morning worship services. That eye-to-eye encounter is more meaningful than you are likely to understand, and you are likely much less grateful than you should be for it. Your pastor will be an encouragement and motivation to you as you seek to live a more consistent Christian life.

4. You need a pastor to teach you stuff you don’t want to learn (Titus 2:1).

Even your favorite preacher or teacher is going to talk about stuff that you don’t really care for, or stuff you think you already know, or stuff you disagree with. But when he does it, you can just turn him off. You need to revisit things you think you already know. You need to think longer about some things than you already have. You need to read and consider passages of the Bible that challenge your existing beliefs. And all of this only happens when you have a pastor who loves you and who loves God’s word enough to pastor (shepherd) you well.

5. You need a pastor to say “no” to your face (Titus 2:15).

No TV preacher is going to tell you anything to your face, but he will certainly never be near enough to challenge you when you are playing with sin. Sin is devastating; it crushes hope, destroys harmony, and numbs your conscience. When you sin, you easily justify it. You need a pastor who loves you, who will demonstrate that love by forcing you to call your sin what it is, and who will help you go about putting it to death.

There are many more, but only a fool would say that these are insufficient to demonstrate your need (Prov. 1:7).

My pastoral advice: Find a solid, Bible-saturated, Christ-loving, God-fearing pastor; then love him, pray for him, encourage him, and thank God for him every day.

T4G Reflections: David Platt – Church & Mission

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Together for the Gospel 2016. I have also enjoyed reflecting upon some of the messages I heard over those three days, and I have posted some brief articles on a number of them (see my “T4G Reflections” articles.

In a breakout session address, David Platt spoke about the local church and its participating in global mission. Below is a recap and my own considerations concerning the speaker and the topic.

My introduction to David Platt was about seven or eight years ago when I read his popular book, Radical. I came away with mixed thoughts about the book, but I was certainly compelled by the author. Any man with such deep convictions must be a man worth watching and hearing (maybe even following). Over the years, I have heard Platt speak a small number of times, and I have appreciated the “Christ-Centered Exposition” commentary series, in which Platt is a contributing author. Honestly, I am not a huge fan of his delivery style (he always seems to be right on the verge of crying), but his content has yet to disappoint me.

In this talk, Platt made an important early statement. He said, “A passion for mission is characteristic of all Christians.” After he said that, he expanded upon it for just a bit and pressed it a little as well. Such a statement has big implications, and Platt directly applied them to the local church context. While some implications are negative (for example: lack of passion signifies an unregenerate heart), his talk was primarily focused upon the things a pastor (or pastors) can do to stimulate missional passion among the local church congregation. Below are some of the stimuli Platt listed as essential.

Platt first talked of presenting God as “God-centered.” The glory of God, the holiness of God, and other attributes which inspire awe, are coming to the forefront in many churches as long-neglected doctrines like these are revived in our day. Whatever one might say about the causes, it is beyond debate that the churches in America have had a very low view of God for some time. God is underwhelming to churchgoers everywhere, and this is simply incompatible with a true (even if only introductory) understanding of God. Platt argued that presenting a man-centered God is much to blame for uncommitted and underwhelming Christianity, but presenting a God-centered God (the God of Scripture) is the antidote.

Platt then argued for a “Word-saturated” ministry. God’s Word is that medium through which God regenerates, renews, and refreshes His people. Since this is true, then all aspects of local church ministry should be saturated with the Word of God. Scripture should permeate everything the local church does. Additionally, Platt contended, we should present a Gospel that is more than mere superstition. Of course, we should expect the Gospel to change lives, but we should not neglect to speak of the Gospel in such a way that we provide sufficient ground for the transformation. If we merely invite people to add Jesus to what they are already doing, then we have left them with no expectation or desire for life-change. But, if we invite people into the Kingdom of Christ, by way of His sacrificial life and death, where they may participate in Kingdom expansion (both personal and communal), then we have opened them up to a whole new world – a “Life-changing” Gospel.

Platt also made things very practical by claiming that pastors are obligated to create and implement a “Disciple-making” strategy. Platt did not seek to reinvent the wheel here, nor did he suggest that any pastor do so. Platt did, however, lay out the simple and biblically-exemplified task of taking others alongside you through spiritual cultivation and growth. The daunting task of discipling others is made more manageable when it is viewed as an ongoing and multiplying process. One man cannot disciple 1,000 others, but he can disciple 5-10, who in turn can disciple 5-10, who in turn disciple 5-10 more, and so on. By the 4th generation removed from the first individual, there would be between 625-10,000 disciples. This kind of discipleship strategy is important to missional living in the local context as well as the cross-cultural context.

I appreciated Platt’s talk tremendously. These overarching principles and practical application were helpful as reminders of what we are truly supposed to be doing on the ground in our local and cross-cultural contexts. I pray that God would bless my own efforts to apply these things, as a Christian and as a local church pastor. I also pray that others among my own congregation will see the tremendous benefit and the biblical mandate to live in this way.