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).
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.