A Question of Authority

Did you know that the word “authority” is not used in close proximity to the words for “elder,” “bishop,” “pastor,” “overseer” or “shepherd” in the New Testament?

The closest you can come is a couple of scriptures; first Hebrews 13:17, where at the close of the letter and a long list of advice, the writer concludes:

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

And while elders certainly are leaders within the church, they are by no means the only leaders. The word for “leaders” is more general in its inclusion; other translations read it as “those who lead” or “(obey) them who lead you.”

Then there’s Acts 16:4, where messengers deliver to the far-flung churches a decision by the elders and apostles regarding circumcision – which are to be obeyed.

To conclude from these passages alone that elders are to have supreme or exclusive authority requires some skinchwise logic.

Yet it is abundantly clear from a multiplicity of passages that elders are to be

  • Committed to the Lord, in whom they put their trust (Acts 14:23)
  • Welcoming; eager to hear reports of what God has done (Acts 15:4)
  • Willing to meet together and consider questions which affect the flock (Acts 15:6)
  • Love their evangelists; miss them like family (Acts 20)
  • Direct the affairs of the church – even to the point of being paid to do so – and some to preach and teach (I Timothy 5:17)
  • Pray over the sick and anoint them with oil (James 5:14)
  • Willing and eager to serve, not lording it over the flock, but being examples (I Peter 5:1-3)

Throughout my 51 years, I have had the privilege to be shepherded by several sets of elders at several churches, virtually all of whom I’ve known personally to exemplify – and even personify – these qualities. I don’t believe it’s mathematically probably that I have agreed 100% with any of them on even some important points of doctrine and interpretation. And none of them has ever been perfect, of course, but they all have good hearts that seek God through His Son and His Spirit. None of them has sought the office for the sake of exercising authority; to “lord it over” anyone else.

And that has made it exceptionally easy to submit to them and to obey them.

Which brings me to my confessional. (Come on; you’ve learned to expect one from me by now.)

Friday and Saturday our church staff and elders took a few hours to retreat from the other pressing concerns of life and to get better acquainted. After a while, it became obvious that there was some tension between the two groups and the reason behind it escaped all of us.

Finally, I said that at my first elders’ meeting as a staff member a few weeks before we’d been short a few copies of a document we were discussing – one which sort of impinges on personnel matters which elders are always free to discuss in closed session, and I didn’t see any staff members with copies. When copies of the revised document were passed out Friday, only elders received the available copies. That made it, again, a little difficult for me as a staff person to participate in the discussion.

It turned out that the documents were just copied late before the meetings on a pokey old copier. They were happy to share them, and did.

But I had to confess to the assembled group: “I was afraid to ask for one. I was new to staff and didn’t know where the potholes might be, if there were potholes. Is that stupid, or what? You’re my shepherds.

“When you’re walking in the dark,” I added, “You either walk by faith or you walk very gingerly to avoid the potholes. I was not walking by faith.”

I think the retreat gave us an opportunity to be real with each other in a healthy and uniting way.

And I don’t believe anyone, even once, used the word “authority.”

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6 thoughts on “A Question of Authority

  1. I’m very glad to hear the retreat went well! Y’all were in my prayers. Thank you for the report and the confessional. It’s funny how not knowing the whole story can cause us to question others. Like, say someone is late to a gathering and you get angry, but then you hear the person’s story and realize they were late for a good reason. Or, a person doesn’t make it to church at all and you question their commitment, and then you find out they had spent the morning fixing the car of the widow who lives next door. I’m trying to learn to give people the benefit of the doubt, but that’s not always easy, and, yeah, sometimes people just don’t do what they should and that hurts, but at least by not jumping to conclusions before you know the whole story, you saved yourself a lot of emotional stress and then welcomed the person with love rather than anger. Hope that makes sense.

  2. Hmmm, you had my mind going in one direction then you pulled that u-turn.So if elders primary role is not one of authority, how vital is it for them to communicate decisions that are made in an authoritative way?

  3. I don’t really have an answer to that question, Donna; and I’m really pretty glad I’m not an elder. I think their primary role is to be exemplary leaders, counselors, teachers, ministers/servants – and if they are making decisions in an authoritative way without a grasp on what the flock needs and desires, they’re not shepherding.If there weren’t a temptation to “lord it over” the flock, it wouldn’t have been mentioned.I hope it ain’t a U-turn to say that while elders have authority, it’s not exclusive nor primary among their burdens. And when they lead by recognizing that, it is so much easier for the flock to follow them.

  4. From my limited knowledge and observation, it appears to me that you have an AWESOME group of Shepherds at PV! I appreciate them SO much for their leadership in getting the Shepherding Conference to become reality. I will always be indebted to them for that.DU

  5. Thanks Keith, No you did not make a U-turn on what you were trying to say….just what I assumed you were going to say when I started reading….my lack of faith popping up.I too don’t envy them their jobs. People like me want to be supportive but we also have a “need to know” that is not neccessarily in line with what the eldership is doing.

  6. It is often said about elders, “I don’t envy their job,” or something similar. When I here that I always think it is because very few, including those who are elders, really understand what it means to be an elder. It is so difficult for us not to “eisegete” the text as you have described.Our movement as place more emphasis on elders than scripture (key word=more). I think this why we struggle so much with the concept. Even our definition of the word “shepherd,” which is the popular nomenclature of the day, is misused.Who are the loving, caring, nuturing, and open fathers/grandfather among the church family? How did the person treat his own children when they were growing up. I think you will find the same treatment towards the church.Great blog! I appreciate your comments very much on Mike’s Blog. Tell Jeff S. hello for me.David Barnett

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