Pastoral Authority: What it is and what it isn’t

Several recent discussions, one on the pastoral role in general, one on pastoral abuse, and one regarding the role of women in ministry, while disconnected in content, have brought up the question of whether or not pastors (or church leaders, elders, etc.)* have authority and, if they do, what the nature of their authority is. Since I am a pastor, this is probably something I should have a handle on and it is this topic I would like to explore in this post.

Do Pastors have authority?

I need to confess that I come to this topic with a perspective this is anti-hierarchical. I believe in the priesthood of all believers. I am wary of anyone, pastor or otherwise, who claims to speak or lead with authority. So, the first question is this: Do pastors have authority in the church?

I would argue that yes, there is a place for pastoral leadership in the church and that leadership carries with it authority. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Have confidence in your leaders and respect their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” 1 Peter 5:5 says “you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.” In this context, the term “elder” is probably referring to the office (see 1 Peter 5:1-2). In the qualifications for overseers Paul says that an elder must “manage his own family well and see that his children obey him” since to do so demonstrates that he would be able to “manage” God’s church (1 Timothy 3:4-5). So, it seems, that God intended some hierarchy within the local church structure and that the members of that church should “submit” themselves to those leaders, holding them in high esteem (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

What is that nature of that authority?

First, we need to say what it is not. Jesus teaches an “upside down” kingdom. He instructs his disciples:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Similarly in the 1 Peter 5 passage referenced above Paul says that elders should lead “not pursuing dishonest gain… not lording it over those entrusted to you.” Church authority is not a power grab. It is not coercive. Submission to authorities is not something demanded by leaders, but something given voluntarily. Godly leadership looks a lot different from worldly leadership. Godly authority looks very different from worldly authority.

Authority exercised by pastors is also not independent. It is a secondary, derivative leadership. First, pastors must act in submission to Christ. There is only one Senior Pastor (Chief Shepherd) and He will hold all other under shepherds accountable (1 Peter 5:4). Second, pastors are subject to the Word. Preaching can be described as an “authoritative” action but that authority only goes so far. The Bible is authoritative but the interpretation is not. The sermon a pastor preaches can, and should be, evaluated by the hearers to ensure that it aligns with God’s revealed Word. A congregant who comes to me afterwards and tells me they think I misinterpreted a portion of Scripture is not disrespecting my authority, since my interpretation wasn’t authoritative anyway. We are both subject to the Scriptures. If I were convinced my interpretation was correct my aim would be to convince the congregant, not simply tell them to defer to me because I am an “authoritative teacher.” Third, church leaders submit themselves to the church, in a sense, since the church must watch the life and teaching of the pastor to ensure that they remain eligible for church leadership per the requirements of 1 Timothy and Titus.**

So what is the purpose of church authority? It is given for the building up of the body (Ephesians 4:11-13) and for the shepherding of the flock (1 Peter 5). The pastor is the servant following the example of Christ (Matthew 20:27-28). Pastors are to follow the example of Christ, giving of themselves for the sake of the church and doing all this as those under authority.

How do church leaders exercise their authority?

To say that pastors are fundamentally servants does not, however, flatten church structure, it just defines the way in which pastors and elders exercise leadership. Some “leadership” activities of pastors include guarding and transmitting sound doctrine (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13-14), appointing and installing leaders (2 Tim 2:1-2; Titus 1:5), shepherding the flock, which includes feeding with spiritual food and keeping out the wolves (Acts 20:28-31). Pastors and elders also bear much of the responsibility for church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; Matthew 18:17).

Perhaps the best “modern” word to describe the role of pastors is “responsibility.” Pastors and leaders have a heightened degree of responsibility since they are the primary teachers, interpreters, and guardians of the gospel. Their lives and teaching are viewed more closely and are held up as a model for right living. This means that leaders sometimes need to exercise authority for the protection of the flock as a whole.

This heightened responsibility, when faithfully carried out, makes pastors and church leaders worthy of respect, but they are never “above the law.” In fact, if I understand Scripture correctly, they will be judged more severely (James 3:1). It is wise and necessary, therefore, for pastors and church leaders to hold their position with utmost humility.

Bottom line: Pastors have been granted limited, derived authority, not to be “lorded over” others but for the purpose of shepherding the flock with utmost humility. If you’re a church member, godly leaders should be respected for their service. If you’re a church leader, don’t “demand” that respect. Instead, serve your church by appealing to the truth of the authoritative Word and pointing them to the true Chief Shepherd.

*From here on I will be using the term “pastor” to describe the highest leadership position in the church. Depending on your view of church structure you could read this as pastor/elder, church board, bishop, etc. The NT more often speaks of church leadership in general than pastoral leadership in particular. However, I use “pastor” here since it is the position most commonly associated with local church leadership. If pressed, I would probably argue that “pastor/elder” would be the most precise term but “pastor” smoothes out the language of the post.

**In a Baptist setting (like the one in which I am a part) this is formalized in church policy. The congregation votes to call pastors, appoint elders and deacons, and modify the church constitution. In a strict sense, the board is the “boss” of the pastor and the voting members are the “boss” of board. Even if, in your church, this isn’t upheld by church policy individual Christians still bear the responsibility to evaluate the life and teaching of their leaders.