Three Types of Pastoral Authority in the Church

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Some bristle at the notion that elders/overseers/pastors have authority in the church. Yet, this authority has not been bestowed by his own personal ambition, by the desire of a pastor search committee or a church body. This authority has been bestowed by Christ. As preachers preach from the Scriptures, led by the Spirit of God, they become the voicebox of God. To reject the preaching of the minister is to reject the preaching of God’s Word. Therefore, pray that your pastor and all pastors of all churches will be so surrendered to the word of the Lord as well as the Lord of the Word so they may rightly lead the people of God in the way he has ordained.

How so? First, God has called pastors to oversee the gospel-direction of the church. While every person who is a member of God’s church has a part in the church, it is the elder/overseer/pastor who has been given to this task full-time. The church is the heartbeat of every pastor—and seeing the church follow in the path of Christ who redeemed His church through His glorious work on the cross.

Paul reminded Titus that “an overseer [is] God’s steward.” Without saying it, Paul reminded Titus to whom the Cretan churches belonged: the Lord Jesus Christ, who purchased the church with His own blood. Joshua Harris reminded us of this:

Do you love the church? Romans 12:10 tells Christians to "Love one another with brotherly affection." The affection and love we’re to have for fellow-Christians is to be based on the work of Jesus Christ for us. It’s not about elitism, it’s not because Christians are better than anyone else, it certainly isn’t because Christians are necessarily more lovable. We love the church because we love the Savior who redeemed the church.

Acts 20:28 tells us that Jesus obtained the church with his own blood. Is this what your love for the church is based on? If it’s anything less, it won’t last long.

  • Don’t love the church because of what it does for you. Because sooner or later it won’t do enough.
  • Don’t love the church because of a leader. Because human leaders are fallible and will let you down.
  • Don’t love the church because of a program or a building or activities because all those things get old.
  • Don’t love the church because of a certain group of friends because friendships change and people move.

Love the church because of who shed his blood to obtain the church. Love the church because of who the church belongs to. Love the church because of who the church worships. Love the church because you love Jesus Christ and his glory. Love the church because Jesus is worthy and faithful and true. Love the church because Jesus loves the church.[i]

The word steward comes from the Greek (oikonomos) which means being the manager of a household. One considers Joseph in the book of Genesis, whom Potiphar made “overseer in his house and over all that he had the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field. 6So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate” (Gen 39:5-6).

Pastors and leaders of our churches need to recognize that we are simply managers of what God has given to them. As Joseph was in charge of what Potiphar entrusted to him, so too are the overseers/elders/pastors of the churches in charge of what God has left them. Pastors are overseers. Of what? The main issue is that we are stewards and overseers both of the gospel and the souls to which the gospel is applied. Look at Hebrews 13:17:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).

Pure leaders driven by Christ and His Word are praying for and preaching toward your souls. They are to exhibit a spiritual wisdom and maturity in this oversight, with a great understanding that they will have to give an account for every soul under their care. Calvin observes:

The heavier the burden [pastors] bear, the more honor they deserve; for the more labor anyone undertakes for our sake, and the more difficulty and danger he incurs for us, the greater are our obligations to him. And such is the office of bishops, that it involves the greatest labor and the greatest danger; if, then, we wish to be grateful, we can hardly render to them that which is due; and especially, as they are to give an account of us to God, it would be disgraceful for us to make no account of them.[ii]

Another type of leadership is that of how God has called pastors to shepherd the church. Peter charged the elders to whom he was writing:

2Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Pet 5:2-4)

Notice that pastors (a derivative of the word ‘shepherd’) are not to rule with an iron fist, but a shepherd’s stick. You see the rod of the shepherd served a number of uses. One use was to guide the sheep along the path that the shepherd knows oh so well. Another was to use in warding off those who would seek to devour the sheep. The third use served to actually count the number of sheep as they would pass “under the rod” (Ezek 20:37). They are to clear the way that they know so well, because they know their shepherd’s way so well.

This understanding must be clear, especially when one broaches the subject of elders. Do we have one, or do we have a number? There are various examples of having a plurality of elders who have different ministries in the church (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 5:17; Eph 20:17, and yes Titus 1:5-6). But even with those who have the single elder (a main pastoral minister), there is still that bucking of authority (as we have already covered) because of a fear of all the ‘power’ in a church being consolidated to just the “ministry staff.”

Churches need leaders to pave the way, and shepherds to guide them in that direction. Even if churches did have a plurality of elders, Scripture clearly states that the final say in major decisions in the church comes before the congregation. When they chose those Christ-loving, Spirit-led men who are considered to be the first deacons, where did the apostles take the concern from which this arose? The congregation. When someone is brought up to be disciplined in the church, where does this go? Just to the two or three witnesses? No, Matthew 18:17 says, “It should be taken to the church—the assembly.”

Lastly, God has called pastors to having teaching authority in the church. Look at Titus 1:9: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Elders and deacons have similar qualifications, but what distinguishes elders from deacons is that elders must have an ability to teach. Elders take care of the spiritual aspect of the congregation, the deacons deal with the physical issues of the members and even the building.

There is a two-fold rationale: instruct the faithful in sound doctrine, and to rebuke those who contradict that same sound doctrine. 

Richard Baxter was a pastor in the 1600s. What makes Baxter so special is his desire not simply to preach in the house of God, but to teach in the homes. 

[There] have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of his birth and life and death as if they have never heard it before . . . I have found that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse in half and hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years of public preaching. I know that preaching the gospel publicly is the most excellent means, because we speak to many at once. But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner.[iii]

Baxter’s passion did not simply come in delivering a sermon, but shepherding his people by teaching them the Word of God on numerous, more personal occasions! 

Does this information cause you to pray for your pastor all the more? 

In a letter to a friend, who was in the ministry but sought to go abroad to learn the German tongue, Robert Murray McCheyne gave this great advice that all of us would do well to heed, minister or not:

I know you will apply hard to German, but do not forget the culture of the inner man—I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his saber clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword, his instrument—I trust, a chosen vessel unto him to bear his name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.[i]

[i]Quoted in C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 2.

[i]Joshua Harris, Wrong Reasons to Love the Church. Accessed 23 January 2010, available [on-line]; Internet.

[ii]John Calvin, The Commentary on Hebrews, accessed 23 January 2010; available at [on-line]; Internet.

[iii]Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 5th ed. (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 112.

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