the weblog of Alan Knox

Exercising authority without exercising authority?

Posted by on Sep 2, 2009 in elders, scripture, service | 14 comments

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus taught that his followers should not exercise authority over one another. Instead, they are to serve one another:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV)

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 ESV)

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26 ESV)

In these passages, it seems that Jesus not only prohibited his followers from exercising authority over one another (even the apostles), but he also told us who we should follow (who are our leaders), that is, those who serve.

Today, however, there are many people who conclude that elders (or other leaders in the church) CAN exercise authority over other followers of Jesus. They can make decisions. They can decided what is to be done when the church meets. They can exercise church discipline. They can judge between doctrines.

This raises a question for me: How can we exercise authority without exercising authority? In other words, how can elders exercise authority over other followers of Jesus while living according to Jesus’ teaching in this area?

Is it possible to have it both ways? Can I make decisions for someone without exercising authority over that person? Was Jesus only prohibiting certain kinds of authority, but allowing other kinds of authority? Maybe Jesus was allowing good authority, but prohibiting bad authority? If so, how do we decide which authority is good and which authority is bad?

These are honest questions. I don’t understand. I’ve read the books and studied the arguments. I don’t understand how someone is supposed to exercise authority while following Jesus’ instructions in these passages.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-2-2009


    As Paul told the Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the ONE hope that belongs to your call— ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

    Jesus ,the ONE LORD, the ONE SHEPHERD, came and said to them, “ALL AUTHORITY IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

    You asked,” Is it possible to have it both ways? (my answer, NO!) Can I make decisions for someone without exercising authority over that person? (NO!) Was Jesus only prohibiting certain kinds of authority, but allowing other kinds of authority? (NO!) Maybe Jesus was allowing good authority, but prohibiting bad authority? (NO!) If so, how do we decide which authority is good and which authority is bad? (There is ONE LORD!)

  2. 9-2-2009

    I’m still thinking about this one too, Alan. My big question is: Why did Jesus say Gentiles? Why specifically non-Jews?

    He also didn’t single out certain Gentile rulers. It’s a blanket statement. So how many “rulers of the Gentiles” would Jesus’ disciples have known, anyway? In Galilee, Antipas, but did he count as a “ruler of the Gentiles”? Peter’s Bethsaida was technically under Philip, who ruled benevolently over a mostly Arab Tetrarchy. If they visited Jerusalem once a year they knew of Pilate and at least one or two of his predecessors. But Annas & Caiaphas were very tight with Rome’s Prefects and look for all the world like Jewish overlords.

    That’s it for my list. I’m out of candidates. They would have known of Tiberius and possibly Sejanus. The name Quirinius was evidently still well known, but Antioch, Syria had an absentee Governor for all but 1-2 years from 26 to 33 AD.

    So what is Jesus getting at?

    Could it be the difference between Boule and Synagogue?

  3. 9-2-2009

    I don’t know the answer to my own questions here, btw. But my point (in response to the body of your actual post) is that I’m trying to find some contextual understanding. Without that, you’re right, it depends on interpreting “authority without authority” which seems unhelpful, to say the least.

  4. 9-2-2009

    Aussie John,

    My answers are the same as yours. Did you copy my answers?


    I think that as Jews living in Roman controlled Palestine in the first century, Jesus’ followers and other Jews would definitely recognize “Gentile rulers.” Perhaps Jesus singled out “Gentile rulers” because at that time there were no other kind of rulers. There were Jews who rules, but only by the authority of Rome.


  5. 9-2-2009

    If there are no other kind of rulers, then the word is useless. I just noticed it myself a week ago. Anyway. Something else to consider…

  6. 9-2-2009


    I am trying to understand if there even is this authority/non authority. Let me ask how would you answer the authority questions in 2 Cor 10 and 2 Cor 13, not to mention Titus. I think the way these sentences are structured that this authority was from God to do something FOR people not authority to get people to do something or authority to control peoples actions. But I don’t know. I have read a few books and they are challenging in their proposal.

  7. 9-2-2009


    “At that time there were no other kind of rulers.” Certainly there were Jewish rulers in the past. God had already warned them about those rulers in Samuel. :)


    Very good questions. In Titus, the word is not “authority” but “command”, which I think points back to the opening verses which point to “the commands of God”.

    The questions about apostles’ authority is a good one. To be honest, I’m not sure how it relates to Jesus’ words in these passages. I do believe there is authority, but the authority is God’s, not man’s. Anyone who teaches according to God’s will is teaching with authority. But, this would apply to anyone, not just apostles or elders.


  8. 9-2-2009

    I need more pondering on this one, but a couple of questions come to mind:
    – How are authority and leadership different? How are they related?
    – How is apostolic authority different from and similar to other authorities in the church?

  9. 9-3-2009

    I’ll offer my partial opinion,, which you can nomally take my opinion and $5.00 and buy a cup of coffee,,,, I feel like these passages were directed to the disciples, who had just finished arguing over who was going to be the greatest and who was going to be first, after James’ and John’s mother had already tried to set them up to sit on His right and left side. They were actually acting like a bunch of kids. But the authority that Jesus is mentioning to them seems to be in a negative Lordship type way,, not in a “lead by example way” the way Jesus had shown them. Point 1-Authority,,,,,the centurian had authority in Matt. 8: 5-10,, In 1st Tim. 2:1-2 we are told to pray for those in authority over us,,Romans 13, respecting govenmental authority,,etc. All authority is from God and allowed by God. There is , at least to some degree , authority and leadership laid out for the Christian home and the Church. I am assigned to be the head of my wife and the leader in my home. My wife and myself are told to submit to each other. There is no contradiction there. A big part of my authority in my home is my wife willingly submitting. It also means that I should lead by example and not “Lord” over my family. I feel this is what Jesus was telling His disciples. I don’t think He was saying that there is no authority whatsoever in the Church. 1st Peter 5:1-5,, the elders are to shepherd the flock, to be overseers, leading willingly by example, and then the younger people are told to submit,,, submit to what? to the authority of the elders,,, but then also we are to submit to one another and be clothed with humility. So, there has to be some structure and authority, for lack of a better term, both in our homes and in our Church. And if both are done in humility, in servanthood, in mutual submissiveness, and most importantly through Jesus Christ then it works. It’s not “the buck stops here” type attitude, but as Paul said,, though I am free from all men, I have made myyself a servant to all, that I might win the more. If the elders / bishops in the Church are true servants, people won’t mind being shepherded by them. That is my opinion. To me, it lines up better with the authority in 2 Cor. 10 and 13. Next we can ask what does shepherding the Church look like and what is an overseers’ authority consist of, if anything?

  10. 9-3-2009

    Alright, as iron sharpens iron…

    The idea of unquestionable earthly authority, or human lordship, is something that is borrowed from outside of God’s kingdom. The Israelites called for a king, and God acquiesced, but only after warning them of all the worldly wrongs that the king would confer upon them.

    Before that, Moses named leaders from each of the tribes, peers who served as judges over the ‘thousands and tens of thousands’ – much closer to a republic, where leaders were chosen to represent the people and judge over smaller matters. In all cases, the law of God was to reign supreme, and the highest judge was to have the law of God by his side at all times to consult – this individual was to consult and walk with God at all times, and to move and act only as God commanded.

    In the midst of all of this, God generally moved to separate the church (or priesthood) from the government. In the old covenant, the priests were a separate class, with no inheritance but the Lord Himself. The king (Saul) was cursed for attempting to perform priestly duties, which generally shows the jurisdictional separation of priesthood from state. The priesthood had very specific roles, and did not judge over the people (as far as I can see).

    In the new covenant, the church has been completely ‘circumcised’, where there may be some tares/goats among us (which we are to not be concerned about), but our intent is to ensure that all of those that are in the covenant are only those of faith, those whose ‘hearts have been circumcised’. In other words, we as the gathering of God’s children should be the true believers, and they are called the new priesthood. Every believer comes before mankind to administer Christ’s blood and preach the word – we are all responsible for conferring the gospel unto the world. We are all the priesthood.

    Some among us have a special duty to ‘protect that which has been entrusted’, to especially align doctrine and serve as a great example of holy living – these are the elders. But these elders are specifically commanded to not “lord it over” those entrusted to them – instead, they are to serve as examples, pray for, and teach those that are less mature in their faith.

    But the mistake comes when we, like the Israelites, call for a king. We feel more comfortable being like the world and asking for a ruler, someone to really ‘snap us into shape’. We desire someone to make the decisions for us, and we all too easily sell our inheritance, not realizing that as we do so, we forfeit certain rights. When debatables suddenly become dogma, when disagreements become gossip and slander, when pastors and elders choose a worldly approach of manipulation and coercion, the same sort of burdensome influences of a king will kick in. Certainly, you won’t loose your cows and sons like the Israelites, but you could lose your freedom to make tough decisions for your family on your own. You may lose the ability to bind your own conscience on debatable matters. You may loose the very thing that Christ died for – freedom – freedom to allow the Holy Spirit to convict and lead you, to write the holy laws of God upon your hearts and minds.

  11. 9-3-2009

    Hey, Dave, quickly…

    We have to make a distinction between marriage and eldership. Marriage is a model of trinity, a model of the church’s relationship to Christ as the bridegroom, a holy union that is never to be divided, where from creation itself and through the fall we draw the model of a wife-to-husband submission. That is, of course, tempered by the fact that we as brothers and sisters in Christ are also to submit one to another, so husbands would be fools to not listen to the counsel of their wives and submit to God’s will where their wives reveal it.

    A pastoral relationship, however, is much different. We’re siblings. Perhaps one is older and wiser than the other, but we’re still siblings. We have the ability to judge whether we should submit to a pastor. Such scriptures as 1Cor 16:15-16, 1Tim 5:17, Heb 13:7, and Heb 13:17 display a subjective form of submission, one that is based on how well someone teaches and leads. Granted, we SHOULD submit ourselves to ‘such a one’ that leads in a kind and loving manner, but where a pastor oversteps his boundaries of not ‘lording it over’ us and refuses to turn from fleshly manners of making others submit to him, I think that such a one is not worthy of being submitted to, and I think that the scriptures allow for disfellowshipping from those who attempt to steal your conscience (led by the Holy Spirit) from you.

  12. 9-3-2009

    Thanks for continuing the discussion everyone.


  13. 9-27-2009

    I wish I could know the concrete answer on this and I pray for God to give me clarity for my situation becuase I feel I’m swimming with everything in me just to keep my head above water and I need freedom one way or another!

    I wonder if I’m just a rebellious problem child of GOd who has a problem with authority & submission (when i’m in our group setting)….. and then I go home to private time with God and I truly believe He has just done such a beautiful work in me the past 2 years and I trust His Spirit in me and truly am naive enough to believe that I hear Him and am connected to Him as any man and don’t want to give over much power to anybody. I don’t need somebody to make decisions for me or carry any vision for me.

    yet how do I explain that to others? I believe it’s something the Spirit needs to do in them. It’s not fun though in a room full of people who are falling in step and see people who aren’t as disunifying. I’m naive enough to believe that my argument of , “because the spirit is telling me it isn’t right” does stand up against tradition,by-laws, rules, and a group of 15+ others who are willing to “fall in step” and hand over the vision of any one church Body to one man. Hopefully they will just see that I’m not willing to fall in line and will let me go so that I don’t have to leave.

  14. 10-14-2009

    oh found it! :) here’s the post I was looking for.


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